This is Part One in a two-part series about navigating the youth pastor/senior pastor relationship. Read Part Two here written by Jon Watts’ lead pastor, Dave Steinbeck.
Developing a healthy relationship with a lead pastor or other senior leadership is a common difficulty for youth pastors. Differing expectations, miscommunication, and contrasting perspectives on ministry philosophy are just a few of the ingredients that can make it challenging to see one another as partners in the gospel.
Whoever your senior leader might be, a healthy relationship with this person is one shaped by the gospel: the reality that Jesus made himself nothing to die and rise again in our place (Php. 2:5-11). The redeeming work of Jesus enables us to have friendships shaped by his character. This won’t happen by accident. It will take time, attention, and consistency to cultivate a friendship deeply concerned with the other’s progress in the faith (Php. 1:25).
I have known my lead pastor, Dave, for seven years. I met him shortly after I started following Jesus and he has been present for a number of significant life moments, like baptism, my wedding, having children, and my first sermon. God used him in calling me to ministry in the local church. Not every youth pastor will have this experience with the person God has placed in authority over him or her. But every youth pastor can cultivate friendship with a lead pastor. Here are five things that have helped me to grow in friendship with Dave.
1.) Friends shaped by the gospel are honest.
Promoting honesty places us in a position for the gospel to shape our friendship. If we’re unwilling to admit the ways we wrong each other, we’re crippling any chance the friendship has to flourish. Do you really understand the gospel and what Jesus has made possible through our reconciliation with God if you are unwilling to acknowledge the sin you bring to the relationship? There have been many times when I have had false assumptions of Dave’s motives on an issue or when I have spoken out of turn. In order for our friendship to flourish, I must be willing to go first—confessing in the small moments where I am quick to speak and slow to listen.
By keeping short accounts, we give our lead pastor the freedom to be honest with us in his own confession. We mutually experience the grace of the cross through confession in our friendship (Jas. 5:16).
Being honest also means speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and helping one another in our weaknesses. Dave’s presence in my life isn’t only to evaluate my performance as a worker in the church (although this is part of it). His presence helps me “work out my salvation with fear and trembling” (Php. 2:12). As we cultivate a friendship built on honesty, our lead pastors will be able to help us see weak areas and make progress in them. This means we don’t only wait for feedback from them, we also seek it proactively with humility.
2.) Friends shaped by the gospel trust each other.
Trust isn’t earned, it’s a gift. I remember the moment I realized my lead pastor had given me this gift when he asked me to preach on a Sunday morning. As I stepped into this new role, he told me he knew the flock would be in good hands. It is humbling to walk alongside someone who trusts you. And we can promote this trust in the relationship by giving the senior pastor our trust as well. Often, this will come through submitting our ministry plans to a lead pastor’s input.
Recently, I reached out to a family and asked them to consider hosting a small group of girls in our youth ministry. As I talked the plan through with Dave, he encouraged me to consider asking someone else. Initially, I was frustrated because I would have loved students to know this family. As I considered his words, I began to see how other areas of ministry around the church would benefit from this family’s gifting. I trusted Dave’s leadership and began to rethink who God might be calling into the role on my team.
Trusting the authority God has placed over us helps us discern what God is doing when it may not be so clear. Establishing mutual trust also gives room for grace to operate when one of us has missed the mark in leadership.
3.) Friends shaped by the gospel are consistent.
Dave and I meet together at least every two weeks. During this time we are seeking to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pet. 1:22 ESV). I’m not just giving a report to my boss, I’m having a conversation with a friend. God has placed him in my life to shepherd me. We talk about ministry, marriage, life in the Body, basketball, personal sin—any topic you would discuss with a friend. Those hours of conversation have been the place where we have planted, pulled the weeds, tilled the ground, and celebrated the growth of friendship. Some of the conversations are hard and intense. Some days they are lighthearted and joyful. We work hard to protect this time.
Your developing friendship with your lead pastor may look different than mine. Perhaps you tend to have a shorter meeting every week. Or maybe you meet as a pastoral team more regularly than you do one on one. In a male-female relationship, you may not disclose as much about your marriage or personal sin. Regardless of the unique dynamics of your working relationship, consider how you might foster genuine friendship by sharing your life in appropriate ways. Invite your leadership and family to give input to what this relationship should look like. God will provide you with the clarity you need to cultivate a friendship that is consistent and appropriate for your context. Honesty and trust will never be established or grow without consistent time together.
4.) Friends shaped by the gospel are supportive.
A couple years ago Dave gave me some feedback on a sermon. He took the time to specifically call out how God had gifted me to teach. Dave wasn’t threatened by my preaching or protective of his own. Instead, he took responsibility for my preaching by making it part of his role to make me the best expositor I can be. He pushes me to cultivate the things for which God has wired me.
The Spirit of Christ gives each of us different gifts that complement and serve one another (Ro. 12:6-6; Eph. 4:11-14; 1 Pet. 4:10). This means we must recognize that our gifts are not our own. They belong to the Spirit and they intended to strengthen the Bride of Christ. Unity flourishes when members of the Body acknowledge one another’s strengths. We can encourage support from a lead pastor by asking for help in specific areas of weakness. Don’t be afraid to go first in this. One of the most valuable conversations I’ve had with Dave recently is when I asked him how he would like to see me grow in Christlikeness over the next year. I didn’t defend myself, but just listened.
Maybe you are in a situation where you don’t feel supported. While it grieves me to think of youth pastors in this position, I want to encourage you to take responsibility for what you can control by faithfully working to support your lead pastor. A practical way to do this is to defend your lead pastor publicly. We must never condone sin, even of those in authority over us—but we can labor to honor them in our words and attitudes. We honor our leaders well by going to them when we have an issue and pressing others to do the same. No matter who I am with, I work to honor and support Dave, both in his presence and in what I say about him to others.
5.) Friendship shaped by the gospel is mutual.
Friendship goes both ways. Maybe you’re wondering whether your lead pastor is willing to do the work of cultivating a friendship with you. Perhaps you are in a situation where you or the lead pastor appears unwilling to cultivate friendship and things are strictly professional. Regardless, consider the wisdom about “quarrels and fights” in James 4:
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (Jas. 4:7-8a ESV)
You might not get everything you want from the friendship right now, but if you approach every aspect of your relationship with this kind of humility, God will use it to sanctify you. Friendship with your lead pastor is hard work, but it is essential work. Don’t wait for your lead pastor to move in your direction. Prayerfully consider how God might be calling you to take steps to go first.
As both youth pastors and lead pastors, we have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Christ has purchased not only our forgiveness with His blood, but He has also purchased the harmony we are able to have in the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:1-6). Friendship is possible because Christ made it possible, so pursue it. The Body will thank you for it.