What God Taught Me As I Left Youth Ministry


I left my first job as a student pastor because I hit a leadership wall. My pastor and boss told me he had no place on staff to call me up to something different and that I needed to move on. So I found another job, across state lines, at a great church doing family ministry with the promise of all the growth, development, and leadership I wanted. 

I didn’t realize at the time that God wasn’t moving me because I hit a ceiling. God was moving me so that I would learn—the hard way—what it means to a son of God, and in particular, a son of God who suffers.

The prospect of moving was hard. My wife and I had gone to college, fallen in love, and had four children all in Oklahoma City. I had attended and served the same church that whole time. Moving also meant leaving behind the grave of our third child, Ruben. He was stillborn in his third trimester. Additionally, we moved only a couple of months after a traumatic pregancy and my fourth child Gloria was born. Again, the move was hard. 

Before we moved, I was crying with my wife in the back of a prayer meeting. A woman came up to me and said “I don’t know why, but I think the Lord wants me to tell you these words…”My son, my son. My boy, my boy.” 

She didn’t know that I had never called my living son “son” or “boy.” The only time I said those words were over Ruben’s body as I gave him to the funeral home. I held my son’s body and cried “My son, my son. My boy, my boy” over and over. So when she said those words to me: I understood that God was saying he held me in my brokenness and grief, like I held my son in his death. It was an invitation to consider God as my Father in my suffering. 

It was around this time I re-read Romans 8:14-17. Paul writes that the Spirit makes us God’s sons. And by God’s Spirit we’re finally able to call God “Abba” and  “Father.” But what I never noticed was the next verse “if indeed we share in his sufferings.” The glory of calling God Father comes on the other side of pain. 

So with all this in me we moved to Kansas City. In one of my first meetings with my new boss, he asked me what I hoped to get out of our time together. And I told him that God had left unfinished in me and unresolved in my soul a sense of vocation and a sense of sonship. I didn’t know what it meant to be a leader and I didn’t know I was God’s son.

Fast forward five months. The new student ministry I was hired to start met for the first time in a community theater inside a mall. I was growing spiritually, my family loved Kansas City. I was surrounded by men I aspire to be like. I was on an elder development track and literally had more leadership opportunities than I could handle. And six weeks later, March 14th, the day before the first quarantine mandate and the world shuts down due to COVID-19, I got another job offer. 

A friend of mine had started Spoken Gospel, a non-profit producing free resources that speak the gospel from every corner of Scripture. Out of nowhere a major donor heard about me through David and promised to bankroll all my moving costs, health benefits, and salary indefinitely, if I would just say yes. But I had absolutely no reason to take the job. I loved where I was, who I was becoming, and what was in my future. Still, there was something alluring about leading with my best friend and writing about Jesus.

So I spent the first three months of a global pandemic in prayer, counseling, and conversations with David, my church, and some old mentors. I agonized over this job offer with dozens, perhaps hours of prayer but I never got any closer to a decision.

One day, my boss pulled out two chairs, and placed them 12 feet apart in an empty room. One chair represented Spoken Gospel, the other our church. He told me to sit in the Spoken Gospel chair, then asked me why I wanted to take the job.

I ran through the list: David’s my best friend. I would be a part of leading something new and exciting. I would be using skills I feel uniquely qualified to use. Besides that, I want to do it. I think it would be fun, I get excited thinking about it and feel a deep sense of sadness over not saying yes. So my boss asked me “What’s stopping you from saying yes?” And I told him that doing what I want is not a good enough reason to do something. The stakes are too high. If I’m wrong, I’m schlepping my family across state lines for my own vanity.

Then I sat in our church’s chair. My boss asked me why I wanted to stay in Kansas City. I told him I have no reason to leave. I want to be like the men I see around me. I told him I know that leaving three months into a pandemic will be costly to the church. I want to lead these people, I want to help. Our student ministry met only six times before we closed. And besides all this, my wife and children do not want to move. Shouldn’t I count their concerns as more significant than my own? 

My pastor asked me again: “What’s stopping you from saying yes?” And all I can say is “What I want is to work at Spoken Gospel, but I think the right thing to do is to stay.” He was quite for a moment and then he said this:

“I think if you stay at Redeemer you will embody the role of a servant. You will serve your family. You will serve this church, your students and our leadership. And that’s a good thing. But I think if you go to Spoken Gospel you will embody the role of a son. And I don’t think you believe that God is a good enough Father to give you desires and then actually give you a vocation where you can use them.”

I started weeping. Shortly after, I quit this brand new job that Ioved. I left youth ministry to step more fully into God’s plan to make me a son of God. I left youth ministry to embody the identity of a son who cries out to his Father when he is suffering.

And now even in my dream job, I can tell you I am still suffering. The soul-crucifying work of saying “Abba Father”has gotten more intense. My new job isn’t everything I thought. I mishandled the move with my wife. My best friend is now my boss, and that’s harder than I would have chosen. I’m depressed often. And at first I was frustrated by all that—until I realized the point of leaving youth ministry was not to get a better job. It wasn’t to finally use all my gifts. God was inviting me into a new season so that I would learn to embody the role of a son who cries to his Abba when he is in pain.  

I have no tidy takeaway. I’m young. I still have a lot of maturing and suffering left to do. But whether you’re thinking about leaving youth ministry or plan to be a lifer, know what God is calling you to. He is calling you to suffer. God is calling you to be crucified with Christ. He’s inviting you to suffer like his firstborn child—so that he can hold you and tell you over and over that you are his son, and daughter, his boy or his girl. 

Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

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