Recently Benjamin Kerns wrote an article about why 5 years is the ceiling in youth ministry. It is a really good picture of what happens in many youth ministries. It has been an experience I’ve witnessed in many youth pastors and youth ministers. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben’s assessment that we need to keep pouring into the next generation of youth coming up through our programs if we want to have a sustainable youth program. His context is that of youth ministry within the church, which lends itself to a steady stream of children turning into teens, teens turning into graduates and so on. However, this isn’t just a struggle limited to youth pastors- all youth workers at some time or another will wonder about their call or vision for the youth work they do.
But when you have other natural breaks in your youth work programs, and other outside factors, how do you know how long is ‘too long’ in a youth work position?
Cut and dry
Many youth workers are contract workers (particularly in the UK and Australia)- they have a set amount of time in which to do their work and if they don’t get more grant money they don’t have a job.
Move on up to that ‘deluxe apartment in the sky’
Youth workers move up into management (the non-faith-based equivalent of moving into ‘real ministry’ in the church)- when you’re too old or tired (or you have a family to support), you move into program management and leave the face-to-face work to the next generation of youth workers.
Show me the money
Government priorities shift and therefore your work focus shifts- if you work for the government, the next new thing (currently in the US it’s obesity) dictates what monies you get, how you can spend your time and sometimes the age and population of your participants.
However, there is another factor- one that is harder to know when it’s time to stay or go.Youth workers who work with disadvantaged or socially-excluded youth and in deprived areas and organizations.
This can be some of the most rewarding work to do, but it tends to take a huge toll on your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. How long can you live and work alongside such heartbreak?
With victims of child abuse, the foster care system, bullying, suicidal tenancies, poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness… the list goes on and on.
How long can you work with…
This isn’t something I can tell you. But I can give you some indicators that you might be ready for something new- or at the very least- a sabbatical.
1. You dread going to group.
2. You get frustrated quickly and easily with routine teenage behavior.
3. You complain about your group when you get home, every time, with little to no positives you can identify.
4. You find yourself distracted at work easily and find it hard to self-motivate in the office.
5. You are looking at job sites- particularly when this happens with increasing frequency.
I know it can hurt when you are considering moving on from a youth work role, no matter what the reason. But being a good reflective practitioner is key to understanding yourself, your youth and the impact you are having on them. Remember to always focus on why you do what you do. It’s probably because you want to make a difference. If your attitude is such that you aren’t able to make that difference anymore, it’s time to think about a break or a switch.
Youth work shouldn’t be about you.