I’m a 53-year-old youth pastor. Most of the jokes at our youth ministry involve my baldness. I’m glad to give the students an easy target for their underdeveloped, juvenile sense of humor. Considering that our 19-year-old worship leader looks like a cross between Fabio and Samson, making fun of me for my high-gloss sheen is not that difficult.
I don’t know the medical reason for my hair loss, but I know the spiritual one: I’ve been in youth ministry for nearly 30 years. Thirty years of ministry takes a toll on anyone’s head, and heart.
Youth ministry is my life’s calling. I’m blessed to be at a church that values youth ministry, and I love what I do. But it hasn’t been easy, and it isn’t getting easier. The challenges of our culture make it increasingly hard to sustain a life dedicated to the local church. Ministry of any kind is difficult, draining and discouraging. It is harder than ever to stay the course.
Whether you are a youth pastor, lead pastor, or in some other type of ministry position, how can you pursue longevity in ministry? There are no easy answers to that question, but here are a few things that have been helpful to me along the way.
1. PACE YOURSELF
When I first started, I was teaching two or three times a week, leading middle and high school groups, serving as a leader for the church in many capacities, and parenting three active boys at home. Ten years later, I was tired and losing steam. I could no longer sustain that pace. Fortunately, the church allowed me to hire some staff. I no longer attend every event, teach every week, or go on all retreats. I am no longer out three or four nights a week.
We have times when we can go full throttle, perhaps even long seasons of sustained energy. But the sooner we learn to pace ourselves – to find ways to streamline, delegate, or even shed responsibilities – the better chance we have to keep going longer. It’s not lazy; it’s strategic and wise.
2. REINVENT YOURSELF
The stereotypical youth pastor is young and cool – the king of dodgeball, lock-ins and video games. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not who I am anymore. I referee the dodgeball game, I refuse to do lock-ins, and I haven’t played a video game since Michael Vick was on the cover of Madden. I let younger leaders provide the cool factor. I provide the Dad factor. Now more than ever, our students could use another one of those in their life.
Whatever role you play, be willing to change how you do it. Let yourself morph for the better. Don’t be a 50-year-old trying to be 30, and don’t think what worked when you were 30 will work today. Become the person your ministry needs now, not the one you’ve always been.
3. IMPROVE YOURSELF
Recently, I started doing something new. After announcements and before worship, I tell a brief story which relates to what I’m about to teach. It’s a teaser – like the scenes in TV shows before they roll the opening credits and theme song. It grabs everyone’s attention. I just started doing this a month ago and it has been a powerful addition to my teaching.
There is always something new to try or learn. Read books about things other than ministry. Listen to podcasts that aren’t sermons. Pay attention to culture. Read novels and watch movies. Fill your mind with stories, illustrations, and discussion points. We can always improve, always be better, always learn something new.
4. BE GOOD TO YOURSELF
I used to think part of being a good youth pastor was roughing it on every trip. Eat Taco Bell to save money. Take the worst bunk. Drink gas station coffee.
This summer I was on a trip with students and one of the kids in my room had a skin condition that caused him to itch incessantly. He couldn’t help it, but I couldn’t sleep. I got my own room.
Now, I spend a little extra of the church’s money to eat a decent meal instead of Burger King. I make sure I have good coffee and a good night’s sleep. These are small things, but they are worth it. I can’t be an effective youth pastor with no sleep or no caffeine. At my age – after hundreds of nights away with kids – I have nothing left to prove.
Treat yourself in small ways so that you are healthy, alert, happy and rested. There’s no shame in it, and little to be gained from always being a martyr.
5. SURROUND YOURSELF
We need to have friends outside our ministry circle.
In 2005, we started a network of local youth pastors from a variety of churches. It took time to get people to buy in (pastors are so naturally suspicious), but eventually it picked up steam. For 14 years now, we’ve met nearly every month to pray for our students and families. These people are some of my best friends. Over the years we have encouraged each other through leadership trials, tragedies, and family struggles. We’ve spent weekends together swapping stories and sharing ideas. I could not have survived all these years without these comrades in the faith.
Wherever you are and whatever role you are in, please seek out friends not from your church who do what you do. We need people we can be honest with, who understand us, who have no agenda but to pray for and encourage us. We need friends outside our church to provide clear-minded counsel and unconditional love so that we can keep going.
I hope you can outlive your hair and discover the enormous blessings of longevity in ministry.