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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.
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Mark the Oestreicher- The Youth Cartel
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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.
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April Diaz- The Youth Cartel
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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)?

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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?

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Underneath that (robe, Hawaiian t-shirt, v-neck) Your Pastor is Really a…

Think about a pastor at your church.

rickwarren3Pastors often have a little descriptor (lead, senior, head) before their title that basically informs the congregation where the buck stops. The title “pastor” tells us something about function, calling and purpose and yet those little words at the beginning can often overshadow the richness of the word pastor (conclusion of baby soapbox).

Moving beyond titles, we can benefit greatly from understanding what makes each pastor come alive. This “thing” that makes them come alive also shapes the flock or the ministry area they oversee. So without further rambling, I propose that many pastors fall into one of several categories or flavors of “pastor.” These flavors shape how they not only read the Bible and how they live it out, but how they spend their time and efforts in certain areas of the church.

So think about that theme or emphasis that can sneak its way into every one of your pastor’s sermons. Also observe the areas where he or she spends most of their time. Now read the descriptions below and decide where your pastor may fit.

The Missionary- this pastor loves preaching the Great Commission and talking about places like the “ends of
the earth”, but they would rather “do” the Great Commission than preach about it. When you walk in their office it looks like National Geographic. The Missionary pastor goes on as many mission trips as they can to model a value to the congregation, but also to reignite a fire in their own souls.

The Eternal Youth Pastor- this is more than a grown up version of the Chuck Taylor wearing, guitar strumming, egg tossing, burrito gorging youth leader. This is the pastor who truly believes that young people are a precious asset and resource in the church. They get energy from young kids and their parents. This type of pastor often uses “family” type language when referring to the entire church. I know some senior pastors of larger churches who ride on the bus almost every year with teenagers on their way to camp. They spend that time getting to know some of their favorite people for a day or two and then fly back to the church. These pastors are making investments into an age group that they believe is crucial towards spiritual vitality in the church.

The Theologian- just walk into their office. In a youth pastor’s office you will see figurines sandwiched betweenshutterstock_94915312 really snazzy looking books, but not so with the Theologian. The Theologian’s office smells like dust from the long and thick volumes of commentaries. If they are a fun Theologian pastor, they will have a Luther or Calvin bobble head in their office. This pastor is not simply an introvert, a nerd or a librarian in waiting. The Theologian has a deep respect for those who have gone before and have wrestled with the deep and rich themes of scripture. They aren’t showing off when they drop names like Zwingli, Kierkegaard, Barth, Calvin or Luther. There is simply a deep belief that the findings of great theologians can guide us into the future as the Body of Christ. Most likely the Theologian will not be found on a global mission trip or a youth event, but they will jump on the opportunity to be an adjunct at a seminary, take a tour group to Europe or listen to Greek and Hebrew lessons while driving in their car.

The Pastor Pastor- you may never remember something the Pastor Pastor says from the pulpit, but you will never forget how they sat with you, wrote you a letter or gave you a call. When you are laid up in a hospital, you don’t won’t the Theologian and you sure don’t want the Eternal Youth Pastor. You want the Pastor Pastor. This type of leader will listen and listen and listen then hug and listen then write you a card a week later. When this type of pastor preaches, they often choose the  stories where Jesus demonstrates the ministry of presence to those in need. If you dig around in the Pastor Pastor’s office you will find a miniature communion set, a clergy name badge, some healing oil, a bunch of books by Eugene Peterson and most definitely there will be a picture of a Shepherd on their wall.

This is not my attempt to put people in a box, rather I see this as identifying a pastor’s passion. It can also be helpful in discerning how to build a team to make up for areas that are weaker or absent after you have identified what makes a pastor come alive.

What am I missing?
Which one is most common in churches today?

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Reclaiming the Prophetic Role in Youth Ministry

Full disclosure: Most of my life I have maintained a negative reaction to the terms prophet, prophecy and prophetic. We didn’t use words like that in my flavor of church and as a teen I thought those that did flew on carpets, carried wands and spoke in made up languages. The truth was that I was afraid of what I didn’t know. On top of my ignorance, I watched my fair share of televangelists on obscure channels as I was growing up.

Long story short, I no longer think prophets are scary.

It has taken years, but I have reclaimed this biblical word (prophet) like I have so many other words in scripture that have become bad words in our current culture. Without a doubt, prophets were the mouthpieces of God and they often spoke of things that were to happen in the future. But, but, but that does not mean they were merely future fortunetellers who would proclaim mind blowing facts about the days to come. In the Hebrew, the word prophet or prophecy meant to bubble forth the declarations of God. Read this short little section of 1 Corinthians 14 as Paul talks about prophecy:

“But everyone who prophesies speaks to men (and women) for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” 1 Corinthians 14:3

While the OT prophets often said “get your stuff together or you’re screwed”, there are so many more prophetic messages we find throughout scripture. shutterstock_46966321Think about your ministry right now. Imagine what it would look like if you became the chief bubble forther and recruited and equipped a gaggle of bubble forthers? I know that I can get lost in the programming, preparing and procrastinating of youth ministry, which can often keep us from speaking life and hope into the lives young people and their parents.

Here is a simple example of a prophetic or bubbling forth statement:

“Hey _____, I just wanted to let you know that I have been watching you for a long time, not in a stalker-ish way of course. I really think God has given you such a gift of compassion. You really care about people, especially those who have been overlooked in life. I’ve seen you show great compassion on mission trips, in the stands at football games and with students in the ministry who feel like they are on the outside. I’m not sure HOW God will use your gift of compassion in the future, but I know he will in one-way or another. Just wanted to let you know that.”

I can vividly remember adults who prophetically spoke truth and hope into my life as a rowdy teenager. They had the ability to see through my rough exterior and identify unique ways in which God had crafted me. They were prophets. They bubbled forth statements that spoke to the way that they saw me and the way God saw me. There has never been a time in history where young people hear as many voices telling them who they are and who they are not as they do right now. As I sit here writing this, I am deeply convinced that being a prophet and affirming the gifts God has given to each young person may be the most important thing I can offer young people in my midst.

Dear God, Would you give us the words to share with young people so they may realize they have been wonderfully made in your image and for your purposes. -Amen

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3 Types of Away: What I’ve Learned about Time Off

Expectations, Expectations, Expectations.

Whether I’m doing premarital counseling or sorting out conflict at work or at home, I seem to always come back to expectations. The older I get, the more I realize that I have so many expectations of others without even realizing it. The same can be said of those I work, live and play with. They have expectations of me as well. Some expectations are fair and some are unfair. Regardless, when expectations are not met, I (we) tend to get sour and smelly.

For me, expectations and time away from work go hand in hand. 

Early in our marriage I remember being exhausted and spent after coming back from vacation. I also remember being super frustrated each time we visited family members. I wanted to go see and experience a bunch of new things and my wife wanted to actually stay and visit. It would be fare to say that each member of my family has different expectations when we pack up the car and head out.

shutterstock_113247892So here are the 3 categories I use to manage my expectations in terms of time away.

1. Vacation: this type of time involves my wife and 2 daughters, with the expectation of fun for the whole family. Sometimes it costs a bit of money and sometimes it doesn’t. Our hope is to create some fun memories, laugh a lot and see something new. This is not rest. We always come back exhausted, but grateful.
P.S- I think the idea of “stay-cations” is awesome and a savvy way to have fun.

2. Visiting: the primary expectation here is to spend quality time first and foremost with those we are visiting. Now that we don’t live near any of the grandparents or family, we must be intentional with our visiting time, knowing that time away from work and money can make this difficult. I find visiting more restful than vacation, but when I get urges to just hop in the car and explore by myself, I must remember that spending quality time with those I am visiting is number one. Visiting can be challenging for me because I like to be on the go. One remedy my wife has suggested over the years is that my adventures included the nephews and nieces, creating little outings that are relational and fun.

3. Rest: In my life, this is the endangered and most rare species of time. For us, rest means that our children are not present, our phones and computers are at a distance and generally off. Our expectations for rest include little scheduling, lots of freedom to listen, chat and relax with my spouse. At this stage in our life, rest is difficult in terms of finding sitters for a longer period of time, yet it is the key to our spiritual and emotional health. Right now my wife and I are in Naples, FL resting from and celebrating 10 years of marriage. We figured out how to do it on the cheap and it has been life giving. We actually think our kids benefit from time away from us as well.

In the 5 days away, I have grown in gratitude toward my daughters, my ministry and my wife. Rest has always been a scary concept, but I have slowly come to love not only the concept of rest, but the fruit that comes from resting.