I broke the youth minister mold, and I am admittedly proud of it. I’m young, I’m single, I’m female. Yet at about 23, I’ve already had multiple internships in churches of differing sizes and served as the youth minister in a small, Southern Baptist Church for two years. I’ve surprised myself, surprised others, and have come a long way in a short time.
Growing up SBC, I wasn’t sure about a woman’s role in the church. I heard all these sermons about spreading the Gospel, yet I didn’t see many women who were serving in leadership positions. In middle school, my youth minister was a female, but she left and a male took over the group. All of my friends’ churches had male leaders. When I was called to ministry at 17 years old, it was the conviction within the members of my church that pushed me to embrace the opportunity. Yet, although everyone saw my calling, it was hard to place me in a role.
I recently graduated from an SBC university with degrees in Youth Ministry and Theology. Surprisingly all of my ministry professors embraced women in ministry; however there were no female professors within the college of ministry/theology. Most of the other women in the ministry program did not feel called to the church setting, but a camp or unchurched setting; so I was pretty unique in that. The church I ministered in was also in the town, and it was well-known throughout my colleagues and professors who I was and what I did. My male colleagues never challenged my role in the local church, yet voiced their opinions about the ability for a woman to be in ministry in classes of which I was not present. The most ignorant comments usually came from people who were just meeting me and weren’t within the ministry college: “Women can do that now?!”
When I first got the position at that church as a real, legit “Youth Minister”, I didn’t have feelings of excitement, but overwhelmed. I had theological convictions, but no examples of women who had “made it” to be a woman in youth ministry. I knew women could be youth ministers, but I wasn’t convinced they could in my church. These thoughts were the pins and needles I walked on throughout my two years at this small church. At larger events, I wouldn’t talk for more than ten minutes for fear that someone would consider me “preaching.” I had trouble finding a male volunteer to disciple the males in my youth group one-on-one. I was afraid of over-stepping boundaries because I was a woman. And why? Because I had no examples of how to do ministry as a woman, just the assurance that I could.
I sought out an online network of ministers. I grew encouraged by women who have been doing youth ministry for as long as I have been alive, and also grew with noobs like myself. Yet there still weren’t a lot of women in these communities; this may be representative of the youth ministry community (especially with similar theological dispositions as mine), representative of women like me who were afraid to speak up, or representative of women who have time to network on top of other things (like raising families).
On my university campus I was an officer for a national organization dedicated to educating and discipling a generation of ministers. I also intentionally developed relationships with women in the college of ministry/theology, offering a support and model of a woman who “made it” (even in an SBC church!). This was my baby—I found my voice and became a role model for women in ministry. This is where I found the ability to be a woman in ministry—a bold leader who embraces her spiritual gift of teaching and womanly gifting of exhortation for the Kingdom of God.
What do I personally want? I want the stereotypes to end. I don’t fit the current mold—I’m not athletic, I don’t own TOMS, and my guitar skills are mediocre at best. And just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t control my PMS and I’m too emotional to give hard truth to people (anyone who knows me can tell you I’m a truth-puncher). I want people to look at me and not see a little girl wanting to play church, but a woman who is passionate about ministry and is theologically and practically trained. I want people to stop thinking that because I’m not married, every aspect of my life needs to be devoted to the church and I need to be willing to step in for “extra tasks”. I don’t want people to expect me to stop ministering when I actually do marry and have children. And when I do decide to have children, I want a church staff to not find another minister just because I need a pregnancy leave. I want church staffs to take me seriously, not as “the girl on staff,” but the Youth PASTOR. I want to be paid the same as a man would in my position, because I’ve worked for it just as hard, if not harder because of the gender-persecution I have overcome. I want to “preach” and not “share,” and maybe even in “big church” once in a while. I want churches to quit asking me how I relate to teenage boys, when they don’t ask men how they relate to teenage girls. More than anything, I want people to understand my Biblical and cultural convictions that women can be leaders within the local church.
I know that I haven’t experienced everything there is to see in ministry. I’m sure I will see more discrimination. But even more, I will see a generation of women rising up and embracing opportunities for leading within the Church. I want to be a part of the generation of youth ministers (both male and female) that don’t just teach theologically that a woman can take part in ministry, but show practically so that women won’t be afraid of leading.
Heather Lea Campbell works with at-risk youth in the city of St. Louis. In her spare time, she loves: networking with fellow youth workers, St. Louis Cardinals, hanging out with her kid sister, shaking from coffee consumption, judging others' grammatical errors, and laughing at her own jokes. Read more at http://heatherleacampbell.me or follow her @heatherlea17 #womanyouthpastorswag