Out of all the types of conflict I endured during my 36 years in church ministry, I had more trouble with paid youth leaders than anyone else.
Whether they were called youth ministers … pastors … directors … or student ministry directors, I often struggled in my working relationship with them.
Did I try and micromanage them?
No. I served three pastors as a youth pastor, and none of them micromanaged me, so I made sure to give them plenty of space to develop their own ministries.
Did I insist they work unreasonable hours?
No. I expected that they would work a minimal number of hours, but I’ve never been a workaholic, and didn’t expect staff members to outwork me.
Did I yell at them in anger?
No. I never yelled at any staff member. There were times I felt like screaming, but by the grace of God, I kept it together.
Did I confront them unreasonably?
No. Most of the time, if I had a concern or a question about their ministry, I’d walk down the hall and speak with them personally and directly in their office.
I tried to convey several basic expectations whenever I worked with a paid youth leader:
*I expect you to carry out our church’s mission and vision statements.
*I expect you and your adult leaders to attend at least one worship service on Sundays.
*I expect you to be present during office hours … which you set.
*I expect you to be present during staff meetings.
*I expect you to let me know what you’re doing in your ministry.
*I expect you to let me know of any potential problems with youth or their parents. If you inform me right away about any possible blowback, I will back you to the hilt.
*I expect you to fight for your viewpoint on any area where we disagree, but once I’ve made a decision, I expect that you will abide by it.
Those seem like simple guidelines, don’t they?
Yet I was amazed at how often they were violated.
Most of the time, conflict occurred because the youth leader viewed himself as a pastor equal in authority to the lead pastor.
*The youth leader had his own congregation: the youth group.
*The youth leader had his own staff: adult volunteers.
*The youth leader had his own office and computer.
*The youth leader carried out ministry in specific church rooms.
*The youth leader ran his own budget and planned his own events.
*The youth leader was viewed as “our pastor” by his adult volunteers and young people.
But the youth leader didn’t like having to be accountable to anyone … much less the lead pastor.
I saw this latter point demonstrated over and over again.
*One youth leader went on vacation for two weeks without asking my permission. He had only been on the job for two months.
*One youth leader told me he no longer believed in our church’s mission/vision.
*One youth leader not only let his adult volunteers skip worship services, but started a home church with them without telling me.
*One youth leader purchased expensive equipment for youth ministry … then kept the equipment at his house.
*One youth leader shared a large room with other ministries, but refused to clean up after using it … even when I asked him to do so repeatedly … upsetting the rest of the staff.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Over time, paid youth leaders created a big headache for me.
On the one hand, everyone expected us to have a thriving youth ministry … especially the parents of middle school and high school parents.
On the other hand, I had to restrain myself from firing several leaders … even though they deserved it … because it takes a long time to find another one.
One time, we had a youth leader whom I really liked. He was getting ready to graduate from seminary, and I offered him a job after graduation. The youth group wasn’t big enough to support a full-time person, so I asked him to lead the youth and do some teaching for adults (teaching was his primary spiritual gift), but he refused.
Either he was going to work exclusively with the youth, or he wasn’t going to work at all.
I suspected that he didn’t want to be accountable to me as his supervisor, so I let him walk.
But after he left, boy, did I hear about it!
One parent … with whom I had always gotten along … raked me over the coals in an email, telling me that something was wrong with our church because we couldn’t seem to hold onto youth leaders.
The ensuing search took about a year. After reviewing nearly 200 resumes, we brought eight different candidates to the church.
Either the youth didn’t think they were cool enough … or they made a bad impression on the staff … or they lacked solid character … or something wasn’t right.
Under pressure, we finally hired someone the kids thought was cool … but one of the adult volunteers came to me a year later and poured out instance after instance of unethical behavior … right at the beginning of the summer.
I took two days to investigate the charges.
Evidence in hand, I confronted the youth leader … who didn’t see anything wrong with anything he had done. In fact, he later told me that I was the problem.
The youth leader deserved to be fired. Immediately. I asked pastor after pastor, “If this person did these things at your church, what would you do?”
Everyone said, “Fire him.”
But that meant that all the events the youth had planned for the summer would be cancelled because we didn’t have anyone else available who could step in.
Against my better judgment, I let him stay … and he ripped me to shreds in private … and a few months later, he finally resigned and left the church.
When I was a pastor, I suffered more sleepless nights over staff issues than anything else … and the majority of those times involved paid youth leaders.
Let me share four conclusions I’ve reached about lead pastors working with paid youth leaders:
First, most young spiritual leaders do not share the values of their pastor/supervisor.
A professor from my seminary told me that since many new students come to the school without a basic sense of morality or ethical behavior, the school puts them through a morality/ethics orientation class when they first arrive.
A Christian counselor told me that our culture is raising a generation of sociopaths who can’t distinguish right from wrong.
I noticed a pattern among several of the youth leaders I supervised: it was okay for them to cut ethical corners as long as they got the job done.
In their world, the ends did indeed justify the means … but not in my world. (Is it okay for a youth pastor to use four-letter words on youth outings … or to drive well over the speed limit with youth in the car … or to trade equipment bought by the church without anyone’s permission?)
These scenarios raise a key question: should the pastor/supervisor adjust himself to his staff members, or should the staff members adjust themselves to their supervisor?
I stand in the latter camp, but my guess is that most young leaders are in the first camp.
Second, many in the Buster Generation act like they already know everything.
I believe that the Boomer Generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) were willing to learn from the previous generation (the Builders).
For example, Rick Warren (a Boomer) considered W. A. Criswell (a Builder) to be his father in the faith.
And when I was a youth pastor, I certainly obeyed my Builder pastors and submitted to their authority.
Maybe I’m wrong … or overgeneralizing … but I just haven’t seen the Buster Generation (those born between 1965 and 1983) wanting to learn nearly as much from the Boomers.
In fact, I’ve often said that the Busters act like world history began the day they were born.
I saw this attitude most often during staff meetings. When a ministry dilemma came up, I’d share with the staff what I’d learned about an issue over the years, including mistakes I’d made.
The other staff members were usually appreciative, but many times, I watched the youth leaders roll their eyes and act like, “I don’t need to hear this from you.”
My kids are both Busters, and they’ve told me, “Dad, not everyone in our generation is like that.” But sadly, all too many are.
I remember reading an article in a Christian magazine about ten years ago where the children of Boomer parents who attended my university severely criticized the way their parents’ generation did ministry … and these were kids in their early twenties.
Paid youth leaders can bring that same mindset into their relationship with their pastor.
Third, many in the Buster Generation hate the institutional church.
I can’t speak for Millennials here .. just for Busters.
Most of the youth leaders I knew did not like the structure of a local church.
They were happy to collect a salary from their church … while inwardly rebelling against it.
There are things that I don’t like about the institutional church as well. Sometimes we’ve adopted a business model and superimposed it over the local church … and then tell people they have to support the institution with their attendance, time, and money.
That kind of mentality can drain the life out of a local church.
But I had one youth leader tell me that he didn’t believe in the institutional church anymore and that he was looking at other models instead.
That’s fine with me if you accompany that statement with your resignation … but not if you stay inside the church and undermine what we’re doing … which he did.
This disdain for structure and organization may explain why so many younger people choose missions over local church ministry.
I finally began telling rebellious youth leaders, “Look, if you just want to hang out with the youth, and you want nothing to do with the church as a whole, then take an offering every week among the youth, and whatever they put in will be your salary. But as long as this church is paying your salary, you need to have some connection with the church as a whole.”
Finally, a church that finds a good youth leader should hold onto him for dear life.
I once asked a veteran youth pastor, “What should I look for in a potential youth person?”
He replied, “They have to love the Lord … and they have to love kids.”
I once knew a man who led the youth ministry at one of Orange County’s top churches. As I recall, he was there for several decades … well into his fifties.
For a long time, I wondered, “How can the church employ someone that old?”
But he worked hard … he loved the kids … and his character was solid.
I don’t know the average tenure of a youth leader anymore, but it’s probably still less than a year.
Yet I subscribe to the axiom, “It is better to have no one than the wrong person.”
It’s tough being a youth leader. You have to account to more people than anybody else in the church.
In one church where I worked with youth, I was accountable to the senior pastor … the Christian Education Committee chairman … the committee as a whole … the parents of the youth … and anybody who wanted to take a potshot at me.
With a youth group of 100 kids, I was out every Sunday night … every Wednesday night … most Friday or Saturday nights … and all while I was writing a seminary thesis … finishing work for my degree … trying to pay attention to my wife … and caring for our newborn son.
One December, I was out fifteen straight nights. In the end, I couldn’t keep the pace, and longed to be a pastor somewhere … anywhere … with much less to do.
In my case, I was using youth ministry as a steppingstone to becoming a senior pastor … and I was very upfront about it.
But if you can find someone called to youth ministry who loves Jesus … loves kids … has a solid character … and willingly submits to one supervisor (usually the lead pastor) … then grab him … keep him happy … and never let him go.
Based on the way I was trained, I don’t know what I could have done differently with the various youth leaders I worked with.
I liked them personally. I tried to spend time with them. I listened to them. I fought for them to be treated well.
And yet in the end, my efforts were never reciprocated … and I was often undermined.
My wife told me, “Jim, you’re too nice, and they’re taking advantage of your niceness. You need to be tougher with them.”
Maybe she was right.
But I also have reason to believe that I was a father figure to most youth leaders, that they had trouble getting along with their own fathers, and that they projected those troubles onto me.
A former missionary once told me, “We could win the world for Christ if missionaries could just get along.”
A corollary might be, “We could have far healthier and better churches if pastors and their staff members could just get along.”
And in my case, that refers specifically to youth leaders.