In the local church, no role is as misunderstood as that of the youth pastor—and understandably so. While other pastors tend to sport suits and attend an abundance of seemingly important meetings, youth pastors get to rock skinny jeans, provide counseling sessions over games of Ping-Pong, and count playing four hours of Xbox as a “successful day’s work.” It’s not exactly what most people have in mind when they think “clergy”—or, you know, “real job.”
But few people realize the unique hardships the horde of 20-something Bible college graduates heading up the youth department face as they shoulder the Sisyphean task of herding students through their teenage years spiritually (and physically) intact. Societal wisdom tells us that the leader of an organization—in this case, the senior pastor—should receive the greatest financial compensation. Before “amen”-ing in agreement, though, consider the particularly heavy cross of the humble youth pastor:
The Stench: Music festival Port-a-Potties? A county landfill set ablaze? Raw chicken breasts slowly rotting inside a residential central heating system? Yes, these things may reek, but they’re all like a freshly popped can of tennis balls compared to junior high students: the most olfactorily offensive beings in all of creation. Preteens either prance around unaware of the fact they are emitting the noxious stench of a recently exhumed corpse, or they drench their bodies in enough toxic Axe deodorant to murder a small horse. Idealistic youth staffers were promised the aroma of Christ, but instead they spend their free time exorcising the smell of sulfur from the church’s 15-passenger van.
Terrible Food: Breaking bread around a table is an invaluable aspect of church life and ministry. But the uncultured boors with whom youth pastors share their meals aren’t hankering for a heart-healthy, honey-glazed salmon and a glass of a full-bodied merlot with notes of ripe plum. When their parents hand them $10, they’re heading straight to Taco Bell, where they get to feast like kings, ordering a prodigious amount of food at a terrifyingly low cost. Being on a first-name basis with the pizza delivery boy comes with consequences: on average, life expectancy decreases three months for every year of youth ministry.
Lock-Ins: It takes a uniquely gifted (i.e., deranged) adult to willingly abandon the peaceful solitude of his own warm bed to spend a night playing flashlight tag with teenagers jacked up on a Mountain-Dew-and-Pixy-Stix cocktail. From a student’s perspective, lock-ins are opportunities to sneak away with a crush and lock lips—or worse, pray together—which means that along with ensuring that each child survives the night unharmed, the youth pastor is tasked with the unenviable job of thwarting potential midnight liaisons.
Adolescent Dating Drama: Discipling the next generation of saints means moonlighting as a dating counselor for some of the most romantically illiterate people alive: Christian teenagers. When it comes to amorous relationships, those committed to staying on the straight and narrow are haunted by just one question: how “far” is “too far”? Dwelling for too long on the ratio of conversations about grace to discussions about whether making out is a sin will drive even the most resilient youth worker to beg God to remove her cup of suffering.
Offensive Questions: Senior pastors are generally afforded a certain level of respect and dignity. Youth pastors, however, often find themselves on the receiving end of well-meaning yet soul-crushing inquiries. After hours of hanging out with students, studying for a talk, and fielding phone calls from helicopter parents, the human spirit can withstand hearing “So what do you even do all day?” or “Do you ever plan on becoming a real pastor?” only so many times before it reaches a breaking point. But all it takes is one student declaring that she, too, wants to let her prospective finance degree gather dust and work at a church instead to remind the lowly youth pastor why he got into this line of work in the first place.
And hey, wearing Star Wars T-shirts to board meetings is a pretty great perk.