What if the way churches are hiring youth pastors is hurting our youth and hurting our youth pastors?
This is going to be a long one. My girls and I have been talking about this for years, as they have watched friends go the Bible college/youth pastor route, and we have seen some things that we find concerning. And so I want to share all of that in one post.
Last week I shared about how Andy Savage, who sexually assaulted Jules Woodson when he was her youth pastor, should not be allowed back in the pulpit, and I firmly believe that. This week news broke about senior pastor Wes Feltner of Berean Baptist Church, who is accused of sexually abused two 18-year-old youth group members 17 years ago when he was their youth pastor. This is rampant.
But I also feel as if this could have been avoided if churches used different criteria for hiring youth pastors. So let’s talk about that today.
Ready? Here we go.
Why Bible College needs to stop being the default
I have seen so many bright, talented young people go to unaccredited Bible colleges where they wracked up debt without being prepared for a well-paying job because the attitude in the church and in the family was: “If you love God, you’ll go to Bible college.”
I’m not just talking about Christian universities, which may offer normal degrees. I mean the Bible college route where the only job route available to you will be worship leading, children’s pastoring, youth pastoring, or missions. I’m not against those jobs, by the way. But I do think the way we train for them, and the expectation that if you’re serious about God you’ll go there, is setting the Christian community up for a world of hurt. Here’s why:
You’re not equipped to earn a good living
Bible college doesn’t train you for anything other than church employment, which, in general, doesn’t pay very well. Ironically, though, those who go to Bible college tend to be the most stringently in favour of the traditional family situation (dad works, mom stays at home). I have seen so many boys especially graduate from Bible college with no real training that counts in the real world, only able to get internship jobs that pay pittance in churches, married to women who really want to stay at home. And now they’re stuck because they need her income. I’ve also seen many women with high paying jobs, like nursing and teaching, married to these men who can’t get a full-time job. They want to have a family, but they’re really struggling.
It’s not as if you can’t serve God in other capacities, either. My husband serves God everyday in his role as a physician. Joanna’s husband Josiah serves God in his role as a lawyer, helping people through really difficult times in their lives. I know so many Christian teachers who serve God in the public school system, going above and beyond for their students. And then you can still lead small groups, volunteer at youth groups, or serve on a worship team. We need to think beyond the church walls when it comes to Christian service.
[UPDATE: After some comments have come in, I want to add something. I do think that Bible colleges can be a great route to actually learn the Bible, and I encourage short programs that help you do that. I’m just uncomfortable with pushing young people towards it as their career path.]
You continue life in a bubble
When my girls were 18 I basically pushed them out of the house. I never framed it that way, but I told them, “you guys are going away for school.” And they did. They moved 3 hours away to go to university, where they lived with roommates, had to buy their own groceries and pay their own bills, had to navigate public transportation, and had to manage a heavy courseload, all at the same time. It helped them grow up, but it also helped them feel capable, like they could survive in the real world.
When kids leave their comfortable church home and head off to Bible college, which often has rules that are even stricter than those they’d face at home, and where they’re living in a dorm, then they simply continue the life they already know. They aren’t stretched beyond their comfort zone. They don’t actually know what the real world is like, and they don’t often have natural interactions with non-Christians, unless it’s specifically to evangelize them.
You often marry before you’ve ever had to make any decisions that stretch you out of your comfort zone
Many of these young people who are continuing in the Christian bubble then choose a spouse while at Bible college. I believe that getting married before you’ve ever had to make some serious decisions that are outside your comfort zone can bode badly in the future. This isn’t against marrying young–I married at 21, and both my girls married at 20. I’m just saying that it’s important to get outside of your limited social circle and outside of your bubble so that you can figure out who you are, on your own, first, before you make a major commitment. It’s also important to get some perspective on the types of people who are out there, and how your bubble is not all that there is.
Girls especially can often more easily find marriage partners OUTSIDE of the Bible college bubble
Bible colleges tend to be 60%-75% female. In contrast, the InterVaristy Christian Fellowship group where my girls attended at the secular University of Ottawa was pretty much 50/50. If girls are going to Bible college hoping to find a husband, many are going to be disappointed. And going to a secular university does not mean that you don’t have a Christian peer group. My main peer group at Queen’s University was our Christian campus group (that’s where I met Keith). Rebecca met Connor at their Christian campus group. And students at secular universities who go out of their way to join a Christian campus group are often incredibly serious about their faith.
In summary: we do our committed, Christian youth a disservice when we push them towards the Bible college route
If kids honestly choose it, I have no problem with that at all. But I have also been in social circles where the assumption has been: If you truly love God, you’ll go to Bible college. This does not always work out well for these kids, who aren’t always encouraged to grow up and spread their wings, and who are seriously limited in job opportunities.
Now let’s turn to the other side of the problem:
Why we should not put our youth under the care of 22-year-old Bible college graduates
We have a crisis right now of Generation Z kids walking away from the faith. We saw it with millennials; it’s accelerating now. We need to get real about this. And I think much of it can be linked to the way we structure youth groups.
Many youth are savvier than many young Bible college graduates
Think about it–the intellectually curious kids, the ones who want real answers to the problem of pain; who don’t believe the earth is only 6000 years old; who wrestle with the ethics of abortion or euthanasia and can see a case being made for it in some situations; who wonder whether the Democrats may have a point about some things–they’re talking to Bible college graduates who have often not been well trained in how to answer these questions with honesty. Sure, they know the “official” answers that they think are sufficient. But many (not all) have not grappled with these questions the way that our youth have. After all, they’re the ones who LIKED the Christian bubble enough to continue to live in the Christian bubble. So they haven’t necessarily been part of peer groups who have rigorously challenged them. It makes them seem very out of touch and even immature to many of the youth in their youth groups.
I mean no disrespect to 22-year-old youth pastors here, either. I know many who are very mature. But to expect a 22-year-old who may never have had his faith seriously challenged intellectually to be the best mentor for an 18-year-old who is headed for an elite college is a stretch.
And then there are the youth coming from dysfunctional family situations, with issues far beyond what many 22-year-olds are equipped to handle. The youth pastors see far more of the underbelly of our families than any other employee in a church, and yet they also often have the least real-world experience with this stuff.
The temptation for sexual abuse is far too high
When I was 18 I dated someone who was 24. When Rebecca was 18, she dated two different guys who were 23 and 24 respectively. It is not uncommon for mature senior high school girls to date older guys. When you have a single youth pastor, then, spending all of his time with the youth, it’s only natural that he may find a girl really attractive. And that just isn’t kosher. He can’t date a girl in his youth group. There’s too much power imbalance there, and it’s wrong. And it makes sexual assault all too easy, as I talked about last week with Andy Savage.
But it’s not just single guys who are the problem. I know of a situation where a young married youth pastor still groomed a youth group member and later sexually abused her (though, of course, everyone felt it was consensual, because people don’t understand the power dynamics there). Many young married couples do not go through a happy “honeymoon stage“, as I’ve talked about. If you’re having difficulties with sex with your new wife, and you’re then surrounded by mature high school girls who hang on your words, it can be all too tempting to use the power and influence you have to abuse one of them (or more of them).
Of course having older youth pastors won’t eliminate this problem, but I’m quite convinced it would make a huge dent in it.
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We throw 22-year-olds to the lions, because church is often a highly political and dysfunctional workplace
Picture your typical young youth pastor. He’s grown up in the church, which he loves. He’s spent his life in a Christian bubble. He’s always felt safe there. He loves Jesus and wants to serve Jesus, and he wants to help teens know Jesus.
So he gets his starter job in a small church, where it’s just him and the senior pastor on staff, plus maybe a church secretary. And suddenly he’s able to see behind the scenes of how a church is actually run.
He gets constant criticism from parents, from elders, from the pastor. The elders worry he’s ruining the carpets that they just paid for by having snacks at youth group. Some parents are upset that he gave a big talk on sex without warning them first, so that they could prepare their kids. Other parents think he doesn’t talk about sex enough, and that he needs to lecture the kids against sexting. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of marginal youth who have started coming to the youth group, and the pastor is worried that they’re hanging out in the church outside of youth group hours. How do we know they’re not trying to steal anything?
No matter what he does, he can’t please everybody. And the church wants him to preach three times a year, even though he hates giving sermons and it makes him so nervous. He doesn’t mind talking to the youth; but he doesn’t like being up in front of the congregation, and after each sermon all of the elders talk to him individually, telling him how his interpretation of this passage was wrong, or how he could have told that illustration better.
Seriously, churches are minefields to work in! And we’re sending idealistic kids there when they’re so young. Should we be surprised when so many burn out, and even leave the church altogether?
We have a crisis right now of Generation Z kids walking away from the faith. We saw it with millennials; it’s accelerating now. We need to get real about this.
7 Steps to fix this youth pastor/Bible college problem
Here are my suggestions for how we handle the youth pastor/Bible college issue.
1. Set a minimum age for youth pastors–say 28 or 29.
You know, there are some 23-year-olds that are mature, savvy, and intellectually and spiritually deep who would likely make great youth pastors. But they would also make great youth pastors when they’re 28 or 29. We don’t need 23-year-olds there. If we set a minimum age, then any youth pastor hired will have had some real world experience in something, even if it’s just waiting tables. They will have been out in the workforce, likely interacting with people who aren’t Christian. There will be less temptation to have relationships with those in their care. It will be easier to maintain boundaries when there is at least a 10 year age difference.
2. Pay your youth pastors well
Why is that youth pastors tend to be 22 or 23 when they start? Because we pay them a pittance, and people in their 30s with families are rarely able to live on that. If you want more mature people with life experience pastoring your youth, then you need to pay them better.
3. Join with other churches and combine youth groups
I don’t know why more churches don’t do this, but if four churches got together and hired a youth pastor, you could pay a very decent salary, get someone who is exceptional, and then have them disciple the youth. Perhaps this isn’t as big a problem in the United States as it is in Canada and Britain, but many of our churches are small and can’t really afford a youth pastor. If we combined forces, this would be much easier.
4. Stop thinking of youth pastor as stepping stone to senior pastor
If someone wants to be a senior pastor, it’s usually assumed that they’ll spend their twenties as a youth pastor. However, the skills and gifts you need to be a senior pastor are very different from the ones you need to be a youth pastor. Setting up this expectation devalues the role of youth pastor. The best youth pastors I ever knew were in their 30s and 40s, and they never had any desire to be a senior pastor. And if senior pastors couldn’t be youth pastors in their 20s, they’d have to work in the secular world for a decade before they started pastoring. That would help them be able to understand better the needs and experiences of their congregation, and help them get out of the Christian bubble.
5. Open up the job to women, and aim for a co-ed leadership model
There is no biblical reason to restrict the role of youth pastor to men alone. I think one of the big reasons we keep it men only is because all these young men who want to be senior pastors need a job to do when they’re young. That’s why eliminating the expectation that senior pastors will intern as youth pastors may take care of much of this problem.
But also, many female youth really need a female to talk to. Self-harm is a huge problem among youth. Many of our girls are being sexually abused, or are victims of abusive relationships. They need a safe person. We need to stop assuming that the youth pastor’s wife will fill this role, because she may not feel called to it, and it’s unfair to pay one person a salary, but expect the spouse will work, too, for free.
In addition, ensuring that there is also female leadership in youth groups shows teenage boys that women have something to contribute. This helps them learn to view females as whole people, and is one of the big steps in solving the lust problem. When churches segregate women and men, and keep women entirely out of the leadership, it’s easy to see women as only sexual objects, which is one of the reasons that Christians report higher problems with lust than non-Christians, who operate in a world where women’s opinions are also valued.
6. Call someone within your congregation to be a youth pastor
Instead of hiring someone just out of Bible college, look around your church and identify someone who would make a great youth pastor. Then subsidize that person to get the extra training they need. That way the youth pastor pool gets larger than just those who choose to remain in the Christian bubble and has gotten the right education, and is expanded to everyone in your church, based on giftings.
7. Encourage your kids to be trained in a job that can work in the secular world
If your kids want to go to Bible college in order to study the Bible as an intellectual and spiritual pursuit, that’s one thing. But if they want to go because they’re comfortable in that world; they want to meet a spouse; and you see it as a “safe” way for them to launch into the adult world, rethink things.
Kids need to be able to support themselves, and graduating from a Bible college with $50,000 in debt (or more), and only being trained for two or three jobs that churches can offer that pay maybe $30,000 a year is not a recipe for a great future. Many kids who graduate from Bible college have to return to secular college later to be trained in something else. Make sure your child is going to Bible college for the right reasons, because considering it the default does a lot of kids a tremendous disservice.
Finally, this is perhaps more negative than my post has been, but Sarah O left this comment last week, and I do think she raises a bigger point that we need to consider. I certainly believe that God calls people into ministry. But when we think the call into ministry can only be a call to a huge, modern church with major benefits? Perhaps we’re missing the point.
You know who had a good understanding of the pastorate? Jonah. Jonah understood that being a pastor is not about being seen and heard and celebrated and provided for – it was about serving people you don’t like, who probably won’t appreciate it, someplace you don’t want to be. It was about taking God’s message to a place that was probably very dangerous. And it meant acting according to God’s character when literally everyone around you is crude, vulgar, violent, and provocative.
When someone says they are “called” to a lovely, accredited and insured seminary school near their hometown or in a nice area of a cool city, “called” to a full time salary with benefits and provided housing, “called” to speak from a prepared liturgy to a receptive audience, I have to ask WHO is calling???? I can’t think of one single biblical figure that received such a call from God Almighty. And that is certainly NOT how he spent his time on earth. Yet droves and droves of handsome, young, relatively affluent white men – many of whom’s father mysteriously got the exact same “call”, are hearing exactly this instruction.
Goodness knows more polished speakers with spiky hair and preppy clothes are just what’s needed at such a time as this!
For those who want to serve Jesus: Just realize that it may not look like speaking in front of a large congregation every Sunday. It may look very different. But you may be serving Jesus even more.
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So those are my big picture thoughts. And now I’d love to hear yours–and I’m sorry if I’ve stepped on any toes of any Bible college graduates! What do you think would solve our youth group problem? Am I right? Did I miss something? Did I get something wrong? Let’s talk in the comments!