Where Have All the Student Pastors Gone?

March 4, 2019

I received yet another inquiry today: “Do you have any recommendations for a student minister? We just can’t seem to find one. We’ve been looking for over six months.”

For several years, I would get similar inquiries about worship leaders or worship pastors. Today, there seems to be a dearth of both worship pastors and student pastors. So, where have all the student pastors gone? I asked some key leaders I trust on this issue. Here are their and my perspectives:

  • A number of young leaders decided to plant a church rather than enter into or continue in youth ministry. Youth ministry traditionally has been a field dominated by young males. Many of these young males began narrowing their vocational choices to student ministry or church planting. A large number decided to plant churches. On the one hand, that’s a really good development. We definitely need more church planters. On the other hand, many churches are now pleading for student pastors.
  • Fewer schools are offering training in student ministry. It’s a chicken or egg question. Are fewer schools offering this training and, as a consequence, fewer young people are becoming student pastors? Or, are fewer young people seeking the training and, thus, the schools are closing the programs because of diminished demand? Either way, there are fewer trained youth ministers.
  • It is becoming increasingly common for many churches to call a student pastor from their own congregations. These youth ministers then do not always seek training from a college or seminary and, thus, the schools often close their programs. Smaller churches typically do not have the pool of internal candidates the larger churches do. And these churches are among the most frustrated in their search for student pastors.
  • Some churches have eliminated the position of student pastor and replaced it with a family pastor position. Family pastors often have much broader roles than ministering to middle school and/or high school students. Thus, these churches have lost a specific focus on student ministry for adolescents.
  • Fewer middle school and high school students attend church. The Gen Z generation has fewer in church than previous generations. This development is not new. It began with both Gen X and the Millennials. But the trend continues unabated. Fewer students means a diminished need for student pastors.

A number of churches that contact me believe a good student pastor is the magic bullet solution to help grow their churches and make them younger. If a church is in decline and growing older, it is unlikely that one person can reverse those trends. The church as a whole must change first and follow in greater obedience to the Great Commission.

I am curious. Are you seeing this same dearth of student pastors? Have you been looking for one for your church unsuccessfully? I would love to hear your story on this topic. Let me hear from you.

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116 Comments

  • I’m the wife of a 30+ year Youth Pastor. We have served at small, large, and mega churches. I echo the comments I’ve read here and all are reasons that Youth Pastors are becoming hard to find. We experienced the low pay, pressure, and unrealistic expectations at 22 years old in ministry and now feel the utmost discrimination of ageism along with everything else at 50 years old. I would add to this conversation that women who love men in youth ministry sacrifice more than many people know. Of the many youth pastors’ wives I know, they all express the same discouragements: loneliness, lack of time they spend with their spouse because of the demands of youth ministry, the financial poverty that they constantly deal with, the expectation that they came as a package deal in ministry, and the fear of raising their children within the judgmental arms of the church. Most women will only tolerate so much before they just say “no more” forcing their husbands into better paying roles or worse yet, out of ministry all together.

    Some additional thoughts…

    When our own son expressed that he was exploring a call to student ministry, what should have brought us joy, shot terror into our souls. I’m ashamed to say that we actively prayed that God would not call him into this lifestyle of sacrifice.

    Of course, mixed with all the struggle is seeing the lives of families changed, students serving the Lord with their whole hearts into adulthood, youth volunteers who caught the vision of how they could live on mission in the life of a student and change their lives for eternity. That’s what keeps us going despite all the negative, the discrimination, the poverty, the lack of respect…

    However, this does not absolve the church or its leadership of its responsibility to mentor, lead, and take care of the shepherds that are called to their congregations – no matter what age group they serve.

    The church too often looks at the outward appearance and not at the heart. This goes for age, education, “cool” factor, and group size. As we experience the post post modern age of student ministry in the US, the church can’t afford to turn away God’s called pastors based on outward appearances and they will have to understand that student ministry will no longer look the way it has for the last 40 years. Kids can get a better “show” in any forum than they can at church. What church or pastor is brave enough to radically change their expectations of student ministry? What church or pastor is willing to try something drastically new that may cause their numbers to shrink before it grows? What church or pastor is willing to take a chance on a youth pastor that doesn’t fit their limited demographic of what someone who can reach youth and relate to adults should look like?

    It’s time to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our students (and parents) are committing suicide and living hopeless lives in greater numbers than ever before. Let’s not be 20 years behind on this one Church! It will cost us the generation.

  • I agree with you! I am been serving at this church for over two years, and it is getting hard for me right now financially, with my house payement, students loans and medical insuracne. I am trying to figure waht my next move is. I love youth minstry I have been in ministry now for 10 years and most of that time has been in youth ministry.

  • I’m in my eighth year of professional youth ministry. Some observations as a millennial in this role who has spent a lot of time talking to a lot of youth leaders:

    1. Discipleship and traditional youth group don’t necessarily seem to fit together. We’re so focused on getting all the youth in the same room together, even though discipling smaller groups with multiple volunteers makes more sense for being able to actually mentor. Yet since the expectation is “how big is your weeknight gathering”, parents/leadership look for that and measure success by that.

    2. Traditional youth ministry in my context is Sunday worship, Sunday Bible Study, and a weekly gathering, plus at least one “fun event” or “service event” a month. That’s a time commitment even most of their parents aren’t making. We’re asking them to live out what they aren’t seeing modeled, in a culture busier than ever with more and more demands for their time.

    3. Lawnmower parenting. Being micromanaged by parents who want you to specialize everything for their individual kid, or assume their kids are flawless, and then having those parents make you miserable by undermining you if you don’t give them their way.

    4. Expectations the church will do the spiritual teaching, when the most committed kid still gets far more time in a school teaching secular values than at church. Kids aren’t necessarily seeing faith modeled at home in day-to-day life, and then parents/churches are surprised and/or blame the youth leader when kids stray from faith.

  • I’m a little late to the game on this one. As a 3rd generation Children’s Pastor. What I have seen around church is the lack of connection. When I was a kid I was around pastors and leaders helping out at the church all the time. Not only me, but my friends, would get dropped off and we would help around the church as elementary students. All of us are in ministry now because we were mentored at church, by leadership. I knew exactly what I was getting into because I had the experience.
    I have also found that without relationship people are scared to take a risk on bringing someone in. There are people all over the place looking to fill these positions. But, my generation and the one behind mine don’t want to fake it. They don’t want to be told what or how to do the job. There are both good and bad things about this, but it’s a true statement. They are looking for a place to allow them to do what God called them to do, not be micromanaged. I believe this causes more turnover than anything else.
    Sorry if that sounded harsh, but let me encourage you! Ask the tough questions and talk to everyone who applies for the job. God doesn’t want your church to lack the staff or the right people. He is in the growing business and knows what you need. Don’t be scared to make a mistake, we all do that anyway! Ask directly for what you are looking for and when that person comes allow them to do what they have been called to do. You can help steer, but don’t take control away. I was always told, when you allow someone to have the job, even a volunteer, let them be themselves. They can’t be you and you can’t be them. Help them hear God and give them clear direction. Then let them take the rope and lead the way.
    I am so thankful this is even a conversation on here! God bless you all!

  • Edwin Stanley says on

    My problem is the exact opposite. There may be churches looking for a student pastor, but I’m a student pastor looking for a full time position. I can’t seem to get an interview. I know God is in control. I’m my questioning that. I have the education, the years of experience, a confirmed calling, and I’m going no where. If the few interviews I’ve had, the salary and benefits have been so low that even if I wanted to say yes, I couldn’t for my families sake. I don’t just believe it’s just unrealistic salary and benefits to go along with the change in culture, but that it’s also unrealistic expectations that are set before they even begin their candidate search. I realize you can’t just hire anybody, but at the same time you can’t just exclude someone because they might not have a some obscure exact thing you want. There are things a youth pastor should always have ability wise, and not every person is a candidate or fit for every church, but using that to hide behind has become a problem for outdated salary packages, search committees, and qualifications that don’t always measure up.

  • I have been in Student Ministry for 19 years. I have seen so many changes over my time as a Student Minister. My passion has been to serve in churches that are smaller and can’t afford a full-time student minister. I have seen so many men in ministry that are just lazy and do not want to work, so I refused to be that person. My passion has been to move into churches that either did not have a student ministry, or their student ministry was weak and needed revitlilized. I have seen God do some amazing things, but I now feel that this season is coming to an end and God has given me clarity to shift into a full-time position. I have an undergrad degree in Religion, and I have completed half of the Mdiv program. The problem I am having is that I get overlooked because I do not have much full-time experience. I only followed God’s direction, and I have seen some amazing moments in student ministry. I could go on and on about how much God has done. I have a HUGE passion for student ministry, but it just seems to me that churches only look for candidates that have a long list of full time churches on their resume. There are great men of God out there, that are called to student ministry, that connect with students, and they have an incredible gift to communicate the message to students that are getting overlooked.

  • I am surprised to nobody here has focused on the dearth of leadership in the churches. These are typically young men, who themselves need to be led. Too many churches hire a youth pastor, pay him barely a living wage, and then put him on auto-pilot. If youth pastors were having a good experience, being mentored and led, I believe more of them would stay in their roles. I know of youth pastors who have been youth pastors for their entire ministry career. Others might do the same if they were fairly paid, well led, and could see their ministry calling fulfilled in student ministry.

  • I am in my 30th year of student ministry, with missions/recreation/security, etc- being the other duties as assigned. I had a man surveying adjoining property ask me if I was the senior pastor at the church. I told him i was the youth pastor. He said, “well, I guess you have to start somewhere”. LOL. I’ll finish about where I began. If i were a public school teacher, the perception would be totally different. It makes me laugh every time I tell the story.
    Things are far different now than 30 years ago. I would urge churches to look for God’s man, not a rock star or athlete. When you get God’s guy, invest in him. Allow for rest. Allow for a sabbatical every 5 years. Senior pastor should make him an important part of his team- mentor and invest and communicate. Youth guy should honor, respect, and communicate as well.

  • Old Bill says on

    I’ve been a youth pastor for 47 years now, and I’m 66. I agree with a lot of what is written here and also a lot of what Dr. Rainer has said. I actually think we are seeing the decline of the Youth Minister and the whole concept of the youth group. There are a lot of reasons. There is a group out there, I won’t mention names, but they believe (wrongly) that youth ministry is not Biblical. They think the parents need to disciple their teens, so why hire a youth pastor. The problem with that is the youth with lost parents, or no real parents. They have no chance. Further complicating the situation is a fear of law suits due to evil or reckless behavior by the youth pastor, usually the young, hip, youth pastor. Some churches just don’t want to risk it. Furthermore, the vast, vast majority of churches, wrongly will not even consider someone in his 60’s as youth pastor. Most, won’t even consider someone in his 50’s. So, you have many of my youth pastor friends, old guys who are former youth pastors, who were shown the door due to age, and they are without a job, and the young guys are irresponsible or maybe they really would rather plant a church. So, yeah you have a problem. And I don’t think it will change any time soon. However, those young guys can rock some skinny jeans so go hire them, for a year or two, until they sleep with a youth or start their own church.

  • Thom,
    I have served in youth ministry for the past 25 years. The last 20 has been in the area of interim student ministry. The reason for the opportunities with interim youth ministry has been the constant moving of youth pastors using youth ministry as a stepping stone to pastoring. Here is some statistics: out of the 10 churches I have served at 7 churches had the pastor leave while I was on staff. 6 of those were as an interim. I was at one church for 4 years as an interim where as the church had a pastor- then he left- therefor student ministry search stopped and pastor search began. Two other churches the interim youth ministry lasted 3 years each. I have seen some trends over this time and should had wrote a book a long time ago.

    Church has changed moving away from Wednesday night services and even Sunday night services so lack of a need for a full time youth pastor is gone. The second is that with the format that I just mentioned before has youth pastors serving as pastors of small congregations called youth who never participate as part of a normal congregation.

    Youth ministry has also become so event driven that basically anyone can run the student ministry program. Sign up for Summer Fuge camp that is package ready and then you find a student life event for the winter. Create a praise band and go over some of Gods Word-and there you have it-Student Ministry101. It is really a shame how many pastors do not long to mentor these young people. I will admit Interim Student Ministry is one of the best forms of job security ever.

    Finally, so many young popular youth speakers have propelled youth pastors into thinking they could be the next DavidPlatt or DavidNasser.

  • I have served in youth ministry for the past 25 years. The last 20 has been in the area of interim student ministry. The reason for the opportunities with interim youth ministry has been the constant moving of youth pastors using youth ministry as a stepping stone to pastoring. Here is some statistics: out of the 10 churches I have served at 7 churches had the pastor leave while I was on staff. 6 of those were as an interim. I was at one church for 4 years as an interim where as the church had a pastor- then he left- therefor student ministry search stopped and pastor search began. Two other churches the interim youth ministry lasted 3 years each. I have seen some trends over this time and should had wrote a book a long time ago.

    Church has changed moving away from Wednesday night services and even Sunday night services so lack of a need for a full time youth pastor is gone. The second is that with the format that I just mentioned before has youth pastors serving as pastors of small congregations called youth who never participate as part of a normal congregation.

    Youth ministry has also become so event driven that basically anyone can run the student ministry program. Sign up for Summer Fuge camp that is package ready and then you find a student life event for the winter. Create a praise band and go over some of Gods Word-and there you have it-Student Ministry101. It is really a shame how many pastors do not long to mentor these young people. I will admit Interim Student Ministry is one of the best forms of job security ever.

    Finally, so many young popular youth speakers have propelled youth pastors into thinking they could be the next DavidPlatt or DavidNasser.

  • To tell you the truth Tom,
    I am seeing a similar thing in kids ministry.
    But it’s a twofold issue.
    #1 churches are more unwilling to invest in education of their staff. A staff member goes off to Bible college and often leaves their church for another church. But there is a reason this happens
    #2 money
    People are planting churches and becoming senior pastors, leaving youth & children’s ministry because they can’t afford to save for retirement & take care of their own kids after 10-20 years of kids or youth ministry. Their churches are rarely willing to pay them enough to buy a home.
    They can’t expand their family, pay into retirement or save on an associate salary. And churches simply are not willing to pay for experience they would rather risk someone presenting shallow theology or messed up inexperienced people planning their ministries rather than pay for the experience someone with15-20 years of experience brings. So the youth pastor leaves.
    Also new churches have very corporate models and strict “pay bands” if that they are willing to pay.
    I know a friend who interviewed at a 7,000 person church that wanted to pay him 40k a year to oversee 600 youth in the youth group, and raise up 150 leaders.
    I made more at an 800 person church. The fact if the matter is churches have got to be willing to understand they have to adjust their salary ecpectations. Otherwise youth pastors will leave & go plant a church because their own biological kids will need drivers ed, a car, & braced & they think they can do ministry and as senior pastor of a small church plant still, make more than they were making at that 7,000 person church.
    And where did the youth workers go? That’s where.
    Bible schools are also cutting their own throat at how expensive they have become.
    But that’s a whole other conversation.

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