People expect a lot from pastors. If you’re a youth pastor, it might feel like parents and church members are putting every aspect of a your life under a microscope.
When your church looks at you, they want to see the qualities they hope their kids have someday. As frustrating as it can be at times, it’s absolutely important for churches to be careful about who they entrust with the spiritual upbringing of teens in their community—youth pastors play a vital role in shaping who kids become (Luke 6:40).
But pastors are still humans. You can’t control every aspect of your life—you can’t choose your family, change your past, or erase your flaws. You also can’t control people’s expectations for pastors—even if they’re completely unrealistic. You can, however, intentionally develop the reasonable qualities churches expect youth pastors to have. If the list below doesn’t sound like it’s describing you, that’s OK—I’ll provide some suggestions to help you work on them.
Here are 10 qualities churches want youth pastors to have:
1. Organizational skills
Nobody likes to feel like their time is being wasted. Especially not kids. If you lose their attention with sloppy transitions or too much “hang out” time, you may be setting your message up for failure and undermining future attempts at meaningful conversation. The moment a kid feels like you’re wasting their time, you’ve lost them.
Depending on the size of your church and the number of staff you have, you could be managing several very different groups of kids. Middle school. High school. College. Emerging adults? Pre-middle school? Student leaders? Small groups? Just staying on top of the sheer number of groups is a constant juggling act. And if you don’t separate those groups, you’ll constantly struggle to address their diverse needs.
Even if you have a team of people helping you stay on top of things, you might feel like you need a degree in Chaos Management to be a youth pastor.
But survival isn’t the only reason why strong organizational skills are important in a youth pastor. It’s also a quality most kids desperately need to see from the adults in their lives.
For most teenagers, procrastination is the norm. As long as they’re still getting things done, it’s not the end of the world (despite what their parents may tell you), but if they can’t stay organized either, they’re going to have a rocky transition to adulthood.
As a youth pastor, it’s incredibly challenging to stay organized. But if you can pull it off, you can pass on your secrets to kids as they struggle through major life transitions. You can even invite your student leaders to be part of the process.
If you struggle to stay organized, try experimenting with a variety of methods. Write everything down (use sticky notes if you have to). Set yourself reminders with the calendar in your phone. Delegate the tasks that don’t require your expertise—or better yet, use your expertise to train someone! As you try new methods, keep what helps, and ditch what doesn’t.
This is a no-brainer. Not only is it a biblical quality all Christians should strive for (Titus 2:7–8, Proverbs 11:3, 2 Corinthians 8:21), but integrity is one of the main things parents and church staff expect to see in a youth pastor.
Kids are learning from you all the time, not just when you’re preaching. If you can’t model what it means to follow Christ in your own life, how can parents trust you to teach their kids to follow him?
This isn’t about being perfect. In fact, to me, one of the clearest signs of integrity is how someone handles failure. Do they own up to their mistakes, or excuse them? A hypocritical youth pastor quickly erodes a teenager’s trust in the church, Christianity, the Bible, and God.
If integrity is something you struggle with, accountability can be a powerful tool to help you develop it. Find a mentor or godly friend you can be honest and vulnerable with. Be transparent about your flaws and mistakes when appropriate. Don’t let kids walk away believing you think you’re perfect.
3. People skills
Not everyone has to like you. But if you’re a jerk, it makes it pretty hard to be a pastor at all, let alone a youth pastor. You have to interact with parents, kids, church staff, members of the community, maybe even teachers or school staff. As you try to develop relationships with kids, every conversation has the potential to open or close doors for your ministry.
For many teens, one awkward conversation can make or break a relationship. If you don’t remember their names, your conversations feel scripted (or like a conversation with their parents), or you consistently make a kid the butt of your jokes, you’re going to have a hard time making disciples.
As you prayerfully approach your ministry, write down the names of people you expect to see again. Take notes from your conversations so you can build on them later. Pray for them by name. If you struggle with talking to people, create a list of thoughtful questions in advance, so you don’t feel lost after “How are you?”
Prayer and planning make an excellent substitute for natural charisma.
Regardless of how comfortable you are in front of people, churches will expect you to share the gospel with confidence. And for youth pastors, confidence is vital to break through the inevitable awkwardness of starting meaningful conversations with kids.
You don’t have to be confident about everything—that’s just annoying. But you’d better be confident about why you’re here. Even for an introvert like me, sometimes that little spark of confidence that God has called me to my role is all it takes to confidently carry out my duties. If you’re not confident God has called you, your youth pastor interviews might not last very long.
If you struggle with confidence, I have two recommendations, neither of which is guaranteed to transform you into a confident person:
2. Practice the things you’re not confident about.
Your role as a youth pastor is probably always going to keep you on your toes. So practice being on your toes, and ask God to give you the strength to stay there.
5. Bible knowledge
Being a youth pastor isn’t something you do until you know enough to become “a real pastor.” You’re a pastor, and you better know your Bible intimately.
To be an effective youth pastor, you’ll probably need to tie your Bible knowledge together with theological study. Depending on the church, you may or may not need a Master of Divinity degree. Without some kind of seminary training though, you might not even make it to the interview questions. A degree doesn’t inherently mean that you have a more intimate relationship with Jesus, or that you depend on the Bible to do your job, but it does show a church that you’ve had the necessary training to 1) process Scripture for yourself and 2) clearly articulate it with others.
Whether or not you need a seminary-level education is up to the church board, elders, or pastors who hire you. But even if you can’t afford the classes, some of the best teachers in the world are available to you through books. Read them. Consume podcasts and sermons like candy. At the very, very least, read your Bible regularly. And pray (James 1:5).
6. Cultural familiarity
Culture is constantly changing, but that’s not an excuse to ignore it. Even if you don’t have new kids regularly showing up at your youth group, the kids you already have are interacting with that ever-changing world on a daily basis. Being “in the world not of it” (John 17:16) doesn’t mean Christians are (or should be) in any way oblivious to the world.
Jesus directly engaged Jewish and Roman culture. If you want to show kids that the Word of God is living and active in their world, then bring the gospel to them where they’re at.
The next generation of pastors isn’t going to be just like you. They’re going to talk different than you. Dress different than you. They may even see the world differently than you. And that’s okay. Train the kids of today for the world of tomorrow by teaching them how to biblically be a part of culture.
This will either sound crazy or cliché, but try watching the shows your kids watch. Listen to the music they listen to. If you’re not comfortable with that, at least read about their culture. Learn about the world they live in before you try to tell them how to live in it.
Kids crave friendships with people who understand them. People who know what they’re going through and how it makes them feel. As a youth pastor, empathy is one of the greatest gifts you can offer a hurting kid. Whether they’re dealing with the heartbreak of their parents’ divorce, the hollow pain of a breakup, the pressure of school, or the frustrations of addiction, empathy helps you comfort teens when they need it most.
Empathy doesn’t mean you’ve been through exactly what they’re going through before. It means you have the emotional intelligence to feel what other people feel without having to experience it yourself.
My whole life, people have told me I was a good listener. It took me a long time to see the connection—to see what they really meant. I took the time to hear what they were saying and imagine what they were feeling before speaking. I might even go so far as to say that being a good listener is a prerequisite to having empathy. And that’s almost biblical (James 1:19). If you struggle with empathy, listening well is a good place to start.
They don’t hire kids to be youth pastors.
Having maturity doesn’t mean you have to be married and have three kids and a house and insurance. You can have all those things and still be incredibly immature (you might even know people who meet that criteria).
For youth pastors, it means that you put God first in everything. It means that you do what’s right even when it’s hard. And it means that you strike that perfect balance between relating to the world of kids and being an adult.
You don’t have to collect experiences and earn Maturity Badges to develop maturity. You don’t even have to have a really exciting testimony. If you feel like you’re just not mature enough to be a youth pastor, get a mentor. Heck, get two. Absorb the experience and wisdom of the people God has already put in your life.
As a youth pastor, you lead kids into a relationship with Christ. Your position in kids’ lives makes you the go-to person for kids to consult about their greatest milestones, achievements, and challenges.
Leadership is a given.
Probably, before you ever decided to become a youth pastor, someone told you that you were a leader. Maybe you identified it about yourself. Or maybe, you just really care about kids and you love Jesus and can’t imagine doing anything else with your life. Either way, leadership is a gift that constantly needs to be honed.
Hopefully, you already have leaders you admire. Pastors. Coaches. CEOs. Professors. Read their books. Listen to them talk about how they do what they do. Reflect on what you admire about them—it may even be some of the qualities on this list. The more you actively follow leaders you want to emulate, the easier it is to continue growing as a leader yourself.
I know I keep saying this, but get a mentor. Find a leader in your community you’d like to be more like, and start meeting with them regularly. Or, join (or build) a community of leaders who all want to grow together. When my brother joined Young Life staff, a local pastor invited him to a small group made up of local ministry leaders and pastors. In it, he learned directly from some of the best Christian leaders in his community.
10. Audience awareness
You can’t talk to kids the same way you talk to parents. And you can’t talk to parents the same way you talk to kids. As a youth pastor, you have to be fluent in kid-speak while still being capable of carrying out grown-up conversations with an adult.
To kids, it’s a big deal when an adult learns how to speak their language. The petri-dish of high school and junior high can produce bizarre and fascinating lingo. Understanding that lingo can open doors to more important conversations and ministry opportunities you might not get otherwise.
On the flipside, parents want to know they’re entrusting their kids to a safe, mature adult. Church members want to know their tithes are being used responsibly. Staff want to know that your ministry is still all about Jesus.
Your energy and sense of humor don’t need to have an on-off switch, but you do need be well-attuned to the art of dancing between the world of kids and the world of adults.
You’re re-entering adolescence without re-becoming an adolescent.
What other qualities do youth pastors need?
Are there any other qualities that have helped you succeed as a youth pastor? Or characteristics that your church is looking for? Maybe you have a great story of some unreasonable expectations you’ve run into. Tell us in the comments!