Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in our short series “Married/Single in Youth Ministry.”

SansburyMeet Jason Sansbury

Jason (far right in picture) is the Director of Youth Ministries at Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. His mom lives in Georgia, dad lives in Texas, and he thinks his nephew and nieces are the most awesome kids ever (sorry, youth group).
How long have you been in ministry?
Paid, vocational ministry: 18 years
How many churches/positions have you served in?
Three churches: the first was a Young Life church partnership, then a suburban Atlanta church, and now the church where I serve currently. I’ve always been a youth director and then more has been added in. For example, when my pastor was activated from the Reserves as an Army chaplain and sent to Iraq for a year, I preached every Sunday.
How do you keep your personal life and your church life separate? If you’ve changed your strategy over the course of your ministry, what prompted the separation and how were you able to separate the two lives?
There are degrees to which you can and do need to have a separate personal life and church life. But I also think there is no separating the two. In our modern church world, we have gotten to the place where paid staff are seen as needing support and structure away from the congregations that they serve. And while I understand that need, I also think it creates a scenario where people aren’t fully engaged in the life of the church. I just try to be who I am in church as well as away from church. That means some people in my church find connections and friendship with me deeper than others do, but that is how the real world works as well. Also, it would be a mistake not to have friendships outside the church, because the unfortunate reality is that when push comes to shove, we are staff and a church can terminate us whenever they feel like it.
As a single person, is more expected of you? “You don’t have a spouse or kids to worry about, so why do you need to be at home? Why can’t you work longer hours?”
I do think there are moments when people think I can/should do more for those very reasons. Saying, “I need some personal time” is never going to be held as an equal to “I need some family time.” So for me, I set boundaries, I don’t apologize for it, and I don’t get bullied past those boundaries. It is helpful to me that I have a senior pastor who understands those issues pretty well and is supportive.
How do you keep from having all of your friendships at church? How do you deal with the fact that all of your friends may be older than you?
You have to actively work to have friendships away from the church. I tend to find kindred spirits in other youth workers. I also work hard in maintaining some of my long distance friendships because those people understand me. About every 18 months, I choose a new hobby and try and live in that world and make friendships. Find something you are passionate about and do it away from the church walls.
I think at my age, only having friends who are tied to church is less and less an issue. When I was younger, at times it frustrated me but I also could recognize that I had some wisdom around me that a lot of my 20-year-old friends didn’t.
Is your personal life really ever your own? Or do you always feel the need to be “on guard?” In what way?
I strive for integrity and I try to be “me” all the time. So for example, and for a lot of reasons, I don’t drink. (Though I am not judgmental of those who do.) I know for some people in their churches, they feel that they need to hide the fact that they drink occasionally. I just try and be who I am and if ever that is an issue for a church, then I move somewhere else. I can’t imagine having the energy and effort of maintaining two different lives.
Emergencies aside, how do you handle times when church comes before personal time or family obligations? For instance, you’ve planned a reunion weekend with college buddies or a trip to see your family, but the senior pastor schedules a last minute meeting or event that you are required to attend.
This is a tricky situation and it is a place where you really need to help educate and cause your church to think. I previously worked at a church that absolutely required me to be at the Christmas Eve services, even though I played no role at all in the message, liturgy, etc. At that point, I sat with some of the leaders and said, “Who will you wake up to celebrate Christmas with?” Of course, they all had families and friends, etc. And then I pointed out that I would wake up and have a four hour (minimum) drive to get to my family. They changed the rule. They had to be pushed to see and think it through but once they did, they changed it.
And I also think it is completely OK to say, “I have something important to me personally that is scheduled for that time,” and leave it at that. A lot of it is in how your church handles time off requests, etc. It is OK to push and say, “This is something extremely important to me and to miss it would be at a great personal cost.” Just because it doesn’t involve biological family doesn’t mean it doesn’t have importance and meaning to your mental and spiritual well being.
How do you date and maintain credibility with your youth and their parents? Some parents may see dating as questionable behavior even when there’s nothing serious going on.
I am not a good person for this question.
I don’t date much. I think I could be called to being single for life, which raises all kinds of issues in the church. (We don’t like to talk about those passages much.)
In dating, this is what I do think:

  1. If it isn’t serious, there is no need to advertise it. And there is especially no good reason at all to bring the significant other around the youth group. If it ends, that can create all kinds of drama.
  2. Be honorable. Don’t have your significant other spend the night, even if it is all aboveboard, etc. You are a role model and that means you are called to being above reproach. (This is especially important in long distance relationships! Have a plan for where they are staying other than your house.)
  3. When and if it becomes more serious, tread slowly in terms of church and youth group. For example, don’t bring your significant other on youth trips. Start with having him or her come to worship or a youth event.

Being single has cost me in ministering to some kids. I have had dads who would not let their daughters be highly involved in the youth ministry because I am a single man. Regardless of your gender, you need to work hard to have people of the opposite gender on your team. And you need to have firm, established, unbreakable boundaries when it comes to students of the opposite sex.
How do you fend off unwanted “prospects”? The mom who keeps telling you about her single nephew or the senior pastor who wants to introduce you to his granddaughter?
After my first job, I have started at each new church with a declaration that this was completely and totally unacceptable. That has worked. As I have gotten older (past the age of 30), I run into the issue of my own personal sexuality and questions about it, specifically if I am homosexual. Sometimes it asked by well meaning people who just want to express care for me and see that as an answer to their question of why I am an unmarried, approaching 40 heterosexual male. Sometimes the issue been used by people who want to use such an allegation as a weapon to harm me.  In both cases, I try hard not to let it become an issue that gains much ground by asserting that I am someone who is attracted to people of the opposite sex, who is living in the call of scripture to live a full, healthy but celibate life until such a time as I find a spouse and get married.
Youth ministers (and all of those in ministry roles) are expected to maintain a certain level of belief without doubt, to love their jobs and the kids to whom they minister, and to be happy that they are able to have a job in which all you do is worship God and love kids. How do you deal with that “happiness” myth and with the reality that sometimes this is not the job you thought you wanted? That you’re never able to truly leave work at work?
This is a place where you do need some support outside of the church. Married people have spouses who can help them vent and process things. You need friends. Friends in ministry are especially helpful because they know and have experienced some of what you have and are experiencing. Cultivate those friendships.
In terms of the happiness stuff, sometimes a job is a job. Now if it is that way for months, then that should give you pause. Celebrate the things that are right. I really struggle with dwelling on the negatives. So you need to periodically celebrate the things that are good. Check out my “It’s Worth It” box.
Any other advice for fellow single youth ministers?
Singleness is undoubtedly a gift. I know our world doesn’t see and treat it as such. Being single now doesn’t mean you are going to be single forever. Only God knows and can direct that. But in the meantime, recognize some of the benefits singleness give you:

  • You get to have more time to do things like go to games, concerts, etc. to see your youth.
  • You can work longer hours when you need to without it disrupting your home life.
  • You can focus solely on Jesus and grow in him.

I do know there are times when it is hard. In those moments, I remind myself that Jesus was single and the scriptures talk about how he experienced a whole, full life. It means it is possible for us too!
Check out the links below for the other articles in our short series “Married/Single in Youth Ministry.”
Married in Youth Ministry: The Newlyweds
Single in Youth Ministry: Her View
Married in Youth Ministry: With a Minivan and a Mortgage
Single in Youth Ministry: His View
Married in Youth Ministry: The Veterans