The not so hidden problem of longevity in youth ministry

Imagine the scenario, as a young person you’ve loved the time you’ve been able to spend with your youth leader, they’ve entertained, taken you on residentials, had great conversations, listened to you, developed your talents, pushed you to do things and really been one of the key main influences in your life. It’s been amazing for you to have had a youth leader like them.

And what better option for you as a young person who has benefitted immensely from the efforts, personality and ministry of a youth leader in your local church, than for you to think then about becoming a youth leader yourself!  So, you check out the options post school, or post Uni even and decide to find an accredited course. Especially as during the time you were volunteering through uni you realise that people actually got paid for being youth leaders, and discovered that you needed an accreditation or a theology degree, or a youthwork degree to do it (and youth work degrees or theology degrees tend to be on a bypass from the average careers adviser) – So you pack up your graduate bags from one college, and head to another to do a post grad, or an undergrad in youth work finally heading towards the dream, the place in your heart you have always wanted to and felt called to be… a youth minister.

You graduate, you get a load of experience doing placements, you hone your reflective skills, theological underpinnings, group work resources, management and supervision skills, and develop a nuanced theory of adolescence and faith. All ready for the big wide world of the church based youth ministry position. Your faith, your practice, your time and your finances have been sorely tested. But you’re ready. Ready to fulfil the great calling set in you since your own teenage years.. but there’s one more step to go- Where next…?

So you hit the Premier Youth Work Magazine back pages. (the almost only bit everyone reads)

You Find a job and a church, you pack your bags again.

You fly and interview, move into the area, meet lots of people and start in the role. But theres a problem..

Becuase – whilst everyone in the church is happy for you to be there, there are some that only compare you to someone who used to be, someone whose photo is still on theministryy team photo, even though they left the summer before.

The young people sometimes mistakenly call you ‘ the new Scott’ (the previous person was called scott)

The Minister in the church who was keen to appoint you has decided to leave the church before christmas.

Some of your best ideas, Scott used to do, and the young people love playing the games he did.

The young people loved Scott, he was their first youthworker.

Your ministry might only be in the shadow of someone elses, and because of all the emotions involved, and deep connections this is going to be difficult.

However, as time goes by, your patience wears off and the young people grow to respect you, spend time with you and you start to develop groups, ministries, connections with schools, and things start to build.

Even though you didnt get a great honey moon period, the first year goes ok.

Then the new minister arrives.

And you dont get on. His dreams and approaches to ministry are different to yours, but somehow now the same as the congregation. He also line manages you. This becomes difficult.

Though he lets you get on with it, in his style, he becomes quick to try and influence, correct and criticise, giving you no back up as the other employed person in the church, in public in meetings.

Your writing is on the wall, your training didnt prepare you for the shift that a church could take when this kind of change could happen. Your ministry, and dedication to a career is in jeopardy, so is he reality of the house you have just bought in the area. Maybe you have to think about moving on, bu after this experience – do you think twice about working for a church again? You might do, and though this exact scenario didnt happen to me, shifting to the outside of churches in faith organisations can seem a grass greener thought.

Though this overall scenario is probably an extreme situation. What isnt is that there is a myth that is circulated that the average longevity of a youth minister in a single church setting is between one and a half and 3 years. And this is usually attributed to the following factors:

a) Burnout – doing too much- caused by excessive stress – do they have someone to help them give their life balance? 

b) running out of ideas – all the best are used up in 18 months – the warning signs are how soon you’re grabbing youthwork magazine for ideas…

c) a breakdown in relationship between the church leadership and the youthworker – where do they go to get help with dealing with this kind of thing? 

d) a non existenct managerial or/and supervision relationship between the church leadership and a youthworker ( see Davies 2012, in Ord 2012)  (see previous articles on managing a youthworker here:

e) Ending of funding for the role, (or end of contract)  Its one of the first to go if a church becomes financially struggling.

There are a few others.

But shouldnt it be shocking that someone who invests so much into being trained and commissioned into a vocation can be treated so badly in a church setting?  And have their ministry curtailed in less than 3 years?

Yes, not every youth minister is whiter than white – maybe the post academic professionals expect too much- but still. The emotional, spiritual and physical effect of a bad experience of ministry can be truly awful, and those who stick it out for the long haul – beyond 5-6 years in a church deserve huge medals.

But to the others whose enthusiasm, desire and vocations have been cut short by bad experiences the youthwork world is with you.

Does the system need changing? Yes.

Can the systematic, affiliation or regional approach to employing a youthworker in a church change? Not sure – who can actualize this…

who does all this affect? where do we start..

Whether or not Youth Ministry and employing a professional is the best route for you as a church is debatable (see my previous articles and But even so – please do consider them as whole people in the local collaborative ministry of the church, arrange for good management, supervision to give them ideas and time to try new approaches and ideas. Beyond 3-4 years, with good finances in place, youthworkers might stay a lot longer. Only if you stop asking them when theyre going to get a proper job…

Beyond 3-4 years, with good finances in place, youthworkers might stay a lot longer. Only if you stop asking them when theyre going to get a proper job…



Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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