The relationship between a head pastor and a youth leader is critical, not only for the health of the youth ministry, but for the entire church. A negative relationship can subtly (or not so subtly) put volunteers and teens in opposition to church leadership resulting in conflict and ineffective ministry; equally, a positive relationship can help your ministry flourish and make it easier to have a holistic ministry as opposed to a “one-eared Mickey Mouse” model (a popular term originally coined by Stuart Cummings-Bond in the late 1980's). 

I'm not writing this article to criticize lead pastors. Nor am I insinuating that the responsibility lies fully on the lead pastor to create a positive relationship. I've witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to pastor/youth leader relationships and I genuinely hope this article provides practical tips that can serve as a starting point for pastors and youth leaders to begin building positive relationships. 

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

Nothing can kill the spirit of a youth leader faster than knowing they're not being listened to. Despite the fact that having a youth leader is normal in many churches today, we still feel the need to justify our existence. It is not unusual to face the question, “What do you actually do during the week?” from church members. It seems this is their secret way of trying to figure out why we get paid, and I've found the best answer is to invite the inquiring party to teach a bible lesson to a group of middle schoolers.  If that doesn't justify our salary, I don't know what does. 

All that is to say, if a head pastor doesn't respect the youth ministry, the congregation won't either, and that respect starts in the one-on-one meetings and staff gatherings that happen throughout the week. All too often, I hear about youth leaders who feel alone in their ministry. Beyond a lack of volunteers, they don't sense support from other church leaders and  feel as though they are competing with other ministries instead of collaborating. 

I think there is a common misconception that youth leaders long to be set free from accountability. That we're free-wheeling rogues who want to be left alone to do what we want. In fact, the opposite is true; the more experience I have gained in ministry, the more I want support and collaboration, especially from my head pastor. This isn't an attempt to diminish responsibilities, but an honest desire for advice and input.

Great Expectations

“The ideal candidate for this position will be a strong, dynamic leader who is creative, organized, relational, and musically gifted with strong administrative skills.” That sentence could have very easily been pulled from numerous job postings for youth leader jobs. If you don't believe me, look for yourself; many churches are searching for their very own Mary Poppins. A leader who floats in on their magical umbrella toting a bottomless bag of ministry tricks who sweeps in and makes things work.  

The problem is that youth leader doesn't exist; it is merely a figment of the search committee's imagination and the result is ultimately disappointment. Well-intentioned churches set impossibly high standards for well-qualified youth leaders who eventually fail to live up to the expectations. Both parties are left wondering what went wrong and the ministry winds up suffering. 

This unfortunate pattern is fortunately fixable, although it takes substantially more work on the part of the head pastor and search committee. Many churches want a new youth leader to come in an develop a vision around the existing expectations. If you want to find a better fit for the position, begin developing a vision yourself and then set job expectations that stem from that vision. You will quickly realize what important traits will be necessary to lead that vision and you're employee search will have much more focus.