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student ministry, youth worker, youth ministry

The Disconnect – Youth Pastor vs. Senior Pastor

By Doug Franklin September 19, 2011

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received the call from a senior pastor who is looking for any recommendations to fill the newly opened youth pastor job at their church. And often times, there’s a long list that has formed through a series of bad experiences, for what they don’t want to see in the new hire. I don’t blame them. The worst is when the next call comes from a youth pastor who is ready to quit because they just can’t seem to get on the same page with their senior pastor. Across the board I started witnessing a disconnect in this crucial ministry relationship. This disconnect led me to formally survey senior pastors and youth pastors on their relationships, focusing on things like communication and expectations. Those interviews made my heart break over the pain that was living inside of these relationships. Many of the best-case scenarios were of senior pastors and youth pastors that decided to co-exist and just not get involved in each other’s areas. Their relationship was unharmed, but it was also pretty shallow. This disconnect between senior pastors and youth pastors seemed all to common, and it saddened me.

Our churches can function with a staff that’s not unified. But they cannot reach the potential God has dreamed for them.

The Senior Pastor’s Point of View
In talking with many senior pastors, there are various things that can create a negative view of their youth pastor and disconnect them from each other, but one overarching way is the apparent immaturity in the youth pastor’s life. While it is a youth pastor’s job to spend a lot of time around kids, they should not actually be a kid themselves. It is true that in many ways, youth pastors need a childlike heart to be able to relate to students more effectively, but the immaturity sometimes seen throughout their daily lives leads senior pastors often to believe they have hired a child. This immaturity is displayed in many ways:

Not Partnering with Parents
One senior pastor told me how a dad had stormed into his office, furious that the youth pastor had not responded to multiple messages he had left. The dad had some questions about an upcoming retreat and the longer the youth pastor remained silent, the more the dad wanted to pull his student from the retreat. When the senior pastor confronted the youth pastor about the situation, he received a shrug and a defensive “why don’t the parents just read the calendar I gave them at the beginning of the month? Do you know how many ridiculous questions I’ve answered this week?” This youth pastor clearly did not understand how to partner with parents, which is a common problem for a group of people who are usually new in the parent department, and rarely have teenagers of their own. Youth pastors need help from the senior pastor on how to see parents as allies and truly partner with them in the development of their students. All the seminary training in the world won’t make them effective at partnering with and empowering parents to grow their students. Senior pastors are the key ingredient to making this parent partnership successful.

Lack of Professionalism
Just because youth pastors work with students, does not mean they should act like students. Too many full time youth pastors feel the need to get on the same level with students by dressing like them or acting like them, but this lack of professionalism does not lend itself to building trust with senior pastors or elder boards. Youth pastors who show up for work late, wear pajamas to work, and never return phone calls are hard to take seriously. So when these same youth pastors try and defend their budgets or an idea they have for improving their next great event, it’s easy to see why no one listens.  Unfortunately, it is not always easy for them to see this. The senior pastor might be the first real boss they have ever had, and presentation may not have mattered before in their lives. These expectations are usually unclear to youth pastors who are unprofessional (yes, even when you’ve said it before) and the constant communication of expectations will rescue the youth pastor from being dismissed by other adults in the church.

Failure to Communicate Bad News
Youth ministry lends itself to some bad news. Combine immature students with sugar and hormones, a handful of hovering parents, wacky games, and college aged volunteers, and we all know you’re going to have some bad news. You’ll also have some life-changing kingdom moments. But they are probably coupled with some things like a hospital visit, broken relationships, or a run-in with a parent. All too often youth pastors are the last people to tell the senior pastor this bad news, and this should never be the case. As soon as something happens that is not part of the plan, youth pastors NEED to communicate this to their senior pastors. This is a maturity thing, and there’s not a whole lot senior pastors can do except be approachable. Being approachable will help protect the youth ministry (as senior pastors begin to learn things before they turn bad) and grow the youth pastor’s maturity.

The Youth Pastor’s Point of View
In every argument, there is always another side. Being a part of a ministry that directly serves youth pastors, I have over the last two decades heard countless stories of pain from youth pastors about the relationship they have with their senior pastor. These stories have broken my heart and caused me great sadness. These stories of pain have been caused by many different things, but they all pretty much deal with missed expectations the youth pastor had for this key relationship. Most youth pastors long for their relationship with their senior pastor to be filled with mentoring, but instead they might find someone who is simply looking for performance and results. The youth pastor may feel like a second rate staff member, being squeezed by the pressure of more responsibilities and lack of finances for their new family.

Youth pastors long to be poured into because most understand they don’t know everything. Most of these young men and women went to school to learn how to develop students, yet when they got a job, they were not prepared to make a budget, manage a staff, or handle parent relationships. Senior pastors have the experience and the knowledge of how to handle many of the overwhelming situations youth pastors find themselves in, yet they may miss the opportunity to mentor them, wishing instead that the person they hired would just be able to do their job. This relationship has the power to be something great, and it is what many youth pastors are longing for, but they do not know how to communicate this to their senior pastor. When senior pastors and youth pastors are connected, they can truly serve and meet the needs of their congregation, and grow together in the process.

About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More