Grumpy Old Youth Workers? Part 2: The Costs & Benefits of Growing Old in Ministry

Posted on September 17 2009

This is the second of a pair of articles that summarize a forum of older youth workers at last autumn’s National Youth Workers Convention. Thefirst article explored the grace and divine calling felt by older youth workers that kept them in ministry.

Like any job, ministry will give you more grumpy days than you’d ever want. Your students can be a pain, parents whine, other staffers seem to you to be more of a problem than a solution. So how does an over-40 youth worker know whether to hang it up or hang in there? Are there signs that alert you to leaving ministry, or at least cutting back to part-time? When is enough enough?

Marie was in that hotel meeting room among with the other forum participants. She’s a 45-year-old volunteer with two children of her own—one of them in college, the other a high school sophomore in her mom’s youth group (willingly!). The love of her life, she says is leading her weekly small group of high school girls, with whom she says she’s very connected.

Across the room from Marie sat Todd—full-time, paid youth pastor, age 43, a wife and two kids (10 and 14). Unlike Marie, he’s not having a ball in ministry. Caught between fatigue and frustration, he’s having serious second thoughts about continuing his youth ministry career.

Marie’s case is a no-brainer: enjoy! Relish the time with your students! Mark’s situation is more of a dilemma: is it really time to pull up stakes and move on to a new career? Or are there compelling reasons to stay in youth ministry, if not in his current job?

The costs of staying in ministry as an oldster

“What are the disadvantages of being an older youth worker?" I asked the middle-aged-and-still-in-ministry forum attendees. What I heard from the 140 youth workers could be summarized in six themes—ways in which aging is a liability for long-haul usefulness. If two or three of them are particularly intense for you, it may be time to reevaluate your ministry with youth and why you’re doing it.

“I’m worn out."
“I’m tired," confessed one of the forum participants. “Constantly. And frankly," he added, “my love for the church has waned over the past few years."

Other youth workers articulated their fatigue:

  • “Locks-in wear me out. Anymore, my limit is 11 p.m."
  • “Repelling and rock climbing just plain hurts."
  • “My energy level isn’t what it used to be."
  • “I can’t sleep on the floor."
  • “My creativity has gone down the drain."

It was clear that many in the room felt that their drive and passion were gone, their energy depleted, and what they really wanted was a long nap now and then.

“The financial stress is driving me crazy."
No one goes into youth ministry to get rich—still, many in the forum complained of a poor financial status, due primarily to being undercompensated by their employing church. Just about everyone could relate to economic hardships, low cost-of-living increases, and few incremental raises. Many at the forum hadn’t seen a raise in two years.

“I’m not as focused anymore."
Yes, with age often comes clarity—but the youth workers at the forum spoke about losing the clarity of purpose they once had. This resembled burnout more than mere boredom; in fact, the way many described it leaned toward mild depression: “Is there any thing I do with teens anymore that really matters?"

“I’m not enjoying ministry as I used to."
“All I wanna do is have some fun"—these youth workers could sing that right along with Sheryl Crow. The fun isn’t fun anymore. Church is a drag, meetings are dull.

“What are my options?" 
Few at the forum felt they had any marketable skills outside youth ministry. “Who will hire me?" asked one full-time male youth pastor. “I have a bachelor’s degree and a decade and a half of local church ministry. How does that translate into the mainstream job market?"

“I feel like I’m always frustrated."
Though this is hardly unique to over-40 youth workers, 20 years of it can wear on you. Chronic problems—budget crunches, tension with parents, little supervisorial encouragement—only reduce one’s threshold for frustration.

What you gain by staying in ministry as an oldster

There is the other hand, however. Forum members listed more than 45 advantages of staying in youth ministry while growing into middle age—advantages that you could bundle into six general categories.

A decreasing learning curve
“You keep learning from your mistakes," said a female participant, “and the older you get, the faster and easier it is to process those issues. Just having lived longer counts for a lot in ministry. These days," she added, “I work smarter, not harder."

Thicker skin
Aging youth workers don’t wear their feelings (or their principles) on their sleeves, as novices tend to do. “I know I’m no longer cool," said one, “but unlike 10 years ago, that fact doesn’t bother me now. Or my students, for that matter."

Older youth workers are usually perceived to have been around the block enough times to be trusted. Forum members overwhelmingly agreed that such credibility is due mostly to gradually becoming peers of students’ parents—simply a matter of passing time.

Authentic counseling 
“I’ve become a better listener and counselor as I’ve gotten older," said one of the forum participants. “I think I’m more tender. And I don’t believe in giving easy answers anymore."

“I have more extra time now," a volunteer youth work said. “I’m more available to be a surrogate parent to teens with absentee or divorced parents."

Trend tracking
Many thought they could spot youth trends easier as they age. And though most of them confessed they had trouble keeping up with all the music groups, they were able to quickly familiarize themselves with trends (most commonly with the Internet).

Most of these over-40 youth workers believed they were “safe" to talk to and confide in. “I’m amazed how many more students were willing to share their hurts and problems with me now, compared to a decade ago," said one, reflecting a consensus in the room.

Stay or leave?

Are you a youth worker who, after weighing the pros and cons of remaining in ministry, are inclined to explore other careers? Take heart—there are commonsense steps and many helpful resources for you. Among them:

  • The annual What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters & Career-Changersby Richard Bolles (Ten Speed Press) is a long-lived volume because its premises, insight, and assignments make sense. (It is, however, only one of many, many titles on the subject.)
  • Generally speaking, finding jobs that fit you best will emerge from networking, not the classifieds.
  • Unless you’re unusually realistic about your abilities, your desires, and your dreams, think seriously about getting some career counseling.
  • Play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. Avoid pursuing prospective jobs that consist of your least favorite aspects of youth ministry.
  • Get help writing and designing resumes that are tailored to each kind of prospective employer.
  • Make job-hunting your job. Get up early, shave or put on makeup, and spend the day—or as much of the day as you can afford—researching and networking toward a job that fits you.


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