Longtime youth leaders stress listening, caring
After nearly 25 years of ministering to youth, the Rev. Steve Keaton doesn't worry about being cool anymore.
"I am not trying to be somebody I'm not," the lead youth pastor at Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said. "I don't play guitar, and I don't wear Toms. I think now I have embraced the fact that I am the old guy."
Longtime youth ministers say they don't have to be in their 20s to connect with today's youth. They don't have to keep up with the latest technology or trends. They just have to show their students they love them, invest in them and show them Christ.
"Youth culture changes every two seconds, and you are never going to keep up with it," said the Rev. Walt Marcum, a youth minister for 35 years. "I would rather keep up with the kids than the culture."
At 67, Marcum can still win over a crowd of young people. He said it is about being honest, open and gentle.
"If you try to understand them as much as you can, they respond to that in every decade," he said.
Why stay in youth ministry?
Marcum didn't start his career as a full-time youth minister. His first appointment was leading a small congregation at the First United Methodist Church in Heath, Texas, where he also had to start a youth group. Early on, however, he fell in love with young people and felt God was calling him to be a full-time youth minister.
"That is just never done," he said. "For many people, that is considered a step down. To me, I felt that is where God has called me."
Marcum never regretted his decision. He has served for the past 24 years at Highland Park United Methodist Church, Dallas. About nine years ago, he transitioned into a supervisory role at the mega-church with a membership of about 15,000.
Keaton, 45, served as a Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer for five years before God called him to youth ministry. He will be ordained next year.
At 59, Dara Bell is semi-retired. Until her position was eliminated two years ago, she was director of youth ministries for the New Mexico Conference. She began her career in youth ministry as a 19-year-old volunteer and went on to serve at St. John's United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
She said most longtime youth leaders wonder how they made it through the physical struggles and emotional hurdles, "but there was something there that wouldn't let us go. There was something that wouldn't let us walk away from it."
Longtime youth leaders say working with young people keeps them young, but it can also be draining.
"Youth ministry is the most intense, time-consuming and emotional ministry of the church," Keaton said. "You are walking with students through adolescence. They come in as children, and they leave as young adults."
He said it is the youth minister's job to help youth develop a relationship with Christ and prepare them for the world.
"You get connected with them, and they leave," Keaton said. "It is really hard saying goodbye to the kids. I do five or six weddings a year of kids that used to be in my program."
Overall, the youth leaders say the best part of the job is mentoring youth and seeing some follow their example by becoming pastors and youth directors.
Have youth changed?
Longtime youth ministers agree that, no matter the decade, kids are kids.
"They are still ridiculously hormonal," Keaton said. "They are still going to try to get away with all they can. They still want to have a good time. Our students want to have fun even if the work is hard. Even if it's something that doesn't look fun, students always try to find a way to make it fun."
Even though, they all seem to want to grow up, they all really "want to be Peter Pan," he said. That resonates with Keaton, who thinks today's youth face more pressures then they did 20 years ago. They are always looking toward the future.
Students are involved in more scheduled activities, and more than ever, they feel the pressure of getting good grades and getting into a good college. Inside the church, youth leaders must schedule more outings and mission trips for today's socially conscious teenagers.
"Youth today are savvy, and they are smart," Keaton said.
Because of the changes, Bell said youth leaders have to be intentional in their ministries. If their students are busy, they need to go to them when they can – go to their concerts and sporting events.
Youth ministry has changed in terms of the literature and websites available for continuing education, she said. Churches must be more vigilant about having adult chaperones for retreats, conducting background checks and obtaining references for adults working with youth.
More women have entered the ministry in the last 30 years as well, Bell said.
The biggest challenges
Youth work is labor intensive with the evening gatherings, lock-ins, retreats and mission trips involved, Marcum said, and most youth workers burn out within two years because they don't take time for themselves.
It is rare for youth leaders to remain in that position past their 20s due to the demands and the changes that typically take place in their lives, such as getting married and having children.
"All of these kids think you walk on water," Keaton said. "All of these (young youth ministers) pour their lives into it, and it isn't their peer group."
Youth ministers must have a life outside of the church, or they will not make it, he said.
Marcum said youth leaders have to pace themselves and learn to say "no" sometimes.
Bell said the biggest challenge now is financial. Churches do not have the budgets they once had, which causes many to cut youth ministers from full time to part time and, sometimes, to a volunteer basis.
Youth leadership is often considered a stepping-stone, the longtime ministers say, as youth ministry is tiring and doesn't pay as much as other positions.
Advice for new leaders
Continuing education is important, Bell said. "You don't know it all."
To be successful, youth leaders must be "extremely relational. That means being a part of students' lives beyond Sunday night," Keaton said. "However, sometimes you have to put yourself and your family first."
"Don't neglect your spiritual life," Bell said. "If you do, you are not going to be able to take care of students spiritually."
Marcum said young leaders face a "learning curve" and cannot give up too quickly.
"If you stick it out, it will get easier," he said. "If you love God and love kids, everything else is negotiable.
"I think, over the years, most people I know who left youth ministry didn't leave because they didn't love kids or stopped loving God," Marcum said. "They left because they didn't feel like they got the support they needed."
Erin Edgemon is a freelance writer in Montgomery, Alabama.
Field Guide Network
Veteran youth and young adult leaders share their expertise with newer youth workers through the Field Guide Network, a service of Young People's Ministries. The network lets newer youth workers select a guide to work with them to address particular areas of ministry. Learn more about the guides in the "Go On/Go Beyond" insert or through a visit to fieldguideumc.org.