Tag Archives: youth pastor

youth pastors need a title change

The title “Youth Pastor” has implication.

Whether you’re a professional Christian (meaning, you’re paid by a church or other organization), or a volunteer youth worker, you’re likely reading this because you’re a youth worker. And that title implies something. Of course, exactly what it implies is very subjective, and includes heaps of expectations, inferences, values and duties.

Most commonly, I find that the implication of the Youth Pastor (or Youth Minister, or Director of Youth Ministries, or Student Ministries Pastor, or Youth Director) title is this: Program Planner for Teenagers. This has been the case for at least four decades. And while you might chafe if someone in your church or community suggested “Program Planner for Teenagers” as your official job title, it’s the implication, the expectation, for most of us.

Maybe you’re wondering if that’s really true in your context or not. Here’s a little test I’ve developed for determining real values (which, by the way, are the driving force behind the real meaning of “Youth Pastor” in your situation): resource allocation reveals values. So, your church might say, “we have a high value on our youth pastor building meaningful relationships with teenagers.” But if your resources of time, money, energy, focus, creativity, people and space are dominantly used for prop up a Christian-y social club for teenagers with the measuring stick of how many are coming, or how many don’t leave, then that value is suspicious. If you say, “I value fostering a community of safety and trust, where teenagers and express and process doubts,” but you spend the bulk of your time and energy planning programs, well … you get the point.

I’m not picking a fight with the title of Youth Pastor. It is what it is. And I’m not one for pretentious new world titles like “Lead Teen Experience Architect” or “Director of Young Person Formation” that sound nifty, but don’t deliver anything more than a fleeting sense of hipness.

No, let’s leave Youth Pastor alone. But let’s change the implication.

Recent research into what sustainable faith in teenagers really looks like delivers some critical off-centering hip-checks to the old implication of Program Planner. The reality is that teenagers can be wonderfully engaged in our programs for years, but not develop a sustainable faith. We’ve built programs that are wonderfully effective at delivering the results we’ve built them for: teenagers who appear to have an active faith as long as they’re connected to our ministry. But as soon as they’re no longer in our prescribed age-range, that faith is no longer sustainable.

What the research has revealed, among other things, is that teenagers need to experience a multi-generational connection to the whole church, not only to the youth group. In fact, those teenagers who feel a meaningful connection to their church tend to hold onto their faith into their young adult years whether or not they participated in a youth group.

So here’s the suggested implication change. Instead of Youth Pastor meaning Program Planner, let’s move toward Youth Pastor meaning Banner Bearer for Teenagers. You can swap out other verbiage in place of Banner Bearer if you want: Champion, or Advocate, or even Gadfly (a personal favorite of mine). But the implication remains the same: our role is to act as a connection conductor, helping teenagers find meaningful integration into the body of Christ, not isolating them into an age-group ghetto. Our role is to speak into the broader context of the church, not allowing them to forget about their calling to teenagers.

You might be thinking: I don’t have the power to make that change. Ah, you might be surprised. Banner Bearers don’t have to be empowered to do much more than carry the banner; and when you wave it well, and wave it often, some will respond (and you might even wear down some of the resistance over time). This kind of change takes times (years, even). But it has to start with you and me: as we shed the skin of Program Planner, and move into a new self-image as Youth Workers.

(And, no, Kurt, i’m not being anti-program.)

**by the way – I just thought of this after posting, and have come back to add – this is basically what April Diaz will be presenting on at The Summit.

how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

i’ve really enjoyed being part of creating slant33.com this year. the youth cartel picked the 20 primary contributors, came up with the 52 weekly questions, and worked with the contributors to select three for each question. but i’m also one of the contributors. this week’s slant asks a practical question that has been posed to me many times over the last decade or so: how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

here’s my response:

I moved too often in my first bunch of years of youth ministry. Let’s just get that on the table right up front. I can easily explain or justify each move (the church couldn’t hire me full time; I got fired; there were budget cutbacks, and I was going to lose my job). All legit. All rational.

The problem is, though, I think my mess was too much a part of the decision-making goulash each time. I wanted more power. I wanted to be liked more. I wanted to be respected more. And, man, the grass is so freaking green at the church calling you. It’s like green food coloring green.

I’m not saying those moves were mistakes. But I’m definitely saying my process of deciding was faulty. Well, except maybe the time I got fired. I didn’t have much say in that. But my discernment process for the next job was just as faulty as the ones that offered more volition. It wasn’t until I left my fourth church, to go to Youth Specialties, that my process was patient and thoughtful and anything resembling spiritual discernment.

In church world, we are pretty good at masking this. We are quick with the “God is calling me” language because it just doesn’t sound that good to say, “I just don’t like you people” or, “Sorry, but that other church offered me way more money” or, “I ran out of ideas here and need to go somewhere else where I can repeat them all and have them seem new.”

Over my dozen years at Youth Specialties, and in the couple years since, I’ve had hundreds of youth workers ask me about leaving. I don’t think we have the space to go into a deep response about spiritual discernment. But let me take a swing at a couple other related issues:

Are you worn out? Youth ministry can be one of the more wearying jobs out there. There are plenty of other jobs that are more physically exhausting. But when you add in the emotional, mental, and relational strain, well, it’s easy to get toasty. So we all get worn out. The question is: Is this a worn out that, with some rest, you can come back from? Are you tired, or are you worn out to the point that you’re going to do damage if you stay?

You might need some extended rest or a sabbatical in order to figure this out. (Of course, that feels risky too. My friend asked for and received a three-month sabbatical to discern whether he was supposed to stay at his church. On the day he returned to tell the church he had a renewed sense of calling and was going to stay, they informed him they’d decided the opposite. Ah, churches. That goofy bride o’ Christ.)

The other significant question I think youth workers need to ask themselves is: Can I find something—anything—that I can respect about my senior pastor and leadership? In my experience, most people who are even considering a move at all are, to one extent or another, dissatisfied. Something is not great. And, more often than not, when I dig into these questions with youth workers, I find the core issue circling around an eroded trust in and respect for the senior pastor (or sometimes for the broader church leadership; but that’s tolerable if the youth worker feels like the senior pastor is honest about it).

Here’s what it boils down to for me: If you’re wondering about leaving, even flirting with the idea, there are some steps to take and questions to ask yourself:

    1. Bring a discernment team around for this purpose alone. Obviously, these need to be highly trustworthy people who will understand the confidentiality of the situation. Read up on Quaker Clearness Committees and give the group permission, even a charge, to ask you anything and everything.

    2. Ask yourself, Why am I less than satisfied? Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and journal about it.

    3. If your dissatisfaction is centered around a lack of respect for the leadership of the church, you have three options:

  • Leave. If you are bitter and stay, you will do damage. Hear this: Even if the church leadership really is wrong, it’s wrong for you to be a mini Godzilla.
  • Realize you’ll need to leave but not immediately. Set a deadline. Be optimistic and supportive of the church leadership, knowing there’s a light at the end of your tunnel.
  • Or, find something to respect about your senior leadership and pray for a softened heart and renewed passion.

read responses from adam mclane and lars rood here. and check in on slant33.com every monday afternoon for a new question and three slants (or subscribe via email or rss here).