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Pastoral Vocation in Youth Ministry by Laura Larsen

Pastoral Vocation in Youth Ministry by Laura Larsen

Finding out about abuse has always been the worst-case scenario for me. Over my years of youth ministry I have slowly knocked bad situations off my list of tough stuff.  Take a kid to the hospital. Check.  Get in a wreck with students in the bus. Check.  Walk closely with a teen through the death of a parent, ask a volunteer to step away from the ministry, deal with high-schoolers smoking dope on a trip.  Check, check, check.

This summer I came face to face with the toughest situation of all as I sat on the porch of a cabin and listened late one night.  I had been bracing myself for this moment for years – waiting for the day that I would hear about the brokenness of this world invading the life of one I loved so dearly. Our conversation ended much differently than I had always imagined, though. I didn’t make a phone call to CPS or give my senior pastor a general heads up about what was going on.  I didn’t tell anyone; actually, because the story of abuse I heard wasn’t from an adolescent in our ministry, it was from a mom.

For a few years now I have wrestled with my identity as a youth pastor.  So much of my training has insisted that my title is youth pastor – adolescent development articles, social media workshops, YouTube tutorials breaking down the steps to the “Hoedown Throwdown” or “Gangnam style”.   Often the implication seems to be that my role as pastor is secondary to my ability to relate to youth culture.

While the larger conversation often wants me to believe that I am a youth pastor, my experience as taught me the opposite.  In almost all of my most significant ministerial moments, I have acted as youth pastor.  When tragedy strikes a family or a teen admits deep existential doubts, no one seems to care if I know the difference between “LOL” and “YOLO.”   In those moments it matters most that I can extend grace, that I can sit in the sacred silence and listen.  My role as youth pastor is as much about pastor than it is about youth.

The conversation on the porch that night was enough to put me over the edge — it was a deeply pastoral experience that had almost nothing to do with adolescence.  It pushed me to contemplate which word in my title was more important.  My passion calling to be a youth pastor didn’t change, but the way I approached my vocation experienced a significant shift.

I like to think I am still a pretty hip youth pastor but I now make a concerted effort to spend more time cultivating my pastoral imagination than my youth culture relevance.  I still read a little Epstein and Arnett but mostly I’m soaking in Peterson and Buechner and Nouwen.  The responsibility of my vocation is pastor.  Youth is just a helpful adjective to describe those to whom I pastor.

Laura Larsen lives in Kansas City, working for Youthfront and Second Presbyterian Church. Currently a DMin student at Fuller, she would be happy spending every afternoon with students and tweeting from @thelauralarsen. Laura is most spiritually disciplined in the fall when she is busy praying and fasting for her beloved LSU Tigers.

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