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.
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.
About Jordanne Bonfield
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