Being a youth pastor is not the ultimate calling

Youth pastor callingYou’re probably expecting me to say something like, “Being a godly husband is the ultimate calling,” or something like that. And yes, they are both very high callings, but I’m not really thinking along those lines right now.

As I’m going through this transition in trying to figure out what God has next for me and my family after being terminated last year, one of the thoughts I’ve been wrestling with is, “Man, I am just not that excited to go back into a church job.” I’ve been trying to separate past negative experiences from my calling knowing that it’s unfair to transfer those experiences to a new church, but I still have this guilty feeling like, “Why do I feel guilty about not wanting to serve teenagers and families through a local church?” I’m not ruling a church context out because I know God can bring the right church along and when He does, I’ll be totally pumped about it! But in the meantime, I also feel like a church context is one of the hardest places to seriously serve teenagers and parents, which is frustrating for me because the church is the bride of Christ, God’s plan for advancing the kingdom on earth!

Last week I started reading Dan Miller’s book, “48 Days to the Work You Love: Preparing for the New Normal.” So far it’s been great at asking challenging questions and giving different exercises that help me discover certain things about myself and how that might look vocationally.

The chapter I read yesterday helped me understand some of the guilt I was feeling about not feeling like I want to serve as a paid youth pastor in a church context. Dan Miller quotes Martin Luther as saying:

“I advise everyone against entering any religious order or the preisthood ulnless he is forearmed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the worlds of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone” (page 44).

I think I’ve been trying to talk myself into pursuing church opportunities and I felt bad about it because I had unknowingly equated pastoral youth ministry as some sort of higher calling than other forms of work and youth ministry. Like, I’d be doing something less noble by serving teens and families in a different capacity than in a church. But in a breath of fresh air, Dan Miller pointed out that whatever God’s calling on your life is, that’s what you should pursue. Being called into a pastoral role at a church is in no way any more noble than being called to anything else and using that vocation to serve as a “pastor” to the people in that context.

I know for certain that my vocation is to work with teens and their families, but if that’s not in a church, is that okay? Would I be “down-grading” to something less spiritual or even less honorable? I’ve been trying to be okay with that and after chapter 3 in Dan Miller’s book, I think I am. I firmly believe that while I was serving in a pastoral church context, I was definitely called to that place for that time. It’s just been more recently in the past few months that I seem to be heading in a different direction now.

I’m not sure what my future vocational service to the Lord will look like, but I do know that serving as a volunteer youth leader last night was great! I loved it! I’m totally excited about being a volunteer because, as I’ve said before, I feel like I’m finally free to actually do youth ministry.

Now I have to figure out how to serve teens and families in a way that supports us financially so I can continue to volunteer at a church and serve Him there.

I feel like I’m going to be creating that ministry avenue from scratch because the talents, giftedness, passion, abilities, experiences and connections the Lord has given me don’t seem to fit anywhere else right now unless, of course, the right church comes along.

To be clear, I’m not ending the possibility of serving in a church context. If a church comes along that fits my vision, values, philosophy, personality, etc, I’d be totally open to exploring the possibility of serving there full-time. I’m just learning that being a youth pastor is not the ultimate calling. Being exactly where God calls you, even if it’s not in a church, is the ultimate calling.

In the words of my Haitian translator last year, “You are always a pastor because being a pastor is your spiritual gift, not your title. Even if you don’t work at a church, you are still a pastor.” My takeaway from this last year was that it means there are a lot more teenage pastors in our youth groups than we probably think, which puts a whole new spin on the term “youth ministry,” but now I wonder how much it applies to me, as well.

Sounds like I have a scary and exciting year ahead of me. *buckles seatbelt* *gulp!*

Posted on March 31, 2011

  • Tim, I'd love to pick your brain a little more about where your head is at right now. I'm not in exactly the same boat as you, as I'm actually trying to process the potential that God is calling me away from full-time youth ministry altogether and towards another area of full-time ministry. Is there some way/time we could chat or email a bit?

    • Sure. My thoughts are so raw that I'm not sure I'll be able to help at all, but I can listen (and scream and shout and all that other stuff, too). ;) I'll email ya.

    • Nevermind, I can't email you. The address associated with the account you used to comment doesn't exist anymore. Email me instead.

  • Shawn Harrison

    Thanks so much for this, Tim. Spent the last two (or so) years going through this same revelation myself. I loved what you said about "pastor" being your spiritual gift and not your title.

    Praying for you man.

  • When I was fired from my last church, I was given a copy of that book (48 Days… ). It was a real blessing. My next job was a great experiment in finding myself. I hope the same for you.

    • Thanks, Paul. I'm enjoying it so far. Still gotta do today's assignment, though. I'll do it when I'm done replying to comments. ;)

  • Ben

    Going through some of these thoughts as well, want to serve youth, but feel like the church is becoming such a tough place to do that.

    • Isn't that so sad? Sometimes a church can be the most difficult place to actually serve teens and their families. It's so frustrating.

  • Good words, Tim. I'm reminded that for the 10+ years I was an elementary school teacher, I considered it to be my ministry, even though it was in a public school. My brother, who is in marketing, sees his work as "ministry" as he tries to be a compassionate boss and co-worker and bring out the best in others. The fact is, for most people their ministry won't just be in the Church but will be in what they do in their everyday lives. Thanks for sharing your insights on this.

    • Thanks, Brian. In some ways, not being tied to a church office provides so much more freedom to actually be in the community and engaging with people. The irony…

  • briansmith10

    I wouldn't say when I honestly think about it that I want out of ym. I am just afraid of stepping into another bad situation that will be more hurtful.

  • astief

    I too have been wrestling with all these thoughts lately. It does seem that we can have more connections with the "outside" world when we are not part of a paid staff for a church. Yet at the same time I love contributing to making the church a better place, a place that is less about itself and more about a movement of change in it's community. Without getting the soapbox out, I don't believe pastors are called to any greater sacrifice than any other Christian. We're all called to lay down our life. You can't sacrifice any more than that. I think Christians in America have just gotten so used to pastors taking on some of the sacrifices that are inconvenient in life, that we have been elevated above where we should be. It has also enabled the rest of the church body to be less than what it's supposed to be. I'd love to see a church with no paid staff, so the pastors could truly be "in the world", and the whole church body could sacrifice for one another and the gospel. THAT WOULD BE AMAZING!

    • Man, great comment! You are so right — we have unknowingly accepted responsibilities as paid pastoral staff that don't rightfully belong to us. Paychecks make us feel obligated to do that kinda thing, and it makes the congregation feel like those responsibilities should be ours. But it's been happening for so long that most churches and even most pastors don't realize that there's even anything detrimental about it. In fact, you fall under criticism if you don't! Our role has become more of an outsourcing position than an equipping position and the body of Christ becomes weaker as a result.

  • Kris

    I've seen church employees treated worse than in secular world positions many times, and personally experienced it. Doesn't seem possible, but it happens. Sometimes I wish I didn't know what happens behind the scenes in churches…

    • Yeah, me too. The worst part is that the mistreatment is often spiritualized and that youth workers "take it" because ministry is all about sacrifice and even martyrdom.

  • Tim, just wanted to say that I've been following your blog for a while and I appreciate your honesty and transparency. I can see that it's hard and I don't think anyone can make it easier for you…and maybe that's good. You're going through this process right now that may seem so hard and like such a struggle, but in the end it will make your focus that much better and stronger, no matter where God will lead you. I'm just praying that God will show you where you can put your gifts and talents to use, whether inside the church or someplace else. And both are equally needed, for I honestly wish we had more Christian teachers, educators, counselors, youth workers (I mean doing work outside the church, like guidance counselor or whatever)…May God guide you and bless you along the way!

    • Thanks, Rachel! I appreciate your prayers and support. It's a bit nerve-wracking at times, but in an exciting kinda way. :)

  • George Leonard

    One of the thoughts I have been wrestling with is actual role that youth pastors should be called to. As you are discovering, if your primary call is to minister to students, you might be better off in either a volunteer role or even as a "Student Director" in a larger church underneath another youth staff person. But more and more, I am discovering that the right fit for a youth pastor is the person who feels called to equip a *church* to minister to students. The administration, politics, and other "hassles" in the life of a youth pastor are the price we pay so that those who volunteer to minister to our students can spend their limited time and energies with students and not chasing after these other things.

    I have no idea if this will help, but it might be a good question to ask yourself in your current situation. Do I want to spend my time ministering to students, or equipping others to minister to students? Of course, it's not an either-or proposition…

    • I agree with that, George. The hard part is that most churches hire a youth pastor with the mentality of outsourcing the ministry to them, not for them to teach the church how to do YM better. It's more of a, "We hired this guy to do ministry on our behalf," even though few churches will come out and say it just like that. While I agree with you that the YP's role is more of an equipping role than an outsourcing role, I don't think most churches see it that way enough to adjust their actual values accordingly.

  • Michelle

    I'm in this place where I'm trying to decide if God has released me from my call to ym. Here's my problem…the church is wonderful and supportive. Most of the students (and some parents), however, are spiritually apathetic. I'm not burned out, but I am tired and uninspired. I'm still listening.

    Thanks, Tim, for sharing your story so authentically. I will continue to pray for you.

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