Not a Cruise Ship Activities Director - Having Realistic Expectations of Your Student Pastor
Many of my current and former students at Liberty University are or will soon be Student Pastors – (in my day, they were called the Youth Pastor) – and feel called to work with kids in grades 6-12 for the most part. It’s one of the most challenging jobs in ministry leadership and it also has the potential to help make the biggest impact. The majority of people in vocational ministry today made the decision to enter their field when they were teenagers.
Unfortunately, it can also be a position rife with frustrations, unmet expectations, stress and even a sense of constant failure because there is often a huge gulf between what a Student Pastor can and should do and what many in the church “expect” him to do.
Many people think of the Student Pastor as the hip young person assigned to entertain the teens, teach them some stuff about the Bible, keep them from interrupting the important grown-up stuff and to somehow figure out a way to keep them “in” the church until they head off to college. There’s so much error in that mentality that one hardly knows how to tackle it all.
If your Student Pastor is expected to be in the “entertainment” business of keeping kids occupied, then he is not a Pastor – he is an activities director. At least we should be honest about it and call him that. Your teens do not need more activities to drag them out of your house, distract them with thrills and make them think that life is all about fun and games. I’m of the personal opinion that our kids need fewer entertainment-oriented activities, not more and that the best types of activities are done at home and includes parents and other family members.
Neither are Student Pastors supposed to be disciplining your children. The primary disciple-maker in the life of every teenager should be mom and dad. You can’t delegate to someone else what God has specifically assigned for you to do and expect superior results. Kids are hard work. Discipleship takes time. Deut. 6:6 gives both a command and a strategy for parents on their role as the primary disciple-maker in the life of their kids. Don’t hire someone to do what it is your privilege to provide.
Student Pastors are not there to be your kid’s friend. They have enough friends. They are there to be your kid’s pastor. Being a good pastor to teenagers does not mean that they have to be under 30, have a tattoo or know great dance moves. In fact, there is actually evidence that a wise older pastor who builds a leadership of parents and adults to work with the teens toward discipleship is an effective model and one that is more likely to see students stay in church into adulthood. A student pastor who is intent on being buddies with the students he leads is actually showing a lack of awareness of his call and could be headed for significant problems later on.
So what should a Student Pastor be?
1. He should be a partner to the parents.
The Student Pastor should be an extension and a help to the parents, but never a replacement. It’s not his job to teach them about sex, Scripture or service. He’s supposed to partner with you to make sure they are getting exposure to Biblical Truth. Get to know your child’s student pastor and find ways to work with him for the good of your entire family. He is there to serve – not just your children, but your entire family as he serves God first.
2. He should an advocate for Truth.
No pastor needs a solid foundation in Bible knowledge and apologetics than the Student Pastor. He needs to understand worldview, philosophy and how Scripture responds to life’s great existential questions. Secular education, pop culture and the vast world of the internet has a specific strategy set to “unteach” what Christian parents are wanting their children to embrace as they mature. Our kids are more sophisticated than previous generations – including ours. They ask deeper questions, get challenged on faith matters more publicly, frequently and with more hostility and they have far great access to temptation, flawed teaching and moral/ethical pressures at an early age then most parents had to experience themselves. Student Pastors need to be ready to give reasonable Biblical answers to difficult and unruly questions in order for the teens to be equipped to navigate the current minefield of agnosticism that is found in our culture.
3. He should integrate the students into the Body.
I call it the “One-Eared Mickey Mouse” (not original to me) when teaching student pastors in my courses. It’s the concept that the student ministry is a smaller version of the over-all church. We give them a pastor, their own worship band, their own schedule, their own meeting area and their own curriculum. The only connection between the big circle Church and the little circle Student Ministry might be MONEY. They need support from the budget, so they are connected by that small strand and otherwise are disconnected and designed NOT to overlap. Drawn on paper, it looks like a one-eared Mickey Mouse.
Then the kids grow up, leave home and never go back to that church. Why? Because they weren’t really part of that church. They don’t have any memories with it – the youth ministry grew up and moved on and so there’s no reason to go back there and they’ve never been integrated into the rest of the church. Except for mom and dad and their friend’s parents, they are a bunch of strangers. They aren’t even connected to the Lead Pastor. We’ve set them up to leave the church.
Student ministries need to intentionally and strategically look for ways to integrate the students into the Body Life that is essential to a healthy church. Why can’t students help in the Children’s ministry? Why shouldn’t they take the offering and greet people at the doors? Why can’t they come to a men’s Bible study? Why not have them lead in prayer or share a testimony? The church today really needs to rethink the isolation chamber that the typical student ministry has become.
In a few weeks, I will be posting some podcasts on this topic as there is much more to be said. Until then, if you are a student pastor, ask yourself if you have been positioned for effective and lasting impact among the students. What are expectations that parents, churches and lead pastors have on you that are unfair or even unbiblical? Parents, how can the Student Pastor help you be the primary disciple-maker in your own home? We’ll continue this discussion in the future, but it’s past time that we think outside of our embedded approach and explore how Student Ministry needs to be structured to make maximum impact in a changing culture.