“How do you think you’ll be able to lead and shepherd our kids if you don’t have any?”
That question shocked me. It was during a meet-and-greet with parents from the student ministry program, and honestly I wasn’t prepared for it. What that parent didn’t know is that Elise and I want to be parents but have been dealing with infertility for a long time. That comment hurt and is still an active memory, but I understand that comment wasn’t focused on our infertility but an age-old myth about youth pastors.
Today’s myth is, “You must have your own kids to be an effective youth pastor/worker.”
The truth is that having kids of your own doesn’t make you a better pastor. Similarly, if a pastor has children who reject Jesus, that doesn’t make them ineffective because their kids turned away. Anyone can be an effective youth pastor if that is where God has called them. But I do believe that for those of us without our own children (and arguably even those with children) there are things we should be doing to help us grow and minister to the students under our care.
Be a student of culture.
Let’s be honest: culture can be confusing. And not just for us, but for our students as well. That means we need to be studying what culture is saying to our students. We should be listening to what they are listening to and dissecting what they are being told. Watch what they are watching and see the messages that are being passed to them. Observe advertising and what is being peddled as “in style.” Use all of these things to understand what is happening and what your students are being taught.
A couple of great resources for studying culture include CPYU, The Source 4 YM, and The Source 4 Parents. These websites offer different critiques and viewpoints of popular music, movies, and games, as well as helpful resources designed to help you succeed by knowing in what your students are engaged. An added bonus is they give you practical ways to minister to students and families as well.
Students today desire people who not only spend time with them, but listen to them. Students want to have leaders who care and love them enough to actually listen when others do not. And as you listen to them, you will learn more about them: what they like and don’t like, the new slang, the popular shows they are watching, what social media platform is most utilized, and the list goes on. Being an effective youth leader means you are listening and growing as you listen.
Engage with students.
This is huge in our line of work, and can be missed even if you do have kids of your own. In order to understand and minister to students, you must be engaged with them. Go to their plays, concerts, and sporting events. Support them in their endeavors. Visit them at their jobs. Being present with your students physically is huge, but it is not the only way you engage with them.
Be willing to engage with them at a spiritual and emotional level as well. Listen when they speak. Make eye contact with them. Ask follow up questions. Challenge them. Encourage them toward Jesus. And always keep your word. Doing this not only values them, it allows for you to connect with them at a deeper level. It also gives you insight and wisdom in how to walk with them during these formative years.
Be a life-long learner.
Things change constantly and we must be willing to grow and adapt as well. Gone are the days of the 90s youth pastor. Students now value genuine interpersonal relationships with people who truly love and care about them. That means we must be willing to change as the world changes. No, we do not change or flex on the value of God’s Word and the truth of it, but we do adapt to how we do ministry and engage with our students. That means that you must be willing to continue to learn and grow as an individual and a shepherd.
The easy way is to sit back and think you have it all figured out because you have done this for years on end, you have had a successful program, or you have the right speaking chops. But the truth is that once we have convinced ourselves we have it all figured out, we have actually become replaceable and irrelevant. And I would actually assert that if any of us were to get to that point, we should step away from ministry and reassess why we are in it. See, the truth behind those thoughts is that everything about the ministry and calling God has placed on your life is all something you have done. That is why we stop learning and growing. We must remember that everything we have is a gift from God and as such we should continue to seek after Him and His wisdom. This then empowers us to continue to minister and care for our people as we continue to grow and mature as we seek God’s direction. So be a life-long learner who seeks to grow and share their knowledge and heart for Jesus.
Stand in the gap.
To be an effective youth leader, regardless of whether or not you have kids of your own, you need to be willing to stand in the gap. Often that means responding to a text or message when it isn’t convenient. It means being willing to listen and administer care when others can’t or won’t. It means showing up when you say you will show up. Just because you may not have kids of your own doesn’t mean you cannot be someone who wades into the mess with your students. In many ways you are able to do so even more. So continue to be someone who is willing to walk through the hard, and care deeply for your students as you show them Jesus.
Not having kids doesn’t mean you are not qualified. Not having kids doesn’t mean you can’t serve students. Having kids is not a qualifier for ministry. And if we are perfectly honest, all the students under your care, past, present, and future, they are your kids. The kids you give your heart to, the kids you have cried with and for, and the kids who may never say thank you but have a relationship with Jesus because of your faithfulness. So if you are one of the many youth workers faithfully giving of themselves who do not have kids, be encouraged because God can, is, and will use you to minister to the youth of this generation and generations to come.