I spoke at a youth retreat recently, during which students acted out skits they made up.
Again and again, students walked up and impersonated a caricature of one of their former youth ministers.
“Do you see what’s going on here?” my friend asked, explaining that they had had five different youth ministers in just six years.
The students and parents felt the sting of that level of abandonment. Throughout the weekend, I watched the “interim youth minister” try to build trust with students who weren’t terribly sure they wanted to trust anybody.
There was blame to go around—unclear expectations from the church as well as young ministers who took the job not because they wanted to be youth ministers but because youth ministry is still often treated as the entry-level job in congregational ministry.
During a recent conversation, I learned of another youth group where a parent lamented, “My kid has had four different youth ministers, and she’s only a junior.”
This situation is not unique. The revolving door of ministry isn’t just a problem for youth ministry; it’s just more acute there.
According to varying studies, the average tenure for a youth minister is around 18 months, but that of senior pastor is only four years. This leads me to a few observations.
1. Churches need to know who they are and the type of leadership they desire and are open to.
It is essential for congregations to have a clear sense of who they are (and who they are not) when calling staff. Otherwise, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a minister that will be a good fit.
2. Ministers and search committees need to be honest about expectations.
Hiring a bright young seminary student may be a source for inspiration and seem like a budget saver, but is that bright, capable young minister part of a long-term plan?
Churches viewing ministers, or ministers viewing churches, like disposable batteries isn’t healthy for anyone, particularly children and students.
Deeper conversations with applicants about their future plans after they complete their education are important.
This will scare off some applicants, but the ones it scares off weren’t the ones you wanted to talk to anyway.
And if your church budget won’t allow for growth into a full-time position, or you have a great history of serving young seminarians or recent graduates, consider starting a ministry residency program as several churches have done recently.
3. If you believe in women in ministry, then believe in it and be willing to hire women for more than children’s positions.
Call it the patriarchy hangover, but I cannot tell you the number of brilliant female colleagues who have lamented to me the number of times they have applied for children’s positions they neither wanted nor felt called to just to find a church job.
Conversely, there have been multiple churches that have listed gender inclusive language when calling a staff member only to later find out “through the grapevine” that “one person on the committee really wasn’t comfortable calling a woman.”
Also, should you call a female minister in a role historically held by men, make sure you don’t regard your gifted new minister differently.
These occasionally well-intentioned considerations often lead to cringeworthy moments that reinforce difference and patriarchy.
4. Whenever a staff member leaves, take it as an opportunity to evaluate the ministry and programming for which that individual was responsible.
More or less resources may need to be allocated, and the job description may need to be changed.
If you are unsure, look for denominational resources or contact consultants to help you envision a sustainable model of ministry that can continue in the long term.
You might also consider building into personnel policies a set of “exit expectations” to help with the transition.
These guidelines might encourage the departing staff member to leave instructions and information for both the interim and future minister.
5. Remember that leaders cultivate culture, so be clear about the type of leader your congregation is seeking.
The personality and skills of the person you call will likely be reflected somehow in the congregation members and ministries for which they are responsible.
An authoritarian leader is likely to have a highly organized ministry with strong structure, but allows for little collaboration and members might be hurt when their ideas are dismissed or left unconsidered.
A highly relatable but somewhat immature youth minister will yield youth who are fun to be around, but equally immature in other ways.
We’ve settled too often for dreams and goals far too small, making ministry a revolving door instead of a gate to love and service in community. These guidelines offer a few ways to change this pattern.
Trey Lyon and his wife, Jen, are CBF field personnel serving as urban ministry coordinators in southeast Atlanta. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Poiesis, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @TreyLyon.