Youth Activities and Gender

I recently accepted a job as my church’s summer youth pastor. I was surprised by the suggestion at first, but then realized that I’ve done a lot of teaching of teenagers in my career, and I’m a pretty knowledgeable layperson, so it actually makes sense. My only misgiving was with my health and related issues: I knew that being a youth pastor could be physically grueling and involve a lot of activities I don’t particularly enjoy, so I thought some of the job might be tough. And then I had some interesting conversations this morning with one of the women who works with the youth group.

We were talking about the kinds of activities we could do with the youth this summer. They involved tubing on the creek (which I wouldn’t particularly enjoy, because of the heat and the bugbites and general discomfort), camping out (I do not camp out), learning about homelessness by having the kids live like the homeless for one night and sleeping in cardboard boxes (a great idea for the kids, but with my back and joint problems, I do NOT sleep on the ground), going to a baseball game (that sounds like fun, although in general I have very little interest in sports), miniature golf (I think that would be fun), and slip-n-slide kickball (which sounds to me like a broken ankle or wrist just waiting to happen). Now, as the youth leader, I could umpire or sleep on an air mattress or somehow excuse myself from the worst of the ordeal, but a lot of this did NOT sound like it was up my alley. I like indoor activities, dancing, arts and crafts, and movies.

I mentioned that one of the many casual activities I had thought of doing this summer was painting nails–getting as many of the girls (and guys!) that were interested together with their nail polish and going to town. Two of the girls, including this woman’s daughter, immediately got very excited. I knew the girls in the group would probably enjoy the activity, and I remembered the guys in the youth group when I was a teenager letting the girls paint their nails occasionally on some summer youth trip.

But this particular youth leader spoke up and said something along the line of, shouldn’t we make sure that our activities aren’t too female-gendered? Or make sure that we have male-gendered activities, too? I pointed out that this fingernail painting activity would be only one of many activities that I would be doing with the kids this summer. And then, after a moment of thought, I also pointed out that many of the activities they generally seem to do are quote-unquote “male-gendered” anyway, which she agreed with after a moment of surprise.

Later during the meeting I mentioned that I was the first female summer youth pastor they’d had since I was in 7th grade (approximately 1998). And the same youth leader said, “Yeah, I wonder why there are so many more guys going into youth ministry than girls?” I had been thinking about this a lot recently, so I was able to answer immediately, “I think the issue is that people see working with teens as being so physically demanding, requiring a lot of energy. I mean, that’s what *I’m* most worried about with this.”

And yeah, there are plenty of women–like the one I was talking with!–who seem to enjoy a lot of “male-gendered” activities–activities which maybe shouldn’t be gendered at all. After all, think of how many women enjoy various kinds of video games? When she had suggested that we do something more masculine at the same time as the fingernail painting, someone suggested video games, and I said that was fine, but somebody else was going to have to bring in the equipment and set it up, because I knew NOTHING about video games, and the woman’s daughter said, “I HAVE JUST DANCE!” Clearly, although we think of video games as being masculine, they are actually unisex.

And there are plenty of women who enjoy the “masculine” activity of sports–like the girl in the youth group who plays on competitive soccer and volleyball teams. And there’s nothing wrong with girls enjoying those things. But if it’s okay for women to enjoy “masculine” activities, then it should also be okay for men to enjoy “feminine” ones, like the guys who let the girls paint their nails or braid their hair, or who might enjoy a silly fashion show (with dumb hats and feather boas bought at the Dollar Tree–another activity I suggested). Basically, the youth group does a TON of masculine-coded activities, which are seen as unisex, but feminine-coded activities are eschewed for fear that they will exclude male teens.

I’m going to try, this summer, to include opportunities for more indoor and artsy activities–and “feminine”/unisex ones–to balance out all the active, outdoor, “masculine” activities that seem to hold so much sway. Partly to give the students a greater variety of fun activities that the ones with preferences like mine can enjoy–and partly so I don’t have a miserable summer!


One thought on “Youth Activities and Gender

  1. in my complimentarian denomination, my youth pastor went on to become a “Lead” Pastor of his own church (in reality he’s the only pastor, but this title sets him apart from the future youth pastor if he should happen to convince the elders the church needs one), so having a youth ministry is the run-through a (male) youth pastor takes to get the experience he needs to become a Lead Pastor. The reason being is that a (male) youth pastor comes with a free (female) youth director in the form of his wife; whereas a female youth director (same job responsibilities, but neither the title nor the pay if it’s a paid position) doesn’t necessarily come with a free youth pastor in the form of her husband who isn’t obligated to be her help-meet.

    I always found myself bothered by the idea that because I was a girl I ought to enjoy the arts’n’crafts or that I shouldn’t do sports because the bouncing would be inappropriate and distracting to the guys. I actually had a great time every time we would play laser tag as my sniping skills seemed to get better and better. You might be pleasantly surprised if you asked your youth group what they might like to do and ask them to be considerate of each other’s different ideas of what’s fun.


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