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.

23 thoughts on “youth pastors need a title change”

  1. I’ve been fighting this for some time. I’m still trying to figure out what this looks like in my context, and I think that will be an ongoing process.

    Personally, I like the title “Gadfly.” :)

  2. Love it! I know many YP’s (self included) that have fought this for years. How do you go about changing that dna and culture of the church. From my experience its and 80-20 sometimes… 20% of the problem is my (yp’s) thoughts on what should be happening in youth ministry, but the 80% is leadership driven wanting the programs and the numbers and separation.

    What kind of practical advice can be given on sharing this vision for a better style? A healthier way?

  3. Yeah, Brit. I think that 80/20 is fair. Though, I’ve certainly seen plenty of 100/100, and 100/70. :)

    Marko’s sure-fire steps:
    1. Think about it and pray about it.
    2. Talk about it with a few trusted peeps.
    3. Talk about it more widely at the church – in staff meetings, with volunteers and parents. Show em the research (or describe) it. Seed the ideas all over the place.
    4. See what grows.

  4. Thank you for calling this out. This problem extends much further than youth ministries. Often pastors carry this title and have too many extras attached to it. A pastor cares for people as a basic rule, but too often people carry this title without functioning as a pastor. Many “pastors” solve day to day problems like approving lawn care or programming for specific needs instead of caring for people. Some of this is directed byt eh expectations of the church, but more often it comes from the leader who hides from intimate relationships.

    The same is true for youth pastors. It’s much safer to lead programs than people. So maybe a better title is director of youth or youth coordinator. I’ve seen these more and more lately. As for me, I’m a youth pastor.

  5. Our new Pastor of Student Ministry and Worship Arts started just this week. We had the conversation about what it means to be a “pastor”; to us, it means shepherd. His role then is to shepherd and lead students, not foster programming.

    In many churches, this is an issue because many churches just want someone to keep the kids busy. Our goal s to educate parents and the church that it means something else.

  6. I have been trying for years to get the title of “Youth Monsignor”. But I will have to settle for the new job title I was just given: “Middle School Developer” which I kind of like! :^) The idea is that my role is developing leaders and ministry. Good times!

  7. I absolutely agree with about 90% of this. The biggest struggle I’ve witnessed is what I’ve seen in two of the positions I’ve held. When we have the banner, we end up becoming the target. Often, it seems, the realization of the change you try to instill, takes place with those who follow you.

    I’ve served in two churches where coming in, the expectation was to be the Program Planner/Leader. When I found the banner (buried in some obscure closet which hadn’t been seen since before the first “Program Planner” was hired,” dusted it off, carried it around for a year or two and then started waving it furiously. In both situations, change happened…after I was no longer there. I think often, if we choose to be the first to wave the banner, we often begin to see the attitude change during out time, but we may really be setting the stage for those who come after us.

  8. Marko,

    Great post! After 25 years of doing student ministry this is not a new concept, I’ve heard it numerous times. The problem is that we get sucked in to being program planners instead of Banner Bearers for teens because the power brokers want to see results and frankly we may see it as just easier. Being a banner bearer is messy, it stirs things up! The kind of results from Banner Bearers take years and the power peeps cant see that. So we become numb to the fact that we are supposed to be raising that banner high and succumb to programming again, I know… I was one of them!

    Your advice to Britt was dead on:
    1. Think about it and pray about it.
    2. Talk about it with a few trusted peeps.
    3. Talk about it more widely at the church – in staff meetings, with volunteers and parents. Show em the research (or describe) it. Seed the ideas all over the place.
    4. See what grows.

    I would take it one step further to address the issue for the CHURCH worldwide… the key leaders, “figure heads” of student ministry, the top bloggers in the world need to be constantly raising this banner as a reminder! If not… we’ll get sucked back into being programmers again. I’m sure after reading your post half of the youth pastors went back to planning their Sunday morning BIG event! LOL Does that make sense?

  9. chad — you have a good point, and i’ve seen that scenario play out many times also. the first banner bearer is often not very appreciated, but the seeds of change are planted. not the exact same topic, but i remember waving the banner of “we need a pre-teen ministry as part of our youth ministry” at one of my churches (where i was the junior high pastor), and getting massive resistance. but one month after i left, they hired a full-time pre-teen director and made that change. :)

  10. FINALLY, I have been saying this forever…intergenerational…church family…interconnected…and I like the term “age-group ghetto”…

  11. @tom- what will be on the flag? ;)
    Of course, we all fight this. I wrote my Master’s thesis on this…”Dismantling Youth Ministry While Re-Relationalizating the Church” is what I called it. I’m trying to move from program planner to relationship broker. It’s by no mean a prescription, but it has helped me to dialogue about this with people like us(YP’s). It is an extremely slow process. I’ve found that when I take those little steps of faith in changing things, God does some pretty cool things. Anyways, I don’t have a lot of answers but if anyone wants to read my thoughts and chat about it, shoot me an email at [email protected]. Sorry Marko for plugging this on your blog but this is such an important conversation. I don’t have any competing books to sell either. :) I always appreciate the topics you push us on!

  12. Minister of Youth and Children is my title but I usually say I am the associate pastor with particular focus on youth and children. I hate to be called youth director, sounds like a program planner. A collegue of mine feels we should all be called “pastor” since we are essentially “shepherding the flock” despite what age they are. I would prefer to be called by my name “Tim” but depending on the age of the person I have been called “pastor”, “doctor”, “director”, “planner”, and a few other names like “idiot”, “spineless”, and “abscent minded.” What is in a name or title and do people really care or notice? Here’s to “lover of teens” and “teen advocate!”

  13. A preemptive strike! Your need to clarify that this isn’t an anti-programs post shows that it can easily be read as such! ;)

    But instead of reminding everybody that there’s nothing wrong with programs…but that there can be something wrong with the motives behind them…I will say this about this particular post: I AGREE 100%!…and I’m living it right now.

    Our church has a fully functioning ministry to college-aged students. A few months ago we decided to cancel their weekly worship gathering so they would be more likely to attend church with rest of congregation. It is part of our new effort to make Saddleback more intergenerational in some very basic ways.

    As a result, I recently spent 30 minutes explaining to the rest of our senior leaders why simply canceling the midweek program didn’t mean we no longer have a college ministry and we can’t “re-pot” our college Pastors! I opened their eyes to the fact that the vast majority of college ministry happens outside a program….that our college pastors are constantly shepherding our students in all sorts of ways; in coffee shops, on campuses, etc. That our college team will do as much (or more) hands-on ministry than ever before, but it will look different. It wasn’t a hard sell….but I had to sell it.

    This stuff takes savy leadership, courage and the ability to patiently educate folks who have operated under the current paradigm for decades.

    My ongoing concern for my youth ministry friends is that some will change too much, too quickly, and become unnecessary martyrs.

  14. Hi All, i am writing from Johannesburg South Africa. We have recently had this discussion during training that we were doing with an organization called J-life. I agree with Kurt that it is not programs that are the problems but Churches that run programs without having a clear purpose for that program. I also agree with Marko that a key role for “Youth Pastors” to play is to be a reconciled or bridge between adults and teenagers. It is very difficult for 20 something Youth Pastors to play this role, but it becomes easier as you get older. I think it is equally important to have teens serving not just in the youth ministry but also in the life of the other ministries. Programs that do not enable a culture of making disciples are the problem!

  15. Revolutionary thought right here. Same message as Sticky Faith, but deeper. Imagine a world where the church recognizes the issue, does something about it and creates sustainable faith in young people. Gods doing this in our small church I believe. I just pray and hope the flag bearers will stand up after the ones that are there are gone. I know God wont call them somewhere else without leaving some behind, right?

  16. Thanks Marko. Great thoughts. This has reminded me today of some commitments I’ve ignored since attending ‘ReGroup.’ Thanks for the inspiration.

  17. Right on! I have felt this (and tried to practice as well as I possibly can) for years. I am reading Family-Based Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries. It is helping me get my thoughts around what I have instinctively known and practiced. I think it is also helping find a way to communicate this concept. I am hearing this more and more and I think what we are talking about is doing the job we are called to, making disciples. We need to first make sure that parents understand Christian faith well enough to articulate that faith and teach that faith to their own children. This may not be in total the job of the “youth ministry” but it is needed; many parents have left me with the impression that they do not feel like they can disciple their own children. Once the parents are “up to speed” on their faith and can teach their own children, we do need to help get students well connected to other adults in the Church who can reinforce what is taught at home and be mentors to them.

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