I recently had the pleasure of attending NYWC in Memphis, Tennessee, with thousands of other youth workers from around the country. We came from diverse backgrounds, countless denominations, and from many different job descriptions, but all with the same purpose: to learn how to better impact students for Christ. It is an amazing time each year to grow, network, and rejuvenate through speakers, peers, and worship. But, in addition to all of the free gifts and books I brought home, one concept has continued to work around in my brain. No matter where we serve, we must strive for pastoral, rather than theological leadership.
Our role is to help students find, follow, and be more like Jesus. We are meeting kids on a regular basis that are struggling with suicide, abuse, illegal substances, pornography, sexual identity, and so much more, not to mention they may have no idea how to pray or read the Bible. Our task is two-fold: walk them through their life issues and walk with them in their spiritual journey. While those often are connected in many ways, they each have their unique challenges. You as a youth worker, whether paid of volunteer, have to choose your approach. Here are the two potential options spelled out.
Looking at theological first, we have a method that focuses heavily on scriptural arguments. A theology first leader holds strongly to how Strong’s would conjugate that particular word in the text. There is a strict line drawn on your particular views or that of your denomination, which everyone knows. Students may feel the need to live up to your expectations, unworthy of the love of God, or alone in their fight. You however, are just trying to hold out scripture as truth and not compromise its validity and power.
The pastoral leader takes all of this into consideration. They are of course, still focused on doing ministry in the context of faith and scripture. The course that Christ set is the guiding factor in their preaching and the denominational views are followed. However, when approached with the hurt and brokenness of a student, they become pastorally compassionate. They seek to shepherd the student, hurting and rejoicing with them, seeking relational connection and change. Students under this leader will feel heard, okay to be themselves, loved by God and their leaders, and supported in their fight. You are not a rule breaker or weak leader, you are actually seeking to be Jesus to that student.
Imagine this scenario: you are on a retreat and a student makes a comment during a break in programming about their addiction to pornography. You have a choice to make as you listen. You can reply with the fact that it is immoral to engage in such practices and give them the verses to support your statement. They are on your student leader team, so you immediately kick them off because of the sin they are living in and tell them to repent and return when they have gotten it all together again. The Bible says there is no place for the sexually immoral in heaven, so you share that too. The rest of the retreat you watch them like a hawk and question them every time they pull out their phone. While a bit extreme, it is the greater side of the theological leader, and sadly examples of this sort of leadership are always around.
But what if you took the pastoral approach? While you would still want to let the student know that what they are doing is not in accordance with God’s plan, your first reaction is to listen, ask questions, and find out where they are coming from. You are concerned about their spiritual life, but also want to engage them in the context of a relationship. You don’t kick them out of leadership immediately, but begin a regular meeting and accountability with them. Only if they seem resistant to help and unrepentant do you take action. You let them know you are a safe place to talk, work things out, and vent. Above all, you care for them, knowing that, while their sin seems huge, it is still sin and can be forgiven just like any other. It is not OK, but it is definitely no TKO to your friendship.
Now imagine that instead you have a student who opens up about their sexual identity struggles, or suicidal thoughts. If you respond in the first way, you may have just cut them off from your group, from you, and potentially from the love and passion of Jesus. It is time to sit with the sinners, talk with the outcasts, and enter the homes of the forbidden. Because, to be honest, don’t we fall under those categories too? Christians today too quickly reject students for their headliner sins, creating a generation that either goes underground or swings the pendulum to the other side and finds acceptance with those outside the church. When we become pastoral in our leadership, we see the image of God in each student and help them find the grace and love of God. When I was at NYWC, I saw this in my fellow youth workers. I saw people who had a passion for students. Who had differing viewpoints on theological issues, but overrode those differences to approach ministry from a position of love and pastoral leadership. We cannot weaken the power and guidance of scripture, but does the Author of our faith promote strict criticism of those in sin, or was that the religious group he battled against?
SCOTT OSBORNE is the Student Ministries Pastor at Portage Free Methodist Church in Portage, MI. He lives with his wonderful wife and three sons and enjoys anything that gets him in the woods. He has been serving in ministry since college and is passionate about relationally engaging teens with the story of Jesus and walking with them in their journeys. You can follow him at his blog: THOUGHTSFROMAROLLYCHAIR.WORDPRESS.COM.