She Broke the Mold

Jeanne Mayo is 55, married, a mother of two ... and America's most successful youth pastor.

WHO: Jeanne Mayo
AGE: 55
VOCATION: Youth Pastor, Assembly of God Tabernacle, Atlanta
SPOUSE: Sam Mayo, senior pastor, Assembly of God Tabernacle, Atlanta
CHILDREN: Josh (25) and Justin (23)--both in youth ministry
FOUNDER: Youth Source (
HOST: National Youth Leaders Conference (, a bi-coastal event drawing 3,000 + youth ministers and world-class speakers like Josh McDowell and Ron Luce.
ODDEST PREACHING PROP: Her mother's casket--with the body inside. Message: Don't wait 'til it's too late to tell your parents you love them.
ODDEST PREACHING VENUE: A junkyard. Message: This is where everything you crave will end up. Invest eternally.
MEMORABLE MOMENT: A 25-year reunion in the summer of 2004 for 300 former members of Jeanne's Bellevue, Nebraska, youth group--complete with children and grandchildren.

She's part stand-up comic, part mom, part tent evangelist--a middle-aged pastor's wife with blonde hair and Southern charm. (Don't be surprised if she calls you "doll" in the first 10 minutes of meeting her.)

From her style to her methodology, Jeanne Mayo defies convention. Sure, kids think she's cool, but not earringed, tattooed, loud music cool. In fact, she's known for the high expectations she places on youth and lay leaders alike.

And the results speak for themselves: Since entering youth ministry 35 years ago, Jeanne has grown youth groups to more than 1,000 in churches in Georgia, Nebraska, Illinois and California. Her passion for reaching students and training them for radical discipleship has rubbed off on a legion of youth pastors who consider Jeanne the godmother of youth ministry.

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But the question on most people's minds may be, How did a 55-year-old woman grow youth groups from handfuls to hundreds and become respected as the most successful youth pastor in the nation?

"Hard work," she says. That's often the missing ingredient, but it's the one that brings success in youth ministry--even for those who are inexperienced, unqualified and "uncool." Jeanne's seen her share of hip youth pastors who look sharp, talk a good game--even have a Bible college degree. But they can't hold a candle to the plodder who's willing to love the unlovable and invest the time and creativity that youth ministry demands.

As newlyweds, Jeanne and her husband, Sam, started in ministry in Atlanta, at the Assemblies of God church pastored by Sam's father. There, Jeanne was paid less than $45 per week to lead the youth ministry, and, within three years, had grown the group from fewer than 20 to several hundred.

The couple moved from Atlanta to Bellevue, Nebraska. When they left the church after 15 years of ministry there, the congregation numbered 1,200, with a youth group of 500 and a school with 400 students.

Jeanne's uncanny gifts in youth ministry became widely known soon after she and Sam took the pastorate of First Assembly in Rockford, Illinois. For 13 years, Jeanne was tireless in her efforts to train lay leaders and create an environment for growth, building one of the largest youth groups in the country.

By the time the couple left the church to accept a position in Sacramento, California, the youth group was running more than 1,000 and a Christian school (which Jeanne also led) had an enrollment of more than 1,500.

Her ability to revive youth groups was again demonstrated at Capital Christian Center, in Sacramento, where the couple served as staff pastors for a year before moving to Atlanta--and the church where they started in ministry 35 years ago.

"Oxygen," the youth ministry Jeanne leads at Assembly of God Tabernacle in Atlanta had dwindled to the 20s when she arrived a year ago. Now it runs more than 200, thanks to a devoted network of lay volunteers and a thriving Master's Commission franchise that she launched soon after arriving.

In a time when teens are often sidelined until they're old enough not to embarrass their parents and church leaders, she is known for encouraging youth to accomplish great things for God--while they're still young.

"I think I have the privilege of ministering to the generation that will usher in the return of Jesus," Jeanne says. "If you study the major revivals, you see that they started with movers and shakers who were in their teens and 20s."

She is convinced that this spiritual potential is locked in the DNA of youth itself--and it drives her entire philosophy of ministry and her expectations of those who serve under her. As a result, people she has mentored are known for their hard work, creativity and longevity in ministry. And they often find themselves in high demand from churches looking for youth pastors.

Frankie Mazzapica was a 19-year-old youth pastor at Triumph Church in Beaumont, Texas, when Jeanne visited his church and invited him to become an intern in her ministry in Rockford. Later, Mazzapica moved on to serve as senior-high youth pastor at the largest congregation in America--Lakewood Church in Houston, pastored by Joel Osteen. In December 2004 he left Lakewood to travel as an itinerant youth evangelist.

Mazzapica explains that Jeanne taught him to focus on the aspects of ministry "below the waterline," such as prayer, relationships and servanthood. He also recalls her passion for "chasing," as she calls it--pursuing unsaved people who she believes possess potential for leadership, bringing them to Christ, discipling them and then thrusting them into ministry.

"Youth was not made for pleasure," Jeanne contends. "It was made for heroism."

The problem, she explains, is that we've lowered our expectations of young people, assuming that they will be satisfied with fun and games. Nothing could be further from the truth, she argues.

"What if we challenged teens not to make Jesus an add-on to their lives, but to make Him everything?" she asks.

"Unfortunately, the church hasn't had the guts to demand this type of commitment from people," she laments. "If you make big demands, you get big sacrifices. If you make little demands, you get little sacrifices."

In fact, it was Bridget Mergens, a girl from Jeanne's youth group in Nebraska, who challenged a Nebraska school district to allow religious clubs in public schools--and was ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court. The court's interpretation of the Equal Access Act became precedent for future cases, and students from New York to Minnesota launched Bible clubs in their schools.

If the fact that their youth pastor is a 55-year-old woman is not enough to capture their attention, Jeanne is considered by colleagues in youth ministry to be a gold mine of inventive ideas that usually end up working.

"Jeanne Mayo is intensely aware of the issues facing youth today," says youth evangelist Josh McDowell. "She is personally involved in kids' lives and is a loving friend to each and every student. I'm continually impressed by Jeanne's vision for the future and her practical strategies for reaching young people."

These "strategies" are often anything but conventional. She may not be the first youth pastor to use a casket in a sermon illustration. But she's probably the first to do so with a casket containing the body of her own mother--the night before the funeral, no less.

The message? "Someday, you're going to walk past the casket of your mom or dad," Jeanne told an audience of stunned teens. "Like me, you won't have time to go back and say you're sorry, to give them the words of love and appreciation."

Another time, she loaded the entire youth group into buses and took them to a junkyard, where they sat on piles of tires and rusty cars as she preached.

"Sooner or later, everything you've been craving in life is going to end up here," she said. "This is the stuff that you're being tempted to barter your eternal destiny for. The only thing that will last is relationships--with Jesus and with those who honor Him."

Unfortunately, statistics would suggest that fewer teens than ever are pursuing a relationship with God. In 2000, pollster George Barna reported that only 1 out of 4 teens describe themselves as "committed Christians"--half the percentage found among adults. And compared to teens throughout the last 20 years, today's youth have the lowest likelihood of attending church when they are living independent of their parents.

According to Jeanne, however, the crisis in youth ministry is not a lack in creativity or relevance--something many youth pastors have in surplus quantity. Instead, what irks her more than anything is the brevity of some youth pastors' tenures and the tendency for youth ministry to be seen as a stepping stone to the senior pastorate.

It doesn't help that numbers are often the primary means by which success is measured, she says, citing the first question that youth pastors often ask one another when they meet: "So, how many are you running ... ?"

"We're not really honest in ministry," she argues. "We're much better at telling our success stories than we are telling when our heads get beat in."

This honesty is what has driven Jeanne to launch Youth Source (, a network of 1,000-plus youth pastors--both lay and full-time--who receive monthly CDs and newsletters encouraging them in their personal lives and offering them ideas for effective ministry.

To them her message is simple: "Work your guts out, pray your guts out, love their guts out." Sure, it's not the most glamorous proposition. But she's convinced that success is more determined by your commitment and love for God than by whether you fit the mold of the 21st century youth pastor--if there even is one anymore. Jeanne broke it.

Matthew Green is managing editor of Ministries Today.

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