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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.

Questions

  • 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

  • Youthministry2

    Tim,
    I really like this, I am just trying to visualize what this might look like on a weekly basis? For example: Our 2 hours with JHers on Wednesday Night has a general structure of 30 mins of sharing a meal, 30 mins of fun/games/community building, 15 mins of worship through music/prayer/scripture, 15 mins talk, 30 mins small group discussion. We deviate from this schedule to fulfill other purposes at times, but this is the general time structure for our fellowship.

    Do you see my role of equipping being training and empowering volunteer pastors to fulfill each role within this program well, or do you see the need for a structural change? I totally get that the idea of equipping needs to be contextual, but can you help me understand, from a skin deep review, what this shift might look like in this structure? Thanks.

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      I think it’s more of a philosophical shift that has huge practical implications.

      As far as your example is concerned, if what I outlined were taking place in your ministry, the youth group evening would run smoothly with or without your presence because the leaders have complete ownership over it. You’d be there more to connect with people and continue to learn how the ministry is running so you can help the people running it do it better.

      So yes, I see the YP (and even senior pastors) role of being one who ensures that the church body is being guided to continually improve its ministry.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t want to answer for Tim, but, as I understand your question and what he’s saying in this post, I think he would say that the goal is for you (the youth pastor, I’m assuming) to NOT be the person who organizes the meal each week, plans and runs the game, plans and leads worship, teaches, and then leads a small group each week. Instead, the goal should be for you to find, train, and resource other caring adults within your church.

      • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

        Yeah, thanks for the response, Joe. I think you’re pretty accurate. The only thing is that I think even recruiting should be a role that the church body takes moreso than the youth pastor.

  • Pastorbrent

    Great words here Tim. It took me almost ten years in youth ministry to figure out that it was not about me doing my ministry, but about helping empower others to find their ministry and being the “oil” that makes it work. I have grown much as a pastor and a leader when God finally helped make all that click. Things have grown in leaps and bounds sense then both in spiritual maturity and in numbers.

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      Yeah, I’ve learned a lot of this the hard way, as well. I don’t think what I’ve outlined is the norm in churches today by any means, but I do think some churches are starting to figure out that they’re called to youth ministry more than they’re called to hire someone to do youth ministry for them in their church. Do you see this shift beginning to take place, as well?

  • http://www.benjermcveigh.com/ Benjer McVeigh

    Tim, this is amazing. Youth Pastors are shepherds first, and youth workers second. I think this shift has started, but we still have a long ways to go!

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      Oh yeah, definitely a long way to go. I’ve seen too few churches that actually operate like this, but I do hear some stirrings of it in some conversations that churches are having and thinking through, which is great!

    • Anonymous

      Amen to that, our challenge is to stay the course and keep the momentum moving in this direction.

  • Joe

    Wow. This is very interesting. Right now, I feel like the hub of our youth ministry. For the past year or so I’ve been moving more in this direction but not really having any example to go by. I didn’t know if other churches/youth pastors felt this way. My pastor and I have had this conversation about moving me into more of an overseer/equipper of our volunteers. I feel my main role in ministry is to support my pastor, more than to any certain group. Thanks for the perspective!

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      I hope you guys can pull off the change! Be prepared for it to be very difficult because it’s way easier for the people in your church to drop something on your shoulders than it is for them to take responsibility and ownership for it. We’ve enabled that to happen for a long time because both parties think, “Hey, that’s what you get paid to do.” But in the long-run I don’t think it’s as beneficial for the ministry nor the families in the church when that happens, although it’s what we’re used to and shifting that mindset from what’s easy to what’s more difficult may be a tough one to lead.

  • Jeff

    As I’ve followed this series of posts and other articles I’ve read, I’ve come to question the Youth Pastor profession. It seems that more and more conversations are on the idea of the youth pastor doing less and the church as a whole doing more. Which is totally right and I agree, but I have to wonder, what room is there for a youth pastor anymore? And I hate to say that because I’m a youth pastor and I’ve dedicated my life to it.

    Recently in my ministry I’ve felt like you described above: volunteers and students not taking ownership, feeling mostly administrative, youth leaders not showing up for training, doing everything, etc. I’ve thought about having to really cut back on everything I do in order to get people to step up again. But then what role do I have?

    I guess the big question I’m throwing out there is: Is the full-time youth pastor even relevant anymore? Wouldn’t youth ministry be better if the church had no one and felt the need to step up and do it themselves?

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      I totally know how you feel and what you’re thinking, Jeff. In a sense, yes, if the paid youth worker could work himself/herself out of a job that would be great! But I think God’s gifted some of us as pastor/shepherds because we can see the bigger picture that some people aren’t as gifted in seeing. We sometimes have more experience that can help direct the ministry in necessary directions that the untrained and unexperienced youth leaders can’t see. Now, it may be that a church could become so solid in leading its teenagers that the youth pastor is no longer needed and in that case I say, “Great!” However, as long as there are new people stepping up, others changing roles, new kids and families entering the ministry that present new challenges, I think the need for guidance will always be there.

  • Anonymous

    In my particular situation I am in the midst of both of these. Our church is set in an urban reality but there are no youth in the church that are interested in doing or even talking about God. We have tried to build in other adults or even college students to no avail. So in many ways I am it when it comes to the ministry to students in our community. On the flip side I truly believe that the machine we call church is and in some cases has run out of oil. So I am working with and training up students to minister to students. We had a student this last weekend who had been with us for over a month just hanging out and getting to know everyone. Out of the blue he asks if he can invite Jesus into his heart. I said sure not a problem let me get one of our student leaders to walk you through the process. This is just one example of how we are empowering students to “Be the Church” not just do Church. In regards to the outsourcing (I have been calling it babysitting); I believe it is happening all the time. As I referred to in yesterday’s thoughts we want Church to keep doing what it has been doing. I am one of the outsourced agents at the moment believe there will come a time when students will be able to do everything I am doing on a much larger scale. I am currently filling the role of an outsourced expert; However there is a time coming when the term ‘Youth Pastor’ needs or should be phased out. We are true leaders and Pastors who happens to have a congregation of people wearing baggy jeans and for the most part don’t have jobs.

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      Glad to hear you’re taking strides in giving ownership away to the church! Sounds like it’ll be a tough journey, but I’m sure the rewards of a healthy church ministry to teenagers will be well worth it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christcounselor Frank Zimmerman

    Tim,

    So, basically what this blog is stating is that we are all responsible for each others spiritual growth and health. I agree with your assessment, but I am currently the “hub”. The average age of our members is high (usually retired) and I’ve found that there isn’t a whole bunch of interest coming from them to work with the youth. At least no one has jumped out to me and stated that position. In a medium sized church, how do we get people motivated enough to find that important so they actually volunteer??

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      Yeah, good question, Frank. I think it’s really gotta come from the church’s leadership, not just the youth pastor. Your sr pastor, church board, and other staff members all really have to be on board with this kind of shift for it to take place in all areas of the church. Otherwise your just the rouge, ya know? I don’t think a youth worker can make this shift on their own, nor will it work solely with the youth ministry. It has to be across the board with all ministry in the church.

      • http://www.facebook.com/christcounselor Frank Zimmerman

        Again, I agree. I’ve been thinking of addressing this situation further with our senior pastor. Fortunately he is a former youth pastor and understands the hurdles and struggles in the ministry. From when I can remember, there’s always been a separation of adult and youth in the church, but I think it’s time we come together and make it a family ministry, not just an adult ministry or youth ministry.

  • Pingback: Where youth ministry is going [Introduction] | Life In Student Ministry()

  • Brett Hetherington

    The church I am in now has seen a need to view the role of Youth Pastor in much the way you described in this post. After being burned by their previous Youth Pastor, they reevaluated what they need in the role (with a lot of help from reading through Sustainable Youth Ministry together). I was blessed to inherit a handful of leaders who genuinely love teens and were ready to jump into ministering to them. My role is as primary teacher in large group settings, event coordinator and resourcer/trainer. (I also fulfill some more pastoral roles within the church body).

    I guess I am saying that I am still a bit of a hub, but I have been encouraged to find those members in our congregation who are gifted and called to minister to our teens. After being in churches who did indeed hire me as the hired gun, I feel that our church has found a good “partnership” with me.

  • Brett Hetherington

    The church I am in now has seen a need to view the role of Youth Pastor in much the way you described in this post. After being burned by their previous Youth Pastor, they reevaluated what they need in the role (with a lot of help from reading through Sustainable Youth Ministry together). I was blessed to inherit a handful of leaders who genuinely love teens and were ready to jump into ministering to them. My role is as primary teacher in large group settings, event coordinator and resourcer/trainer. (I also fulfill some more pastoral roles within the church body).

    I guess I am saying that I am still a bit of a hub, but I have been encouraged to find those members in our congregation who are gifted and called to minister to our teens. After being in churches who did indeed hire me as the hired gun, I feel that our church has found a good “partnership” with me.

  • http://twitter.com/tapounder Tom Pounder

    Tim this is good and I’m commenting while still pondering so forgive me if this sounds off in any way…We just recently had to let go of our Youth Director and I assumed the role. I was serving as the “Family Guy” but with over 13 years of Youth Min experience the leadership team asked me to serve in this position to kick start the youth program.

    I see my role now as the coach of the youth leaders. I agree that the whole church needs to come around the program because if I choose to serve as the end all be all – the main “face” of the program, what happens when we hire another youth director? Students end up leaving, etc.

    Now, I still do my share of up front activities such as skits and talks, but serving as the coach, I believe that I can help the youth leaders better minister to the students and I can get more parents and adults to serve and help in ways by coming along side of them. So, when I leave and bring in another youth guy, the transition is not a hard one.

  • Emmasdad

    In my experience I have noticed that churches, for the most part, don’t get this so our role as youth pastors also becomes educators to the church. Toa chieve this I find it necessaary to minister by example in that area also. To acomplish this, one of my goals is to build a youth ministry team arounf th epremise, what if I were to die tomorrow. Would the youth ministry still continue or fall back significantly. The answer to that question helps me determine if I am the wheel or the hub. Even if the church at large doesn’t recognize it now, they will be able to see the example someday when i am gone.

  • Emmasda

    In my experience I have noticed that churches, for the most part, don’t get this so our role as youth pastors also becomes educators to the church. To achieve this I find it necessaary to minister by example in that area also. To acomplish this, one of my goals is to build a youth ministry team around the question, what if I were to die tomorrow, would the youth ministry still continue, or fall back significantly? The answer to that question helps me determine if I am the wheel or the hub. Even if the church at large doesn’t recognize it now, they will be able to see the example someday when I am gone.

  • http://twitter.com/DerekMansker Derek Mansker

    Churches that utilize pastoral leadership well likely will see a healthier dynamic. I so appreciate the people that work alongside me in ministry because they understand that it is not just me and them, but it is us. Well said.

  • Nathan Pledger

    I am encouraged by your article, Tim. I am a youth minister of 2 years. I feel I was hired to be the hub, but I am learning that I cannot be the hub. I believe I should be coming in alongside the parents and supplementing their teaching. I know that the time spent with each student will vary depending on how much they are getting from home. I like the application of me being the oil. God is building a team around the youth ministry but the team is not connecting. I have tried a few time to get us together to build relationships and train but everyone is “too busy.” It can be discouraging at times. God has called me here and I want to be God’s best. Do you have any tips on how to get the “team” to connect with one another? I realize that I may need to change something in the way I interact with others. I do not know. Thank you.

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      Sure man, you’re welcome. It’s an uphill effort, but I hope that over time you guys can do it!

  • http://howiesnyder.wordpress.com/ Howie Snyder

    Excellent, excellent thoughts here Tim. Especially on the Wagon wheel vs. Oil. I sent that on to my youth leaders. Thanks!

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