Last week I found myself in a room of guys and gals from across the city of Austin who held the title of youth pastor, student director, high school pastor, etc. It has been neat to network with others that find themselves in my shoes and do the work that I do. We can exchange victories and failures in a safe place where we really understand the unique yet adverse opportunities we face on a weekly basis when working with students, parents and volunteers.
However, as I shook hands in this room full of 25 other youth pastors and started exchanging position titles, our job descriptions, and current goals I realized quickly that I’m a bit different than the majority.
In a world where the title youth pastor or student pastor has various levels of interpretation, most of them are simply interpreted by the interpreter’s experience. Other church staff or parents think about their own youth pastor from when they were in the youth group or perhaps immediately jump to that really fun camp speaker that seemed to connect with them. Despite trying to reconcile past experiences with current youth pastors, the truth remains the same, we are all different. We each have a unique set of gifts, personalities, and leadership qualities that make up who we are as we pursue the job description set before us.
Here’s my question that also presents a plea to those that hold the position or title of youth pastor/director: “What kind of youth pastor do you think you are?”
And for churches/para-church ministries that employee youth pastors and youth workers to engage the next generation: “What kind of youth pastor do you really want?”
I think it is incredibly important for both the church and the youth pastor to be in sync on these answers. From what I have obtained in conversations with other youth pastors, my personal experience in two different churches, along with my expectations and assumptions from other church staff members, the youth pastor usually falls into one of two categories.
Let’s approach this from a film making perspective. You have your director, the script, film crew, supporting actors and star of the show. This analogy will help the approach to a conversation with your youth pastor or a church you might be dating in an interview process as you inquire what they are looking for, or simply help you get in sync with your manager or the leadership of your church. You can substitute script for job description or goals and supporting actors for volunteers but today we will look just at the two most likely youth pastors candidates, the star and the director. When you fist bump that next student pastor you’re most likely coming into contact with one of these two people.
Being the star is the most common type of youth pastor approach and how many start their career, it’s how I got my feet wet in ministry. You are the life of the party and really bring the whole crowd to it’s feet. Your job is the attention gatherer, making sure everyone is looking at you, listening to you and following your lead. When you laugh, they laugh, when you cry they cry. This goes all the way from that silly game on stage to having the students hanging on your very words in a message. Like the star of the show you are the biggest attractor of students, being highly relational and present in their culture. You bring pizza to school lunches, attend as many games as you can and in your free time seek out your students friends, inviting them into the atmosphere you have created. The position of youth pastor at your church is vital for your youth ministry not because of the position, but because of who you are. You are the glue to this ministry, students feel like they really know you and you do your very best to know every student.
Sounds great huh? Here’s the downside. One of two truth’s will set in for you.
1. One day you are going to leave for another job, another ministry or another career. Those students you were leading are connected to a single person, not a church, not a ministry… and when you leave, so will they. I’ve seen this happen first-hand and witnessed it in other ministries of my peers. I urge you to find someone else they can look up to in addition to you.
2. You can’t be the star for every student and not every student is going to like you. You will never be culturally relevant enough for your students, it’s impossible. You don’t live in their culture every day in the way that they do. The star can only shake the hands of so many, only make so many football games, and any volunteers you currently have may feel like they are getting a short end of the stick while you have all the fun.
What seems like a back seat approach may have more effectiveness in youth ministry than what it may seem. The director type of youth pastor is managerial in his or her approach even if they have no staff. A director is good a recruiting what they need to build an effective team. A director does not simply dream about what they want, but pursues it with excellence, focusing on the entire outcome of a team rather than what they can do alone. Portrayed and perhaps bullied as more authoritative at times or a father figure, this kind of youth pastor will not be best friends with every student, there are very few students that will ‘feel close’ to their youth pastor. This youth pastor pours countless hours building a foundation of youth ministry within their church that will outlast their tenure. Their time is spent recruiting, vision casting, developing, and equipping other staff and volunteer leaders so that these men and women can be the stars and super-heroes of the students.
Here’s the nitty-gritty on ‘the director’ kind of youth pastor. I believe it to be a highly sought position by church leadership, but not by students or even parents of students. This is true at first, especially if there is an absence of volunteers or a small group strategy. This is especially true if your predecessor was ‘the star’ and you were hired to be ‘the director’. In this case you have your work cut out for you. It may take 3 years for your church leadership, families, volunteers and existing students to adapt to this change in philosophy of leadership – it did for me.
CAN I BE BOTH?
This is a fantastic question. For me personally based upon my gifts, experience, current job description, and how God has convicted my heart to lead, my answer is no. My current role is ‘the director’ and I find this approach most effective in pursuing my current ministry goals. There are times I step into the spotlight, take center stage and turn on ‘the star’ mentality, going 110% extrovert like in a camp setting… but it’s for a short moment and I know someone else can do it better. I want my students to look to their small group leaders as that influence, someone that can be there much more than I can, and hopefully make a bigger impact, more than I ever could, simply due to the amount of time they get with them every week. I’m only one person that can lead so many. I’m banking on those I lead will reach farther separately into the lives of my students, having a greater impact collectively as leaders than I ever could alone. I still work hard on my Sunday message and hope to connect the dots for the student listening, but I try hard to set up a home run for my leaders leading small group conversation and frequently bring in guest speakers who may connect with students better than I do.
Coming full circle, let me be clear, I think both ‘the director’ and ‘the star’ have their place and time in the life of a church, and both can be incredibly beneficial in their own ways. A church may be able to afford and even hire in such a way where they get a ‘director’ and a ‘star’ for their team, if the chemistry is right this could work wonders! What dictates the approach of the church or ministry is the job description. You had better be on the same page (literally) with the church leadership or there is going to be confusion, wrong perceptions and possibly an early exit for you.
I think these questions would be well worth your time in reflection on this topic and perhaps consider an evaluation by other peers and co-workers close to you.
- What kind of youth pastor do you think you are?
- What kind of youth pastor do others portray you as?
- What kind of youth pastor does your church want?
- Are you okay with these answers? If not, why not?
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Just make me a solid promise, no matter what, don’t pull these kind of shenanigans or take your cues from this guy.