Mentoring and discipleship were established as the norm when I started following Jesus as a junior in high school. My youth pastor, church, and youth leaders made me believe Christians did it as part of their DNA. A general call to ministry led me to seminary, but I thought this passion for mentoring and discipling young people would turn into a specific “call” by the time I graduated. It hadn’t, but I still found myself moving hundreds of miles to take a youth pastor position because it made sense and seemed to be an to answer to prayer.
Knowing the reality of the high turnover rate for youth pastors, I thought I was tough and could outlast the usual expiration date.
Soon after arriving, I learned the history of the place and that I was youth pastor #5 in the last 10 years (I still thought I could beat the statistics). The mostly empty drawers of my new desk only contained a bit of paperwork from 1995 (before the students were even born) so outside of budget information, I was starting from scratch. I also faced leftover emotions from some students due to the circumstances of the previous youth pastor’s departure. Within four months, I was burned out. After a few meetings with the senior pastor, we worked on a plan to develop the ministry. I realized I needed to set into motion some things I wished existed when I arrived.
About nine months in, my husband was offered an appointment as pastor to three small churches, so I had a few months to prepare to leave well. By this time, I was completely burned out but still cared about the students and the wonderful adults I had met. Since we know the reality of the longevity of youth pastors (or lack thereof), we need to be prepared for our exit. Outside of the basics of budgets and calendars, there are small bits of information we accumulate that could save time and energy for the next leader. Take time to include reasons for various events and programs, and insert notes on what you inherited and new things you added since the group being served often doesn’t know the original intentions. Your situation is likely different and this isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s a place to start. Here are a few things to consider as you begin and before you go:
1) Collect the history
With multiple oral histories, make a timeline of events and leadership. Take note of people’s emotions as they share pieces of the past, as you will find this says just as much about them as it does about the history of the place. Find out the names and character of previous youth ministers and pastors (note weaknesses and strengths). The people are the history of the place. Write it down or type it out. Just make sure it’s transferable. The patterns of the community can help reveal what has happened there and benefit when casting a vision. Listen well and use a high level of discernment. Even when being intentional about gathering information, I received a brochure in my mailbox with a name never mentioned before. This prompted a conversation with the office manager who had to think for a moment before telling me about a youth pastor who served for 3 months, a few years ago. In that short period of time, though no deep impact was made, it still said something about the environment of the place. And, when collectively added to all the other information, it spoke deeply about the place, people, and ministry. Do your best to include your experiences on the timeline because you are another voice your successor may not have easy access to in the future.
2) Start with a couple of goals (tangible and intangible)
After understanding a few areas of growth, I went to work on some easy, tangible changes that would demonstrate an obvious difference. While a youth ministry shouldn’t ever be designed around one person’s personality or abilities, there are definitely some “staples” you will find yourself passionate about which should be pursued. In the realm of discipleship, I wanted to see mentor triads and small groups. I knew the fruit wouldn’t be immediate, but went to work. Getting to preach one Sunday allowed me to begin the recruitment of mentors, inviting those interested to attend a couple exploratory training sessions. With some basic guidelines for safety and purpose, the groups began meeting. Even if this didn’t continue after my departure, folks got a taste for mentoring and could see how important it is within the church community. Students also got more connected to the larger church and witnessed a handful of adults investing tangibly in them. I didn’t get to see my big dream of small groups meeting in homes come to fruition, but I smuggled it into discussions often and planted the seed among adults and students.
3) Establish an organizational system (if there isn’t one)
Before my departure was set, the pastor and I had several home meetings over dessert with the youth families. We talked about how the parents had to get more involved and tried to understand their gifts, interests, and what mattered to them. After the meetings, I worked on creating a binder system. There were seven binders for various parts of the ministry: Food, Discipleship/Education, Off-Campus Events (keep brochures that come in the mail; they tell what your group has done or could do), On-Campus Events, Administration (the master binder), etc. Each binder included all the details I could collect for that part of the ministry. The Food Binder contained which events required food, foods the kids liked, schedules, details for larger events, and when to start preparing for each part, like when and who to recruit to help and when to order things. After events, I added notes for what worked and what should change.
4) Say goodbye
Whether you’re good at them or not, give an opportunity for closure. Do what you can to not end on bad terms with the staff and church body. That is probably the most obvious thing, but it seems necessary to say since it seems that enough youth pastors don’t leave well or let emotions get the best of them. Consult a mentor to get through this! Also, while it’s not healthy to walk around ready to leave, it’s likely, so be prepared. Each student will need space to deal with his or her emotions. Help them say goodbye and try to prepare them for the next stages of the ministry. Some of the kids may or may not stay in touch with you. If they do, be sure it’s healthy and respectful of the next season of the ministry. If you can’t handle that, you may need to cut ties. Often, in youth ministry, some of these students will transition from disciples to friends, which is great, but put the student and their spiritual growth first.
What do you wish was in place as you begin or began a new ministry position? What advice would you give someone on his or her way out of a ministry position? What do you do to help your successor move forward after you leave? How do you prepare volunteers for the transition?