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Student ministry leadership networks: ‘It puts courage in us’

Members of the student leadership network led by Keith Hurt (right side, second from back) gather at the Quaker Steak & Lube in Columbus, Ohio before an outing to a local Top Golf. Most members of the network are bivocational, meaning such gatherings must be planned well in advance for those needing time off from work. Photo courtesy of Keith Hurt

COLUMBUS, Ohio (BP) – When Keith Hurt stepped into student ministry as a 24-year-old, he had a lot of ideas. He didn’t have a lot of experience.

Keith Hurt

Now 49 and still a student minister, Hurt grew in his role through the years. But along the way, he benefitted from relationships with other student ministry leaders – both those walking before and those alongside him. It’s why he’s such a big believer and proponent of networking.

“Being one of the older ones now, I get an opportunity to invest in these younger guys,” said Hurt, student and collegiate pastor at Violet Baptist Church in Pickerington, Ohio, and leader of a Columbus-area student minister leadership network. The group includes leaders from roughly 65 churches across denominations, and at its monthly meeting can see up to a dozen participants. That number jumps to as many as 35 when Hurt enlists a special speaker.

The student ministry network led by Columbus, Ohio-area student minister Keith Hurt meets once a month and occasionally features a guest speaker in addition to fellowship. Photo by Keith Hurt

“When I started, I came in almost as a peer [to students]. Now I’m in that ‘parent’ phase and can speak into students’ lives in a way others can’t,” he said. “When they see an older person cares about them, that’s powerful stuff.”

Southern Baptist student ministry networks tend to be more on the informal side, existing at the state convention level but mostly on a regional and associational basis. The Youth Leader Coaching Network through the North American Mission Board casts the biggest net, led by NAMB National Next Gen Director Shane Pruitt and Clayton King, teaching pastor at NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C.

The Youth Leader Coaching Network, explained King, depends on “very open and honest” discussions to help student ministers no matter what stage of their career.

Clayton King

“It’s a safe place to talk about areas where they feel inadequate, overwhelmed or in need of coaching,” he said. “We also provide teaching in areas that are often overlooked in seminary or the local church [such as] handling finances, doing ministry as a married team, caring for your soul, exercise and eating habits, practicing a sabbath, the value of Christian counseling and the necessity of a vibrant life of spiritual formation.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit is the sense of community from such networks. However, many if not most student ministry leaders are part-time or volunteers. While calendars can get crowded, King urged leaders to prioritize networking.

“Student pastors and leaders need community,” he said, “and the hard truth is that many of them don’t find it in their local church setting. Our culture is so busy and the average youth pastor is trying to juggle all the responsibilities of the week along with his own physical and spiritual health while trying to find time for his family. It’s often challenging to connect with people you don’t have much in common with.”

The Louisiana Baptist Convention’s state network, The Forum, added a podcast by the same name late last year as another resource for student ministry leaders whose schedule may inhibit their ability to attend in-person gatherings.

Brandon Lewis

Louisiana Baptists already host a one-day annual conference for student leaders and are currently building cohorts for youth pastors, LBC youth strategist Brandon Lewis said. A Baton Rouge-area student network co-led by longtime LSU Baptist Collegiate Ministry director Steve Masters provides resources for student ministry leaders.

“Those leaders need to be part of a network because we just can’t do it alone,” said Lewis, a Ruston, La., native who served at First Baptist Haughton, La., before joining the state Baptist convention in 2019. “We have to learn from each other and lean on each other for support and encouragement.”

Geography serves as the biggest challenge for Arjay Gruspe, Next Generation director for the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention. A plane ticket for in-person gatherings among the Hawaiian Islands goes for a least a couple hundred dollars. Expand that to HPBC churches in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines, and it becomes exponentially more expensive.

“We have so many churches in so many far-off places,” he said. “Associations form the student ministry networks for those leaders to get together and share resources.”

Arjay Gruspe

Over the 15 years at his post, Gruspe has witnessed dynamics change to where Sundays are reserved more for family time and sports rather than church. It has raised the bar for ministry leaders to reach not only students, but parents.

“We consistently talk about that parental communication pipeline,” Gruspe said. “Leaders see themselves as serving the parents by ministering to their children.”

Social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, has become crucial for HPBC student ministry leaders to stay in touch over such distances.

NAMB’s Youth Leader Coaching Network will host a free two-day, in-person gathering that includes hotel and meals Oct. 18-19 near NAMB’s offices in Alpharetta, Ga. Prior to that, online gatherings will take place Aug. 23, Sept. 20 and Oct. 11 from 8-9:30 p.m.

“It’s a very minimal investment in time,” King said. “Each online meeting lasts an hour with an optional ‘overtime’ session of an additional 30 minutes. In October we’re hosting at a really nice venue with hotel and meals provided. We’re inviting every participant to bring their spouse with them.”

More than 70 years of experience among Pruitt, King and his wife Sharie await attendees.

“We’re laying it all out on the table so that others can learn from our mistakes, our wins, our losses and the wisdom we’ve accumulated from the scars and the bruises we’ve collected over the decades,” King said.

No one will debate the importance of student ministry. But in Hurt’s observation, there has been a “de-emphasis” on it in recent years. More candidates who might have been student ministers in the past are instead becoming church planters. Other voices call for student ministries to be abolished altogether or lumped into a “family ministry” category.

The effects, he fears, can lead away from the evangelistic and missional roles student ministries are supposed to occupy. Youth ministry is actually a vehicle for the Titus 2 model where older men and women are “to teach what is good” for the younger generation, Hurt said.

He cites life-changing mentoring relationships he experienced as a student growing up in church and as a student ministry leader. That support mirrored in a network comes at the most crucial of moments.

“Recently we had a 21-year-old student minister who had a kid drown at an event,” he said. “How do you navigate something like that?”

Such tragic situations are rare, but not unheard of. Conversations tend to center more on issues such as reaching students, communicating with parents, budget concerns and handling tensions with your pastor or church leaders.

“The main thing we get from these gatherings is encouragement,” Hurt said. “When we walk away from those meetings, we’ve had courage put into us. We might not feel like there are people at our church who understand us, but we’ve met other people who are in the trenches with us.”