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Institute helps youth pastors ‘weather storm’

Institute helps youth pastors ‘weather storm’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Institute helps youth pastors ‘weather storm’

By Sarah Alsgaard | Nov. 26, 2008 {0948}

NOTE: A headshot of Steve Schneeberger is available at

Florida Conference youth pastors searching for guidance on navigating the challenges of their youth ministries now have one more resource to help them.

It’s the Youth Ministry Institute, a two-year program of training and personal coaching.

Steve Schneeberger

“We really kind of envision ourselves as standing in a chasm between the academic institution that should be in the business of training youth ministers and the practicing youth minister who has absolutely no training,” said Steve Schneeberger, the institute’s executive director.

Schneeberger founded the institute a little more than two years ago at First United Methodist Church in Orlando, where he serves as the church’s director of youth ministries. He says he noticed in the late ’90s many youth pastors feeling called to youth ministry, but ultimately failing.

“I discovered, through trial and error, that United Methodist churches aren’t really set up to deal with the failures of youth pastors,” he said. “So I kind of wrestled and prayed about that and drew up a business plan that was a two-year program.”

After the Rev. Gary Spencer, senior pastor of the Orlando church, expressed interest in the program, Schneeberger spent a year researching and developing the institute before officially launching it in the summer of 2006.

“We’re trying to create longevity for youth ministers to weather the storm … thereby allowing more kids to be part of (the church) and come to know Jesus, and that’s part of the bottom line,” Schneeberger said.

The institute is supported in that mission by a number of groups, including the Florida Conference. During the past two years, the conference’s Leadership Connection has given a total of $30,000 to help offset the institute’s $140,000 annual budget, as well as $20,000 in both 2007 and 2008 to fund a matching grant program “of which four churches have qualified,” Schneeberger said.

The Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller, director of the conference’s Connectional Ministries office, says the financial assistance is part of the conference’s mission to “call, train and support” lay and clergy leaders.

“The other part,” she said, “is creating disciples to reach out and transform the world. From my point of view this particular program helps with both of those parts of our mission. It equips leaders for making disciples to reach out and transform the world.”

Another benefit of the ministry, she said, is that it offers youth pastors a “residency … a place to do classroom learning and reflect on how it’s going in their ministries.”

The United Methodist Church and other denominations make sure that the pastorate is trained in a variety of skills and practices, yet the youth pastor position in the church is often given to someone fresh out of seminary ... without any training in the various skills necessary for a successful (youth minister).”

Rev. Frank Fitzsimmons

Other groups, such as Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., also provide support. The college gives institute participants free class credit for the practicum part of the college’s undergraduate and graduate degree programs in youth ministry and a 10 percent tuition discount. A leader development group called Ventures for Excellence assesses youth ministers enrolled in the institute on 10 character traits identified as necessary for excellence in youth ministry. And Youth Ministry Architects provides a three-day assessment of each youth minister’s church that includes meeting with more than 10 different focus groups to determine the assets, challenges and recommendations of the local church as it relates to youth ministry, according to the institute’s Web site.

Helping pastors avoid ‘rude awakening’

The institute allows up to 12 conference youth pastors from various backgrounds of experience to join.

They attend multiple five-day youth ministry schools or conventions each year and read a selection of assigned books on leadership, spiritual formation, youth ministry and theology. They also attend mid-week retreats with seminary professors, experienced youth ministers and ordained clergy.

Participants are also assigned a coach who has at least 10 years of experience in youth ministry. The coach meets monthly with the youth minister and is available for consultation during the program.

“Some (youth ministers) have training, but no degree in it, but we’re trying to sit in that gap and provide training for those who have no training or little training and don’t have the ability to go to seminary for an undergraduate degree because it doesn’t meet their financial needs or is not reasonable because they’re already in a job,” Schneeberger said.

The program is a two-year program that spans three calendar years in order to help youth pastors over the hurdles they experience in the first year on the job, he said. 

The Rev. Frank Fitzsimmons says he wishes the opportunity had been available when he began in youth ministry.

Fitzsimmons is currently serving as pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Jacksonville. He’s also a coach for the institute.

“(My role is) simply to come along side a (youth pastor) who is in the program, affirm them in their ministry and help guide them along the way, either with their studies or real world issues they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis in the churches they serve.”

Fitzsimmons decided to become a coach after hearing Schneeberger talk about the program.

“The United Methodist Church and other denominations make sure that the pastorate is trained in a variety of skills and practices, yet the youth pastor position in the church is often given to someone fresh out of seminary — or on their way to seminary — without any training in the various skills necessary for a successful (youth minister),” Fitzsimmons said.

There is a growing understanding, Fitzsimmons said, that youth pastors need to be professionally trained.

Youth pastor Ethan Smith said he would have “been in for a rude awakening in my first full-time gig” as a youth pastor had it not been for the institute.

“Networking with other youth ministers, the conferences and seminars on youth ministry, and the one-on-one coaching were vital to my ministry upbringing,” he said. “The proper question to ask would actually be, ‘How did the Institute NOT help me?’ ”
Fellow class member David Benson agrees. “The people in the program are like family, and you know, you can use them as resources or just a listening ear when you need them.”

More information about the institute is available at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is a freelance writer based in Lakeland.