I cant speak about longevity in Youth Ministry with any great conviction or from experience. The longest I have spent in working for one church in one place is two years. And the longest I have spent working for a parachurch type project is 5 years, and recently 3 years at Durham YFC in which the last year was towards its closure. So, when I posted here on ‘Why do youthworkers leave the church?’ and got a number of people responding, I had no real comeback as to how it might be possible to last in a one-church youth ministry role.
So, I put it out on Social media to find out not only if there were any paid Youth Ministry people in roles – who had lasted more than 5-7 years, currently in a role.
And b) what they put their longevity down to.
Ok, so it was an echo chamber piece of research via twitter. But in all the youth work fraternal and contacts, there was only mention of 3 people in the UK who were known by others, of youthworkers employed in a church setting, in one church, who had been in post longer than 7 years. One left their post of 8 years to train as a vicar.
Just 3 youthworkers in the whole of the UK have been in a church long enough to see a 10 year old to their 17th birthday. Ie just one generation of teenagers. For everyone else the youthworker might only help celebrate 2 birthdays of the young people. 2 Years. Paid youth workers are lasting not much longer than a mobile phone contract- or premiership managers.
So, a few of these youthworkers are in the process of the long haul and got back to me with what feels like ‘how they managed to survive’ in a church post for longer than 7 years… this was one of the responses given to me:
The reflections on what a youthworker had to do to stay in a particular role. It appears that personal determination (1) is important, personal and professional relationships are key (2), being rooted in a community (3), being flexible (4), having space to personally develop (5) and a bit like the first one, to see being a youth minister as a vocation in itself. (and not be swayed by offers of ‘vocations’ elsewhere)
In one way these counter balance with the ‘reasons why a youthworker leaves’ – the internal politics and ‘professional’ relationships with clergy/senior pastor breaks down, having a short contract might mean not putting down roots, not being responsive to change, or helping the church be responsive to change can be important also.
The challenge is how much of a youthworkers longevity in a situation is their own responsibility, and how much is the responsibility of the church and its leaders, congregation and local community. Obviously a youth worker can set a vision (1) – but a local culture and its practices will eat it for breakfast, if it is not rooted in knowledge, gifts and attitudes of the community. A youthworker might want to and desire good relationships with senior staff and congregation – but that also has to be two way. flexibility, rootedness and personal development all push two ways too. The constructed professional space that a youthworker might thrive in is the responsibility of the church and its community, the task of ensuring that some of these things happen might be both the youthworker and their managements responsibility. ie its not just the youthworkers responsibility to find their own training, or retreat space.
Maybe what happens is that congregations treat youthworkers like clergy. In many denominations now, clergy can participate in all manner of support from their affiliation and diocese, from conferences, supervisions, training, as well as career development (;-)) – clergy prayer times and support. Granted this doesnt suit everyone, and it isnt universal. But the point being that this is part of a ministers role that usually congregations can devolve responsibility. However, not many of these things are present for a youthworker in a church setting. Often it is the church and not an affiliation that employs, youthworkers have to find their own pension, their own supervision, their own resources locally that include training opportunities, there is no post qualification ‘probation’ training, ie a curacy period. So, possibly congregations think that youthworkers have all this, but dont. I have heard it said by a congregant that they were surprised that as a youthworker i didnt have a sabbatical, or a structure or affiliation to help with career guidance. But even then its deemed not the congregation or churchs responsibility. The task of the youthworker is to find their own training, partnerships, resources, often supervision, retreat and guidance. Which they do, and have to. Then at times, the youthworker becomes responsible for helping with finding funding for their role. There needs to be money in the pot so that a paid youthworker can be confident in longevity, and build roots, and connections. It could work the other way too, but as soon as the treasurer starts getting worried about the length of a youthworkers contract, then the youthworker will be onto the jobs pages of youthwork magazine quicker than a brown fox that jumped over a lazy dog.
No doubt personal faith and determination are key to longevity. Seeing through what might be two year stormy periods is one thing, to fight on and go the distance. But two years of storms when there might only be funding or the desire of the church to employ you for three years anyway, then it becomes difficult to see through the storms, and start to think about protecting yourself, and what is next for you. There might be something to be asked about how churches view, employ and treat youthworkers given that so few are lasting longer than 7 years in a post in the UK. Especially as 7 years is often the minimunm time for an external person to start doing good community work. It is easy to say that youthworkers are difficult, and maverick and hard to manage, and if only 4 youthworkers in the UK are in a post for a long time then this might be the case also.
However, where a youthworker has done the long haul, there must be benefits for young people, such as confidence in the built relationships, consistency, trust. All of these get a bit of a battering when young people are subject to building relationships with short term people, like gap years (for example). I guess if we want young people to have a long lasting faith, we might just need to connect them with people who are going to also last a long time. If keeping the activity going has been the priority of the church, and not keeping the youthworker and the volunteers trained, supported and valued, then no wonder young people might not also see the value in pursuing faith. Of course it isnt that simple. But without huge numbers of youthworkers in churches for a long time, it is going to be difficult to find out. What we do know is the current system isnt working. But it might be working where someone has and is doing the long haul. To the few of you in this position, well done, keep going and continue to inspire, lead and be consistent with young people in your local context.