Are youth pastors saving the jobs of senior pastors?

By Dave Rhodes

Thanks for joining us on the all-new Wayfarer Blog. I want to begin with an observation: Being a youth minister today is difficult. Now I know what many of you are thinking – this is not exactly profound. But being a youth minister is difficult – and not for the reasons you might think.

I bring this up because it is time NOW for us to start doing something about it.

I make the observation that being a youth minister today is difficult based not on a glance but on thousands of different conversations I have had in hundreds of places. As a traveling speaker and writer, I’ve had an ongoing conversation about this difficulty for 15 years. It has bubbled to the surface over and over as I spend time with youth and college ministers over dinner or on drives to and from the airport. It’s a privilege to listen to youth ministers express this difficulty and to sometimes speak into the lives of these often unsung heroes.

Now it’s time to open this conversation to everyone.

Being a youth minister is difficult not because the teenagers or college students of today are a difficult combination of out of control hormones and low attention spans. It’s not difficult because of ever-changing and ever-more complicated sport or club schedules. It’s not difficult because of parental expectations. Rather, being a youth minister is difficult because of the subtle unspoken pressures that have come to define what a youth minister is supposed to do. And one of these pressures is to make sure the senior pastor keeps his job.

Let me explain…

It is no secret that the Western church is in a state of decline – even as we try is to hide from this ever-present reality. But with recent statistics suggesting that just 4% of the millennial generation (those under 30) is in church each Sunday, it’s getting harder and harder to hide.

In the wake of this decline, we as ministers have spent a lot of time and effort saving face. We do this in terms of the statistics used to measure ministry success: baptisms and bottoms. Get people to come to the building for an event, and get them to make a decision. Count both baptisms and bottoms, and whatever you do, make sure this year’s number is bigger than last year’s. It makes no difference whether lives actually change (OK, that might be a bit of an overstatement) or that they might be counted in the number of the church just down the street next week. In this mentality, it makes little difference whether you even know who the bottom belongs are if it is his or her 53rd baptism. As long as you as a minister get a registration card at the beginning and a decision card at the end, you win.

Pastors serve these unspoken pressures. Conversion is the name of the game, and pastors know that statistics show that most people are “converted” before the age of 18. So if a senior pastor wants numbers of baptisms and bottoms, he hires a youth minister who knows how to get kids in the building and how to get them to sign a decision card.

The youth minister had better work quickly – because everyone’s job security depends on it.

As a traveling speaker and “evangelist,” I know this is the case because I sense this unspoken but ever-present pressure whenever we begin talking about the “invitation.” It’s as though the whole event hinges on how those five minutes (or in some cases, two hours) go.

More than once I have felt as though my job as the traveling speaker was to save the youth minister’s job and, by doing so, to ultimately save the senior pastor’s job. Somehow, everyone’s job security hangs on whether a 15-year-old kid walks an aisle or signs a card. (That includes mine, because I only get invited back to speak if that kid does.) And God forbid something go wrong with the music during this time and mess everything up.

It’s a vicious cycle for me, a traveling speaker. It’s a vicious cycle for youth pastors. But it’s also one for senior pastors. Everyone is caught in it.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of these ministers have the best of intentions. They really want to see life change. That’s why most they got into ministry in the first place. But because we have equated life change with conversion, we have painted ourselves into a corner.

I believe this pressure is part of the reason why the average stay for youth minister at a church is between 18-36 months. Even if a youth minister can add bottoms and baptisms for a season, continuing to pull it off is unsustainable. It’s better to leave early and often than to come up with a new bag of tricks. (This is certainly a topic we will be addressing on this blog in the future.)

Of course I believe that people coming to faith is important. But more important than conversion is what Jesus has always called us to do – making disciples. You see, Jesus’ invitation was to discipleship, not conversion. He knew that disciples would make disciples who would makes disciples…and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger! Making disciples is hard work. The results are slower at first, but in the end they change the world.

I hope some youth pastors and senior pastors might read this post and say out loud what has for too long been silent – that we want to give our lives to making disciples and not running ministries. I hope some churches might take ministers who long for this up on their offer. I hope expectations change and that we get back to changing the world by making disciples.

It can start with YOU. That’s why we are devoting the future of the Wayfarer blog to the conversation of making disciples and changing expectations.

Why don’t you join us and offer your voice to the conversation? Leave a comment on this post or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter to let us know what you think. (These will link you to 3DM; Wayfarer is the youth/young adult arm of 3DM.)

Lastly, if you’d like to know whenever we post new blogs, you can subscribe by hitting the “Follow” button on the top right-hand side of our blog.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Are youth pastors saving the jobs of senior pastors?

  1. Christian Womack

    As a para church trained youth worker, I saw this problem all through church ministries. So glad 3DM is putting energy into the conversation. Excited to see the ripples from this effort.

  2. This just one of the “silver bullets” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_bullet) that we see in the post-Christian era. Other examples could include worship styles, big name staff, and cool new toys.

  3. Great post! I’ll add another type of staff member who’s “saving the jobs of senior pastors”–the worship pastor. The pressure is incredibly high on us as worship pastors to craft an energetic, creative and excellent worship experience week in and week out (not that there’s anything wrong with energetic, creative and excellent worship experiences!). The real problem is that churches are more focused on the crowds–attracting the crowds and then keeping the crowds (Sticky Church)–instead of making disciples. When you study the ministry of Jesus, He didn’t pander to the crowds. Oh, He knew they were there, but His ministry was definitely more focused on the 12 instead of the crowds who followed Him.

    If Jesus followed the “discipleship” model of our churches today–turning crowds into members, the Gospel would have never made it out of Jerusalem! Once He ascended to heaven, the crowds would have dissipated and the movement would have ended. Instead, Jesus focused on the 12 often to the exclusion of the crowds. The 12 then went on to turn the world upside down by doing the same things Jesus taught them. Somewhere, we got off track. I’m so thankful for the resurgent passion and interest in discipleship that God began in my heart 5 years or so ago and for the movement He’s begun in the hearts of so many others as well!

  4. It’s better to leave early and often than to come up with a new bag of tricks. When we think it’s our “tricks” that do the trick – we ought to be moving on – on to being re-discipled perhaps. Most of us in ministry were never discipled. At least we were never discipled in a healthy, doable and reproducible manner! So there is fear of exposure – we don’t know what we are doing – when it comes to really following and being followed in a manner that is discernibly transferable and intentionally reproducible. So we fake it. I do not imply an accusation of acceptable mediocrity, or a manner that lacks effort or even integrity. I do imply we do the best we can and results (baptisms & bottoms) anywhere are encouraging even if they are short lived glory. We sense there is something more that is something simpler – something more akin to Jesus’ way (which everyone claims to have revealed). All this relates of course to our training – albeit unintentional – to catering to consumers rather than leading followers on the way. So we make disciples – but disciples in our own image – blind leading the blind comes to mind but i do not intend to be harsh. Its just I am so much better at proclaiming the way, than living the way. Humility to follow and be followed are some of the things we are learning as seek to be and make disciples. The shift is overdue. The shift is current. The shift is retro. The shift is a daily quest. The shift is a relief and though it lacks the show – seed that sprouts quickly up front, Jesus’ demonstrates, it produces the 100 fold on the back end.
    By the way Dave – I need a great youth leader who is willing to come into a multi-ethnic community and save my job – I mean make disciples! Keep your eyes peeled and the way clear!

    • Thanks Art for the really insightful comments and the honesty from which those comments spring. I love your heart for discipleship and look forward to creating the future together. And BTW–it is going to be even more important in the future for those of us looking to do ministry in this fashion to work together–so I would love to help you look for a youth minister who will disciple students and not just attract or convert them.

  5. Russell Cushman

    I loved the 3DM conference I attended last November, and enjoyed the topics covered, never have I left so thirsty after drinking from a fire hose.

    I can’t help but think in this my 8th month in ministry, I know this pressure without it even being articulated. I’m a minister in a healthy church, I don’t have the pressure to go for conversions as much as discipleship but still, how hard is it to forget that life does not end when 15 year olds don’t get up and head to the altar?

    I’ve started realizing that many of my victories come from conversations in my living room (as it’s full to the brim with students) or watching students show Christ in their behavior with each other. Sometimes it’s only the smallest elements of life change but it’s usually preceeded or follows a phone call, a tweet, or an email in my direction. I”m walking them slowly through the leadership square, and in the end….

    Slow is exactly what it is.

    Meanwhile as per the course, only on occasion does response lead to instant life change in the troubled youth of America, after a dynamic message prepared by myself.

    Figures.

  6. Youth Pastor here and you are absolutely right every ministry has to focus on life change. There will always be the things we do to get bottoms in the chair which I think is fine. I’ve started noticing that Jesus really didn’t make calls for decsions he made calls to eb discipled. We’ve been doing that in our ministry making the “big moment” of the night opportunity’s to become involved in the discipleship community. Get this, it’s working. Students truly want to go deeper and become disciples. I think it’s dangerous however to view this as an “anti-crowd” idea. We gather a good crowd and then talk about really following Jesus. I don’t think it’s crowd or discipleship, or decisions or discipleship, I think it’s the whole thing.

  7. Bill Hughes

    Good job Dave. I think early on I realized I could not sustain the numbers my then pastor was expecting. And, although when I was young I could probably attract a few kids by my awesome personality (yeah right) when I hit 30, then 40, then 50 and now almost 60 I knew that it was impossible for me to personally attract kids. So, out of necessity, I focused on a discipleship based ministry. I could do discipleship becasue it did not require any special skill, personality, looks, brains, etc. All it required was Jesus and a willingness to stick to it. To be honest you didn’t even need to work that hard, you just needed to stick with it.

    But, what do you do when the pastor threatens your job if the numbers don’t increase—soon!!? In my case I just didn’t worry about it. I wasn’t going to move or quietly resign. They were going to have to do an out in the public firing to get me out. I was ready to go down with the ship, lose my job, become homeless, etc. And, I wasn’t worried about it. Guess what, they (he) blinked (backed off the pressure.)

    Now days I realize that given time, in my case 11 years at one church and 21 years at another, discipleship really does work. We now have more kids than ever. In fact so many kids I can’t even keep up with them. But it is not just numbers it is the depth of our kids.

    Sometimes on Wed and Sun I just look out at the group and say “Where did you all come from and what is the deal? I’m not that good a Youth Minister, why are you here?” (I mean I say that out loud to the kids.)

    And by the way…I’ve worked in the fields, and I’ve worked in the warehouse, and I’ve worked in the classroom and Youth Ministry is not a hard job and Youth Pastors who think so are just being wimps.

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  9. Interesting stuff, Given me lots to think about. Thanks.

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  12. dwight

    I’m not sure its about “saving” anyone’s job. It’s not about the “youth minister” or the “worship pastor” or the “executive administrator.” Staff must work together to lead the ministry of the church. Too often staff undermine each other and have their own sense of entitlement with respect to the church.

  13. Hey Dave,
    Great to be with you last week. I am a sr. pastor that has been in a transition for the past four years as I have taken seriously Jesus’ command to “Make Disciples of all nations”. The reality of what it will mean for the current way we minister is frightening. We are currently looking for a youth pastor who understands this vision and is willing to do youth ministry in such a way that the final product is students who are discipling other students. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

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