Grumpy Old Youth Workers? Part 1: The Grace and Calling of Growing Older in Ministry
By David Olshin Posted on September 17 2009
In the YS Convention handbook, the 10 p.m. forums carried the title "Help! I'm Over 40 and Still in Youth Ministry!" I didn't expect a crowd, considering the late hour and the convention's more exotic offerings elsewhere. Maybe a dozen will show, I thought.
Yet nearly 70 older youth workers showed up at each of two such forums—some overweight, some balding, and more than a few pairs of bifocals.
So together we processed the benefits and liabilities of aging in our profession. What was the secret of longevity in this business? Why do some go the distance and others opt out?
The more we explored together, the more that age kept surfacing as a fear factor for staying in or getting out.
Age and relevance
I was in my late 20s when I attended my first National Youth Workers Convention. But then, everyone there looked in their 20s. No longer: the heads in the last few youth ministry conventions have been looking a lot grayer. Or maybe I'm just aware of them now, having aged with them.
I remember Nip, one of my best volunteers ever. He loved teenagers and wanted them to experience the goodness of God. And they loved him back. No one ever said he was a riveting teacher (he wasn't), nor could he tell you who was Billboard's number-one artist that week. Yet he took many kids under his wing and taught them about life. He was a man of compassion, insight, and humor (a practical joker, even). The group's teens flocked to him.
Nip was 55.
Or take Mike Yaconelli, cofounder and lead visionary of Youth Specialties, who passed from this earth only recently at age 61. He never let age get in the way of his prophetic calling. He never stopped loving (and liking) teens, he preached well to them as well as to adults; he had passion, he had chutzpah.
How many people in their 50s and 60s do you know who are still doing youth ministry?
No fountain of youth, but…
At the pair of forums, those youth workers who had professionally persevered into at least their 40s kept returning to a couple themes.
A sense of God's grace and calling still energizes them.
Dick Vermeil has coached in the NFL for years and years, including the 1999 Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. Now with the Kansas City Chiefs, the 67-year-old coach was recently the center of speculation about whether he would hang up his headset and retire. But no, he decided to stay in the game at least one more year.
"My football team energizes me," Vermeil explained. "I decided I would be more apt to regret having left than to regret having stayed." He stayed in because coaching stimulated him.
If you've been in ministry for any time at all, you know exactly what he's talking about.
"Fatigue makes cowards of us all," said that theologian of the gridiron, Vince Lombardi. There is no denying this. Yet a sense of grace and calling from God can renew a fatigued person and restore a measure of drive and commitment—and sometimes, even spurts of explosive energy. Wasn't Abram called to leave Ur at 75? And wasn't Moses called to lead Israel at 80?
Calling has little if anything to do with age—yet we are often too quick to let age determine our calling. Of course people should eventually retire, whether from youth ministry or bus driving or banking. All I'm saying—what 140 middle-aged youth workers would tell you if they could—is that whatever your age, regardless of your age, follow your calling, whatever it is.
God's grace and calling can surround your aging process as well as your profession—and here, too, it can produce contentment.
Aging can lead to contentment or discouragement. It is within the ability of everyone growing older to also grow increasingly content with who you are (that is, your strengths) and who you aren't (your limitations). In Front Porch Tales Philip Gulley writes,
When I was younger, I was consumed with the idea of being known. I aspired to a big pulpit in a big city making a big name for myself. What I've gotten instead is a small pulpit in a big city, making a lot of friends. Sometimes what we think we need isn't what we need at all.
Face it—sometimes we don't know what we need. "I've learned by now how to be quite content whatever my circumstances,'' said the apostle Paul, who when he wrote this to the Philippian Christians was alone, growing older in prison, his physical body showing the years' wear and tear. And yet the apostle retained a profound degree of contentment—of being okay with himself, with who he was and whose he was. "Whatever I have, wherever I am, " he wrote, "I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am." Paul never forgot that he was connected to Jesus Christ, who would power him through his own aging.
Coming next month: Part 2—a frank look at the advantages and disadvantages of growing older as a youth worker—and options for those who want out.