The Unwritten Rule of Ministry Advancement

A few days ago, as we were reflecting on previous church ministry experiences, I looked at Kayla and immediately started laughing.

“Why was I ever a youth pastor. Teenagers and I don't mesh well – then or now!”

As a young 20-something I had the desire to serve the local church, and I was confident that it was God’s plan for my life. In a conversation with our former lead pastor, I told him I would “do anything” because I just wanted to serve.

Shortly after a youth pastor position opened at the church -- so naturally I was a good fit. I was eager to serve, I was young, and if I took it ... I could be paid.

Done, done and done.

What transpired over the next couple of years was a result of a person serving out of need and not passion.

This car ride of reflection got me thinking of the unwritten stages of ministry advancement. In the church world, we’ve created a path of advancement, "or rule," without even knowing it.

Stage 1: You attend some discipleship program or Bible/secular college.

Stage 2: Graduation – you intern or apply to a small church as a kids or youth pastor. For the advanced you could be a worship pastor – not just a worship assistant.

Stage 3: You stay at Church No. 1 for approximately three years before applying to Church No. 2. Church No. 2 is slightly larger and you think life will be “better” there.

Stage 4: At Church No. 2, you start finding your ministry niche’. You’re still a youth, kids, or worship pastor (if they don’t call you “leader” instead of pastor at this point). You’re in this stage around five years.

Stage 5: You’re now almost 30. Uh oh! Better become a lead pastor now. With eight years of experience, you become the lead pastor of a church.

Stage 6: A couple years go by and it’s more difficult then you dreamed of ministry being. You apply to a different church, or worse, you get burned out and quit. Or, you stay there running on fumes with the hope that one day Jesus will supernaturally change the people’s hearts and the church will grow.

I’ll stop there. I hope you know I’m being slightly facetious. Unfortunately, the pattern of these stages are (give or take) a common reality in our church ministry world.

Now, like any career path advancement and personal growth is essential and needed. After all, a 21-year-old fresh out of Insert Church Name Discipleship Program isn’t going to be a lead pastor of a 20,000-person church or the National Youth Director.

However, in our quest as leaders to find our niche’ and advancement opportunities we can forget the damaging effect it has not only on the local churches before us but on us as ministers who make efforts to truly live a life of mission.

It’s crucial to become comfortable in our own skin. I can’t recall how many times people have cringed when they heard of a 50-year-old youth pastor. When the initial shock factor rolls away, the next thought occurs: “They never wanted to pastor their own church?”

They might not be called to pastor a church. To take it a step further, their purpose and life mission might be to engage and develop the teenage generation – so they need to be the best youth pastor they can be.

Likewise, I’ve lost count of how many other church leaders think that I’m the youth pastor in my church because of my age. They seem perplexed when I inform them of my church leadership role – I get this look … you know, the “I don’t really understand or comprehend that, but okay” look.

Here’s two further thoughts on this dynamic:

When a church leader takes a position, just to have a position it hurts people in the long run.

If you dislike teenagers – don’t be a youth pastor.

If you aren’t good with kids – don’t be a kids pastor.

If you are bad at organization – don’t be an executive pastor.

If you ask the average youth or lead pastor, they will likely tell you that the average youth pastor sticks around for two years before leaving. Those youth pastors are likely climbing from Stages 3 and 4.

In the quest for a different church situation or job title, we can forget the toll on the people left behind. In a conversation with a person from our current church, we were asked, “So when will you guys be leaving?”

I chuckled and said – unless you know something I don’t – hopefully not for a long time. They seemed relieved and said, “Good! We’re used to people leaving every two years around here.”

You know what happens when church leaders are hired in positions that they're not passionate about and therefore leave shortly after? We unintentionally hurt people. We hurt those who became close to us. We hurt the next person hired who will try to build relationships with those same people.

Trust me. I get it. That’s not our intent. You and other church leaders likely understand the God side of ministry transitions, but the people we do life with might not. They just know their pastor is now gone – yet again, like others in the past.

So, I know what you’re thinking – how do I get started in ministry then? How do you get in ministry if you pass over the Stage 3 ministry positions that the majority assume we’re all supposed to take?

If I could go back in time, I would have declined the position of youth pastor and had them fill it with someone who was passionate about it.

I would have taken job outside the church and in the meantime still served in a different capacity that was more conclusive to my skillset. I did this with our current church. I identified my ministry purpose, and at the time the church couldn’t pay that role. I worked outside the church for one year, created value for that role, and now I’m working full-time in it.

Forget the “full-time” vocational thoughts. What has God called you to do? Where has He called you to do it? Answer those questions and the finance piece will come in time. Don’t just take a ministry position outside of your purpose/skillset simply to get a pay check. You’ll hurt people in the long run.

When a church hires a person just to fill a role, they get an off-mission leader.

Church leader or board – I get it. I do. You hire people for specific roles because that’s what we’ve always done.

If I would have told you 15-20 years ago that we would have pastors that cover the roles of media, small groups, community engagement, administrative, finance, volunteer teams, addiction recovery. You would have laughed in my face.

The reality is that to have a church that’s connected to the 2017 person and the culture as we know it – we need people in those roles (and more!). We see this trend becoming more of a reality in many churches today. We see the standard roles of Lead Pastor, Youth Pastor, and Church Secretary, become less and less instituted.

This isn’t just for the mega church down the street. In 2015, my pastor led this change. Our church was averaging around 250 total attendance. He decided to hire people who fit the mission and the four vehicles of ministry.

He decided our church was built off of four areas. I’ve changed the wording for better understanding in our context:

1.     Sunday Morning

2.     Small Groups

3.     New Believers

4.     Volunteers

Guess what? He hired four people to lead those four areas. There is one pastor who leads every area. This structural change allowed for pastors to lead in areas of their strength. Since the change, our church has grown from 250 to 600.

At this point we have hired more specialized team members, but this overlying principle remains true:

Hire pastors to fit their calling and strengths, and they will serve and lead on mission. If you put them in a box or a pre-determined position, they will serve off-mission.

An off-mission leader will eventually:

  • Burn out.
  • Become insecure.
  • Become uncomfortable.

Why? Because they are serving from a position of need and not God-given purpose and mission. I know this because unfortunately I lived there. Furthermore, I know this because my fellow peers serving within the local church.

So, how do I hire people then? Hire people not positions. Find the right person to fit your church culture and create a position for them to succeed. The right leader in your environment will produce other leaders and serve at a high-level versus hiring someone for a position.

The same thought holds true with leaders within each church. Forget trying to find the next women’s or men’s ministry director. Find high-level leaders and create the position that is connected to their life mission.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your youth pastor is 50-years-old or your executive pastor is 20-years-old. The question you need to ask is -- are those two individuals created to be youth and executive pastors? If the answer is yes – forget about the unwritten stages of advancement.

Church staff and elders – hire great people to lead. Don’t hire great people for positions.

Church leaders – serve in your area of passion, not the position for you to get a pay check.