Did you know that the average tenure of a youth pastor is somewhere around 9 months? My friend Mike Dodge, with Canterbury Youth Services tracked the ministry of youth pastors for several years in New Zealand and he verified this statistic. It doesn’t take a rocket science to look at that number and think there must be some sort of a problem in the system.
If you invest in young people as a parent or youth leader, if you are a youth pastor or know a youth pastor, then this article is for you. I could suggest many reasons why youth pastors and youth workers on average don’t last very long in ministry, but I would rather approach this from a more positive angle. Young people in every culture and every city need committed leaders to pursue them with the Gospel. We can’t afford to avoid the topic of sustainability in youth ministry because it is one of student ministry’s greatest threats.
The great news is that from my experience of working with many dynamic youth workers there are some leaders who bust this statistic to pieces. Who are they? And what is their secret?
Long-lasting youth workers understand that sustainability and longevity in student ministry is fueled by framing every aspect of one’s ministry under the covering of grace, not works. When you remain under the covering of grace you discover a secret: that our reward is relationships. If we wander outside of that covering of grace, then we start working for the wrong rewards: to be noticed, to gain significance, to feel powerful, or to be recognized for our efforts. Youthworkers who get outside of the covering of grace are vulnerable, and end up drying up. So I encourage youth workers to stop wandering out there in the scorching heat of works-based serving, and come in under the shade! It’s nice under here.
Youth workers who have a lasting impact, are men and women who understand that their reward for serving young people is simply a deeper and more intimate relationship with Jesus. That’s it.
The secret of longevity is knowing that your reward is the relationships: A deeper relationship with God, and life-long relationships with the young people you empower.
YOUR REWARD IS RELATIONSHIPS
What keeps you going at it season after season in student ministry? Listen to the words God spoke to Abraham as he sent him off into an epic mission to be a light to the nations. This is what Abraham needed to hear:
I am your shield, your very great reward. (Genesis 15:1)
Don’t miss the tectonic spiritual quake beneath that simple blessing God spoke to Abraham.
I was recently talking over Skype with a student ministry leader in Europe and I was humbled by the incredible resilience he and his family have to serve young people day in and day out. They rarely get thanked, and so many young people in their midst who have incredible leadership potential refuse to commit and take the responsibility of leadership on their own shoulders. But my friend just keeps serving, investing, and praying that these students will one day step up. I was struck by our conversation that what keeps my friend and his family going is that their reward is deeper intimacy with Jesus. There is no other reward that could possibly fuel the kind of commitment I see in them. Their reward is their connection with Jesus, and the blessing of lots of relationships with people who are in the process of encountering Jesus themselves.
It is not a coincidence that the Bible begins and ends with other-worldly language about rewards. At the beginning of the Bible, God fuels Abraham’s imagination with that unforgettable phrase: “I am your shield, your very great reward.”And at the end of the Bible Jesus speaks this cosmic blessing on his church:
Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city… (Revelation 22:12-14)
Our ultimate reward is that we get to enter the gates of the city to be under his sovereign loving care. Our reward is relationship. Anything else that Jesus may bestow upon us as rewards will pale in comparison to the ultimate reward of a deep, connected relationship with him.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF REWARD WILL PROTECT YOU FROM GETTING BURNED OUT
Abraham was looking forward to a reward that was God himself. And for us, knowing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit more and more intimately is our reward too. Abraham and Sarah are a living parable. They went to extremes to be a light to the nations. They left home and traveled to a distant land. They never owned anything but lived in tents as a nomads on other people’s land. Sarah lived with a barren womb most of her life. Abraham was commanded to offer up his first born son to demonstrate his loyalty to God. Yet, they seemed to fully embrace the life God had for them, and because of it, where were rewarded with relationships. They knew God and loved him immensely. And they had more descendants than the stars of the sky or the sand on the seashore.
The reason Abraham is a living parable is because it is the life that he lived over the course of decades that actually teaches us about our reward. It is very significant that Abraham was not given ANY earthly reward during his life (he never owned any land which was the ancient symbol of blessing). As a living parable, Abraham is a model to help all generations of Believers understand that he was living not for earthly reward but for a growing relationship with God as his reward: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)
As new creations in Christ, through the work of the Spirit we too are becoming living parables – we are not to live for earthly reward, but for a growing, deeply connected relationship with Jesus. This is the proper motivation for ministry. Having an attitude that your relationship with Jesus is your reward gives you longevity and sustainability to serve in ministry. You won’t burn out with that kind of attitude. You might need a rest, but you won’t burn out.
LEADERS WHO LAST FOCUS ON IMPACT, NOT ACTIVITY
This attitude that your reward is relationships will help you properly measure your ministry by impact, not by activity (which burns people out). Think for a moment of the implication of this one simple truth that your reward is not earthly, but your reward is relationship. If you believe this, then you will be free to do good works out of love for God, not obligation to him. That makes all of the difference. Consider these two implications that may radically change your thinking and set you on a course of greater longevity in ministry:
- Because of what Jesus did on the cross, even though you are not obligated to repay God in any way, you can serve him freely and do every good work for him. (Remember, if we were obligated, the cross would be emptied of its power. May that never be!)
- And even though God is not obligated to reward you at all, he gives you every spiritual blessing in Christ. Whatever believers achieve for God’s glory in this life is rewarded for it: Your reward is a close, deeply connected relationship with God! (see Ephesians 1:3)