When you started in youth ministry, what was your idea of greatness?
I’ve only just begun confronting my real response to this question.
See, no matter how I talked about it. No matter how Jesus-juked I made it. No matter how much I ascribed accomplishments “all to God’s glory” …I couldn’t deny the fact that growing attendance, hyped students, and more prominent platforms really felt like the epitome of greatness in youth ministry.
Over the last few years so many of us have talked about how ministry priorities need to change, how measures of success need to shift, and how attendance should no longer be the primary indicator of effectiveness…but how many of us are ready to give up the parts of our own identity that are tied to these things?
I know, that one stings me a little bit too.
Let me be even more open with you:
For years I said things like, “Well, even if there aren’t a lot of students here, God will work in the ones who showed up.”
. . . While also wondering how so much work could have resulted in so few attendees.
I spent years overworking and compromising my ability to be present with my family because of what I thought it took to “build the ministry.”
Silently, I waited for invites to certain stages, events, and platforms that I had hoped would affirm my effectiveness.
Our Own Ideas of Greatness
Honestly, these things feel cringy to admit, but my thought is that the more real I am with you, the more real you’ll be willing to be with yourself.
Am I saying that every youth pastor wrestles with ambition, validation, and the desire to grow in influence? Yes! (I wish there was a sarcasm font.) Ok, not really. I do think there are those that are far more mature and spiritually formed than I was in the early days of my ministry. But for the rest of us, I’d rather be real than portray an image that perpetuates the pressure.
See, for many of us in modern westernized society greatness is tied to ideas of influence, magnitude, and recognizability. If we create something worth anything it has to be supersized, imitated, and incredibly popular. Unfortunately, if you’ve been a part of youth ministry within the last 20 years or so, this same way of thinking has crept into our ideas of what makes a leader and her or his ministry truly great.\
Here’s the problem with this: Jesus had a totally different standard of greatness . . .
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (Matthew 20:26b NIV).
We’ve heard it a million times, but the real question is: “Do we really believe it?”
To truly be great, we have to be great at serving others.
Can you do this well while still leading something large, having a huge social media platform, and being someone other people look to for advice? Of course!
But, if we pursue those results ahead of prioritizing the way we serve those in our care, we may find ourselves exceeding our metrics while depleting our ability to truly minister.
If the church truly is changing, and if our measures of success really do need to shift, then why don’t we start by painting a new picture of what it means to be a great youth pastor?
What Makes a Great Youth Pastor?
Here are 4 suggestions I’d like to add to the list of what truly makes a great youth pastor:
1. A great youth pastor is healthy.
I’m not saying you have to eat kale for every meal. Because at camp that’s literally impossible. I am saying that a great youth pastor prioritizes their personal health, so that they can invest in the health of their staff, volunteers, parents, and students.
This means you are creating habits that optimize your ability to show up at your best each day for the people you’re serving. If you’re crushing it when it comes to programming and creating environments students love, while your physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health are all being crushed you’re experiencing counterfeit greatness.
2. A great youth pastor is whole.
Being whole has everything to do with your integrity. In fact, Google the word “integrity” and you’ll find that it’s defined as “the quality or state of being whole and undivided.”
To be whole is to have integrity.
Great youth pastors don’t stop at being healthy. They are intentional about being who they are in public while they are in private.
This means that those closest to you benefit most from you.
It means what you do when no one is watching would we worth following if others could see.
This means you make decisions that you’d encourage your staff, volunteers, and students to make as well.
Look, this isn’t about being perfect but it is about doing your best to be whole.
I think we are all theologically sound enough to know that we cannot do this on our own. This is why prioritizing and investing in your own relationship with God means everything. Yet, as a youth pastor, sometimes it’s way easier to help students grow in their faith than it is to experience that growth ourselves.
This is why I think great youth pastors, whole youth pastors, find ways to know and be known by others. Youth ministry is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not for the isolated. Whether it’s a best friend, a mentor, a spouse, or other church staff . . . make sure that someone knows you beyond the formalities of your leadership role. Make sure you give someone you trust access to who you are. No matter how you do this, if you want to be great and you want to serve others the way Jesus was able to, you must make sure to be whole.
3. A great youth pastor is humble.
Jesus already told us that true greatness is service, so we just need to live as though we believe it.
If your goal is to grow to a point where everyone else can do the work and you can watch your influence spread . . . you might need a humility check.
In youth ministry, it can be so easy to let our egos get the best of us. When the compliments come in from parents, when volunteers are willing to go the extra mile, when students show up in droves, when our social media gains traction, when other youth pastors recognize the good going on in our context.
None of this is inherently bad. In fact, all of these things can be amazing.
The differentiator is our level of humility.
That doesn’t mean you can’t take credit for anything. Or that you should put yourself down or downplay the impact of the ministry you lead. But you should ask one question:
At the end of the day, do I think that this ministry rises and falls on me?
Then depending on your answer, you can either continue to remind yourself of your dependence on God daily or you can choose to repent for getting caught up in some pride.
Personally, I’ve been in both positions. Dependence on God is always better than reliance on self.
The Holy Spirit is the only one who changes hearts. Choosing to lead with the humility this statement invokes will having you heading toward greatness in no time.
4. Great youth pastors are hardworking.
This one is last, because I believe for most youth pastors this one almost comes naturally.
Youth pastors know how to work hard. Great youth pastors pour blood, sweat, and tears into the work they are doing to invest in the faith and future of the next generation. You don’t do this at the cost of the first 3 points we’ve covered. But you are willing to work hard as you partner with the Holy Spirit to shepherd students.
By choosing to work hard you’re committing to rewriting the stereotypes of youth ministry. Here are a few ideas on how to do this.
You . . .
- show up professionally and prepared to contribute.
- take seriously your responsibility to grow as a student of culture, Gen Z (and Alpha), theology, and leadership.
- prioritize safety in the ministry in order to build bonds of trust with parents.
- don’t just take from your volunteers, but you invest in them as human beings relationally and spiritually.
You work hard at all of these things because you believe serving those in your care is serious business.
5. Great youth pastors commit to the long haul.
This one is tough because at last check, the average tenure of a youth pastor is typically 18 months. That’s 1 ½ years of focusing on shepherd students through a 2-4 year journey through middle or high school. Now, I don’t want you to think I’m throwing shade here. I get there is a real temptation to view student ministry as a stepping stone to adult ministry or a lead pastor role. The problem is student ministry should never be a stepping stone.
Student ministry may just be the most important ministry in your local church. I know it’s not always resourced that way. And I know it doesn’t always feel like it when you hear other people talking about it. I know it takes some serious convincing sometimes to believe that yourself. But I can promise you there is no opportunity like student ministry.
The years of MS and HS are often the years where people are developing a faith of their own for the very first time. Abstract thinking is developing (hello, walking in the Spirit) and worldview is being formed. Right in the middle of these critical phases, we are able to help students see that God is active and invested in every part of life.
Gaining Traction in Youth Ministry
Also, just practically speaking, in my experience it takes roughly 3 years to gain any strategic traction in ministry. Now, if your goal is to be a personality that everything else orbits around, this won’t matter a ton. Strong personalities can create flash in the pan success, numerically speaking, pretty quickly. But, if you want to do the work of discipleship . . . like recruiting, training, and equipping volunteers to truly multiply leadership and shepherd students, it’s going to take some serious time.
It wasn’t until my 3rd year of back-to-school training as a youth pastor that I was able to watch the leaders file into the room confident that we had built the right volunteer team. It took 3 years of recruiting, vision casting, and even releasing leaders to other opportunities until our team was able to see the real fruit of the work. After 3 years we knew we still had a long way to go. But, we felt for the first time that we had the right people to help build the right kind of momentum to move us in the right direction.
Student ministry is a long game. I can’t help but wonder what would happen to the state of the church across the world if youth pastors committed to being in the youth ministry space for the long haul.
6. Great youth pastors have a curriculum.
This is a shameless plug. But honestly, it’s really hard to do any of the first 5 things without a solid curriculum. Is it possible? Potentially! Did curriculum clear the way for me to focus on what is most important in youth ministry? 100%!
At one of my former churches, I was asked to lead through some of the darkest and most difficult days in the history of our congregation. They were also days full of potential for creating a healthy student ministry that could help the local church win!
For me, the curriculum that made so much possible during the years of transition in our church was XP3. I used XP3 before I joined the Orange Students team. So, I can tell you that I believed in XP3 Curriculum just as much then as I do now. The beautiful part of getting to be a part of the creation process now is that I know how much it meant to me as a student pastor then. To be able to spend my time investing in leaders, building our staff team, and strategizing way to be a more effective ministry was invaluable. Plus, having curriculum helped me develop as a communicator.
I was skeptical about that last part at first. Until my lead pastor took me to lunch where I pushed back on curriculum. And then he asked me if I think having an entire team of people who spent their work week focused on creating great content would help me develop as a communicator myself . . . which quickly humbled me. After years of using XP3, I realized just how true that was.
Look, as a curriculum user and local church youth pastor, I can tell you that XP3 truly was a game changer in my context.
There you have it, 6 marks of a great youth pastor.
Just remember: The road to greatness is far less glamorous and far more rewarding than any of us could imagine.
It’s not wrong to want things like more students involved in the ministry.
More influence to make an impact.
And even more opportunities to spread the Good News about Jesus.
But what if true greatness is measured differently?
In fact, Jesus shared a principle that might just shore up any tension you’re feeling at this point in our time together.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33 NIV).
True greatness is measured in service. What does it look like for you to serve others in healthy, whole, humble, and hard-working ways?
I have a hunch that it starts by letting go of modern ideas of greatness and choosing to seek God’s vision of greatness first.
Maybe then we’ll begin to see God move in the next generation in ways we never could have asked for or imagined on our own.