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An open letter to parishes hiring youth workers

Dear Parishes of the Anglican Church of Canada:

moleskineHi. It’s me. One of the ones you don’t quite know what to do with. One of the ones who has served the church professionally for countless years. But is strangely not a priest. Nor a deacon. Simply one of the many laypeople who cares deeply for God, for the church, and for you. And, against all of the odds, has been paid somewhat consistently for that service over the years.

I never intended to work for the church. I thought that after a few years at seminary, I’d go back to my career in communications, and write media lines all day long.

No such luck.

And so here I am, writing this post, after seeing yet another disrespectful, unjust, and unrealistic job postings from one of our parishes. I’ve been on about this before (do you remember this post?). It seems it’s the one thing I’m always on about. It’s not that I’m a one trick pony. It’s not the only thing I think about. It’s just one of the things that I fear that we as a church – nationally, provincially, synodically, and in our hundreds of parishes across this vast land – have not yet internalized.

And so I fear I must bring it up again.

It’s not about me. But it is about people like me. Laypeople who love the church, and would love to serve in some way. Laypeople with the gifts and skills and training to minister alongside the congregation and clergy in specialized ways. Laypeople for whom ministry in Christ’s church is, in fact, a call. Even if they don’t end up with that ring around their necks.

Back to my meandering point. This week I saw yet another job description with an impressive list of required qualifications:

  • A lively faith in Jesus Christ
  • Strong communication and organizational skills
  • The ability to teach the Bible
  • Have access to quality teaching resources
  • Coordinate volunteers
  • Plan and direct creative and relevant programs
  • Provide pastoral support to youth.
  • Ministry degree an asset

This sounds like a great full-time job. It sounds like a great opportunity for someone who has invested in ministry training – whether through EFM, Trailblazing, or seminary. It sounds ideal for someone who has experience with and a love for working with young people. It sounds perfect for someone with a creative spark that will help to engage them as they continue to grow as disciples of Christ.

The only problem, dear church, is that this posting – like so many I see – is ten lousy hours a week. Presumably one full day’s work plus the two hours you spend in the parish on a Sunday.

And so I want to lead us to ask a few questions together:

  • How would you allot the time for each of these tasks?

Taking all of the expectations you have, which one gets 15minutes, and which one gets several hours? Break it out for me in a little table, and show me how this work will be realistically accomplished

  • What are the most important aspects of this job?

As an organisation, what are your parish’s priorities? If it turns out that the successful candidate can only do one or two things well in those 10 hours each week, what would you want them to focus on? What are you willing to let go of?

  • Do you have a strong ministry support team?

Who else will be part of the team that will work alongside your successful candidate? Who have you prepared to accompany and support the successful candidate in their job? Who do you have that will take on the other pieces that cannot possibly be accomplished within the allotted hours?

 These are three simple questions. But I think they’re foundational. And I hope you’ve asked them. Perhaps you have. Perhaps you have answers. Perhaps you have a plan to grow this ministry over time. Perhaps you can envision a future where your youth minister moves from 10hrs/wk to half-time to full-time. Perhaps you can envision a future where the role you’ve created is sustainable – for the parish, and for the individual staffing it.

Because here’s my fear: if you don’t build for sustainability, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot. You’ll hire someone without half the excellent qualifications you’ve identified in the post. You’ll hire someone without enough experience to communicate and organize; or you’ll hire someone without a lively faith and an ability to teach; or you’ll hire someone without the skills to coordinate volunteers; or creatively plan and direct relevant programs; or to provide pastoral support to young people in one of the most difficult phases of their lives.

So I implore you, dear church. Please ask these questions. Please wrestle with the relative justice and/or injustice of your hiring practices. And please, for the sake of your witness in the world, through this one small, but very important hiring decision, ensure that you’re being realistic (and dare I suggest charitable) with yourselves and with the person you choose to hire.

Image from Used under a Creative Commons Zero license.

About Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Andrew is an Anglican lay leader who loves pioneering responsive, contextual solutions to the challenge of being church in the 21st Century. He serves as an assistant to the rector for Evangelism and Christian Formation at Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver and is a founding member of the emerging St. Brigids community (

This entry was posted in Generation † Canadian Anglican Youth and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to An open letter to parishes hiring youth workers

  1. He must have a lot of time on his hands.

  2. In fairness I’d like to hear the other side. Stories from parishes (of which we are quite diverse in terms of youth ministry) having a positive and fruitful experience with a part time youth ministry leader. I cant imagine all are doomed!

  3. Jesse – I hear they only pay him for ten hours a week, and he spends the rest of the time writing cranky blog posts.

  4. I know where you get your stock photos….

  5. And despite the fact that they’re Creative Commons Zero, I still point people there.

  6. To the cafe where I take them all, I mean.

  7. Well, Ryan Sim, you don’t have to be. But! you’ll confuse the people showing up at Starbucks looking for hipster macchiatos sitting next to brick walls.

  8. Do others think this is just a problem in the church in general? I have consistently read the most hilariously overstretched job descriptions ever from congregations and from church offices and organisations. I always like, too, how there’s this incredible list of credentials, specialised education, qualifications, and then they throw in a last line like “fluent in English, French, and one other global language” . . . but the thing that really worries me is that every time a posting like this goes up they get flooded with people who meet and exceed expectations hungry for any kind of work. 🙁

  9. Here is where creative thinking and connecting parishes together can work well. We are currently having this conversation in more than one parish. My strategy is offer as much support as I can. This may involve facilitating the answers to the questions you have asked. I think each parish is trying to do the right thing- they don’t all have the capacity to do more than what they are doing. With support and mentorship- partnerships will form- and God willing- so too will properly funded lay ministry.

    • Judy Steers

      Hi Leslie,
      Partnerships between congregations are a viable idea and a creative solution. The caution is, they must be very carefully negotiated as each congregation feels a bit of ‘ownership’ of the person and both program and Sunday juggling becomes problematic if there aren’t very clear expectations up front. As you consult with congregations, be wary of anyone saying “well, we will figure it out as we go”. Red flag words, and makes it very hard for the employee.

    • Leslie – I think this is a good start, and I’m with Judy when it comes to figuring out very clear expectations before parishes share one (youth) minister. I’ve seen situations where that relationship has not been explicitly defined, and the youth worker ends up caught in the middle. They are unable to please anyone, because each party has assumptions about what THEY should get from the minister.

      Each experience has ended up with hurt and wounding on both sides. So while I agree that partnership is key, when that partnership ends up in shared staffing, an even clearer job description with very defined parameters is going to be integral.

      My post, of course, sidesteps parishes who see ministry amongst youth as core to their identity and who do it without any stipendiary leadership. I’m all for that. I think that’s wonderful too. But if we’re going to be paying people, allotting 7.25 minutes per week to pastoral care is probably not the way to go.

      Realism and Care. That’s all I’m really asking for.

  10. Judy Steers

    Thanks Andrew for, yet again, saying what needs to be said. I read the job description and I simply CANNOT believe that a congregation or hiring committee believes that someone can do even a quarter of these things on 10 hours per week. I hate to ask the question…what is the hourly wage? – (don’t tell me, let me guess…based on having read dozens of job descriptions like this over the years… probably less than $20 per hour? With of course no benefits, no pension, no vacation pay or long term security.)

    The very sad thing about job descriptions like this is, over and over again, this is how it all plays out:
    1. Underqualified/inexperienced but keen people apply for the job, (because people with the expected level of qualifications are not looking for an underpaid 10 hour per week job)
    2. Parish hires the underqualified/inexperienced but keen person, expecting that they will ‘learn as they go”
    3. Person burns out through inability to meet the completely unrealistic expectations of the congregation.
    4. Person quits because of 3. or leaves because it was only ever a temporary job while they were in school.
    5. Congregation says “See? We hired a youth minister and it was a waste of money, it didn’t work and the person didn’t know what they were doing.”
    6. Congregation concludes that hiring a youth ministry person is a waste of time/money and they don’t hire again.
    7. Congregation assumes volunteers can do everything they expect a trained paid professional to do.

    I wish i was making this up. But I’ve seen it in all parts of the country over the past 25 years.

    just a side note; employment equity, standards and fair job descriptions is one of the items on the agenda for Stronger Together this year.

  11. Erin – It is a problem in the church in general. My lens on this is my own (youth ministry) experience and the world I served in for many years, even though I know it is broadly applicable.

    Like Simon, I do worry about the longevity of anyone in that world, and know that anything resembling job security is usually no more than fantasy for those of us who, as lay people, choose to serve in the church.

  12. Job security? What’s that?

  13. Thanks for this post Andrew. As someone who has been the 10 hour or 20 hour a week Youth Worker the time frame isn’t realistic. I burned out twice in the 10 years I worked at this. I always had to have one or more (4 at one point) other jobs just to sustain myself and they were never understanding as to why I couldn’t work Sunday mornings, Friday nights and all morning Tuesday and Thursday.

    Don’t get me wrong. I loved the work and was usually happy to give the 10 or more unpaid hours of work per week that were needed to do the job properly but it isn’t sustainable. I know many others who were in similar positions and the burn out often creates animosity towards the church in the long run.

    While I wouldn’t say I strugle much with my faint I do struggle with the church now. I find it difficult to attend a parish and haven’t actually been in awhile. I will go back but in some ways the experience has damaged my relationship with the church.

    I hope the post you saw has a loving and supportive parish behind it. I pray that whoever fills the role has a great time ministering to the youth of that community and grows in God.

    Thanks again for this post Andrew. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    • Cris – I remember (a few years back, now!) having the chance to hear some of that part of your story, of your passion for this ministry, and the significant hurdles you – and others face.

      A job, even a job and a ministry we feel called to should not demand our deaths in exchange for a pay cheque. And yet, I do fear that there are these little deaths – of relationships with young people, of relationships to the church, of our own faith and discipleship, and ability to trust – when so much is promised and so little is delivered.

      In the life this post has lived on facebook today, I’ve seen such a combination of hope and hurt. We do need to listen. We need to listen to the voices of those we have hurt. And we need to pay attention to those people who are loudly and clearly saying that something is wrong.

      I’m glad that this post is getting some play, because it is an issue we need to look at. I’m glad that the upcoming gathering of Diocesan Youth Ministers is going to be talking about this at their Stronger Together gathering this fall. And I’m grateful that others are continuing to shine light on something the church seems to be hiding in its shadow.

      With that, I want to loop some of the voices I’ve heard from today back into this thread:

      “I fear that as long as we expect more than we can give ($, time, resource supports), then the outcomes will not likely change anytime soon.”

      “Do others think this is just a problem in the church in general? I have consistently read the most hilariously overstretched job descriptions ever from congregations and from church offices and organisations. I always like, too, how there’s this incredible list of credentials, specialised education, qualifications, and then they throw in a last line like “fluent in English, French, and one other global language” . . . but the thing that really worries me is that every time a posting like this goes up they get flooded with people who meet and exceed expectations hungry for any kind of work.”

      “This is something we really, really, have to figure out. There are so many very gifted lay ministers and it is super disturbing to think that the choice becomes be ordained or leave to make a decent living at something else. I feel sick about this whole mess. Where is the justice we are always on about?”

      “When we ask a gifted, fully trained person to work for a cut rate at 10 hours a week, what are we expecting them to do the rest of the time in order to be able to remain housed and fed (let alone house and feed their family- oh wait, we don’t need a youth minister with a family!)? Do we want a person who already has a full-time job with benefits to do the 10 hour a week job “for experience”? Or, my favourite, “out of the goodness of their hearts”? How do we expect them not to burn out, even if they can eat and stay warm?””

      “You’re just not going to get those deep, growth-oriented relationships with youth that foster a vibrant love of Christ and church when the person whose job it is to foster said relationships doesn’t have enough to make rent. People get bitter. It’s unpleasant. Show the love!”

  14. Been there, done that; after you, Jesse, and Trish left…Chris and I salvaged what was left for the sake of the young pre-teen children for a year. It’s always destined to be an on again off again relationship between youth and the church; though it doesn’t need to be this way. However, I fear that as long as we expect more than we can give ($, time, resource supports), then the outcomes will not likely change anytime soon.

  15. What you describe, Andrew, resonates with me. I’ve seen this pattern far too often. And it’s time someone started asking these questions.

    Like Cris, I too have worked the 10 – 20 hour youth worker circuit. I’ve worked it for 15 years.

    When I was younger, and fresh out of bible college (having obtained a 4-year bible degree), I was glad to have a job. I was glad to be paid for doing what I loved, I acknowledged that being “green” in ministry meant not expecting as high a wage as someone experienced (I was getting $13 an hour)… but still was frustrated that I wasn’t able to make ends meet, unless I took on another job (I had 2 additional jobs already).

    I’ve seen the pattern over and over – too much is asked for too little – too little hours, too little compensation, or both. As recently as 2 years ago, one ministry leader asked me indignantly if I thought I was being reasonable asking for more than $15 an hour.

    Youth ministry in these churches usually also suffer from a lack of (or low) ministry budget. Or low volunteerism (yes, you need to have at least two people in the room for safe ministry practices). Or they’re “trying youth ministry out” for a year – with no vision or planning on how to carry it forward beyond that.

    Here’s some more questions to consider:
    What does a short-term “plan” for youth ministry do to your youth?
    Have you considered the youth in your community part of “youth ministry”, or are you just counting the heads in your congregation?
    Do you have the support of your families for this ministry (do they want it / will they commit to supporting it)?

    In response to Leslie, cooperative ministry can work well, if, as Judy points out, it is approached with careful planning. I am currently leading a cooperative youth ministry that is the cooperative effort of 5 churches in our area, and as has been theorized, there are challenges, though from what we have seen so far, the ministry shows great potential for growth and success.
    There are still many ways this endeavor can fail, and not giving it enough time is a big one. In this, and in all cases, we can’t treat youth ministry as a “trial” ministry – starting it up to “see if it will work” – before we’ve really done our homework, and really counted the total costs.

  16. Dawn Leger

    For 10 hours a week, why not hire someone to take some of the smaller tasks off the incumbent’s plate and make youth ministry a priority of ordained ministry? Staffed ministry just is not done well at 10 hours a week.

    Because the truth is, even if you get the best person at 10 hours a week, she will need a 30 hour a week job to fill in the rest of her time. You aren’t going to get the best of what you hired.

  17. Judy Steers

    People in the broader church would be scandalized to know about the realities of pay inequity.

    True story – two people worked in a congregation. One was the incumbent, the other a half-time youth minister (because congregation said they ‘couldn’t afford’ someone full time). Both had an MDiv. Both had families to support. Both were highly experienced in ministry. Incumbent recieved a salary of over $80,000.00 including pension, benefits, continuing education, 5 weeks holiday and living allowance. Youth minister salary was $18,000.00. No pension, health benefits or vacation and certainly no living allowance. Expected to be present for Sunday worship, weekly (day time) staff meetings, evening meetings and after school programming which pretty well wiped out any possibility of another part time job, which was probably for the best because she was working practically full-time at the parish anyway to meeting the expectations of the job description. (and no, for the record, it was not me – it was a colleague in another diocese)

    It’s a wonder there are ANY long-term youth ministry leaders in our church.

  18. We’re in the process of ‘hiring’ a new incumbent. I had a look at the parish profile and thought that there is no such person on earth who can fill all the qualifications.

    We are doing a re-write based on the skills of the volunteers and paid persons and letting the incumbent to what can only be done by an ordained priest; mostly listening skills and ministry.

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