Worst Youth Pastor Ever

I used to think I was the worst youth pastor ever.

the worst youth pastor ever

When I was a young youth worker, fresh out of college, a small church took a chance and hired me as their Director of Youth Ministry. But about two years into the job, I started to feel burnout.

I began to feel like I just wasn’t doing a good job. Though I tried my darnedest, the young people at my church just weren’t developing the way I wanted them to. They didn’t really know a lot about the Bible, they weren’t into doing their “morning devotionals,” and no form of bribery could coerce them into praying out loud. It seemed like all the youth pastors at other churches had young people in their groups who had the Bible memorized and sang Hillsong music in the shower.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches. I figured it was mostly my fault. If I was a better youth pastor, I’d be influencing these kids to become better Christians. So, under the weight of my own standards and under the pressure of what I thought was the “goal” of youth ministry, I was being worn down.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches.

When I was beginning to question my calling to youth ministry, I picked up a book called Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root. I can distinctly remember how deeply Root’s story resonated with me.

He wrote of being a youth worker reared in a tradition that saw influence as the end-goal of youth ministry, desperately trying to influence young people toward participation in the church and its faith. “I didn’t blink twice at the expectation,” Root writes, “…[but] I was clearly failing to get them to commit themselves to the importance of the church and (more significantly) the faith” (p. 14).

What’s the Point?

Root’s big question in the book turned out to be my question: “What is the point of our relationships with kids?”

I’d been trained and educated to believe that the point of relational youth ministry is to influence young people, to develop Christian maturity in them, to make them into better Christians. I thought success in youth ministry was measured by how well young people know the bible, how eager they are to pray, how enthusiastically they engage in evangelism.  In other words, I thought the point of youth ministry was to influence, to get something out of young people. But through deep theological reflection, Root opened a new possibility. Taking his cues from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root suggests that the point of a relationship… is the relationship.

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry. Grounding relational ministry in the incarnation itself, Root suggests that

“…a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death… In this perspective salvation is not being convinced of a certain perspective, but coming to recognize that we have been deeply loved and so are given the power to live as children of God… This means relational youth ministry is not about convincing adolescents by influencing them; rather, it is about loving them by being with them in the messiness of their lives. It is about suffering with them.” (p. 41)

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry.

A Weight Lifted from my Shoulders

As I read these words in my burnout, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered Eric, a young man who was tossed about in the foster system, separated from his sister who’d been adopted without him.

I remembered Samantha, a seventh grader who was cutting and struggling with suicidal thoughts.

I remembered Chris, a bright and clean high school senior who got all the best grades but suffered the stress of believing his life’s value was in what he could achieve.

I remembered Harper, a high school sophomore who came out to me that same summer but confessed she could not come out to her conservative parents for fear that they would reject her.

I remembered all the suffering of the young people in my group. I remembered the hard questions, temptations, and fears they faced. And I remembered all the times I’d sat with them in those questions, temptations, and fears. I remembered honest conversations we’d had, stories I’d been told, and I began to imagine a new “goal” for my ministry.

Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor was not my ability to create mature Christians but my patience and willingness to sit, to “place-share,” with young people just as they are, in “the messiness of their lives.” Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor wasn’t the change I could conjure, but the love that I could give.

All of a sudden, I began to think that, just maybe, I could keep going. Perhaps I wasn’t the worst youth pastor ever.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

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