I’m going to try this again; yesterday I wrote a blog post, used some undependable stats, and ultimately, distracted readers from the point I was actually trying to make, which is that longevity brings deeper perspective and awareness of the long term impact of student ministry programs.
There are tremendous benefits to longevity in youth ministry; both in regards to total ministry experience, as well as long tenures in one church. It brings stability, deeper roots in the church, greater depth of relationships, and a host of other benefits. For me, somewhere around my sixth year at my current church, and going forward, I have really begun to see a lot of changes in my perspective and attitudes about student ministry.
In 2016, Barna and Youth Specialties teamed up to release The State of Youth Ministry, a fascinating look into the world of American student ministries. Based on their research, they found that the average youth pastor is at his or her church for just over five years (p.55). The graph below reflects youth pastor tenures currently throughout the US (p.56):
They did note that 39% were in their first three years at a church, reflecting a “plurality [that] moves on within three years” (p.56). There are a lot of variables that can factor into that percentage, and it is only a portion of the broader youth ministry field. What I find myself wrestling with is the challenge for myself, and youth pastors in general, to plant deep roots into my/their churches and congregations long enough to really see the rewards in longevity, as well as some of the deeper perspectives that help youth ministry as a whole that come with being in a place long enough to see multiple groups of students move through the entire program, into college, adulthood and beyond. On the flip side, the challenge is also for churches to have the long term vision to keep staff in place long enough to see these benefits.
I was at my first church for two years. I saw the program double in attendance in my time there. It was exciting and validating. I was at my second church for just over five years. I started with less than five middle school students; five years later I had seen almost every teen in our region come through our doors at some point and felt my influence was rooted both in the church and the community. These are meant as boasts, rather, to contrast my changing opinions on what success looks like.
Honestly, I’ve heard the statistics over the incredibly large drop off in faith from students graduating from church, heading off to college, and essentially graduating from the faith. And for the most part, I assumed that was a problem with other churches.
I’ve been at my current church for nine years this month. That’s long enough for many teens to have not only graduated from our program, but to have also graduated from college, start careers, marriages and families. I actually do believe that we have seen a higher percentage of graduates maintain faith after graduation, but I’ve seen a lot of students disappear. Too many. And on the one hand I’ve read the articles pointing out that many do ultimately return to faith in their 30’s, I would still prefer to see them not wander to begin with.
Nine years of watching students fade away begins to add up. It is a sobering thing to see. It has made me question a lot of things I used to assume were effective. What good does it do if we can pack out an all-nighter if we’ve lost the connection a few years later?
Research by people like Christian Smith, Kenda Creasy Dean, Kara Powell, Chap Clark, and others, all point to the same thing; one of the most critical ingredients in long term faith is being plugged into the larger church. It’s why in recent years we have shifted so much of our focus at Brandywine Valley Baptist Church to make it easier for families to attend worship services together, to serve together, to grow in faith together. I’m hopeful to see the payoff to these changes in the years to come.
Which brings me back to my point; to me, one of the critical benefits of youth ministry longevity is seeing and feeling first hand the weight of this need. With each year it brings a deeper sense of priority to the big picture of ministry. A youth leader needs to be in one place long enough to see the long term results of the approach their church is taking with adolescents if there is going to be any kind of change in this trend of losing young people after graduation. I think that 9% of youth pastors who have been in the same place for twelve years or more represent volumes of experience and insight all of us could benefit from.