This is a question I know many youth pastors who are leaving their youth ministry struggle with. Common wisdom seems to be that when you leave, you have to sever all ties with your former students. But does it really work that way?
If you ask me, it depends. It depends on how long you’ve been in that youth ministry. It depends on how you are leaving, if there’s a conflict for instance or if it was just time for you to move on. It depends on whether there is a successor in place already and how he/she feels about you and your role. And it also depends on you and your relationships with your students.
When I left my youth ministry in The Netherlands three years ago, I did not make a ‘clean break’. As a matter of fact, I’m still in touch with many of my former students. That’s because I didn’t have a permanent successor for almost three years, leaving the students with no one else to turn to. There were a few students with pastoral issues that I felt I couldn’t let go off because there was no one else to take care of them.
But the main reason was that for me, that was never just a job. I invested in those young people for six years and I did it for four years as a volunteer before I came on staff. I wasn’t in it for the money or a career, I was in it because I loved them. It would have been hurtful to them (and to me!) if I had just severed all ties when I left. Don’t forget that it can send a powerful negative signal if we leave and never look back. It can make students wonder of we ever cared about them in the first place.
So I kept in touch, mainly through Facebook and emails. We even had quite a few of our former students come and stay with us in Germany and it was wonderful.
I’ve always been open about this, both towards the church and towards my (temporary) successors. I’ve also made it a policy to net get involved in the youth ministry itself. I wanted to keep it personal with the students, but I tried to stay out of the church politics.
There can be circumstances in which it’s perfectly fine to stay in touch with your former students. The important thing is that you’re open about it, especially towards the (senior) pastor and/or your successor. And stay out of the way, don’t give your opinion on changes that are being made, or developments that take place. That is not your place anymore.
Usually, the contacts with your students will fade away by themselves with a few exceptions. Those are the students that mattered to you most, or that you mattered most to. Staying in touch with them is fine and anyone who does not understand that, has no business being in youth ministry. After all, youth ministry is primarily about the relationships and not about a job title or description.