“When are you going to become a real pastor?”
Throughout the last twenty years that’s the question I would hear if I gave a good sermon, or launched a successful ministry initiative, or cared effectively for people in their times of need. The people who asked this question usually had sincere motivations. Their intention was not to demean my current status, but instead to offer me a statement of their affirmation. In other words, “Well done, young man… Now when are you going to do this for real? 🙂
But the question belittled my role as a youth pastor.
And the question belittles the radical significance of youth ministry.
And the question perpetuates the idea that youth ministry is simply a stepping stone towards true pastoral ministry.
It’s as much everybody’s fault as anybody’s. Youth Ministry has generally become perceived as the role for the pastors who can’t pastor. Most of that perspective is misguided and unbiblical… but some, because of immaturely-behaved youth pastors is, unfortunately, justifiable.
To protect my attitude, and to remind myself of the importance of my vocation, I developed a motto for myself based on 1 Timothy 4:12~
“Don’t let others look down on you because you are a youth pastor.”
Throughout my churchy-career working with young people I’ve carried many titles: ‘Youth Pastor’, ‘Associate Pastor of Family Ministries’, ‘Young Adults Pastor’, ‘Director of Student Ministries’, and even the dreaded-back-handed ‘The Youth Guy’. In each case I was an ‘Associate’ or a staff member serving alongside (or beneath) a ‘Senior Pastor’ or ‘Lead Pastor’. Every time I did well in my job it became more difficult for me to stay in that role… Most times it wasn’t the Lead Pastor who made it difficult… but the congregation’s perceptions about the ladder of professional ministry. It seems that when I succeeded in the ‘minor leagues’ of youth ministry it was viewed as inevitable that I’d someday be ‘called-up’ to the big leagues of professional pastoral ministry.
I remember hitting a home-run with one particular sermon. While speaking with people afterwards, a well-meaning older couple greeted me with sad expressions on their faces. “Well done, Ken,” they began, “but we’re afraid now that you won’t be here very long.”
“What do you mean,” I replied skeptically, suddenly afraid for my job security. In a panic, I frantically reviewed the sermon delivery in my mind. Had I’d misspoken & mashed some sounds together into what sounded like a cussword during the passionate highpoint of the message? Or had I accidently insulted an older member of the congregation with my introductory joke (– a common error for a minor-leaguer)? Did I proof-text scripture? Did I accidently wear my flip-flops? What was this nice couple concerned about?
“You’re too good of a preacher,” they sighed. “You won’t stay in our church much longer because another church will someday ask you to be a real pastor”.
I admit I was stunned. Their comment has jabbed my soul for quite some time. I thanked them for their strange complement… but I walked away perplexed. Eventually I came to the following conclusion: they thought that because I was ‘good’ at preaching it was impossible for me to remain at the church working with youth.
In other words, high-capacity pastors are for the adults. Youth Ministry is no place for a ‘good’ pastor.
Is that what they believed?
Is that also what we all believe?
Do we actually believe that youth ministry is just for the rookies and underlings and hasbeens and cantmakeits and goofoffs and and grownupkidpastors?
Is a passionate follower of Jesus who can articulate faith, encourage people, and teach God’s Word too good to be a youth pastor?
Not according to Scripture: Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, Matthew 18, Eli with Samuel, Samuel with David, Jesus with the Twelve, Paul with Timothy. An argument could be made that passing the Gospel on to the next generation and equipping them to do the same is perhaps the most important ministry pattern God initiated. It is the Great Commission undergirded by the Greatest two Commandments. Intentionally facilitating an encouraging environment within which the next generations will grow in their Godly character and also be given opportunity and training to be the leaders in the work of ministry is the role of an Ephesians 4:11-12 pastor.
So, in recent years, as the unintentional dismissals of my ‘position’ have echoed in my ears, I’ve come to believe that there may, in fact, be no more strategic calling in ministry than to equip continual Generational Transference of faith. A church is commissioned by Jesus to champion and release the next generation’s embrace and practice of faith. And a pastor is comissioned to enable a church in its commissioning.
Therefore, I think that congregations should consider a new perspective of professional pastoral positioning. In this day and age, where youth are segregated from adult congregations and seen as minor-league farm-teams from which real pastors will emerge, perhaps Senior Pastors should reaffirm the role of churches to make young disciples of Jesus. Perhaps adults within a local church should see their experience and learnings and capacities as a calling and impetus to equip youth. Perhaps congregations should, with gratitude to their dedication, encourage youth pastors to continue being effective in facilitating Generational Transference because they already are real pastors. Perhaps, the next time a Lead Pastor gives a great sermon, or successfully launches a ministry inititave, or effectively serves people in need, the congregation should respectfully pose the question to them, “When are you going to become a real pastor for our youth too— they need this quality of equipping also.”
Someday, perhaps, congregations will pursue their calling to centrally include youth as disciples commissioned to make disciples. And, perhaps, those who serve the next generations will be recognized as invaluable in that process. Senior Pastors, perhaps your role truly is a stepping stone into youth ministry.