Once A Youth Pastor, Always a Youth Pastor

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Every Easter Sunday for the last decade or so, my pastor Jim Barnette shared the same story during his sermon. In his work as a college Religion professor, he had a young student who often came to him for counsel. Over time, Jim realized that this young man didn’t have much perspective. Every disappointment was a tragedy, every derailed plan was a crisis. Jim loved the young fellow, but he grew slightly exasperated with his student’s Eeyore attitude.

One day, when this fellow dropped by to bemoan the injustice of a flat tire, Jim had had enough. He looked his student in the eye, shrugged and said, “I don’t know what to tell you, buddy. Tomb’s empty!”

Tomb’s empty! became the joyful punchline of every Easter sermon at our church. As we heard this story year after year, our whole congregation would join him in a raucous shout, “TOMB’S EMPTY!”

I am thankful Jim handed off his trademark Easter proclamation to his congregation, because this year we will have to say it for him. We lost Jim in February, after the sudden onset of a cruel and incurable illness. We rejoice, knowing he has joined his beloved Jesus, but we miss him sorely.

The story of Jim’s life is a testament to God’s goodness in so many ways, but at the heart of his calling was encouraging young people to cultivate their God-given gifts. For those of you who love youth ministry and feel somewhat discouraged that it’s often viewed as a stepping-stone to head pastorship, I hope his story will encourage you that the work you are doing now never stops being essential, kingdom-building work. For those of you who have moved into a head pastor role, I hope his story will remind you that you never have to give up discipling those students you love so much.

A pastor’s kid, Jim got his start in – you guessed it – ministry to youth. He met his adorable, joyful wife Deanna (“Sunny D,” he called her) serving in a youth camp called Centrifuge. For several summers he served at this camp’s various locations as pastor and director. Working with kids alongside Deanna gave him a wealth of favorite stories to share in his teaching and preaching. During this time, Jim completed his PhD and returned to his alma mater, Samford University, to serve students as campus minister. They raised daughter Hannah and son Nick at Brookwood Baptist Church, where Jim would eventually serve as our pastor.

After thirteen years as campus pastor, Jim Barnette (“Dr. B”) joined the Religion department and took over the school’s Samford Sunday program. Each week he dispatched undergraduate students to different churches across the state so that they could deliver sermons he had helped them craft. In 2009, Jim launched the Preministerial Scholars program for Samford students. Designed to equip students who discern a call to vocational ministry, Dr. B’s program provided mentoring for hundreds of young men and women who are now out in the world sharing the gospel and loving people. One of the recurring themes of the tributes since his death has been: “I would not be in ministry today without the encouragement and friendship of Jim Barnette.”

It’s fair to say Jim never actually left youth ministry, God just added expanded his ministry to include adults and children. Throughout his years as head pastor, Dr. B still loved going on our church’s annual youth beach retreats, where he played the games and laughed louder than anybody at the annual senior skits (which usually included impersonations of him). His favorite event was talent show night; the most awkward evening for the students was his chance to appreciate and encourage each one. During his illness, the youth put together a hilarious video talent show just for Dr B, to reciprocate the affection he always showered on them.

His playfulness and sense of fun made kids feel comfortable to approach him with their questions and struggles. Back in Birmingham, he took pairs of high schoolers out for barbecue, offering biblical wisdom for their theological questions. With sincere curiosity he asked them what their experience in our church was like because he saw them as vital contributors to the church family, even at 16, 17, 18 years old. He often invited teenagers to share short testimonials called “Grace Along the Journey” in our services because he knew their participation was essential to the building up of the entire church. As senior pastor, he stayed connected with college students because he wanted to learn how he could help prepare high schoolers for the challenges of leaving home.

For all the many people he pastored, Jim’s heart was always with the youth. He spent most of his life discipling students God entrusted to him, and he encouraged them in ministry, whether vocational or not. A brilliant scholar, his doctoral thesis explored God’s sense of humor, and his deep joy in Christ often bubbled out of him as laughter. (More than once I saw him juggle in the pulpit on a Sunday morning.) His winsome goofiness put young people at ease, but he did teenagers the honor of taking them very seriously. His contagious faith sprang from the absolute certainty that the tomb of Jesus Christ is indeed empty, and that the risen Christ is our sure hope of heaven. Even as he fought a losing battle with his final illness, his joy in Christ did not fail.

We will miss our beloved Dr. B this upcoming Easter morning, but “we do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Through tears of sorrow mingled with tears of joy, we proclaim the resurrection and the life: “TOMB’S EMPTY!”

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