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Hi. My name is Keith Parker, and I am a gray-haired youth minister.
The truth of the matter is that I started going gray at about age 19, but that isn’t really important. I celebrated my 40th birthday this year, and I am in my 21st year of paid youth ministry. I spent 16.5 years as the youth minister at Hazelwood Christian church before moving to northeast Ohio in 2017 to become the High School Minister at Greenford Christian Church. All of these things add up to one very obvious truth: I am getting older.
This truth should not surprise any of us, but it should make us think through our calling, our talents, our passions, and the way we do ministry. Maybe we need to consider if we are “getting too old for this” when it comes to youth ministry.
I have always said that I was going to do youth ministry until the day God clearly called me away from it (even if that calling was death). But as I have grown older, started a family and entered new seasons of life, I have definitely seen changes in my approach to youth ministry. Here are a few confessions from this gray-haired youth minister:
1. My passions have changed
When I first started in my current ministry, I absolutely loved planning and going on huge trips and big events. My ministry (and honestly my attitude) mostly revolved around those events and how well they went. Now, I find myself most looking forward to my Sunday night life group, when a small group of students gather in my living room. The things that used to feel like “the grind” are now the things that excite me most about ministry. Perhaps I have learned that while the big events create memories and connections, real ministry is done in the trenches, particularly in loving students week in and week out.
2. My frustrations have changed
When I first started in ministry, I LOVED planning and going on the events. It was energizing to me to think through the programming of a 5th Quarter Party, to nail down the transportation details for a Guy / Girl Night Out, and to spend a week with students at a sleep-deprived CIY Conference. I find my heart is very different now, and I don’t feel the same way about these big events. Now, these trips are seen in my mind as “part of the job.” I see their value and I understand their importance, but they don’t energize me like they used to. Maybe it’s my age or my 3 boys that I have to leave at home (although the older ones can come with me now), but it’s harder and harder to get myself on the bus.
On the good side, common frustrations like parents not reading information, being late to pick up their students, and asking the same questions over and over don’t really bother me anymore. I’ve been in the game long enough to recognize this is just human nature and NOT a direct shot at my communication skills or adeptness as a Youth Minister. I find myself getting honked off at these little annoyances a whole lot less, and for that I am glad. Maybe I’m just too old to get worked up like that :).
3. My recovery time has changed
This truth is pretty straightforward and not surprising. It used to take me a day or so to recover from a retreat or a weekend conference. Now it takes me 2-3 days to get back to full strength and get back at it. On a positive note, it now takes me LESS time to recover from a lock-in because wisdom and years have taught me that only Satan himself would plan such a horrifying event.
4. My lessons have changed
I have always enjoyed reading, studying, and crafting lessons in creative and meaningful ways for students. From the very beginning, teaching the Gospel has always been a priority for me. While the emphasis on clear biblical teaching has remained the same, my teaching style and preparation have changed. I used to create lessons in 5-10 hours. Now it’s 15-20. I used to teach very topically. Now I try to be more true to the text. I used to have lengthy stories to open every lesson, trying to get the crowd laughing and engaged. Now, I try to keep my illustrations more poignant and succinct. In the end, I think my lessons are stronger and more meaningful than they were at the beginning of my ministry. My hope is that God is pleased with this transition over the life of my career.
5. My ego has changed
This is probably the most stark difference I see from the beginning of my ministry to now. When I began in ministry, I loved being in the spotlight. I was almost always the center of attention at youth group, and I liked it that way. I wanted students to know me and like me. But beyond that, I wanted students to ONLY like me or at least to like me the most. When I would hear that students were doing things with other youth leaders, I would get a twinge of jealousy, wondering why those students didn’t want to hang out with me.
Now, I see how stupid that was. And more, I see how hurtful it was to my ministry and the ministry of the Body. God has changed my attitude, and I am now incredibly thankful and appreciative of my fellow youth leaders. When I hear that students are seeing a movie with other leaders, I smile knowing that God-honoring conversations will be had. As a matter of fact, one year we saw 20 students from our youth ministry baptized into Christ in a single calendar year. Of those 20 baptisms, I only personally baptized 4 of them. That would have driven me CRAZY early on in ministry. But now I recognize that other spiritual leaders like parents, grandparents, and other youth leaders are having these opportunities. What a HUGE blessing to know that students have LOTS of great spiritual leaders to help guide them in their faith.
Things have definitely changed over the course of my ministry, and God has shaped me and changed me as my hair has gotten more gray. Most of all, I am thankful that God has chosen to use a broken vessel like me to have ANY part in His Kingdom. Because of this, I rejoice…gingerly of course, these joints can only take so much jubilation.