I have essentially served in three roles over the last 20 years: student pastor, executive pastor, and now Vice President at LifeWay. In my role as executive pastor and as the leader of the Church Resources Division at LifeWay, I have interacted daily with student ministry leaders. In other words, student ministry has always been something that matters a lot to me. I love and believe in student ministry because of the impact a healthy student ministry has on students, families, schools, a local community, the world, and ultimately eternity.
As thrilling as student ministry is, student ministry can be equally challenging. Serving as a student ministry leader can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. Here are three reasons why:
1) A student ministry leader lives multiple schedules
When I first entered student ministry, a wise mentor advised that I spend 1/3 of my time with students, 1/3 of my time with parents, and 1/3 of my time with volunteer leaders. The health of the student ministry cannot ride on a student pastor’s ability to connect directly and personally to every student; the leader must invest in other leaders who invest in students.
Serving and meeting with students, leaders, and parents is very challenging. To meet with leaders frequently, a student ministry leader needs to be on “their schedule.” This often means breakfast meetings and coffee appointments. But the student ministry leader is also on “the schedule of the students”—attending games, other school activities, and offering student ministry programs and events the students can attend. There is also the schedule of the “parents,” which is often after their work hours. An effective incarnational student ministry leader is stepping into multiple schedules of multiple groups of people. At best, this is challenging. At worst, it can be exhausting.
2) A student ministry leader serves a highly connected people
When I was a student pastor in my young twenties, I had a pager. I really did. A pager! I promise I kept it in my pocket and didn’t wear it on my belt. I gave the students a code sheet they could use for specific prayer requests, and each student had a unique ID number. So if you were Betsy (ID 022) and wanted me to pray for a friend you were sharing the gospel with, you could send me your unique ID followed by the appropriate code (code 7 for sharing the gospel) with a few spaces in between. I was on the leading edge of all student ministry leaders.
My connection, however, pales in comparison to the connectedness student ministry leaders face today. While great opportunities exist, the constant connection can be draining on leaders. Some expect them to “always be on, always available.” And if a leader attempts to fulfill that unhealthy expectation, exhaustion and burnout can be expected as well.
3) A student ministry leader serves a challenging group of people
Student ministry is challenging, in part, because adolescence is a challenging time. I mean, how many of us would really love to live middle school over again? Adolescent means to “grow up.” Thus, student ministry leaders are serving students who are constantly changing. Social scientists and psychologists for decades have chronicled the social, cognitive, and physical changes that take place during the teenage years. They are no longer children but not yet adults. They are, as Walt Mueller has said, “adults trying to happen.”
Combine the challenge of adolescence with a generation that is less and less Christian and more and more skeptical of essentials in the Christian faith (exclusivity of Christ, objective truth, etc.) and student ministry is a tough field. The harvest is great, but the field is a tough one.
All this to say, those who serve in student ministry are heroes. They need our prayers, our encouragement, and our support. Likely the students won’t thank them directly (a house being rolled with toilet paper and a yard being forked doesn’t really feel like thanks). Most of the “thanks” from the students will come later—when the faith that was handed to them is bearing fruit, when they remember something they learned, when they are making an impact in the world and they trace their journey back to their student ministry days.
Go hug your student ministry leader today.