What is the role of the youth pastor in a church?

What is the role of the youth pastor in the church?Is the role of the youth pastor in the church to:

1. Be the center gear in the youth ministry who is responsible to keep the ministry’s other gears turning?

2. To help the church fulfill its calling to minister to teenagers?

And you can’t say both because if you understand the implications to their fullest extent, they’re opposing ideas.

The first is probably most youth ministry positions in America. The youth pastor is hired to run the youth ministry on behalf of the church, to connect with teens, and to recruit adult leaders who essentially help the youth pastor serve the students.

The second is a much rarer church where the church takes ownership over it’s youth ministry and serves its students just fine with or without a youth pastor, but they hire one anyway to help them take the ministry to the next level.

One church says, “We pay you to do youth ministry and we’ll help you out.” The other says, “We’re already doing youth ministry as a congregation and we’ll hire you to help us do it better.”

One places responsibility for the ministry on the shoulders of a paid staff member, the other assumes responsibility for themselves with a youth pastor to help guide and support them.

The difference is not merely a structural one nor solely a functional one, but it’s the very DNA makeup of the church that compels a congregation to do the work of the ministry to which God has called them both as individuals and as a body with pastors who train and encourage them.

QUESTION: Which church will be healthier in the long-run? Which church’s youth ministry will be more sustainable over time?

[ These are my own thoughts, but there’s more about this concept in Mark Riddle’s book, “Inside The Mind Of Youth Pastors: A Church Leader’s Guide to Staffing and Leading Youth Pastors,” that first introduced me to this perspective.” ]

Posted on October 13, 2010

  • jamie

    church B is better. I'm trying to move our church to this….its hard for both the church and me. But it's better. Our church came from the A approach and it isn't good in the long run for students or the church as a whole.

    thanks for posting this. Sounds like ephesians 4 to me.

  • jamie

    church B is better. I’m trying to move our church to this….its hard for both the church and me. It’s difficult for me because I’m no longer the center of everything…i don’t have as much control, and to be honest…thats a struggle. But it’s better. Our church came from the A approach and it isn’t good in the long run for students or the church as a whole.

    thanks for posting this. Sounds like ephesians 4 to me.

  • Great point. Here's the rub: only one of those options requires the youth pastor to be a visionary leader who 1) Along with the leadership with the church discerns where and how God is leading the church to minister to teenagers, and 2) inspires people to work with him/her to work towards that goal.

    I'd love to see more youth pastors trained as leaders, because those are the kind of youth pastors that build and lead youth ministries that will be effective long after those youth pastors are gone. Leadership is a skill that I am just beginning to learn about seven years into paid youth ministry. Of course, this goes back to your original point: for a youth pastor to be a leader, the church that hires him/her must want the youth pastor to be a leader rather than simply a person who can maintain the status quo and keep the youth ministry running (and the youth and parents happy).

    • I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure how only one of them requires the youth pastor to be a visionary leader. You can be a visionary leader in either position. The difference is if the youth pastor is leading the charge and saying, "Everyone follow me!" or if he's infusing vision into the congregation and helping them take the charge.

      • Ah…I see what you're getting at. But I don't think in the center-gear mentality, visionary leadership is usually expected. Because a visionary leader will look at the vision, then look at the gears, then back at the vision, and say, "Is this how God really wants us to do this?" But perhaps I'm taking the metaphor a bit too far.

    • Hi Benjer, As educators I know it can be challenging to find the right resources to teach children about being global citizens. Here at World Vision Resources we provide resources for educators on poverty awareness. We aim to provide activities and learning materials to Education, Equip and Inspire the next generation to make a difference. With World Vision's vast knowledge of working with the poor and changing lives, we've created resources to assist today's education how to teach the next generation about poverty awareness. World Vision Resources will help educators equip others to take an in-depth look at poverty and how they can make a difference. We set out to foster hope, sustain compassion, and promote the common good.

      Our children are the next generation who will carry the torch…what will that look like if we don't teach and expose our children to global issues and how they can make a change? By exposing children through activities, video's, games, etc…together we can build our next generation to be leaders aiming to make a difference in a child's life and end poverty. It's all possible if we all do our part. (see part 2)

  • Darren Sutton

    Is this the post that you thought would make youth pastors mad?? because all I see in it is truth. :) For me – it's not a success if I can't walk away wthout notice.

    • I wasn't thinking it would necessarily make people mad, but it does question the traditional role of youth pastors in the church. Whenever you question tradition, especially publicly, there's always backlash.

  • Sean Miller

    I totally agree that we (youth leaders/pastors) should be helping the church to do youth ministry, the question for me is how we go from one to another. Or rather how we help that process and help our senior leadership to equip and encourage the church to that.

    I'm in England (God's own country) and the church i'm at is definitly stuck in the first mindset, last year i volunteered as youth leader and this year im on staff and it is so obvious that they see it as my responsibility to do the youth work. My question is how do we help that to change? Any book recommendations?

    • Well, you could start by reading the book I linked in the post above. You could even possibly go through it with your church's leadership.

      The hard part is that it's been my experience that a church will look at a concept like this, like it and then try to fit it into their existing system, which really doesn't change or help anything. It has to be a DNA shift in the congregation where they're willing to take ownership of the ministry instead of outsourcing it to their paid staff. That shift is a very difficult one to make because it goes against the grain of what most people look for and expect from a church.

    • Sean –
      while I appreciate Tim's suggestion for the book. I wonder if there's another way of asking your ending question.

      Is there another way of asking "How do we help that to change?"
      Try using a question that doesn't start with How.
      What might it be?
      anyone is welcome to suggest other questions as well.

    • Purpose Driven Youth Ministry by Doug Fields

      • Good book. But I don't think it gives an ecclesiology of youth ministry for a youth pastor. Are you mentioning the book as a job description of sorts?

  • Great discussion Tim. I'm not sure anyone wants to be a gear that keeps everything going. Hopefully we're getting beyond "pied piper" type of student ministry. However, I do believe it's my job as the student ministry pastor to speak vision and passion into the rest of the congregation. Practically church leaders aren't thinking about the youth ministry if families aren't leaving. It's the responsibility of the youth pastor to consistently remind the church and it's leaders of it's calling to reach the next generation.

    BTW, have heard great things about you from friends. Please keep asking the questions.

    • David, is that role exclusively yours? Is it possible that there are parents or other adults who's job it is to speak vision and passion into the rest of the congregation?

    • Yeah, but SHOULD it be the responsibility of the youth pastor to consistently remind the church and it's leaders of it's calling to reach teenagers? I agree that may be where a lot of youth pastor are at, but should we be content to stay there and instead move toward a better focus and vision together?

      BTW, not sure which friends you're referring to (possibly Matlock?), but I went to IBC's evening services for several years while at DTS. Loved that place!

  • The role is whatever the church has given you and was agreed upon when you were hired.

    Now, the question of what should the role be, is a different question.

    Conflict happens because of different values and this is a HUGE one. If the church sees you as an activities director and you see yourself as a spiritual director, there will be issues. These issues probably will not be resolved by agreeing to disagree

    • How well do you think a role can be given and agreed upon when a hire is made? I think during the introductory process many churches have good intentions about what they want the position to be and that's usually what's communicated to the new youth guy. But what they want and what actually transpires are often two different things because there's often a whole set of values and expectations beneath the surface (healthy or not) that no one's ever identified that really drives the ministry.

      • briansmith10

        I agree with you Tim. I think a church often says they want you to help guide the church body to do student ministry and once the paradigm begins to shift and they get uncomfortable, they go back to doing what they know. And typically what they know is the same ole student ministry that hasn't been working for year…planning events and entertaining teens.

  • B is the answer for sure. If youth pastors would say no more to the easy way out (do it myself) the church would have to step up to get it done or watch the program struggle. Youth Pastors must also show a willingness to partner with the Body they are in otherwise the maverick label will stick and hamper these efforts.

  • "Sustainable Youth Ministry" from Mark DeVries is another good resource dealing with this set of issues. Like Len just pointed out, if there is not agreement between the youth minister and the congregation, it is really difficult.

    I think many of us who've been in youth ministry for a while can see the necessity for some of the 'DNA shift' that you're talking about more clearly than people in our congregations who maybe aren't as consumed with discipling the next generation. The difficulty is that sometimes those are the very people who are "handing off" the youth ministry to us. So, what are we doing to genetically modify our congregations to see youth ministry as the church's ministry, not just the youth minster's?

    Bigger question: Does 'genetic modification' really fit into the youth minister's role, or is that better left to elders and lead pastors? Do most youth ministers have the influence in a church to effect this kind of shift?

    • Mike- first let me say I love DeVries.
      second – is saying that the DNA of a church is left to elders and lead pastors essentially putting them as the cog for the church? In other words, by asking the question that way, or by placing that expectation with them, are we not then giving something that belongs to all believers? And then, is it even possible for them to make such a decision and then implement it into our lives?

      • I don't mean to imply leaving people out of the ministry. Definitely, a priesthood of all believers mentality is needed for effective youth ministry in the church today. Even from the days of Moses, it's been incumbent on the whole body to impress God's truth into the lives of the next generation. Youth ministry is still the responsibility of the body as a whole.

        But, I struggle, as a youth minister in defining how much re-shaping of the congregation I am responsible for. If they're not getting it, if they've settled into our cultural abandonment of youth and separation from them as the norm… When the established leaders of the church have next to zero interaction with young people… who is it that will 'turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers'?
        When it really comes down to it, there is only one who is fit to actually "be the center gear in the youth ministry who is responsible to keep the ministry’s other gears turning" and it's not me, and it's not parents, and it's not the other leadership. Maybe our role as youth ministers is to orchestrate the proximity of the "other gears" to Jesus – and pray like crazy that He'll keep us all turning the way He wants us to.

    • Good question, Mike. I agree with Mark's follow-up above, but I also want to add that, if we can do so without losing our jobs somehow, that we not blindly accept whatever the church hands to us as "your job" and instead gently try to encourage the church to take ownership of it instead. That's a super-tricky situation to handle, but hopefully with some earned trust and respect at least some people will catch on and start to take ownership.

      • I totally agree with that. The trick is to be able to stick around long enough to earn that trust and respect. I seem to know an increasing number of youth ministers that are staying in their churches way past the old "18 month" adage. Have you seen any research lately about the average tenure of a youth minister in one church? I think staying put (and doing your job well, even while working to redefine it) can go a long way toward garnering the kind of influence it takes to make this type of shift.

        • I don't remember where I heard it, but I heard the average was up to 5 years or something, but I don't really know for sure.

          I agree that it's important to stick around long enough to earn trust to help this shift take place, but it feels like a catch 22 because in order to stick around you kinda gotta do whatever they hand to you. If the church is used to you taking those responsibilities from them it's almost impossible to help them take the responsibility later because now, "Well, this has always been your job," which is true. It's hard to hand something back when they're used to handing it off and the YP taking it. It's probably better to not accept it at the very beginning, but that's difficult at the beginning when there's not a lot of trust built yet, ya know?

  • bethegospel

    I liked this one. When I was in college I was warned that most churches would look to hire me as their "youth baby sitter". I didn't believe it, but it is true. I hope that someday restructuring will take place and we'll smile about how far we have come in the mindset shift of church staffing.

  • Victor

    For our church, the youth pastors/leaders are built by the church. We don't hire people, in fact all our leaders serve voluntarily (we are so blessed to have so many dedicated leaders who give of their time freely). I believe the youth ministry should complement the vision of the church, this way the next generation be able to continue to build what the previous generation has laid.

  • brentlacydotcom

    I think that one of the big catalysts of seeing the thinking shift will be when a mass of Youth Pastors who have been in YM for a long time start to transiion into senior roles (like @pastorshan) and can see where the former "youth baby-sitter" and "Pied Piper "mindset has taken us. They will then further integrate the Youth worker as a "leadership role" in the church.

    • But that just makes the sr pastor become the hub gear who gets the model moving for the rest of the church. I think it's okay if the SP starts casing vision for the shift because I guess you gotta start with where you are, but the process has to be about him passing the vision on to the congregation to run with instead. Otherwise the "shift" isn't really a shift, it's just led by the SP instead of the youth guy.

  • It's true, there are a lot of different perspectives on what the Youth Pastor's role should be. Probably the most compelling that I've heard has to do with the Youth Pastor equipping adult leaders (be they volunteers or other staff) to minister to youth. In much the same way the pastor's role is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.

  • Another helpful resource Church Family Based Youth Ministry at Lots of practics and articles there.

    Agreed 100% that this is a DNA shift in the congregation. Yet we as youth leaders can spur that on. One fear we bring into this change is that we will eliminate the need for our job. I'm in my 9th year of not being Brenda-based and I have not eliminated my job, my job is way less stressful, and the church's DNA has changed. The fruit is wonderful.

    More reading:

  • Kenn

    Hello! I read the article about the youth pastors and I must say I strongly disagree with a church having 2 pastors/leaders. I was attending a church for several years and also divided the youth leadership with the rest of the church. The general pastor has the responsibility to take care of his sheep in the congregation. I agree with having a youth counselor, youth teacher..etc but NOT a youth pastor unless his entire church is only youth. At this church it is ridiculous how the youth pastor has taken over the parents authority..WHAT are the seminars teaching out there. God will look upon US as parents what we did with OUR children, NOT the youth pastors!! Biblically speaking, it's not according to the scripture. Please explain to me why these wrong teachings?? If a pastor cannot pastor his entire congregation, then he is in the wrong line of service. And lets not forget we are servants of the Lord, not of MEN.

  • I am a 42 yr old ordained Elder. I have been a member of my church for 20 years. I was just approached by my pastor to consider overseeing or I should say creating a Teen’s church. I was informed that the youth and members of the church constantly request me for this role. I enjoy working with young people and seem to have a great rapport with them. There is one concern, I’ve been seeking God on whether He wants me to pastor my own church which for years I feel that may be the path He wants me to take. I don’t want to start something up and have to leave it abruptly. I love developing young people spiritually, I just don’t want to be side tracked from God’s plan for my life because people have told the pastor I should be over the Youth church. If you recall the people threw Saul’s name up too!

New eBookGo
Focused Youth Ministry ebook

85% off!

Focused Youth Ministry

This practical "how to" ebook will walk you through a 30-step process to discovering God's vision for your unique ministry context. The process also shows you how to implement that vision and put metrics in place to evaluate what is moving the vision forward and what isn't.

Price: $12.95 Limited time: $1.99