"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Staff Relations

Partnering With Your Senior Pastor

Julia Roller Doug Miller

    So your relationship with your boss is somewhere between uncomfortable and rotten, and you’re ready to vote him off the island? Hold on there. We talked to youth leaders who honestly love their senior pastors—they’ve learned what it takes to build a thriving relationship.

    The other day I asked a youth pastor if he had a good relationship with his senior pastor. He looked at me as if I’d just asked him who Jars of Clay was. "It’s terrible," he blurted.


    Senior pastor trouble is a youth ministry cliché. Let’s play dial-a-reason...

    Ministry people often don’t stick around long enough to build a relationship with each other.

    The generation gap between pastor and youth leader is often more like a chasm.

    Senior pastors are threatened by the youth pastor’s energy, new ideas, and laid-back, risk-taking personality.

    The youth leader assumes from the start that the senior pastor is an out of touch foot-dragger who knows nothing about effective ministry to teenagers.

    The senior pastor doesn’t treat youth ministry as a valued professional calling.

    That’s a stocked-pot of problems to overcome—but the truth is, you can have a better relationship with your senior pastor. Here’s advice that works—straight from youth pastors who absolutely love working with their bosses.


    Clear-eyed communication is essential to relating well to anyone. If your pastor knows what you’re up to or into, then he’s never going to be unpleasantly surprised.

    When Matt Cunningham, a youth pastor in Lexington, South Carolina, smells trouble brewing in his ministry, he goes straight to his boss. A few months ago, his teenagers were playing with Matt’s pet snake and one of them left the snake in his car. By the time Matt realized what had happened, the snake had already disappeared under the seat of the group member’s car—it was coiled around the springs.

    Several days dragged by while a professional upholsterer worked to pry the snake from the seat’s undercarriage. In the meantime, the teenager couldn’t use his car, and his irate parents called the senior pastor to complain.

    Because Matt had already told his senior pastor about the problem and had briefed him on potential solutions, his boss was prepared to authoritatively defuse the situation.

    Keep your senior pastor informed. There’s no need to barrage him with minute-by-minute updates, but make sure you share both your successes and failures. Give updates during your staff meeting or tackle sensitive issues during one-to-one touch base meetings. If a serious situation comes up, give your senior pastor a call right away.

    Follow Through

    On the first day of a road trip to a Mexican mission site, Colorado youth pastor Randy Young’s van ran out of gas. After he primed the bone-dry carburetor with gas, the engine flamed. Randy and some of the guys in his group had to whip off their shirts to put out the fire. When they finally got the engine to turn over, Randy worried it would flame again. He considered ditching the whole trip. But he’d committed to go, he’d paid the money, and he wasn’t going to let his kids miss out on their first mission trip.

    Consistency is a key ingredient in youth pastor/senior pastor relationships. Youth ministers are notorious for their disorganized, seat-of-the-pants approach to handling responsibilities. And that puts their senior pastors in uncomfortable, embarrassing situations. Your church and your kids are counting on you. When you follow through on promises, you’re showing your boss that you can be relied upon.

    "It’s about not being a flake," says Tom Hoegel, who’s worked with the same senior pastor in Cupertino, California, for 15 years. "Many youth directors I know don’t always follow through. Deliver what you say you’re going to do because the pastor always gets dumped on when people aren’t happy."

    Be Discrete and Professional

    If you want your senior pastor to treat your ministry issues with confidentiality and discretion, you’ve got to reciprocate. Direct communication is the key to any healthy relationship. Don’t bring in a third party by telling your youth, volunteers, or parents about problems or disagreements between you and other church leaders. Not only is it unprofessional, it forces your kids to take sides.

    "If there are conflicts or things you disagree with, don’t let your youth or your adults be the sounding board," says Tom Hoegel. "Have people you can talk to, but keep leadership conflicts private. I hear a lot of stories about youth pastors who disagree with something the senior pastor is doing and tell their kids. That’s death."

    Instead, get some perspective on the issue. Remember that your senior pastor is not the enemy. If you need to vent, go to your support network of family and friends, rather than co-workers, parents, or young people.

    Work Together

    When youth leader Cavett Binion first started his ministry in Celebration, Florida, he was having trouble getting access to a local school. Although he’d tried to make contact, no one was returning his calls, and he was getting frustrated. So he told his senior pastor, Patrick Wrisley.

    "Pat was an absolute advocate," says Cavett. "At a lot of churches, it’s every staff person for himself. You don’t see a lot of shared vision. But Pat recognizes that in order for me to do my job, I have to get in over there at the school. He stopped what he was doing and went over there and made some phone calls for me."

    As pastors, you and your senior pastor share a common goal. Working together to realize that goal is much easier than working apart or even worse against each other.

    Play Together

    Playing together is a great team-builder. You’ll see your pastor in a different light—away from the office’s fluorescent bulbs.

    "I spend time away from the job with both my pastors," says Brad Lindberg of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. "Since play is such an important part of youth ministry, it should be an important part of working together, too."

    Encourage your senior pastor to hang out and play with your group members. When Matt Cunningham held a Watermelon Olympics for his teenagers, his senior pastor was right there with him—sliding down the hill on watermelon rinds. "They really enjoy that they get to know him," says Matt. "It makes them feel that if they needed someone other than me, they’d feel comfortable talking with him."

    Invite your pastor to your youth events—as a participant, not a leader. Your kids will see your senior pastor as a real person. His participation will validate your ministry to the congregation. And he’ll get a firsthand look at the progress you’re making.

    Cultivate An Authentic Relationship

    Christian Hill and his senior pastor pray together two or three times a week, eat lunch together, and touch base on a regular basis to offer each other advice and support. His senior pastor is one of his best friends in ministry.

    Youth minister Janet Renick of San Mateo, California, also emphasizes the friendship aspect of the relationship. "When we travel places, we always bring back gifts for each other," she says. "I think it’s very obvious to the congregation and anyone outside how much we love each other."

    John Roach appreciates his pastor’s mentoring influence. "This guy has wisdom you cannot believe," he says. "He’s been torpedoed in his life, and he’s able to deal with things from a perspective that has passion for you, while at the same time wanting to show how not to get in the situation again. He’s always trying to impart some kind of knowledge to me. I’ve never felt threatened by him. It’s always been a learn-from-me kind of thing."

    Ask your senior pastor to pray for you. Do the same for him. Support each other. Remember that both of you have contributions to make to each other’s lives and ministries.


    Julia Roller was group’s summer intern. She earned her master’s degree in journalism this year, and is now back in school in California finishing work on a master’s degree in theology.

    Doug Miller is director of youth ministries at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Dary Northrop is senior pastor. These two like and trust each other so much that Doug is willing to risk his bacon on the back of Dary’s Harley.


    Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright November/December, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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