Do You (Inadvertently) Treat Youth Pastors Like Second String?

For about eight years, I had the privilege of serving in youth ministry leadership as youth pastor over a group of junior high students, and later high school students. During those years, I had the time of my life. 

After all, in many ways, youth pastors get to have all the fun. They go to summer camp, amusement parks, and on beach trips. Youth pastors eat pizza at midnight with students and play all the latest video games. Most of them have the inside scoop on the latest fashion trends and lingo. All of them draw life and vibrance from the students they love so much.

Being a youth pastor is also a lot of work, full of odd hours, vastly varied responsibilities, and often unexpected moments wherein students need genuine pastoral care and wise counsel. 

Nevertheless, though their work is as tireless as it is important, youth pastors are often the most under-appreciated and under-resourced leaders in the church. 

When I was a youth pastor, it was clear that I had a gift for communication. And so I would sometimes be asked to preach for our church’s Sunday services. When I preached, someone would almost invariably approach me after service to commend me on my sermon while offering a question that most didn’t even realize stung me a little: “When do you think you’ll become a real pastor?”

This is a question youth pastors get all the time. Often the youngest and most inexperienced on a church staff, many of them feel undercut by the implication that the work they do is less pastoral, less important, less valuable to the church and the community.

I’m saying this as someone whose church treated him well as a youth pastor. Even still, I often received subtle cues that I was not really a pastor—but I might be someday. For other youth pastors, the cues are not subtle at all. 

But it shouldn’t be this way. Youth ministry is not the JV team. 

In fact, it’s some of the most important work a person could do. Further, it’s some of the most important work a church could support.

Here are three reasons to start treating your youth pastor like a “real” pastor.

1. Students, After All, Are People Too.

It’s amazing to me how many older members of the church genuinely seem to dislike any and all junior high and high school students. They often tell the youth pastor, “I could never do what you do—dealing with all those hormones!”

Implicit in an unwillingness to recognize youth pastors as “real” pastors is often a bias against junior high and high school students, in which they are viewed as something less than “real” humans. 

I mean, when pressed, no one would deny that even the most hormone-addled junior high student constantly using every incomprehensible slang term imaginable is not created in the image of God with inherent dignity and value. It’s just that we’re waiting for them to grow out of whatever phase they’re in so that their humanity is more readily comprehensible to older generations. 

However, this mentality toward young people tends to lack genuine empathy. Yes, junior high and high school students can be a lot to handle sometimes. But part of the reason for that is that these are formative years, wherein they grapple with some of the most important questions of life.

Who am I?

Who is God?

What am I supposed to do with my life?

These aren’t small questions. This period of wrestling often defines the trajectory of a person’s life. Add in the realities of their rapidly changing physiology and cognitive capacity and the often extreme social pressure they feel from peers and parents alike, it’s not difficult to appreciate that this is a tumultuous time in life.

The church would do well to be a steady presence of love in this critical stage of a person’s life—to dignify their experience rather than give them a sideways eye for acting exactly the way you’d expect someone in their stage of development to act.

But too often, the church feels inconvenienced by the “drama” of junior high and high school students who are struggling to mature, excluding them or otherwise greeting them with sternness rather than warmth, a wagging finger rather than open arms. 

We need to allow students to fail forward without fear of judgment. Most of them already judge themselves way more harshly than anyone should be judged. If these precious souls can’t find love and acceptance in the church, they’ll find it somewhere else.

Furthermore, being a spiritual leader to such a group is serious work. It takes a “real” pastor to do it well.

2. Students Are The Leaders Of Tomorrow.

While many people may look at a group of youth students and only see a raging ball of hormones engulfed in a cloud of Axe Spray, a group of people who inexplicably always have either a cell phone or a skateboard in hand, a noisy bunch always disturbing the peace, I see something different.

I mean, the older I get, I see those things too. But what I also see is pure, unadulterated potential.

Students are an endless well of leadership potential. Many students are simply waiting for permission to do the things that God has created them to do. The only problem is that older generations are often reluctant to give them that permission. In principle, older generations want to empower the young people in their church. It’s just they don’t want them to act like young people as they step into those roles. 

But that’s not the way it works. Students don’t just step into responsibility fully mature. It’s the process of being empowered and mentored that causes them to grow. Students need older and more mature believers to pour into them, empower them, speak blessing into their dreams and potential.

Students need voices that counter the false narratives of culture—people who simultaneously accept them as they are and who call them into something better. They need examples of older believers who are authentic, caring, and faithful.

Students need people to follow as those people follow Jesus. The future of the church depends on this.  

The call of a youth pastor is to facilitate these kinds of opportunities for growth for their students. It’s not easy work trying to empower a squirrely group of young people in spaces where older people are just as squirrely about them being there. That’s real pastoral work.

3. Students Are the Under-Utilized Leaders of Today.

Junior high and high school students are often told that they are “the future of the church.” And that’s true. But they’re also here right now. We’re just under-utilizing the leadership they have to offer today. 

If we care about the mission of Jesus, then we need to do a better job of utilizing students and listening to the pastors who gain valuable insights from them and synthesize them into ministry strategies. Here are two reasons why.

Students Are Cultural Experts.

Youth culture should absolutely shape a church’s ministry strategy. And I’m not saying that because it’s cool to be cool. It’s not all about what cut of jeans they’re wearing—that’s relatively superficial.

Rather, we need to recognize that with every generational shift comes a different way of thinking about the world, reinterpreting what came before, and casting a new vision for what’s to come. Where young people trend is where culture trends. And those new trends require a new way of thinking when it comes to reaching the world for Jesus. 

Students are cultural experts. They learn and adapt incredibly quickly. Students often understand cultural nuances that are imperceptible to older generations.

So if we really care about contextualizing the message of Jesus to the culture in which we live, then we need to care about what young people care about. If they care about it, chances are that it resonates with the non-believers in our community.

This isn’t to say that we throw out every tradition or chase every trend. But we do need to care about how the message of Jesus is coming across to those who do not yet know him. Too often, the church is content to think that culture should come to us.

To be sure, we don’t need to make the message of Jesus relevant. It’s always relevant. I know that. You know that. But do you know who doesn’t know it? People who don’t have a relationship with Jesus. So we need to demonstrate the relevance of the gospel to those people. We need to speak their language.

Youth students already speak that language. Youth pastors can help you translate it.

Students Are On The Mission Field Every Day.

Students have the single largest domestic mission field of anybody in the church—the public school system. I genuinely doubt that any adult reading this has a larger rolodex of personal contacts than the average high school student. 

If the students of your church go to public school, and you live in an urban or suburban context, then your church has unfettered access to literally thousands of young souls who need Jesus. Your students are on a first name basis with them. They eat lunch with them every day.

Ought we not to pour the love of Jesus into those students so that they can pour it out in their schools? This is exactly what youth pastors do every week. They are doing the work of a pastor. Limited though their resources may be, they are tirelessly trying to equip these young saints for ministry.

Our Opportunity To Show the Love of Jesus to and Through Students Is Limited Only by Our Dreams.

Youth ministry is about so much more than all night lock-ins and loud music. Youth ministry isn’t just a place to keep students busy or to keep them from getting pregnant prior to graduation. It isn’t just a safe place for them to hang out on Wednesday nights or after the Friday night football game. It’s not all pizza and hot dogs. 

Youth ministry is a feeding ground for revival. It takes pastors—real pastors—to lead youth ministry. Let’s treat them, train them, and resource them as such.

A version of this article originally appeared here. Its content has been revised and expanded for and is used by permission.