Consider the following familiar scenario. A pastor takes a new call in youth ministry. He begins enthusiastically, on fire to gather young people into Christ’s fold. Youth ministry begins to flourish over the course of the next two years, and then suddenly he resigns. The youth are devastated. The congregation is at first bemused, then shrugs its collective shoulders, and re-gathers itself for another mission study, another search committee, and hopefully a better match. Perhaps the next associate pastor will last a little longer.
The issue of longevity has come up repeatedly in the six years I’ve been running grants supporting ordained youth pastors. A number of grant participant pastors left their first pastoral calls prematurely, before they even had time to settle into a congregation. When asked why, most cited poor staff relationships, particularly with pastor, head-of-staff colleagues. Whether there is overt or covert friction among the ministers, it’s the associate pastor who moves on to another call.
Staff relationships matter. The God we serve dwells in Trinitarian community. We do not live alone, nor do we serve alone. We’re called to life together, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The congregational system described above begets a cycle of unintentional outcomes. Youth learn that their pastors either can’t or won’t stay the course with them. The congregation remains in pastoral search mode. The head of staff needs not examine unhelpful patterns of interaction with colleagues. The peripatetic youth pastor misses the gift of living and serving deeply within Christian community. “Serial monogamy” in youth ministry becomes the default position for all concerned.
Youth pastors play a complex congregational role. They serve as program staff, fundraisers, middle managers, diplomats, chauffeurs, travel agents, colleagues, and, oh yes, pastors to a population whose daily highs and lows can sometimes beggar belief. Youth ministries bear the weight of great expectation: youth are simultaneously the hope for the future and the bane of the facilities staff. Youth activities invade physical and spiritual sacrosanct space. Youth ministry pushes against congregational norms. Youth ministers are always asking for more: a different space for broomball, more money for the mission trip, student friendly work hours. Since youth ministers and youth ministries inhabit the spaces where congregational norms are stretched, youth pastors have a particular charge to build respectful, intentional working relationships with colleagues.
It takes wisdom to do youth ministry, and wisdom begins with taking the right call. The critical piece of discerning a new call is finding out whether it will be possible to work well with the head of staff. A wise search committee will do everything possible within the limits of the call process to ensure that potential ministerial colleagues have sufficient opportunity to take each other’s measure. Such colleagues woefully underestimate the importance of these relationships until they sour. Intentional attention to building respectful collegial relationships in ministry is well worth the time and effort.
When staff relationships sour it’s tempting to focus on the foibles and frailties of one’s colleagues. It’s more fruitful to focus on self-management. Self-management is an ongoing intentional proactive practice. To paraphrase Barack Obama, “Be the colleague you wish to see.” Courteous ministry colleagues come to meetings prepared and on time, and they plan ahead, they consider how their programmatic plans might affect other ministries. They model respectful, rancor-free disagreement, and they do so within the staff offices. No Session meeting was ever edified by watching the church staff ambush each other, however passively. Professional ministry colleagues aim to disagree in a manner divorced from personal attack.
Ministry colleagues who enjoy regular staff lunches and office birthday celebrations need not be close friends outside of the congregation. Church staffs exist for the purpose of doing ministry together. The various ministry initiatives of the church, including youth ministry, are pieces woven into a whole cloth of the church’s mission. When youth ministry is not aligned with congregational vision, tensions may arise. Sometimes youth ministry even drives a congregation’s vision for renewal!
In an anecdotal poll, I asked a few youth pastors and heads of staff about building fruitful staff relationships. The heads of staff understand these relationships in terms of team building. “My role is to draw each staff member into the broader church, so they can see where their ministry fits into the larger whole,” says one pastor. Another says: “I sometimes have to remind really talented and gifted pastors that this isn’t about them … they need to function as part of the whole.” These pastors spend intentional time with ministry and program colleagues, in private and team meetings. “It takes an enormous amount of time to equip the ministry team.” Lead pastors who are intentional about this piece of their job description set the stage for fruitful team ministry and appropriate collegial relationships.
Youth pastors want good relationships with their supervisory colleagues. For youth pastors, this is a primary relationship, and if it’s not going well it affects their ministry profoundly. Youth pastors also want to think and dream with the whole team, to collaborate in ministry, to be in mutually helpful relationships. They are eager to earn trust, to be free to do their work well without undue amounts of supervision, as illustrated by the following quotes: “Let the work speak for itself … while being open to ideas for making it better next time,” says one pastor. “I appreciate collaborative autonomy … where responsibilities are clearly defined, but information and ideas are shared … this models a way of being for the congregation as well.” Youth pastors want to contribute: “I don’t want to do my pastor’s job, but I’d like the chance to interact with the larger congregation.” Youth pastors relish the opportunity to preach at times other than Youth Sunday. They appreciate arenas for interpreting the vision for youth ministry for the larger congregation. They want to be an integral part of the ministry team.
One pastor quoted an African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Intentionality and responsibility for healthy staff relationships is part of everyone’s call.
Leslie Dobbs-Allsopp has coordinated two Lilly Endowment Inc.-funded grant projects based at the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. Both grants have centered around learning from and supporting ordained youth pastors.