“It seems like our ministry team meetings are just when you have fun with all of your favorites. I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
It was like I’d just gotten socked in the stomach. Stephanie had joined our newly formed ministry team the summer before her senior year. This was now the end of her senior year, and she’d soured on the group. Until I read her evaluation, I hadn’t realized why. Stephanie felt like I’d chosen favorites, and she wasn’t one of them. Stephanie refused to speak with me after that, despite several attempts to contact her; she truly was done with our ministry.
I was a relatively new youth pastor and hadn’t meant to choose favorites; but the reality was that my preference for certain students over others was obvious, and she felt left out.
Looking back, I realize I wasn’t being strategic with how I used my time and was not aware of the fact that others took notice. I tended to spend much of my time with just those students whose company I most enjoyed, though I had a nagging feeling I should be reaching out more. Though I felt compelled to call every student on our list because I hated thinking about a student who felt excluded, I didn’t call the entire youth group every time I wanted to invite some to my home. That meant I gravitated mostly to those students I thought of first. I never intended to ignore Stephanie. In fact, I really liked her and was excited she was a part of our ministry; but because I hadn’t addressed the fact that she was looking for my attention, she felt ignored.
This episode with Stephanie shook me and caused me to evaluate how I spent my time with students. Does this sound at all familiar? The reality is, we’re all naturally drawn to people we like and to people like us; but as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have to do better.
The Allure of the Popular Kids
It’s sad to say, but some of us are still as drawn to the popular crowd as we were when we were in school. It’s still an honor to be considered cool by the cool kids. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves bending over backwards to impress them. Jesus’ model in this regard is illuminating.
Take a look at how he responds to the rich, young ruler. As a young, rich man, chances are he was well-known in the community. You almost can imagine the disciples whispering to each other as he approaches Jesus, inquiring about becoming a disciple. “Are you kidding me?” Peter mutters to Bartholomew. “If we can get this guy onboard, not only will we be staying in swanky hotels, he’ll bring in others by the thousands!”
Don’t we do the same? A popular kid—maybe he’s a star athlete or in student government—starts attending your ministry, and you begin dreaming about how he could make an impact on others; but Jesus doesn’t lower the bar for the cool guy, does He? In fact, He raises it—and the man leaves saddened.
I can imagine Peter barely able to contain himself; I mean, talk about a wasted opportunity. “Jesus! That was a key seeker! Why couldn’t You have been more sensitive?” Clearly, Jesus’ goals were greater than strategically attracting the rich and famous for greater ministry impact. He was looking for people to take up their crosses and follow Him.
So should we –and we have to make sure we treat everyone equally, regardless of social standing.
The Crowds, the Twelve, and the Three
Having said that, it’s OK to spend more time with some students than others. You can imagine that people accused Jesus of playing favorites with the big three: Peter, James and John. “How come I didn’t get to see the Transfiguration, Jesus?” Andrew might have complained. Jesus had His reasons, and we may never know them.
We shouldn’t be apologetic about focusing our attention on a smaller group of our own choosing. For instance, I tend to spend more time with my student worship leaders simply because I’m expecting more of them and I know their spiritual health (or lack thereof) can have an effect on the entire group.
We should follow Jesus’ pattern of having at least three areas of focus. First, we must pay attention to the crowds. We can do this through our large group teaching and by remembering the names and interesting facts of everyone in the group. Second, we should think about forming some type of student ministry team (patterned after Jesus’ 12) in which any committed students, not just handpicked favorites, are encouraged to step into further ministry responsibility. Finally, within that team there likely will be a handful that gets even more attention for a variety of reasons, whether because they have greater ministry responsibility or because we fill an adult mentor role they lack.
A Heart to Serve
The problem with filling our youth groups with the popular or attractive is that they may or may not be willing to fulfill our main priorities for our ministry teams: having a group committed to service. Jesus said that if we want to be great, we have to be servants. How much are we recruiting our student leaders by issuing a call to service? We must be vigilant about maintaining our impartiality when calling students to account for their service to the group—no matter how much we like them or how connected we are to their families.
In addition, we must be readily accessible to the entire youth ministry. An easy way to do this is to have a presence on as many campuses as possible. Another tactic is to have regular, well-advertised office hours so anyone in the ministry can come by to see us.
My favorite method for connecting with fringe groups of people is one I happened onto by accident. It was taco night at the Thomas household, and I invited two students over who’d stopped by my office to say hi. After consuming the delicious tacos, these students stuck around for about an hour and we talked about all kinds of things.
My wife made the observation afterwards that we should make this an every-other-week event. We’ve found that after eating a fun meal together, students are ready to open up. This gives us a chance to let them see our lives, as well. Find a way to let the entire group know about something like taco night and see who responds, but also keep your eyes open for those you’d like to reach out to and pursue them directly.
You can’t avoid being drawn to people you like, but you can ask God to make you an impartial person who loves equally, just as God does. I saw a shirt that sums it up. On the front, it reads: “I’m God’s favorite.” and on the back: “And so are you.” We should strive to make every student feel like he or she is our favorite, just like the student sitting next to her.