The title “youth pastor” has implications.
Whether you’re a professional Christian (meaning, you’re paid by a church or other organization) or a volunteer youth worker, you’re likely reading this because you’re a youth worker. And that title implies something. Of course, exactly what it implies is very subjective, and includes heaps of expectations, inferences, values and duties.
Most commonly, I find the implication of the youth pastor (or youth minister, or director of youth ministries, or student ministries pastor, or youth director) title is this: Program Planner for Teenagers. This has been the case for at least four decades. And while you might chafe if someone in your church or community suggested “program planner for teenagers” as your official job title, it’s the implication, the expectation, for most of us.
Maybe you’re wondering if that’s really true in your context or not. Here’s a little test I’ve developed for determining real values (which, by the way, are the driving force behind the real meaning of “youth pastor” in your situation): resource allocation reveals values. So, your church might say, “We have a high value on our youth pastor building meaningful relationships with teenagers.” But if your resources of time, money, energy, focus, creativity, people and space are dominantly used to prop up a Christian-y social club for teenagers with the measuring stick of how many are coming, or how many don’t leave, then that value is suspicious. If you say, “I value fostering a community of safety and trust, where teenagers and express and process doubts,” but you spend the bulk of your time and energy planning programs, well … you get the point.
I’m not picking a fight with the title of “youth pastor.” It is what it is. And I’m not one for pretentious new-world titles like “lead teen experience architect” or “director of young person formation” that sound nifty but don’t deliver anything more than a fleeting sense of hipness.
No, let’s leave “youth pastor” alone. But let’s change the implication.
Recent research into what sustainable faith in teenagers really looks like delivers some critical off-centering hip-checks to the old implication of program planner. The reality is teenagers can be wonderfully engaged in our programs for years but not develop a sustainable faith. We’ve built programs that are wonderfully effective at delivering the results we’ve built them for: teenagers who appear to have an active faith as long as they’re connected to our ministry. But as soon as they’re no longer in our prescribed age-range, that faith is no longer sustainable.
What the research has revealed, among other things, is teenagers need to experience a multi-generational connection to the whole church, not only to the youth group. In fact, those teenagers who feel a meaningful connection to their church tend to hold onto their faith into their young adult years, whether or not they participated in a youth group.
So here’s the suggested implication change. Instead of youth pastor meaning program planner, let’s move toward Youth pastor meaning Banner Bearer for Teenagers. You can swap out other verbiage in place of “banner bearer” if you want: champion, or advocate, or even gadfly (a personal favorite of mine). But the implication remains the same: Our role is to act as a connection conductor, helping teenagers find meaningful integration into the body of Christ, not isolating them into an age-group ghetto. Our role is to speak into the broader context of the Church, not allowing them to forget about their calling to teenagers.
You might be thinking, I don’t have the power to make that change. Ah, you might be surprised. Banner bearers don’t have to be empowered to do much more than carry the banner; and when you wave it well, and wave it often, some will respond (and you might even wear down some of the resistance over time). This kind of change takes times (years, even). But it has to start with you and me: As we shed the skin of program planner, and move into a new self-image as youth workers.
**By the way—I just thought of this after posting and have come back to add—this is basically what April Diaz will be presenting on at The Summit.