What I’d Say to Someone Considering Youth Ministry

So you’re considering a vocation in youth ministry? I can’t decide if I should respond, “Welcome aboard!” or “Beware!

I’ve served in youth ministry for more than fifteen years, and it’s the best job out there. There’s always a new challenge to navigate that keeps you from becoming stagnant. And what’s better than watching students’ eyes being opened to the beauty of Christ as they discover the gospel really is good news of great joy for all people? Even the hard conversations can be gloriously marked by grace, where God is obviously at work.

Liking teenagers and being a joyful youth worker doesn’t mean that you’re called to serve in full-time youth ministry, however. There is so much more to youth ministry you should know before you jump in with two feet.

Joys That Await

Youth workers get a front-row seat to watching God transform students’ lives. In the best of times, you’ll get to see entire families change – if only you watch closely enough. Many of the clearest instances of God’s work and provision come through the valley of the shadow of death – comforting parents whose son died in a tragic car accident, weeping with a new youth group student who just found out her father died. These moments are completely overwhelming and can fill you with intense grief and sorrow. But in the midst of it, the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit will carry you and your students.

As you see God at work, your own faith will be strengthened. I know some youth workers who feel guilty for reading the Bible “on the clock.” But there’s nothing better you can do for your students and parents than to keep your heart near the Lord. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), so keeping your heart near Jesus is literally part of your job description. How can we proclaim the gospel to students if we’re not experiencing God’s grace in sending Jesus to live and die in our place? What an incredible honor to serve in Christ’s church. We get to devote ourselves to studying God’s Word, interceding for our students, and digging into rich theology, all with the aim of making disciples of the next generation.

Camps, events, retreats, and just hanging out can be a lot of fun. There’s obviously more to being a youth pastor than playing games with teenagers, but there’s just something inherently joyful about spending time with students. Play together, laugh together, follow Jesus together. Spending time with students will keep you young, even as you increasingly think, “I am so old!”

Trials to Anticipate

You likely already know this, but don’t get into youth ministry for the salary. Generally speaking, they say a youth pastor should be paid roughly equivalent to a public school teacher in that community with similar experience and education. While they say that, it isn’t always (usually?) the case, especially when comparing the insurance and benefits packages teachers receive as public employees and what the church can offer as a small non-profit organization. If you want to have children and continue serving in youth ministry, this could mean bi-vocational ministry or both parents working (at least part-time). My hunch is this will be increasingly true in the coming years.

The question, “When are you going to become a real pastor?” has become a long-standing joke among youth pastors. And yet, it’s a question that you’ll start hearing with increasing frequency after four years on the job. Once a student asked me, “So, what do you do for a job?” When I replied that being a youth pastor is my full-time job he looked at me in disbelief, saying, “Oh, I didn’t know this was a real job.” I laughed because it was a funny interaction, but it reveals a humbling perception you will likely face repeatedly. Sadly, youth ministry is not highly regarded by many and is often seen by others as little more than a training ground for future ministers. That’s not a stereotype or exaggeration. It’s a real perception you will need to accept and humbly demonstrate to be untrue.

A somewhat related trial to anticipate is the belief that youth ministry is only about fun and games. This is largely perpetuated by jokesters on social media, but this expectation can also come from parents who want their kids to have a similar experience to what they had as teenagers. Pushing back against this line of thinking doesn’t require being anti-fun-and-games, but it does require having a clearly defined approach to using games in order to facilitate gospel-bearing relationships between students and youth workers. When you launch into a teaching series about doctrinal matters and other weighty issues, cast a vision about why the series is important to help reorient parents’ expectations.

Sadly, leadership can make enemies. You will need to make hard decisions. If you crave approval by others, pastoral leadership will be especially hard. People who avoid hard conversations can struggle in leadership roles. There is more to leadership than conflict, obviously, but how you lead in the midst of conflict and opposition will often set the bar for how others perceive your trustworthiness. The burden of leadership can be very heavy during different seasons, especially if you are trying to carry it on your own.

You will experience intense heartache over students who walk away from the gospel. Pastoral ministry is intensely personal. That means your heart is wounded when students walk away from the faith – sometimes in very public declarations over social media. Even though we know salvation is the work of God, it’s hard to not take it personally and not to feel partially responsible.

How to Prepare

Keep your eyes on Jesus today. Cultivate godly habits now. Walk faithfully in the grace of God daily. If you wait until you’re a pastor to have regular time in Scripture and prayer then I doubt you’ll suddenly begin when you are one. There’s always another reason to kick the can down the road and to put off those things you know you should be doing. If you are harboring unrepentant sin or feeling the weight of spiritual expectation, then talk with your pastor or mentor about your need for the freedom that comes by the gospel.

Dig a deep well from which you can nurture students’ faith. Ask good questions of mentors. Some of the best books you can read are hard to understand, but they’re worth the extra effort. If possible, start taking seminary courses. If classes aren’t a possibility for you, ask around for some good theology and biblical studies books – maybe even ask a mentor to read it with you.

Be curious. Always ask yourself “Why?” Nurturing your curiosity will open doorways of learning that others don’t even know exist. However, don’t be that person who’s always asking others “Why?” That becomes tiresome and obnoxious.

Finally, are you sure? If you can do something else and be content, do it. Every youth ministry needs gifted and committed volunteer youth workers. But if God is drawing you to teach his Word, to proclaim the gospel, and to make disciples – and if this calling is affirmed by your church leadership – then seek additional counsel and training. And get ready for a wonderfully unexpected adventure!

Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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