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A Pastors Guide to Youth Leaders

A Pastors Guide to Youth Leaders

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. 

Once you have somebody in the position, be honest with yourself and them about their strengths and weaknesses. Rather than fault them for it, try to find ways to support them. Let's say, for example, they aren't the best with administrative tasks (a wild example, I know). Find a volunteer who can come in a few hours a week to assist with administrative tasks.  

Pass the Ketchup

This last one may seem like a no-brainer, but it can actually be the most difficult. While the first two sections dealt primarily with ministry matters, this last one gets more personal. Develop a friendship with your youth leader. For some, this comes easy because you may already have a lot of common ground to build upon (my three B's of instant friendship are burritos, babies, and batman). For others, the only shared passion might be ministry and building a friendship will be more of a challenge. 

I've noticed that many churches have adopted a structure that isn't always friendship-friendly. The lead pastor is seen as the boss whose primary task when it comes to other church employees is to manage and supervise. This model is fine and necessary in the business world, but church isn't business, it's ministry, and as such it should function differently. Your youth leader is more than just an employee; they're a member of your congregation (try and find a business with that model!). So while the tasks of managing and supervising may fall to you, so do the tasks of shepherding and encouraging. 

While it may seem forced at first, commit to getting lunch together once or twice a month. Simply having regular interactions outside of the church will change the dynamic of the relationship inside the church. And while conversations may gravitate towards ministry, ensure that you're having a conversation and not an performance evaluation. I guarantee that this simple act of sharing a meal will speak volumes to your youth leader. 

I hope this article helps you understand and connect with your youth leader. Of course, every situation is different, but all of these points are simple and easily adaptable to many different circumstances. If you have just hired or are about to hire a youth leader, I hope these pointers can help start you off on the right foot. If you've had a youth leader for a while, perhaps this can lead to a fresh start and a new season of ministry and friendship together. 

Keith Cotton blogs at Popcropolis. Find him on Facebook here!

Publication date: July 24, 2012