Confessions From a Gray-Haired Youth Minister

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.

19 Comments

  1. Great post Keith! I am an early grayer as well! Thanks for the reminder that youth ministry has nothing to do with the age of the youth pastor. You had examples of how age has affected your mentality or recovery time, but is there anything that you used to do when you are younger that you no longer do? e.g. go to schools, do all-nighters, or fun trips.
    • Thanks Jonathan. Solidarity on the early gray! There are things that I definitely do less. I visit the school lunches less, I NEVER plan a lock-in, and I almost never do amusement parks and concerts anymore. I feel like they just don't provide a real opportunity for connection and meaningful conversation. Great question.
  2. Great post! I can identify with many of these "confessions" as I am now in my late 30's and working with students for 16 years. One of my favorite parts of the week is when I get to sit with students in small group and discuss what is going on in their lives and then open up the Bible together. The big group/big event is great, but the intimate times in small group is the best!
  3. Great article and very relevant. I'm in my 16th year of youth ministry - all at the same church. I feel so blessed to have served in one place and I still love young people like I did when I began. I share many of the same feelings and thoughts you have regarding youth ministry, Keith. Thanks for the encouragement and the reminder that just because I don't enjoy planning game nights like I used to doesn't mean I'm done. God has not released me nor changed my heart for young people and I'm proud to (thus far) be a lifer in youth ministry. Blessings.
    • You have such a great grasp on your calling! Stay strong and persevere! So many blessings come from longevity and endurance! Keep up the great work
  4. Great post Keith!You do a great job of putting into words reality and passion. You relate well to those in the trenches of student ministry because you do it with passion and a desire to always refine your skills! This post was insightful to a younger student worker, as myself, but also encouraged those at every part of the journey of working with teenagers. Student Ministry is a skill and a craft that should constantly be refined and you are proving this through the ways your methods and views have changed within it. Truth never changes but our methods will always change. Great to hear your passion as you enter into this next season of ministry! You're a great minister and I'm proud to know you!- Matt
  5. Hi Keith... newbie to your site, 14 year paid veteran of YM and 14+ year volunteer veteran before that. I AM REALLY GRAY and I have the age to match .... but I do highlight a bit to take the edge off. I guess that means my ego is not totally gone. I loved this post. I recently went to a national conference with 25k teens and thought, "Gee this is great.... but man I just want to go to sleep!" The teens came back on fire and excited, I came back exhausted...and it definitely took me so much longer this time to regroup. In reflection, I realized that it is the 'wisdom gift' of God that I now cherish the most. He has blessed those of us he has called for the long run with a keen perception of His gift of longevity and rewarded it with wisdom and reflection. We may no longer have the same stamina, but we have staying power as wisdom keepers and are privileged to be in that role in His Kingdom here on earth. I know I am. Thanks for the great read!
    • Thanks Rosemary, glad you stumbled across YouthMin.org. I am so thankful for leaders like you that are willing to stand firm and do youth ministry for the long haul. I think there is so much gained for both the leader and the church with longevity. Keep fighting the good fight!
  6. Thanks for being an example to us "younger" guys in the youth min universe. To see your dedicated and passion still lit truly is encourage; thanks for that!
  7. Hey Keith, I have recently changed jobs and became the new youth pastor at my church. everything you say its so true, I've only been in this position for 8 months now and I can relate to everything you have talked about. But its great to read how your views have changed and its very encouraging. We all know that youth Ministry has its challenegs but its so rewarding!!
  8. As one what has been there and done that for about 20yrs I identify with pretty much every single thing on this post. I am also going a bit gray, but for me, the years have piled on. I've had similar conversations with other younger youth workers which led me to write about how old is too old for youth ministry. http://cityyouthworker.com/how-old-is-too-old-to-be-a-youth-worker/Anyway, I have come to understand that sharing my experiences, resources, and stories, is part of my ministry now.Thanks for the article.
  9. I am 55 and in my 33rd year of youth ministry. Loved the article. I think the things that have changed the most for me, is allowing my volunteer staff to shine and let them lead. My communication with parents changed when I had kids of my own. I listen much better now.
  10. As an older but not gray (I have a follicle retention problem) youth minister I really resonate with this article. When I started youth ministry (paid for the last 6 years) I believe we are called to make disciples of all ages and the youth can be/make a significant difference in the world. I love the energy and authenticity of working with youth. Meaningful relationships are significant. Thanks for all you do to help us fellow youth workers Keith!!

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