Escape from Gilligan’s Island

October 4th, 2009

Typecasting—it's an actor's worst nightmare. It's the thought of being associated with a role so strongly that it keeps you from acting in any other role or being thought of in any other way. It happened to Christopher Reeve after he played Superman. It happened to Robert Reed (Mike Brady), a trained Shakespearean actor who feuded with producers on almost every episode of The Brady Bunch. And it happened to the cast of Gilligan's Island.

Yes, those castaways never escaped from that island. The show's three seasons left the passengers and crew of the Minnow stranded on the island never to escape, and neither did many of their acting careers, which is too bad considering the talent of the cast. Often I feel like I've been typecast in youth ministry. I've been labeled and pegged to play a role I can never seem to escape. I feel like Bob Denver: when people look at me, they see Gilligan; and they can't get past that notion, no matter what I do. I see other youth ministers struggling to break free from the type—or worse, perpetuating it.

'Sit Right Back and You'll Hear a Tale…'

My own struggle with being typecast began when I signed on to be the magician for the Dawson McAllister Student Conference in 1991. I was brought on to be a backup for Dawson if he was ever unable to speak and do short creative ministry segments throughout the conference weekend.

I never set out to be a magician, and I definitely didn't consider myself to be a comedian (that title requires a certain number of laughs per minute), but that was exactly what the first promotional kit designed for me claimed I was. And every single month I was appearing in front of tens of thousands of teenagers and their youth workers as precisely that type: a magician…er…illusionist/ comedian. No big deal, I thought, I'm only going to do this for a short time and then I'm moving on. But that short time turned into nearly five years.

Nearly fifteen years later, as I'm doing parent seminars, it's not uncommon for an attendee, after hours of contemplation, to blurt out, “Hey! You're the magic guy, aren't you? I saw you when I was in seventh grade! Can you still get out of a straitjacket hanging upside down?” (Some of you are having flashbacks: “Oh…now I know who this guy is.”) Let's face it—magic isn't one of the most respected “art forms” in our culture.

When I started WisdomWorks in 1996, I had a hard time being seen as someone who could teach the Bible. At events, people were very disappointed that I didn't do more magic tricks along with my message. It was a hard climb, but eventually, when we launched our Planet Wisdom conferences, I'd escaped a bit of that typecasting. Now I just have to deal with the label of being in youth ministry.

Last year I filled in for the senior pastor of my home church for a majority of the summer and had people come up and say, “I actually got something out of that. Not bad for a youth speaker.” And so it goes. But I can't help wondering how much we do to typecast ourselves.

For the record, I'll share what I perceive this type to be.

Young and/or Immature

Because of the target age we minister to, youth ministers are typically hired young. The economic realities of most churches also make us the underpaid element of the church staff. Since we rarely get to attend church as anything other than a staff member, we don't often get opportunities to grow up with our peers as they enter the workforce. The result—we rarely grow out of our twentysomething personalities and often freeze in our maturity.

Creative, but Not in a Meaningful Way

Novelty is the best way to describe our creativity as youth ministers. We're seldom viewed as artful or inventive in a meaningful way, but we're definitely novel. We develop wacky games and activities. Our messages incorporate far-out illustrations that we spend more time working on than actual Bible study (after all, we logged all those Bible courses in college), but we often lack real power in our creative efforts.

Disorganized in a Charming, Yet Frustrating, Manner

In a qualitative study Barna Research did for me on parents' perception of youth ministry, we found this to be one of the big negatives parents mentioned about their youth ministers. While most parents acknowledged that they hired a youth pastor, not an administrator, parents were baffled by their minister's lack of basic systems of organization that most people need just to hold a job. Most parents felt that their youth pastors compromised their ministry impact and time with family because they lacked basic organization skills.


Even if you've embraced youth ministry as your life-long ministry calling, people continually ask what your real goal in life is. Responding with “youth ministry is where I plan to stay” doesn't seem to impress them and will typically lead to you being written off as lacking ambition.

What's more, we tend to build our ministries around short-term goals accomplished at weekend events, summer camps, one-night outreaches, etc. Very few of us are looking at the long-term implications of our work; we're lucky to get a few months ahead, let alone five and ten years ahead, in our strategic planning.

Clearly, we have an image issue among ourselves. Don't get me wrong—there are positive aspects of the type, too, but the negatives are what irritate me and keep youth ministry from being taken seriously.

Escaping the Island

The greatest tragedy of being typecast is that you never have the opportunity to achieve your greatest potential. You get stuck. While we may not be able to change everything about the way we're perceived, there are some things we can do to avoid playing to type. We also want to be certain than when we get the opportunity to break type (e.g., John Travolta in Pulp Fiction), we have what it takes to do so. Here are some tangible behaviors that will enhance your ability to avoid the typecasting.

Act Your Age

Proverbs 20:29 reads, “The glory of youths is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair.”

I've observed thousands of youth ministers with their students, and one thing is true: kids love someone who is authentic. It doesn't matter if you're 22 or 62; just be yourself. This is often more difficult for those who are 25-34, because often they don't even realize they've grown up. I've held sobbing youth pastors in my arms after their group confronted them for embarrassing them with inappropriate dress and behavior for their age.

When kids started calling me Mr. Matlock instead of Mark, I realized they'd started seeing me differently. I wasn't the cool older brother anymore; instead, they saw me as a husband and father—a grownup (ouch). This actually provided leverage to increase my influence, though I didn't realize it for some time.

Breaking the youth ministry type means understanding who we are. There's a little exercise I call “standing naked in front of a mirror,” and it involves…well, doing just that. There's something hideously revealing about looking at yourself naked and realizing “this is what I have to work with.” But it's more than embracing your physical presence; it's also realizing what talents and skills you bring to the table. Your greatest asset is who God made you to be at this moment in time. Make sure you understand who that is.

It's important to act our age, not just with our students, but also in the larger church community. When we're seen in the community as age-appropriate, we're often taken more seriously.

Invest in Your Development

Proverbs 22:29 reads, “Do you see those who are skillful in their work? They will serve kings; they will not serve common people.”

Since I serve youth pastors, I'm not sure what to make of myself in light of this verse. Seriously, if we want to have significant influence on culture, we must master our skills. When this happens, our role will be defined by excellence and not the mediocre stereotype.

Whether your church pays or not, you should always be investing in your personal development. Regardless of your strengths and talents, they're rarely perfectly refined in our lives. You're a good speaker? Then become great by honing your communication skills. You're creative? Then push the limits by stretching your creative potential. Constantly get better at what you do—and this may come from opportunities outside youth ministry conventions.

Regularly evaluate your weaknesses, and seek ways to improve and manage them. I say “manage them” because often we need to learn how to work around weaknesses; we can waste a lot of the potential we have with our strengths by trying to enhance our weaknesses. I want to improve my weak spots, but I'm more concerned about searching for opportunities to use my strengths. I'm great at starting things and not so good at finishing them; while I realize the need to improve, I also realize that being able to start things is a great asset. So I try to build plans so others can maintain them, which frees me to start other projects without leaving one unfinished.

Seek Counsel

Proverbs 15:22 reads, “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.”

Too often we go it alone in youth ministry without getting help from others. This Lone Ranger mentality not only reinforces our immature image; it's often the source. As children, we grow up with people in authority telling us what to do. During adolescence, we begin to challenge this and try to figure things out on our own. But mature and wise adults learn to seek others for help and insight to grow and avoid common mistakes.

Seek out wise people in your church and community to advise you. Draw on past relationships that extend beyond your present geography. Look for diversity in your advisors so you have many different insights to consider. And never neglect the parents in your church and the potential they offer in reaching their children more effectively.

Maintain Healthy Friendships outside of Ministry

Proverbs 13:20 reads, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.”

The healthiest youth ministers I know have this in common: they all have healthy social lives that extend beyond their youth ministries. Because of time and limited social prospects, many youth ministers fall apart in this area—though sometimes it's just willful neglect. Participate in Sunday school class or small group for your age, even if your job description prevents consistent attendance. If this just isn't possible, look for other groups to be involved in, such as community organizations or special interest groups, that can offer those types of relationships.

If you can develop relationships outside of the church world, this will be a benefit to you and you'll be a benefit to others. Proverbs reminds us that friends sharpen us like iron sharpening iron. We improve in life when we have consistent friends who help us be the best people we can be. It isn't just about having someone to hang out with on the weekend; these friendships must push us to grow in our strengths and manage our weaknesses.

Be Diligent

Proverbs 12:11 reads, “Those who till their land will have plenty of food, but those who follow worthless pursuits have no sense.”

There are quite a few things in life that simply must be done whether I like them or not. As much as I want to believe that another job or ministry assignment will make life easier, I realize many tasks simply follow me to my new destination. There's a certain drudgery that comes with work, even when it's for the Kingdom.

Those who seem to excel and break the youth ministry typecasting have an incredible work ethic. They get done what needs to be done, whether they like it or not. And they typically find time to advance their own ideas and spend time with their families, too.

To break type we need to be diligent with what God has given us to accomplish today rather than being tripped up daydreaming about what the future might hold.

Develop the Art of the Long View

Currently there's much talk about the large percentage of churched teens that don't remain involved in a local church after high school graduation. Could it be that we in ministry are looking to short-term goals and achievements rather than long-term success?

Proverbs 19:2 reads, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way.”

Is it possible that in our efforts to get as much as we can from these students during the few years they're under our pastoral care, we're hasty and miss seeing them engaged in Kingdom work into their adult years? Are we thinking past short-term goals to ensure that students truly know how to follow Christ after they leave us? To avoid being seen as trivial and temporary, we must learn to see the long view of students' lives and the role we play in establishing their adult selves.

Reunion Shows

Every typecast actor comes to either embrace that role and accept it or want nothing to do with the role that set him up. Bob Denver came to embrace his role as Gilligan and takes great delight in having become a cultural icon—as did the Skipper, the Professor, and Mary Ann. Tina Louise, who played movie star Ginger Grant, has never really embraced her past on the show—refusing to do any reunion shows or appearances related to the program.

While I can understand Ms. Louise's perspective, we must realize that being typed comes with the territory to some degree. How we deal with our past successes and regrets are part of how we move into the future.

I don't take myself so seriously that I don't break out the occasional card trick— although getting out of a straitjacket usually requires a week of recovery. I'll leave that to the younger guys.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.