Stories from the trenches frequently involve youth ministers feeling unsupported or unseen in their work. Youth ministry can easily be disconnected from the rest of church life, leaving youth workers on the verge of burnout.
The apostle Paul stands against this sort of marginalization when he writes that the church is a body, with each believing member contributing uniquely as part of the whole (1 Cor. 12:12–14).
Paul goes on to explain that in the economy of the kingdom of God—as in our physical bodies—we can’t do without the parts that appear weaker. The true church can’t look at any of its members and say, “I don’t need you” (1 Cor. 12:21–26). Paul’s counsel regarding unity in the body compels churches to include all sorts of people and groups, including young people. Sadly, many youth ministers don’t experience this kind of cooperation and regard, for their students or themselves.
When I talk with other youth workers about this problem, I’m overcome with thankfulness for the church I serve. Both our senior pastor and also our associate pastor advocate for students, as well as for me.
Here are three things our senior pastor in particular does to champion our church’s ministry to students:
1. He knows the youth and children in our church.
Recently, our pastoral staff facilitated a discussion for third graders and their parents about communion. As we talked with the class of a dozen or so students, it became clear our senior pastor already knew a majority of them by name. He actively cultivates relationships with them, asking how their sports seasons are going or laughing over an inside joke. The way he relates to our students demonstrates they’re an integral part of the church as they are right now.
Senior pastors do well to foster these warm relationships with their youngest parishioners. As the 17th-century English pastor Richard Baxter wrote, “To this end it is necessary that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them?” Making the effort to know believing children and youth affirms their value as part of the church community.
2. He encourages our church in intergenerational fellowship.
On my first morning at our church, our senior pastor commissioned not only me, but also the whole congregation. He said caring for students wasn’t a project for one person or team; it’s a shared calling for our entire church family. By refusing to relegate youth ministry to a far-flung, poorly ventilated room in the back of the church, our senior pastor has dignified students in a profound way. Our congregation increasingly sees itself as being responsible for the care, teaching, and empowering of our young people thanks to his teaching.
In contrast, many youth ministers I know are out on a limb in caring for the students in their church. Often the budget, location of the youth room, difficulty in recruiting lay leaders, and resistance of leadership to include students in broader church life tell a sad story: Students are an afterthought rather than celebrated members of the body.
Senior pastors can change their churches by actively helping integrate students. When they do, the whole church will be a more healthy, more vibrant, and more welcoming community. As the authors of Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church have wisely noted, “Regardless of your context, our research has us convinced that the hinge point separating churches that grow old from those that grow young is priority.”
In other words, if you want to cultivate a healthy, growing church, you need to prioritize the inclusion of young people.
3. He treats me as a partner in the gospel.
Our church structures our leadership to keep the responsibility of incorporating our youngest members at the forefront of our work together. My position on staff is integrated so that youth ministry is a visible priority. By regularly giving me opportunities to take part in the care and equipping of our church family, our senior pastor continually sanctions the ministry I lead as necessary for the health of the congregation.
His door is (literally) always open for me to holler across the hall between us, or to pop in for a longer chat; he’s an ally in day-to-day matters. He speaks well of me to our congregants and celebrates advances in our work with students and their families. Far from youth ministry being an island unto itself, adults in our community readily follow his lead, coming forward to offer their support, encouragement, and prayer.
Senior pastors set the tone for how youth ministers will be regarded in their congregations, just as Paul endorsed Timothy to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 4:17). By celebrating their work and looking for opportunities to collaborate, senior pastors can become youth ministers’ best allies—for the health of the church and to the glory of God.