Children and youth are not just the future of the church; they are an integral part of its present. Youth ministry, then, is an integral part of the Christian call to spread Christ’s love.
Christians who feel the special call of youth ministry have an incredible opportunity to serve as a guide, mentor, and example to young people during the formative years of their lives. It’s a call to come alongside kids who are struggling or headed in the wrong direction, help them grapple with questions of faith, and model Christ-centered service and leadership for tomorrow’s servant leaders.
It’s not an easy job. Becoming a youth pastor and succeeding in youth ministry requires deep knowledge of both biblical theology and human development, plus the practical skills and emotional fortitude needed to effectively engage with young people. For those with a real heart for youth, though, it’s an incredible opportunity to both shape the lives of others and grow in your own relationship with Christ.
What’s in a youth pastor’s job description?
Youth pastors work to lead children and teens in youth ministry, usually in churches or sometimes in para-church organizations.
The youth pastor’s role has a large teaching component, since, by definition, they minister to people who are still near the beginning of their faith journey and learning more about Scripture and Christian principles. The youth pastor is usually responsible for curriculum design and implementation, teaching Bible study and other classes for children and teens, and answering the (many) questions that young people have.
However, the role of a youth minister goes far beyond teaching classes and organizing events. An effective youth pastor is called to support, encourage, and lead students in all parts of their lives. Some responsibilities may include attending school and community events, building relationships with parents, teachers, school administrators, coaches, and other adults who are involved in the lives of youth, and finding opportunities for the youth to participate in the other ministries of the church in roles that fit their age and level of spiritual maturity.
Ultimately, a youth pastor must minister to both a youth group as a whole and the individual children and teens within it. That means planning and organizing events for the entire youth group, engaging volunteers from the church community to help with youth-focused events, and providing a strong example of Christian discipleship to the youth. It also means a great deal of individual counseling and one-on-one discipleship as young people navigate the challenges of adolescence and grow in their faith.
Youth pastors are pastors, which means they’re often on the leadership team and involved in the broader day-to-day administration of the churches where they serve. They attend staff meetings, weigh in on the budget, participate in church discipline, and so on. Youth ministers tend to be involved in the church’s broader community outreach strategy and social media presence as it overlaps with the nature of youth ministry. While not typically regular Sunday preachers, they may be required to fill the pulpit from time to time when the lead pastor is away or when the message to the adults is particularly connected to youth ministry.
Bridging the “generation gap” in ministry
Successful youth ministers know how to meet young people where they are and present the Gospel in a manner that resonates with today’s kids. The central narrative of Scripture is timeless. The applications are myriad and need to be tailored to the audience, and that requires a teacher who understands and intentionally engages with the audience.
That doesn’t necessarily mean youth pastors have to be young themselves. People of all ages can succeed in youth ministry. It does mean that in addition to being grounded in Christian principles, you need to be aware of current cultural trends and issues. An effective youth pastor has a sense of what the kids in their youth ministry are engaging with in school, watching online, following on social media, and discussing with their friends — and can effectively apply Scripture to guide them through those issues.
Being a youth pastor requires a particularly empathetic mindset because things that may not seem important to an adult can mean the world to a teenager. When counseling a teen who is upset over a bad grade or the end of a short-lived relationship, providing that broader adult perspective can be helpful, but it can also come across as dismissive. A youth pastor who understands the kids they work with, including their struggles, their family situations, and their perspective on the world, can navigate those situations well.
How much does a youth pastor get paid?
A career in youth ministry may be unique in many ways, but it’s still a job, and people who do that job still need to make a living.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for clergy in the United States is $51,940. That is the average for all clergy, not specifically youth pastors; the BLS does not report salary information for different types of ministry. Youth pastor salaries can vary significantly depending on their ministry role and level of experience.
Perhaps the biggest driver of youth pastor salaries is the size of the congregation. A survey published in “Group” magazine found that in the smallest churches, those with less than 50 members, youth ministers were paid an average of about $10,500 per year. In churches with 50-100 members, the average is about $20,000 per year. These salaries are low because in a church of less than 100 members, the youth pastor is usually a part-time role, often for someone who also works a secular job or has other responsibilities such as childcare outside the church, or bundled together with other ministry roles.
The average salary increases to about $41,000 in churches with 250 or more members; that is, roughly the size where a church often has multiple full-time pastors including a full-time youth pastor. In the largest churches, with over 2,500 members, youth pastors average nearly $50,000 per year.
Again, these are average salaries in a field where compensation can vary widely. A youth pastor’s salary may depend on denomination, region, level of education, and level of experience. An effective and highly qualified youth pastor can find opportunities to earn a good living and grow in both their ministry and their career.
Steps to become a youth pastor
If you’re not sure how to become a youth pastor, it’s always good to talk to someone in your church or denomination who is already involved in youth ministry, since the process does vary from denomination to denomination. In general, you will need to complete the following three steps.
Earn your degree in youth ministry
Becoming a youth pastor typically requires at least an associate degree in theology, biblical studies, youth ministry, or similar, with a bachelor’s degree preferred by most churches. Earning your degree will give you a foundation in not only biblical theology but also the practical knowledge needed for youth ministry, such as human development, communication, and leadership skills.
While you don’t need a degree specifically in youth ministry to become a youth pastor, the more closely your education matches your calling, the better. Youth ministry requires specialized skills, and those skills are best honed in a specialized program. Moreover, if you apply for a youth pastor position with a more general ministry or theology degree, the church where you’re applying may wonder if youth ministry is truly your goal or if you’re just looking for a stepping stone to a different ministry position. A degree in youth ministry or youth and family ministry drives home the point that your passion is specifically for students and youth ministry.
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Gain hands-on ministry experience
While becoming a youth pastor requires education and, in some denominations, ordination, any Christian, regardless of their credentials, can take a critical step toward this career: volunteering in a youth ministry. By working with a current youth pastor (or whoever fills that role in your church), you will gain valuable experience working with youth and learn more about the dynamics and logistics of a youth ministry.
Just as importantly, volunteering right away will help to keep your passion for youth alive and give you a stronger sense of whether youth ministry is the right fit. Youth ministry is a calling, not just a vocation, and the only way to explore and confirm that calling is by getting involved on the ground.
Finally, most churches prefer candidates who have a degree and hands-on youth ministry experience to those who just have a degree. The best option for your career prospects is to get your experience and your education concurrently.
Get ordained (depending on your denomination)
Ordination requirements for youth pastors and ministers vary depending on your denomination; overall, roughly half of full-time youth pastors are ordained. Likewise, the process to become an ordained pastor or minister is specific to your denomination. Some denominations will ordain pastors with only an undergraduate degree, while others require a master’s or seminary degree.
Usually, ordination requires that you complete a formal candidacy process in which your spiritual and personal qualifications for ministry are assessed, in addition to earning a degree in theology or ministry. The best option is to speak with the pastor or minister at your church, or research the ordination process on your denomination’s website.
What it takes to change lives in youth ministry
Again, youth ministry requires a particular mindset and set of spiritual gifts that need to be grown and nurtured. The key traits of a youth minister include:
Deep knowledge of Scripture
Some may think of youth ministry as a “starter” ministry role that would only require fairly basic knowledge of the Bible and Christian teaching. That’s a myth. The youth pastor needs deep and intimate knowledge of the Bible as much as any other pastor, and perhaps even more so.
Middle and high school students ask a lot of questions, and those questions are not just basic clarifications of theology and doctrine. A youth minister needs to be prepared to field off-the-wall questions and respond to myriad doubts. Practically speaking, that means the ability to recall any point of doctrine or theology at a moment’s notice, not just the topic prepared for the day’s Bible lesson.
In short, youth pastors need to think on their feet, handle challenges to their own theology, and effectively point students to Christ no matter where their curious (and contrarian) minds take them. With a strong enough foundation and hands-on ministry experience, you’ll be well-equipped to apply Scripture to any situation, both in youth ministry and in Christian life in general.
Hand-in-hand with that deep knowledge of Scripture is the ability to explain it effectively to the youth. An effective youth minister can use illustrations that are relevant to youth culture and make the Bible relatable through dynamic teaching, coaching, and mentoring.
Organizational and management skills
Running a youth ministry isn’t just spiritual work; it involves a great deal of administrative work. The youth pastor has to plan events, acquire supplies, communicate with students and parents, and coordinate with the church’s other ministries to ensure availability of limited space and resources.
As in many ministry positions, part of a youth pastor’s job is often managing volunteers who serve in the youth ministry. Delegating tasks to volunteers can help make the youth pastor’s workload more manageable, but it’s also necessary to vet those volunteers, give them clear instruction and guidance, and provide feedback on their work with the youth. Likewise, youth pastors can and should look for opportunities for young people to serve in the church’s other ministries, such as greeting, hospitality, audio/visual, setup and cleanup, community outreach, and so on.
Administration isn’t the most glamorous part of a youth pastor’s work, but those skills can make a massive difference. When the entire youth ministry team is united in a single mission and vision within the broader vision of the church, adolescents have tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth. Moreover, organized and creative youth ministers look at service as another way to bring students into the youth ministry in the first place. Sometimes, inviting a teen to volunteer at a church event in the community is easier than getting them to attend on Sunday morning.
Creativity and flexibility
Youth pastors minister to students who spend well over 30 hours per week in the classroom. The last thing most kids want is yet another lecture. Plus, it’s not healthy for spiritual development if young people look at church as just another class to take or assignment to complete.
As such, creativity is a critical skill for youth ministers. They need to think outside the box and come up with off-the-wall ideas to make Christian teaching engaging for students — without compromising the truth or gravity of the teaching itself. A great youth pastor is thoughtful, flexible, and intentional, constantly assessing what works and what doesn’t and adjusting their teaching style on the fly to meet the needs of the youth in their current group.
Going hand-in-hand with that creativity is humility and the ability to handle feedback from parents, volunteers, the lead pastor or other church leadership, and of course, the youth themselves. Trying new ideas inevitably means that some will work and some won’t. A humble, mission-focused youth pastor can take that feedback in stride and keep looking to the future of the youth ministry.
Again, part of a youth pastor’s job is communicating Biblical teaching in a way that is relatable to youth. More broadly, youth ministers serve as coordinators and leaders of an entire ministry, so communication skills are critical to keeping the youth, parents, volunteers, and the congregation as a whole on the same page. This includes a high level of comfort with different communication styles, platforms, and formats to reach both students and their parents effectively.
Even more importantly, youth pastors need to listen first — and be aware that children and teens don’t always communicate verbally. Reading body language, understanding paraverbal communication, and discerning what’s really going on is a critical skill for a youth pastor when counseling a student.
Communication skills come with experience, but they require training too. A youth pastor with a strong foundation of knowledge in communication is well-equipped to recognize and meet students’ needs.
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Knowledge of human development and trauma
In order to effectively reach young people, youth pastors need to understand how their minds are developing and the challenges they face at their current stage in life. That means having a strong foundation of knowledge of family dynamics, child development, parenting, and human nature. It also means actively and thoughtfully applying that knowledge to real-world situations encountered by children and teens.
In particular, youth pastors need to be trauma-informed in their work. Every youth group includes some students who are dealing with trauma: abuse, neglect, parents’ divorce, death of a loved one, and so on. A well-meaning but poorly educated pastor can inadvertently do significant harm by mishandling a student’s trauma. A foundation in both theology and psychology is critical to navigate these situations effectively.
Secure, authentic faith
A youth pastor must be qualified for church leadership in general: above reproach, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, and so on (1 Tim. 3:1-7). These are qualifications for any pastor, but it’s particularly dangerous when a youth pastor falls short because they are often a student’s first example of what an adult Christian leader looks like during their formative years. Youth pastors who conduct themselves in a Christlike manner serve as an example that grows secure faith in their students. Conversely, those who do not can do a great deal of damage.
Of course, the standard is not perfection, but transparency, authenticity, and accountability. That means having a strong prayer life, regular time spent reading Scripture, and accountability to church leadership and the congregation as a whole. Students may not understand all the nuances, but they will notice when their youth pastor is authentically living out the principles they’re learning in their youth group.
Strengthen your calling with the right youth ministry degree
Ministering to the youth is a highly challenging and rewarding calling. You have a heart for young people and a passion for pointing them to Christ. The way to cultivate that passion is to get an education focused on the unique skills and attributes required for youth ministry.
Again, the fastest way to become a youth pastor is to gain hands-on experience and education simultaneously. An online, asynchronous degree program can help you move your ministry career forward by giving you the flexibility to volunteer in your church and meet your other personal and professional obligations. You’ll learn about biblical theology, Christian principles, servant leadership, child development, and human nature, and be equipped to apply those principles to meet the needs of today’s youth in diverse and multicultural ministry settings.
Take the next step toward answering the call to youth ministry. Learn more about the two-year, online Associate of Arts in Youth Ministry program or the four-year, online Bachelor of Science in Youth & Family Ministries program at Point University.