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Ministry Companions: Youth Workers & Pastors in Partnership

  • Will Penner and Dan Sanders-Wooley Youthworker Journal
  • Published Feb 07, 2005
Ministry Companions: Youth Workers & Pastors in Partnership

Seven years ago, a new church-planting pastor met a struggling graduate student who was looking for a place to live. Today this senior pastor and youth minister are friends, colleagues, coworkers, and, most importantly, companions in ministry.

Though the graduate student had recently been licensed to the ministry, he wasn't looking for a job. He was looking for an historic home to caretake, in lieu of paying rent and utilities; that would be just enough, he'd calculated, to make his stipend cover expenses and let him focus all his energies on getting a Ph.D. in Education and Human Development. In search of such a home, he sent letters to everyone he could think of, including the local historical preservation society.

The young Presbyterian Church was in the process of seeking a new choir director, and the founding pastor of that church outside Nashville had also been on the lookout for someone who'd make a good youth minister. As a former Young Life leader and church youth minister himself, he understood the impact a youth worker could have on the life of the church.

As these things often happen, the president of the historical society had a teenager at this church…and she served on the church's personnel committee. The graduate student's letter referenced the student's experience leading church choirs. So, when she received the letter, she passed it on to the pastor, who called the graduate student—who, since he'd found no historic home (or any other kind) to live in, was open to almost anything.

The graduate student went to meet with the pastor, thinking they'd discuss a position as Minister of Music, a role he'd served in two previous churches. When the pastor started talking about youth ministry, the student was horrified. After all, youth ministers worked too hard, had weird hours, got far too little prestige, and didn't get paid well! There was no way! The pastor, however, recognized someone with great youth leadership potential, so he offered him the job as choir director combined with "some" youth ministry responsibilities. The student accepted the challenge, and a new friendship was formed. It seemed that they'd work well together.

And they've been doing it ever since.


According to Mark 3:13-19, many, many people were surrounding Jesus, wanting to be a part of whatever it was he had to offer. Among the throng, Jesus chose 12. He called them to heal the sick and preach the gospel, but, first and foremost, he called them to be his companions in ministry.

When we first thought of writing an article about how well we work together, we thought about a dialogue approach or even a debate. Maybe the senior pastor would write a "what all senior pastors should know about their Youth Ministers," and vice-versa. As we wrestled with our scompanions in ministry. It's an accurate image of what we've experienced together and a good model for staff relationships in the church.tructure, we continued to return to this notion of

Because we approach our ministry in partnership, we approached this article the same way. We decided to write the entire article together in order to model our work. We've both heard the nightmare stories about staff relationships in churches (and have some experience in being parts of dysfunctional staffs ourselves). Most of those negative experiences seem to result from churches developing business models, instead of biblical models, for their staffs. But it's the model of companions in ministry that seems the most appropriate for staff relationships.

Ultimately, we get along so well together for that very reason—because we're companions in ministry. And because we get along well, working together is enjoyable. In the seven years we've worked together, we've had plenty of difficulties in our church environment; but our interpersonal relationship has held fast—something that's been a saving grace in times that might have caused a great deal of conflict in other staff situations.

When conflict has arisen, we've problem-solved together. As our relationship has grown, we've found a bedrock of mutuality that undergirds everything we do. Mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual appreciation are evident in all of our interactions.

Mutual Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship. When one friend trusts another friend, she'll go out of her way to build up and encourage; she'll give her friend the benefit of the doubt; and she'll do her best to be trustworthy in return. When we trust God, we're less anxious about the unknowns in our lives; and we long to live worthy lives in response to God's trust in us.

The youth pastor/senior pastor relationship is no different. When we trust each other, we edify one another. We show appreciation to each other—in private and in public. We don't criticize each other behind the other's back—the emotional equivalent of marital infidelity. Trust is built on being committed to each other and standing by that.

We spend some non-work time together. We don't buy into the notion that personal lives and work lives need to be kept separate and compartmentalized. We realize that, even though we have different roles in the church, fundamentally we're just two people trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Spending time together outside of the church leads to a much greater level of trust, and we're convinced that this is much closer to the model of Jesus and his disciples than the corporate approach many churches take.

Because of this continually deepening trust, we also share information. Communication between companions in ministry is vital. It's important that the senior pastor never be blindsided by something that's gone awry (of course, we know nothing ever goes awry when it comes to youth!). The youth pastor needs to let him know upfront rather than wait for him to find out from someone else. If he has already been informed from the youth pastor, when it comes to him from another source he doesn't look ignorant of what's going on. When the pastor sees the youth pastor about to stick his foot in quicksand with the elder board or parents (and we know that never happens either—just theoretically speaking, you understand), the youth pastor will appreciate hearing about it ahead of time. Perhaps it can keep him from having to dig himself out of a hole that he could've avoided.

Mutual Respect

The key to a healthy spiritual life is humility. And the key to long-term successful ministry is to never get to the point where you think you know everything. Or think that just because you're the boss, that means you are in charge. The only one in charge of the church laid down his life for her.

One of the most magnificent things about working with adolescents is their irreverence for worn-out traditions and structures and their passion to create identities and traditions of their own. Many youth workers choose the profession because they share some of that irreverence, and it's important not to allow these tendencies to create an Us vs. Them environment.

Since the fundamental question of adolescence is one of identity, it often is manifested not only as "Who am I?" but "Who am I apart from you?" This has to be resolved before significant interchange can take place. Since a certain part of youth is, "I am me, not you," we hear things like, "We want worship that's meaningful to us!" Part of that is just generational, wanting a separate identity, but youth ministers should be careful not to slip into "our way is good; theirs is bad." That kind of attitude can have large institutional implications.

As much as possible, we integrate our youth ministry into the life of the church-at-large. In addition to keeping the body of Christ whole, this wins points with parents, fosters intergenerational relationships, makes it easier to get adult volunteers, and makes everyone feel better about the youth ministry in general (which, incidentally, adds job security). Just as the goal of mature adulthood is not complete independence but healthy interdependence, the goal of youth ministry is a healthy interdependence within the community of faith. A freestanding, teen-only environment leaves no one to usher young people into adulthood.

Youth pastors need to help kids understand that they're not autonomous. Many bring parents along, and the senior pastor deals with them. So free-flowing communication about what kids need and what their parents need is vital. At its best, youth ministry should provide parents with a safe place where they can begin to let go of their children without dropping them into nothingness. They can let them go within an environment where adults share their core convictions. A senior pastor who trusts and respects the youth minister and who has all necessary information can significantly aid parents in this part of their journey.

Mutual Appreciation
We're one body with many parts. Any time we begin to devalue the work of another part, we're setting ourselves up for failure. No body can fully function without the parts doing what each is specifically called to do.

One of the quickest ways to hamstring a good youth minister is for the pastor to micromanage. A better choice is to hire a good person—one the pastor can trust and respect—then, leave him alone and let him do his job. If he's micromanaged, he may stay out of trouble with the pastor, but he'll likely be ineffective with the kids. If the pastor is spending all of her time checking up on the youth minister, she's probably not doing what she needs to do, either.

More than any other position in the church, youth ministers are outside the box. They don't just act a little outside the box; they often live way outside the box—which is why kids are drawn to them. That's actually a spiritual gifting. But, many youth workers like to constantly rebel—going against the grain, swimming against the flow. Such metaphors are best left for Christians struggling to counteract worldly influences, not dealings with your senior pastor.

One reason that we've gotten along so well is that we each know the other has valuable insight into the lives of people and situations in our congregation that we do not. We each see from a different perspective simply because of where we're standing. We're able to share our insights freely, appreciating the different perspective the other brings.

We also trust that God has called each of us to our specific areas of ministry, which means that the youth pastor cannot do the senior minister's job as well as he can, and vice-versa. It's simply not our place to tell the other one how to execute his call.

Along with trusting God's call, we find power in praying for one another. Continually lifting up your ministry companion in prayer connects people in ways nothing else can.

It's important for the youth minister not to assume that youth ministry is the only thing going on; there's other important work happening in the church. We need to share creative ideas, insights, and resources—which may mean we spend a lot of time helping the children's ministry look good, and no one sees the fruit directly for the teens. That's good biblical servanthood, because we're not worrying about who gets the credit.

That founding pastor of East Brentwood Presbyterian Church is still the Senior Pastor, and that graduate student is still their Director of Youth Ministries. He hasn't yet finished that Ph.D., because he found God's calling in youth ministry. They're still great friends and still enjoy working together.

Jesus' disciples ultimately went out to do ministry in twos. We like that image. We're pretty sure God doesn't intend for us to be Lone Rangers out there, because that's not how we function best. We function best through trusting, respecting, and appreciating each other. We function best as companions in ministry. And come to think of it, even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, didn't he?

Will Penner
has worked with junior high and high school students as a teacher, coach, and principal, and he's served on staff at Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. He's currently the editor of Youthworker, and he's been the Director of Youth Ministries at East Brentwood Presbyterian Church for the past seven years.

Dan Sanders-Wooley was a youth worker for a decade and has been a pastor in the Presbyterian Church for 18 years. He has an acute interest in new church development and church growth, especially for young adults who tend to drift away from church. He was the organizing pastor of East Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where he has served as the senior pastor for the past 15 years.