Recently, someone asked me a question about leaving your youth ministry. Here’s what Malc, a British youth worker wrote to me:
I am a volunteer youth leader, I am responsible for both outreach and spiritual input to young people aged 11-16+. I have been doing this for about 20 years. The time has now come for me to hand over the responsibility. How do I go about slowly handing over what has been a huge part of my life? I also want to equip those in my team to take over this (what may seem) impossible task.
For each and every one of us there will come a time when we have to leave our youth ministry. I’ve been there myself a couple of times and it’s never easy, even when you choose to leave yourself. Still, there are things you can do to make leaving easier on yourself and your youth ministry.
Take time to mourn
The French have a saying: partir, c’est mourir un peu. To say goodbye is to die a little. No matter if you have chosen to leave youth ministry yourself, it will hurt. Saying goodbye, especially after you’ve been in the same youth ministry as long as Malc has been, is in fact a mourning process. Not just for you, but also for your leaders and the students. So give yourself and everyone else time and space to deal with it in their own way, to mourn in fact.
When I announced I was leaving my last church because we were moving to Germany, some of the students were very upset, angry even. It was important for me to take the time to talk with them about it, give them a chance to express their feelings. And it was basically a huge compliment for me, because they didn’t want me to leave!
My advice is to tell everyone you’re leaving as soon as possible, don’t delay this. Also, if possible, tell them in person. It’s far better that they hear it from you than from others.
You have knowledge and experience that others don’t have. Make sure to transfer that knowledge to your successor. Sometimes you will have the possibility to work with your successor for a few days or even longer before you leave. Graciously share any and all information you can think of.
Even better: write it down. Make a transfer-document in which you write down how you did stuff, what worked and what didn’t and be sure to include all necessary passwords, security info, keys, etc. Write down as much as you can think of that might be important for your successor to succeed.
Make sure that if you leave behind a computer, it’s well organized. Make a list of the most important policy documents, for instance the strategic plan, the yearly schedule and the code of conduct or other youth group rules. The same goes for all practical info, like address lists, mail lists and such. Make all these documents up to date and easy to find.
Transfer pastoral care
It’s extremely important to make sure the ongoing pastoral care of your students is transferred, especially when you have several ‘problem cases’. If no successor is names yet, discuss with the pastor who could take over in the meantime. Maybe there’s a volunteer on the pastoral team who loves youth and could take care of your students in the meantime? Don’t forget to inform these students personally in particular and discuss the upcoming changes with them. They’ll need to give you permission to ‘transfer’ them to someone else!
Support your successor
If your successor is already named before you leave, openly support this decision. Publicly state your confidence in this person’s abilities to take over. If you two have the opportunity to work together, introduce him or her to all leaders yourself and give him/her a warm welcome. Do whatever you can to make the transition as easy as possible. The new guy (or girl) will have a tough enough job as it is and your support could make a lot of difference for their start and for the youth ministry.
You’ll need to accept that your successor will never do youth ministry the way you did it. Things will change, programs will be cut or added, he/she will choose to use different materials and to change that wonderful idea you had for the annual retreat. Your successor may even do things you’re convinced are not good for the youth ministry. Still, you’ll need to let it go. Don’t criticize, don’t get involved, let it go. You chose to leave, now accept the consequences.
If you are staying in the same church you have served in as a youth leader, offer help or coaching to your successor. They may not accept it, but that’s up to them. If you’re doing youth ministry ‘professionally’, you’ll probably be moving to another church and this isn’t an option. But for volunteer youth leaders it is.
It’s probably wise to put a time limit on it, for instance a year, and to be very clear about your role (no involvement in youth ministry, just coaching). In that year you can coach and help your successor into standing on his/her own two feet.
Maybe the hardest part about leaving youth ministry is to let go. No matter how capable your successor may seem (or not), letting go of what has been such an important part of your life is hard. Most youth leaders agree that letting go of the students is the hardest part.
Some youth leaders opt for the ‘quick cut’, severing all ties to the youth ministry at once. Others slowly ease out, keeping in touch with those students who want to and trusting that these contacts will die a slow death over time. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and it’s up to you which suits you best.
Do keep in mind that when you keep in touch, it may be hard to not get involved in the day-to-day stuff of youth ministry again. Also, you’ll need to be open about your contacts with youth to both their parents and your successor. And then, it’s time to let go completely…
I hope this has helped you Malc and I wish you all the best for your time of transition in leaving your youth ministry!
How about you? What advice would you give to those leaving their youth ministry?