I’ve heard it said that if you are a pastor at a church that has teenagers in its charge, then you are a youth pastor regardless of whether or not you have ever set foot in the youth ministry wing. In the same way, if you are a youth pastor at a church that also has adults (or if the youth that you serve have parents who are adults), you are a pastor to adults. Regardless of which age group is your focus, if you are a pastor to one, you are a pastor to all.
Unfortunately, many youth pastors struggle to be taken seriously as a real pastor. Sometimes this is because our churches have created a culture where being a youth pastor is simply a stepping stone to becoming a real pastor. And sometimes, let’s be honest, it is because youth pastors don’t act like real pastors.
I wish that we could easily change the youth ministry culture that was formed over the last few decades as churches sought to put young, inexperienced, hip, young adults over the pastoral care of teenagers in lieu of trained pastors. While youth ministry training programs and academia are starting to change this culture, there is still a lot of work to be done. If you are serving in a church where youth pastors are not considered real pastors I would suggest finding someone to advocate for you whether that is a supportive senior pastor, a respected pastor in your community or denomination, or a youth ministry coach. Besides finding someone to speak on our behalf, there are things that we as youth pastors can do to help create a better perception of not only our calling but of all those who will follow in our footsteps. Below I will list some action steps that should not be underestimated if you want to be taken seriously as a pastor.
1. Act the part.
Show up to church staff meetings (not just youth ministry staff meetings). Make pastoral visits. Work with your senior pastor. Dress like a pastor on Sunday mornings. If your church dresses in their Sunday best on Sunday mornings, you’d better be in your Sunday best as well or the congregation will only see you as the youth pastor. Show up early for worship every Sunday. Unless they are on vacation or at a camp/mission trip/retreat, a pastor is in worship every Sunday. They get there early to make sure that things are in order and to visit with the congregation. Visit with the congregation, not just the youth. Get to know them or you will never be their pastor.
2. Learn the requirements to be a pastor.
I serve in a denomination where the minimum requirements to be an ordained pastor include a graduate degree, a minimum of two years residency in ministry, drug testing, psychological testing, a thorough understanding of church doctrine, polity, and theology, as well as evidence of fruitfulness in ministry. Not every youth pastor is called to ordained ministry. However, if you wish to be called a pastor, you should know what the requirements are to be a pastor in your denomination. Even if you have no intention of pursuing an advanced degree, audit a theology course, take an online course or look for other ways that you can continue your education. Many pastors are required to earn continuing education credits. Make that your own requirement as well. As you increase your pastoral education, people will come to respect you more and, who knows, you may even hear God calling you into ordained ministry.
3. Don’t accept being treated as less than a pastor.
I heard a story of a youth pastor who was homeless and sleeping in his youth room. His justification was that his church did not pay him enough to afford housing. While I don’t doubt that many churches pay less than their youth ministers are worth, accepting an unlivable salary lets people know that it is ok to not respect you. I am part of a youth pastors’ community that often shares real job postings for the entertainment of those in the group. These are jobs that want a 4-year degree, full-time hours and pay less than $20,000/year. Outside of the church, no one would take that job and yet somehow we find a way to justify those jobs in the church. If your salary does not allow you to live in the community where you serve, your church doesn’t really want you to be a pastor in that community. If you are at a point in life where you must take a job because you need the money, look at Starbucks or Costco. I hear they have great benefits.
4. Stay humble and Kind
Despite having met all the long and tedious requirements to be a pastor in my denomination, I recognize what a privilege it is to serve as a pastor. I also recognize that there are many lay people in my congregation who have ministry skills that I will never have. By accepting God’s call into ministry I did not become perfect, but instead, I accepted that God wanted to use me with all of my faults and failures. Whenever I give pastoral care to someone, I find myself in awe that the creator of the universe has allowed me to share that role with others. Perhaps my best friend in ministry is my senior pastor who has gone to bat for me more times than I can count. Our relationship has been built on the premise that we can both learn from each other. I wish that every youth pastor had a senior pastor that is as supportive as mine.
Being a pastor is not easy job – whether you are ordained or not, whether you work with children, youth or adults. Following God to minister to a broken world will always have its challenges. For those of us called to be pastors, it is important to remember that this position carries with it great responsibility, not just to God, but also to all of those we serve; it is also one of the most rewarding jobs out there. I hope that all pastors know both the reward and the responsibility of this great vocation.
Rev. Steph Dodge is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. She currently works as the associate pastor at Crievewood (and Glendale) UMC in Nashville, TN. When not working with youth, young adults and the church website, she enjoys cycling, boot camp, triathlon, flag football, books and trips to Lowes.