It seems like only yesterday I got the call on a dingy, cream-colored rotary phone. A church wanted me to come and meet with the search committee as a potential candidate for youth pastor.
I came to the meeting with a heart full of excitement and a head full of ideas. It must have gone well because, two weeks later, I was hired. And today, 40 years later, I’m just as excited about working with students. But as with any job, I wish I’d known back then what I know today.
When I began, youth ministry wasn’t considered full-fledged ministry. Most of the youth guys I knew were “pastors in waiting.” I’d love to hold a conference someday for those entering youth ministry for the first time. Since this is my 40th year working with students, I feel compelled to share some advice.
Yes, I know you’re excited about taking on that new position at the church. You know in your heart that God has called you to make a difference in young people’s lives. You love Jesus, you love teenagers and you’re ready to put these two together.
But if you’re in it for the money, please quit right now. In the long run (the word has floated around for a number of years that the average tenure for a youth minister is 18 months), you’ll make more with a steady job at Burger King.
Right now, the church’s offer may seem like a lot of money, but your starting salary also will be your ending salary. Everyone on a church staff will make more than you do: the minister of education, the children’s minister, the janitor and even the church cook. But God is the faithful One Who will meet all the needs in your life.
If Darwin had made an evolution scale for churches, youth ministry would be represented by the single-celled amoeba. But that’s all right, too. God calls believers to decrease so Jesus can increase. As youth ministers, we’re just one step closer than most.
As you start your new position, you need to learn the church lingo, especially when it comes to your pastor. When he says, “That’s very interesting,” translate his words as, “You’d better think twice before you do it in this church.” Or if he says, “You’ve obviously put a lot of work into this,” he really means, “It’s awful.”
If he says to you, “You’ll need to take this to the Finance Committee,” what he actually means is, “I’m going to let someone else tell you ‘no.’” Or if he says, “Help me understand,” what he’d love to say is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t think you do, either.”
When your pastor tells you, “We’re going to maximize our resources,” he intends to say, “You’ll also be responsible for mowing the church lawn and cleaning out the church van.”
As far as I know, no seminary offers a class on the interpretation of pastoral thinking. So in your eagerness, just realize God has called you to be a servant of the church, and don’t get upset when you’re asked to perform a servant’s duties.
At this point, you may wonder if youth ministry brings any joy. It does, but that joy comes in nano-seconds. It comes when you see a junior high kid understand the depravity of man and his total dependency upon the shed blood of the cross for salvation.
It comes when a student comes for the first time to share with you what God has taught her in her quiet time.
And joy also comes 40 years later when someone calls you up to say, “Do you remember me? I was in your youth group.” Next, he tells you he is serving the Lord in a local church, as a missionary or as a Christian businessman, and you were the one God put into his life to redirect his path. This happened to me twice within the past week.
Yes, there are some blessings to youth ministry, but its rewards don’t come this side of Heaven. Instead, they’re piling up where they’ll last for eternity. On your pastor’s 10th anniversary, he might get a new car, a trip to Israel and a three-month sabbatical. And on yours? The church will give you a coupon for all you can eat at Pizza Hut. Before you use it, please make sure it’s not expired.
I have one parting bit of wisdom: if you win over the parents, you can do anything you want. If you win over the grandparents, you can afford anything you want. And one more thing: join the WMU. Those women know how to pray, and as a youth minister, you’ll need all the prayers you can get.