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.
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.
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)?