Many persons in vocational Christian service got their start by working with young people. Youth ministry is great preparation for future service in other capacities. But it is much more than that. Youth pastors have the potential to impact the world for Christ in a powerful way, because young people often make important decisions about their future lives under the influence of church mentors and student ministries workers.
My wife Joann and I look back on our years in high school and college ministry as perhaps the most influential period of our lives. God called at least five of our students to be full-time missionaries or church planters, and they remain active in those capacities today. Other former students occupy key positions in local church leadership. Many enjoy fruitful and rewarding Christian marriages.
Youth ministry is the real deal. But most youth pastors do not remain youth pastors their whole vocational lives. They generally transition to other roles in the church. Occasionally, I hear a wonderful story about a church promoting its youth pastor to the preaching pastor’s position, after a senior pastor retires. But only occasionally. More often, the following scenario unfolds.
It was 1985. I was in seminary and working part-time at church. Our pastor retired. We had a highly gifted leader and communicator on our church staff (my first mentor), who might have done a fine job as the new senior pastor, except for one apparently insurmountable issue. He was the youth pastor. And he would always be seen as the guy to ministers to the kids. In the view of our deacon board, he just wasn’t lead pastor material.
Five years later, 1990, yours truly threw his hat into the ring, when the next pastor left the church to teach at Biola. For better or for worse, I, too, could not seem to shake the “youth guy image,” so I was not seriously considered for the job of preaching pastor.
God uses life’s disappointments in remarkable ways. I would not be teaching at Talbot if the church had hired me, since I would not have pursued a Ph.D. And the youth guy who left before me (see above) planted the church where I now minister! So, yes, Romans 8:28 is written all over this stuff.
But my ecclesiology tells me that there is something wrong about a gifted and godly leader leaving a church family simply because there is no longer any room for his or her changing and growing skill-set.
The youth pastor in my current church is a wonderful young man. But I had to sit down and explain to him (using the above stories to assure him he is not alone) that our key leaders have trouble seeing him in a preaching pastor role at the church. If he wants to preach regularly, and desires to lead and shepherd a church’s adult population, it will likely not be at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.
This is unfortunate. But, in the final analysis, people’s perceptions are what they are, and there is little we can do to change them.
As I reflect on all this, however, I think there are some things that emerging leaders can do — and other things they should not do — to encourage persons in the church to see them as a mature spiritual leaders. First the DOs:
1. DO cultivate deep relationships with other adults in the church
Emerging leaders often recruit volunteers their own age to serve alongside them in the student ministries. These fellow youth-workers then become the youth pastor’s best friends in the church. Unfortunately, this practice invariably isolates the youth pastor and his or her spouse (if married) and insulates them from relationships among the broader church family.
The antidote is obvious but requires some intentionality: pursue meaningful friendships with a handful of key adults in the church who are not involved in your ministry. You will grow through such relationships. And persons outside of the youth department will come to know you as a gifted leader who happens to work with youth, rather than simply as the youth guy/gal.
2. DO take the initiative to interact with and minister to all ages, wherever possible
Sit with parents in the stands (not with high schoolers), when you attend one of your students’ sports games. Join an adult small group. Visit shut-ins. Show up to pray for people who are in the hospital. Follow-up on church prayer requests with phone calls or handwritten notes.
It should not be a problem to get the okay from your boss to take this kind of initiative with the broader church family. Provided you’re getting your own work done, only an insecure, dysfunctional senior pastor would discourage a youth pastor from transcending the boundaries of his job description to participate in ministry in the ways described above.
3. DO program intergenerational activities for your students
Life-stage programs are important. But the days are over for life-stage ministry as the center of community life. Your young people need to develop relationships with persons of all ages in the church. Along the way, you will develop these relationships alongside them. Spend your time at these intergenerational events interacting with older adults. There are plenty of opportunities to hang out with students when you’re alone with the group.
Now for some DON’Ts.
1. DON’T dress like a high schooler.
Let your volunteers dress like the kids, if they want to. You dress like a mature adult. Adolescents need adult mentors, not adult friends.
When I was a high school pastor, we recruited a volunteer who I will lovingly describe as a card-carrying nerd. Jim was a 30 year-old single aerospace engineer who acted and dressed like he was 50. We’re talking fancy slacks and white dress shirts (accessorized with a pocket protector full of the obligatory collection of pens and pencils — yep, really) to the Wednesday night youth group. But Jim was serious about God, and he was serious about loving and pursuing the high school senior boys I assigned to him. Jim was the real thing and the kids knew it. In retrospect, Jim was one of the most effective volunteer youth workers I have come across in over forty years of ministry.
I wouldn’t advise you to dress quite like Jim. But save the trucker hats and board shorts for free time at the summer retreat. Dress like the other pastors on Sundays. You’ll be better for it in the long run.
2. DON’T act like a high schooler.
Well, no more than absolutely necessary. At times, of course, you’ll need to jump and and join the students in their fun and games. But wherever possible, stay out. Be the score keeper (you’ll have the pens and pencils right there in your pocket protector), or fulfill some other function during game time that might allow you to preserve some gravitas (Look up that word, if you need to. It is what this whole blog post is about).
3. DON’T preach like a high schooler.
When you’re given a Sunday to preach, you will need to overcompensate, if you wish to be heard as a peer to the person who usually fills the pulpit. Maintain, as best you can, the approach to preaching that your people are familiar with. I don’t mean that you should mimic the pastor’s delivery style. Be yourself. But if the preacher normally has a half-sheet outline of his message in the bulletin, for example, put one in the day you preach, as well, using the same font and layout. If the pastor normally preaches behind a wooden podium, do the same, even this is not normally your style. If a PowerPoint slide show normally accompanies the sermon . . . well, I think you get the point by now. The key idea here is continuity. You don’t want unnecessarily to stand out, or you will inevitably be dismissed by some in the congregation as “the youth guy.”
And don’t bring physical items to the stage to be used as object lessons. I’ve seen youth pastors drag everything to the stage from surfboards to swords to kids from the youth group, in order to illustrate a point. I must admit that I do find this engaging. Upon further reflection, however, I believe it does much to solidify the perception among our people that this is how a youth pastor — not a real preacher — teaches the Bible. I would rather see a youth pastor bore our folks a bit, while preserving a bit of decorum, than see him or her using “teaching aids” that our congregation never otherwise sees on Sunday.
Finally — and most important — don’t appropriate any of the above DO’s & DON’TS solely as a utilitarian way to set yourself up for a promotion. The suggestions need to be embraced with integrity, with the goal of becoming a better steward of the gifts God has given you. I am convinced that every one of these suggestions will either (a) make you a more effective minister or (b) grow you relationally or (c) both! Then that new job at the church (when you are ready and in God’s timing) will be the natural result and delightful by-product of years of faithful and effective ministry to students and others among your church family.