Friday, July 25, 2008

    How Do You Leave a Youth Ministry?

    As some of you know, I've recently said goodbye to one of the two churches I was serving and have taken a full-time position at the other church. This shift necessitated my saying goodbye to a youth ministry program that I've been serving for the past five years and to some youth that I've literally seen grow up right in front of me. All this came at a time of great transition for the church and the youth program: the senior minister and the other associate minister had both resigned in the past year for professional and personal reasons. Additionally, a young couple who had been working with the youth for years announced that with the immenient arrival of their first child, they would have to step out of the youth program. I knew this would be a lot for the youth to process at a time in their lives when we hope that church and youth group might offer some stability to the chaos of adolescence. With all that in mind, I offer just a few thoughts on how to leave a youth ministry program in a way that is healthy and positive for all involved:

    1) Don't rush things. Youth will go through a lot of emotions when a mentor announces it's time to move on: sadness, anger, denial, possibly even a sense of betrayal (And don't forget joy and relief. Admit it! Some of the teens never liked you to begin with!). Youth need time to figure out what this transition means for them and their group. They need time to try to talk you out of it (even though they know it won't help). They need time to imagine what happens next. So, waiting until the last possible minute to announce your leaving isn't a good idea. In fact, I would advocate making certain that, outside of the church board or personnel folk, your youth are the first to know that you're leaving. And if possible, tell them in person!

    2) Honor the past, affirm the future. Provide opportunities to remember the growing experiences you have had together. Have a party and celebrate the end of an era. But then, make space to prepare youth and leaders for what is to come. If there is to be some lag between your leaving and the next youth minister's arrival, help the group develop a calendar of activities that they will feel comfortable facilitating in the interim. As the time comes closer for you to leave, begin stepping out of leadership and encouraging the other adult leaders to step into that void. Assure youth that the church will work hard to find a new caring youth pastor to mentor them -- a pastor who will have different gifts than you and these gifts will help to take the youth program into new and exciting areas and challenges. I was fortunate enough to know who my replacement was going to be so I took every effort to share with the youth that she is smart, talented, much younger than me (so likely more willing to do lock-ins!) and she can play the guitar (a skill I've never picked up so the youth were forced to put up with my acapella song-leading!).

    3) Leave a Message in a Bottle. As you are packing up your office, your files, your photos, your can of Silly String, remember that the goal is not to erase all evidence that you were ever there. Provide your successor with some sense of what happened before he or she arrived. Perhaps prepare copies of your past months or year's activities. Leave a list of the church youth with some basic descriptive information about their level of participation, family situation, and ongoing pastoral needs. Describe some of the yearly traditions and events of the ministry so the new pastor can consider whether these are things they want to continue or not. Finally, consider leaving behind a personal letter encouraging your successor and inviting them to contact you if they have questions (such as "Who has been providing dinners for the group? What happens if I park in the senior minister's parking space? What is behind that door with the sign that says "Never, Never go in here!")

    4) When it's over, it's over. The ethical standards that I agreed to at my ordination clearly state that when I leave a ministry I cease to be a pastor to that church and its members. After years with a youth group, this can be difficult. It means cutting the umbilical cord, in a sense, so that the youth can make room in their lives for something new. In my last official gathering with our group (which occurred during our mission trip), I explained that I was going to have to put distance between us as I was not going to be their youth minister any more. This meant no more regular messages back and forth on Facebook or email, no calls seeking help with personal issues, no joining them for a movie or ice cream after youth group. I explained that this didn't mean I loved them any less -- it was just time for me to move on and for them to make space for their new pastor. After a pause to take all this in, one of the girls in the group said, "So, does this mean we are breaking up?" We all laughed and I said, "Yeah, in a way. We are breaking up. But we will always be friends!"

    Ultimately, the truest evidence of a good "goodbye" is that the ministry continues on just fine without you and even goes places you were never able to take it!
    --Brian

    20 comments:

    St. Brianstine said...

    You know what sucks is that most of the kids leave when their youth minister leaves...they need to know that Jesus is their pastor and shepherd, not a man.

    Brian said...

    That is an excellent point. Too many times a ministry becomes centered on personalities rather than focused on Christ.

    alaina said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    alaina said...

    blessing and peace to you and both congregations as transitions are never succinct.
    Grace is work beyond our hand. Praise God

    Joey C said...

    This is really hard. I live in a small town and am in ministry and I have witnessed 2 youth pastors leave in the last 6 months. I think you have it wrong with the idea that you MUST break free to allow room for another pastor to come in. Kids have built bonds with you... they want to know you are still there even though you are gone onto something else in your own life. Do friendships end when you move? When you start a new career?

    Are the kids your friends or simply people you are taking 'care' of?

    Pastor Marvin Nelson said...

    I agree with Joey C. I think there are some kids I would definitely keep in contact with if I were to leave. Just as I would keep in contact with them if they went off to college. When Paul left Timothy he didn't just leave him hanging, he wrote him letters o encouragement...I think we should do the same. Of course leaving room for the new guy to get into their lives, but to drop them all together seems a little un-needed

    Luke said...

    If you firmly believe that youth ministry is Kingdom work then you cannot agree that completely separating yourself from a former youth group is the right course of action. I left a group 2 years ago and I am still in contact with a few kinds from that group. Actually yesterday i went and took these two brothers from the group golfing, since i have left they stopped going to church and youth, i am the only connection they have left with any ministry. I cannot abandon these kids, they need to know God still loves them, and right now i am the only link in there lives that is showing them that, no matter if they are part of my current youth group or not.

    Tre Lawrence said...

    Sensitive post. Love it.

    It is hard to get the continuity when one leaves...

    Love what Brian said, too. We do get caught up in every who but the REAL ONE sometimes.

    Brian said...

    Greetings all. I've been out of town for a week so not sure if anyone is still monitoring this post but wanted to follow-up. I appreciate each of your responses and certainly hear the concerns you raise and they are valid. The real issue here is one of boundaries. As much as I love the youth I serve, I don't think of them as friends. I am their pastor and they are part of my congregation. I know not all youth pastors would see it this way, but I suppose as I get older the boundaries become clearer to me between the youth and the role I play as their pastor (not unlike the role between teacher and student, perhaps?)

    I don't see a problem in keeping some cursory contact with youth whom you have connected with as a spiritual mentor (and if no new mentor is provided, it might make complete sense to continue contact with particular youth) with one important caveat: Allow some time to pass. With the new youth minister on board at my old church, I'm backing way off for awhile and giving them some room to step in and get started. Otherwise, some of the kids will never warm up to the new pastor. I speak from experience on this, having seen it go bad at other churches when the old youth pastor continued to interact with the kids "behind the scenes," often undermining the work of the new pastor. Yes, there are pastors and youth directors out there who get so connected to the youth they will, intentionally or not, sabotage the changes and programs the new pastor is trying to bring about.

    That said, I have certainly maintained some contact with a few youth from previous churches, often reconnecting with them once they enter college or some other important stage in life. Sometimes we find each other over Facebook or we just keep tabs on each other through mutual friends at the church. There are no hard and fast rules here, but I find it does help to remind myself that I'm not the end-all-be-all of spiritual mentors and, given time and space, youth will find wisdom, nuture, challenge, and spiritual guidance in others besides me. Peace to all! Brian

    Jason said...

    I have a problem with cutting the cord too. I think that you and the new guy should be able to communicate. we are on the same team right and we should be lifting each other up right. When a student continues to have a "relationship" with you once you leave that is ok. Jesus did cut the cord when he went to heaven. If there are concerns you can convey that to the new youth pastor and you guys should be able to get along and help each other in making it a GODLY transition. Too many times in church youth pastors leave on a bad note or because something bad has happened. If it fails after you leave then that is your fault. You have built a ministry that can't function without you and that is not a biblical model. I say never cut the cord so to speak. Christian brothers and sisters in accountability is what we need. America sure needs some Christians to take a stand together.

    Tolee said...

    I'm not sure what I think about this. I left the church that I grew up in (served about 11 years) and survived 4 youth pastors. I wanted to go somewhere else that offered more for me since my only connection was the youth group and my demographic peer group was non-existent there. I was upfront with the youth pastors about my desire to look elsewhere. When I left I was told that I was the most faithful leader and was welcome back if I felt God leading me there. A month later, I was ostracized for hanging out with kids on occasion and was told by the youth pastor "I wonder if you'll be able to commit to another group" and when asked if I could come visit the following semester, "What would your reason be for doing so?" I'm sorry, but it's hard when the leadership that stays is inept and insensitive. The group takes on the mindset of it's leader and even though there's hard feelings in leaving, God gave me a better group to work with. So I guess it worked out in the end.

    Living for the Light said...

    I don't "like" the idea of cutting the cord, but the I think if you read what Brian says he is giving a wise lesson to us. Time is needed and while you can be a resource for a new youth pastor that should only be at their discretion, not yours. If you can't take that step away to allow students to connect to the person God has called to be their youth pastor then there is an issue there. Let's not forget the Christ made it clear that the work He was sent to do (the cross and spreading the Good News) was more important than His family. Not something many of us "like" but that doesn't make it untrue.

    But reconnecting and checking in after a time away is an excellent idea. It is important to encourage those who separate from the church when you leave to return to it or seek Christian community somewhere.

    Jeffery said...

    Yeah that is silly to say you must always break ties. There is a difference between keeping in touch and being available to kids and interjecting your personality into a ministry that is not yours anymore.

    Spiminarian said...

    I am about to leave my job as youth minister after serving only 8 months. It feels awkward, because the youth and I haven't gotten terribly close yet, and I feel like I'm giving up before I had a chance to prove I could do something. But in the end, the church wasn't a good fit for me and I had to leave before I got even more miserable.

    Thanks so much for this blog and all the helpful advice you give. I hope to use it at my next church!

    BJones said...

    I know this post is old, so I'm not sure if I will get any response, or if anyone will end up reading this.

    I am in the process of leave the church I am working with right now. I was the interim youth pastor for a year and have seen the direct effects of the previous youth pastor not cutting the ties. When I started there was a lot of hurt feeling from the high school youth that the person that they thought was going to be their youth pastor was no longer going to be there. It made it very difficult for me to connect to the kids. The worst part was that he was a member of the church and continued going on Sunday mornings. They high schoolers would see him on Sunday morning in the fellowship hall and go and talk to hime instead of talking to me.

    We had a beach trip event this summer for the high schoolers and the only people that went were the rising 9th graders even though it was the older high schoolers that asked for the trip. Later I find out from pictures on Facebook that all the older high schoolers did have a trip to the beach this summer with the old youth pastor.

    If you dont cut ties, to an extent, it completely hinders your successor from getting into these kids lives.

    I like what Brian says when you have to make room for the next person that comes in.

    Be Blessed,

    Bryan

    Brian Kirk said...

    Bryan, thanks so much for sharing your story. You illustrate exactly what problems can arise if we don't maintain clear boundaries around this issue. I think it would be completely fair for you to raise this issue with your senior pastor and ask his or her advice. It's always difficult to fill the shoes when you follow a beloved leader...It's even more difficult to fill them if the old youth pastor never really took them off and they are still walking around in them at the church! If no one is willing to help your predecessor set proper boundaries, it may very well be that you will need to put your energies into the younger youth and work on helping them develop a healthier approach to ministry. Thanks again for sharing.

    MattKat Schwind said...

    Hmm, I am about to announce that I am leaving to my Youth Group tonight. It has only been a year but it has been a monumental year to say the least, since they've never had a Youth Director before... However, I think we all need to step back and not give ourselves so much credit, we are just the hands and feet of Christ... It is Christ that has worked through us to reach these kids and we need to trust in God that He is putting someone in place to work with these kids. Sometimes we need to move over and let that transition happen, if a youth reaches out, point them back to their Youth Director or Pastor. The worst thing that could happen would be to undermine the ministry that is trying to take place and even best intentions can do that. We are there for a purpose just as the next person is, it's time for a new chapter. On another note, I don't think its appropriate to be hanging out with youth/minors after you are no longer their Youth Director. Call me paranoid but it crosses way too many lines in my book.

    Brian Kirk said...

    Lots of wisdom there, Matt. I couldn't agree with you more.

    Kristian Wassam said...

    This blogpost was very helpful. You had mentioned not to wait until the last minute to tell them you're moving. Ideally, how much time would be good to give them?

    Misty Schmidt said...

    I agree. When my husband and I came to this youth group it was extremely hard to connect because the kids were still texting and skyping the old youth pastor. He would come into town and have parties with the kids or play basketball with them. He even sent them a group text during a youth group lesson. The kids couldn't warm up to us as long as he filled that spot in their lives.