Longevity on Youth Ministry - A True Experience

While the tenure for a Minister to Students is increasing, it still is shocking to most people to hear that I am “STILL” at the church that called me in 1988. So many people believe the disproven statistic that Student Ministers only serve on average 2.5 years before moving that when I confirm I am still there, I am usually met with a look of bewilderment more appropriate for an encounter with E.T. However, when I look at my contemporaries in youth ministry that are at their 3rd or 4th church or are not in vocational ministry at all anymore, I sometimes feel the same way. Part of me feels like it happened overnight. Part of me also feels like I have been here my whole life. The latter is actually more accurate. When we moved here, my wife and I had only been married 3 ½ years, our son was a little over a year old and our daughter wasn’t at all yet! She is now a college sophomore. Not a single kid in my current youth group was even born when I started and some of their parents were middle school students in my group. When I go to a gathering of youth workers, those my age in full-time vocational ministry are usually hard to find. Yes, sometimes I feel like an old man. At other times I feel like the youngest guy around.

For many reasons longevity ministers like I still have to “prove ourselves” even more to the “young guns” of youth ministry. Yet there are some real blessings to longevity. One of them is you realize that substance, not your personality, needs to be the first level of your ministry built on the Rock of Jesus Christ.

While this is generally true for most ministers, there are times for many when they are younger to build their ministries on their personality and their ability to draw in students. One of the reasons given for the short stay for many student ministers is that they have a “packaged ministry” that is good for 2 to 3 years at most. When all of the elements have been used, it is time to move on. If you stay in one place for a long time, you HAVE to continually search to be fresh and of substance or you will not be ministering.

 

When you serve one church for a long time, parents are no longer as much of an adversary as they can be when you are a young minister. This is especially true as I have survived parenting my own children through the “youth group years” and am now seen as a much more credible resource to parents. The trust level from the parents also increases with time. One summer when I was approaching 40 and feeling old, one of my students told me (while working in an AIDS orphanage in Thailand) “It’s a good thing you are older, my parents would have never let me come here with a young minister.” It is an even bigger blessing when the parents you are working with are former students in whom you can see God at work. It is humbling and challenging to have a former student say, “You were used of God in a mighty way in my life. I am so excited about my own children having that opportunity!”

One of the greatest blessings of longevity (or maybe just age) is that you begin to realize your limitations and make better use of resources. Sometimes this comes because you do a better job of self-evaluation. Sometimes it is because people have known you long enough to help you evaluate how you work. These people can help you recognize when you are doing a task best left to others. They may say “you are working out of your element, let me do this for you so you can stick to what you do best” without your feelings being hurt or you getting upset with them. Early on in ministry, some of us often feel we have to “do it all” ourselves in order to be that impressive minister we think the church called. Hopefully if you work at this long enough, you will begin to work smarter and accomplish more than you ever did by trying to do it all by yourself.

You HAVE to continue to grow and improve if you are to stay at a church long term and do EFFECTIVE ministry. This helps you to become a better person. While too often we focus on “image,” it is important to carefully examine what type of image you project. One of the dangerous things people do in a marriage is get too comfortable and no longer take care of themselves. Their manners, attitude, and even physical looks often take an ugly turn when they feel they no longer have to impress their mate. When you have been at a church for a while, there is the danger of feeling that you no longer need to be impressive but can rest on your track record. Or because you have faithfully served for so long and most people really love you. If you continue to be “attractive” to your church by paying attention to the details, doing your best in each ministry endeavor, and taking the best care of yourself that you can, you will not only do even greater ministry, you will also improve your quality of life.

I have fallen into that trap before. Although I would never have said, or even thought it, my behavior showed from time to time that I rested on past successes. At the time I truly did not realize I was doing this. This was especially true about 18 months ago. I probably felt that by being at the church so long, having given them so much of my life, and because I had been there during the tough times that my job should be a little easier during these good times in the church. I just thought that my experience, programming, and presence were enough for ministry success. When forced to evaluate the job I was doing, I thought about it and realized the church deserved more than what I was giving. I was still working hard, but I was too unfocused and was doing what I WANTED to do more than what I was CALLED to do. I also realized that the church could probably get a “young gun” to come in and do a better job than I was doing for less compensation, I had to ask if I was being the best steward of the resources of the church I love. However, I did not feel called to leave. I was broken. In that brokeness I allowed Christ to make me into a new minister. I truly believe I am doing better ministry now than at any other time in the 30 years I have served Christ through serving students. To combine the raw enthusiasm that you have as a new minister with the experience of knowing the people, schools, community, students, parents, church leadership, etc. makes for awesome ministry that blesses you and makes you feel young again! My passion for this calling has returned.

I am now taking better care of myself spiritually and physically. I rely upon Christ now more than ever. My quiet times aren’t just something to do each day, as if I were following a checklist. They are an awesome time with my Savior! I realized the need to be in better shape to handle the rigors of youth ministry as well as to be a better witness and have changed my lifestyle. To now be 50 pounds lighter and in great shape makes a good life even better. Plus, I get more done in every area of my life!

Being in the same church for over 20 years is not without difficulties. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with staff turnover. I am currently serving with my third senior pastor. There has been comparable turnover among my fellow ministerial staff members in the church. All staff members have been extremely different people. Some have been easier to work with then others. However, I believe that all of these other staffers were called to the church just as I was and until the calling for one of us changed, I needed to find a way work with them. I found that as you experience staff changes, especially with your senior pastor, you need to be an asset to him and not a liability. I am sure it can be intimidating to “inherit” a minister who has been at the church for a while. If that minister uses those years of service to help the new pastor minister at his best, it helps everyone and increases the kingdom.

Despite my attempts to prevent problems, some of the transitions have been difficult. When a pastor or staff member came in with whom there were great personality differences, it was a lesson in patience and grace for both of us. When staff changes occurred under negative conditions, it produced new challenges. It is great when you can be used of God to help a church heal and get through a negative staff turnover, but it can be awful when you are going through that process. That is one of the many reasons I am thankful for a wife who is a constant in strength, love and openness to the leadership of the Holy Spirit to be used of God to help me through these tough times. Sometimes I have her pray with me about specifics and sometimes I feel it is best to keep some of the messy details to myself so she can worship without knowing all of the ugliness behind the scenes. Churches need someone to be a steady constant reminder that God is in control. If you love a body of believers long enough, you can be that reminder.

The greatest challenge probably comes when trying to follow God’s leadership in determining if it is time to move to a new area of ministry. Sometimes difficulties in your church or ministry will cause you to wonder if God is using them to call you elsewhere. Sometimes, it is in times of celebration, such as your 20th anniversary in a church which cause you to ask “have I done all that I have been called to do here?” Others may ask you these questions as well and it can be hard to discern God’s voice among all of the chatter. I believe it is important to prayerfully consider where God has called you on a regular basis. There have been times, especially when our church was under difficult leadership that “bigger and better” churches called me and wanted me to be their new Minister to Students. By all counts, this would seem to be God screaming to me “it is time to move on”. However, after long hours on my knees in prayer (and my wife doing the same) we truly felt it was not God’s call. We often came to this conclusion with great tears, personally wanting out of this situation very badly, but fully believing it was not God’s will. Usually these times were followed with great times of God working through us and in us. There have been times when we have felt pressure from individuals or groups to move on and become a “real” minister (senior pastor) or to just move on. These were the times when after much prayer we truly felt the call of God to stay where we were. These times were often followed by God pointing out where I needed to be a more effective minister and making a new man out of me.

Staying in one place for a long time is awesome if that is what God has called you to do. To have the incredible blessing of investing a huge portion of your ministry career in one place, long enough to see the results on a new generation is great. It can also be a little depressing from time to time as you think “I really thought we would be much different church by now”. All in all, it is worth it. Will I be here for a short while longer or a decade or two more? Only God knows for sure. What I do know is that I want to treat each day as a new day of ministry. I want to invest in students. I want to invest in a community for which my heart hurts to see God bust loose and change. I want to do my best at all times and be the type of valued minister that if the church was calling a new one, they would want to call me. That is hard to do for 20 years, and I haven’t always done it in the past. However, I commit to doing it in the future wherever God allows me to serve and for as long as He sees fit.

Brian Farmer is the Associate Pastor/Minister to students at the First Baptist Church of Salisbury, NC, and has been since January of 1988. He also leads workshops and conferences for youth ministry. He is married to Betsy who has served with him the entire time. They have two children in college (Josh and Michelle). They truly believe the best is yet to come! He can be reached at brianatfbcsalisbury.org.