Transitions in leadership are a constant struggle for many youth ministries. God calls some pastors to other ministries, churches make decisions to seek out new pastors, still others burn out and leave ministry altogether. Whether you are a paid staff member or volunteer in youth ministry, as a leader you have the power to influence students’ reactions and hopes for what’s coming next. As we discuss the transition process, we will examine it from three perspectives. We will look at ideas to navigate the transition as the one staying in the ministry while a pastor leaves, the one leaving a ministry to serve in another capacity, and the one arriving to serve a new ministry.
How to stay
For 3 years I served as an intern (primarily leading and teaching the high school ministry) under a youth pastor who oversaw the junior high, high school, and college ministries. Near the end of year 2, the church leaders decided to hire two pastors to oversee high school and college, then move the current youth pastor to focus on junior high ministry. Now, this was a good decision, both for the pastor and the ministries. Being the high school intern, it seemed like I would be the natural choice to take over the high school ministry. This is what the students, parents, and I expected eventually anyway. However, with my limited experience and education, I was not the candidate the leadership wanted. The Senior Pastor and I had a discussion about the situation and although it stung at the time, I certainly agree with the decision now. Since I knew I would continue my internship under a new pastor, I had the opportunity to learn from the transition process.
Here are the three tips for leading through the change:
1. Be Humble
I had the ability to have influence over students and parents in the process of hiring a new high school pastor. I could organize support like backroom politics or I could submit to our church leadership. Christ’s call on my heart was to remain humble. In my humility I had to be confident in the decisions others were making and believe that God may actually have someone more qualified to be the next pastor. It wasn’t easy watching someone else come into the ministry, but the church leaders hired a Christ-centered leader who had the experience to grow the group in many ways. If I let my pride overstep God’s plan, it would have been a detriment to the students I dearly wanted to minister to.
2. Be Faithful
Too often a change in pastoral staff means volunteers take the time as an opportunity to leave as well. I can understand the pain of losing a beloved pastor because the church is going in a “new direction.” I can also understand that there is a time when all of us will be ready to serve in a different area of ministry. Youth ministry is not a life-long calling for most. However, the transition between pastors is the most vital time to have strong volunteer staff. Students will be looking to you for guidance and encouragement as they say goodbye to their old leader and get to know the new one. Take the opportunity to submit to the new leader, and serve the students and the leader well. You have the chance to show students you trust the new leader and that they can too.
3. Be Loving
Regardless of how teenagers act on the outside, students who are even moderately involved in youth group have some connection to the leaders. Times of transition are vital times to reassure teenagers that they are loved by the staff remaining and by the church as a whole. Youth workers are on the forefront of showing the love of Christ to students. Times of transition are opportunities to make greater efforts in grabbing coffee, watching plays or games, and sharing meals together. The extra love will help students become more solidified in the group and be prepared to connect with the new pastor.
Transitions in leadership are unavoidable. God is constantly working in each of our hearts and preparing us for different ways to minister. Sometimes we have the opportunity to remain in a ministry when he is calling someone else away. This is a time for us to reassure the students, parents, and church as a whole that the youth ministry is a healthy place for teens and is ready to follow whoever God is bringing next.
How to leave
As my time as an intern came to a close, I began to explore the opportunities for ministry positions at other churches. After going through the interview process with my current church, I realized I needed to think about how to best leave a ministry and church I’d served in for six years. I have to admit I’m not sure I did as well as I could have. But I hope you learn from my mistakes.
1. Be Humble
Whether leaving on your own terms or being asked to step down from leadership, showing students humility can be a tremendous witness to our students. When I left it was my decision, the best way for me to show humility was to thank the students for their trust, love, and support. It can be exciting to think about what the future holds, but the students are fearful. Some may even be doubting the relationship they thought they had with you. Humility can help reassure students that this is God’s plan and not a decision to find better teenagers to minister to.
On the other hand, whether or not you agree with a decision from church leadership to have you step away from ministry, humility will play a major role in the future of the ministry for your students. They need to trust that the pastors and elders have their best interest in mind. This is a difficult task to begin with for teenagers, but near impossible when the youth leader leaving is telling them not to trust the leaders of the church. I understand elder boards make bad decisions, and maybe you have been legitimately hurt by their actions, but your students need to have confidence in the transition and in the new leader that they hire. This is a way some of us will suffer for the benefit of our youth.
2. Be Faithful
Showing students your faithfulness to God through leaving is a challenging task. I had the opportunity to demonstrate what it looked like to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. I was leaving a church that had given me an incredible support system and going to a church where I knew no one. But I felt God calling me to the new ministry and I tried my best to show students how God had brought them a new pastor and now I was going to serve another group of teens who didn’t have anyone to lead them. I think it helped give the students a broader perspective.
3. Be Loving
Eager to get started in my new ministry I agreed to leave my current church rather quickly. Being an intern under a full-time pastor I was not leaving the ministry without any leadership, but the students had close relationships with me and some were hurt to see me leave so soon. I had the opportunity to show them the sacrifices I was willing to make to be a faithful minister of the gospel, but most just wanted a little more time to say goodbye and get used to the idea that I would no longer be a part of their ministry. In many ways, I would no longer be a part of their lives. I wish I’d have considered their feelings more when I negotiated my start date at the new church. I didn’t have a lot of flexibility, but an extra week or two may have been a tremendous difference for some of the students.
Leaving a ministry is the hardest transition I’ve ever had in ministry. Saying goodbye is not easy, especially when you’ve poured your time, energy, and heart into the ministry. Students struggle between gratitude, anger, love, and hurt. But as leaders leaving we do have one more opportunity to point our students to Christ. Doing our best to leave well is the best way to encourage our students to press on in the faith and seek God in a time of change.
How to start
Probably the most exciting transition to make is starting in a new ministry. You’ve gone through a lengthy process of “proving yourself” and now you’re getting things started. You are going to miss the students in your previous ministry, but you are starting to look ahead to new relationships. I’ve never been a part of a church plant, but the idea of starting fresh from scratch and diving into ministry really excites me. However, most of us starting fresh are actually taking over leadership roles in existing ministries. We have to recognize that ministries have different cultures, different values, different teenagers. I think the best way to start fresh recognizes the differences, addresses your calling from God, and builds new relationships with students, volunteers, and parents.
1. Be Humble
When I was hired to be the youth pastor at my current church I was pumped. I was going to a ministry that had struggled with waning attendance, disconnected youth, frustrated parents, and tired volunteers. I had great ideas to bring new life into the ministry, Lord willing, and I was ready to hit the ground running. BUT I had just been a part of a similar transition myself and I knew what it felt like from the other side. My plan was not to ride in like a white knight ready to take the castle, I needed to show I was a servant coming to teach the youth about Christ. The volunteers had been working hard, I couldn’t just come in criticizing them and pointing out weaknesses. The students and adults had relationships with the previous pastors, I didn’t want to show how much better I was going to be. Everyone already knew the situation of the ministry, it wasn’t my job to beat them over the head with it.
So, I took the time to talk to everyone with any connection to the ministry. I learned the history of the church and the youth ministry. I let others point out the weaknesses, the strengths, the values, the hopes, everything and anything about youth ministry that they wanted to tell me. Students, parents, volunteers, church staff, I was willing to listen to anyone that had some thoughts about the ministry. Only after I let people share, which helped me to start forming relationships with them, did I begin to form God’s vision for the ministry and slowly start pointing our people in that direction. This is a slow process, but I wasn’t building a new ship from the ground up I was taking control of the helm and changing its course. Slow progress is a necessity for long-lasting change.
2. Be Faithful
Just because I look back at the past two years and recognize how far God has brought us, doesn’t mean I was always fine with taking things one step at a time. I struggled with the pace of change in the ministry, with growth rate (spiritually and numerically), with the image of the ministry in the church, and with my own deadlines being missed. God began to show me that I had the right vision, the vision he had given me. But I wasn’t just going to tell the students we were going to be X ministry and everything would change. It is going to take prayer, work, time, people, and, most importantly, Jesus to change the ministry. Ministry leaders have to remain faithful because it is guaranteed we will face opposition. We have to seek our own relationship with Christ in order to lead others closer to him. When we enter a new ministry we have to remember we have been called by God to lead, so change…progress…growth…are all up to him and his timing.
3. Be Loving
I’m increasingly convinced that the only way to minister to people is to love them like Christ does. The more we can reveal that Christ loves the more convincing the gospel becomes. When we start in a new ministry, we have the opportunity to sacrificially reveal God’s plan for redemption. Everyone is watching when you start. How we begin to form relationships, how we respond in situations, how we teach, how we cast vision, how we talk about the ministry must all come from being radically committed to the love Christ has first shown us. As leaders, we set the example for love in our ministries. How we love will challenge and encourage the rest of the ministry to follow us. Love is the only way to build the kinds of relationships that will truly grow a ministry. If we focus on loving students, leaders, parents, and elders, then our ministries will be defined by showing others their value in Christ. That is a radical change to make and I am positive the most attractive characteristic a ministry can have.
A.C. CASWELL is the Pastor of Student Ministries at Camelback Bible Church in Phoenix, AZ. He has passions for reaching students with the Gospel and for developing more leaders to work together in this mission. You can connect with him on Twitter @ELSIETEVII.