Youth Workers Over 30: Effective or Obsolete?
By Danette Matty
They say the first step is to admit it: My name is Danette Matty and I’m a youth-a-holic. I’m 43 years old and have served in both youth and young adult ministries since big hair was in. Most pro athletes retire by their thirties. Although NBA great, Michael Jordan was into his forties when he retired…again. Why are more youth pastors staying in youth ministry instead of step-stoning into big church ministry?
The truth is, I and most of my youth leader friends in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s are excited about what God is doing in this generation. Not that we’ve given up on our own generation, but passion for seeing Jesus explode inside of young souls has only deepened over time. That never gets old, even when we do.
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges.
Back when big hair was in, I only had to dig through my tape collection and movie ticket stubs to feel culture-savvy. My first clue to not relating as readily to teenagers was that I had to rely on eavesdropping on their conversations or surf the Net to find what’s culture-current. I wondered if I should start looking into a youth ministry retirement home (I imagined Obsolete Villa with Petra and Andre Crouch playing over the speakers in the Community Room).
A turning point in my thinking was on one of my thirty-something birthdays. I stood over my desk and prayed, “Lord, I still want to be effective.” (At forty-something, I’m more apt to pray, “Lord, I still want to be regular.”) I began dialoguing with my peers about why we stay in youth ministry and how valuable we think we are. While I’m surprised at how much I still enjoy teenagers, my effectiveness and that of my peers, shouldn’t surprise anyone. For many over-thirty youth leaders, effectiveness — notwithstanding God’s help and the experience and wisdom that come with age — boils down to staying in the game for the reasons we entered: we love teenagers and seeing God work in their lives. And just for the record, you under thirties, scrambling to incorporate “You’re Beautiful” into your next altar call or choreograph a human video with Beyonce-mocking moves, we slow-but-sures have a clue: being culture-current is a key, not the key.
Eighteen years in youth work has shown 44 year old Chanhassen, Minnesotan Dean Saufferer that being “young, hip, energetic, pierced, on top of the latest trends and music, a skater/snowboarder, knowing the lingo, etc., only gets you in the front door. It only provides the surface level relationship. Thats the kind of stuff that makes a puppy cute or drives women crazy around a baby.” Saufferer knows that students want someone who cares, whos real, likes to be around them, and can relate to them without pretending to be someone they are not.
Gray-goateed Bernie Bannin, in transit to Virginia Beach, notes the challenge in what he calls a push-me-pull-you relationship between his age and experience. “My years of experience help me to relate better,” he said, “while my age produces thinking patterns that are decidedly not youthy. I have to deliberate about keeping from fossilizing in my thinking.”
One of the challenges Jim Graham, 45-year-old youth minister in Phoenix, Arizona, sees for the over 30 youth minister is his relationship with the senior pastor and other staff. “I do not want to be the pastor, but I really want to be part of the leadership team that makes decisions that influence the whole church body. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how old or experienced I am; the youth minister is still a ‘junior staff’ position.”
Kelly Neider, 42, was 29 before starting her faith journey. She’d made pretty scary choices that now comprise her testimony in public schools, as well as to the street kids who grace her youth ministry in North Branch, Minnesota. She knows her charred past makes her approachable to students struggling in the same areas. “All the education in the world can never supersede life experience,” Neider said. She feels strongly that young youth workers – especially those raised in Christian homes – should study up on unfamiliar areas of addiction, eating disorders, the effects of crystal meth and other drugs, along with abuse behaviors, like self-mutilation.
One of the obvious challenges is that physically, we just can’t hang like we used to. Neider timelined it for most of us: “At 20 you can stay up all night, at 30 you only need an hour right before clean up and for me at 40 I have to bring someone else in ‘cause I have to go to bed so I can function at all the next day.”
Graham agrees:“The older I get the more I need my day off to rest and recover from the demands of ministry with active teenagers.”
An obvious but undervalued challenge is the family factor.
“My age brings more family responsibilities,” says Cory Goetz, 32, who youth pastors in Austin, Minnesota. “I have two sons (2 and 4) who were not in the picture eight years ago. This makes me balance my time a lot more and forces me to recruit others to be ‘hang-out buddies’.” Urbnet’s 31 year old National Coordinator and family man, Christopher Brooks quips, “I now have my kids, and my other kids.”
I heard a speaker say one of the tragedies in youth ministry is that just when youth ministers are getting good, confident, and some experience and wisdom under their belt, the emotional demands and financial pressure of raising a family can push them out youth ministry. Some churches end up losing great youth pastors because of demanding a single-no-children availability (even singles resent that), still paying them on a new pastor’s salary, or both.
Continuing to show sympathy in the midst of what students perceive as crisis is another test for GROUP Publishing’s Ah Ha Architect Fred Whaples, 36. After 16 years, he admits that teen drama wears on him. "The constant ‘my life is in an urgent crisis’ when it is nothing more than they wore two different color socks is really hard on me as I get older - knowing that in the same group kids are facing divorce and even suicide.”
Yet none of these spiteful provocations is bullying any of us out of youth ministry.
The advantages far outweigh those challenges.
I recently remarked to someone that the nice thing about being older is, “I don’t have as much to prove as I did in my twenties. The older I get the smaller my ego gets.” Not that I don’t have one; internal security just comes with experience and walking longer with Jesus. Humbling ministry related bruises don’t hurt either. This means being more confident and less prone to prove myself to peers, much less students. At 48, Carmichael, California president of Piece-of-the-Pie Ministries SteveCasehas been at this over half his life — 28 years. He echoes, “It’s not so much about me and my ego any longer. I’ve done enough good things that didn’t really make a difference in the long run. And, I’ve been in the midst of enough miracles to know that God isn’t as dependent on me as I thought He was when I was younger.”
Vince Beresford splits his 36 year old time between being youth pastor and professor of leadership and youth ministry at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He thinks what makes him good at youth ministry (besides his hip humor — did I say ‘hip’?) is that he’s less caught up in the hype and trends of youth ministry and more focused on life change in his students. “Fun is still fun,” he said. “Maturity is just knowing when to be silly and when to be serious.” Spoken like a true scholar (who doubles as a youth pastor). “I tell everyone that I was promoted up to youth ministry after being a senior pastor.”
Graham believes he is at an age and stage where he has confidence in his understanding of effective student ministry and who he is in the leadership mix. “The Lord has walked me through a lot of challenges in the last 20 years, so I think my heart is more focused on him than it was when everything was new and ‘performance’ brought satisfaction. Today I have a lot more pleasure in sharing leadership with my team and equipping others to do ministry. I also enjoy being seen as more of a father/friend than the ‘cool youth minister’ (though I doubt I ever was) because it feels more influential in the deeper issues of spiritual life.”
Brynn Harms, 36, ministers about 40 miles outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota. He admits being pretty green in his twenties, still trying to figure out who he was and what he believed. “Now I have such a great grasp on my faith and what I want out of life.” He knows kids see him more as a leader or parent-type. “I couldnt have had that when I was younger. When you are 22 years old they like to look at you as their buddy.” He used to think everything had to be about cheese pizza and running around cones in the parking lot. “Now I realize that kids need structure and depth.”
Many of us are not just seen as parents; we are parents. I always felt that being a youth worker would make me a better parent. But being a parent has also made me a better youth worker – and a more humble one. Bobby Loukinen, 36, youth pastors in Little Falls, Minnesota. Just being close to the age of most parents in his youth ministry helps him relate to them much better. “I’m not seen as this young kid with whom they cant trust their child with because Ill do something stupid or crazy to impress the group or try to be funny,” he said.
Over-thirty youth workers and their pastors should recognize their value beyond tenure. Like Neider, 14 year youth ministry vet Scotty Gibbons, 33, of Ozark, Missouri, believes one of the greatest assets to youth leaders with more experience in life is the perspective they bring to the ministry. “Books are great, colleges are wonderful, seminars helpful, but nothing teaches you and develops you like experience in life; and experience is something that simply takes time.” Gibbons feels this experience translates into a perspective on family, ministry, life, etc. that is impossible to possess until you’ve personally walked through some things. “It comes with 13 years of failures and successes in hundreds of events, sermons, and counseling sessions that help shape the way you approach the future. The older you get you have to learn to work smarter rather than harder. When you are younger the energy and enthusiasm can cover a multitude of mental miscalculations.”
Case notes what we all see eventually, “When young people want to be cool, they look for someone else to hang around rather than me. When they want acceptance or approval or want to delve into something deep, they look for me…they realize that their peers or those just slightly older probably don’t know anything more than they do.” Beresford adds, “I have discovered the older I get, the better and more effective God allows me to be, [and to] influence youth and their families. I pray that more and more godly men and women would answer the call to full time youth ministry as a life long, professional vocation that is worth investing your life in!”
“I am more and more convinced that youth ministry is nothing like it was just five years ago,” says Graham. “The needs are greater, the issues are deeper, and the heartbreaks are harder. The ministry must be more intentional, the preparation more intensive, and the relationships more intimate to make a real difference. The good thing is that the more difficult the ministry environment, the more the power and love of God shine through.”
I don’t continue in youth ministry because it “keeps me young” or “gives me a platform”. Those little vanity-boosters are like vitamins — you have to have them regularly in order to maintain the effect. But unlike vitamins, after a while, the effect feeds your sin nature, not your spiritual gifts. If serving students isn’t really in your heart, you can only keep up an “I really like teenagers” front for so long, when in truth you’re just not sure where you fit in community ministry. But when it is what’s in your heart to do, the platform serves God’s purposes and staying “young” isn’t a half-bad by-product.
We read in 1 Corinthians 4:15 that Paul was concerned about the lack of “fathers.” Other places in Scripture encourage the older to teach the younger. Like in the NBA, being over thirty in youth ministry is exceptional if you’re getting the job done.