“In what other job would youthful inexperience be a selling point for a candidate?”
Wanted: Student Pastor. Must be inexperienced, wear skinny jeans and be undeniably cool. Applicants over 35 need not apply.
The painful truth: This fictional job ad is not an exaggeration for many churches that are currently seeking a new youth pastor. In what other job would youthful inexperience be a selling point for a candidate?
But this is what many churches want. Many churches are operating under the myth that student ministry is a young man’s (or woman’s) game. This leads to a dangerous outcome—student pastor being treated as a church’s entry-level position.
The reader should know that I am a young student pastor. I was hired when I was 21 and I am now 24. Please do not mistake this for hypocrisy. Much of this article stems from my personal experience. I see all of the places where I could have failed and I know all the places I did fail.
I am not calling for an end to the hiring of young pastors; I am simply asking if treating the office of student pastor as an entry-level post is the best way to do student ministry.
Entry-level positions are where new workers in most fields gain their initial experience. Young pastors have to acquire experience somewhere, but student ministry may not be the place to do it.
Student ministry is far too hazardous to be left in the care of inexperienced hands. This branch of ministry houses more pitfalls for young pastors than in any other capacity they will ever serve. For young pastors, student ministry is dangerous.
Working with minors is inherently hazardous. Most inexperienced pastors will not know the proper procedures for keeping themselves above reproach—habits like never being alone with a student of the opposite sex, always having two unrelated adults drive the youth bus, or knowing where to draw the line between friend and mentor. Without knowing these things, student pastors put themselves in danger.
While most will never fall into the sins these procedures prevent, not following these these rules will put young pastors below reproach. In such cases, young pastor’s resumes can be left with a red mark.
The Impact on Students
Students are impressionable, and the wrong move can literally scar them for life. Often, young youth pastors do not know how to handle the situations that teens are going through. Without clear expectations and training, student pastors have a much higher risk of saying or doing the wrong thing.
More often than not, students in a youth program carry some form of baggage. This can be anything from struggling through their parent’s divorce, to dealing with bullies, to feeling alone and vulnerable. While on one hand, a “young guy” could be seen as being more relatable to the student, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will know what to say when he is approached.
A younger leader will have been exposed to less and can unfortunately be caught off-guard by the shock of certain situations. The sympathies of an older leader, one who is even old enough to have children of his or her own, can sometimes be exactly what these kids need.
The problem with treating the position as entry-level is that those who are hired will also see it as entry-level. Student pastors who see their roles in this way—a stepping stone into a “more legitimate” branch of ministry—will also see students as stepping stones.
Students become a young pastor’s chance to show their ability. Student pastors with this mentality won’t fully engage students or be invested in their spirituality.
So, how do churches find and cultivate pastors with a lifelong passion for student ministry and give the position legitimacy? Unless student pastors are called to student ministry, they will not be passionate about their work. Unless they see their position within the church as legitimate, they will not feel like a “real” pastor.
If the church is constantly treating them as though they are not real pastors, student pastors will notice. The first step churches can take in legitimizing the office of student pastor is dispelling the myth that student ministry is a young person’s game.
A Young Man’s Game
The most dangerous lie about student ministry is that only young ministers are effective. Personally, I have witnessed the opposite. I recently had the opportunity to interview Pastor Eddy Bunton, who has served as the associate pastor of youth at Burkemont Baptist Church in Morganton, North Carolina, for 20 years. For Bunton, student ministry is a lifelong calling. His ministry is one of the most vibrant and active in the area—and Bunton is in his 50s.
“After doing student ministry for years, people finally started asking me, ‘When are you going to quit messing around and start a real pastorate?’” Bunton says.
Some of the most effective student ministers I have met are the ones who didn’t drop out of the game when they turned 30. While at a recent youth pastor conference, a lifelong youth pastor was given a lifetime achievement award. He served as the youth pastor of one church for 22 years.
This is the legacy those who are truly called to student ministry should strive to have. As they gave this student pastor the award, they spoke of how his students looked up to him and his effectiveness as a pastor.
Student pastors are not encouraged to stay in their position for very long. They’re often not even encouraged to stay long enough to see middle school students go from 6th grade to graduating high school.
Larry Long, a pastor, says that treating student ministry as entry-level “doesn’t allow student ministers to build a good foundation.” Student pastors are run off before they ever have the opportunity to become effective. Why? Because when student pastors grow that first grey hair or develop that first wrinkle, churches start to think, Maybe its time we promote you to associate pastor.
People have the mindset that teenagers cannot connect with older adults. This is simply not true. Student pastors don’t need to have anything in common with teenagers to connect with them.
“I’m not like my students and they’re not like me, but I remember what it was like to be a teenager,” Bunton says. I’m convinced that Bunton connects with his students so well because he simply is who he is. There is an air of authenticity to him. This is the sort of attribute that draws students near and keep thems.
Churches that hire a “cool” student pastor will likely see a boom in their youth attendance, but that spike will only be sustainable if that student pastor knows how to disciple.