Leading today’s youth

Kids have fun playing a game with the world ball Wednesday

They might have tattoos, body piercings and funky-colored hair,
but youth pastors share one goal: to connect with kids and guide
them through the turbulent years of young adulthood.
They might have tattoos, body piercings and funky-colored hair, but youth pastors share one goal: to connect with kids and guide them through the turbulent years of young adulthood.

Faced with everything from the pressure to drink to the lure of sex, many teenagers appreciate having an adult to confide in who isn’t a parent. And when they turn to a youth pastor, chances are they’ll receive sound advice.

“Going to youth group brings me to realize there’s other people who are my age who are going through the same things I am,” said Cody Singley, a 15-year-old freshman at Morgan Hill’s Live Oak High School. “I think a youth pastor should give kids encouragement and be an adult that can relate to kids and to youth in general.”

Cody has attended youth group at Morgan Hill Bible Church for 1 1/2 years. For the past six months, the group has been led by John Sheppard, who one year ago never would have guessed he’d become a youth pastor.

The 41-year-old Morgan Hill resident used to work in San Jose producing bonus features for DVDs, and although he had been a member of Morgan Hill Bible Church for more than 15 years, the thought of working with kids there hadn’t crossed his mind.

But about eight months ago, Sheppard started to pray for new opportunities to share his beliefs. When the then-youth pastor of the church left in August, Sheppard felt compelled to apply – but he had his doubts.

“I thought to myself, nobody starts that kind of job at 41. I had no experience in that area, no specific training in that area. I kept putting up these mental roadblocks,” he said.

One at a time, though, the roadblocks were destroyed, and Sheppard officially became the church’s youth pastor. He said he loves the job.

Sheppard – or “Shep,” as the kids call him – works with about 80 students ranging from 13 to 18 years old. Most are from Gilroy and Morgan Hill, and a few come from Hollister or San Jose.

The kids are divided into a junior-high group, known at the church as Code Red, and a senior-high group, known as Real2Real. Both groups, with about 80 students total, meet weekly to play games, hear and discuss biblical messages, pray and just hang out.

Typically, youth pastors spend their time planning activities and lessons for the next group meeting. They also help plan special events, such as summer camps, dances and dinners. Coordinating all of the details for the events – such as filling out paperwork and collecting money – can be a burden, Sheppard said, but the events themselves are worth the effort.

The most rewarding part of being a youth pastor is developing relationships with students and watching them develop relationships with God, Sheppard said. But in order for that to happen, he added, they need an example to look up to, which is what Sheppard strives to be.

“If they don’t see a relationship with Christ in me, it won’t be attractive to them,” he said. “And they need to see that I’m struggling to model that, that I’m a real person, and I make mistakes, too.”

Being real with kids is something Dean Hallberg, youth pastor at Hollister’s Calvary Baptist Church, has enjoyed doing for nearly 30 years. Hallberg, also an English and social studies teacher and choir director at the church’s Calvary Christian School, meets with middle school and high school students on Wednesday nights at the church to play games, read the Bible and engage in “Scripture challenges,” such as memorizing verses or acting out passages.

In a couple of weeks, Hallberg and his wife will move to Sacramento, where Hallberg accepted a job as superintendent of a 700-student Christian school. He’s confident the church will hire a new – and “hopefully younger” – youth pastor, he said, as the need to provide teenagers a refuge is a vital part of laying the foundation for the future of the church.

Generally, a youth pastor is paid between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. Although most churches have budget constraints, making room for a youth pastor often is a top priority, said Henry Harris, lead pastor for Rolling Hills Community Church.

The church has a core team of five youth pastors, ranging in age from 24 to 50.

“There’s no greater investment that adults can make than in our young people, and (being a youth pastor) is a great way to do that,” he said. “Our young people are facing tremendous pressures, and I think it’s critical that we have some folks that can relate to them, that have some wisdom and can help them walk through their lives and make the wise choices they need to make.”

For Darrin Locksin, 30, helping kids make wise choices also helps him see life in a different light. Locksin has been a youth pastor at Rolling Hills for four years, and he works with about 50 students in middle school and high school.

“I like that kids have a different perspective than adults. It’s fresh, different. They’re a little less jaded,” he said.

One challenge of the job, Locksin said, is maintaining a constant connection with the kids, who are at a different stage in their lives than the adults they look up to.

Another challenge of the job, for the 55-year-old Hallberg at least, is keeping up with the students’ vigor.

“Now that I’m gray of beard, my energy levels are more of an issue,” Hallberg said, laughing. “I can’t go out and shoot baskets with the kids now. But I think maybe I’m more of a help to them now, because of I have the lessons of age.”

Being significantly older than the kids he serves also gives Hallberg room to be a little more adamant when the need arises.

“I’m their friend, but I’m also their counselor. I encourage them, but sometimes I have to get strong with them,” he said.

And though they may not like it at first, students often come to appreciate the strong words as sound advice later in life.

Courtney Berry, a 14-year-old student at Crossroads Christian School in Morgan Hill, said she feels secure knowing she has both friends and a mentor to turn to when she goes to youth group.

“It’s like a big family. He’s cool,” she said of Sheppard. “He’s a dad, too, so you can ask him advice and stuff. He’s always there.”

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