The goal of “Welcome to Student Ministry” is to post interviews that help guide both new and experienced student pastors toward faithful ministry over many years. This sixth interview in this series is with Steve Otey. Steve has over twenty years of student ministry experience and is the creator of 9 Square in the Air.
- Tell our readers some background information about how long you have been in student ministry, how you started, and anything else that you think would be useful.
I have been a youth pastor for just over 20 years. I felt God’s call to youth ministry as a Junior in high school, and have always viewed it as a high calling, not a stepping stone to another position. Up until a few months ago, I’ve been leading youth ministries since my sophomore year in college. I’ve worked in small and large churches, with the last 15 being in a larger church in St. Louis, MO. I just transitioned out of the church staff world and started my own nonprofit ministry to partner with churches to provide youth and family ministry services to several local churches. We provide retreats, parent trainings, youth ministry curriculum, youth ministry coaching, etc. (www.engagefamilyministries.org)
- How has your view of youth ministry changed from when you started to now?
At the core, it hasn’t changed at all. It’s loving Jesus and liking students. It’s growing in your own walk with the Lord, and bringing other caring adults along to minister to students. The variety and depth of issues that teens face has certainly changed in 20 years, along with the best strategies to reach students. The circumstances and tools are different now, but the core of loving Jesus and liking students has stayed constant.
- Share one of your favorite student ministry moments.
I love seeing students take leadership and serve. There’s nothing like training a student who feels called to ministry, and seeing them begin to launch and step out into leading in a ministry context. Thankfully, I’ve been able to see this moment happened many times during my ministry! One of my favorite experiences was a group of students involved in a ministry leadership team. A group of students at my church in Wisconsin just really clicked, and God did some amazing things though that group, both while they were in youth group, and as they are now adults. They have turned into amazing people doing some incredible things for the Lord, some as pastors or worship leaders, and some as stay at home moms trying impact their neighborhoods for Jesus.
- How did you come up with the idea of 9 Square in the Air?
9 Square was essentially an accident in my own ministry. After our Junior High program, I saw students hang out in groups and doing four activities: 1) 9 Square on the ground, 2) a circle volleyball game, 3) a Basketball game called Knockout, and 4) standing around talking. Each week, the same students did the same activities. I wanted to help the group mix more and build healthier community and deeper friendships. I looked around to see if there was anything on the market that would help me to do this in a way that included familiar elements of what they were already doing, and I couldn’t find anything. So, I tried to mix the activities, keeping some elements of what they were already doing. I tried this new idea, and the kids LOVED IT! I wasn’t ever planning on creating a business with it, but many of the students’ parents and my volunteers encouraged me to go for it. One of our church elders was a patent attorney, so I got his input and moved forward. It has been amazing to see what God has done through 9 Square in the Air!
- How have you seen 9Square in the Air grow and impact other student ministries?
We have been so incredibly humbled to see how God has used this game in thousands of ministries across the country and around the world! We constantly hear feedback from youth pastors that the game helps to build community, engage students in an activity that gets them laughing, smiling, and connecting with other students. It’s been used in outreach events, camps, retreats, VBS events, school partnerships, tournaments, fall festivals, etc, etc. It’s thrilling to hear how God has used this game to serve as a platform to build community and engage students so they can hear the Gospel! It has been used in hundreds of missions trips from the Dominican Republic to Norway, Germany, Ghana and even to Papua New Guinea!
- What resources do you find helpful to use in student ministry?
Outside of the Bible…
-DYM is a great, practical tool.
-I think relationships with other local youth pastors is a great place to start.
-Rose Publishing has some fantastic teaching content that can be used for equipping students.
-Right Now Media has tons of good content.
-Don’t forget to look in your own back yard! What skills, resources and talents has God given to the parents and volunteers in your ministry? The only way you can answer this is to ASK THEM! Ask them how they think God wants to use them, or what resources they have to share.
- What is one of two things that you do to make sure that you do so that you don’t burn out as a youth pastor?
I always tried to invest in my family and have some deep friendships. Make sure you are growing in your own relationship with God. You can’t give what you don’t have. Also, give your spouse veto power over your calendar, and review the calendar together before it goes public. Make sure your pace is sustainable for your soul and your family.
- What advice would you give to yourself when you started as a youth pastor if you could go back to that time?
Trust parents and volunteers more, and view your job as to give away as much of the ministry as possible. Work yourself out of a job (don’t worry, there’ll be plenty for you to do!). I think I was young and felt as if I had to prove that I could do it all. I missed out on the joy of mentoring and empowering others in the early years. Ephesians 4 is pretty clear that our role as Pastors is to equip the body for service, not to do it all ourselves.
Thank you, Steve, for taking time to answer these questions. In coming weeks I will post our seventh edition of “Welcome to Student Ministry!”
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