Choosing a new identity for youth ministry

Disorganized. Uncommitted. Unreliable. Unprepared. Unprofessional. Immature. Hot-headed. Last in, first out. One-dimensional. Sloppy.

Youth pastors are disposable.

These are the words used to describe our profession by outsiders.

Youth ministry needs a makeover. While that makeover may need to include some changes in strategy this is really a makeover of something far more important than how we look.

If this were a marketing issue some would argue that we need to think about re-branding our profession. (Kind of like airline stewardesses became flight attendants.) You are already seeing some people try to shift their verbiage to say, “I’m a student pastor.” But that’s not the kind of makeover I’m suggesting.

I don’t think we need to change the name of our profession as it serves us well. Ultimately, this isn’t a marketing problem.

We need a new identity.

See, the list of things I posted above aren’t really true for most youth workers I’ve met. And while you could throw up your hands and claim that a small number of people are giving us a bad name I don’t think that this is the problem, either.

But let’s be honest for a minute. There really is a little bit of truth in all of us within those descriptions. Just like there is probably the same amount of truth in that with each person on the planet.

What I mean by “we need a new identity” is that we need to think of ourselves differently.

As I engage with oodles of youth workers each year I’m a little bit disappointed how the things above are actually how many in youth ministry think of themselves and are even proud of it. There’s a certain arrogance in saying things like, “Yeah, I don’t dress like a normal 29 year old.” Or “Of course I was late, I’m the youth pastor.

The stereotype we have created for ourselves, created our persona around, and even forms the identity of our community doesn’t accurately reflect the work that we do or the work professional youth workers do.

We’ve type casted ourselves and it is killing us from the inside out.

This is a thinking issue more than it is a reality issue. We in youth ministry need to start thinking of ourselves differently. We need to apply some sober judgement of ourselves and think about ourselves and our ministry in more positive ways.

Most youth workers are hard working, loyal, loving, thoughtful, amazing people. In fact, most of the people I know who work at churches and parachurches are actually inspiring to be around.

There is a difference between not taking yourself too seriously and not being taken seriously. There’s an important distinction between having a fun-loving attitude and loving to be made fun of. And there’s a big difference between being uncomfortable with the respect people naturally give pastors and feeling comfortable with a certain amount of disrespect.

It’s my prayer that those who call youth ministry a profession would aspire to a new level of sophistication. I hope that we shed our whiney exterior and instead identify ourselves as faithful, creative, passionate servants willing to do whatever it takes to reach this generation with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Join me.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

16 comments

  1. I can’t agree more. There’s a long list of beefs that I have with youth ministry, the first of which is how we’ve created this reputation for ourselves. Although some of it is deserved, a lot of it isn’t and I honestly feel that if we want to be treated as professionals, there’s a degree to which we need to act as professionals. Obviously we can’t take ourselves too seriously, but we also shouldn’t make light of our shortcomings. By God’s grace we should strive to change them.

  2. You know, I am guilty of this as well…but I always thought that I must not be good enough yet, so I would do youth ministry. Recently, after years of people fueling this mindset (including myself) I have found an identity in who I am and in finding out who I am part of that includes me being a youth pastor. Being a youth pastor isn’t my identity, it is what I am called to do with my identity. My identity is in Him, I can do that (with His leading) with confidence, not looking for anything more or less…not feeling defeated, not feeling worthless…but feeling free to be me. Students see that, and want that as opposed to seeing a defeated, frustrated, and hopeless individual telling them that God loves them. How bad of an example of freedom in Christ is that…and I did that for too many years. Good stuff…keep it up Adam.

  3. I have said this,
    youth ministry is treated like the car you use in drivers ed. you let new pastors and people who are in seminary do it before you give them the keys to the actual family car, assuming they don’t mess is up to bad..

    it is not seen as a destination, something you get to and can stay there for years and get better at.

  4. I agree, and I think it applies to teachers, too. Adults who work with kids want to be cool and able to relate to their students, which is fine. But what most kids need isn’t another best friend, they need mentors and role models.

    As for teaching, I think a lot could be improved in our education system if teachers began taking themselves more seriously as well.

  5. Thank you for saying this in a way none of the rest of us Youth Pastors who feel it could. I hate being disrespected and looked down on because I like to work with kids. Reminds me of two videos, Jake Rutenbars Fight the Youth Ministry StereoType and the “Im the New Youth Minister” animated one.

    Hopefully more youth pastors start taking steps to fight this rather than simply complain about it.

  6. I agree, but I think this is a culture in the church itself. I recently began a new ministry and heard these same things before I had ever really talked! The student Pastors before me set the culture. So we are starting already in the hole!

    1. Being new is a great opportunity. You can nip that in the bud. “That might be what the previous person was all about, but allow me the opportunity to show you who I am.” I’m never shy about correcting in love.

  7. Thanks, Adam… This was an important post for us all.
    I fear that until we (who are paid “professional” youth workers) actually envision our ministry as one with ADULTS, empowering them to minister on behalf of their own baptismal call and their church to work with their young people (who were never “ours” in the first place) we will remain marginalized anyway (and not in a heroic on behalf of God sort of way…)

  8. Thanks, Adam… This was an important post for us all. I fear that until we (who are paid “professional” youth workers) actually envision our ministry as one with ADULTS, empowering them to minister on behalf of their own baptismal call and their church to work with their young people (who were never “ours” in the first place) we will remain marginalized anyway (and not in a heroic on behalf of God sort of way…)

  9. I have said this, youth ministry is treated like the car you use in drivers ed. you let new pastors and people who are in seminary do it before you give them the keys to the actual family car, assuming they don’t mess is up to bad.. it is not seen as a destination, something you get to and can stay there for years and get better at.

  10. Being new is a great opportunity. You can nip that in the bud. “That might be what the previous person was all about, but allow me the opportunity to show you who I am.” I’m never shy about correcting in love.

  11. Thanks, Adam… This was an important post for us all. I fear that until we (who are paid “professional” youth workers) actually envision our ministry as one with ADULTS, empowering them to minister on behalf of their own baptismal call and their church to work with their young people (who were never “ours” in the first place) we will remain marginalized anyway (and not in a heroic on behalf of God sort of way…)

  12. You know, I am guilty of this as well…but I always thought that I must not be good enough yet, so I would do youth ministry. Recently, after years of people fueling this mindset (including myself) I have found an identity in who I am and in finding out who I am part of that includes me being a youth pastor. Being a youth pastor isn’t my identity, it is what I am called to do with my identity. My identity is in Him, I can do that (with His leading) with confidence, not looking for anything more or less…not feeling defeated, not feeling worthless…but feeling free to be me. Students see that, and want that as opposed to seeing a defeated, frustrated, and hopeless individual telling them that God loves them. How bad of an example of freedom in Christ is that…and I did that for too many years. Good stuff…keep it up Adam.

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