A friend of mine was hosting a parent meeting for an upcoming missions trip to St. Louis when a parent asked from the back of the room, “But are there any adults going on the trip?” It was a small slight, but a devastating one. Apparently, eight years at her church, two international mission trips under her belt, and being 30 years old did not earn her the title of “adult.” Similar things have happened to me. In moments like that it seems as if my track record, my work experience, and any maturity I’ve gained all dissolve under the title “Youth Pastor.” And it makes me want to quit.
Maybe you’ve also lost track of the number of times you’ve heard something like “you’re just the youth pastor” or “don’t you just handle the youth?” As youth ministers, it’s easy to feel like we’re secondary pastors. As we become more skilled in our roles, it can feel as though our potential is atrophying. We sense our leadership, preaching, organizational and strategic gifts going unnoticed, unappreciated, and worse—underdeveloped.In self-contempt it’s easy to say “anyone can do my job.” Bitter we wonder, “does anyone see me? Self-doubting we think, “what am I even doing here?” Bored we ask, “am I ready to leave?”
Of course, we love our jobs. Youth ministry is pastorally challenging and rewarding. Watching as teenagers are transformed by Jesus’ death and resurrection is thrilling. More than that, student ministry is on the bleeding-edge of cultural change, pushing us to rely on the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance. Besides, history tells us that revival and renewal often begins with teenagers. Ministry to teenagers is exciting.
Still, you may sense that God is nudging you in a new direction. (If so, I recommend about transitions in ministry.) But whether or not the Lord eventually calls you to a different context,it is certainly true he calls you to be holier in your current one. As the apostle Paul wrote, “This is the will of the Lord, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
So let me encourage you: Don’t leave too soon. If you leave your current ministry position before it’s time, you run the risk of short-circuiting the development you so badly want. It can take time for the novelty of a new job to wear off—but once it’s gone, the same discontent will creep in and you’ll have to deal with it all over again.
The average tenure of a youth pastor in any given church is less than two years. I wonder if we’re just trying to outrun our discontent, too immature to crucify it. Like Jonah sailing away from God’s call to Nineveh, we board other ministry opportunities, running from God’s call to be sanctified.
The Slower Boat to Nineveh
Jonah serves as both a sign and warning to youth pastors. His story is a warning because God’s hand will always catch up with you. You will not outrun His desire to make you holy. He will complete the good work He started (Philippians 1:6)—so repent, then submit to His will and timing.
As you wait on the Lord, Jonah is also a sign that second-ness and silos in your church will lead to new life. The darkness of discontent produces patience, submission, humility, gratitude, and Christlikeness. If you let him, the Holy Spirit will make you a better leader faster through discontent than you could make yourself through an impressive résumé.
In Matthew 12, we read that Jonah is the only sign Jesus promised to hard-hearted, unholy, career-driven Pharisees. The Pharisees wanted a flash-in-the-pan miracle and proof that God’s coming Kingdom meant political promotion. They refused to humble themselves to a greater miracle and message: Jesus Christ’s coming death and resurrection. Just as Jonah spent three days in the fish, so Jesus would spend three days in the earth (Matthew 12:40).
In a similar way, Jonah is a sign for youth pastors more eager to leave than to serve the people to whom he’s called us. Humble yourselves to the sign of Jonah and value holiness over advancement. Pray for sanctification more than you pray for new opportunities. And know that this process will take time. Breaking down a discontent and impatient heart is like chipping away at marble—or spending three days in the belly of a fish.
As with Jonah’s time in the fish and Jesus’ time in the tomb, your waiting and even your suffering are not meaningless. Let Jonah remind you that God often ordains periods of darkness before He releases us. The darkness, the discontent, the disconnection are not reasons to run; for the Christian, they’re reasons to rejoice. If you let him God will do in you what he first did to Jonah and then did for Jesus, who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). If you’re in Christ, you will too.
Look to the sign of Jonah and ask yourself: Do you trust that if you give up your career timeline you will find it? Is looking more like Jesus enough of a reward for you? Will you consider the real experienced knowledge of your sonship and daughtership better than a new title at a healthier church with a bigger paycheck? If your answer is yes, then lay aside every weight that slows you down and press on towards the goal and prize of all that God is for us in Jesus (Philippians 3:14). You will need help. Surround yourself with peers and elders who you trust to fight for your holiness and begin regularly spending prolonged times in prayer with God.
Tired, discontented, siloed youth pastor, God has not forgotten you. He sees you. He sees your gifts and your potential. And He’s raising you up—not to ministry success or organizational authority, but to more closely resemble Him. In the meantime He has called you to proclaim the Good News of His Son to the most strategic people possible. So even when it’s hard, it’s worth it—because Jesus is.