I was recently asked to participate in a podcast for youth ministry leaders with decades of experience.  While a wasn’t quite at 20 years, I was encouraged to participate anyway.

From my perspective, professional youth ministry is dominated by white guys.  And, even if that isn’t quite true IRL, the face of youth ministry is often white and male.  So, too, was the panel participating in the podcast.  It looked to me like longevity in youth ministry was also dominated by white men, at least for the purposes of the discussion that day.

As I listened to the contributors, I realized I was not necessarily able to achieve what the men in the room were able to achieve, no matter how committed, skilled, or gifted I was.  That is a hard pill for me to swallow.  I recently left my job (that I loved) to stay home with my kids.  My career didn’t look like their careers and I felt shame.

As a wife and a mom, I was also called to pregnancies, maternity leaves, breast-feeding, and moving when my husband moved.  And because of that, my tenure at churches was often interrupted.  In many cases, I intentionally took a position that was not long-term, or the arrangement I had to continue working with a motherhood-sensitive supervisor ended when that supervisor left their position.  Many times, a part-time position simply isn’t sustainable when you start adding up what it costs you in child care.  This is true for many women and minorities who take positions that are not sustainable because no one else wants them.

This isn’t true for all women.  Many have parents (mine are deceased) who are able to pitch in and help with the kids on the regular.  Or maybe some women are able to work things out with their husbands so they could continue to work at their highest capacity.  Or maybe their church and supervisors are super flexible.  Maybe they live in Canada.  But, even for those women, we are all typically paid less, or need leave, or experience gender bias, or are judged differently than our male colleagues, and are at a disadvantage for longevity.   Women (and minorities and single dads and others on the fringes) do not often have the luxury of worshipping at the altar of longevity.

That is not to say I did not have plenty to learn from these men that day.  Most of what they were saying about not leaving your church was 100 percent correct and needed saying.  It just did not account for factors most white males were less likely to experience.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts I have on longevity for the rest of us:

  1. Know your value.  You are not less valuable because you need maternity (or paternity) leave.  You are not less valuable because you had kids and now your spouse cannot be a volunteer.  You are not less valuable because you need an extra adult volunteer on a trip so you can pump in private or nap during your pregnancy.  Your value changes with your life experiences, but you are not less valuable.
  2. Advocate for yourself. Once you know your value, you can better advocate for yourself.  This is what I confess I should have done, that would have afforded me more time at some (not all) of the positions I had to leave.  Approach your supervisor and leadership in love and with respect but make no apologies for what you need in order to remain at the position.
  3. It’s okay to leave. If advocating for yourself does not work, it is okay to leave.  If you are not afforded the same pay and benefits as your male colleagues, it is not wrong to find another position that better supports your family’s needs.  It just isn’t.  It is never wrong to leave if you experience abuse or discrimination.  It is not wrong to leave if you family needs you at home for a season.  Don’t let anyone tell you that it is wrong.  Leave well and shake the dust off your feet.
  4. Live and learn. I have plenty to learn from white dudes.  I have plenty to learn from women who have overcome the odds and enjoyed longevity in their positions.  And I have plenty to go back and tell the younger me.  But God doesn’t need me to save the world.  And God’s mercies are new every day.  I’m going to live in that freedom.  God always seems to offer me new ways to use my gifts and remind me of my value.

Ansley Higginbotham is a great youth worker (our words, not hers) and we’re totally fans. Hoping for more posts from her in the future!