A How-To Guide for Navigating a Youth Ministry Transition

During each of the past two days on the Rooted Blog, I’ve discussed a variety of circumstances that lead a youth worker to consider making a ministry transition. In the first article, the discussion primarily focused on theological differences between the youth worker and the church that he or she serves. Then in the second article, many of the more subjective, personal reasons which often drive ministry transitions were addressed – anything that might lead a youth worker to say, “This ministry setting is no longer a good fit.”

If you find yourself considering a ministry transition – to a different position within your same church, to a ministry in a different church, or out of youth ministry altogether – I strongly encourage you to read those first two articles if you have not done so already. Each year I served as a student pastor, I was presented with at least one request to interview for another ministry position. The biblical truth contained in those first two articles helped me realize that God was not calling me to pursue those opportunities. It also helped me to remain content with the ministry role I held.

By the same token, the principles I examined in those articles eventually led me to embrace a transition out of youth ministry. While I hope that the Lord will use these articles to lead many to remain where they are, I am also excited to think of the ways he will use these pieces to encourage others to embrace a new opportunity.

If you’ve made it this far, and if you’re convinced that God is leading you to make a transition, then I want to encourage you with a few practical steps that I hope will help you navigate the transition process with grace. Consider this a “how-to” guide for navigating youth ministry transitions. (“Youth Ministry Transitions for Dummies” just didn’t have the same ring…)

The Theological Foundation of Ministry Transitions

I would be remiss to get into the practicalities of making a ministry transition apart from a brief reminder of the good news of the gospel. Scripture is clear about the identity of the local church. She is a distinct body of people for whom Christ has shed his blood, and whom he now lovingly leads and tenderly renews with the Word of God (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).

Here’s a restatement of this truth: Christ did not die and rise again on behalf of a generic people. He did so for these people, with all their warts and imperfections and misguided theological views. In his eyes, they are joined together as his spotless and pure bride – the culminating reward of all his suffering.

Two implications of this gospel reality should guide the thoughts and actions of youth workers throughout the transition process. First, youth workers would do well to reflect on the sufferings of Jesus and remember that his Passion was necessary to bring them into right relationship with the Father. That’s how far short of God’s standards we all naturally fall! Especially in situations in which youth workers feel slighted or dishonored by the local church, this perspective instills a helpful sense of tenderness and wards against self-righteousness and a victim’s mentality.

Second, this gospel reminder seasons how we treat our local churches, even as we are in the process of transitioning away from them. In the case of every potential transition, youth workers should treat their present church as if she were the redeemed bride of Christ. Because she is.

Here are a few suggestions for how youth workers can embody these gospel realities during seasons of transition.

#1: Talk with the Leadership of the Church (BEFORE You’re Out the Door!)

During seasons of transition, it is crucial to keep the leadership of the church informed. Let them know about the opportunity that is on the horizon, and tell them the reason(s) you’re considering a transition. In some cases, misunderstandings can be cleared up and changes can be made to promote a continued partnership. In other cases, the reasons for the transition may ultimately be affirmed by the church’s leaders. In all cases, those in authority will be grateful to not be “surprised” by a ministry transition.

I realize that every situation is unique, so I would simply encourage youth workers to initiate this conversation as early as possible in the transition process.

#2: Be Thoughtful in the Timing of Your Transition

The call to leave a church is not necessarily the call to leave right now. See your existing ministry commitments through to the end. If at all possible, finish out the present school year; at least allow ample time for the church’s leadership to find your replacement and to put transition plans in place. Above all, take the initiative to look your students in the eye and answer their questions and concerns about your transition. Do everything in your power to build up their trust in the local church and her leaders. These simple steps will allow for your replacement to spend his or her time building upon the clean foundation you’ve left behind, rather than spending his or her initial effort sweeping up the fragments of the mess left behind in the wake of your departure.

#3: Have the Courage to Leave with a Clear Conscience

These words from the Avett Brothers’ song “Weight of Lies”are instructive: “So when you run, make sure you run to something and not away from– cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere.”

Be brutally honest with yourself as to the motives for your potential transition. Be sure that you can separate the opportunity you are pursuing from those things which you’re desiring to retreat from (such as interpersonal conflict, feelings of shame or dishonor, frustration in ministry, etc.). Do your part to promote the unity of the body of Christ in accordance with Matthew 18:15-20. Unless you can effectively resolve issues of division with your current church’s leadership, don’t be surprised to find yourself in similar situations in your new context.

It can be Done (And It’s Worth Doing Right!)

I regret to say that I’ve made my fair share of poor transitions. Yet by God’s grace, my transition out of youth ministry was done in a way that honored God and built up that church. It was during the month of October when I told my lead pastor about the church planting residency which had invited me to interview; I did not transition out of that student pastorate until after the school year was completed the following June. By that time, my replacement was already in a moving truck headed to town. It was as seamless as a transition could possibly be.

Because I honored that church with my time, and because I adequately addressed interpersonal issues and misunderstandings before leaving, I continue to enjoy a wonderful relationship with former students, with former student ministry leaders, and with the staff and elders of the church. In fact, the church recently committed to financially supporting our new church plant this year!

Don’t get me wrong: having frank dialogue about the possibility of a ministry transition while I was gainfully employed by that church was nerve-racking. Delaying my entrance into the church planting residency by six months was difficult! But in the final analysis, making the transition the right way was worth all associated costs – not only because doing so honored the Lord, but also because doing so enabled continued unity between my family and that church.

I pray that you will be able to say the same thing about your potential ministry transition.

A veteran of vocational student ministry, Davis Lacey now serves as the Lead Planter and Pastor of Autumn Ridge Community Church in Ellijay, GA. He is also a member of the Rooted Steering Committee. He holds the MTS and MDiv degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as an Engineering degree from Mercer University. He is married to his childhood sweetheart Charis, and the two of them love having adventures with their two children: Evelynn and Haddon.

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