These 4 reasons are why youth workers are leaving the church

'When I watch the news, I feel passion. When I hang out with kids who are struggling with great questions for which I have no great answers, I feel passion. When I see someone searching to find their place in the world, I feel deep passion, when I see people trying to understand one another despite their differences, I feel deep passion.'

This is taken from Brian McClaren's article, Why Pastors and Priests Are Leaving the Church.

I wonder what can be said about why youth workers leave the church? Here are four common reasons.


1. Risk-averse churches

There is no doubt whatsoever, none at all, that the desperate passion that a youth worker feels for young people spurs them on within ministry. It is one of the key reasons for them being a youthworker in the first place – the passion to help those with questions, to help them find their place in the world and to challenge the status quos that are barriers to young people being included, accepted and thriving.

As a contrast: sometimes churches are too safe and discipling young people within them is about conformity. Three further piece of research are discussed here in this article, Why Disciple making isn't a dangerous exercise. They describe how the culture of the Church is dominated by conformity. A risk-averse culture dominates, to the point that change is difficult. So, what does a youth worker do for the young people who actually wouldn't, or dont, fit into 'youth group', or disrupt the applecart for the 'church kids'? These aren't new problems at all. But in those moments of actual life transformation, the desire to connect with young people outside the church, tensions may start to happen. The tensions between what might be on a youth worker's job description to make it exciting and the fact that often a church didn't actually expect it to happen.

2. Bad management

Poor management is an issue in the church. On one hand it's not part of anyone's core training. This is a regular topic and one that receives a lot of discussion. And the fallout from the breakdown of the relationship between line-managing clergy and youth worker is one of the top reasons for a youth worker leaving a church. But why?

Often it is about expectations. The youth worker dreams of the future of being guided by the wise hand of a pastorally minded minister, The minister thinks that having a youth worker 'do all the childrens and youth work' will free them up to do 'proper things'. Though there are other expectations too within management, like the vicar thinking that a youth worker doesn't need managing. Or a youth worker thinking that youth work or young people might actually be a priority for the church – not usually. It seems like expectations are issues in both of these reasons. And often it is in the management relationship that these could be confronted. Many youth workers leave the church, not because of young people, groups or parents, but because of management and local politics within the organisation.

3. Parachurch drift

The local YMCA, the YFC centre or a local FYT Streetspace pioneering project provides a natural safe haven for the previously church-based, frazzled youth worker. They might promise a focus on young people, a freedom from institutional politics, the freedom even not to go to church, or at least to choose one. They may even promise a team of youthworkers to work with. Not only this, the organisation might be able to offer a contract, a pension, better pay, an office, a 35-hour (not 65 hr) working week, connections in an affiliation, conferences, training – this sounds idyllic, doesnt it? The youth worker might be able to connect in a homelessness project with desperate young people, or on the streets, or in sessions, and start to be transformative.

There are plenty of ministers who leave the church to go to academia, mission organisations and chaplaincy in a similar way. So don't judge youth workers so quickly for making this leap; for many it's the only way out to stay as a youth worker and not be in a church any more. Academia is a pretty closed route, and consultancy requires good links and opportunities.

4. They just burn out

When they burn out varies, and so does when they might leave as a result. It's when they've run on adrenaline alone for three straight weeks. It's after they have said 'yes' to everything and not delegated. When they don't have a team to help them with significant pastoral issues among young people. When no one manages or looks after their diary. When no one asks them difficult questions about their hours, time off, time with family. Or they don't get time to recharge or time to study. Or a sabbatical for a youthworker isnt scheduled every five years at the least. Youth workers leave because they wear themselves out – they might even wear out their marriages working for a church. They might never darken the door of a church again to do youth work. Churches need to look after their youth worker, because given the cuts in training, it might be the last one they'll ever have.

These are four areas to work on that involve understanding youth workers' day-to-day working lives, their management, their boundaries and managing the expectations of both church and youth worker when they arrive.

Not every youth worker leaves a church. But a good number do. Most youth workers who leave churches, have their identity wrapped up in being part of it. So it can be devastating to leave, but it happens. We need to do a better job of making sure it doesn't.

James Ballantyne is North East youth work adviser for Frontier Youth Trust. He delivers training and support for pioneering youth work within churches and projects. He can be contacted via his blog: