Thursday, March 27, 2008

Calls to Student Ministry: A Conversation


Here's the situation, as I see it:
Many, many, many ministers currently serving in student ministry positions are doing so as the first rung on the career ministry ladder.

I don't mean to say they are opportunists or "using" student ministry. They just don't have a choice, usually. I don't knock those guys (and gals), because, frankly, where else do you start, unless you plant a church right out of college/seminary? Our churches just don't tend to hire twenty-something pastors for congregational/adult ministry, and I don't knock them either; most aren't doing that for valid reasons.
But if you're called to vocational ministry, the entry level position is generally children's or student ministry.

It can be a double edged sword. Churches are stocked with student ministers who aren't particularly gifted or called to student ministry; student ministers have to pay their dues in positions they are neither called to nor gifted for.

I invite your thoughts on this subject.

But here's who I'd really like to hear from: guys who have answered the call to career student ministry and have no plans to "graduate" to adult ministry.
Give us a sense of your call, your feelings about the current culture of evangelical student ministry, the pros and cons of your place in it as you get older, etc.

I'm not trying to make a point in this post; I'd like to host a conversation.


Mike Leake said...


I'm not sure that I am quite what you are looking for. Only in that I am uncertain as to whether or not the Lord may eventually call me into pastoral instead of student ministry. As of right now my heart is to minister pastorally to students. But I do not feel called to only students. I feel called to minister the gospel to people. I'm hard pressed to find a biblical example of someone called to a specific age-segment.

My feelings about the current culture of evangelical student ministry is this...

You typically have 3 different types of student ministry. 1) the hip-cool, entertainment, youth culture-driven ministry. 2) the purpose driven segregated youth ministry 3) the youth ministry is unbiblical we are going to do away with youth ministry and make it family-based.

I'm a hybrid form of #3. Entertainment based typically is about a mile wide and an inch deep. Once kids "graduate" and no longer get Skittles at the door..most drop out. The purpose-driven model, in my opinion is a little unbiblical in its segregation. The family-based is really good, very biblical, but I think has a few holes.

Simply philosophy of ministry is this. Love kids, Love their parents, minister to kids and their parents, preach the word, make Jesus the only boast of this generation.

I understand all of this overly simplistic...but I do not want to hi-jack this me, I could ramble :-)

Mike Leake said...

Oops forgot something. I'm 26 (will be 27 in July) married with a newborn. If I did the entertainment based ministry then I'd probably be no longer relevant and out the door. I'm not cool by any means. I'm pretty lame. Fortunately, that won't change with age..and it doesn't have to. Thankfully, the gospel and God's faithfulness is not related to my getting older.

Anonymous said...

I don't really know if I'll be doing this my whole life. I think its always dangerous to accept a ministry position for reasons other than the call/passion to see those to whom the ministry is directed treasure Christ. I was a youth/children's pastor at my last church. That was the dumbest thing I ever did. I believe that God gifted me and my wife with certain things that help us to relate and minister to youth; however, we aren't gifted to work with 4th graders. But we did anyway. It was a disaster (on our end anyway, I think we did an okay job, but we were miserable). Thats why we were only there for a year.

I'm convinced that the story is the same with quite a few of these youth pastors. They're not called to it or gifted for it, so they hate their job and go through 72 different churches until they finally get a Minister of Education gig or something like that.

But at the same time, most of the people I know who really, really have a heart of ministry do well no matter what age they are ministering to.

Jared said...

Mike, please feel free to ramble! :-)

Also, to all:
I'm not trying to define your call for you, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that God can't or won't call people in one place to another. I regret making it sound like if God has called you to student ministry, he won't or wouldn't call you later to another sort of ministry, or if you were to follow that call, you'd be "saying" your previous position was just a stepping stone in your career or anything.

Honestly I'm just looking for some perspectives out there.
I'd be interested to hear from any "non-young" (however you'd define that) student ministers who believe ministering the gospel to teenagers is what God put them on this earth to do. And I'd be interested in hearing from any young student ministers who are sure, not sure, or anywhere in between.

Anonymous commenting is allowed, also.

I'm hard pressed to find a biblical example of someone called to a specific age-segment.

Well, I agree, but I don't think that necessarily makes such a niche position in the modern church unbiblical. There are problems with the way student ministry has been done in the churches, and I think family ministry is a great potential corrective to that, but then again "family ministry" isn't really a specific biblical category either.

I'm taking it for granted that God calls people to ministry and that he sometimes informs people where their mission field is. For some it may be Indonesia; for some it may be suburban teenagers in Columbus, Ohio.
Or whatever.

I believe that God gifted me and my wife with certain things that help us to relate and minister to youth; however, we aren't gifted to work with 4th graders.

I'm with you, Brandon. I started out in student ministry, because . . . well, where else can someone called to vocational ministry start. Although I was young, "hip," gifted to teach, and even had some effectiveness (particularly mentoring young men), I knew even as a 20 year old I wasn't really called or gifted to do student ministry.

I have about a ten year gap in my resume. Most every other minister would have spent that time doing student ministry. This gap for me began when we moved to Nashville in 1997. I interviewed with a local church soon after and was offered the student ministry position. I turned it down (mainly because I have a policy of not working at a church I wouldn't attend if I weren't being paid :-).

I didn't have another ministry position until last year. I typically explain this gap by saying that we were committed to our church community regardless of their inability to offer me a staff position, and that's generally true. I frequently regret not having been gathering ministry experience (or attending seminary, although I haven't done that b/c we could never afford it). But I also know that the experience I'd have been gathering the last ten years would have been in a role I am not suited or gifted for.

I don't know. Maybe that would have built some character in me. I don't think I've lacked for character-building; I've been through some crap.
But I think maybe I was spared some disillusionment with ministry by not accepting the default role of a twentysomething minister.

most of the people I know who really, really have a heart of ministry do well no matter what age they are ministering to.

True dat!

Good comments, guys. Keep 'em coming.

gavin richardson said...

i am a lifer in youth ministries. been at this gig in every form or fashion for 14 years now. i can't see my calling becoming a pastor of a church. i have looked into going into div school for an mts as seeking ordination as a deacon for our church. this is a distinction as "servant of the church" but not an elder that is generally promoted up to senior pastor of some parish. i am a little different in my ways than is the statistical rule. i should have already left the position i currently hold by now, let alone youth ministry as a whole.

to note: in my faith expression there is some differences from your observations. we do have pastors of churches that are under the age of 30. because of our clergy requirements for a divinity degree and our ordination process (which can take a number of years) you are not likely to have a senior pastor of a church that is younger than 25, but it could happen.

mostly younger folks will get plugged into some student pastor role while in school at a small church (50 or so people). then they might be an associate for awhile. we can also ordain people as "local" pastors which don't usually end up being the under 30 crowd, but i know a few. local pastors are ordained just for that parish church. not allowed to go out to different states and do marriage stuff, etc.

this might be part of the problem with youth ministries within the methodist church. we don't have people who are committed to a long term vision & relationship with youth. this is also part that our tradition evokes and ethos of laity strength and the pastors at all levels are more of a resource and a conduit to help fulfill the vision of the congregation. there generally shouldn't be an top down actions.

some glimpses into a different way.

Jared said...

this is also part that our tradition evokes and ethos of laity strength and the pastors at all levels are more of a resource and a conduit to help fulfill the vision of the congregation

Gavin, could you elaborate on this?

I think I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure.

As far as I track with it, it resonates with me.

The larger context of this issue is the general predicament of the professionalization of ministry (and by that, I don't mean vocational ministry, but hopefully those who've read me a while know what I mean).
I think the healthiest churches should be able to hire from within the congregation, and churches interested in health should be working toward that ability, not just gathering more and more attendees.

But of course that still probably wouldn't eradicate the staircase of student ministry as temporary stepping stone. But it would go further in recognizing giftedness and calling and experience, and assimilating shepherds accordingly.

Bryan Lopez said...


This is great stuff to think on. I concur with Mike in that my certainty as to what the Sovereign Lord wills is more than lacking. I am certain of this though, since I accepted a position to work with the youth at our church (about four years ago) God has drastically changed my philosophy and methodology as to how youth ministry is played out. Which systematically effects my long term goals in relation to youth ministry.

At the time I accepted the position , about four years ago, I could not have imagined any other job for me. All, I wanted to do was contextualized youth ministry that would set a solid foundation for essential biblical doctrine. But in my studies my convictions have been similar to Mike's in that I see an overarching theme from OT to NT with the idea of holistic-intergenerational ministry where parents are the primary pastoral contacts. Now, don't get me wrong... I think we can swing too far left, but I also think we can swing too far right. Kids do need things that fit the context of their environment, but it is the parents responsibility spiritually nurture and grow their kids; rather than drop them off for glorified babysitting where we have our mock service that pales in comparison to what is being done by our teaching elders.

So, what we have done is started an intergenerational class that no longer competes with the service that the elders are leading. It's there that our parents lead discussion based teachings that reflect what they are doing together as a family in the service. We don't have it all together and we are still trying to work through the methodology of this, but this has left me with a new goal....

No longer do I want to be a Youth Minister for my entire life... I want to work myself out of a job and serve as a lay person along side parents. I have no clue if I will ever work in any other form of ministry, but I trust our Sovereign Lord and know that he is reforming me daily.

Jared said...

Bryan, that is aw4esome. You may not, as you say, have it all figured out, but:
a) who does?
b) your heart is clearly open to God's will, and man, that's beautiful.

Thanks for your comment.

sandy h said...

I've been involved in Student Ministry for just about 23 years now. In my 20's I struggled to figure out if this was my call, but as I'm about to turn 40 I can't imagine doing anything else! I see myself working with Jr. Highers into my 80's! Over the years, the body doesn't recover as fast, I don't always eat the In-N-Out burgers anymore, but my desire for students to know Jesus, the Gospel and His Word and live it out in their lives burns deep within my soul. Over the last 10 years, I've given more and more of the ministry away to adult and student leaders. My hearts desire is for folks young and old to be able to find their gifts and use them for the Kingdom. There is nothing better to watch, than a multi-generational staff ministering together. I've never really been into the whole entertainment model of youth ministry. I've seen just about every model out there. I feel God as called me to discipleship and evangelism of students. Although we have lots of fun, students are starving for the Truth and I feel that is what I've tried to do as a youth pastor, teach Truth. Thankfully I work for a wonderful church who isn't into numbers, but cares about students souls and their spiritual growth. That is what our student ministry focuses on and God has blessed that. I've also learned the longer you've been at a ministry the better. I've been at my current church for 8 1/2 years and I can't even explain the difference in the quality of relationships with staff, students, the body and parents that time has made. My last few youth ministry jobs lasted about 4-5 years at each place. There aren't many of us "long-haulers" out there, so I'm interested in reading more of the posts in this thread.

Bryan Lopez said...


It is such an encouragement to see God honoring people as yourself discipling and fostering biblically intentional lives with the youth of today.

We young bucks have a lot to learn from people like you.

I was thinking more on this topic on my drive home and instantly thought of 2 people in my life who are "long-haulers" as Sandy put it. It does go to show that just as with any gift or calling we cannot limit our ability to age, socioeconomic status, or demographic. When God ordains for someone to be "called" to youth ministry or whatever ministry we need to understand that ours is a Sovereign God. Though we have human responsibility... we trust and know that the Lord is sovereign over jobs, ministries, and lives, in this we find great hope.

I do however think the church ought to re frame it's thought process in this matter. Youth ministry should not always be used as a "stepping stone." There is much to say about wisdom coming with age, but I think about teacher-elders like ours from my local church who from day one knew he wasn't called to youth ministry so, he started teaching congregations at the early age of 21. Though that situation may not always be fitting for all churches and will depend on the person's intellect and maturity it may not be the most honoring thing to always throw young seminary grads into the chomping grounds of parent-student ministry. Alexander Strauch's church has a great model that I hope and pray my church along with others look at and consider. They take young people who show signs of maturity and spiritual growth and have them intern under various elders of the church where they see potential callings. If you have not read his book on Biblical Eldership you should. You can buy it on Amazon. It is great to think on these things. I am excited to see this thread expand.

Quaid said...

Jared, I can really see where you're coming from. I know some people who, while in seminary, took student positions who didn't seem cut out for it AT ALL. I didn't delve into the reasons why they were there. It's possible they felt called and it's also possible that the phenomena that you mentioned regarding student ministry being the default entry-level position forced their job situation.

At the same time, I know of a guy who just got out of seminary and is an associate pastor in Dallas serving, more or less, as an understudy to take over the church as head pastor in the not-too-distant future. He is not serving in a small church. It's possible that this church is flowing against the norm, but it's also possible that the tide is changing.

The student minitstry lifers I've known of are, in general, far and away better than their green counterparts. Intuitively, of course, they couldn't become lifers if they weren't good. Would a decent church keep someone no-good around for decades? (don't answer that)

I did student ministry for three and a half years until a couple of months ago when I took over the college/young singles department at our church. It's not that I didn't love student ministry. I just felt God leading me to make a change. I neither feel called away from nor towards student ministry down the road. I'm open to God's leadership. I could very well end up a lifer in a few years.

One of the most annoying things I would hear as a Junior High guy is, "I could never do what you do" or "How do you handle them?" as if Junior High students are demons. I was often offended on the students' behalf. I would say, "It's not that bad," only to hear, "Of course it is." Gak.

Well, if being able to be patient with adolescents indicates a call to student ministry, then I suppose I'm called. I really enjoyed my time there, although I really enjoy what I'm doing now. I think student ministry can be very under-rated. Still, considering the student ministry position in our church is practically a pastor of a small church, I can see where someone who is called to be a head pastor somewhere might thrive here.

Right now, the guy overseeing our student ministry is a lifer and he has a very level head on his shoulders. His years of experience pretty much give our church an insurance policy that nothing devastating, God-willing, will befall the student ministry - at least, nothing that would result as a consequence of stupidity of leadership.

Those are the thoughts off the top of my head . . .

Jimmy D. said...

I've been in full-time student ministry for almost 20 years and have both a undergrad and seminary degree in youth ministry, but left a mega-church student ministry staff one year ago to plant a family of house churches (see

While studying in seminary to be a lead pastor, I sensed God calling me to always focus on discipling the next generation. I thought that meant He was calling me to be a student ministry "lifer" so I switched my major from pastoral leadership/preaching to student ministry/Christian Ed. In recent years, however, I've become increasingly concerned that the way we Americans do student ministry is not effective enough and that the default mode of churches is programming rather than intergenerational, relational discipleship on a small scale. But we can't mass produce disciples..which seems to be the way of the church these days.

So, my wife and I could no longer suppress what seems to be God's leading me to pastor a church that focuses on discipling the next generation. Rather than interview for senior pastor positions at existing churches, we are first pursuing church planting...specifically working to plant a collection of home churches that will also meet together monthly for worship. The work is slow, but we are committed to equipping the saints in our little house church to do the work of ministry to the next generation.

I'm still a "lifer" in ministry to the next generation, but my role has changed.

A side note: After accepting the call to be a "lifer" in student ministry years ago, I began to look askance at those "stoners" who only saw youth ministry as a stepping stone to other calls. A pride developed in me as I built my own "lifer-righteousness" by comparing myself to others who seemed less committed. That leads me to wonder: isn't it prideful (sinful according to James 4:13-17) to proclaim that I will be a youth pastor for the rest of my life (or any other kind for that matter)? I'm learning that there is a difference between a life-long burden for students and a life-long assignment to work directly with them. Just a thought.

Jared said...

Bryan, Quaid, Jimmy: Good stuff!

Jimmy, I used to look askance at "stoners" also, until it dawned on me that these folks (like myself) didn't really have a choice. If you're following God's call into vocational ministry in a congregation, the entry level position is nearly always children's or student ministry.

I love your approach to intergenerational discipleship in community. Very organic.