Signs that you should back away from a church’s youth ministry position

Churches ripping off kids and youth pastorsIt’s really starting to anger me to hear so many stories from youth pastors about how their unhealthy, sick and twisted churches beat them until they drop out of ministry. Way too many churches have no business hiring a youth director. Seriously! They have ridiculous expectations with full-time salary packages that rival part-time pay at McDonalds. It’s no wonder their youth workers leave the ministry: they’re overworked and undervalued at church, financially stressed at home, and trying to maintain a healthy personal life that’s not manipulated and sabotaged by “ministry responsibilities.”

Granted, some of the issues are self-inflicted because the youth worker accepted the position in the first place, which probably means one of three things:

1. The youth worker didn’t do their homework about the church before accepting the position and was thus naively blindsided.
2. The youth worker saw the warning signs, but was impatient for a job and brushed off the yellow flags.
3. The church’s leadership changed since the youth worker first accepted the position and now they’re in a situation that could not have been foreseen.

In case you’re in the first category, here are some warning signs to know if you’re interviewing with an unhealthy church. Hearing any of these statements from a church be should reason for caution and further investigation.

Thanks to the other trusted youth workers who collaboratively helped me write this on Google Wave last week! The following list is a joint effort of me, Adam McLane, Ryan Nielson, Chris Day, Mike Kupferer, Adam Lehman, Roy Probus, and Brian Senecal. Thanks, guys!

1. Yeah, we have our vision statement written down somewhere. Hold on, let us find it and we’ll get back to you.
Translation: We’re not really sure what our vision is because it’s just something that’s written on a paper. The real vision that we actually function by is mostly unspoken rules, so we use the generic and poorly defined, “Love God, love people,” or “To make disciples” kind of jargon. (Hint: See chapter 4 in the book, “It: How churches and leaders can get it and keep it,” by Craig Groeschel.)

2. We don’t have a job description for the youth pastor.
Translation: We don’t really want to define what your role is here because we’re not really sure what we want you to do except for keep us happy. We like to have the freedom to keep you guessing as you default to a performance/numbers driven ministry.

3. We are a very friendly, loving church.
Translation: Our church is a very close(d) group of friends. (Hint: C’mon, not every church can be as loving as they say they are.)

4. You’ll have total freedom and support to build the youth ministry that you envision.
Translation: We would really like you to feel that way because we want to make a good first impression on you, but you’ll really only have freedom and support if we decide we like what you’re doing.

5. The salary might not look good on paper, but there are many other benefits to this job than money.
Translation: We’ll expect full-time hours from a slightly inflated part-time salary because you’re working for God, not for man, and your reward will be in heaven. Since this is your holy calling, you can’t say no, so we feel like we can get by cheap and thereby put undue financial strain on your family.

6. Will your wife lead a small group of girls?
Translation: We’re looking for a youth pastor whose wife will serve just as diligently as the paid guy. We want two for the price of one. (Hint: Make it clear from the very beginning that the church is hiring you, not your spouse. If he/she serves in the youth ministry, it’s with the same expectations and as any other church member.)

7. The position is part-time right now, but it will be full-time soon.
Translation: We can’t afford a full time guy nor do we yet see the need for 40 hours a week, but if we hire you and you bring in lots of new tithers, maybe we could do it then. (Hint: This never happens.)

8. From sr. pastor, “I don’t want to micromanage you – I just want you to do your job.”
Translation: I’m not really sure what your job is nor a vision of what it should look like. (Hint: Although many pastors say this with good intentions, you should still talk about it with other staff members confidentially.)

9. Are you an outreach guy or a discipleship guy?
Translation: Our last guy was too heavy in one area and we want to swing the pendulum back too far the other direction so we can complain about how the previous guy was better at it than you. (Hint: Biblically, you cannot separate evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism is the first step of becoming a disciple and witnessing should be an ongoing practice for any growing believer. The two go hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other.)

10. How do you address the teen drop-out rate from church?
Translation: Bad youth ministry is the reason teens are dropping out from church and we want to make sure you fix these kids so parents don’t have to deal with their spirituality at home.

11. We need a decision quickly.
Translation: We’re feeling pressure to get someone on board fast because, frankly, our youth ministry isn’t strong enough to survive on its own. Families might leave the church if we don’t get a youth pastor fast. If God is really calling you somewhere, we don’t need you to pray about it for too long, even though that probably tells you a lot about our church’s leadership.

12. Our old youth pastor this… Our old youth pastor that… How would you handle _____ because he handled it _____ way?
Translation: Since we’re willing to compare you to the old guy face-to-face, that means we’ll be willing to do the same behind your back. And since we’re publicly negative about him, we’ll probably handle you the same way. (Hint: It’s always a good idea to ask for the contact info of the previous youth pastor and talk to him or her. If the church isn’t willing to provide that contact for you, quickly check them off your list.)

13. We’ve had three bad youth pastors over the past three years.
Translation: Sure, you’ll get a “bad apple” youth pastor once in a while, but I’ll tell you how bad they really were because I don’t want it to be too obvious that the problem was really with the sr. pastor and church’s leadership doing a poor job of guiding and caring for our youth workers. The bad pattern must be with the youth workers we’ve hired, not with us.

14. We will interview you first, and if we have time you can ask us two or three questions.
Translation: It’s more important that we get to know all about you than it is for you to get to know all about us. You’re in the hot seat here, not us.

15. From sr. pastor, “This is my church. I run my church. Welcome to my church.” And other repeated usage of the phrase, “my church.”
Translation: I have a distorted view of ecclesiology and am assuming way too much control and power over this congregation. I will function more like a dictator than a ministry partner because my personal identity is wrapped up in this congregation.

16. What was your salary at your previous jobs?
Translation: “How little can you live on? If you’re used to working with cheap churches, we’ll be happy to follow suit.” (Hint: Your question to them should be, “Since you live here, how much do you live on?” Check what the local school district salary range is for a teacher with your level of experience and expect the church’s salary package to be competitive.)

What else?
We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas of other common yellow flag phrases and translations one might hear when interviewing for a youth ministry position. Continue this list by posting them in the comments below. Thanks!

[ UPDATE: ] If you or your church are struggling with job expectations, vision, what a youth ministry should look like, how it should function, and more, you definitely need to read, “Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors: A church leaders guide to staffing and leading youth pastors,” by Mark Riddle. It’s written for sr. pastors and has discussion questions after each chapter, so it’s perfect for sparking dialog with your church’s leadership about your position. It’s also a must-read for search committees before they hire someone.

YouthWorker MagazinePlease help support the youth ministry mentorship, the Online Missions Trip, and by subscribing to YouthWorker Journal. Get your FREE no-risk trial issue of YouthWorker Journal today, the best in youth ministry resources!

Posted on October 20, 2009

  • Posts like this is why your blog is so invaluable to the youth ministry community. These couple of lines ring especially true:

    "They have ridiculous expectations with full-time salary packages that rival part-time pay at McDonalds. It’s no wonder their youth workers leave the ministry: they’re overworked and undervalued at church, financially stressed at home, and trying to maintain a healthy personal life that’s not manipulated and sabotaged by 'ministry responsibilities.'"

    I'm bookmarking this one for future reference. I've seen the same thing happen over and over again in peer's lives. I don't want to fall into the same trap. Thanks Tim!

    • Thanks, Shawn! This post wasn't just my effort, though. The guys mentioned at the beginning definitely have their mark on this, too.

  • I totally agree with most of this list. Especially 6, 12, and 15.
    However 3, 4, and 8 seem pretty cynical. We're supposed to be leery of churches that say they are friendly and loving? Granted, it'd be refreshing to hear someone say, "We're petty and selfish, but we're trying." But that would still be a yellow flag.
    4 & 8 both describe the situation I walked into and, praise Jesus, it turned out to be true! Yes, saying that they want you to build your own ministry may often be lip-service, but the alternative is that they tell you up front they plan to run your ministry… and THAT should have you running for the hills.
    So to recap, great list and great points. But it's dangerous to assume that churches aren't being genuine, it'll make you paranoid.

    • Yes, you're absolutely right. Some churches can say something like 4 and 8 and it could be totally true — that's why these are yellow flags, not red flags. These phrases are ones that should be investigated further with caution, as mentioned in the beginning of the post, rather than being blindly accepted.

  • Gies

    I think many churches take advantage of potential ministers b/c they are young and lack experience. I know quite a few people that have never had anything but a part-time job until they take a ministry position. They really don't know how to spot the deception b/c of their lack of experience and a strong desire to trust the "committee." You couple that with the fact that many of the adults who hire are very experienced and know how to play the game and make the job seem much better than it is.

    But, even when the church is not trying to take advantage of a youth worker it still happens. Many times the church is asking the person to do something he/she is not qualified to do. To McDonald's credit they don't put a 20 year-old (who is in college and has no real career history) in charge of 15 people, thousands of $$ worth of equipment, and responsible for 10-100 people and a budget. Instead, McD's starts them small and intentionally trains them to do what a manager does. I'm not sure it is fair to say to a youth worker, "hey you have never done anything like this before so why don't you do it well without any training. We also want you to deal with adults who are your parents age like they are your peers. Oh, and btw, we are going to expect you to do everything like you have done many times before…"

    • I don't think there's any church out there who intentionally wants to take advantage of youth workers. I believe they all have good intentions that are just poorly executed and covered with the overtones of the values and personalities of their congregation that they don't see because they're so used to it.

  • Wow, its like you've been in my some of my interviews in the past! All of the churches I've been at exhibited a few of these signs, and those should be yellow flags. I would upgrade #'s 1, 2, 6, 7, 11, and 13 to "Red Flags" because those are clear indicators of what kind of a church it is.
    I have to laugh at #11 though because one church I interviewed at invited me to the church "just to check us out." 5 minutes before the service, they tell me that they're going to have a vote to affirm me as the new youth minister (news to me!) and they even asked my wife if she'd like to sing for that service! Then on top of that, they hadn't informed the church about the vote, and so the vote came and they were supposed to have 75% and only had like 71%, and said, "Thats good enough, when can you start?" Needless to say, I RAN from that church.
    BTW, I'd be interested in hearing an article on what to do if you're leadership changes and how to handle a situation in that. I had a local youth minister friend at my house in tears today because of how they've been treated, and of course I've been down that road as well. Its disheartening to see churches abuse good people who are doing great work for the kingdom because of stupidity and sin (on the part of leadership).

  • Tim thanks for letting have input into this post. It came out great. Re-reading everything I'm still going, "Really? Some churches do things like this?" No wonder we have the reputation of being smug and arrogant – to know some of us have been through these things first hand and to know this is still a problem in some churches today.

    • Yeah, not all churches do this — some a great (like mine!).

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  • AKR

    I am never going to find a job . . . and I couldn't even name all the things I have faced in my search for a youth ministry position. I've seen all of these over and over, plus more. Questions about being female, about being single, and the way churches have treated me in the process. Twice I have been a final candidate and have found out by way of their website I wasn't chosen before I was contacted personally. I am frustrated and about ready to give up!

    • I hear ya, ARK! Sorry it's been such a frustrating road for you. Keep persevering, though. It's worth it in the long run to be at the right church rather than being at the first church that offers (or doesn't offer) you a job.

    • Tony

      Well you are a woman, and the office of "pastor" is designated for men sooo…..

    • Gies

      Don't give up. I was the second pick on like 5 or 6 jobs before I found one that went through.

    • My advice, forget about the call and focus on the one who called you. I went through a whole lot before God put me in my place of "vocational ministry." There was a series of very significant pains in my life but at some point I learned to focus on God. I'm not perfect in it, but I am far more stable in my relationship with Him now. It is good because in ministry things have been far from perfect. I am my worst critic. I have a great Senior Pastor but the church is in the middle of a church split. I have the only ministry in the church that is growing, but I judge myself harshly that other areas aren't doing well.

      Even in the worst days I find solace in knowing that I was following God when He put me here and the circumstances that surround my arrival are confirmation. I know I am where I am suppose to be. Any "normal" process might leave me wondering if I took the job because it was available to me over it being entrusted to me by God.

      That is why it is important to forget the call and focus on the one who is calling. He will call you into the right place. When you are there you will know He placed you and not your own efforts.

  • Great post guys! At some point in time I have experienced these moments for myself or heard them from other YP's.

  • Tim,

    I posted a resonse to this article on my blog. I appreciate the time and collaboration on this, but I did want to offer up a different perspective on several of the points. Thanks for your ministry and support for student pastors everywhere.

    • Thanks, Joe. I'm guessing you and I may be having very different conversations with youth workers, but I still appreciate your input, most of which I agree with. It sounds like you have had positive experiences with churches overall, which is great! Consider yourself blessed.

    • Correction: changed blog to Sorry for the confusion!

  • GHZ

    Number 13 is a good point to raise. I am YP number 7 in like 6 years or something. I didn't ask the right questions going in either. What do you do when you are hired for one situation and it turns out to be totally false what they told you it was like, (like there are 100 kids, and when you show up there are 3?) and the SR.P is living in a dream world and doesn't even talk to you? Thanks.

  • PJWong

    is your office named "jerk"?

  • PJWong

    2,5,6 and 7 resonate with my area and many churches. I'm blessed to be in a church that is functioning well and treating staff great. 12 and 13 really scare me as i have been connected with churches that expect that their next pastor or youth pastor will be the long awaited messiah, only to set unbarable expections and crucify them within the next 2 years.

    the good churches are out there! they're not perfect, but i've been a part of one at least.

  • I am blessed – and I have had my own fair share of ministering in churches that weren't exactly thrilled about student ministry or student ministers. The difference though, was the attitude and confidence that the Lord led me there, and knowing that he desires to sharpen me through the difficult times.

    I think that attitude and the leading of the Holy Spirit to stay or go may be missing from this post. Jesus sent his disciples into the storm…

    Thanks again,


  • No doubt a youth leader should know there's a sense of calling to a local church, but I think the bigger, more clear calling, is the one to ministry. A couple years ago my wife and I were given the opportunity to be at the church we're currently at or serve in a different part of the country with a different ministry. Both were equally great opportunities and I think the Lord would have blessed us either way. If we had gone the other route, I don't feel we would've strayed from God's calling or His will for our lives.

    But the thing I want to make clear are the youth pastors who say, "I feel God is calling me to this church," as a spiritualized excuse for accepting a position that pays $25k/year for 50 hours a week. You're right that there's something to be said for stepping out in faith, but there's also something to be said for having wisdom.

  • Great post as always Tim. I have dealt with these issues for my self and in counseling youth pastors/workers who have been burnt themselves.

    I agree with Joe on the point "I think that attitude and the leading of the Holy Spirit to stay or go may be missing from this post. Jesus sent his disciples into the storm…"
    I know this isn't what your post is about, but do think that these flags as you said early are just 'yellow' ones. they should make you
    pray some more and get ready for a ride! I am at church that has great room for growth and kingdom building…but man is there some UNHEALTHY stuff going on. I know God has called me her to help in being a 'prophet' calling the church, staff, and congregation back to the heartbeat of God and what that heartbeat needs to look like in the community. This is a community working not just Brit saving the day and can only be done by and through God!

    I think the conversation needs to be addressed on two sides. one the employer (church, staff, parents) as to the expectations and true responsibility (also thinking the theological concepts of a youth minister/worker/pastor needs to be rethought so as to properly define and understand the job description) but also the employee needs a greater understanding of their call. This again goes into defining youth ministry, but you are called to help a broken world, broken staff, broken ministry, broken young adult and adult lives to journey with you in your brokenness towards God's love. That doesn't mean adding to that brokenness by leaving when you get pooped on time to time, or when things aren't going your way. the 18 month turn over rate for youth ministry is really sad and scary and shows a lack of commitment and vision for God and his Kingdom. I say that also knowing that there are some times when you need to get the heck out of there because what is needing to be done, you are not called to participate in…

    UGH again great post Tim, always more deeper pressing issues at hand than a go or don't go i thinkxD

  • Yeah, they're called yellow flags, not red flags. Some of these questions/statements could be legitimate, but they should all causes you to press a bit further and do some homework.

    Indeed, the issue does need to be addressed from both sides. I think Mark Riddle's book that's linked in the post does a good job at that, and is much cheaper than bringing in a third-party consultant.

    And this post isn't intended for people who are already committed at a church — it's for those who are interviewing and in the church search process. If you're already employed at a church, I definitely agree that these are not excuses to just pick up and leave.

  • Absolutely agree. I don't advocate that we all go-a-storm-hunting for the sake of character building – (my first paying job as a youth pastor offered me $25K for 50 hours a week how did you know this?!) But I knew the Lord was leading me there…and it was a very difficult, yet amazing time…But I do understand your point.

  • lol! I didn't know, I just used that as an example because I know a guy in that situation. He's got kids and a wife at home to support, too. Sheesh. Although he says he felt totally called to the position back when he started, I'm wondering if he mistook "calling" for "this job sounds so cool!"

  • I love the idea of this post. In my first two youth ministry positions, I did not do my homework, and while I had positive experiences in both churches, I was caught off guard by some things that I could have discovered through just a little research and some good questions before I came on staff. I think most of us (as evidenced by the number of comments on this article) have some war wounds (and funny stories as well)!

    What I would like to see as a follow up post to this is "How to search and interview for a youth ministry position in the spirit of humble discernment." As has been mentioned already in the comments, not all of the warning signs are fair. For the record, I believe that numbers 3, 4, 8, and 10 could go either way, depending on how healthy the church is. In addition, I have been in a situation where it was hoped that the hours would go from 10 hours a week to 20 hours a week to full time, and I was indeed full time within 18 months. I realize that my experience was by far in the minority; my point is that these warning signs should be interpreted in light of the health of the particular ministry and congregation. I would like to see some thoughts on how to make sure that the interview process does what (ideally) it's supposed to: facilitate discernment (for both parties involved) on what God is doing and whether he is calling the youth pastor and church to partner together. To avoid writing a comment longer than the original post, I'll give one great piece of advice a seminary professor gave me: make reference checks on the church. It's okay to call some people you trust who know about the church (sometimes easier in a stronger denominational structure) and ask what they think. I didn't uncover anything surprising about my current church when I did this before my candidate weekend, but I did come up with some good questions to ask the senior pastor and the search team.

    Thanks for covering such an important topic!

  • brian

    "the 18 month turn over rate for youth ministry…"

    Where do you get that stat from?

  • would love to work with you on a posting on how to communicate change when you are in the midst. This is a great preemptive post, but what do you do when in the midst? I have some ideas from working over seas and doing church consultation with Y4C & young-life ministries over there trying to make an impact and to create positions with in the church for youth workers.

    there is a great need to know how to communicate to a pastor, expectations and desires for change and how to go about that. anyways again…not what this post is intended for. But as usual thought provoking and great reminder to those entering into ministry

  • Tony

    Funny how some people are immature in their responses. Thanks for that.

  • Its found in GroupPublishing statistics, Youth Specialties, BarnaRearch, Christian Smith, Mark Yaconilli spoke on it as well. It is a rough estimate of how long a lot of youth ministers are in one place. Since moving to CO and doing ministry, I'm not sure how valid that is with in the Lutheran Church, but Non-denom and some Baptist churches i've worked with and helped in ministry it seems relatively close.

  • Yeah, that stat is pretty old, and even when it first came out, the turnover is due mostly to churches paying very low, hiring part-time people who transition to other stages in life (like getting married), and hiring college kids who graduate after a couple years, not due to churches being so bad.

    I think the most recent one I heard was closer to 5 or 6 years. Dunno where I heard that, though.

  • I was actually just thinking about a follow-up to this. Wanna write a guest post? Guidelines here.

  • Yeah, I agree some of these could go either way. They're just mentioned to serve as a reminder that, "This is a question/statement you should look into further," with a possible translation.

    A good follow-up post to this is a good idea. I'll start to work toward that…

  • yeah there are tons of factors that go into the time frame… sorry barna, but thats why i don't trust tons of their stats.

  • I'm totally up for that. currently working on Leadership series on my blog from Nehemiah, but would love to take the time to write out some thoughts about how to address issues with staff and pastors.

  • Cory

    #17 If your church leadership rejects scripture with direct boldness… RUN FOR THE HILLS!!! It is so sad that so many of our church families have degraded into poorly managed businesses that don't even let God be the boss. I dream of a place where those that know Christ's teachings the best are actually used for their knowledge and skills, not as meat for hire, to be dispensed of at any whim…

  • Woah. tons of comments. i think you've hit a nerve.

    More and more youth workers I talk to are sick and tired of their positions. Some more thought needs to be aimed towards this….

  • Tim,

    GoogleWave is awesome…and this post KILLED IT… in a good way!

    I was a youth pastor for 3 years. REALLY wish I had that list ahead of time! I'm printing this for my next job search.

    What are your thoughts on forwarding this to every church who's currently hiring?!

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  • While I agree that there are many bad situations, and more than that these are some things to watch out for, I think it misses a really important point.

    If we are following God then we can find joy in the worst of circumstances. I don't mean the kind of joy we often think of, but joy as God intended. Absolute contentment not always looking to other places and wishing we were there instead.

    Yes most churches do not pay much and expect … rather need significant work. Yes sometimes your Youth will be paid better in their first job, especially when you figure out the hourly. Yes there may be obstacles and heart ache, but I believe that the worst problems come from taking our eyes off of God.

    This list is painful to read because it is so cynical. Maybe it is intended sarcastically. I could see that as being funny, but it isn't presented that way and the responses seem to be taking this seriously.

    Yes go in with your eyes open. Yes ask questions and look for warnings that things might be difficult, but spend more time in prayer before making a decision. God can confirm your call to a place in no uncertain terms. It is this confirmation that will carry through the rough spots.

    I think of Paul when he was preparing to leave Ephesus and the prophecy came that he would be facing imprisonment if he went back to Jerusalem. Paul knew it was coming. They freakin' tied him up as part of the prophecy! He chose to go knowing how bad it would be and much of our Bible comes from that choice. His time in jail gave us three of the most important books for Pastors. Most scholars believe that Luke and Acts were written because of it. This is substantial and based on seeing the warnings but going forward. I believe Paul endured times of depression but carried through.

    I'm afraid our self interests get between us and God. I believe out comfort stops us from greatness. I believe that we can walk from glory to glory, but only by spending more time on our face before the throne.

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  • Donny

    I read the list on this blog while in search of answers to the question of being attacked by people in your church. After reading the list I honestly can say that the church I work for full time fits 10 of the 16 items listed, some of them nearly word for word. So, my question is what do now that I find myself in this position? I moved my wife and kids 5hr away to a job that we thought was going to be amazing but is turning out horrible. I am a 31 year old first time youth pastor. I feel like this might have been my one shot at this and I jumped the gun. Now we are in it. Any advice would be great.

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