I have been in or around youth ministry for 25 years, including more weekend youth conferences than I can possibly count. I have now served in full-time ordained capacities for nine years, and in the churches I’ve served during that time I’ve always supervised or worked closely with the youth staff.

Needless to say, in all this time spent around the church, I’ve seen a heaping ton of youth ministers. Some have had wonderful, fruitful ministries, while others have crumbled faster than an overcooked oatmeal cookie. If I were hiring a youth leader today, I’d want to avoid the oatmeal cookie.

Three Irreducible Traits

I would be looking for three things:

One who loves God and his Word. This seems so basic one might wonder why it’s not just a given. Trust me, it’s not. I have seen many youth ministers whose relationship with the Lord was exposed as flimsy (at best) under the pressures of ministry. Typically these individuals have found their youth group to be a place of affirmation and acceptance, but not of theological substance. They’ve found a fun job as a youth minister in hopes of continuing to gain affirmation and acceptance.

If I’m hiring a youth worker, I want someone who has made the saving jump from experiencing acceptance in the church community to resting personally and substantively in the gracious acceptance given by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Qualified candidates must be prepared to be blown off and unappreciated by careless kids and under-discipled parents. The youth minister will need to possess the spiritual maturity to believe fully that:

  • All the acceptance and affirmation they will ever need they already have in Jesus Christ.
  • The Bible is a fountain of life, full of God’s true and living riches, attesting to his infinite grace, and authoritative for faith and life.
  • God and his Word are what students need more than anything else.
  • The youth minister’s personal time spent with God and his Word is the fuel for his ministry.

One who loves God’s people. Again basic, right? Not so fast. Ministry requires humility, and if you don’t already have it, youth ministry will either develop it in you or drive you away. Both can be painful. Because the fruitful youth minister is personally rooted in God’s love and saturated with his Word, he is already humbled before the Lord. Therefore, his main concern isn’t being liked, but that students hear the gospel of God’s grace over and over again. 

“Young adult” is not a requirement, nor is “wildly entertaining.” I’m not looking for someone who has a huge bag of tricks, unless they are particularly skilled in using those tricks to teach students about God’s grace. While the effective youth minister will have people skills broad enough to speak intelligibly to both youth and adults, I want someone who desires to make themselves available to students and their families, who can listen, who can teach the Bible in a compelling way, and who can teach others to do the same. I don’t want someone who just likes going to high school football games, but one who goes to high school football games intent on building relationships with students to the end that these relationships might lead students to know King Jesus. 

In short, I don’t want a youth minister who expects a fun job and a prolonged adolescence; I want someone who comes to the position with a robust theology of Christian ministry. 

One who is professionally aware. I once worked with a youth minister who, despite having a lot of talent, was perpetually frustrated at the lack of respect he got from parents and fellow church staff. “How much of your own money would you be willing to pay towards gaining the respect you desire?” I asked him. “I don’t know, $1,000?” he answered. “Then take that $1,000 and buy yourself some professional clothing.” He never did. He continued to wear flip-flops and torn-up shorts to staff meetings and parent gatherings, and, despite having a wife and child, he was never viewed as an adult. 

It may be entirely appropriate to act, dress, and talk like the lead student around students, but the qualified youth ministry candidate understands that adults need to see and feel the children are being led by a responsible adult. Part of being a responsible adult means dressing professionally in a professional setting. The expectation will of course vary by congregation, but in ministry situations the youth minister shouldn’t dress much differently than the pastor or the parents. Here are a few other things that will go a long way toward winning the trust and loyalty of parents and staff:

  • Be on time. Punctuality is important. Call ahead if it looks like you’ll be late. Though everyone will get caught in traffic occasionally, make sure you don’t create a reputation for tardiness. As one coach used to tell his players, “If you can’t be on time, be early.”
  • Return phone calls and e-mails promptly. If you receive a contentious e-mail, for example, then pray, make sure you’re calm, and return it with a phone call. 
  • Do what you say you’re going to do, and don’t make promises you likely won’t keep. Your calendar and to-do list aren’t just important for you; as one of whom much action and communication is required, how you keep track of where you’re supposed to be and what needs to be done is vital for the credibility of your ministry. If you’re not particularly organized or gifted at planning details, make sure you have someone around you who is.

Focus on the Essentials

Oatmeal cookies may be sweet, but they tend to get eaten up pretty quickly. The next time I’m looking for a youth minister, then, I’d be asking detailed questions about how strongly they love the Lord, how deeply they trust his Word, how compassionately they love his people, and how appropriately they will navigate their context.