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What’s the Dirty Little Secret of Youth and College Ministry?

By Jordanne Bonfield

For some time there has been a secret brewing underneath the surface of most churches we see around us.

Photo via timesunion.com

It’s that senior leaders virtually never invest in youth and college pastors. On average, youth ministers stay at a church only 2 years. Could this be part of the reason?

Unfortunately, I have seen this play out up close and personally.

Coming from a small Christian college, many of my friends entered youth ministry. I saw some of them using youth ministry as a holding pattern until they had enough experience to become senior leaders.

But while too many use youth ministry as a steppingstone, I also know many youth and college ministers who are really passionate about the next generation. They eat, sleep, drink, and pray it. Far too often they find themselves severely under-supported and under-developed by the senior leaders in their churches. So they leave.

I’ve seen that youth and college ministers tend to believe that they aren’t worth hearing from unless they have a position of authority. Apparently youth ministers don’t have much acknowledged authority. Instead, they are usually seen as agents of fun and games who have a few good talks. Basically, they are seen as the adolescents they lead – and therefore as those shouldn’t be given any “real” responsibility.

Most youth ministers reading this right now are probably nodding their heads in agreement, but they can’t talk about it for fear of losing their job or of being punished for asking for help.

In my eight years in youth group, I had three different youth pastors. I never could figure out why these ministers left so soon after arriving. I didn’t know about the pressure they lived under to balance their lives and ministry, all the while not having a voice that was heard in the church staff context.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? We expect these young men and women to enter into one of the toughest roles in the church, but we practically feed them to the wolves. Youth ministry isn’t all games, camp trips, and fun. There are high expectations for these young ministers to be able to handle everything that will come their way.

What comes their way? They deal with teens and their problems (suicide, massive identity issues, underage drinking, bullying, drugs, and sex, to name just a few). They deal with helicopter parents and their expectations. All the while, the leadership above them chooses to be hands off because it doesn’t understand the next generation (and rarely tries to). To top it off, we expect these ministers to balance their own lives along the way. How can we expect a 22-year-old minister to handle all of these things well?

How could they? From my experience, most youth and college ministers have never been discipled themselves. Yet we expect them to effectively make disciples of the next generation. I find this absolutely perplexing. Youth and college ministers are no different than any other disciples – they will reproduce what they have been taught and trained to do.

So instead of making disciples, youth and college ministers try to grow a program that is “successful” in the eyes of others in order to earn the right to be heard. If you are a senior leader reading that last sentence, I ask you to read it again. Your staff will follow your example, whether you want to admit it or not. If you are set on numbers and production, then your staff will inevitably follow you down that path, because nothing else they do will seem right.

Believe it or not, it’s not always the desire to be successful or famous that drives youth and college ministers. The next generation of church leadership really does care about spreading the good news of Jesus among teenagers. But they can’t figure out how to do it on their own.

From what I’ve seen, young ministers value their senior leader’s input and accountability, but they are rarely given a chance to be heard. This generation of leaders has a strong, natural desire to be led and discipled by those who have gone before them – but no one is doing that for them. This is a hallmark of the Millenial Generation. There’s a giant scrolling marquee on their foreheads that reads “DISCIPLE ME!”

I am begging senior leaders to open their eyes and truthfully evaluate the way they lead their staff.  When I look at what Jesus did, I see a great example of how to lead their followers. I honestly don’t care how many sermons you’ve preached on Jesus calling Peter and John out of the boat if you aren’t living it yourself.

In Mark 1:15-20, Jesus told Peter and John to follow him and promised that he would make them fishers of men. In the three years that followed, the disciples lived with Jesus, ate with him, stayed with him, and traveled with him. Over time, Jesus released them to do what he had done. Matthew 28:18-20 isn’t just a cool verse to memorize. It is Jesus sending his disciples out to do everything he taught them. After inviting the disciples to follow him, Jesus trained them and then released them to live out all that he gave them.

One writer described our failure in multiplying leadership this way: “The time has come to humbly acknowledge before God that we have failed to train men and women to lead in the style of Jesus. Whether through ignorance or fear, we have taken the safe option, training pastors to be theologically sound and effective managers of institutions rather than equipping them with the tools they need to disciple others.”

The life of Jesus and his ways of multiplication aren’t just a theology to be memorized and believed. It is a calling to a life of obedience that has to be actively lived. Jesus had a natural way of reproducing who he was in the lives of his disciples. Senior leaders need to follow this example, whether they run a mega-church or a church of 50. It starts at “home” with family and staff – including those hotshot youth and college ministers with whom you don’t think you can relate.

Let me be bold and say that if you want your youth minister to stick around for longer than the two-year average, it’s going to take some effort on your part. You’re going to have to make an investment that will grow and last. And we’re not talking about a bigger budget (though that would be nice!). We want to spend time with you! We want you to invest in us. We want to make different mistakes than the ones you have made. Help us do that. We want to believe that you want us on your team for more than the numbers we produce in our youth or college ministry.

Thankfully, my ministry experience has been different from the dirty little secret. I come from a team and a church culture that is constantly cognizant of the next generation of leadership. I think of Robyn, who was the high school director in the same church where she discovered Jesus as a teenager. I think of Shibu, who has run a middle school ministry for seven years. I think of Dustin who has been a high school director for more than six years in the church where he found Christ. Theirs are rare stories, and the common denominator with these ministers is the investment that the leaders who went before them made in them. These leaders made it past the two-year average because of the relationships they had with those leading them.

The senior leadership I have been around for the last 10 years would agree that it is imperative to invest in your staff if you want to have a church that carries on long after you are gone. I’ve seen probably 100 next generation leaders come through my home church to be trained and discipled and then released into the ministry of the church and beyond. I’m only now realizing how rare of a thing that is. We haven’t always done it perfectly, but my senior leaders have made an effort for many years to grow the next generation.

I’m a rarity among my friends in ministry, given that I’ve stayed in one place for 10 years. I can’t take the credit. I have had wonderful disciplers and investors who helped me and challenged me to grow.

Here are some next steps I’d challenge senior leaders to think about:

  • Look over the Scriptures and really study about what Jesus did with his disciples. I would highly suggest the book Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram. It has helped me put tangible actions to the method of discipleship.
  • Talk to your youth/college minister and give him or her an opportunity to be really honest with you without judgment or reprimand. Listen to what they need before you decide what to do next. Don’t make assumptions.
  • Be honest about your expectations for your youth and college staff. Do those expectations need to be adjusted based on where they are in their growth and abilities?
  • Consider how you will begin to invest intentionally in the lives of the staff you lead. If you have a large staff, ask others around you to help you think creatively about multiplying leadership. It’s not a microwaveable process. It takes time.
  • Examine your own life and ask others to be honest with you about where you could grow in your leadership with your staff.  There are avenues of coaching and support that will help you (including from the Wayfarer team). My boss asks us annually how he can improve in his leadership. That has given me with a great example to follow.

Remember that we are called to live out the things Jesus taught, not just to memorize and teach on them. Start at home. Start with your family and staff.

If we do, maybe together we can clean up the dirty little secret.

Jordanne Bonfield is on staff with The Gathering Network, a new church plant of Heartland Community Church in Kansas City, Kansas. You can connect with Jordanne on Facebook

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22 Responses to What’s the Dirty Little Secret of Youth and College Ministry?

  1. Joe Garrison (@JoeGGarrison) 2012/03/05 at 8:55 pm #

    Great post! It’s so sad that so many senior leaders forget that to grow a successful church it takes more than managing an organization and “dynamic” speaking on Sundays. It takes discipling those under you that you expect to also be making disciples.

    If senior leaders (and all pastors) invested time in discipling their staff, making them good disciples and disciple makers, and the staff did the same in their ministries…imagine the impact!

    • Jordanne 2012/03/05 at 9:31 pm #

      Joe, I appreciate your positive feedback. What’s one thing you would say to senior pastors to encourage them in this process? Anything particular that has impacted you?

      • Joe Garrison 2012/03/07 at 3:27 pm #

        It’s a tough situation, especially in larger churches where the senior pastor/leader has SO many duties. He/She probably doesn’t really have time to disciple every single staff member.

        I would set up some kind of discipleship plan for a staff. Whether it is the senior pastor, associate pastors, or whoever, making sure that everyone has someone discipling them. Many big churches even have retired pastors that attend that would be great at helping with this.

        Leaders also need to remember that meeting weekly with staff to discuss ministry duties is not part of this process. That is important of course, but there needs to be some kind of time where staff is getting into the Word and growing together.

  2. Ryan 2012/03/05 at 9:03 pm #

    Great post Jordanne. Another great resource is a book called “The Disconnect” from LeaderTreks. It’s a great resource that allows both a youth/college pastor to go through with a Senior Pastor. The YP reads one side, the SP from the other to get two perspectives on topics that are key to this relationship. Check it out http://www.leadertreks.org/resources/the-disconnect/

    • Jordanne 2012/03/05 at 9:30 pm #

      Hi Ryan, Thanks so much for the recommendation, I’m always looking for other resources to recommend. Have you completed this process yourself? I’m curious to know why it was helpful to you personally!

  3. Clint Wagnon 2012/03/05 at 9:50 pm #

    I’m a Lead Pastor (Jesus is our Senior Pastor) and here is what I do not understand: why would you give someone charge over discipling and shepherding teenagers who does not meet the full qualifications of an elder/pastor laid out in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1? Why would we entrust someone to the spiritual care and oversight of someone we do not consider qualified enough to be a “real” or “full” pastor. It is absurd. If someone is biblically qualified to do youth ministry (and they should be so qualified, or not be given such heavy responsibility—it’s insane to entrust minors to unqualified and un-vetted ministers), then they should be recognized by the church body and so-called “senior” leaders for what they are: pastors. If they’re not qualified to be pastors, then why have them pastoring!? If they are qualified to be pastors, then recognize them, listen to them, mentor them and treat them as pastors. Most churches could very easily move close to biblical ecclesiology if they would simply elevate the position of pastor to pastor.

    • Jordanne 2012/03/06 at 4:11 am #

      It is an interesting question to pose, Clint. Maybe raising the bar of what the youth minister role consists of would certainly help many more to succeed and far fewer fail or give up. I do think you are right about the view that youth ministers are pastors as well, and shouldn’t be viewed or thought lesser of. The adjustment in the job description could help everyone tremendously. Thanks for weighing in!

  4. Emerson 2012/03/05 at 11:08 pm #

    I agree with the comment by Clint Wagnon.
    I have been both a youth pastor and a college pastor. While this article has some good insights, I believe that it fails to address the underlying problem: the hierarchical structure of pastoral leadership. Churches should be led by a plurality of mutually accountable elders who seek vision together while shepherding together. Power dynamics among the pastors/elders (the same office in the NT) create dangerous patterns of sin that are off limits to correction or attention. Furthermore, the very concept of a youth/college group with a youth/college pastor divides the the fellowship of the church into age divisions. This division contributes significantly to the difficulty many are facing today in raising young people in the Lord.
    My experience as a pastor among other pastors has shown that these dynamics discussed in the post do not exist when we follow the biblical pattern for church polity.

    • Jordanne 2012/03/06 at 6:08 pm #

      Emerson,
      I appreciate your response. My goal here is to address what “is” right now in the culture of youth ministry and open up the conversation. If we want to see the trends change, there obviously needs to be an adjustment in our idea of hierarchy. I believe the path of true discipleship naturally breaks that down. It gives everyone the chance to “play” and grow together as a team, especially the young guys. I’m trying to give voice to youth ministers who do not feel appropriately challenged and supported. A culture of ALL challenge creates stress and burn out, especially to young men and women who do not know any better yet.

  5. darci 2012/03/06 at 5:04 pm #

    amen jb. amen.

    • Jordanne 2012/03/06 at 5:58 pm #

      Thanks Darci … you know this better than anyone I believe!

  6. Terri 2012/03/06 at 5:53 pm #

    Wonderful post, Jordanne! Though I am not in youth or college ministry anymore, I can relate to what you have written because I encountered some of that myself while I was in ministry. It’s so true that if you don’t have the support of the “ones above” you (which should be the “ones with” you), then you will find it difficult to feel adequate in ministering to students. It’s imperative that senior leaders SUPPORT/ENCOURAGE all the leaders of the church.

    As usual, I am very proud of you, Jordanne. You are an excellent writer!! Miss you much girl.

    • Jordanne 2012/03/06 at 6:09 pm #

      Terri, you pioneered this in so MANY WAYS. What you have to offer now is so valuable and you hit the nail on the head: if the next gen faces so much challenge, they really need the right support and encouragement to make it through. Thanks for hanging in there all those years!

  7. Robyn Self 2012/03/06 at 6:21 pm #

    Wow Jordanne! What a gift you have and I’m so glad you used it in this instance to write about something near and dear to my heart. We have been blessed to have such wonderful equippers in our lives, haven’t we?! I am blessed to still be called into ministry reaching out to middle school, high school and college students in our area (your old hood)! We’ve got some movers and shakers in the next generations! Thank you for sharing this with me! We need to meet and have lunch SOON.
    ~ RFT…Self

  8. Andy Blanks 2012/03/06 at 8:10 pm #

    Jordanne,
    Excellent, excellent post. When Mike tweeted it out yesterday it stuck with me. We’re using it to generate some conversation over on the ym360 Blog. It’s such an important concept, we wanted to make sure our folks had a chance to engage with it. Just wanted you to know what a meaningful piece it was. Feel free to jump in and engage in the convo at any point.

    We’re big believers in the work Wayfarer and 3DM is doing. Let us know how we can serve you guys.

    Take care!
    Andy Blanks

  9. Jason Phelps, DCE 2012/03/06 at 8:20 pm #

    Thanks for posting this. I made several mistakes as a young youth minister, which eventually led me to resign from youth ministry all together. Fortunately, God continued to work on my character through discipleship via 3dM post-resignation and am now back in ministry. The investment of senior leadership is invaluable.

    • Jordanne 2012/03/06 at 10:59 pm #

      Jason, I too have found myself in a place where burnout and quitting seemed like my only choice. God used folks at 3dm and the awesome team I worked for to revive my soul, and we both know it’s nothing short of a miracle for us to still be in these conversations. Share your testimony where you can! Praise God!

  10. Change In view 2012/03/07 at 8:54 pm #

    Amazing Post! I was a youth pastor for 15 months and this so much encapsulated every minute of it. I feel like I have grown a lot more though others now that I am out of the pastoral position than when I was in it. At this point I want to be that person that helps keep youth pastors from burning out. I know how hard it is, I want to help support others.

    Thanks!

  11. Dave Rhodes 2012/03/07 at 9:45 pm #

    Love seeing the conversation on this page and at YM360. Thanks Jordanne for your thoughts and reflections in creating such an engaging post. I look forward to reading many more posts from you in the future. So glad you are part of the Wayfarer Blog team!

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