What Leaving Reminds Me About Youth Ministry

I guess it happens often in our field of ministry, but this is the first time I have left a youth ministry position at a church.  It hasn’t been easy.

As I’ve felt a wide range of highs and lows in my decision to resign, in breaking the news to the youth, and in looking towards what’s next, I’ve been reminded about several important truths about being a youth minister.

1. Our time with these youth is temporary, but important.

It’s an obvious truth, but it’s very easy to overlook in the day-to-day work of ministry: eventually the youth age out of the youth group.  Depending on the make-up of your church’s youth program, the most time we have with our kids is seven years – many have less.

This should remind us that youth ministry shouldn’t be about making good youth group participants, but about cultivating maturing members of the corporate church body and disciples of Jesus.  Though our time with the youth is short, the years are formative and will continue to shape their perception of the church and faith for years to come.  Let’s be careful to shape an ecclesiology that is based less on cultural norms for social interaction and entertainment and more inline with biblical notions of disciple-making and fellowship in Christ.

2. Our hope for these youth isn’t in us.

How do you begin to say “goodbye” to a group of kids that you love and have shared life with for so many years?  I figured if anyone had experience leaving a particular church body despite his love for its members, it was Paul.  So I re-read his letters.  I found within the opening verses to his letter the Philippians words that beautifully encapsulated my hope and prayer for the youth I am leaving. 

I desire grace and peace for them from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I do thank my God in all my remembrances of them and the time we shared in partnership for the gospel.  And above all else, my one hope for them is that he who began a good work in them will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  What other hope do I have?

And it is right for me to feel this way about them all, because I do hold them in my heart and have partaken of the means of grace together with them.  For as God is my witness, I do yearn for them all with the affection of Christ Jesus.  And it is my prayer that their love might abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so they may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Though the shepherds in their life may come and go, the Spirit of God remains present and Jesus remains Lord.  The Spirit was there before me, my prayer is that he was working through me, and scripture promises that God will continue his work after I depart.  What have I to fear?

3. The relationship we have with these youth is special.

Lastly, my departure has reminded me of the special bond we can form with these youth.  We are not their parent, but we do get to share in the parent’s role of raising them through their adolescence.  We are not their senior pastor, but we do get to share in the role of intimately shepherding these youth through formative years of their spiritual life.  We are not their peer, but over time we do become their friend. 

Not many other people will have the opportunity to blend together these roles like we do.  The role of a youth pastor is often overlooked and treated as trivial within the greater community of believers, but those of us who have been in youth ministry for any length of time know that our calling is special.  Let’s not forget the beauty of our calling.

As those ministering to youth our time is short, our hope is certain, and our role is precious.  May we make the most of the time given to us, may we keep our focus on Jesus, and may we cherish the role we’ve been given, even during the difficult seasons of life and ministry.  And most of all, may the Lord continue to use our ministries to reach and disciple those being saved.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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