This post will serve to wrap up my thoughts on several problems which people commonly associate with youth ministers. If you’ve missed the first three parts of this series, you can read them here, here, and here.
Youth ministers often don’t get a lot of respect, and people who complain about them have a lot of criticisms. In this series I discussed five different criticisms which I think have varying degrees of validity:
(1) Youth Ministers don’t stay very long.
Is this criticism valid? Generally, yes. It will always be difficult for youth ministers to get respect if they are viewed more as hired hands than as good shepherds (cf. John 10), and people can’t help but view youth ministers as hired hands when they don’t stick around long enough to put down roots and build meaningful, lasting relationships with the congregation. There are certainly some valid reasons to leave a congregation (even after a short period of time), but in general, I think youth ministers as a group are guilty of leaving a little too quickly when things get difficult.
Suggestion for improvement: Congregations are made up of people, which means that any church and therefore any church-related job is going to come with problems and headaches. Realizing from the outset that no ministry position is perfect helps to temper unrealistic expectations. Furthermore, working on developing the biblical virtues of perseverance and patience helps a minister weather the bad times while working diligently to help bring about better ones.
(2) Youth Ministers are never in the office working.
Is this criticism valid? To a degree, yes. It is not valid when based on the assumption that being in the office is the single most important thing that a youth minister can do, because the majority of youth ministry cannot be done in an office where no young people are present. Thankfully, most congregations realize this today, and adjust office hour requirements accordingly. Unfortunately, some youth ministers take advantage of this arrangement and are never found in the office at all, and that is a problem. Youth ministers hold a visible position of leadership and, therefore, need to be accessible to members of the congregation at certain times.
Suggestion for improvement: If you have office hours posted (or even if they are not posted, but were agreed upon when you were hired), be a person of integrity and make it a priority to be in your office at those times. Make the hours you spend in the office as productive as possible by focusing on those aspects of youth ministry that can be done without your youth group being present: studying and preparing Bible class lessons, answering phone calls and emails, planning and publicizing events through social media, or reading books on ministry and Christian living.
(3) Youth Ministers build allegiance to a group, not to the Church.
Is this criticism valid? Yes. I spent a lot of time covering this one, because of all the criticisms people make about youth ministers/ministry I think this is the most significant. A lot of the activities and strategies that youth ministers typically employ serve to isolate young people from the rest of the congregation, leaving them without any meaningful relationships with other, older members. Once the teenager graduates from high school (and the youth group) he/she can feel out of place at church and not surprisingly, a lot of teenagers leave the church during this time of life.
Suggestion for improvement: Limit how often you remove your youth group from the corporate worship of the congregation; the more often you are gone (regardless of how important the reason seems), the more you underscore that, on some level, the youth group is not a part of the larger congregation. Allow high school graduates to still hang out at youth group activities, and invest some level of responsibility and leadership in them. Encourage your teens to be actively involved in the life of the church in worship, in service, and in church-wide events. Finally, provide opportunities for adult Christians to mentor teens one-on-one or in small groups—the more relationships a teen develops outside the youth group the better.
(4) Youth Ministers are shallow.
Is this criticism valid? At times it is, but on the whole, I don’t think youth ministers should be roundly criticized for this. As I mentioned before, I honestly don’t know of any youth ministers who do nothing more than plan fun events and play games with their teens. I do think that youth ministers sometimes lean too far toward entertainment when trying to teach their students, but even that generally comes from a desire to instill biblical principles in a way the student will remember rather than an unwillingness on the part of the youth minister to teach the Bible. Youth ministers are sometimes unacceptably ignorant in their Bible knowledge, but as I argued before, so are most Christians. That’s not to say that it isn’t a problem (it’s a huge problem), it just isn’t a problem that youth ministers should be singled out for.
Suggestion for improvement: Youth activities which are fun should be balanced with activities that focus on other important aspects of the Christian life. There’s nothing wrong with taking your teens bowling or visiting Six Flags, but you should also take them to spiritually-focused events like retreats and youth rallies and also provide them with abundant opportunities for service. With regard to Bible class, teaching the Bible should always take precedence over entertaining the students, and that is made easier when the youth minister has made a personal commitment to Bible study.
(5) Youth Ministers are liberal.
Is this criticism valid? Mostly, I don’t think so. Generally speaking, because of their age and educational background, I do think that youth ministers tend to be more “liberal” than the average church member, however, I don’t think it’s particularly common for youth ministers to swoop into a new ministry position, determined to make the church more liberal at all costs and causing irreparable damage along the way. Actually, I think it is much more common for youth ministers to forget about some of their own personal preferences, realizing that they are out of place in their current congregation and not worth causing grief over.
Suggestion for improvement: Congregations can go a long way toward alleviating this problem (to whatever degree it exists) in the interview process. Since terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are relative and generally used in relation to certain beliefs or practices, it should be easy enough for churches to ask specific questions during the interview process which determine if the candidate would be a good fit for their particular congregation.
I’m sure there are other criticisms that I could have covered in this discussion, but I tried to hit the ones I hear most often. As you can see, to some extent I think that youth ministers are criticized unfairly, but because of the questionable actions of a lot of youth ministers over the years, I also think that we deserve a lot of what we get.
As I have tried to make clear in these posts, I am by no means the perfect youth minister, and I am sure that at times I have done some of the very things that I have been criticizing. Nevertheless, as I move forward, my goal is to exemplify the positive aspects of youth ministry rather than the problems often associated with it.