3 Keys To A Better Relationship With Your Senior Pastor

3 Keys To A Better Relationship With Your Sr. Pastor
By Jim Hampton

Nine months into his first job as a youth pastor, Tom sat in his senior pastor’s office and heard these stinging words: “Tom, I think it’s in the best interest of the church if you resign.”

“Shocked” would be an understatement. Tom sat there reeling, wondering what he’d done to deserve this kind of treatment. He quickly ran through the conversations he’d recently had with his senior pastor, looking for clues that would have warned him that this sucker punch was coming.

Tom really thought things were going well in his ministry. The teenagers in his youth group were reaching unchurched friends, and they’d responded well to his discipleship strategies. It was easy to see they were maturing in their faith. He’d worked hard to train his adult volunteers to make an impact in kids’ lives, and they’d bought into his ministry’s vision and philosophy.

But then it dawned on him… Tom was focusing only on his youth ministry’s health, not the health of his relationship with his senior pastor; he had to admit it’d been deteriorating for several months. They rarely talked to each other outside of the staff meeting. And when they did, it was usually a unilateral discussion with the senior pastor telling Tom what he “needed to know.”

In retrospect Tom realized his vision for ministry was not congruent with his senior pastor’s priorities. As a result, Tom often felt constrained in his efforts to reach teenagers. More important, Tom felt tension whenever he and the senior pastor were in the same room together. Turns out, the clues to Tom’s downfall were everywhere-he just hadn’t paid much attention to them.

This was a turning point in Tom’s life. For the first time he realized that his relationship with his senior pastor could make or break his ministry.

The Hurdles To Overcome

Unfortunately, Tom’s experience is not unique. As a professor who trains young people for youth ministry, I’m more and more concerned about the growing numbers of my former students who tell me they’ve really struggled to develop a positive and healthy relationship with their senior pastors-this is the #1 problem I hear about. So over the last two years, I’ve surveyed hundreds of youth pastors and senior pastors about their relationships-the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here’s a snapshot of the major issues youth pastors identified as impacting their relationships with their senior pastors.

1 Complaints that the church views youth ministers with less respect than other staff members.

So what does this have to do with your relationship with your senior pastor? Many I interviewed said they saw a direct relationship between the way their senior pastors showed public respect for them and the way the church did. Essentially, they wished their senior pastors would be more affirming of who they are and what they do, rather than viewing them as “second-class staffers.” One youth pastor told me, “I just with for once that he would see me as a peer in ministry, rather than as the paid baby sitter for the teens. He’s never even once affirmed me publicly as a minister.” Of course, respect in ministry is earned. If we’re lazy, undisciplined, and unprepared, we deserve our reputation, and public affirmation from a senior pastor won’t change a congregation’s perspective.

2 Complications because they never see their senior pastors outside of a supervisory relationship.

Far too often youth pastors told me they had no real relationship with their senior pastors outside of their role at church. That made it difficult for them to really know who their senior pastors were and what made them tick. “I’m not looking for a buddy-buddy thing,” one told me. “After all, there’s a 20-year age gap between us. But I’d like to get to know him as a person outside of the office-that would help me better understand him and the tensions he has to deal with.”

3 Complaints that their job descriptions change too often.

The youth pastor is often the first additional position filled in churches. Because of that, youth pastors are almost always asked to take on tasks that are outside youth ministry (worship, preaching, children’s ministry). It’s easy to see why conflict erupts around this fault line-you feel forced to do tasks that take you away from teenagers, and you resent it. One youth pastor told me: “I was hired to do youth ministry, but my pastor keeps adding other things to my plate. I’m lucky if I can give 20 hours a week to youth ministry now.” When you lack clarity about what you were hired to do, it can stifle your passion and muddle your ministry role.

Where We Need To Go

I’ve mapped the fault lines in the youth pastor-senior pastor relational terrain. Now what can you do to avoid an earthquake? Youth pastors who report healthy connections with their senior pastors follow what I call the Three P’s of Staff Ministry.

1 Pursue an active mentoring relationship with your senior pastor.

In my interviews, youth pastors told me they wished that their senior pastors would take time to actively mentor them, both in their spiritual lives and in their ministries. They asserted that their senior pastors had something good to offer. Yet when pressed, I discovered very few of them had ever invited their senior pastors to mentor them. “I guess I always thought if he wanted to mentor me, he would’ve taken the initiative,” said one.

We can’t assume senior pastors will initiate this conversation; some have a pretty good idea they’d encounter resistance. (In fact, a vocal minority of youth pastors I surveyed told me just that-their hubris blinded them to the benefits of a mentoring relationship.) My advice is simple: Find a way to invite your senior pastor to five mentoring input into your life. Based on my research, I can tell you there’s a very good chance he or she will be pleasantly surprised by your invitation, and more than willing to do it.

As the mentoring relationship grows, it’ll be much easier to have real conversations when you disagree on vision or philosophy. You’ll also develop a deeper appreciation for your pastor’s experience-to avoid “learning the hard way” in your ministry.

2 Pray together.

“Praying daily with my senior pastor has been the most important thing we’ve done together,” one youth pastor told me. “Doing this has allowed me to see how his heart breaks over the lost, his concern for those in our congregation, and his own struggles. In short, he’s become more human to me, and he’s someone I have great empathy for.” Another told me that when he prayed with his senior pastor, he forged a connection that far exceeded anything he could’ve established by merely hanging out together.

Over half of the youth pastors I interviewed said that while they don’t regularly pray with their senior pastors, they wish they did. Again, my advice is simple: Ask if your senior pastor would be willing to pray with you every week or every day. My guess is that the response will be an enthusiastic “yes!

3 Play together.

Play isn’t just for children. When we play together as adults, we celebrate our relationships. Play helps us lower our barriers-it’s hard to hold a grudge or be upset with someone when you play together.

While some who responded to my surveys pointed to the age difference with their senior pastors as a problem, many recognized that it was important for them to find something they could enjoy doing with their senior pastors outside of work. For some, it revolved around an interest in sports. Others talked about having similar interests in music, art, film, certain authors, and so on. The key isn’t what they did, but rather that they regularly spent time focusing on non-ministry stuff.

Of course, there’s nothing revolutionary about these three keys-except that very few youth pastors are practicing them. The simple reality is that those youth pastors who enjoy a healthy relationship with their senior pastors see these keys as essential.

Is It Really Well With Your Soul?
By Craig Legel

On a lonely country highway, I was driving home full of angst after our second summer SMASH meeting-that’s the name of our junior high youth group. I’d just spent two hours with the two-two!-kids who showed up that night. Now I’m not a numbers guy, but for a group that averages 25 to 30 kids on most nights, this was a huge blow.
In my car my thoughts went to dark places-doubts, excuses, blaming, apathy, smugness, sadness, you name it. I was one confused youth pastor. I even wondered if I should turn in my resignation and go find a job using my college degree in…art. Right, so…that wasn’t going to work.

The telephone poles that line the country highway that runs between my church and my home now began to like an unending line of crosses to me. Yep, I was feeling sorry for myself, big time. It was then that God spoke right to my soul:

“Craig, these poles make you think of my Son’s cross, because that’s where it all began for you.” “For me? This isn’t about me, God! This is about only two kids showing up.” “Nope, it’s about you.” “No it’s not.” “Yep, it is.” “No.” “Yes!”

In the moment, I couldn’t understand how the cross equaled two kids showing up for youth group. But then it dawned on me…Had I really been living a life that was marked by my pursuit of Jesus? Had I been faithful in prayer and patient in affliction? Had I sought righteousness in my life as much as I urged my kids to? I condensed all of these questions into one question that pierced my soul: Craig, how is your soul? The answer quickly-my soul felt tired and empty.

I think God used the woeful attendance at youth group as a wake-up call. He wanted me to renew my soul in him. And then I remembered what I “heard” him say-it all starts for me at the Cross. So that’s where I returned…back to the feet of Jesus, where my soul can find rest and healing.

This article “3 Keys To A Better Relationship With Your Sr. Pastor” by Jim Hampton is excerpted from Group Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008.

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