I recently had a disturbing but unsurprising conversation with a Rooted supporter who builds hotels and conference centers. While visiting one, the owner told him they sell more pornographic pay-per-view movies during youth ministry conferences than any other industry sector.
This statement does not surprise a veteran student pastor. You’ve seen enough colleagues struggle, resign, or fall. It is not uncommon to see youth and college pastors lose their jobs due to porn use, addiction, double lives, or inappropriate relationships with students.
Still, it seems nobody tells new youth or college pastors just how spiritually dangerous ministry can be to their soul. Here are four reasons why youth and college ministry can be so hazardous.
Most student pastors are caught off guard by how lonely ministry can be. Many don’t work on a team and are often lone rangers. Additionally, odd work hours tend to disconnect you from people. Retreats, contact work, and Bible studies often occur at night and on weekends when you would be hanging out with friends. In student ministry, conversations are a one-way street: you ask the questions, and listen to kids answer. It’s often inappropriate to share your deepest burdens with a young person.
You’re around people all the time, but you are lonely. Student pastors often experience a great deal of isolation—fertile ground for spiritual failure.
2. Work for God and Intimacy with God Get Confused
You’ve been at a church all day. You’ve studied the Bible for hours during the week. You’ve heard lots of music and teaching. You’ve had five conversations about God in coffee shops in one day. Certainly with all of that “spiritual time,” you’re close to God, right?
A tricky aspect of ministry is delineating between your job and your relationship with Jesus. Many student pastors encounter spiritually dry seasons without even being aware of it.
Paul calls us to “be strong in the Lord” in fighting spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10). This strength flows out of intimacy with God. When we’re spiritually disconnected, we’re vulnerable to moral failure and destructive decisions.
Student pastor, God wants you as a person more than he wants your performance. He’s the parent who wants you to come home and sit on his lap more than he wants straight A’s. Never feel guilty, then, about taking extended time to fellowship with the living God.
3. You Often Aren’t Held Accountable
Senior pastors can seldom dedicate significant attention or support to their youth pastor, since they’re overwhelmed with the needs of the congregation. Monitoring the spiritual health or activities of the youth pastor, then, becomes more of a luxury than a necessity.
Most college pastors operate in a parachurch manner. It’s not uncommon for college pastors to report to someone in another city, who rarely sees them face-to-face. When no one is watching, problems are effectively guaranteed.
When no one is watching, problems are effectively guaranteed.
As a student pastor starts to make a long series of small compromises that accumulate over time, nobody is watching. The minister wilts spiritually and emotionally, but no one observes the decline. This statement is not intended to encourage senior pastors or regional college leaders to “crack down” and tighten the screws. Instead, it’s encouragement for student pastors to seek regular, caring, face-to-face accountability. It’s also a call for those responsible for student pastors to be vigilant with reference to their spiritual and emotional health.
4. No One Prepares You for the ‘Fishbowl’
People starting out in ministry rarely realize just how public the position is. Like it or not, ministry will make you a public figure in your community, no matter how large or small it may be. This means feedback on your performance will follow. The danger of human approval lurks.
If you’re a strong speaker or a caring pastor, parents will tell you just how great you are. The rush of human approval can become addictive for an unprepared student pastor. You start believing you really are awesome. Meanwhile, such self-absorption is fertile ground for awful thinking and decisions.
Simultaneously, no matter how great you are, no person can avoid critics. Fearful parents who can’t motivate their apathetic teen to attend youth group are convinced their child’s indifference is a reflection of your incompetence. You get either that direct accusation or a catalogue of suggestions for making your ministry more successful—which you simply hear as, You don’t measure up.
I wasn’t prepared for the intoxicating and crushing human approval rollercoaster when I first started out. The vacillations of shame and arrogance are dangerous if you don’t have a good, mature way to process feedback.
During a storm of criticism, the shamed student pastor can find the shelter of affirmation in pornography or inappropriate relationships. The overconfident student pastor can drop necessary measures of accountability and spiritual care when human praise consumes them. Both are extremely dangerous. In these difficult moments, it’s more vital than ever to rehearse the Father’s affirmation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.