The Challenges and Joys of Youth Ministry in Your Thirties
“Youth ministry is a young person’s game.” I’m not sure whether someone ever said this to me directly, but it is certainly something I have told myself on a number of occasions. While I’m no old man (although I do keep catching glimpses of grey hairs in the mirror), I have experienced some distinct challenges that arise for a youth minister when he or she hits the big three-oh. At the same time, our students and families reap the benefits of the experience that comes with age.
I want to look at three specific areas in the life of a youth minister which bring both joy and challenge to our ministry to students and their families, as well as to how we care for ourselves.
A Deepening Sense of the Call
One of the most fulfilling, yet challenging things I’ve experienced in the last couple of years has been the sense of a deeper, more robust call to ministry. All ministers are called by God to serve Him in ministering to the people He has put in their care. The call to ministry is a deeply sacred thing, bridled with enormous responsibility as laid out in Scripture (Jas. 3:1). This call comes to people in various seasons of their lives, often when they first receive a true knowledge of salvation or a deeper understanding of God’s grace in their lives. Consider the apostle Paul following his conversion on the road to Damascus and the subsequent days there waiting for Ananias (Acts 9:1-19).
The call to ministry does not change as we move through different decades of our lives; however, I believe the specific nature of our call may look different in different seasons. It’s understandable that you might wrestle with the what it means to be a youth minister in your thirties. As you get older, it takes more intention to relate to the lives of teenagers. You can’t physically handle the all-nighters or extreme dodgeball games, and it’s harder to understand the point of Tik-Tok videos. (Maybe I am alone on that last point.)
You also begin to explore other areas of ministry and gifts God has given you, either by natural talents or spiritual gifting. You will likely begin to expand your role in the church based on these gifts, and you may even find that you desire to serve in other areas of ministry. Many youth ministers in their thirties begin to get the itch of more “senior” ministry. In the midst of this familiar struggle to be significant, we must remind ourselves of what God has called us to, letting the Spirit work out the truth in our lives. By God’s grace we are called to speak into the lives of students and their families, sharing the Gospel: that Jesus lived, died, and rose again for them—and for us.
Youth ministry invites us to speak truth into the lives to students and families, the results which may never be truly known in our lifetime. It’s a calling we should hold with high respect and gratitude. This calling becomes sweeter with age, as we become more aware and confident of how to carry it out. We are called to minister to people the grace and goodness of Jesus. A deepening sense of call enables us to discover specially how He has called us to do this in this particular season of our lives.
Developing Better Personal Boundaries
In youth ministry, we enjoy a lot of fun and games with our students. For many of us, youth ministry in our twenties is filled with all-nighters and late night hangouts, video games and drinking way too much Mountain Dew to wash down all of those Doritos. But something changes when you begin your fourth decade. Your sense of personal boundaries likely begins to develop more fully.
There are a variety of factors that bring about this change, beginning simply with a wiser, more mature sense of time and added responsibilities that forces you to set better boundaries for yourself. For those who are married, starting a family requires you to carve more time out for your spouse and kids. If you were married in your twenties, maybe your spouse served side-by-side with you, but now as your own kids require time and attention, you find you need to divide and conquer more often. As a single person in your thirties, you may find you have an increased desire to focus on peer relationships and commitments to other areas of your life.
This maturity surrounding personal boundaries is a natural part of growing older and leaning on other people for support and encouragement. In our twenties we oftentimes have a false sense of endless energy – whether that is just trying to keep up with those crazy middle schoolers is up for debate. By the time we enter our thirties we have a much better sense of our own limitations. Most importantly, we realize we need other people to pour into us and nurture our own spiritual growth.
It’s imperative for us as ministers to be poured into and refilled by others (not to say we can’t be deeply encouraged by our students from time to time). As we learn to do ministry in fewer hours, we realize the benefits of a healthy balance that repays dividends for both our personal and public ministry. It’s important to set personal boundaries and be refreshed in the truth of the what Christ has done for us.
Growing Your Gifts Beyond Youth Ministry
As we mature and gain wisdom, we become more aware of our strengths and weaknesses. We (hopefully) become more self-aware of who we are and how God has made us. This often involves developing new skills and exploring the paths they can take us on. Youth ministry involves many skills and thrives on any number of them.
When I was in college the stereotypical youth pastor played the guitar. Now the stereotype seems to be someone who is handy with technology and video creation. In reality, God uses various gifts and abilities to further His kingdom. As you enter your thirties, it is natural to explore gifts beyond chugging Mountain Dew or staying up all night. The challenge to this is figuring out whether God wants to continue using you in youth ministry, or if He is preparing you for something else. I think a lot of youth pastors feel trapped in youth ministry, that they won’t be taken seriously unless they are senior pastors or at the very least associate or assistant pastors.
This whole idea feeds the ill-fated notion of youth ministry as only a stepping stone to a larger, more impactful ministry. In reality, youth ministry has the same, if not more, potential to be life-changing for those we serve.
When this fear creeps in, we should remember that titles and job descriptions are limiting. God has called us to be members of the Body, both globally and locally. Each local church has different members and at different times those members are required and asked to do different things. Don’t pigeonhole yourself to only one job or one task – work together with the other leaders in your context. I pray that you have a gifted and caring lead pastor who is shepherding you and helping you discover and realize what God is calling you to do.
In every phase of life there are challenges and joys. Youth ministry is full of small challenges and seemingly impossible ones, hidden victories, as well as big joys. Growing older and remaining in youth ministry allows for so much growth and wisdom to be shared with the students God places in our path.
It is important to remember why we do what we do: To bring glory and honor to our Lord Jesus Christ and to point students and families to Him. He conquers all of our challenges and gives us the purest joy we could ever hope for. Remember the One who called you – and remind yourself daily of His life, death and resurrection for you. No matter what season of life you are in, this truth rings true and will guide you as you traverse the ever-changing landscape of life.