Six months ago, my wife and I picked up our lives and moved to a different town as I began a new pastorate. As we searched for a home, we quickly realized there are very few houses on the market, nearly all of them sell well above the asking price, and the options are slim. We were house-hunting at the top of the market.
The tough housing market has nothing on today’s youth-minister drought. In my conversations with other pastors and church leaders, it’s one of the most common complaints: “We can’t find a youth minister.”
Here are seven possible reasons for this shortage.
1. Youth-Ministry Horror Stories
Pastors talk and the stories get out. There are too many nightmare stories of those who started ministering to students and found the jump to lead pastor was an uncrossable chasm. There are those who were mistreated, underpaid, and given no respect, as if they’re holy babysitters rather than “real” ministers. Parents outsource discipleship to youth ministers—and then blame them for their own children’s struggles. Burnout is real, and youth ministry seems to chew up and spit out far too many young ministers.
Burnout is real, and youth ministry seems to chew up and spit out far too many young ministers.
2. Allure of Church Planting
Church-planting has become far more popular among young people called to ministry. A generation ago, it was widely believed that at 25 or 30 years old a minister is still too inexperienced for the grueling ministry of church-planting. Instead, they might start as a youth minister to serve and learn the ropes. Now, many seminary graduates would rather work at a coffee shop and help with a church plant than face the difficulties of youth ministry.
3. Ungodly Motivations About Money
There’s less money in youth ministry than anywhere else. Is that wrong? Yes. Is it reality? Also yes. Many young pastors rightly refuse to impoverish their families like countless pastors once did. On the other hand, some who are called and qualified would rather keep selling cars or cellphones, as they did in seminary, than take a pay cut for what God has called them to do.
Too many resist ministry opportunities under the guise of providing for their family (which is admirable), while actually wanting to keep up with the world’s standards for a comfortable life. Young seminarian: do not go to a church where you can’t feed your family, or where an emergency would break you. But consider going to a church where you drive a Taurus instead of a Tahoe.
4. Desires for Upward Mobility
Large churches require lots of manpower. You can move up the ranks more quickly in these larger ponds. It’s no longer uncommon to turn down a ministry position to remain in a well-placed internship, residency, or fellowship program. That’s not a criticism per se. I did a residency program, and some of them provide very fruitful experiences. It’s revealing of our times that many called to pastor would rather fundraise their salary to work at a megachurch than be a youth pastor in a small town or a small church.
5. Idolizing Places and People
For many in seminary, leaving the city where their school is located is akin to Jonah being called to Nineveh. Small town, or small church, ministry has come to be seen as a punishment rather than a privilege.
Small town, or small church, ministry has come to be seen as a punishment rather than a privilege.
Or the minister’s spouse might draw a line: “I will not move X distance away from my (mother, family, friends, etc.).” Insisting God only call us where we are comfortable is not a limited way of accepting his call—it’s a socially accepted way of rejecting his call.
6. Ministry Aspirations
There are some good motivations that contribute to this trend. Many potential youth ministers are not passionate about ministry to students in particular, and yet do not want to treat the position like a stepping-stone. That is noble. If you just want to build a résumé and jump out after six months, don’t apply.
But if your passion is to make disciples, there’s no more fertile ground than among students. It is not a demotion to invest there for a season while being open to future opportunities as a lead pastor, discipleship pastor, or missionary. Don’t miss the great need and how much can be accomplished in the short term with students.
7. Broken Promises
Youth leaders often have tales about senior pastors who never spent time with them or invested in them. Worse, this can happen after recruitment stages where discipleship, investment, and preaching opportunities were promised. When those don’t materialize, it can be devastating. Nobody wants to take a ministry position only to be isolated and ignored, and to get stuck.
Worse yet, not only do countless youth pastors leave the ministry after being mistreated, stepped on, or never defended by their senior pastor, but often it is that pastor who recruited them into the role! These failures to invest in youth ministers—or worse, directly mistreat them—hurt the church and make youth ministry unappealing to the next generation. Pastors can make disciples in part by investing in youth pastors.
Youth ministry can be an incubator for pastors as they learn to work with volunteers, build systems, and preach the Word—all with the investment of a senior pastor. Or it can be a lifelong calling to serve students.
Youth ministry is real ministry, and youth pastors are real pastors. Barna estimates that 64 percent of people who give their life to Christ do so before age 18. Perhaps one of the most critical mission fields, especially in this cultural moment, is high school students on the edge of a cultural sea change. Yet no one, it seems, wants to do it.