Missing In Action: The Increasingly Elusive Youth Pastor
Nearly every week there are churches asking for leads, recommendations, or assistance in securing a student pastor for their church. The most common lament I hear is: “We have been diligently searching, but it seems the good ones (code for young, well trained, and experienced) are few and far between. Can you help us?” Sure, and let me guess, you are looking for a 27 year-old with at least five years of experience – ten would be better, a master’s degree in Christian Ministry with an emphasis in youth, preaches powerfully with cutting edge cultural relevance, a spouse who offers a two-for-one special in organizational management or counseling skills with a personality that any sales manager would love to employ.
Consider that if just two of these seven qualities were found (masters & experience), the resume would be plucked from a seven-percentile pool of ministers within the evangelical church field. Why is finding a “youth guy” becoming an increasingly challenging task?
Based on 37 years of youth ministry experience, numerous consulting interviews, and some informal research, let me offer a few thoughts regarding the phenomenon of the disappearing vocational youth pastor.
- WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO: Anytime a profession becomes deemphasized, devalued, underpaid, and under-appreciated, it’s future is probably not as bright as its past. Fortunately, the nation-wide ebb and flow of ministry culture keeps the position of student pastor from vanishing completely. From books, blogs, and denominational leadership huddles, the vocational calling of youth pastor has been on the receiving end of finger-pointing since the mid-2000’s. Critics are quick to point out the decline in professionalism and productivity flowing from the youth ministry arena. Most of all it is the spotlight shining on the declining number of adolescent professions of faith that sound the greatest alarm (as it should). We seem to overlook the church-wide decline in attendance when we are determined to find “the” reason for the decline in the number of youth conversions. Coupled with the cultural immorality and anti-Christian views defining GenZ, the collective impact of youth ministry is below its golden-age standards of the eighties and nineties. The process of discrediting youth ministry is usually unintentional, but, is none the less being perpetuated by church leaders, pastors, staff, parents, and personnel teams across the fruited plains. Pointing a finger in one direction for too long can be costly to the Kingdom effort.
- PUT ME IN COACH: It is no secret that God has and is continuing to tap student pastors as part of His plan to raise up a next-gen of church planters. In fact, many healthy churches today were started by former youth pastors. It makes sense that God would choose to mobilize His new generation of church planting missionaries using folks who routinely experiment with new methods of reaching lost teenagers and are comfortable with an ever-shifting sub-culture. Since youth ministry is a fertile ground for innovation and passion, it serves as a launching pad –of sorts-for developing a church planting mind-set to go, plant, and grow. We should be proud to support individuals who are called to gospelizing those areas where the gap between population growth and evangelism has dramatically widened. While this is a positive outcome, it is also a depleting factor within the youth ministry pipeline.
- THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG: Are there fewer Christian Universities offering student ministry majors and minors resulting in fewer participants in the pipeline (or) are there fewer students entering youth ministry resulting in downsized programs or cancellation of courses needed to maintain a major or minor in student ministry? Either way, the result is the same: fewer trained and available youth pastors waiting in the well from which pastors can draw.
- IT IS WELL: Most churches have recovered from the personnel downsizing trend delivered courtesy of the recession. However, many have not, or ever intend to reverse the personnel decisions made during the pinch of financial hardship.
- As bread-winners and families adjusted to lower wages, loss of job, or two part-time jobs replacing one well paying full time job, the affect tricked down to the church budget and on the agenda for discussion among finance and personnel teams. The percentage of resources being allocated towards the personnel line was deemed the lessor of two evils (cut personnel or cut programs). Many churches made the decision to call upon available volunteers to step-up and assume the duties of the pastor being let go until the financial bleeding stops and reverses. This sounds like a logical solution and should have been more successful in application, but the recession lasted longer than predicted, was deeper than many wanted to admit, and hit the church harder than reserves could make up. Many ministries had not prepared their volunteers through biblical lay-ministry ownership like lead-team ministry and were ill-equipped for taking up the mantel of leadership during the interim of financial hardship.
- The full-time youth pastor position was reduced to part-time status requiring the vocational youth pastor to seek other employment, re-tool towards bi-vocational ministry service, or move to a different ministry position entirely.
- When church budgets didn’t allow for a well-trained, experienced youth minister the pastor or search team may have looked for a home-grown candidate within the congregation. This often resulted in hiring a well-liked albeit unqualified, untrained, director of youth activities rather than a professional youth pastor.
- HIDDEN NUMBERS: With fewer GenZ students attending church, many churches have given up the fight for the souls of this generation. The reasoning is simple: less youth or less interest equals less importance, or less need. In fact, it’s just the opposite. During an epidemic, more emphasis and assistance should be assigned to the front lines of the outbreak. We need more children and student pastors answering the call than any time in our recent history. We must never give up the fight for a generation, despite extreme cultural immorality, anti-Christian sentiment, or decline in church attendance and support.
- FAMILY MATTERS: No doubt, the Family Ministry Movement helped shine a spotlight on the importance of ministering to the family unit. It also helped improve the overall ministry impact to families who wanted to accept the role of primary disciple maker within the home. It simultaneously initiated a much-needed dilution of the wayward “silo” approach to youth ministry. This well-intended, if not necessary approach to move the resistant church of the 80s and 90s toward reaching the adolescent community was never intended to endure as the ranking philosophy for reaching youth and their families for the Kingdom. However, the family ministry movement inadvertently affected the position of student pastor. Many churches either eliminated the position of student pastor altogether or greatly reduced the role and importance of the position. Some joined the ranks of the “Youth Ministry Abolitionist” movement and completely dismantled and abandoned their ministry focus on the adolescent community. This extreme approach has proven futile in capturing the mind and hearts of a growing community of digital natives. This generation is increasingly untethered from the family and free to decide where they spend their discretionary time and money. Some church leaders invested such tremendous relational capital in making Family Based ministry the new model that it became nearly impossible to admit its ineffectiveness. Some leaders felt compelled to double-down on the Family Based approach even as we watched this highly-promoted silver bullet miss its mark by the same margin as traditional student ministry.
Many churches falsely believe the answer to their aging congregation is to hire a young, vibrant youth minister who will attract youth and families. Surely this will reverse the trend of a declining church. But if the pipe-line is deficient, what will the church do? Some churches will be fortunate in their search to find a limited version of a youth director, student pastor, or willing individual to lead the youth ministry and that will likely have a positive effect. However, it is rarely the solution to a churches overall decline and ineffectiveness. Other major deficiencies should be explored in addition to expecting the youth ministry to be part of an effective ministry coalition. A comprehensive and honest evaluation of the churches worship, small groups, evangelism, discipleship, and ministry to the community should be part of an overall plan to achieve a standard of ministry excellence.
- Pray for student pastors, search teams, youth and families, and for God to raise up an army of men and women called to serve among children and youth.
- Speak often and positively towards the need for reaching the adolescent community with the Gospel. Remember, the future of our churches is sitting in middle school right now!
- Encourage your paid youth staff and volunteers. Nothing feels as good as being noticed and appreciated.
- Speak to your pastor, denominational leaders, Christian college/Seminary leaders and other influencers about the need for professional student ministry training.
- Be generous. Make every effort to compensate your student pastor with an honorable wage and benefits package. Sometimes the only significant raise a youth pastor ever receives comes from moving to another church or another position.
- Refrain from treating youth pastors as Jr. Ministers. Ministry is hard work and age-graded ministry for a trained youth pastor is no less important and often more challenging among an ever-shifting sub-culture of teens.
- Give more platform time to the youth pastor. Even if you feel the need to script what is said, the effort will still advance the cause by increasing exposure. Pastors and denominational leaders can more often weave into their messages the high call of ministry while emphasizing the call to serve the adolescent community.
- Spend one-on-one time with your youth pastor listening and praying with them. Give them the freedom to share disappointments as well as successes.
- Maintain realistic expectations for your student pastor. Measure what you expect against your community and church growth or decline.
- Discover and point youth pastors and volunteers toward continuing education or certification in youth ministry. The more prepared a person is, the more likely they will feel competent and confident in their ministry.
I call on every pastor, church leader, and youth ministry advocate to raise the banner of youth ministry high while raising the standard of excellence in which it functions. In His name, we can change the tide of student ministry and reach this and the next generation for Christ.
If you are searching for a youth pastor and need assistance or want your youth ministry to have greater Kingdom impact, contact me. I want to encourage and assist you.