Everyone Is an Interim: Sustainable Youth Ministry

Sustainable Youth MinistryMark DeVries’ book, Sustainable Youth Ministry, is a classic in the field. If you haven’t read it by now, and you’re involved in some way, shape, or form with youth ministry, I encourage you to go pick it up. Sensible, practical, pastoral, full of evocative examples and imagery, this is a deceptively simple book that’s also a must-have. Let me whet your appetite with what I consider to be not only the practical, but also the theological core of DeVries’ argument: “Everyone is an interim” (p. 92).

That’s right. Every single person in ministry is an interim. No one is permanent. Or, as the Psalmist might put it: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15–16).

Everyone is An Interim

Nobody Stays Forever

I don’t particularly like this insight. I don’t like to think about the fact that, some day, I will be gone. But it’s true. At some point in time, I will no longer exist. In an even shorter amount of time, the ministry I care about so much will probably no longer be under my care. And, truth be told, even the longest serving ministers only stay with one ministry for a few decades.

The majority of ministers hang around for even less time. “The average youth minister,” writes DeVries, “serves a single church for 3.9 years,” or, put another way, the span of seeing one cohort of young people through the four years of high school (p. 92). Now, DeVries was writing a decade ago. Perhaps youth ministers stay longer than that nowadays. But even if a youth minister stays in one place for a decade, eventually, one day, she will leave.

But even if a youth minister stays in one place for a decade, eventually, one day, she will leave.

But, as DeVries goes on to argue, this is the point. If we actually come to grips with the interim nature of our particular participation in a particular ministry, “Those of us in ministry might free ourselves just a bit from the tantalizing illusion of our own indispensability” (p. 93). And so, indeed, might those alongside whom we are serving.

In fact, hopefully, this realization will help us direct ministry toward God and toward the world, instead of centering it on ourselves. “Maybe,” DeVries encourages us, “that interim title would help churches and search committees come to grips with the fact that they are never searching for the youth director but for someone who can, for a season, steward a vision much larger than themselves” (p. 93).

Playing Our Role in God’s Story

This insight changes the entire character of ministry. Interims, DeVries suggests, “proactively prepare the way for a future that does not include them. Interims are midwives, not mothers” (p. 92).

This is the theological and practical core of Sustainable Youth Ministry. If we’re no longer searching for the person, but paying attention to what God is doing and the structures that enable us to participate in what God is doing, we just might catch a glimpse of this larger vision and make steps to participate in it over the long haul. This makes our ministries “sustainable,” not in the sense that even the ministries will exist forever, but that, by taking part in what God is doing, they take part in something lasting. Again, as the psalmist would say, “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Psalm 103:17).

The Work of God

These kinds of ministries are also sustainable because they rely less on our effort and more on God. If we switch from the Psalms to the prophets, we might be reminded of Isaiah 40. The prophet echoes the psalmist: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7–8). The prophet is told to cry out in order to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40:3–4).

This is the structural work that DeVries calls for: leveling the “dance floor,” so that ministry can proceed with grace—even if that’s a messy grace (p. 52)! In this way, ministry might even be seen as less about what we do than what we don’t do. How do we clear the way for God to work? How can ministry be about getting out of God’s way?

How do we clear the way for God to work? How can ministry be about getting out of God’s way?

In doing so, we learn to cast ourselves upon the one who “does not faint or grow weary,” but who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). After all, “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30–31).

Sustain Youth Ministry

There’s a reason we understand God as a Sustainer—God is the one who creates and preserves all life. Ultimately, the youth ministry in which we serve is not ours to sustain, but God’s. So take Isaiah 40 seriously. Remember that the youth ministry work we do is always interim work, in which we play second fiddle to the work God has been doing, is doing, and will continue doing long after we leave.

Let us sustain youth ministry by giving it back over, fully and completely, to the Lord who began the good work.May it be so in our ministries and in our lives.

About the Author: Marcus Hong

Marcus HongMarcus A. Hong is a child of God. He’s also the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. Marcus loves movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, and, alongside his brilliant wife Sarah, has his hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.