So You Wanna Be A Youth Pastor?

Just about every week I talk to someone who says they want to be a youth minister. There are so many responses to this statement that I would love to share and hear from others as well. This will be another “All Skate” post where I ask some of my ministry friends to share their gut reactions, statements and questions in response to the person who inquires about youth ministry as a vocation.

Let me (Nate), take the first crack at this;

Gut Reaction: That’s rad! Do you know what you are getting into?

Statement: I get the feeling that many people want to lead a youth ministry because they liked their own experience as a teenager in youth ministry. They loved their youth group and their youth leader. This is not bad, nor is it great. I make this statement based off of my gut reaction above. From the periphery, many observers see youth pastors going on trips, teaching, playing guitars and hanging at Starbucks. Don’t get me wrong, these things are fun and life giving for me, but they are only part of the job.

A wise sage once told me that if you love Jesus and want to share that love with students, then you should be a volunteer. If you love Jesus, love students and their parents and the church and creating structures and environments for other adults to love students, then you may want to consider vocational youth ministry. I personally think every follower of Christ is called to youth ministry and most will never receive a penny for their efforts. Yet the small percentage in youth ministry who get a salary realize they must function as a coach not just a player or an architect and not just a builder. A player, builder, volunteer is no less important than a coach, architect or a paid youth pastor. They are just different roles requiring different gifts and wirings.

Questions: What type of volunteering or interning could you be doing now to explore youth ministry on a deeper level? What God given gifts do you have that would serve students and their families? Have those close to you affirmed this gifts you just mentioned?

Full Disclosure: If I come across a bit snarky, it is because I think youth ministry can play such a vital role in supporting parents and students as they journey in faith. Yes it is fun and yes it is serious.

Mark the Oestreicher- The Youth Cartel

Gut Reaction: Sweet! Youth ministry is awesome!

Statement: (well, usually I think “sweet.” But there are times when I think “oh, uh, I think you probably have a whole raft of issues you should seek professional help with before you jump into youth ministry.”)

I agree with Nate: a significant portion of college-age people heading into youth ministry are doing so because they had a great youth ministry experience. That’s not a bad reason. Frankly, it was my reason, initially. My youth workers had a huge impact on me, and gave me meaningful responsibility and leadership opportunities (including opportunities to fail) in the context of mentoring. My youth workers pointed out what they saw in me—calling out gifts and strengths, as well as areas I should work on developing. Really, in many ways, I think that’s the question I ask young adults who tell me their thinking of heading into youth ministry: in what ways have you tried it out, and who is mentoring you and helping you identify your calling?

When I was picking a college, youth ministry degrees didn’t exist. But today, there are well over a hundred schools with a youth ministry major or minor. This is good and bad. The ‘bad’ is that youth ministry has proven to be a popular major; so plenty of schools have added majors simply because it will help enrollment. And future youth workers would be better to major in something else, than to attend a school where a youth ministry major simply reinforces a ‘fun and games, drive-by missions, isolate those crazy teens’ approach to youth ministry. BUT, there are some world class youth ministry programs these days, teaching exceptional thinking and practice.

So if it’s a high school student asking me about going into youth ministry, I usually move to a conversation about which schools could really help prepare them for this calling and career.

Questions: The primary question, really, is “why?” I pursue an answer (or answers) to that question from a hopeful and encouraging perspective, usually – because I love that someone would be considering vocational youth ministry. So I’m not asking ‘why’ with a skeptical, cynical set of assumptions.

If the aspiring youth worker is 16 – 20, that ‘why’ question is usually my single line of questioning (other than talking about schools, if they’re still pre-college). I don’t see any great reason to pop the bubble of positivity and excitement they have, and don’t think my ‘here’s what it really looks like’ counter-arguments will be all that helpful at the tail end of middle adolescence. But if I’m talking to someone 21 and over (rough guideline – really this is about maturity and adultness), I’ll also push in a little on their assumptions about what youth ministry looks like in the real world. I meet with too many youth workers in soul-stealing, humanity-diminishing contexts, and want those with a bit more maturity to understand a more complete picture of the youth ministry landscape.

April Diaz- The Youth Cartel

Gut Reaction: I couldn’t imagine anything better giving your life to. Let’s grab a cup of coffee with Nate and talk more about that!

Statement: I’ll build off Nate’s wisdom and thought process. And I’d add to the conversation digging into matters of the soul. Some of the unhealthiest people I’ve seen in life are pastors and ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the way they’ve lost their souls. They’re unaware of their pain and how it leaks in leadership, their life stories, their true spiritual giftedness, and their relationship with Jesus. Maybe their souls were never healthy to begin with, but the crucible of ministry has a way of bring that to light.

I was highly unprepared for the spiritual intensity full-time ministry would bring with it. The spiritual warfare, increased spiritual activity, pressures from the church, and every other kind of stress are really intense in Jesus-kinds-of-work. For example, for years I was told I needed to build a prayer team for my family, my leadership, and myself. It wasn’t until about 14 years into ministry when I finally heeded this recommendation, and I cannot begin to describe how different my soul’s health and ministry effectiveness is. Something different happens when a shield of protection cover your ministry.

Finally, I’d want to talk about how much work you’ve done in your life when it comes to dealing with your junk, your pain, your brokenness. Yes, we are all a work in progress, but you can only claim that if you work on progressing into your fullest self. Have you ever gone to therapy? (I think every pastor needs to have a therapist available to them.) Do you have a spiritual director or coach? What kind of mentors do you have in place for your development? What does the accountability structure look like in your life? We’ve all seen far too many leaders fall or burn out. It doesn’t have to be like this. So, what measures are you taking for your health and wholeness?

Questions: “What’s the benefit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36) How is Jesus becoming greater and you’re becoming less show up in your leadership (John 3:30)?
What does a rich and satisfying life look like for you (John 10:10)?


Knowing Nate

40697_460983025490_3750876_nThose Greek gents really had something going by coining the phrase “know thyself“.

To be honest, this statement never resonated with me because I never knew the importance of actually knowing Nate. In the past year I have actually worked pretty hard to find out who I am. I have been sifting through fears, hopes, quirks, calling, dreams, talents, lies…the whole bit.

This common saying in Greek literature (know thyself) was implying that everyone else and everything else will attempt to define you, so you better know you first. I have spent most of my life listening to the definitions of others and even depending on them at certain points in my life. I have been defined by my crazy actions, my personality and my job title. These things have shaped me, but they don’t define me. They are not the full description of Nate.

At 36 years of age, I am just starting to see the fruit of knowing Nate. It is an ongoing journey. Finally I am realizing those situations that need extra prayer, those people I need to stay close to and how deeply I am affected by words (both good and bad). I have recently arrived at a place where I am no longer ashamed to say what I need in relationships. What used to be seen as a weakness is now an understanding of how I am wired and knowing my needs.

At this point you are thinking I am a narcissist…

Let me redeem my perceived narcissism. If I know both my strengths and weaknesses, then my chances of blessing others and having healthy interactions is high. When I am aware, I shut up when I need to shut up and I speak when I need to speak. I know when I am needed and when I need to wait. I know when I am being impulsive and when God’s Spirit is prompting me.

Truly knowing who we are is difficult. We are illusive little creatures. Ben Franklin said “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”

I don’t fully know myself. I never will. But I know more than I once did and I am grateful for it.

I have discovered a power in saying no and yes to things for the past 6 months. I can say yes and no because I feel confident in what I can and cannot do. You may think I am babbling, but I feel like a dog who just discovered his tale. This is great stuff.

All of this talk is connected to the rediscovery of “who’s” I am and not just who I am. It is possible to believe that we belong to God at a surface level and never investigate the depths of being the beloved of Christ.

My friends, the discovery of being Christ’s beloved is the greatest discovery we will ever discover and rediscover.

Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.
This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.
~Brennan Manning in Abba’s Child







Going Quaker…kinda

The Virtual Clearness Committee-

I have long been envious of a great practice used by the Quakers. Since the 1600’s they have been using the Clearness Committee as a form of communal discernment that I happen to find beautiful. QuakerOatsThere is more than you would ever want to know about this practice here, written by Parker Palmer.

In general, the person seeking discernment describes their upcoming decision or problem as clearly as possible. Then they select 4-6 people to make up their committee. Ideally you are looking for people who know you in different ways and in different parts of your life.

If one of these is to go well, you must select the right people. You are looking for those who can ask really good questions. This is not the time to have someone who loves to give advice or already thinks they know what you should do with your life. The purpose is for the committee to help YOU discern what God is saying or doing and not what your friends think.

Virtual Clearness- So I have done previous versions of this and now I am attempting to do a virtual version. I really have some wise friends from different walks of life who happen to live far away. I am curious if it will be as powerful since we won’t be face to face, but I want to try. Instead of a 2-3 hour intense retreat, I want to have a longer, drawn out season of questions from friends near and far. These friends I am asking are more contemplative and thoughtful than I tend to be and I know they will also pray for me in the process.

I will be using Google Docs or Google Drive so the entire group can see the questions and responses in real time. If you have other ideas on how to do this virtually, let me know.

What do I need clearness for?

Let me invite you inside my head and heart. I have been in youth ministry for almost 15 years and I really love what God has shown me and continues to show me through young people. Being newly ordained in the Presbyterian Church has brought up several conversations about calling. Am I a life-long youth pastor or a church planter or a solo pastor or bait shop owner? In some ways it doesn’t matter what I’m doing in 10 years because I want to honor Christ and serve his people whether in the church or selling worms to fishermen. Yet, I am fidgety right now. Am I right where God wants me? I am interested in getting a Doctoral degree, but would I be doing this for the right reasons? I have never really been in one spot for more than 7 years my entire life. Springfield, MO for 7, Wilmington, NC for 7 and now I am approaching my 7th year here in Colorado, so is the fidgety-ness just a 7 year itch, or is God calling me to something else or deeper into something in my very midst? I don’t know, hence the Clearness Committee.

Finally, I have found in my life that the Holy Spirit often speaks through caring friends. This whole conversation may have little to do with “what’s next” and more to do with my lack of trust in my Heavenly father who has given me so many reasons to trust.

Let the adventure begin, Quaker style.



Dear Senior Pastor, would you please…

Whether you call them senior, lead, brother, apostle, bishop, El Jefe or prophet, the primary leader of your church can embrace or alienate the youth in a few small steps. Clearly the pastor is to care for the entire flock, and we sheep will never know the enormity of that calling. Yet a busy pastor can make consistent small investments in the lives of students that will yield great fruit.   1. Come to a mission trip/retreat send off to pray for us and stay behind to tell our moms that it’s all gonna be ok. 2. Tell stories from your teenage years as you preach. 3.  Stop saying, “a better translation of this is…”  or diving way deep into Hebrew and Greek when you preach. When you do that from the pulpit, you take the Bible out of the hands of the teenager and add to the distrust and confusion of Scripture. 4. Come to 3 youth gatherings a year. Don’t just go and speak, but allow the students to ask you questions. This not only builds trust with students, but the youth ministry staff and volunteers as well. 5. Randomly pop in to a youth gathering. Interrupt the program quickly to bless the youth minister and volunteers in front of the kids. 6. Get on the bus! While going with the youth on a week long mission trip can be tough, I know a pastor who rides on the bus with the kids to camp and then flies back the next day. This builds incredible social capital. 7. Teenagers don’t want to hear just how you did it right. They want to know how you messed up and then they need to hear how you moved forward. That said, I need to address my youth worker friends with two thoughts: 1) We have a great role in playing the “agent” in this necessary endeavor. As we look down the road at our calendars, let us find ways for our pastor to spend time with our young people so that the interaction builds trust and yields fruit. 2) At heart, lead pastors are either theologians, missionaries, evangelists or youth pastors. So we must be aware some pastors will be as nervous coming to youth group as a home-schooled 6th grade girl would. Teenagers intimidate people. We as youth workers can lessen the intimidation. What have you seen pastors do to bridge the gap between them and the students of the church?


Cherry Picking in Youth Ministry

This might be my opinion, but it seems like there are fewer folks prepared to enter youth ministry as a career these days. Yet… there are many open opportunities across the country. It is crazy how many times a week I get an email or phone call from someone who has an open position and wants to know if I have any recommendations.

I am a fairly connected fellow in youth ministry circles and I rarely know someone who is looking. This has frustrated me for years, but I’m not sure exactly why it is happening or why I even have the right to be frustrated.

In comes Cherry Picking…will-tropics

“ a basketball term for a lazy person who just stays at one end of the court waiting for the ball so they can score. They don’t want to do the hard work (defense) required at the other end of the court.”

My friend Joe Ryan at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta invited me to speak at his camp this past week and I deeply enjoyed our late night shop talks while the teenagers were sneaking out of their cabins. They were having a good time and so were we. In one of our conversations he identified what I was struggling with in terms of hiring future youth ministers. Some churches are known for doing the hard work of developing young leaders, but most just want to hire an “already developed” leader.

Confession: While I believe I have helped to develop some leaders over the years, it is much easier if your church puts in the hard work so I can simply hire them. This is the lazy, cherry picking mindset many of us can slip into.

But wait….what if no one is developing young leaders?

 When I use the word “develop”, I do not simply mean that a church provides a good environment and a youth ministry experience for students. I am referring to the intentional work involving mentoring, spiritual formation, practical theology, hands on leading and learning and much more.

Here are 3 quick thoughts on developing leaders:

1. The Everyone or No One Principle: So often we in ministry feel guilty about not spending the same amount of energy on every student, so we fail to invest intentionally in anyone. Not that we are Jesus, but even Christ himself gave most of his time to 3, then the 12 and eventually to the 70. If a student is showing signs of servant leadership and wants to grow in that, then I don’t feel we should be ashamed to take this student and a few others under our wings.

2. Fellows Programs: I have been pleased with the growing trend of Fellows programs, intentional gap years and other intern ministries across the country. My friend Joe is leading the Peachtree Fellows program in Atlanta and we happen to have something called the Greenhouse here in Colorado Springs. These type of programs realize that those in their 20’s need some direct mentoring and some ground level ministry experience both inside and outside the church. These intentional ministries give me great hope for the future of youth ministry and beyond.

3. Throwing People in the Deep End Can End in Drowning: While the longevity of paid youth workers is getting a little better, it is still true that our tenure is way too short. When I first started, the average stay of a non-ordained youth worker in the Presbyterian church was about a year. ONE YEAR PEOPLE!!! While there are many factors to this, one major contributor is the lack of leader development in the church combined with the desperation many churches have to simply fill a hole. Regardless of what 20-year-old candidates tell you, few of them have every managed a budget, recruited a team or cast any kind of vision. When we put untrained youth workers in the deep end, we are being sloppy with their spiritual development and even more so with the spiritual needs of the students they are hoping to serve.

What does it look like to cultivate leaders who are willing to follow Jesus, be students of their culture and serve the church and her neighbors in your context?