I recently had the opportunity to read Mark Riddle’s new book, Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors. Mark is a consultant for churches who are looking to staff for youth ministry as a part of the larger vision for their community and ministry – a holistic approach, you might call it. The book is a good look into the hard questions churches would want to ask about youth ministry in their context, and goes on to give insight into how a healthy staff relationship between a senior pastor and a youth pastor might look.
One of the “big ideas” that struck me from Inside the Mind was Mark’s brief discussion of the optimal age of a youth pastor. You can see that previous discussion here.
After I read the book, I had the opportunity to send several questions to Mark, which he has answered, and I’ve posted below. My questions are in italics, Mark’s answers are indented. We invite your discussion.
Even though the book is called Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors, you spend considerable time making the case for getting inside the mind of congregations, pastors and leadership, parents and communities. While that could have made for an incredibly cumbersome title, can you talk a bit about the essential nature of honest and open communication among all those parties in the process of establishing a sustainable youth ministry?
Too many times people in the church, whether they be paid or not, live with assumptions about the roles we play in the church family. We assume people think like we do, believe what we believe and value what we value. Parents assume things about you as a youth pastor based on their experiences with youth pastors in their past. They often interpret you through the lens of their past experiences. Youth pastors do this with others as well. Dialogue is the fundamental way in which we see people differently. Dialogue is how we extricate ourselves from the past and create an environment in which transformation can occur. I talk about this a bit in the chapter on assumptions and inference, but it’s really through out the book. I didn’t want to put myself in a place where I was speaking on behalf of youth pastors, or senior pastor, so I included questions at the end of each chapter to help encourage conversation with the various people you mention here. The future of staffing within the church will be lead by those who understand the dynamics of dialogue and practice them everyday.
There are likely churches which have never considered some of the questions you raise in the first section of the book. How would you encourage a pastor or congregation that it is worth the investment of time and energy to work through the process?
In the first section of the book I talk about the need to seriously think about why you have a youth ministry, and how unhealthy it is to put a youth pastor at the center of the youth ministry of a church. There’s always a temptation for me to try to convince church leaders that they need to change, but that is my issue not theirs. I’m way more interested in working with a church leader who reads the book and says, “You’ve been reading my mail.” Or “We’ve hired youth pastors for the wrong reasons and we’re ready to change.” That’s an exciting moment because a church leader has come to some conclusions on their own. I personally don’t find much value in trying to convince or persuade a church leader of the need to change because the change is hard work. If I can persuade you this afternoon that you need change, when the work starts it will persuade you that it’s not worth the effort. As a result, people generally find me when they want to change. Of course all of this talk is easy for me as I sit outside the situation. It’s much different for the youth pastor inside. But this points more to the question of long-term sustainable dialogue with church leaders. Hopefully the book will help some youth pastors and senior pastors make some break throughs. It’s why I wrote the book. I felt like 80% of what the seminars talk about at the National Youth conventions tell youth pastors to do is not possible, because the church leaders aren’t included in the conversation. But when it comes down to it, the church leader has to make the decision that they want a healthy youth ministry.
Following up on that, do you believe that “the average” congregation can successfully accomplish the process without an objective moderator, whether a consultant or another caring, but non-partisan person?
Such an interesting question. First I’d say that having a third party is very helpful, I’ve seen the benefits of it first hand. I’ll say that there are no objective third parties. Everyone comes with a history, a perspective, a set of values etc. The job of a consultant is to understand their biases and to the degree they can, set them aside so that they can truly listen, but also bring them to the table when the situation warrants. There is something very helpful to a community to have someone who is differentiated enough to say what they see is really going on and give insights that can church leaders can engage so they can make things better. Is it possible without someone from the outside? I’m optimistic.
You touched on the concept of the elongation of adolescence and how that might impact establishing a healthy youth ministry by encouraging hiring “older” (25+) youth pastors. I could hear screams from Bible college and Christian college youth ministry departments from coast to coast as I read that. How do you think that 2-3 years between graduation at age 22-23 could constructively be spent by those who sense a vocational calling to ministry with students and families?
I’m not going to write a prescription for late adolescent involvement, but I’ll say that putting a 20-25 year old person in charge, especially in what I call a Church A model is often destructive for the church they lead in AND maybe more often in the lives of the person in leadership. There are always exceptions. A 20-25 year old person has a lot to offer the church and a lot to learn. Leadership depends often on wisdom and wisdom comes from experience. So late adolescents should be involved in youth ministry, in every way shape and form. They should have incite into the politics of the church and the tough decisions leaders make. But in my opinion they don’t need to be in charge of the spiritual formation of a communities teenagers and their parents. I’ve yet to find anyone over 30 who disagrees with me on this issue.
As I read, there were a number of moments where I saw my own youth ministry experiences, both good and difficult, reflected in the stories you shared. There is encouragement in knowing that there is shared experience, sadness in knowing there is shared pain and frustration. One place I see in the book that will have some common “ah ha” for all parties to a conversation about youth ministry is the section about the Ladder of Inference, and the effects of our filling in the blanks with faulty assumptions. As you’re aiding churches in this process, do you find exploring that area of communication to be a place of transformational opportunity?
I appreciate your encouragement. I’m glad the stories in the book seemed to be telling your story in some way. The Ladder of Inference is an amazing tool developed by Chris Argyris. “Climbing the ladder” has become an important part of the conversation among leaders in church I work with. Because it helps us pause before we leap to assumptions about others, their motives and their character. It’s also helpful to help church leaders unpack their past experiences and begin to truly see the people in front of them.
The section on teamwork, loyalty and looking out for each other would seem to be important for both small and large church staffs. Since there are a great many more small church staffs, 2-3 people where each person’s job description drips with “additional duties as assigned” ink, would you talk a bit about what healthy team work looks like in those situations?
A great team believes the best about each other. They regularly engage in conflict and it makes them appreciate each other better and thus brings them together. They embody trust. They see each member as inherently valuable with something unique to add to the solution. Great teams cover for each other as well. They willingly absorb a complaint about another staff person and apologize as if they themselves where the person who wronged the individual. They speak encouraging words about other team members to others and they speak the truth when it needs to be said, in the right setting.
What do you hope would happen if a church with a youth pastor on staff already works through Inside the Mind together with the appropriate leadership and come to the conclusion that they’re not the right fit? Not that they’re bad people, or ungifted… simply not the right fit in significant areas the process considers?
If a community moves from Church A to Church B with a youth pastor on staff it’s difficult to image a scenario in which it wouldn’t work. Church B allows the youth pastor to be themselves more than Church A does. In fact Church B empowers a youth pastor to do what they are good at, but it empowers the congregation to own all of the ministry. Of course there are people who don’t fit into Church B. You are probably not a fit as a staff person for Church B if you can’t work with adults at all, or feel you must hold all the power yourself. If you feel that you have nothing to learn, or that you don’t want input from others then you will struggle with leading in Church B as well. Certainly they aren’t bad people, but not great fits for the process I talk about in Inside the Mind. Frankly I personally wouldn’t hire those folks for any kind of church leadership though. But that’s just me.
For clarity though, Church B means that all of the youth ministry is owned by the congregation. So in churches I’ve personally worked with that implement the process, the church owns every detail, from bulletin announcements, reserving transportation for a trip, event planning, programming, relational ministry etc. It’s all owned by the church. The youth pastor gets to be with God and be with people and do what they are good at. So if a youth pastor is a gifted speaker, let them speak. Etc.
Thanks for asking such great questions Patti!
Thanks for writing a book to help the church think differently about youth ministry, Mark!