Being an adult

Youth pastor and lead pastor in relationship

Mark Labberton Image Mark Labberton | Nov 1, 2010

I used to tell the church staff I led in Berkeley that I had two basic expectations of every staff person: a) they would seek to act like a disciple of Jesus Christ; and b) they would seek to act like an adult.

On an average day, I found the second the more testing.

Who wants to be an adult anyway?! To act like an adult is challenging because our culture doesn’t encourage people to take responsibility for their words, their character, their feelings, their relationships, and their actions. We could turn to so many different places to find examples of this avoidance, whether from parents or from children, in schools or in business, in churches or in media.

Relationships between lead pastors and youth pastors often stand right in this vortex, an example of the wider problem. Before we even come to the particularities of this relationship, however, let’s just make the obvious observation that being an adult age or having an adult job-title doesn’t necessarily correspond with adult behavior—and that is as true for some lead pastors as it is for some youth staff! Fortunately and unfortunately, the only way we ever get to minister is as ourselves—in whatever stages of development or developmental delay that may include. Our actual self inevitably shows up, and so do all of the strengths and weaknesses that come with it.

Who’s the Parent?

The lead pastor can often present as “the adult” or “the parent” to the youth pastor who presents as, and who may be, “the child.” This is one of the most difficult and fraught dynamics between the two: so “the parent” parents “the child” who, in turn, parents the children. This pattern is one of the first things that has to be sorted out for the relationship between lead pastor and youth pastor to work well.

How many times have I heard youth pastors or directors say they feel untrusted, unknown, or unappreciated by their head of staff. And likewise, how many times have I heard lead pastors parentally demean and critique their youth staff. Each often tells stories about the other that only further solidifies that an adult relationship does not exist.

For the relationship to become what it must become to be healthy, the lead pastor needs to decide not to parent the youth pastor. If someone is being given the responsibility to lead a youth ministry, whether as a volunteer, as a youth director, or as a youth pastor, they are being entrusted with major adult responsibility. The church is vesting them with one of the greatest privileges and one of the most important vocations in the whole life of the Church. Therefore, the selection of and the relationship to the youth staff needs to anticipate and expect this kind of adult maturity. The lead pastor needs to realize that they are not relating to a child on staff, but to an adult, someone who needs to be seen and treated as a colleague, who needs and deserves respect, who should be heard and trusted, and who is helping to shoulder substantial pastoral responsibility and leadership. This is how youth staff ought to be spoken to, and spoken about.

Likewise, the youth staff person needs to approach their relationship with their lead pastor as an adult as well. The contrast in relative age and power between many youth pastors and their lead pastor can complicate this. But so too does the Youth-Pastor-As-Peter-Pan phenomenon. The youth staff can’t have it both ways: they have to decide to grow up if they want to have a healthy relationship with their lead pastor. Their good humor, playfulness, spontaneity—all delightful parts of many youth leaders—are wonderful gifts. And added to these qualities there needs to be a personal maturity that doesn’t have to become “a boring adult,” but must approach their role and their relationship with the lead pastor as someone who takes responsibility for their life and ministry.

Re-Learning to Communicate

Direct, honest, non-triangulated, non-victimized communication is the responsibility of both the lead pastor and the youth staff. When lead pastor and youth staff can commit themselves in partnership to follow-through, to appropriate accountability, and to assuming the best of one another, the relationship will thrive. Each has the potential of being the other’s coach, seeking in mutual humility to listen to and learn from the other.

If the goal of youth ministry is that eventually each student becomes a thriving disciple and a healthy adult, then the relationship between the lead pastor and the youth staff is an essential place for these qualities to be demonstrated and encouraged.

Enlarging our Perspective

Perhaps part of our challenge in the youth pastor/lead pastor relationship is a lack of attention—from both sides. This manifests in behavior or perception of behavior that youth staff are behaving like adolescents. Senior staff then wonder, “Are you really paying attention to the wider reality?” For instance, when the youth staff can only ever beat the drum of the youth reality and can’t relate or talk about other realities within the congregation, their voice is likely to be less heard. We all need to give some reflection of being able to see the whole.

It is unfortunately the case that youth pastor and senior pastor may only get time together when there is some pressing problem to be addressed. This is a loss for everyone.

Below are a few questions to spur your own thoughts about making that connection stronger:

  • In the midst of paying attention to students, are you also paying attention to your senior leadership? As real people, with real responsibilities and burdens that are both like and not like yours?
  • How can you better support senior leadership in your church? What if the youth ministry regularly prayed for your lead pastor? What if you told your pastor about that commitment?
  • How can you get some time with your senior pastor in the next month? And how can you position yourself as a learner in that relationship in addition to helping your pastor understand what’s going on in kids’ world and your heart for how the church is responding?
Mark Labberton Image
Mark Labberton

Dr. Mark Labberton is the President of Fuller Theological Seminary. He served for 16 years as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, when he joined Fuller’s faculty, in 2009, as Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching and director of the newly established Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching.

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