Vantage Point

Youth Ministers: Elders in Disguise?

In my humble opinion, all paid ministry staff who work with children and youth in Christian Reformed congregations should function as if they were elders and participate in all elder functions.

In the early 1990s when Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Newmarket, Ontario, hired me as its youth pastor, the church said, “We want you to serve as an elder.” Looking back, I now realize that serving as an elder was one of the strongest ministry supports I had. I’m convinced that everyone hired to do such ministry should function as an elder.

Youth ministry is a form of pastoral/spiritual care that involves both family dynamics and congregational dynamics. As a denomination we love covenant theology, but too often our youth ministry structures do not honor covenant theology. Our children and teens are first of all members of families, and the spiritual care of these families is discussed at elders’ meetings. At these meetings I would often mention a struggle common to a number of teenagers in our congregation, and elders who were ministering to their families would contribute very helpful observations. Covenant theology loves the family of God as a whole entity; discussing adolescent care in the context of whole-congregational care only makes sense.

Monthly youth ministry reports to the elders build confidence and trust, provide encouragement, and ultimately build advocacy for youth ministry. Let’s be honest: paid youth ministry is a recent phenomenon with a rather checkered scorecard in our denomination. I have seen many congregations hire a new youth director, place him in a shaky accountability structure, and then criticize him “from a distance” until he leaves or is dumped.

In Newmarket I gave a ministry report at every monthly elders’ meeting,
describing what groups I had led and which adolescents and young adults I had visited one-on-one. I would freely share my confusions and discouragements about youth ministry, elders would offer advice and support, and I knew there was a supporting community of leaders surrounding me. Eventually these elders became advocates for youth ministry throughout the congregation.

I’ll never forget one elder’s response after I had reported some particularly difficult challenges: “Wow, I can see you’re really on the front lines of the battle here. We need to back you up all the way.” Fifteen seconds of hearing such words makes a whole year of
meetings worthwhile.

Church governance requires the presence of people who will intentionally advocate for children and youths. Even when half of the congregation is under the age of 25, their needs are often off the church council’s radar screen. Every church council needs at least one
member who will keep the concerns of children and youths front and center.

Finally, my humble opinion states that those who minister to children and youths should “function as if” they were elders. Congregations who believe only men or only those over a certain age should serve as elders should feel free to allow a female youth director or a young male youth director to come to the table not as an elder but in an elder-like capacity. Is this playing games with the rules? Not at all. It’s simply acknowledging that at a time when ministry requires greater structural fluidity, we are free to allow the Spirit to work through our structures in the best possible way.

About the Author

Syd Hielema serves as the director of the CRC's Connections II project. He worships at the Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster, Ont. 

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