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Youth Ministry Myths

An interview with Princeton Seminary Professor Kenda Creasy Dean

Today we're chatting with Kenda Creasy Dean, Princeton Theological Seminary's Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture. Here this wise guide reveals who lasts in youth ministry, why a youth group might not be necessary, and the particular challenges women face in youth ministry. (If you want more, you can find the full interview here.)

Kenda, we'd love to hear about your calling to write and teach. How did you discern it? How has the call unfolded in your life?

I grew up thinking that youth ministry meant "youth who do ministry" and that adults came along to help us, not vice versa. The bad PR that still plagues youth ministry didn't dawn on me until much later. As a young adult, when I finally got the courage to start the path toward United Methodist ordination, my district superintendent was excited until he found out that I wanted to do youth ministry. "Oh," he said, deflated. "Well…you'll grow out of that."


I have a colleague who teases me about being an "accidental intellectual"—which is pretty close to the truth. I didn't set out to do anything besides youth ministry. My calling was, and is, to be a pastor, and to be a pastor means to tend a flock. Whether that flock is in a church or a classroom or through the media doesn't really matter to me; it's still ministry, you're still forming disciples, you're still preparing them, as best you can, to go into the world as Christ's envoys.

For some clergy, youth ministry has been the first job, almost a "stepping stone" on the way to ministry among adults. What's that about?

Obviously, it's an insult to everyone involved to consider youth ministry a "stepping stone" toward so-called "adult" ministries, especially since the big "secret" of youth ministry is that it's just ministry. Teenagers are people, after all, not a separate species. The needs of adolescents are simply the needs of human beings, in acute form.

Across professions, the more closely you work with children, the less prestige you have in your field. It's why pediatricians get paid less than surgeons; it's why preschool teachers get paid less than professors. People who work with children and youth in ministry often have fewer required credentials, smaller paychecks, and less prestige than people who work with adults. It's wrong, but it's real.

What on earth is "light bulb youth ministry"?

"Light bulb youth ministry," according to Mark DeVries, is when you install a bright light who attracts youth…until she or he burns out. Then you uninstall the old youth minister and install a new light bulb instead, and the cycle continues. So while the average tenure in youth ministry is longer than it used to be, burnout, stagnation, and exhaustion are still rampant. (They're rampant among all kinds of ministers, not just youth ministers).

People who "last" in youth ministry do so not because they're superstar youth ministers, but because their churches have provided the necessary infrastructure to allow youth ministry to become ministry—i.e., part of the mission of the whole church—rather than an extracurricular activity. (If you want a game-changing book on the subject, try Mark DeVries' Sustainable Youth Ministry—a book on youth ministry written for senior pastors and congregations, not just the youth team.)

You've said that a youth group is less necessary than we once thought, which feels nothing less than scandalous! Say more…

We are learning from sociologists that youth groups, while they do lots of important things for teenagers, have not proven to be reliable crucibles for forming faith. Far more important to adolescent faith development are families (especially parents), intergenerational congregations, and significant relationships between teenagers and faithful adults.

And you've seen this in your own family, haven't you?

A few years ago, our family decided to leave the large program church we had been attending—a painful decision that felt a lot like jumping off a cliff. It was a busy, successful, well-off church with something for everybody, including a large youth ministry program. But while the youth group had given our kids many opportunities, their faith—and our faith—stagnated.

To our surprise, our 15-year-old daughter, Shannon, was drawn to a tiny one-room church on the outskirts of town, a church Kevin and I had appreciated but had not considered joining because there was "nothing for teenagers." But we decided to jump—feet first—into this 25-member congregation with a leaky roof and a part-time student pastor where everybody, literally, knew your name. Shannon laughed about meeting the "youth group" (herself and one other student) for pizza after church. But within a year, Shannon had been confirmed, had preached twice, had participated in multiple mission projects, had served on the worship committee, had been commissioned by the congregation to go to Taize, and was as likely to share a prayer request during "joys and concerns" as any adult in the congregation. When an adult from our former church asked Shannon what her new church did with teenagers since there was no youth group, Shannon told her, "Well, they pretty much just treat us like everyone else."

Lesson learned.

Any particular challenges women face in youth ministry?

I think the greatest challenge for many women in youth ministry (which is increasingly becoming the greatest challenge for men as well) is the family-ministry balancing act. In part because we so easily let ministry morph into a "service" profession (meaning, we buy into the myth that "ministry exists to meet my—or your—needs"), we have created an impossible bind for ourselves. We can never meet the needs of the young people we love. What they need isn't us. What they need is Christ.

(Dig this? For the full interview, click here.)

Margot Starbuck is a frequent contributor and editorial advisor to Gifted for Leadership, an author, a speaker, and a volunteer among friends with disabilities. Her most recent book is Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously among Sinners and Saints. More at www.MargotStarbuck.com.

October14, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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