The role of the youth pastor is changing

Where youth ministry is going - Part 1If you missed the introduction to this series yesterday called, “Where youth ministry is going,” there’s been a lot of great discussion on that post about trends we see in youth ministry and where we think they’re taking us.

It’s interesting for me to see how some of your perceptions are exactly the opposite of mine. Plus, I found it interesting that many of the trends you all have observed in youth ministry tend to be negative. Again, that’s been the opposite of what I’ve been feeling. I largely love the trends I’m seeing with the exception of one that I wish I saw more of, which I’ll explain at the end of this series next week.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this first trend I’m seeing in youth ministry. Comment below even if you only skim all of this.

1. The role of the YP changing in the larger church body.

In all my interviewing with churches this past year, one question that’s been very helpful for me to ask is, “So, why are you hiring a youth pastor?” Usually their response is noble and well-intentioned, but ultimately doesn’t satisfy the question. For example, “We really value teenagers,” or, “We need someone to run the ministry.” I’m glad churches value teenagers, but you don’t need a youth pastor to make teenagers feel valued. Nor do you need to hire a youth pastor to run the youth ministry. Some of the most healthy and thriving youth ministries I know of don’t even have a paid staff member.

In the past it mostly seemed to me that the role of the youth pastor was for the church to outsource that ministry to a paid professional. While every church’s heart is in the right place, ultimately what they were saying was, “We need to hire an expert to come in and do ministry to teenagers.”

The problem with that statement is that it takes responsibility away from the congregation for ministering to teenagers. It’s the church saying, “Youth ministry is your job.” They take the body’s calling to serve teenagers and place it on the shoulders of an individual who, unfortunately, accepts it and all the responsibilities and implications that go along with it.

This can look many different ways in different churches. Most commonly it’s, “We’re going to provide volunteers to support you in your ministry because we know you can’t do it by yourself.”

And sometimes we, as youth workers, actually perpetuate this perspective without even realizing it because sometimes it’s what we believe about our role, as well. Even by the way we recruit leaders, we approach potential adult leaders like we need someone to help us, someone to fill a vacant role in the youth ministry. From their perspective, they are joining us in our ministry to help us out, and sometimes we get fortunate enough to recruit someone who really loves teenagers and loves supporting us.

In some churches, that even goes a step further where they’re essentially saying, “We hired a youth pastor to do ministry to teenagers on behalf of the church so we don’t have to.”

And too many youth workers are accepting jobs like that then wondering…

  • why they’re burning out.
  • why they don’t feel the support they wish the ministry had.
  • why adult volunteers and students aren’t taking ownership of the ministry.
  • why the success and failure of the ministry rests on them.
  • why leaders don’t show up for trainings.
  • why leaders are not going to the soccer games of the kids in their small group.
  • why ministry feels mostly administrative.

The shift

Thankfully, some churches are starting to see this differently now.

Instead of hiring someone to “do youth ministry on our behalf,” they’re recognizing that God calls them, as a body, to minister to teenagers as much as they’re called to minister to adults, parents, children, senior citizens, and everyone else.

Some churches are now saying, “No, we value our teenagers too much to dump them on a youth pastor. We’re going to take responsibility of this ministry and corporately reach teenagers the best way we know how.”

They’ve effectively eliminated the need for a youth pastor, which is awesome!

From what I’ve seen, the churches who are thriving in their ministry to teenagers without a youth pastor are wholeheartedly taking ownership and are exponentially more effective in their spiritually intentional efforts to reach them because it’s a community of adults who serve because God has called them to do this, not because a youth pastor asked them to consider volunteering some time.

The problem they run into

Usually they cruise for several years doing amazing, awesome ministry until something happens: they hit the ceiling of what they can do. After all, these are people who aren’t trained in youth ministry – they just love teenagers and feel called to serve them.

So when they hire a youth pastor, it’s not to come in and take over the programming, planning, coordinating, and relationships with the kids – it’s to come alongside of the people who are already serving and train them to do it better.

It’s an equipping role, not an outsourcing role. It’s about coaching and modeling ministry and leading the leaders more than leading the teens. Youth ministry for the youth pastor revolves around the adult leaders more than it does around the students.

Wagon wheel vs. oil

As my friend Mark Riddle explains it, if you take the hub out of the wheel, everything stops and falls apart. Similarly if the hub of a ministry revolves around the youth pastor, the ministry will rise or fall based on that one person.

Instead of being the hub, pastors should serve as the oil between gears. The gears should turn with or without the youth pastor, but the youth pastor can help everything move more smoothly and effectively. The youth pastor gives input, helps steer the team in the right direction, provides training for each person’s role, supports and encourages, helps the team process through decisions, etc.

The role of the pastor in the church comes back to reflect Ephesians 4 a bit more accurately as an equipper of the saints.

Spiritual Gift vs. Position

Remember that being a pastor is just as much a spiritual gift as it is a position we hold.

Here’s the key: if being a pastor/shepherd is spiritual gift, then there are a lot more pastors in our church than we realize. Furthermore, there are lot more literal “youth” pastors in our own youth groups who are not even engaging on that level because the church body sees a pastor primarily as someone who is a forerunner in a paid position.

If we start to see the pastor/shepherds in our congregation and use them to be pastors to equip students, then our role is to equip and shepherd the equippers.

And thankfully I see that shift beginning to take place as churches think more critically about the youth pastor’s role and are becoming less content to give such a vital area of ministry over to a single paid individual.


  • How do you function in your church? More as a hub or more like oil?
  • Do you feel like your church primarily outsources the youth ministry to you?
  • How are you guys using the “youth” pastors and other pastors in your congregation?

Posted on January 25, 2012

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