Why do youth workers leave the church?

In the last week, Brian McClaren, the highly regarded and influential American Theologian and Pastor, penned and article: “Why do so many Pastors and Ministers leave the church”. It is personal, provocative and enlightening. And it is to be found here at this link: 


Get a glimpse of the main aspects of what Brian is saying here:

As a leader in the church I feel I am expected to be silent and non-opinionated on these issues.  Ironic.  When I look to the life of Jesus religion seems to have been low on his list of cares other than to challenge the religious elite of the day.  Jesus cared about people who were on the margins, He cared about the list of things that I feel I cannot talk about as a leader of the church. So how do I passionately follow Jesus and ignore the very work that defined his ministry?

McClaren says; Clarke, and many like her, are being drained of passion by the relentless focus on religious trivia and the relentless avoidance of issues that matter morally – and in terms of human survival.

As I sit in our weekly staff meetings there are so few things that get talked about that I can muster up passion to engage or care about. I’m not only talking about things like whether we use bread or wafers,  Easter worship service times, and carpet colour, but even worship itself and the doctrine that binds us often seem simply irrelevant to the issues of our world. I wonder if I’m burned out but I don’t think I am because there are things that do invoke deep passion in me.  When I watch the news, I feel passion.  When I hang out with kids who are struggling with great questions for which I have no great answers, I feel passion.  When I see someone searching to find their place in the world, I feel deep passion, when I see people trying to understand one another despite their differences, I feel deep passion.  When I see young people starting a recycling campaign or a stop bullying campaign, I feel deep passion.  I went to school to become a leader in the church because I somehow believed the church would be the platform from which I could work alongside a community of people to engage these areas of passion. I think I was naive. 

The question that is worth asking on the back of this is – why might youth pastors/ministers be leaving the church, over and above what this extract alludes to? 

  1. Mission & Risk averse churches

For, there is no doubt whatsoever, none at all, that the desperate passion that a youth worker feels for young people spurs them on within ministry. There is often no doubt that it is one of the key reasons for them being a youthworker in the first place, That same passion of the hurting, passion to help those with questions, passion to help them find place in the world, and to challenge the status quo’s that are barriers to young people being included, accepted and thriving.  MacClaren further on, using the same example suggests that a problem is a safety first, conformity within the culture of the church:

Clarke and her colleagues long to grapple with big challenges, even though doing so is “dangerous” in that it might offend a major donor: “Worship is safe, service projects are safe, Bible study is safe, talking about bulletin size is safe.  I don’t think passion is ever found in the safe and I don’t think important change comes from there either and so we have become passionless and barren.”

I have argued the same, in ‘this parish’ here in this post. Why Disciple making isnt a dangerous exercise.  in which I alluded to 3 pieces of research that show that the culture of the church is dominated by conformity. And so, a risk averse culture dominates, to the point that change is difficult.  In the article Brian alludes to the expectations of someone as they enter Ministry, as they think that being in Ministry in a church is tantamount to changing and transforming the world. But sadly, they discover that it isnt, it becomes about being the figure head who helps the organisation be maintained. Where Mission is a process of learning in new cultures, the institution puts on the reigns, ‘no dont mix with them, you must go to meetings with us, no that isnt our priority, you’re here to ‘serve’ us’. And this translates into youth ministry as well. So, what do you do for the young people who actually wouldnt, or dont fit into ‘youth group’ or disrupt the applecart for the ‘church kids’ (whom you’re there for). These arent new problems at all. But it in that moment of passion, and moments of actual life transforming ( for you as a worker) and the desire to connect with young people outside the church, that tensions may start to happen. The tensions between what ‘might be on your job description to make it exciting’ to we didnt actually expect you to do it in this way.. (no one else has ever done mission before..) 

So, theres the Risk vs Conformity reason why a youthworker might leave a church. 

2. But theres also other reasons, not just ‘mission’ or risk related. Theres management. 

Poor Management is rife in the church. There i have said it. On one hand its not part of anyone’s core training. Neither unless we as youth workers have the capacity, do we help to educate our managers to being good managers. But this is old ground for regular readers here. I have written a series on Management and Clergy, the first part is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Sj   And there are 4 subsequent posts. because the fall out from a Clergy as line management to Youth worker relationship is one of the top reasons for a youthworker leaving a church. But Why? 

As I explain in the second of the posts on the subject, it is about expectations.  The youthworker dreams of the future of being guided by the wise hand of a pastorally minded minister, The minister thinks that having a youthworker ‘do all the childrens & youthwork’ will free them up to do ‘proper things’. Though there are other expectations too within Management. like the vicar thinking that a youthworker doesnt need managing. Or a youthworker thinking that youthwork  or young people might actually be a priority for the church.. nope. not usually. It seems like expectations are issues in both of these reasons so far. 

3. Parachurch Drift.  The Grass seems greener in the Para-church organisation. 

So, the local YMCA, the YFC centre, FYT, or other local Project. These provide the natural safe haven for the previously church based frazzled youthworker. They promise better management, a focus on young people (hopefully), a freedom from institutional politics, the freedom even not to go to church, or choose one, funding not from parents of the young people, they may even promise a team of youthworkers to work with so that you’re not alone, like you used to be. They have managers in place, and wont it be great to be managed by a youthworker for a change! – at least someone who might understand what being a youthworker actually is all about. Not only this, the parachurch organisation might be able to offer a contract, a pension, better pay, an office, a 35 hour (not 65 hr) working week, connections in an affiliation, conferences, training, this sounds idyllic doesnt it. Oh and, if you pick the right affiliation, then the passion you might have for young people (see the original post) can be realised. You can connect in a homelessness project with desperate young people, or on the streets, or in sessions, and start to be transformative. Oh yes, the grass is greener on the para church side of the fence… isnt it?  There are catches, of course, but the path from single church to para church is well trod. Other youthworkers might go to work for a local school or council, for all the same reasons. It might give them the opportunities to actually work with young people, not just see them once a week, or in a mass of people in an assembly. 

But before this is criticised. There are plenty of Pastors and Ministers who leave the church to go to academia, mission organisations, chaplaincy in a similar way. Yes for a good number of reasons, but lets not get too snooty about youthworkers going from church to parachurch. For many its the only way out to stay as a youthworker and not be in a church anymore. Academia is a pretty closed route, and consultancy requires good links and opportunities, entrepreneurial setting up something new is also possible, but thatd take a while to be funded… . So back the bags to the parachurch. Of course, the definition of ‘church’ and ‘parachurch’ is up for debate, but lets keep it simple…

Of course, there is a fourth reason, beyond, conformity, management & parachurch drift.

4. The youthworker might leave the church, because, they cave in, go to vicar school and join the clerical dark side. ok ok, I am joking!  But it is a reason why youthworkers ‘leave’ the church. With many many good reasons and calling, I do hope, as many have said, that when they do become clergy that they employ and manage youthworkers and prioritise young people in their parish….. 

and finally…

5. Youthworkers leave the church because they burn out. It varies ‘when’ they get burn out, and when they might leave as a result. Its when more that 3 weeks are done on adrenaline alone. After they have said ‘yes’ to everything and not delegated. When they dont have a ‘team’ to help them with significant pastoral issues amongst young people. When no one manages or looks after their diary. When no one asks them difficult questions about their hours, time off, time with family. Or time to recharge (that isnt church), time to study. Or a Sabbatical for a youthworker isnt scheduled every 5 years at the least yes im serious. Schedule a sabbatical for your youthworker. Youth workers leave because they wear themselves out, they might even wear out their marriages working for a church. They might never darken the door of a church again to ‘do youthwork’ , which maybe is a shame because ‘they were a good youthworker’ but they burned out in the culture of a church. But surely this wouldnt happen now would it….

So, 5 reasons why a youthworker leaves a church. It is sad that so many youthworkers leave working in churches, though there are many that dont. And you, and your volunteers and church leaders deserve collaborative credit for creating a positive environment where you have been able to stay, and hopefully thrive, or that you as the youthworker have affected the culture around you so that you can, by shaping management, gaining power, decision making and also creating teams to delegate. So, no every youthworker leaves a church, neither might every minister. But a good number do. Most youthworkers who leave churches, like ministers, have their identity wrapped up in being part of the church, part of leadership, part of the faith community in this way. So it can be devastating to leave, but it happens.

As an industry, the promise of being a youth worker in a church setting shouldnt be paved with bright lights and never ended amazing experiences – neither should the promise of ‘getting a youthworker’ be there to stem the flood drip of young people leaving the church, or to magically pied piper them back in….

What might be other reasons why youthworkers leave the church?

In response to this, it was pointed out that youthworkers suffer from false Hero status, in this follow up piece i reflect on the cultural dangers of ‘Hero’ status in Youth ministry, and propose an alternative: Youth Ministers as Saints, not Heroes

Today I turned the above piece into the following article published in Christian Today: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/these.4.reasons.are.why.youth.workers.are.leaving.the.church/115209.htm 

A follow up to this piece, two years later is here: Is youth Ministry just about survival? 

4 thoughts on “Why do youth workers leave the church?

  1. Another great article James. I took the well trodden route from church to para church to secular youth work. When we are better supported by people who don’t believe in Jesus the Church has lost its way.


  2. Another thought-provoker James. I certainly hear you on the para-church thing, something that disappoints me actually. But, I reckon you’d have to add another here – The Senior Pastor relationship. I see this all the time, Youth Pastors leaving their church because the relationship with their SP breaks down. Massive issue. I know you’ve referred to it in the past as the ‘management’ but this is a biggie in my mind. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s me again.
    It’s now over 47 years since I gave up my Civil Service career. Monday night I was sitting in the local YMCA eating pizza, encouraging the young people to be actively involved in the development of our new youth wing. Felt more at home in that multi cultural environment, black, white , North African, gay, straight, youngster, young adult than around so called youth work in church.
    My journey was international children’s and youth charity, college, local authority, local authority on church school campus, FYT, FYT/CYM, World Mission, Methodist Church.
    FYT was home and Incarnational church.
    Encouraged to apply for Baptist Ministry as Youth Specialist – no way – I have my missional identity as a Youth Worker.
    Never a question of in or out of church, my youth work has always been a ministry, as should everyones work/ employment. My civil service work was also part of my ministry. That’s the problem with our idealistic approach to life.
    LEA, NYA, FYT, YMCA have all shaped my commitment to Youth Service, rather than the American import of Youth Ministry. As I have told students for years, for 175 years (YMCA)youth work has been a ministry for Christians

    Liked by 1 person

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