Why We Need to Rethink Automatic Bible College & 22-Year-Old Youth Pastors

by | Nov 8, 2019 | Faith, Uncategorized | 104 comments

Are We Hiring the Wrong Youth Pastors? 7 Steps to Fix the Youth Group Problem
Merchandise is Here!

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.

Katie leaving

On our way to drop Katie at university when she was 18!

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.

We need to think beyond the church walls when it comes to Christian service.

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.

Youth Group--how should we solve the youth pastor sexual abuse problem?

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.

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.

7 Steps for Fixing the Youth Group/Youth Pastor Problem

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.

Reader Comment

​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.

Like this post so far? You should also check out:

10 Signs You’re in a Legalistic Church

Are You Following a Legalistic View of Marriage?

What a Strong Marriage Ministry Should Look Like

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!

 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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104 Comments

  1. T

    I’ve loved your blog. It helped me a lot when I was newly married. However, constant negative articles aren’t what I’m finding helpful or encouraging.
    All of the problems being addressed in the church may be legitimate. But to me, it seems soo disfunctional that churches operate in that way.
    Wouldn’t it be better if we all loved Jesus, put priority on Him, and followed the Holy Spirit?
    We shouldn’t have to have age limits on serving Jesus. My husband and I are 23, have 3 little kids, and youth pastoring at our church is something we’re happy to do in the near future. We’ve had life experience. My husband is the manager at his office, and we’ve started a side business.
    If someone is mature and responsible, has a solid relationship with Jesus.. age shouldn’t be a factor.
    Of course we could wait to serve at our church until we’re 28 (and married 10 years) but by then we might be in a different season and have God using us in a different way.
    I really appreciate your blog. I just don’t think setting new rules will help the problems. That’s how religion has problems to begin with is assuming everyone will be operating in a fleshly way, so we make rules to clean that up instead of relying on JESUS. I think pointing people to have an authentic, real relationship with Jesus and realize their identity as sons and daughters is the only way to solve issues of the flesh you might see in some churches.
    (And this is not every church either. Both our current church and the church my husband and I grew up in were very solid, and no one would be concerned about something petty like carpet. Everyone was just there for Jesus like it should be!!)

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      T, I really do hear you. I know there’s a big problem here with rules vs. the Spirit, and I’ve been grappling with that a lot myself. And I do know that there are wonderful youth pastors who are 23 or 24.

      But we do need some rules, especially for protection and safety. And if you look at the sexual abuse cases within churches, the vast majority of them concern youth pastors, and the vast majority of those are under 30. I do think this needs to be considered. That doesn’t mean that all 22-year-olds are predators, of course, and there are plenty of predators older than 23. But as a mom of girls who were teenagers recently, and as someone who has seen this happen twice in youth groups in my home town, I am concerned about it. I really don’t know what the answer is, but I hope that we can have the bigger conversation!

      Reply
      • Tom

        Sheila,
        I have an issue with one of your talking points. You mentioned Democrats, as if being a Democrat is mutually exclusive with being a Christian, as if you can’t be both. I find this very judgemental. There is nothing in the Bible that says I have to be a Republican if I am a Christian. A political party is so much more than a religion. I can say I tend to vote Democrat AND I’m a Christian. I know of too many people with no faith, because of the judgmental attitudes they perceive from those of faith. If you honestly feel as if I am a sinner, or somehow compromising my faith because of how I vote, we definitely have differing views of what it means to be a Christian. I’m pretty sure we all sin, no matter how we vote, and it is only God’s place to judge. I really think making any sort of political comment was unnecessary, and was not needed to support your discussion.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Tom, I didn’t mean that at all. What I’m saying is that it’s a very common belief by lots of Bible school graduates, and so how will they relate to youth who don’t think they have to vote Republican? (I should note, too, that I’m Canadian. I don’t even vote in American elections).

          Reply
          • Tom

            Sheila,
            Yes, I get your point now, that being in a bubble makes it more difficult to relate to all of the different people we encounter in our walk of faith. In that respect I totally like where you were going with this.

            And yes, I knew you were Canadian, so I was wondering about you inserting the Democrats, although I’m sure a large portion of your audience is in the States.

            BTW, I live in Washington State, just a few miles, or kilometers ;), from BC, so I’m like half Canadian. At least according to the radio stations I listen to.

            I appreciate your blog. Thanks.

      • The Yeti

        Sheila I totally agree with “T”. Yes the church needs to put in policies and structure to protect kids and youth. But to lay down the law: NO YOUTH LEADERS YOUNGER THAN 30 -I think the solution is far worse than the problem. Basically what you are saying with this new LAW is lets just shut down all youth ministry because there’s a high probability that younger leaders (male only I presume) in ministry will be Predators, Rapists and Abusers. I have seen youth leaders in late teens/twenties lead youth groups with good accountability from dozens to hundreds. Their youth and vitality was important for this to happen. I have seen leaders in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s with character issues I would never let near my kids. As a dad in my 50s I understand there are issues, but I would much rather have a leader male or female in their 20s leading my kids than someone of my age as long as good structures are in place. I think your LEGALISM on this issue just reinforces the “every man’s battle – young men can’t control themselves” belief. I thought you didn’t agree with that?

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          You’re right–I don’t agree with legalism. In fact, I’ve really been struggling lately because I think the whole way we do church isn’t really what the New Testament teaches. We choose leaders based on credentialism–whether they have the right degree–rather than on giftings and confirming someone’s calling, which was what the New Testament did. We don’t ask, “who here has the gift of preaching? Who has the gift of shepherding? Who has the gift of administration?” Instead, we assume that if someone has an M.Div, then they are gifted and ready, and that’s just simply not true.

          That’s not to say that there aren’t some pastors who aren’t gifted. I’m just saying that our model for choosing pastors and leaders is off.

          I also think that separating youth entirely from the main church, and mostly putting them under one minister who is separate from the congregation, is also off.

          That being said, if we are going to choose pastors that way, and if we are going to do youth groups that way, then my main consideration now changes to safety. And if you do a Google search for “youth pastor arrested” and you read the details, about 80% of them are young youth pastors. And many, many are not arrested (the ones in my home town that I’m thinking of were never arrested). But it still happens.

          And so given that environment, what do we do? I’d rather that we go back by choosing youth pastors by giftings. But if we’re not going to do that, then we simply need to be wise.

          But you’re right. I’m not comfortable with it, either. I do think it’s legalistic. But I also think it’s part of the wider problem with how we do church. And until we address that, we’re going to have these issues. And I guess I’m just going to come down on the side of “above all, we protect the youth.”

          Reply
    • Cara

      While I don’t agree with everything in this article (can’t define it but some of the first part didn’t resonate well with me), I agree with her that some general guidelines are good for who would make a better youth leader.
      I’m 43 (almost 44, yikes! 👵🏻) and I’ve seen a lot. I grew up in a dysfunctional family (not as bad as many!) and I needed mature youth leaders. Not someone I thought was barely older than a peer. Actually our pastors wife took over that role for a while and that was highly beneficial for me.
      A church we attended had young youth leaders at one point-with young children of their own-and it was not a good fit. (My kids were youth under them) I understand that you might be more mature than that, I really do! My kids are more mature than many 17-19 year olds. But I force myself to remember that they’re s 17 and 19 (even tho one is married already!)
      Being parents of littles is exhausting. And who is watching your young children while you’re being the youth leader? I’ve seen it multiple times where the youth have to include the younger children. That doesn’t always work!
      What about serving in the children’s ministry? Or serving the youth in a different way? Provide a game night at your house? You can serve the youth together as a couple in many ways other than being their youth leader officially!
      Best wishes!

      Reply
    • Allison Thompson

      I agree with you! I love learning about how to encourage women I work with in how to handle some of their common day to day marriage problems from things I have read on this blog, but the negativity and attempts to say “I have rules everyone should follow” is very discouraging.
      Unfortunately there are too many churches who literally do care more about the carpet and rules than about following Jesus’ example.
      Scripture shows us over and over again that the religious people and Pharisees didn’t like it when God used someone young. But God made it clear that He loves using young people. Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12 not to let anyone look down on him for being young but to set an example for other believers in how he lived.
      He realized that an even bigger spotlight would be on Timothy because of his age, so he needed to be consistent in honoring God.
      EVERYONE getting a job right out of college lacks “experience”. Yet they need to start working to live and pay their bills. They can’t wait a decade to mature! They can only get experience by experiencing life.
      The problem as I see it is not a lack of “rules” or age regulations.
      The problem is a lack of mentorship in their new job. For example, doctors graduate from medical school, but then they begin their residency. It’s a season of practicing what they have learned under the watchful of eye of someone who has experienced things that can go wrong. Someone who can give insight that could never be found in a book but only by hands on experience.
      In my opinion, any position of pastoral leadership on would benefit from a similar “residency”…

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I think there’s a bigger problem, Allison, and I don’t know how to say this without being judgmental, but it was a point I wanted to make in the post, but I didn’t.

        But I will now, because maybe it will clarify where I’m coming from.

        The simple fact is that many of the (predominantly) male Bible college 22-year-old graduates are just not that impressive. They’re not intellectual. They’re not that bright. They’re not that mature. They’re just kind of average. And that would actually be fine in any other job where you mature on the job and you get life experience, but to ask them to be mentors to a youth group that is filled with kids who are bright is just not going to work.

        Are there exceptional, bright 22-year-olds? Yes. There are. But to be honest, in my personal experience I haven’t seen any of them as youth pastors. Now, granted, we live in small town Canada, and we have mostly smallish to medium sized churches, and that is really where my frame of reference comes. But as I read the stories of sexual abuse in youth groups, the guys in those news stories seem to resemble the youth pastors I’ve seen. They’re “cool”. They’re “hip”. They liked being in youth group and they want to continue there. But that does not mean that they are good mentors for mature high school students.

        Now, I’m actually quite in favour of a super intellectual, bright, talented young youth pastor. I simply haven’t seen them. And the reason, I think, is because we tend to hire Bible college graduates as youth pastors, and then we pay them nothing.

        I also think there is a point to be made that the intellectual, mature high school students do deserve mentors. And even an exceptional 22-year-old may not be a good mentor, but be more of a peer. I think that’s one reason youth groups are more popular for grades 9 & 10 rather than high school seniors; they want real mentors, and they’re not getting them. That’s where an age difference does play a role.

        I know many of you are reacting to this because you’re in your 20s, but try to imagine that it’s 20 years down the road and you’re the parent of a really mature, intelligent and vivacious 18-year-old girl. Now, who do you want as her youth pastor? What about a boy who is super intelligent, heading for med school, but doubting his faith. Who do you want breathing into his life? I know the people who had the best influence over me at that age were people in their 40s and 50s. My daughters would say the same. They just needed people who were old enough that they weren’t peers.

        I wish there didn’t need to be hard and fast rules (that’s why I’m actually less and less a fan of the way we do church). But if we are going to do church this way and have youth groups, then we do need to think about the big picture. And what we’re doing now isn’t working.

        I really like what you said about mentoring. I think that could be a very good model–a mentorship program where for a few years they work under someone else. The problem is that medical residents do actually earn a livable salary. I’m not sure churches could afford to pay a younger, learning youth pastor along with a regular youth pastor. But I do think that’s an idea worth exploring!

        Reply
        • Y'allNeedCoffee&Jesus

          “The simple fact is that many of the (predominantly) male Bible college 22-year-old graduates are just not that impressive. They’re not intellectual. They’re not that bright. They’re not that mature. They’re just kind of average. And that would actually be fine in any other job where you mature on the job and you get life experience, but to ask them to be mentors to a youth group that is filled with kids who are bright is just not going to work.”

          THIS. YES. Thank you for being frank and honest, Sheila. And while there are many, many well-intentioned or kind”church boys”, the lack of maturity and growth rarely allows them to maintain that. What is immaturity in a 22-year-old is a gross lack of character in a 32-year-old with a family.

          “The Church Bubble” doesn’t expect a lot from its men (in most cases) and that’s just not acceptable for leadership. Sorry not sorry. My brother has lived his whole life in the church bubble even though he works a secular job, he’s got no friends outside of it, and quite frankly, he’s stupid and cruel. He dropped his best friend of 20+ years when he came out of the closet and was open about his struggle with faith. He’s never sent his (only) niece a birthday or Christmas card, because I’m not what he thinks a woman should be. He’s kind of awful, but within the bubble, he’s praised and perfect and leads a Sunday school class.

          By the standards of the rest of society, a lot of “Church Boys” are prideful and arrogant because they’re cream of the crop in church, but they’re useless, crude and wildly immature by the standards of society. I could give a list of them who are pastors, right now. They aren’t mature, they aren’t wise, but they believe in themselves so much it’s dangerous, and they’re surrounded by people who sing their praises growing up.

          Even when they have the BEST INTENTIONS, the church bubble, being a bubble, doesn’t force the maturity that the real world does.

          The Church Bubble (often) doesn’t raise men, but boys who are praised from the cradle for a) being male and b) looking the part. My child deserves better than that in leadership.

          Reply
          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            “Even when they have the BEST INTENTIONS, the church bubble, being a bubble, doesn’t force the maturity that the real world does.” Yep.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        By the way, I really liked Allison’s comment because she mentioned another idea that could help (mentorship/residency idea). If you disagree with me (and that’s perfectly fine!), can you follow Allison’s example and talk about what would work? Let’s get a larger discussion going here, and throw out a lot of ideas, because I think it’s a conversation that the church needs to have.

        Reply
        • Carol

          I think that the greater problem is hiring someone you don’t know to lead. We don’t have a youth pastor in our church. We have youth leaders whom the congregation already know and the pastors have watched for a couple of years before they ever got to be leaders.

          And I think you are painting with a very broad brush. I went to Bible college myself. I’d say half the men there were men that had seen life and were there on their own accord, not because anyone pushed them . Of course I can’t say it’s like that everywhere.

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    • Joanna Sawatsky

      T,

      A friend of mine, who is awesome and super mature in a TON of ways and has a truly incredible amount of life experience for a person of his age, was asked to preach for the first time at a large church in his early 20s. This guy is a true man of God, so I’m not surprised he was given the opportunity. Unfortunately, from the pulpit, he told a really dumb anecdote that was hurtful enough that he put a life-long friendship in jeopardy. Do I think everyone in their early 20s will do that? Of course not. But I ALSO think that wisdom, resilience, and perspective come with age. Genuinely, my friend who told the dumb story is an amazing human who is super mature in most areas but who made a big immature decision in another.

      Serve God wholeheartedly in whatever situation you’re in. And I don’t want to say that no one should be in the pastorate in your early 20s – but I do think it should be more rare than it is. Additionally, I think it’s really important to have great mentoring – my friend’s sermon *SHOULD HAVE BEEN CHECKED* and the effect of the anecdote on the people who were in it should have been considered (even if they presumed it to be factual, which it wasn’t). My mom started pastoring in her 50s and her life experiences now give a weight to her words about suffering and perseverance that I don’t have at 28. I hope this discussion doesn’t make you feel undermined – follow where the Lord is leading you. But there are genuine pitfalls to having someone in the pastorate who is really young and I don’t think that gets enough coverage in the church broadly. Does that make sense?

      Reply
    • Traci

      I would rather see parents volunteer to run youth groups. We have parents volunteer to teach Sunday School for younger kids (often under a director of the ministry, but that’s not always paid.)

      Ideally, imo, there would be a pair of couples who teach on Sunday and Wednesday night and the parents of the kids involved would work together to arrange fun events that include going to the students sports and concerts and shows together.

      I think making “mini church” for teens is silly, and I think that cutting it out entirely so that they are just “mini adults” in regular church is even worse.

      When we are too precious about our programs we miss a lot of great opportunities for adults with good life experience and faith to serve and connect.

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth

    I totally agree. I grew up with a youth pastor 10 years older than most of the youth. He also had a degree in high school education from a secular college but knew the Bible so well on his own he was hired. To this day he’s one of the most Godly men I know.
    I also knew a man who RETIRED as a youth and family pastor. It was a beautiful thing. We don’t have to all follow the stepping stone method. And there are so many maturity level issues that are only overcome by experience. Leading mission trips, driving a loud van full of youth, handling conflict, etc. I’m not saying someone in their early 20s can’t handle it- it’s just a harder road.

    Reply
  3. Abby

    I just want to offer an alternate perspective on the Bible college issue based on my experience.
    I completed a four-year university degree, and then since my husband is pursuing being a college-level Bible teacher, we moved to the Bible college where he will be teaching for him to do an internship. While here, I’ve been taking their program, and it is incredible.
    It’s a two year Bible college that teaches through the Bible chronologically. It’s primary role is for training missionaries, but anyone is welcome. The entire program (tuition, room, board) costs only $9,000 a year, and so it’s very doable to pay as you go.

    I say this because I agree that racking up debt is unwise, but I believe this Bible college experience is invaluable.

    I did Bible Quizzing for seven years – I competed with your daughters at Internationals. But I did not understand the Bible books I was studying. I just had a class on Romans where we went verse by verse and looked at the historical cultural context of the situation. It totally changed my understanding of the book, and of God. Our study of the Old Testament last year forever changed my view of God. I used to view him as an angry vengeful God but in the prophets I got to see his heart as merciful and patient.

    I think that in general, young people are not taught the Bible well, especially not in context. Taking two years to study the Bible and really understand it – that is preparation for eternity! I believe that normal job training education is valuable, but whatever field you go into, you’ll only work that job for maybe 50 years. Understanding God and knowing his word will benefit us our entire lifetimes and beyond.
    So while I don’t agree with being financially unwise to get Bible education. There are options out there that train young people in the Word to prepare them for life.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Abby, that’s the kind of Bible college I would have loved to go to myself! I was looking for something like that. I totally believe in studying the Word so you really know the Word. No problem with that at all. We were actually looking for something like that to send our girls to because they graduated high school early and between university. We considered Augustine College in Ottawa, which is similar, but we had already done a lot of that curriculum in our high school.

      I completely believe that people aren’t taught the Bible well. We tried to do it well–I think I did better for my older than my younger. I wish every one could do something like that. Do you know if they have online courses?

      And again, I’m completely in favour of something like this. I just think it needs to be seen for what it is–learning the Word. It shouldn’t be seen as career prep at 22, that’s all.

      Reply
      • Abby

        Exactly! It’s about studying God’s word for what it is. Many of the graduates from the Bible School go on to the next phase of the missionary training, but many also go on to careers in other fields – prepared to know God and serve him well in whatever capacity he calls them to. For anyone interested, the Bible college is Ethnos 360 Bible Institute in Waukesha, WI. https://e360bible.org/

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Thanks, Abby!

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          • AspenP

            I know I’m late to the party on this one, but my church ( thecrossing.net ) discourages young people from going to Bible college and racking up debt they can’t pay off. Instead, they have started an online Bible college called MDI which is a 2 year online program available to anyone at our church or part of our online community (with hopes to expand to everyone everywhere). The goal of the program is to take the tuition $2k a year? And to invest it in Solomon Foundation which builds churches and development projects and return the investment to each graduate with their earned interest to help them get on their feet as they pursue ministry. (Although most will likely remain laypeople).

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            That’s wonderful! I love that so much. It really does make so much sense. What bothers me about many bible colleges, too, is the student code of conduct. It’s often so legalistic, and doesn’t prepare students for living on their own. These are ADULTS. They should be treated as such.

        • Elissa

          Hah, I didn’t see this when I replied to your last comment. My husband and I just graduated from EBI Jackson in May! I would echo much of what you said. We were married for several years with a kid and some life experience before going. The Bible training was life changing and awesome! Now we are planning to move on to attend the Mission Training Center next August. Too bad our paths didn’t cross while we were there.

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      • Elissa

        Sheila, Ethnos 360 is just starting to do a few online courses (they were in the process of recording them when my husband and I were students over the past 2 years). With that said, I couldn’t recommend the actual at school experience more, both for single and married students. This is actually a Bible school without all the rules, that both emphasizes and teaches kids to use the Holy Spirit as their guide for decision making!

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      • RSN

        Word of Life Bible Institute is a program designed for students to spend a year (two year option also) between high school and further college studies. Check it out. I think it’s a great program. They have other ministries as well. Locations in the US ( NY and FL) and Canada.

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    • Elissa

      Abby, any chance you’re going to EBI right now?

      Reply
      • Abby

        Yep! I’m at EBI Waukesha right now and we’re applying to go to MTC in August, so maybe I’ll meet you there! 🙂

        Reply
  4. Doug

    I think this is something we agree on completely.

    When I was in my teens, the chirch I attended didn’t even have an official youth Pastor but we did have a husband and wife team that filled that role. They were around 30 years in age. Looking back, they had a pretty mature marriage, were well respected in the community, and well liked by the youth. They were both young at heart, but mature at the same time. They were exactly what I think that particular ministry needed.

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  5. Emma Galloway Stephens

    Excellent observations, here! Agree 100%. I am staff/faculty at a Christian liberal arts University, and a lot of our work with student recruitment revolves around convincing potential new students that a Bible college degree may not serve them as well as they think. I also speak as half of a husband-wife team that teaches our (tiny) church’s youth group–we’re much better at it now at 27 and 28 then we were when we started, and not just because we’ve been at it so long–we’re just more mature now, and had more time to grapple with the same hard questions our kids ask. Far from perfect! But for sure, better equipped.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, Emma! Yes, I think many would do far better at a Christian liberal arts university than a Bible college. I also find that many Bible colleges have more rules on student behaviour than parents do. So it treats their students like they’re 12. That’s not good for people who will be joining the work world soon.

      Reply
  6. Nathan

    Good commentary on this topic. I like the analogy of the bubble. If you live in a strict Christian home, then go to a strict Christian school, you won’t be well equipped to engage non-Christians as well as you might be.

    My youth pastor referred to it as the “Christian merry go round”. All you do is go around and around, interact only with Christians, and never see the outside.

    > > Open up the job to women, and aim for a co-ed leadership model

    That’s gonna ruffle a few feathers, but it’s a good idea, and I agree with your three main points here…

    1. There is no biblical justification for “only men can be pastors”
    2. Girls need somebody to talk to in a safe way
    3. The pastors wife may not feel the call to fill in

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I do think the Christian merry go round is a big problem in church leadership in general. The higher up you go in church leadership, the less contact you’ll naturally have with non-Christians, because all of your time will be spent at church meetings. It does impact how they make decisions at the board level, too.

      Reply
      • Cara

        I think a married “team” approach is the best! Women (as we’ve seen in schools mainly) can fall into the same pitfalls of sexual temptation and impropriety as men.

        I definitely think that some real life experiences and some mistakes even can make you a better youth leader. Mistakes humble most people I think.
        I remember looking at some people in church who seemed to have it all together but thinking, would they have it all together if (x) had happened to them? And thinking I couldn’t ever talk to that person because they were perfect and wouldn’t understand someone like me.

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        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I agree–ideally a married team is best. My only problem with that is that I have known so many pastor’s wives who just wanted to be a wife. They didn’t want to be a pastor, too. If you’re going to hire a team, then pay them both. Don’t pay one and expect the other to do just as much work, and that happens way too much! (and I agree that women can be abusive, too. Absolutely.)

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          • Cara

            Oh NEVER!!! I agree fully with you that a pastor’s wife should not be expected to just step into every role in a church that needs filling!!! I meant for youth leaders I think it’s best to hire a “couple” if possible.

  7. Cara

    Sheila-I have a question. I agree with most of this article (definitely all of the second half-guidelines and reasons for older youth leaders!!!) but some of the first half led to me scratching my head. (Ok not really, I’m laying in bed and it’s cold so my arms are under the covers 😂)
    Who paid for your girls to live that way?! There is no way I could send my kids to a college where they could have their own place and carry a heavy course load, etc! And many average people also can’t-without massive debt.
    We told our kids early on that we couldn’t pay for their college but they were welcome to live at home and attend community college.
    Unfortunately, some things that happened to us made this all more difficult and nothing has been ideal. But There are more ways than one to mature. Hard knocks for one. But both of my older kids started working at about 13 (we homeschooled) and paid for their own vehicles-cash! My daughter had paid for her own college and is married (she’s 19 now). Ive encouraged them to make many of their own decisions and own them from 15-16 on. That’s the road to maturity we have taken. Is it perfect? Nope. But I think it’s going ok overall. Give a little rope at a time-but not enough to hang themselves.
    Also, I don’t know how colleges are doing in Canada, but here they are so liberal that I wouldn’t encourage my hold to go to a college-we favor trade schools and community colleges.
    Just wanted to ask how that is possible!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      The girls both had to earn money throughout high school to pay for their education, and they both worked about 25 hours a week (we homeschooled, so that was easier), and they loved that. And then we matched their money.

      I do know that it’s way too expensive for many, and I should have clarified that in the article. Sorry about that! My point that I was trying to make is that it’s important for youth to get independent and outside of a bubble, however you do that. It may mean not going to school at all for a few years and living on your own with roommates and working full-time to earn money. But I think it’s important to have a transition where you’re out of a bubble.

      As for universities, my girls didn’t find them nearly as bad as everyone says. I didn’t either. Sure, they were totally left wing, but the world is left wing, so that’s not really a shocker. And you can just prepare for that. The more important question is, “are there Christian peers there?” Most campuses have amazing Inter Varsity groups or Navigators groups, and that’s such a good way of meeting people going through what you’re going through.

      In general, though, I’m totally with you about trade schools. I think that’s a better route for many. Certainly prepares you better, in general, for an actual job.

      Reply
      • Cara

        Sheila-thank you for clarifying! That’s very reasonable since your girls saved and paid half ❤️ (We still couldn’t afford that but it’s way closer to real life than I imagined lol)
        Since we homeschool, my oldest worked since she was 13 (babysitting which turned to nannying-she just recently quit at 19). We had planned for her to attend college but be able to live at home. Then our lives got flipped upside down with job stuff. She had to live with a couple from church so she could stay and continue school and work.
        I appreciate your clarification that there is more than one road to maturity. Hers happened way earlier than I’d have liked but she’s doing well now.
        Thanks again!

        Reply
  8. Blessed Wife

    Our church has tried to fill the youth minister’s role in basically three ways. First, there was a “minister of music and youth” position, because our church couldn’t afford to pay for two separate positions. This worked well until the church hired a woman to fill that position. The gossipy old women who run everything behind the scenes were highly ruffled by the idea of a pastor working closely with any woman other than his wife, and spread false rumors that forced both of them out.

    Next, we began using volunteers from the congregation, usually a youngish-to-middle married couple. This has definitely been the most lasting and successful model for our church, and one that we’ve recently gone back to out of sheer necessity.

    For a few years, we had single youth ministers who were Christian students from our local college. We started with a young man, then shortly thereafter recruited a young woman to be his assistant. This proved very handy when she persuaded him to resign because he had developed an (at least) inappropriately flirty relationship with one of the youth girls. (He was the only breath of scandal that ever came near any of our young male directors, btw.)

    One of the other issues we have with the young youth directors is continuity. In a year or two, they finish their degree, have to move away to get a higher-paying job or go to grad school, and then things kind of flounder til we can get someone else. In my youth years, we did the congregation volunteer plan, and it was great! There were lots of trips, social events, and a lot of really sound Biblical teaching. Purity culture was a big trend then, but it didn’t get much more than a toehold at our church because our youth minsters were just regular Christians in healthy marriages. They had not grown up steeped in the purity culture and sheltered to the point that female anatomy was a complete mystery even to the girls, like the young people I encountered at my Baptist liberal arts college. I’m really glad we’re going back to this model!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s actually really interesting about the last bit–how volunteers from your church were less purity culture than the youth pastor grads. I can see that. I’m glad that teh flirty relationship never went any further, too!

      Reply
      • Blessed Wife

        Actually, some time after he resigned from being the youth director, they dated (with the enthusiastic support of her parents), and after some on-and-off for several years, married. Then divorced a few more years after that. Flirtation is all that I know to have happened while he worked with the youth group and attended our church, but I’m very glad he had a wise and clear-eyed female assistant, both to call him out before it went too far and to take over the group when he resigned.

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  9. Sarah O

    I’m glad my comment was helpful to your case! (I may need to continue working on my tone…I get fired up sometimes…)

    I don’t know much about bible colleges, but I agree we need to rethink the youth pastor role. I’d really like to see all the pastor roles broadened out instead of there being a “type”. But as we rethink, let’s put the priority on what the sheep actually NEED. “Cool” may be something sheep like, but “safe” is something sheep NEED.

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  10. Sheila Wray Gregoire

    I want to jump in and say a broader thing about the age that I’m proposing, because it’s coming up a lot here and on Facebook.

    The group of youth that I think is often not very well served at all are the mature, intellectual ones. The ones that don’t want the pizza party all the time, but actually want some in-depth wrestling with issues. The youth that want their life to count. The youth that are less interested in cool, and more interested in trying to understand hard concepts. Often these kids are very mature (I know I was) and feel out of place in youth group already, because they’re thinking about the future.

    What they need in leaders are mentors, not just peers. As an 18-year-old, I had peers who were 23 and 24. Friends from work, from church. It was hard to look up to someone like that as a mentor when they were more a peer. My girls had the same issue, as did many of their friends. And they just stopped going. Youth group is often much more attractive to those in grades 9 & 10 than to those in grade 12. And it’s in grade 12 that we need to keep our youth plugged into community–before they leave home!

    So even if a youth pastor is amazing at 23, I think it’s important to consider the needs of mature high school seniors, who need genuine mentors, not just peers.

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    • Noel

      I totally agree with the youth pastor part of this. Of course, I loathed youth group growing up, so I may not be the best person to comment. But I have relatives whose marriage fell apart because in their twenties they were put in charge of a girls’ home. It really is unhealthy to put a young man in that position with young girls.
      I would add that it’s a bit stupid to expect maturity and experience from a man whose children are probably in preschool, at most. Having been a teen does not make you an expert on mentoring teens. And, what kind of parent is he being to his preschoolers? After years of growing up on the inside (variously MK/PK), and observing a lot of different situations, I don’t think it is healthy for either the ministry or a young man’s family for him to be in full-time ministry. A young family has so many challenges, anyway. I know we shouldn’t create our own extra-biblical rules, but I really feel even 40 might be a better age before considering full-time ministry. I agree that some real life experience is important. I also think that it is important to be able to be under authority before you become an authority. Honestly, one of my takes on the Josh Harris debacle is- why were people listening to what a 22-year-old had to say, anyway?! And I say that as someone who did listen, even though I had reservations at the time.
      Let’s remember- Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was 30. He had a real-world job, too. When he talked to people, they knew he knew what he was talking about.
      On the other end of the spectrum, I think there should be a retirement age; age does not always equal wisdom. On the contrary, I have seen a lot of people who hit a major regression between 70 and 80, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. I’m not saying we should ignore the elderly, but we should use wisdom before we confuse people with a pastor who spends the entire sermon mixing up Timothy and Titus.
      I really think we have a great misunderstanding of how these things are supposed to work. The words “minister” and “serve” are significant. Do you want to preach and tell people what to do, or do you want to serve? What is going to be the most effective way to serve? There are a lot ways to serve besides leadership.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Noel, I completely agree! I think having young people in their 20s volunteering for youth ministry is wonderful (and very needed). But I do think the youth pastor should be older.

        I’m not saying that 20 somethings can’t play a role with youth. Only that what we’re doing now isn’t working, and we do need to talk about it.

        (Incidentally, I think it’s funny that most are commenting on the age thing, and I actually had 7 points. I would have thought some of those would be interesting, too. 🙂 ).

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      • Noel

        I should add that I taught at university for seven years, and the science that says that a man’s brain does not finish development until he is 24 or 25 is very obvious in that environment.
        I also want to add that Jesus did not call any scribes or Pharisees until he called Paul. All of the 12 disciples were established men with professions and no Bible school- yet. And Paul, though a Pharisee, was a tentmaker.
        Of course, there are biblical examples of young men. But for every Samuel or Timothy, there are many Gideons and Ezras.
        I also wonder how you can look at the qualifications for an elder/deacon in young man. You don’t know if his family is in order, because they are too young! And what a stress to put on he and his family.
        We can’t make a hard and fast rule, but we do need to be aware of the way things work.

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    • Joanna Sawatsky

      I wasn’t a big youth group person – I’m actually very sensitive to loud noises and hate concerts, popping baloons, etc. So the crazy overstimulated youth group culture of the early 2000s was NOT my cup of tea. But what I did do was Bible Quizzing, and I competed at the International competition 6 times – our team won twice and I placed regularly in the top 15 individuals. I was good, I knew what I was doing. I *could* have coached the international team myself when I was 19 or so. I knew the rules, the strategy, the ideas. But I would have been “in charge” of my good friends. And that would have been weird. I also wouldn’t have had authority to say “I’m saying do X, so you need to do X” in the same way. Instead, I coached with my husband when we were in our mid-20s. The students we were coaching we were able to mentor in a different way. We knew how we wanted to coach and we coached that way – even if our methods were different than other people’s in our district. The biggest thing, though, is that we were able to understand where the quizzers were emotionally and being able to use the quizzing competition to help them learn confidence or resilience etc. was really amazing. I don’t think I could have had the powerful mentoring opportunity if I had coached when I was younger. The age difference made it possible.

      Reply
  11. Tamara

    Based on this article, I guess I’ve lived my life all wrong? 🤷‍♀️

    Went to Bible college and met my husband there. I wasn’t intentionally looking. It just happened. Got married at 19, started volunteering in youth ministry together as youth leaders. During that time, hubby felt called into full time ministry. He started going back to Seminary on a part time basis and went into full time ministry in early twenties. He finished his Masters of Divinity after being in full time ministry for 6 years. And yes, eventually he moved into a lead pastor position. We may have been young, but I can say we still have contact with many of the youth from the church that we first served in. I would like to think that we had an impact spiritually, not just as “friends”. We have walked with youth alongside many difficult circumstances. There are many things that a degree from a Seminary can not prepare you for that comes up in ministry because life is messy and difficult. I guess I kind of feel like this article completely discredited all the blood, sweat, tears and prayers that we poured into ministry, even in our twenties.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Tamara, I really didn’t mean to suggest that! There are no hard and fast rules that work in every area of life; we do what we feel the Spirit calling us to do, and He works differently in all of us. I absolutely believe that you had a big impact on the kids in your youth group. For sure!

      But the problem is that, when looking at the big picture, we can see that some things are more likely to end badly than others, and churches, when forming policies or when trying to prevent those bad outcomes, should go with what is most likely to work. And while you and your husband may be the exception, I think you have to form policies based on the rule.

      Again, I don’t like rules in general. I think we’d all do much better living by the Spirit, appointing people due to giftings, rather than education, etc. etc. But with the huge problems with sexual abuse in the church and with generation Z leaving the church, we know that what we’re doing right now isn’t working. And so it’s time to figure out why.

      As for marriage, it has been shown that divorce rates are higher when people marry young before they’ve left their social circle. Again, doesn’t mean that your marriage was a mistake; not at all. Only that such marriages do have a higher degree of risk, and so I think it’s important to talk about that with our kids.

      Statistics don’t really matter when it comes to individuals (based on statistics, I should not have a happy marriage, but I do). But they do matter when we look at large trends, and that’s what I’d like to do here.

      As for you, I’d just say that God is really blessing you, because He’s using you in ways He’s not using others, and that means His favour is on you, and that’s wonderful!

      Reply
      • Lydia purple

        I don’t think we should hire people based on gifting, but based on character and calling. Often the call overlaps with the talents but God’s can stretch you and equip you in His call for you even if it is something you aren’t naturally gifted at.

        If we cannot find a person who is called to a certain position we are trying to fill as a church, then maybe we should start asking whether God actually wants us to run this specific ministry and if yes, then how this should look like.

        I think parents are the ones who are called to disciple their children and teens so the primary responsibility falls on them yet often youth do need some people outside of their family to coach them. But this need could be met in a variety of ways basically we should break down generational boundaries in church and have the hearts of fathers turn to the children/youth. We need people from all ages and walks of life to speak with youth as people who’s questions and ideas are to be taken seriously. Grown ups who take an interest in the youth and just talk with them, trying to understand their world instead of just making judgments about the “annoying youth”
        another crucial need is for the youth to be able to help at church and serve on all sorts of places. they need to feel that they are contributing to the kingdom of God in order to grow and mature in faith.

        I am saying this as the wife of a youth pastor… and I don’t know if the church as a whole should quit youth group but I do think we need stop thinking that this is the default model.

        Reply
  12. Arwen

    Wonderful article! I don’t have a comment on Youth Groups since i didn’t grow up in them as we don’t have them in my country. However, i couldn’t agree more with the “Christian bubble.” I witnessed it and found it bizarre when i came to the USA. There was no such thing as “Christian bubble” back home. We were just Christians that lived among none Christians 24/7. Everywhere we went we interacted among the lost.

    This probably explains why i didn’t have a crises of faith growing up because when the person sitting next to you in class is a Muslim you have no choice but to challenge each others world views. It was great! It strengthened your love of Christ and it gave you the confidence to face future opposing worldviews since your iron has been sharpening since infancy. When i went to college in the US and everyone in class was an atheist ganging upon me, i was not intimidated at all simply because i had faced that same hostility when i was 8, 12, 16, years old. I had seen this war before so i was prepared for battle only in a different culture this time around, same battle different solders. lool!

    We can learn so much about how Christians live either by observing believers in other lands or by simply going back in American history before all of these Christian bubbles were created. I so love this article!

    Reply
  13. Rachel

    I’VE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR YEARS.

    It’s my favorite soapbox. We’ve got 19 year old youth ministers “waiting to date” their 16 year old students. Because they’re basically the same age.

    No life experience, no hardship, barely lived outside the home and often, only in a dorm. There are so many people in ministry int he US who have never been “normal adults” who’ve worked to pay bills.

    I remember my alcoholic father saying… um… who am I going to go talk to in the church? A 25 year old associate pastor who’s never had a problem?

    I say get a trade, get a job, get a life, then you can lead as God directs you. Other countries do not do it like we do in North America. In Australia, our pastor didn’t even get paid!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, we’ve had that happen in youth groups in my hometown. The youth pastor marries a youth group member. The dynamics are just super weird.

      At the same time, it’s not wrong for a 19-year-old to date a 16-year-old. It’s just that the youth pastor-youth member dynamic makes it wrong. I don’t think that’s fair to anybody.

      Reply
  14. Jean

    O.K. I haven’t read through all the comments but I did read the article. I have been thinking very heavily about how we select church leaders, especially in the light of some mainline denominations “heresy”, and the sex scandals in both the Protestant and Catholic churches. First, when I was in high school, we had a pastor who used to say, ” Either you have a youth group and problems or you don’t have a youth group”. Over my lifetime I’ve come to modify that as , “Either you have a church and problems or you don’t have a church”. So I’m sure we will never find a perfect solution, as long as there are imperfect people making up the church ( which there will be until the Lord comes.) That said….
    I have a brother-in-law who is a pastor in a mainline denomination. He does NOT know the Lord Jesus and thinks all ways to god are equally valid ( Islam, Buddhism,etc.) How did he become a pastor? He passed a GRE exam and was admitted to a seminary and then ordained because he completed his courses. And it seems to me that is the path for a great number of pastors/ priests etc.
    But what does the Word say about selecting leaders? In Acts we find that Paul didn’t appoint leaders as first. He came back through later and appointed “elderS”. And he makes his criteria plain in I Timothy: above reproach, temperate, prudent, respectable, able to teach, etc., etc.—In other words, the leaders were selected from people in the church who had proved their love of the Lord by the fruit of their lives and by their care for other members of the church. Paul also seems to indicate that they should be people with some life experience ( Husbands of one wife, manager of a housedhold , with children) And also note—there wasn’t just one man who was in charge of everything, and was everything to every one in the church. There were elderS ( plural), who probably had differing gifts and were able to support and encourage one another in leadership.
    So yes, instead of throwing young people into the “youth” ministry, it would be better to observe people’s lives—Are they growing? Are they mature? What do their spiritual gifts seem to be?—and then help equip them for what the Lord seems to be calling them to.
    Our own church ( very small) has always had the youth group run by parent volunteers—usually parents of the youth in the group and usually at least two couples.
    Our son also attended a one year Bible training program, run informally by a couple of men in Michigan. It covered a great deal of what a first year Bible college would cover, including workshops on evangelization and a semester course on preaching. It benefitted him greatly and it is spilling over to benefitting the church. But it definitely had no accrediation and was definitely NOT a pipeline into ministry! Just an in-depth appreciation/ learning of Scripture and how to interpret/apply it.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Jean, I like what you’re saying here about identifying people in the church and then equipping them. I actually think that’s a great model. Instead, we ask young people to self-select by choosing to go to college. I think a church “sending” someone and “calling” someone is really quite healthy.

      And, yes, I have no problem with Bible college for personal edification and spiritual knowledge (I’m in favour of it, actually). But it shouldn’t be seen as the best choice (or only choice) for job prep.

      Reply
      • Julia

        I don’t know if I necessarily agree with it being an “age” thing, but in church we tend to lack

        1) accountability RULES (never alone with youth ever period).
        2) well rounded educations that allow for actual conversations about world issues.
        3) transparency about these issues.

        Sexual abuse is rampant in the church because the way we talk about sex is sooooo messed up. And the accountability we give men is seriously lacking….

        I’ve watched grown men tell teen girls they cause men to lust. And that’s an AGREED upon stance that leaves room for youth pastors to blame the ones they have relationship with.

        It wasn’t HIS FAULT. It was HER SIN for wearing short shorts or flirting with him or agreeing to meet in private…

        She was the problem. She was immodest. She caused his lusting. Even David was tempted. Are we amy better than king David?

        Sigh.

        Reply
    • Joanna Sawatsky

      Hi Jean! I absolutely love what you have to say here! My husband, Josiah, did 6 months of bible school in New Zealand as part of a gap year when he graduated from high school and he loved it. It was a great growing experience and I wish that the folks I’ve seen get sucked into the 4 year non-accredited Bible College tilt-a-whirl had done a shorter program like the one your son did. It’s a great option!

      And I love the point you make about pulling people from the pews. My parents are actually both pastors now, despite neither of them being in ministry when I was growing up. My mom came on staff and did a training and accreditation program through their denomination and Dad did it too to support my mom. Then he got hired, too! I really love that model.

      Reply
      • Tamara

        Joanna – any chance the 6 months of Bible School in New Zealand was a Torchbearers?
        4 of my 5 kids have taken a gap year after high school to do their program (our oldest is kinda bitter that we found out about them after she had already begun the 4-year university straight out of high school thing 🙂 ).
        Our youngest is currently doing his Bible School gap year in Germany, then spring in the UK. All have/plan to take their Bible training into non-church ministry professions.

        Reply
        • Traci

          I did a year at Torchbearers Sweden and it was the very best year of my life. I cannot endorse it enough. I followed it up with University degree. 😀 (Can’t believe all of this was 20 years ago!)

          Reply
  15. Jane Eyre

    As for wanting a stay at home wife AND wanting to work in religious vocations AND wanting a big family… whoa boy. I’m a big fan of living frugally, and firmly believe that you can raise good kids on a lot less than the opinion-makers tell us. But… there’s some serious wishful thinking going on with a subset of people, and it’s just bonkers. It’s not limited to religious people; think of artists whose parents lived in a nice, big house, sent them to an expensive private university, and now they think life is unfair and the system is rigged because they have roommates in a lousy apartment.

    The first thing I’m going to say is that 100% of a church’s income comes from people who donate money to it, and the lion’s share of that money is earned by people in secular occupations. If you think that the only “real” way to earn a living is by working for the church in some capacity, be aware that your salary is being paid for by the people doing jobs that you consider “not good enough.” IMHO, that’s… not a good look.

    As for men who want to raise a family on their salary alone: WORK BACKWARDS. Sit down with adults whose judgement you trust and whose lifestyle you are comfortable living (house? nice apartment? sending kids to college?(, and talk to them about how much money they need to run their household. While no one needs to put their kids into expensive hobbies from the age of 3 or go on European vacations every year, you do need health insurance, retirement savings, an emergency fund, etc. Figure out how much all of that costs, talk to adults, and then figure out about how much you need to earn to support your big family on one income. Once you are there, look at jobs that pay what you think you need, look at the hours, look at the training, and consider if those jobs are geographically where you want them to be. Figure out which ones align with your interests and abilities.

    Or, shorter version: being a devout Christian doesn’t exempt you from doing the same thoughtful career planning that other people do.

    I’ve just seen a LOT of people who want too much out of their jobs – moral or emotional fulfillment, easy hours, enough money to comfortably support a large family or a splashy lifestyle – and end up with a big mess on their hands because they refused to face reality. I was in politics for a while, and sit on Boards of several non-profit groups, and this thinking is… not limited to religious groups.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is so good, Jane. It’s funny–I had that EXACT SAME conversation with a young woman who is engaged and trying to figure out career paths this week. I said to her: where do you want to be at 28? At 38? Figure out a budget. See how much you’ll need to bring in as a family. See how much he’s able to bring in with his job that you expect he’ll have. Now you know how much you’ll need to supplement (since she wants to stay home as much as possible). But you have to work backwards! Absolutely.

      Reply
  16. CharitySolvesMostProblems

    My church’s youth group is able to operate under a very good model. The head of the youth group is an elderly lady in the church who is retired and has been leading youth for decades (she’s had several youth grow up and get married under her watch). Her son is a trained, married pastor, and he and her daughter (both in their 30s) are the co-leaders for the youth. On top of that, they have a system where – when youth reach 18 – they have to spend a year not coming to youth group and are no longer allowed to help in children’s church (a job that’s reserved for young teens). After that, they are allowed back officially as part of the “leadership core” that helps chaperone and support the younger members. The group spans several of the local sister churches and is all volunteer, so there’s no financial angle to leadership.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I really agree with that rule that youth should leave youth group. There’s a lot of problems in churches I’ve been in with young people “hanging around” because they don’t have career plans or know what they want to do with their life, so they prefer to stay somewhere safe. But that isn’t good for the youth (or for them). it’s better to have strong college & career groups in your city so that they can find another peer group. And I love how your churches cooperate on youth stuff!

      Reply
      • Cara

        I agree too that 18 year olds need to be out of the youth group. The problem I’ve seen is that there either is no college aged group or the “kids” in that group are acting the fool. They think it’s ok to sleep around, drink, etc!
        So what happens? The new young adult that needs as much guidance as ever gets LOST!!!

        My 17 year old doesn’t know where he fits in-he’s like the one mentioned earlier that wants a deeper message. And we now live in a small town-where apparently only old people go to church.

        My 19 year old is married so there’s nowhere for them either.

        Reply
  17. Natalie

    Great post & comments discussions.

    I wasn’t super involved in my youth group in high school mostly due to scheduling, but I was in jr. high. We had a great husband and wife team who led the group. They were in their late 28s/early 30s I believe, no kids yet. They were sweet with each other and affectionate (obviously not overly so… it wasn’t in a weird or gross way). I remember the husband telling us kids how incredibly blessed he was to have found the wife he did, and verbally expressing his love for her. It was really sweet to witness and I remember looking at them as the embodiment of a happy godly marriage.

    Looking back now, I can tell they saw each other as equals. There was none of him lording over his wife or her focusing on being “submissive” to him in the negative sense we hear about so often in the Church. They were just spouses, devoted to each other and united in their effort to serve the Lord. It was really great to witness. It’s a pity they didn’t also do the high school youth program cuz I probably would’ve stayed just to hang out with and be taught by them.

    The more I think back, the more I think my anti-sex/anti-sexuality, marriage-hierarchy came from my Christian school programming more so than anything I learned at church or youth group.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I’ve heard a lot of people say that, too, about Christian schools. My girls would say that a lot of it was in Christian media at the time–Barlowe Girls, Brio magazine, etc. But their church youth group could also be like that, too. Not the leaders, always, but a lot of the kids & the kids’ parents.

      Reply
  18. Natalie

    In my experience at youth group, the leaders were actually in their mid 30s, but they were definitely hired to appeal to the “cool” crowd. I hated youth group as a teenager. I liked the worship and the messages, but the drama that happened in the free time detracted from any spiritual benefit I gained earlier in the evening. I was always old for my age, and I remember feeling how wrong it was that I felt out-of-place at youth group, more than at school or out in the non-Christian world, given that at that age I was sincerely searching for discipleship, spiritual depth, and personal knowledge of God. I remember an older person telling me that youth group leaders were just trying to appeal to the most people. Though this was an attempt to make me feel better, it actually made me feel worse, because it was as if to say that the youth group leaders didn’t care about people like me because appealing to those of us who wanted spiritual depth in youth group wouldn’t bring the most people in. I still struggle with that to this day (about ten years later) and am currently not attending church. I can’t help but see that mentality everywhere–which prioritizes the masses while letting others who don’t fit the norm fall through the cracks.
    I don’t necessarily agree with you about the age requirement. Instead, I think youth group needs a new leadership model. Rather than one single leader at the head, I think youth group needs a variety of voices: younger, older, male, female, married, and single in leadership. I like the idea of churches combining resources to support qualified leaders as well, which would make it more possible to have a variety of voices in charge. Youth group leaders need accountability and support; I don’t think additional rules will change the underlying issue of sin. I think we also need a variety of voices in leadership because youth group can’t be just for the “cool” people.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love this perspective, Natalie #2! I feel you about not always fitting in because you weren’t the “cool” bunch. I experienced some of that, too, as did my girls. High school is an odd time. You’re expected to hang out based on age, rather than interests, and as an adult, it’s much easier to find friends with similar interests because you can move around. As a kid, you have to live where your parents live and go to their church, so it is more difficult. I always told my girls, “just wait until you’re in university and you can finally find your own peer group”.

      I like the idea of a variety of voices, too. Very necessary. I think people in their 20s make great volunteers and “big brother/big sister” type people, but then you also need the real leadership from those older.

      Reply
  19. Mary

    I agree with everything you say here, and would just like to add that I feel these problems stem from a bigger root cause….
    The church was never meant to be an organization!!
    Look at the New Testament- it’s described as an organism which grows & lives & breathes & moves under God.
    I feel like the modern Western expression of the church in most places is so structured, organized & resultingly sterile, that its no wonder that these sort of problems come in. In essence, the church has become all about men rather than all about Christ.

    One of your suggestions – of appointing people (men & women) from within the congregation who are particularly suited & particularly exercised by the Holy Spirit about mentoring youth is a great one. This would be a perfect example of the church acting organically.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I really support that one. Interestingly, my daughter’s church is doing that right now. Their current pastor was identified about 12 years ago, and they paid for the subsequent education. Now they’ve identified someone who should really be working with youth. Even if he doesn’t end up serving in their church, they’re equipping him.

      Reply
  20. Anon

    Rather than setting an age for any particular role, I would say look at life experience, maturity and wisdom. I attended a church where they called an assistant pastor who had gone straight from school to uni and straight from uni to Bible college. He had never had any kind of job before he became a pastor, aged 25. Then the lead pastor left, and he was suddenly sole pastor of the church, with a number of members who were struggling with some very major issues. Totally unfair to both the members and to the pastor.

    Also, YES to having women in these kind of roles too. In fact, I think every church should have at least one women’s/girl’s pastoral worker. And at least one woman’s contact email on the church website. There are so many situations where a woman might need help and would be uncomfortable contacting a man.

    I think the idea of a shared youth worker is a good one too. I grew up in a church which didn’t encourage its young people to mix with those from other churches and it was eye opening when I finally did! A shared youth worker could organise joint youth events and keep young people from believing that their church is the only one doing things the ‘right’ way!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you! Totally agree, too, that people should have a woman they can email if they need help. And it shouldn’t have to be elder’s wife. Just because a woman is married to an elder does not mean she wants that role or can do that role. I think of my mom who is so wise and whom everyone comes to for advice (men & women alike), and she hasn’t been married in 40 years! But she’d be a perfect person to be the contact for women in trouble.

      Reply
  21. Budgie

    I am involved with our youth group at church. We have a little bit of a different model than some – our youth leaders are all lay members and no one is paid. Our church is fairly small (about 80-100 attending services weekly), so the youth group has around 25 members. We have five leaders (one is the pastor’s wife) and aside from one leader who is in her mid 20s and out of university and working, our leaders are all 40+. Our pastor is also fairly involved with the youth group and comes to our events as much as he can.

    Having a team works great as we can lead out in Bible studies topics that we have more expertise/interest in. I have been involved with the group for the last three years and no one seems bothered by the age of the leaders. We are the age of their parents, for the most part (though I am a single woman), but I think the kids really appreciate having older people to hang out with who are not their parents. They are at the age where they really need other Christian adults in their lives.

    Our pastor is very comfortable with the youth, and though he is in his early 50s, he’s a very young 50 (in the best of ways). He’s a lot of fun and good with the youth, both the boys and girls, but because of his age, there is never anything weird like might develop with a young man in his 20s. I can definitely see how a younger pastor would be challenged in other ways, even if his motives were pure. I’m not opposed to having young youth leaders (we have one), but I think having them as part of a team with a variety of ages works best.

    That being said, there are a lot of heart issues involved with the situations you mentioned – Andy Savage and Wes Feltner. I don’t think they did what they did because they were young. Based on what I’ve read, they were predators and looking for situations to take advantage of vulnerable girls. Age isn’t necessarily a cure for that. I sense that they saw women as commodities to use as they liked even though that philosophy went against their “ministry”.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, my goodness, your church sounds lovely! And 25 youth out when you only have a small church is amazing! I think a variety of ages is amazing, too.

      And, yes, I don’t think an age limit would solve all the predatory problems at all. Think of Tullian Tchividjian, who groomed and abused many women in his congregation while a senior pastor. But I think it would solve a great many. But I think having a team leading is an even better idea and a better model, really.

      Reply
  22. Bethany

    Excellent article! I agree completely that those principles would improve churches. My own church is a mega church that has done it right. They honor their roots by a memorial hallway. It’s cool to learn that they got started on the 1900s! The divided the youth into sections. 4-5graders, middle school, high school and college. They have also well established groups for every imaginable age/life situation. And for every age of youth, there are multiple people in authority. Usually a married couple and two single man and woman under them.

    Reply
  23. Eliza

    Our church doesn’t have a youth group but my kids attend at the church I grew up at (which is also where they go to school). Ironically my parents were so strict when I was a teen I wasn’t even allowed to go to youth group. 😀 Right now the pastor in charge of the young people is actually about 60 and taught many of their parents as teens. (Including me, his daughter was one of my best friends growing up.) My kids don’t complain about him being too old. There are also younger volunteers in their mid 20s-early 30s, as well as parents of some of the kids, and women to do breakout sections with the girls. It seems like a pretty good setup to me; they do regular Bible study and have fun and my kids love going.

    Reply
  24. Em

    I haven’t read all the comments, but I just wanted to say I appreciated this post. My church never had a hired youth pastor, at various points parents or older couples “led” youth group. I was involved in our church and every now and then acted as leader for younger girls. Even though I was a mature 18-22 year old, looking back I’m so glad I didn’t lead more than I did. There’s just so much that changes between age 20 and 30. It would be great to have that acknowledged in the Church and the expectation removed that it should be the responsibility of a recent grad to mentor teens.

    On another note, my experience has been that these couples in their 20s “called” to ministry kind of push themselves on people and churches. The wife of one of these couples called to minister to college kids really encouraged us to meet weekly and study the Bible, etc….but even as a 19 year old I had been a Christian longer than she had and bc of my school and church knew more about the Bible than she did. She had young kids and stayed at home and I was not interested in that…it was awkward!

    Reply
  25. Diana Winkler

    You hit the nail on the head, Sheila. I went to an unaccredited Bible College to be a Baptist missionary. It was a great school for full time Christian service, and I was a missionary for many years. After I stopped missionary work, I had to get a better paying job to support myself. Let me tell you a Bible College degree doesn’t get you very far. And when the dean of the school died, the school eventually closed. So my employers could not verify my degree. I got certified as a pharmacy tech and then later went to vocational school for a dental assistant job. Neither jobs pay well. I started at an insurance company worked hard over the years. I am doing okay financially now. I thought of going back to school for another degree but I didn’t want to go back into debt for a few more thousand dollars a year.

    Anyway, that whole idea the church shoves down people’s throats about going to Bible college if you are really dedicated to Jesus, is the reality inmost churches. Missionaries and pastors and youth pastors and royalty and almost venerated. Secular jobs are not seen as spiritual and not considered serving God. This idea needs to stop.

    I agree most youth pastors are immature and are hired so young because no one else will do the job. Some youth pastors haven’t even been to college. Youth groups should be lead by a husband and wife team that has experience raising teenagers perhaps, and has real world experience with a variety of personalities and backgrounds of young people.

    Young people need godly, strong, mature believers to lead them through tough situations they are going through. They don’t need some cool, hip, good-looking 20 yr old leading youth. It’s a recipe for disaster.

    Reply
  26. Tessa

    I have a lot of thoughts on this but a main one you hit: being a youth pastor should not be seen as a training ground for becoming a “regular” pastor. Teenagers are actual people going through actual life & need actual counsel & support. They are not guinea pigs & should not have to bear the consequences of what these young pastors don’t know. I expressed clear symptoms of my then undiagnosed anxiety disorder from middle school onward, & until I was in my 20s everyone I talked to thought it was a spiritual shortcoming. They had no knowledge of mental illness, or of signs of abuse, or even of responsible exegesis. I really think this is a big reason why so many from my generation rejected the church (or even Christianity, if they didn’t meet Jesus first) in adulthood: they found more guidance and support from people outside the church than within it, because they’d had similar experiences and were honest and didn’t overspiritualize it.

    I remember right after I graduated high school, my youth pastor asked me to join the youth staff. I told him that I didn’t feel like I was old enough or equipped to do it, and he responded, “Neither do I!” Referring to himself! That “God qualifies the called” mindset can be so damaging if we don’t focus on how we can partner with Him to grow into calling (if it’s even there to begin with).

    As for bible college, I went for two years and am grateful for what I learned about scripture and psychology and reasoning, but I am so glad I didn’t continue to spend money on a degree I’d never need or use. Also, all my male friends there were good people, but I would not have wanted to be pastored by them. They were definitely still boys with a lot of growing up to do.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks for this, Tessa! And I totally agree. Teens aren’t guinea pigs. And in many ways they need more specialized help than adults. They should get our MOST experienced, not our least.

      Reply
  27. Gemma

    wow this article has gathered a lot of comments. Sorry if this is repeating somebody else. I haven’t read every other comment so far.
    I share the concern about putting in a set rule age limit but agree that when it comes to protecting youth rules are important.
    Child Protection Policies (or Vulnerable People Protection) are vital. Churches in the UK seem to have done a good job with this (sadly following some cases of abuse that weren’t dealt with well). This includes rules like the youth leader should never be alone with a youth, unless they’re in a public space maybe.
    I also agree that a team is so important. Not just one couple. But several people. In church leadership in general this is so important. I became a youth leader at 18. Yep, I probably could have done with more training and maturity. But I wasn’t alone. We had a team. And that made a huge difference.
    Also, I lived at home during my studies but I definitely didn’t stay in a bubble… I guess it depends on your context. Going to state school in a non Christian majority country definitely gets you out of a Christian bubble.

    Reply
  28. Chris

    When I was a 9th grader our church started a youth group. They hired this 30 something woman to run it and she came in to the first meeting and introduced herself and then started talking about how wonderful the church decision was to hire a woman as this would teach the boys that women were competent leaders among other lessons the boys could learn from women. There were about 15-20 boys there that night and slightly more girls. All the boys heard was “you are all dumb and your dumb for being boys so its a good thing i am here to teach you!” So the next week there were 3 boys there and the same 20-25 girls. Sad to say I was one of the boys there but my mom made me go. More of the same message that 2nd week. This woman had no clue how she came across to the boys. The 3rd week there were no boys there and after the 6th week the youtg group collapsed. So then they hired this recently widowed woman whose youngest son had just gone off to college. SHE WAS AWESOME!!! The girls loved her and us boys came back up out of our holes to be in the youth group again and she had the boys eating out of the palm of her hand. It was great. I have only known 3 wimen in my life that had that true gift with boys, and they all fit a certain pattern: grew up with a good dad in the home, had multiple brothers and raised multiple sons. And some other secret gifts i guess. As for you not being impressed with 22 year old boys Sheila, i am not impressed with 22 year olds in general. I employ a lot of young people and the 22 year old young men don’t know how to work. The 22 year old young women are very academically achieved but are rather naive about a lot of basic stuff. I am seeing a lot of people that age that have never had a drivers license. And I’m not that old. I am in my early forties. But around these kids i feel ancient.

    Reply
    • Susanna

      It’s so good that some of the youth group boys you mention got to experience competent and gifted women in leadership after that first bad experience!

      I don’t think Sheila is targeting 22-year-old MEN specifically; she only mentions them more because the vast majority of youth leaders are men.
      Which brings me to an aside that I notice in this comment: you say you have seen only 3 women gifted in teaching boys… this seems to imply that good female leaders are rare and boys need a “special touch” or something. No doubt boys need quality male examples in their lives, but I have to wonder about the many, many youth ministries with a single male leader— could it be that the needs of the *girls* in those groups are similarly overlooked, but you are unaware of it?

      Reply
      • Chris

        “It’s so good that some of the youth group boys you mention got to experience competent and gifted women in leadership after that first bad experience!“
        As I have gotten older I have noticed that this seems to be really important to grown up women, its interesting because young boys could care less. Boys just care that you are authentic and can connect with them, whatever your sex.

        “I notice in this comment: you say you have seen only 3 women gifted in teaching boys…“ no, Susanna I said that i have only known three who could connect. I had plenty of female teachers who taught really well and who I learned a lot from but with whom none of the boys connected with. One of those 3 was my third grade teacher. The boy’s worshiped her. Never had any behavior problems and as a result everyone (boys and girls) did better academically because the teacher didn’t have to waste her time with discipline issues. Some of the other women teachers i had were great teachers but they still had to deal with the behavior issues because they could not connect.

        “could it be that the needs of the *girls* in those groups are similarly overlooked, but you are unaware of it?” Susanna, nope, i am aware of it 100%. You are right and i agree with you. But being a guy i am not expert in teenage girls and their needs. But most importantly:I don’t pretend to know either. Most adult male youth group leaders have to guard themselves extremely closely so as to avoid even the appeared of impropriety. While completely necessary for the girls protection, i imagine it makes mentoring more complex. My guess is there are a lot of teenage girls that would benefit from strong adult male role models that can connect with them but i imagine that the number of grown up men who can connect with and effectively mentor that demographic is probably just as low if not lower than the number of grown up women who can connect with teenage boys.

        Reply
        • Hiraeth

          Hi Chris,
          As the mother of an almost eight-year-old boy who is rapidly changing as he ages, I’d love to hear more about what made your third grade teacher so special! You are right that there is a difference between mere learning and a deep, genuine, connection. Women do not instinctively understand men and boys and their particular needs and feelings, yet I am being led by God to pursue this wisdom in order to impact my son’s heart.
          Just curious, thanks!

          Reply
          • Chris

            Hiraeth, i think it just came down to her paying attention to us as individuals. Figuring out what made each one of us tick and connecting with us accordingly. She did not treat us like a big group of defective girls. Which most of our other teachers did. For me it was mechanical stuff. She gave me the job of class mechanic. I had to fix the stapler when it jammed and fixing/sharpening the pencil sharpeners. Among other tasks as they appeared. For some of the other boys it was more of a sports connection. She always knew the scores of the NFL and the popular baseball teams. She would use sports scores and stats in the math lessons as well. I contemplated all of this at her funeral a few years ago. Church was packed. I had to sit on the grass outside. They later said there were over 1,000 people there. She saw us as individuals. Different from each other and from the girls who deserved our own place in the world and we loved her for seeing that in us. She was the only teacher I ever had whose funeral i have gone to or will go to.

  29. Jewels

    I was an 18 year old youth leader and I’ve gone back and apologized for a lot because of pain caused by the institutionalized line of thinking I now detest.

    I agree with you here. We aren’t equipping people and we are burning intergenerational bridges.

    Reply
  30. Mom

    What if we judged all 50 year olds for what some 50 year olds do/did. A lot of violations in many churches were older men. If we apply the same standard all will be disqualified. I however don’t like that idea that a hip young man that just graduated college IS the profile for the job…. that’s ridiculous. It’s a hard problem. I’m not super fond of the youth group concept. I never participated in one when I was young but I was Catholic and went to catholic schools. My kids did off and on but found them lukewarm and juvenile. I feel the main pastor is the pastor of the whole family… the parents are the true pastors of the youth.,,.but there could be an event coordinator for youth. ????? Just a thought😊

    Reply
  31. unmowngrass

    I really don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution.

    I think there are kids who need the “cool older brother”, because that’s the only one they’ll maybe listen to. (And specifically brother and not sister.) And I think there are other kids who need something different. Very, very broadly speaking, in my understanding, the “cool older brother” is needed for the non-church kids with the maybe mixed up home life. And whilst that guy may well feel very out of his depth (and need a lot of support from the rest of the church), it has to be him, because as I said, those youth wouldn’t listen to anyone else. They don’t believe that adults really could understand them. And then the “substitute parent” or “auntie/uncle” model is needed for the church kids who are more used to the idea that everyone can have something of value to add to everyone else.

    My biggest concern about youth groups, though, is that there is usually “too much” youth group, so the adult church then comes as a shock. If we look at kids/youth from the perspective that they don’t have the concentration to be able to sit through the main sermon, or that they won’t comprehend it very well, and either way are then likely to get bored and misbehave, well, yes, separate groups based on age is necessary, for children, but, 14y and upwards are more than capable of sitting in the main church with (or separate from) their parents. Younger probably are too, if it’s just sitting there and behaving. 14y+ are generally capable of engaging with the talk at an adult level. But it’s not just that. Youth group is not an accurate mirror of adult church in a lot of ways. There is not nearly as much free food around in the adult church. Some, yes, but not every week. There’s not loads of time to just fellowship together, to just chit-chat. And there should be, and of course it’s a bad idea to deliberately deprive the youth of this, and a lot of it is related to the fact that teenagers have a lot more time for friendship in general, but it can still be a rude shock when they graduate from it. In adult church you get much less hours of focused pastoral attention, and you need to speak up when you need help because you’re just not going to be observed closely enough that someone else will raise the point with you. And you’re not going to get subsidised trips away with the gang twice a year either. So to me I think investing in all of these extra things isn’t very helpful in the long term, even if it does get more people through the door in the short term, because isn’t it just delaying the inevitable? But the people that you’d get without those extra things, are the people who will stay later on…

    Reply
  32. Amanda Dzimianski

    100%.
    My own less-than-popular opinions? Get rid of this idea of pastors for youth (and college people, and single people, and married people, and senior people, etc) and start building relationships between the actual people in the congregation. Stop segregating and start integrating. Unrealistic? Only if a church is built on events and authority structures, instead of relationships and becoming an integrated part of the entire Body of Christ. Simple church works. It’s just so far out of our comfort zones, or what we grew up believing church was actually about, that we dismiss it out of hand without being willing to reevaluate out traditions. So much of our problems in the church would literally disappear if we tried something other than top-down information dissemination.

    Reply
  33. Rachel C

    I was trying to read through all the comments, but my brain quit after about 2/3rds of them.
    My experience in youth group was interesting. In the church I attended and went to youth group at through age 17, most of that time, we had multiple youth leaders who were couples of various ages: twenties, thirties, and forties. For only a few of those years did we have actual paid youth pastors, and one of them was married with children (the children didn’t come to youth group though) in his late thirties–he was the only one who was hired from outside our church. The last one I was under was single, but he was also over thirty. Now, he happened to be my favorite because instead of being cool, he was educated. I was mature for being 15 and 16, and I loved the deep lessons he taught. Then, that youth group fell apart, and my parents insisted I go to a new one more because I needed the social environment rather than needing spiritual discipleship (not saying I didn’t need that also, but I had other sources for that). I would have just quit going, but then I wouldn’t have met my husband, so God knew what he was doing. Anyway, so the fall I was 16, I was in a new youth group where the first youth pastor in charge was a newlywed guy in his early twenties. I thought this was strange. He was all right, but I don’t consider him a mentor at all. Then, after he left for elsewhere, one of the older guys who had been coming to youth group as a member was put in charge. He had just married his wife, also a member of the youth group, and I think they were either 19 or 20. This, to me, was even more strange. Like why was this considered a good idea?
    Anyway, now as an adult, I admire how our current church does things. First of all, the youth group is from 6th-9th grades, and there are multiple volunteer leaders of all ages and sexes who work with them, and the current youth pastor was appointed from among those leaders recently. He’s married, in his thirties, with children. Now, where are the 10th-12th graders, you ask? They attend church services with the adults and are encouraged to volunteer in one of the ministries during one of the service times. Also, there are several small groups for high schoolers that meet during the week hosted by volunteer hosts. Usually by a married couple who are at least 30. There are other small groups that cater to singles who are still of college age. Others to young married couples. Others to older ones. Most small groups are groups of mixed age adults though. I think it’s a pretty good approach to it all.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That sounds amazing, Rachel! Really good plan. Thanks for providing your experience, too. It’s interesting to hear how you felt as a teen.

      Reply
  34. Eb

    I have a friend (single girl of 25) who leads a youth group. It is a small church so she has maybe 10 at each event. She does things like lock ins with them with herself as the only leader. I told her my concerns about this, but she doesn’t see the issue because other leaders live next door to the church if something happens. I’m worried because even just rumors could destroy her in a moment. Most of them are middle schoolers, but still. What would you say to her?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I would say that she may be a safe leader, but what if the next leader is not? Do you really want to set a precedent in the church where a leader is alone with the youth? Wouldn’t it be safer if there were some precautions in place? And then talk to the church about doing a plan to protect policy, too.

      Reply
  35. Karen

    This is so true. I was part of the Baptist Student Ministry at a large public university, and it was always such a shock when we went to our yearly retreats and the students from small Bible colleges were so high schoolish. The problems they would discuss, the clique issues they had to deal with, the general outlook on life was so childish. We were all there because we loved Jesus, but not everyone was learning to own their faith at those Bible colleges—they were just doing “the right thing.” It didn’t even prevent them from partying and having sex, though—I know that from friends’ experiences and, poignantly, a transfer student from Bible college who was relieved to find Christians on a public campus to be much more committed to their faith because they had to own it. This and my brother’s experiences at seminary dissuade me from wasting money on that kind of education. We also have a hard time listening to pastors who were home/Christian schooled, then went directly to Bible college, then went directly to seminary and who got married somewhere in that timeframe (though there is nothing wrong with any of those things taken individually) because they often have a lack of connection to the life experiences many or most lay people in their congregations are coming from. (Working or learning outside of a religious setting being a huge area of connection.). Great point and super relevant topic.

    Reply
    • Traci

      I was a BSM leadership kid at Community College and it was a fantastic experience! (This was after a gap year for overseas Bible School with Torchbearers.) I don’t understand how you can learn to love the lost as a Christian if you never ever have any relationships with people who don’t know Jesus.

      Reply
  36. Darius

    Spot on!!!! Amen! Bible school should not be a first choice straight out of high school. Pastors need life experience, and getting a job or going on to college/university before going to Bible school (or instead of Bible school) is definitely better.
    In fact, true Bible school should be almost unnecessary to young people who have grown up in a Bible believing (and practising) Christian home while attending a healthy, balanced, disciple-making church. It should be even less necessary to a young person who has received a Biblical homeschooling or attended a quality Christian school. Of course, rarely does all of this happen, so Bible school does have value, but I am with you 100% on this – we have the model all wrong.
    Thanks for writing this. The only question remaining is how do we get this message into the hearts and minds of churches and young people?
    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Darius, I have no idea how we change churches. I guess just share this far and wide and have the conversation? I think speaking up when our kids are approaching youth group age, too, and asking the church: “Is this really the best model for kids?” And then be super involved when your children are that age, because we need to know what’s going on. But keep speaking out. I do think that, given how receptive people were to this article, there’s a groundswell of agreement here, especially since so many generation Zs are leaving the church. That should be a signal that we’re doing something wrong.

      Reply
  37. Pam

    This is such a great article. As just a regular churchgoer I can tell you the pastors that have lived a life in the ‘bubble’ seem very mealy mouthed to me. As a person who spent a childhood afraid, hungry and just surviving, hearing sermons that tell you to ‘just trust’ or ‘just let God love you’ irritate me. Clearly this person has never ‘trusted’ and still gone hungry. And my experience with youth pastors as an adult watching them with my children…worthless. They only speak PC, are just fun and energetic and yea we read a verse. I think your comments are spot on. Why would a Bible college allow their students to pay with loans when debt is not biblical and these people are ‘called’. Why then doesn’t God provide? Where’s the ‘trust’ there? These colleges are no more than a business. No one who served Jesus in the Bible had a Bible degree.

    Reply
  38. Ben

    Oh hey, one church I was at had a 30 year old youth pastor secretly dating a teen. It was the senior pastor’s daughter, and he helped them hide it. It’s not just an age thing. It’s careless enablement of BAD BEHAVIOR.

    Reply
  39. Kyle

    As a 30 year youth pastor, I hear the points you’re making about
    1) wanting youth pastors to have life skills and to be able to work outside of just ministry. I think this is important to consider.
    2) to have a 10 year age gap to lessen sexual attraction between the youth and their self and to allow for maturing & learning life skills.

    I believe the youthfulness of being 22-23 really helps youth pastors to have the energy, passion, to connect and keep up with youth, to remain engaged in social media, and to not be so far removed from the trends & culture the youth are experiencing. Being 30 with 3 kids, I find it harder and harder to have energy for late night youth events & over-night youth retreats haha.

    I agree having life skills, knowing how to manage money, conflict, how to work outside of the bubble and make a living outside of ministry is important. I think a blanket statement excluding all youth pastors younger than 28 is a mistake. And the creativity, energy that a younger youth pastor brings is very valuable if coupled with maturity and learning important life skills.

    Reply
  40. M Z

    I’ve been in the evangelical church my entire life, all over the world, and every time you write about youth ministry, I feel like you’re writing from another planet with a lot of trees and no forest. More specifically, a subculture that you and your daughters experienced and your personal gripes. You didn’t talk about the fact that youth ministry has been used as a steppingstone to “real” adult ministry. That’s the incredibly twisted part I see about hiring Bible college students are who feel called to pastor and not to reaching youth but that’s a church ministry topic so I wouldn’t expect it to be your area of expertise. Railing against Bible college for those who feel called to ministry is really a separate topic than whom we should hire for youth ministry. And vocational ministry is a completely separate topic too. That section sounded like you were saying “Just don’t study the Bible formally. Heck, just don’t go into vocational ministry at all..” Generalizations like this reduced to prescriptions just aren’t helpful. There’s so many reasons why true structures can hire full-time or part-time youth ministers. Why someone might need to go to Bible college or not. Not to mention that our Bible colleges decided the same by any stretch! Many of the things you mentioned apply to Christian universities. But should we reduce the conversation about whether to go to Christian university to only whether you want to be hired in ministry? This article was the most confusing mix of random arguments. Given your area of expertise, I think it would’ve been much more effective to explain the nature of sexual attraction between young 20s and teenagers and how/when that stops being normal. I’m genuinely interested to learn as I make decisions about what ages to put together. Also, what about single adult men who might want to date someone in their congregation? There is also potential for an abuse dynamic there. Would you say it should always be prohibited? Only with minors because it’s also illegal? So many who argue “it’s not abuse” use the same reasoning (“it’s natural since his new wife wasn’t making him happy sexually”) so I’m wanting solid ground here because ministry to young singles is my area as a woman in ministry, and I’d like to learn from yours.

    Reply
    • Margot

      I’m from a completely different denomination, and everything she said made a lot of sense! She touched on a lot of different facets of a very big problem. You’re the one that sounds crabby, to be honest! And much of what you complain about she addresses in the comments.

      I was one of the teens she is talking about–I wanted depth and challenge, and got pizza parties and gum chewing contests. I felt utterly alone in my desire to learn something. When we brought on a teacher who began teaching through books of the Bible with a side of history and philosophy, the popular kids complained and shut it down. They ended up sleeping around and many are now divorced from their original partners. What was perhaps the worst element of our youth group was the mixing of the sacred with the profane–we would have “deep” worship experiences followed immediately by horribly ungodly hang-outs, as if there was no such thing as a holy God.

      Youth today need to know they aren’t the center of the universe. They need to learn how to serve others and respect the wisdom that comes with age. I’m not sure we even need youth groups, let alone hip youth pastors who “know the trends”. What about cell groups with all ages represented, where teens have to look people in the eye and engage with ideas outside their bubble? If there must be a youth group, teach something useful, like cooking for shut-ins, mowing lawns for single moms, learning CPR, reading the big ideas, etc.

      Reply

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