Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Youth Pastor Age Requirement

For the eight years prior to my current calling I served primarily as a youth pastor. And this was something I took very seriously. I took all of my seminary and undergrad electives in youth and family ministry making sure that I best knew how to do what it was I was supposed to do.

And, for the most part, I think I did well. I did top notch programming. Kids often came to me to discuss things going on in their lives. I watched several kids become committed disciples of Christ. And parents would often come to me to discuss things going on with their kids. And this is where I think I primarily failed, not because of anything I did wrong, per se, but because of something completely out of my control: my age and position in life.

As I write this now I am 31 years old. My years primarily in youth ministry were from the ages of 22-29. And this, I now am beginning to think, is quite likely too young to serve as a youth pastor.

I am the parent of four children, and my oldest is now in the double-digit age category. For over a decade now we have struggled with parenting a child with ADHD. We have labored over the issues of sibling-rivalry, helping kids cope with death, and so much more. And as intense as all of those things have been for me as a parent, I can't believe parents at one time or another came to me for advice and direction in those former years. There are things about kids you just don't know until you've raised them yourself. No one can really be an effective support, in my opinion, to a parent going through the struggles of raising a teenager than someone who has already raised a teenager.

So many youth pastors I know see themselves as "teen experts." They seem to know everything about youth culture. They know the music, the games, the fashion. After all, most of them are still technically youths themselves. But they are not the experts (I was certainly not an expert) because they have not had the experience of raising a teenager.

Many churches think they need to hire a young person in their twenties to be their youth pastor because they can "relate." Sure, there is a close proximity in age and lifestyle when you hire someone that young. But when they do that they don't realize the tradeoff. They're missing out on having someone who has learned lessons the hard way about what gets through to kids and what doesn't. They're sacrificing the ability to have someone who has gone through the pain of loving their own kids through the difficult years and for some reason or another still wanting to work with teens.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't want to totally dismiss the unique gifts of having young people work with teens. There is sort of a natural connection due to age proximity. There is a sort of spontenaity and liveliness that younger people often bring to the table. But that shouldn't be the totality of what we hang our hats on. Kids need adults of all ages to be loving support for them, and especially, I believe, adults who have had to love their kids through the hardest years and still want to do it. Families of teens need someone who has been there, someone who has gone through it, someone who can be an adequate support for them, as well. After all, a youth pastor's calling is not just limited to the teens themselves, but to the whole family, the whole church, the whole of the environment in which kids live.

I know there are probably going to be some young youth pastors who don't like reading this post. I'd like to hear from you, beyond the anger, as to how you believe you can effectively minister to families without the experience of raising your own kids through it. I'd also like to hear from those who agree, as to why you've come to the same conclusion.


jeremy zach said...

Yeah great post Dan. I am a 28 year old youth pastor who is a dad of two cats.

But here is the deal... some church's can only really afford to pay a young youth pastor because paying a family-man youth worker cost a lot of money to employ. Essentially the church needs to support them medically, financially, and educationally. I am assuming if the youth pastor is good they are going to want more education.

Plus a single youth pastor has no other life than the church. So why wouldn't a church want to hire this type of person? They--the church- are getting free labor because the young youth pastor doesn't have any other friends or a life outside of the church walls. So maybe one may need to convince church board that there needs to be an age requirement.

Brian said...

Dan, I think you are asking very valid questions. I was still in youth ministry up to about age 40 and hope to go back to it in the future. I started at about age 23 and though I believe I was called even then to work with youth in the church, I had a lot of learning to do. We know now that many of us are still in our adolescence well into our twenties so if churches do utilize young youth pastors they certainly should provide them with older mentors to help deal with issues of boundaries.

Jeremy is a young guy in youth ministry and I know from following his blog that he knows his stuff and is committed to substantial ministry with his youth, so age isn't necessarily the biggest issue here for me, but rather maturity, the motivation that brings a young person to youth ministry, and maintaining good boundaries between youth minister and youth.

Thanks for raising this important issue.

DennisS said...

Our kids are now 17, 18, & 20, and we've dealt with all kinds of things - with our kids, and with their friends. There's a lot of struggle, and many challenges in the teen years, and these things change from year to year, and child to child.

I can see why a parent would be looking for help, and why they would be willing to seek out even a young, youth pastor.

I think it's great to have young folks to deal with youth. First, there's the energy. Second, there's the connections.

Perhaps the real issue isn't with the youthful age of the youth pastor, but instead is more an indictment against the church for having youth ministry be so much a separate ministry.

There ought to be Elders working alongside the youth pastor. The youth could be matched up with a grandparent type. My aunt, even many years into retirement, was a youth pastor and elder. For Sunday School they went out to meet in the homes of shut-ins. The youth led the studies, prayed, etc.

My Aunt's main job was to facilitate the discussion, making sure the shut-in had an opportunity to share some of the wisdom that would be helpful to the youth.

Okay, disclosure - my aunt had a PhD in counseling, and was a first responder for suicide threats and attempts. She never had children of her own, but still was a grandmother type that kids liked to talk to, as she listened and she remembered and cared for each one.

As it is, generally it seems the youth get lost to the church, by being kept at a distance - rather than an integral part of what is going on.

Regardless the age of the youth pastor, it would be best if the adults in the congregation make special notice of the youth, and practice true hospitality and care - as they promised in the baptismal vows (for those congregations which practice infant baptism).

Danny Bradfield said...

I have met young people who were mature enough to be good youth leaders in their 20s, even early 20s. However, I agree with you, and wonder how in the world I ever pastored youth when I was that age.

Rather than saying that youth pastors need to be a certain age, perhaps it would be better (and more realistic) to insist that young youth pastors work closely with a mentor/advisor--ideally, their senior pastor; someone to whom the youth pastor could go to for answers, suggestions, and wisdom.

The senior pastor of the church where I was youth pastor said flat out to me, "You do your thing; I won't interfere." Which, in retrospect, wasn't all that different from saying, "You're on your own." Young youth pastors NEED the interference of the senior pastor. The senior pastor needs to be involved, sharing his or her wisdom.

Andy Beck said...

Good thoughts Dan. As a 32 year old youth minister who started discerning a call to ministry at 20, and now am a father of 2 - I have seen my approach to ministry with youth and families shift.

When i started i was arrogant, eager, cheap and could connect easily with students because of my closeness in age. I second your comment about parents putting so much trust in me back then. If they only knew!!

Now I'm 1/3 done with seminary, feeling more called to youth ministry than ever, and realizing that ministry to youth must include significant time for working with parents, helping them be effective in understanding, relating to and caring for their student.

I probably wouldn't have come to this understanding as a 20 year old. Speaking only of my own experience, the most effective youth ministers i have known have been middle aged. Here's to getting there someday!

clintwcollins said...

I think these are some good observations, Dan. However, I think I would take a little bit different tact (acknowledging a couple of your other posters played at this, too) and ask the question of churches: when will they take youth ministry seriously? I've never served as a youth minister, and for the sake of disclosure, don't feel called to it either.

However, from my own experience as a youth, and a church member who observed the ministry to a youth, and in discussion with friends who work as youth ministers, I've kinda come to feel that we treat youth ministry as something "lesser." For ministers, it's simply the first step on the path to senior pastor: youth minister, associate minister, senior pastor.

And I'd echo the thoughts of some of the others - it's often a separate ministry in many ways. Now I'll be the first to admit that this will -not- be an easy problem to address, but I think it is also unhelpful for the ministry to youth and is unhelpful in the age divisions that it builds into the culture of the church.

Anyway, just my two cents.

Matt Cleaver said...

As a 26 year old who has been in full-time youth ministry for 5 years or so, I tend to agree with you, in part. I guess the question I have (and have personally been struggling with myself) is that if you can't (shouldn't?) come straight out of college into a youth ministry position, then what do you do in the interim? I mean, I'm not in youth ministry for the money, but it is the thing that pays my bills right now. If I wasn't doing this right now, I'm not sure what I would be doing.

Randy said...

As a 57 year old now far into my 4th decade in youth ministry, Dan's initial blog and all the responses are a great read. I have served in local churches, coordinated regional programs, been a denominational youth exec-type, and taught seminary courses. I offer renewal retreats and training and consulting in youth ministry and am back in a local church. And thru all of that journey I observe that at whatever age, we bring differing gifts and differing shortcomings to the tasks and the relationships. I am delighted to have all of you as partners.

conard said...

Enjoyed the post. It reminds me of how important it is to hear a clear calling and then to test that calling (through internships, volunteering, or actually being a youth minister).

If we are clearly called and allowing the Spirit to guide our ministry then I believe that we will be equipped to answer questions, to guide those in situations that we may not have actually experienced, and also to know when not to speak.

Lizz said...

I appreciated this post, and the comments that followed. As a 22 year old in my second year of full-time ministry I definitely face challenges, but I see so many ways that the Lord is equipping me. I fall in all those categories that would make me a minority. I'm a woman, I'm 22, and I'm serving my home congregation after leaving for college.
It's not an easy job, I'm definitely not in it for the money but I desire to do what God has called me to do right now and I use everything He has equipped me with to do it the best I can.
I don't disagree with anything really in these posts.. it's great to have your insight.

natehickox said...

I think your post gives us some great things to think about. I am young myself. I'm going to graduate college next year with a degree in youth ministry. And I know I'm going to have a whole lot to learn. And God is teaching me now how important involving parents in youth ministry is. I think this post confirms it. But it also brings to mind 1 Timothy 4:12 (New International Version)

Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.

Also something to think about.

Chris Bowditch said...

I definitely agree that it's hard to minister to parents as a young youth pastor.

I guess my question is that your logic seems to say only people with certain experiences can minister effectively to people in similar circumstances. For example can the 40 year old single man minister to a family? Can a former accountant now pastor minister to a high flying CEO? I think yes. So I guess it probably comes down to maturity...