Which Type of Youth Worker Is Best?
By James Racine
There are three basic types of youth workers: the Lifer, the Migrant, and the Volunteer. Each of these types carries a unique strength and a critical weakness. Like an ol’ fashioned game of rock-paper-scissors, each youth worker type has an edge in some ministry situations but a disadvantage in others.
If you have been to one of the large youth conferences, you know the ceremonial moment when the speaker asks everyone to stand up, and then slowly invites people to sit down who have been in ministry for less than two years, then three, then five, then ten. Eventually the only person left standing is a Gandalf lookalike who has been in ministry for more than 50 years. He’s a Lifer, blessed with that uncanny ability to weather the storms of church drama, politics, and cultural fads. He’s seen and done it all, and his experience has transformed him into a stalwart bastion of youth ministry competence.
However, Lifers have one fatal flaw: comfort. In and of itself, comfort is not morally wrong, per se. But it can make a person soft. The “koosh” life of tenured youth workers can lead to redundancy (they tend to fall back on the same illustrations and stories), lethargy (the little things just don’t excite them like they used to), and a gravitational pull toward matters that don’t matter (that same soapbox they bring up every Wednesday night, whether it’s relevant or not).
“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first!” (Rev. 2:4).
The second type of youth pastor, the Migrant, has his or her eyes set on becoming a senior pastor, a family pastor, or the next Bill Hybels or Joyce Meyers. They may be doing great things in their current youth ministry position, but in truth, they’re just passing through. At their best, they are ambitious entrepreneurs, eager to grow their own personal leadership. They’re eager to do their best and make a good impression. That means they’ll try new things, activities and events with the potential to change lives. Their talks are energized with the passion and excitement that comes from a motivation for ministry success.
But at their worst, these Migrants can be stage-hungry, obsessed with growing their social media followers, and ultimately looking for their call up to the majors. You can see why they receive flak from Lifers, who watch as churches cycle through one Migrant after another. This constant turnover can have detrimental effects on students and the ministry, if it’s not handled with care. Migrants prove that passion for ministry and passion for a specific ministry aren’t the same thing. Yet, for a season, these potentially dynamic leaders can infuse more passion, energy, and creativity into the community than other youth worker types.
“The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:11–12).
The third type of youth worker is the Volunteer. These are the individuals who woke up one day as the church’s appointed “youth guy” or “youth gal” and are still wondering how they got there. Their names and contact information are on the website, announcement slides, and bulletins—everywhere but the payroll. It’s hard to question their dedication. Most are in it for the sheer love of students and the desire to serve Jesus. Unlike the Lifer, who all too often falls into complacency, the volunteer has a crucial edge on other clergy: they aren’t motivated by a paycheck, which makes them resilient to stagnancy, cynicism, and apathy.
But before you drain the youth worker’s salary from the budget, remember that Volunteers generally lack the formal training and seminary education that Migrants so eagerly seek, as well as the confidence that comes from them. They likely have little sway in major church decisions. And even if they’re 100 percent committed to the ministry, they probably lack the time and energy that full-time paid youth workers have. Thankfully, not all training is formal. By working with a reliable mentor (say, a Lifer), Volunteers can build confidence and ability over time.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).