Lessons I've Learned as a Youth Pastor
I’ve been a youth pastor now for over 4 years, not a long time by any means. However, I feel I have learned a few things along the way. I hope to encourage and challenge you today with some of what I have learned. First off, I am 30 years old, married, and have no children of my own, yet. In many ways, this puts me at a disadvantage when talking about raising powerful students. It also allows me to lead students differently because I never see them as only kids. I feel like a leader, leading powerful leaders. I believe starting here changes how I interact with students. So in my limited experience, please allow me to challenge you with some of what I have learned that I feel could help grow us in pastoring a generation of powerful leaders.
1. Build trust first; Influence will come.
When I first started youth pastoring I had no idea what I was doing. I never had any formal training or experience in youth ministry. Michelle and I ran a youth center, while also being youth pastors. We were thrown into the deep end of the pool and had to learn how to swim, and fast. We started by building trust with our students. This I knew would take time. It would have been easy for me to think I could tell students what they needed to be doing, or what they need to change, because of my great “wisdom”. I believe it can be easy to think that because we are older and more “wise” they should listen to us. Would we expect that from someone our age? No, of course not! Influence takes trust, and trust takes time. Thinking our age and wisdom provide us the space to speak into someone’s life may be overlooking what relationships are built on. They are built on trust. For us, as leaders and parents, to have influence with our students we must build trust. They will follow those they trust. The good news is, trust can always be built and developed. A great place to start building trust is through heart to heart connection. Discovering what the other person loves and showing value for that is a great place to start. There are lots of things that I show value for that are not something I would do in my free time. However, because it is interesting to my students, it is interesting to me.
What do you do if trust has been broken? At this point we need to go back and see where trust was broken and build from there. The sooner we start this process, the better. When there is a breakdown of trust in one of my relationships, I aim to reestablish heart connection before talking about the hard stuff. It’s easier to talk about hard stuff when we are both connected than when we are disconnected.
What would it look like for us as leaders and parents to have the most influence in students’ lives because they trusted us the most? This is an area I’m willing to explore.
2. We are raising leaders, not kids.
As leaders and parents, remember, we are raising leaders. Leaders are strong, have their own opinions, and constantly challenge the status quo. My goal as a leader is to raise students that are powerful by teaching them how to honor, even when they have their own opinions and challenge the status quo. I also see students who don’t have opinions or know how to challenge the status quo. Could it be that we have taught them that we value obedience more than their own thoughts? Maybe we punished instead of pastored? Please don’t misunderstand me, obedience and knowing what it means to be submitted under authority is very, very important. The goal is to find a way to teach both.
As a youth pastor, I find that I'm in a constant place of empowering, guiding, correcting, then repeating the process over and over again. Through this process, I watch as over time students become powerful leaders. I know it can be all too easy to take students unmanaged strengths and call them weakness. As an example, maybe you are raising a young man that constantly takes unnecessary risks, like jumping off the roof of your house and doing a gainer into your pool, while all of his friends record it on Snapchat. You come home from work early to see this all unfolding, before your eyes. This is what I would call unmanaged strengths. Their love for taking risk could give a glimpse into their future and destiny. For example, as an entrepreneur being a risk taker is essential. It’s pretty hard to start a new business venture without taking a big jump into the unknown. The trick for us leaders and parents is recognizing those untrained and unmanaged strengths and teaching them how to harness them to benefit their lives, instead of damaging them. Through this process, we raise powerful leaders, not kids.
3. Give our students responsibility and ownership.
Our jobs as mothers and fathers is to help pastor students through the process of navigating life’s issues. There are times, as a youth pastor I want to solve a student’s problems and protect them from experiencing pain by fixing things for them. I’m sure anyone with children feels the same way. However, by doing this, we take away responsibility for solving their own problems and we rob them of the opportunity to learn and grow. If you have ever been a leader of a team, you know that it takes more work to walk with someone through a process and teach them than it takes to just do it yourself. I don’t want to rob our future leaders of the chance to be challenged in a safe place, under our leadership, than to be ill-equipped later in life.
Like every human alive on earth, we want to feel accomplished. We want to take pride in something that we are invested in. We all want responsibility and to see the result of that responsibility. We want ownership. We must never think students are any different. At Momentum Youth, we have 18 student leaders that are a huge part of running our youth ministry. We give them a chance to have responsibility and a chance to take ownership. They do everything from running our cafe, to setting up worship. At the end of the night they all take part in cleaning up after 60 others students. What has this done? It has created a sense of ownership. It’s not just the youth pastor’s job to make Momentum Youth a success. The students are invested in making Momentum Youth a success! It’s funny, because it’s not abnormal to see students asking other students to pick up their trash or to stop talking during worship or the message. It’s also common to see students praying for each other without leaders’ assistance or prompting. Why? They have ownership. It’s our youth group, not just mine.
4. Students are hungry for the real.
Students are so hungry for the real power of God. When they encounter His presence and power, they don't have to wade through some of the unbelief that us adults have to wade through. I love to challenge my students to pray for the sick, prophesy, and give words of knowledge. I have even pulled my students up randomly out of the crowd and challenged them to preach on the spot, with no previous warning. And guess what? They always kill it!
As a youth pastor, I know that it can be easy at times to try and push them into encountering God. That’s not my job. God is really good at being desirable! As leaders and parents, our only job is to create a place for them to encounter His power and love. Nobody likes to be pushed to do something. I find that when we push, we take away their free will. Their yes came from us pushing them, not from there own process. Let’s just focus on reflecting their good Father in heaven. I would say most of the time when I’ve seen a student want nothing to do with God, it is because it’s been forced down their throat or God has been misrepresented to them by well meaning, loving people.
At Momentum Youth, we have students in all kinds of different places in their walk with God and that’s ok. I never expect every student to respond to God the same way. I’m completely ok with a student sitting down during worship, totally uninterested. I feel zero pressure to make them encounter God. Would I be happy if they did? Of course I would. Pressuring my students, never gets a good result. Creating freedom does, freedom to worship Him and freedom to not worship Him. It’s their choice. What they don't have freedom in is the fact that God is madly in love with them either way.
5. Just be there.
Just being available is a big deal. We don’t need to fix anything. We just need to listen. Just be there and listen. Realizing that their problems are not going to look and sound like ours is important. Yeah, I understand that we can’t pay the electric bill this month, because we lost our job and that’s a big deal, but their boyfriend just broke up with them and it’s the biggest heartbreak they have ever had in the 13 years of their life. If it’s a big deal to them, then it needs to be a big deal to us. I’m so glad that God doesn’t tell me to grow up when I come to Him about one of my small problems. I’m so glad He listens and talks to me like a loving Father. Let’s just be there and listen well.
6. Things are caught not taught.
I’ve realized more than ever as youth pastor that my students are always watching and learning, whether I think they are or not. They learn so much from being around us, good or bad. One of the biggest places that students watch my personal life in youth ministry is in my marriage with Michelle. They see how we interact and behave toward each other. The cool thing is, we have been able to affect change in hearts by having a good marriage and displaying that to them. I know of students that didn’t want to get married, because of the home that they grew up in. Because of watching and observing our marriage, their desire becomes, “I want what you have.” My teaching must always line up with my lifestyle. If I’m teaching on loving people well and treating people with kindness, but they see me snapping at my wife and not being kind to her, what I said was just voided. Students catch attitudes, heart conditions, and mindsets way more than teaching it to them. One thing I love about students is they almost never let you know that they are watching or listening. The truth is, they are always observing our lives. Let that be motivation to never let our guard down, and to always live a life of integrity.
I hope that I was able to encourage and challenge you today in raising up world changers. I pray that we can be true fathers and mothers to this generation and not their biggest critics. I look forward to seeing where these powerful students will be in 20 years.