Kendra, a 20 year-old youth ministry major, is searching for an internship site for her sophomore practicum experience. After six years as a student in a youth group and three summers as a high school camp counselor, she is excited about her first opportunity as an adult leader in a church youth ministry. While Kendra is looking forward to working with a new group of young people and being mentored by the youth pastor, she has some doubts. She says she has felt God leading her to major in youth ministry and knows she wants to work with young people. But, she just can’t see herself as a youth pastor.
“Me, a Youth Pastor?”
A new school year begins and I resume my work helping youth ministry students locate internship sites—connecting them with ministries and pastors so they may explore youth ministry as a career. This year, as is the case for most of my years as a professor at Bethel University, the majority of youth ministry students are women. On one hand, I am excited at the number of young women who are interested in youth ministry as a career. On the other hand, I am regularly discouraged as young women who desire to ‘do youth ministry,’ are often unable to see themselves either as youth pastors or in a formal leadership capacity. Invariably, they see themselves after college working in parachurch organizations (e.g. Young Life, Youth for Christ, etc.), volunteering in youth ministry, or marrying a youth pastor and working alongside him as a volunteer. While these choices are not necessarily bad, my concern is that too many young women have a very narrow vision of what they can do in youth ministry, even as they express an intense desire and call to work with young people.
Three Questions, “Gendered” Answers
Kendra’s story is one I hear all too frequently. On the first day of class, I invite each student to share with the class three things. First, I invite them to tell about their youth ministry experiences and how their own youth group experience has shaped their understanding of teen ministry. Secondly, I ask them to share about their decision to pursue youth ministry as a career. Finally, I ask them to talk about the kind of youth ministry work they anticipate doing when they complete their undergraduate education.
In response to my first question, “How has your youth ministry experience shaped your understanding of youth ministry?” I typically get two kinds of responses. Most students talk enthusiastically about how relationships with other young people in their youth groups and with adult leaders provided them support and encouragement during their middle school and high school years. These positive experiences help foster their passion to offer support for young people in the same way that others were there for them. Less frequently, there are students who struggled as an adolescent and either found a youth group to be a source of safety and rescue, or struggled through their adolescent years seemingly alone. These students also are quite passionate about supporting young people in the midst of difficult adolescent years.
Students’ answers to the second question, “Why youth ministry as a career?” typically build from their first response. More often than not, students will say something along the lines of, “Because of what I’ve experienced, I believe God has called me to work with young people.” The answers to both of these questions do not often vary among young men and women. However, the answers to the third question are often shockingly different.
Though sophomore students are early in their college education, most young men respond to the question, “What kind of youth ministry are you interested in pursuing?” with concrete ideas and with wide-ranging notions about the possibilities they have for youth ministry, from being a youth pastor, to the program director at a parachurch organization, to being a camp director. The young men I work with seldom exhibit anxiety and ambivalence about their call to do ministry.
Young women, on the other hand, are often anxious and ambivalent about pursuing a degree in youth ministry, and particularly about how they might pursue a career in the field. As young women answer this third question, I often hear responses that express their ambivalence. They talk about their excitement and passion to work with young people, but express significant doubts and anxiety about how they can do that:
- “I can’t see myself as a youth pastor.”
- “I could never lead a youth ministry.”
- “I could never teach or preach.”
- “I want to do youth ministry, but I don’t think I could work in a church.
Often there are a variety of reasons that are behind these statements, but as we move through the semester together, it becomes increasingly clear that young women are conflicted over their calling and desire to work in youth ministry and their experiences and assumptions about what is appropriate and acceptable as a young woman. In my estimation, the assumptions that these young women hold grow out of their own church and youth ministry experiences. They have been taught to love God and follow his leading, while at the same time, implicitly and sometimes even explicitly, they have been taught that there are restrictions on what they can do as women. These assumptions confuse and contradict their sense that God is leading them to become youth ministers.
My aim, as I work with these youth ministry students, is to first help them see a vision for what they can be. I also believe that I need to encourage them to foster an environment in their youth ministries that help gifted young women who are equipped for ministry to embrace who they are and pursue ministry as a vocation without anxiety and ambivalence.
Give Them a Vision
As a fifteen year-old, I experienced a clear, direct call from God. To this day, almost forty years later, I remember the details of that encounter quite clearly. As I prayed one morning, God spoke to me and said, “I want you to preach and teach my Word.” As a young woman raised in the deep traditions of my Southern Baptist heritage, I never doubted God’s ability to speak directly to me, and so I never questioned that the voice I heard was God’s Spirit. However, that same heritage did not allow for the possibility that God would ask a woman to preach and teach. As clearly as the voice I heard that morning were my own thoughts as I finished praying. “God,” I said to myself, “must have meant he wanted me to be a pastor’s wife.” In my world, there was no room for a future that allowed for the possibility of doing what I had heard God saying to me. I had no vision. And it took over fifteen years and an often painful journey for me to fully realize that I could be who God had created me to be, as well as that I had a responsibility to be obedient to God.
Too often, the young women I work with have no vision for the call they believe God has given them. As I have sought to encourage young women and to help them have a clearer vision, I have discovered that female students need three things to help them envision a future in youth ministry. First, they need to see an alternative reading of Scripture. Most students that I have taught in the US, both men and women, have a narrow, one-sided perspective of the biblical teachings on women in church leadership. I remember clearly, as a 30-something woman who had been involved in ministry for many years, finally hearing someone present to me an alternative perspective on women in church leadership. Youth ministries need to be supportive places where young women and men can explore the biblical teachings on leadership. Granted, some of these passages are difficult to exegete, but an open atmosphere where students can begin to explore these difficulties and can discuss the complexities and wide-range of theological perspectives will encourage young women in their journey to be all that God has created them to be.
Another aspect of a biblical perspective on women in leadership is to help young people see fully the contributions of women throughout the Old and New Testament. There are many instances of women leading in Scripture. Unfortunately, too often the examples we look to are solely male, and young people become conditioned to think that God only works through the leadership of men. This is such a strong aspect of our ministry experience, that even when I point out to students the places where women lead, it is difficult for them to accept. Youth ministries can help foster an environment that is welcoming to female leadership simply by teaching about the female leaders in Scripture. For me, this does not mean that we have a separate focus, such as a four-week study on women in leadership. It means that women are included as a regular part of our youth group teaching.
Give Them a Voice
In addition to a vision, we need to give young women a voice in youth ministry. When young women pursuing a degree in youth ministry tell me that they know they want to work with young people, but could never be a youth ministry leader, I begin to ask them questions about their youth group experiences. Listening for clues, I generally discover that the experiences most young women have had are ones in which they are in a supportive role. For example, they may be a worship leader. The person who directs the worship team is usually a young man, or a team of young men, and the young woman participates in a supportive manner without ever taking active leadership. This dynamic repeats itself over and over again in other aspects of youth ministry, resulting in a failure of young women to have the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and abilities. Young women need to be encouraged to fully participate as leaders. They need mentors, women and men, who actively encourage them to use their voice to be leaders in their communities.
One of my frustrations in my time at Bethel has been the quiet nature of many of the young women with whom I work. This is not a criticism of women who are reserved and less outgoing, but rather an observation. I have found that even young women, who by nature are gregarious and outgoing, will often clam up and refuse to take leadership roles in classes, small group work, and practicum responsibilities. Again, as our time together progresses, I often discover that many of them have strong leadership abilities, including both oral and written communication skills. And yet they are hesitant to use them, especially when they are with a group of men. They, and often the young men, expect that the men in the group will lead.
Give Them Experiences
A first way that we can help give young women a vision and a voice is to provide them with opportunities to see women leading in church activities. Personally, I was thirty years old before I ever experienced the leadership of a woman in a position other than in children’s ministry. Youth groups should actively recruit women from a variety of life stages and experiences to lead in teaching, preaching, and other leadership roles in youth ministry. Occasionally (not nearly as often as I would like), a young woman youth ministry major will share how their call has been influenced by another woman the student has observed working in ministry. Often these women who have had this kind of experience do not have the anxiety and ambivalence present in other female students. They have had the opportunity to see a woman working in a ministry setting, so when they feel God’s leading to pursue a vocation in ministry, they are less hesitant to respond.
Secondly, youth ministries need to be open to providing opportunities for young women to explore leadership opportunities themselves. Seek out young women to fill leadership positions, provide opportunities for them to gain training. Send an adult woman and a female student to denominational and youth ministry training events. There is benefit for that young woman, but also for other young women in the youth group as they see one of their own developing their leadership skills.
In my twelve years of teaching youth ministry, I have sometimes been discouraged as I see female students that I believe have great potential to serve God as youth pastors and teachers give in to the anxieties and doubts and either walk away from youth ministry altogether or fail to fully develop their potential. In the last few years, I have become more encouraged. There is a greater network of women who work in youth ministry that are willing to mentor and guide young female students. I am looking forward to a new semester and the chance to help the Kendras at Bethel catch a vision for their future as leaders of youth.