The Five Dysfunctions of a Youth Minister (Part 1)

May 28th, 2019

Every job is prone to certain types of dysfunctional behavior. Youth ministry is no exception. The tricky thing about the dysfunctions that plague youth ministers is that they usually start off seeming like a good idea. But they’re not. They can twist your soul in a knot. If left unchecked, they’ll eat away everything you enjoy about ministry. 

Of course there are more than five of these things. But after being in youth ministry for a long time, and walking alongside youth pastors for even longer, these five are the ones I’ve seen most often. 

The crazy thing is that one or more of these five dysfunctions often show up when things are going really well. There’s lots of energy in your youth group. Kids are coming to know Jesus. Even your boss is pleased. Then you wake up one day and realize you’re not enjoying the good things God is doing through you. If that’s your experience lately, pay attention! One of these things might be sinking its claws into you. And once they’ve got you, it’s hard to get free.

So let’s get started. This month we’ll cover the first two dysfunctions on our list. We’ll hit the last three next month. We’ll toss in a diagnostic question at the end of each section to help you determine whether or not that particular dysfunction is becoming a problem for you. 

Dysfunction #1: Comparison

My boss, Andy Stanley, says there is no win in comparison. He’s right. And yet there is something in us that wants to know if that youth ministry across town has more or less kids coming than we do. 

You might tell yourself that you just want to see how you’re doing compared to other youth groups. The truth is, other youth groups won’t tell you a thing about how you’re doing. If you want to see how you’re doing, talk to your own students. Talk to their parents. Talk to your boss. How you’re doing is all about the quality and growth of the community God is building through you and your team. Those other youth groups have nothing to do with that. 

If you start to make a habit of comparing your group with somebody else’s group you will start to become either arrogant or discouraged. Over time, arrogance produces isolation and a crippling fear of failure. Discouragement slowly hardens into bitterness. If left unchecked, these will eventually take you out of ministry. You probably know at least one former youth pastor whose work ended way too early because of these things. There’s no reason why your name needs to go on that list.

Diagnostic question: How many times this week have you thought about the number of people in that “other” youth group across town?

Dysfunction #2: Sprinting Through a Marathon

Yeah, I know. You’re in your 20’s. You’re in great shape. You just finished reading Isaiah 40 where he talks about the Lord renewing your strength so you can run and not be weary. 

Guess what? Isaiah isn’t talking about working 80 hours a week. He’s talking about God giving people the strength to be faithful when their enemies are trying to kill them. If you’re consistently working 80 hours a week, it’s likely that the biggest enemy God needs to deliver you from is yourself. Yikes. 

Here’s the thing. Youth ministry is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It works best when you can spend years walking alongside kids who are in middle school, or in high school, or in college. It works best when you get to know them almost better than they know themselves. You’re in a sweet spot when you can craft your messages based on your personal knowledge of the victories, struggles, aspirations, and temptations that characterize the lives of the kids God has entrusted to your care.

The dysfunction kicks in because you’re not only trying to walk alongside kids. You’re also trying to plan that over-nighter next month. And then there’s summer camp. And the fall retreat. And the Christmas extravaganza. And the spring-break mission trip. 

You wake up one morning and realize that at your current pace you don’t have enough time to get everything done. So you work harder and faster and longer. You are now attempting to sprint through a marathon. And that’s just not sustainable, no matter how strong or spiritual you are. 

The end result? You’ll run out of gas. Guaranteed. We’re not talking about merely being tired. We’re talking about a physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, and mental depletion that damages your ability to function. The quality of your work, and your life, will start to break down. You will be unable to finish the race. And before too long, you won’t even want to.

Diagnostic Question: In the past month, how many of your days off haveyou cheated on or skipped entirely?

That’s all for now. We’ll continue with the last three dysfunctions next month. And don’t worry! Part three of this series will be all about what to do if you find yourself in the grip of one of these things. There’s good news ahead. 


John hales from Ventura, California where he grew up surfing and playing guitar. He graduated second in his class from Pepperdine University and then attended Fuller Theological Seminary. His first call was to Community Presbyterian Church, also in Ventura, where he worked with high school students. He subsequently held positions with Young Life, The American Church in London, Kings College – University of London, and Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He is currently on staff at North Point Community Church’s Buckhead Campus. He serves there as the Director of Staff Development and the Director of Starting Point.

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.