This past week we welcomed new 6th graders into our ministry. The best I can count, this is the 15th or 16th year I’ve done that. But this year was different.
My daughter was one of the new students.
I’ve known that I was no longer a “young” student pastor for quite some time. I don’t have SnapChat, I haven’t done a lock-in in years, and my hair line is receding to the point where I may end up being one of those youth ministers that shaves his head so at least he looks bald on purpose instead of on accident.
Such is life.
But seeing my daughter at our event, and not as a tag-along with her youth minister dad but as a student in the ministry was a different experience altogether. Sure, I knew it was coming. But when the time rolled around to get the parents together to do a little “Welcome to the Ministry Q&A,” I realized that I was a “Q” guy this time and not just the “A” guy.
It seems to me like the average age of student pastors is on the rise. Data is limited, but one survey revealed that the average age of a student ministry person is 33 years old. That means for every 25 year old there’s a 41 year old. 22% leave student ministry in their twenties. 78% move on to something else by age 39. Anecdotally, a lot of the youth ministry circles I run in are heavier on dad bods than they are skinny jeans.
(Occasionally, there’s a dude with a dad bod AND skinny jeans…this is bad for everyone.)
There are plenty of women who are mothers and married and doing ministry as well, not just single, recent college grads.
I’m proud to be among the aging cohort at the slightly-above-average-age of 35, and it’s good that youth ministry is increasingly viewed as a career end, not just a means to an end.
As I’ve thought through all this in recent months, I’ve re-realized some truths to being an old geezer in the youth ministry world.
This Stuff is Really, Really Important
Not just philosophically, but to me. Having a daughter in the ministry, I’m reminded of what an important partnership it is that we forge with families. I’m cognizant of the fact that most people who make a decision to follow Christ do so before they turn 18. I’m aware of how moving and meaningful it is to my daughter to have a non-related adult invest in her. For these and many other reasons, this is important work.
Like Nehemiah, threatened by distraction as he constructed the wall around post-exilic Jerusalem, we are doing a good work and cannot come down. This student ministry stuff is really important and deserving of life-long (or at least half a life long) commitment.
Keep it up, ladies and gentlemen.
I’ve Still Got Lots to Learn
Sure, I’ve gleaned some valuable wisdom over the years, but there’s always more to learn. I think the future of student ministry is bright, but I also think it’s a fast-changing enterprise. This old dog will need to learn some new tricks. The students we ministered to when we first started (millennials) are making way for the next generation (whatever we decide to call them). These new Jr. Highers not only don’t remember 9/11, they weren’t alive on 9/11. My daughter was born after we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. She does not remember a world without iPhones.
How will we reach the next generation, and the one after that? What foundational truths will remain the same? We’ve gone from event-driven ministries to relationship-driven ministries. There are seismic shifts not only on the horizon, but presently under foot.
Women and men of youth ministry, we must never stop learning. I must never think I’ve arrived. If I want to contribute more, I must understand more.
I’ve Still Got Work to Do
And, I’ve decided, I want to contribute more.
Like most other student pastors my age, I’ve considered doing other things. I get calls from church planters, who prey on frustrated youth ministers by offering them “their own gig” with a “healthy salary” and the opportunity to do things their own way. More than once I’ve been asked, “When will you get your own church?”
Well, there are a lot of theological flaws in that question, but I get the point. Yet the answer remains: “No time soon.”
The bottom line is, I still have student ministry work to do. My clock may be ticking, but time hasn’t run out. Might I do something else someday? I suppose. But to start in a different field now seems silly, like a waste of the wisdom I’ve gleaned over the last decade and a half.
So I’m welcoming the challenge of being old(er) in youth ministry. My daughter and I have discussed the new dynamic and we’re ready to have some fun. Best of all, I’m not alone. I know youth ministers in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s.
Here’s to graceful aging for all the middle-aged student pastors out there. As we replace our 20/20 vision for crows feet and reading glasses, may we never replace the vision God gave us long ago to invest in young people.
Like any other good investment, remember: the longer we invest, the greater the return.