Signs that a youth leader is lacking maturity and healthy adult relationships

Immature youth leaderI know there’s a lot things we could add to this list, like needing everyone’s approval, neglecting the role of the Holy Spirit, pretending to act like someone you’re not, siding with teens against their parents, etc. But there’s one problem that often goes overlooked that will undeniably create very unhealthy relationships with students possibly worse than anything else, and that’s this:

Every adult youth leader needs healthy adult relationships, or their relationships with students will quickly become very unhealthy.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this story play out too many times. An adult youth leader may not connect well with other adults for any number of reasons: their maturity level isn’t up to par; they felt rejected in high school and now try to find that security in youth group teens; they think being an adult is “uncool”; they look to teens for self-worth; and a host of many other reasons that are related to emotional baggage. The end result is they become a peer for students, not a leader. And students don’t need more peers.

Signs that a youth leader is lacking maturity and healthy adult relationships

  • Whenever an issue arises in a student’s life, they rush to “save the day” and often make a bigger deal out of the situation than the student does.
  • When there’s a disagreement between a student and another adult youth leader, the adult will side with the teen and even unintentionally pit the students against the other leaders, even in scenarios where no sides needed to be taken in the first place.
  • The leader will confide in students about issues in their personal life that should only be shared with a spouse, a pastor, or a close Christian adult friend.
  • Whenever the adult has free time, they spend most of it hanging out with the same group teens (as a peer group) and rarely with other adult friends.
  • The leader will entertain gossip and complaints (sometimes even start it) with students about other youth leaders, the church, and even other authority figures, like parents and teachers.
  • When a student confides in them, they promise to keep it a secret and never to share it with anyone else. The unintentional result is that some students, who need professional help, never get it. By the time you find out about it, it’s too late.
  • The other extreme is when the leader goes out of their way to fish out “juicy” private information from students because it strokes their ego and feeds an insecure self-worth when they know a teen’s personal secrets.
  • They are really involved with a friend-group/clique of teens and generally don’t reach out much to other students.
  • Other adult leaders and parents, whom you know and trust, express concern to you about the leader (in a non-gossipy way) and their input aligns with your unspoken observations.
  • When you try to express concern about any of this to the leader, they become defensive and make excuses, often causing them to separate from the team of adult leaders even more than they already were.

Because their maturity is lacking, they will unintentionally create division and will ultimately hinder the maturing process for students. Often their hearts are in the right place and they mean well, but they are blinded by their immaturity and fail to see the damage they’re actually causing.

So, how should you handle it? Every situation is unique, but here are some general principles.

How to address the situation

  • First, it’s important that you spend a decent amount of time in prayer. It’s an obvious first step that too often goes overlooked.
  • Talk with your sr. pastor (and other church leadership, if necessary) about the situation and get their input and advice. These conversations always work best with the godly advice and guidance.
  • Sit down one-on-one with the leader and have an honest, open conversation. Do your best to speak the truth in love. Express your concern and pray they are receptive.
  • If they humbly see truth in your observations, then work together to connect them with other maturing adults who will help them grow spiritually, relationally, and emotionally. Establish some sort of regular, on-going mentoring relationship, either from yourself or someone else.

If they make excuses, get defensive and refuse to listen to your concerns, then discuss the next steps with your sr. pastor. The process from here will be pretty sticky. Depending on the severity of their immaturity, there’s a good chance that the leader may need to be asked to step down from the youth leadership team. Sometimes they can be dismissed with the intention of restoration after certain expectations have been met, like establishing accountability, working through some personal issues, mentoring, and adult relationships. Other times they will have to be dismissed permanently. Either way, the confrontation is often the most helpful component because how they respond to confrontation will show their true character.

But be forewarned: dismissing this kind of a leader will be a very ugly process. The teens who love him/her will definitely look at you like you’re the bad guy. Even though you’re doing it for their benefit, you can’t tell them that because then you’d have to explain why you’re doing it, and you would never talk poorly about someone else just to make yourself look better (even though the other party may not play by the same rules). But you still have to do what’s in the best interest of the teens and the ministry whether they understand it or not. The Lord knows. Sometimes being a leader is like being a parent: you have to make the tough decisions for their own sake even if the kids don’t like it nor understand it.

Have you ever worked with a youth leader like this? How did you handle it? What advice do you have for others who are experiencing it? Comment below.

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Posted on December 3, 2009

  • GG-Mom B

    Another great subject !! GG-Mom B

  • AMEN!!!

  • I am thankful that when I was hired in my first position overseeing a youth ministry right out of college, my boss, the associate, said that I needed to acquire three things if I wanted to accept the position: 1) a car; 2) a cell phone (which they would pay for); and 3) a Christian mentor to meet with on a regular basis. She was a very wise woman. I think I could have lived without the first two, but the third made me a much better youth pastor. This is great advice for any youth pastor, but especially one who might be lacking in maturity.

    I think the best way to handle this is to set guidelines up front about expectations of spiritual and emotional maturity and hold leaders to them. Not legalistic rules, but clear guidelines. In addition, it's great to train on these issues before they come up, and model them yourself.

    Slightly OT: If you're in or around Colorado, the best training I've seen on this is by an adolescent psychologist in south Denver who used to be a youth pastor and is also an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary. He does a session on "Right Roles and Relationships" (regarding youth leaders and teenagers) that I've seen at least five times (he led our denominational YM training days in Colorado), and I always take something new away and it's great for new leaders. If you're interested in his info, send me a note: benjer at washingtonheights dot org.

  • Great topic Tim! I think this discussion can benefit a rookie youth leader or an "expert in the field." Ultimately, the most challenging and crucial part of this process is simply stepping forward and making the decision to place your teens before your "Fill-In-The-Blank" (ego, pride, fear, insecurity, etc.) because usually the result of these discussions will be (1) Negative Reaction from the Leader removed (2) Need for Dismissal of Leader

    I had to walk through a process like this one nearly two years ago and I followed all of the steps listed above, Prayer and Counsel from your Lead Pastor being the two most important. In the three-months following the choice to remove this leader, I had to deal with rejection from teenagers, other youth leaders and even parents who did not agree with my decision and who gossiped about me and blatantly attacked me before other leaders and parents. The fall-out is most heavy when you do not have longevity behind you yet.

  • A year later (isn't this always the case in youth ministry) our youth group was stronger, deeper, and more intimately consumed by God than ever before. Three years later it's now a lesson I've learned and history that no one in our church even remembers.

    Your decision to do the right thing and remove that leader (if need be) will be one of the hardest things you ever do in ministry, and it will be the decision that bears the most fruit as well…"No Pain, No Gain."

  • Nice post. I was scared I was one of them lol. However, I do see where I, in my early days, had some issues being the adult. When my wife and I first started we both believed the ministry was about being a friend to the kids. Wow, how stupid were we? We immediately undermined the youth director, not intentionally. We also began having sleep overs and such at our home, in all honesty not so much to be good examples, but just so we had people to hang with really.

    When that high school group left, we pretty much stopped helping out with youth. The reason being, in my opinion now, was that we didn't connect with the younger kids that were coming up because we had become friends with the "cool seniors".

    I am now so glad God helped me see the difference and very thankful nothing "wrong" ever came about through those relationships. I am now a responsible leader, and have their best interests in mind, not my own. I want to be their leader spiritually first, and not a friend.

    Another point you could talk about in maybe your next blog could be about the importance, or not, of YP's having real adult connections such as mentors or accountability partners. I've got a mentor, though we've not spelled it out that way, and he is our current YD/AP. It is he who helped me see it was ok to be a man and work with kids. (Yes sadly I thought it was a woman's "job" because our previous YP was a woman and that was all I'd seen). He has helped me grow up a whole lot by seeing his witness, and have discussions with him. However, I do not have anyone for an accountability partner right now cuz I honestly don't have a deep relationship with an adult who could fill that void right now. So I'd love to see thoughts on these topics.

    Thanks, I enjoy your perspective on things! God bless.

    • Your story is exactly like some of the ones I've seen in my own youth ministries. I'm so glad you and your wife see it now and have matured past it. I hope you can continue to share your story with others and encourage them to do the same.

      Thanks for the topic suggestions. I think mentoring and accountability is something that is desperately needed, hence the mentorship team through LISM here. There will be an exciting post coming up about that sometime soon (actually, as soon as I can carve out some time to update the mentoring part of this site with the details).

  • But…how do you deal with "hotties" (18 and older of course) in your youth group? I am writing a book on it. Is it ok for single YP's to date them?

    • Are you asking about adult leaders or students in your ministry?

    • If the "hottie" is in high school, then no, it's not okay even if she's 18. If they've graduated, then they're no longer in high school and you should proceed with great caution because of your role and position as her former youth pastor.

    • richard daniels

      no it is not ok to date them it is not ok to call them hotties. a mature christian looks at a young girls character not her body look at the bibles idea of the right kind of woman

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  • krg

    I think I jumped in to a rushed into choosing two more HS leaders to help out HS Pastor. One of them is very new to the faith, and the other is finding the relationship with God. Point is that I lead a discipleship class and one of them seem like they could care less, shows up when it wants to. The other is enthusiastic, but dependent, and both in their private life do not seem there yet. I want to help them be good leaders. I am not the best, I am far from it, but my heart is invested with the students. I want to share the little that I know with them without sounding like I know it all, or want to tell them what to do. Please help!!!

    • I don’t bring on any adult leader who I don’t trust as a spiritual and emotional role model for students. Sounds like these “leaders” are not that. Just because you put them in a position of leadership does not mean they are leaders.

      If it were me, I’d dismiss them from their roles in the youth ministry. Teens matter to much to give them leaders that aren’t leading them anywhere.

      • krg

        How could I tell them this. Last conversation I had with them was to work on their faith, learn about God, and have a relationship with The Lord. They both said they do not want a break they want to learn and continue with leadership, but they show something else. I don’t think I have the courage to tell them, or correct words.

        • This is where you’ll have to be the leader. If you believe the teenagers are worth something better, you’ll have to prove it. Doing what’s right and what’s easy are rarely the same thing.

          • krg

            I will have to do that. Thank you for your feedback, I appreciate thy very much.

  • Tim

    You make some very good points, but I can’t help that you’re painting an entirely black and white picture.

    In reality, the world is pretty much all grey area. A lot of the problems you list, moreover, are simply specific instances of sins that EVERYONE struggles with. In a broader context, this article seems like a call to perfection, which is impossible.

    Specifically on points 3 and 8.
    Point 3 (confiding in students)… what is the boundary? As far as I can tell, the only Biblical answer is defined as “in wisdom.”

    Point 8 (involved only with certain group) is this necessarily an issue?
    Now if you are being utterly unfair in treatment, then yes.
    But once again, realistically, we all have people we are closer with. If you want to look at it another way, we all have Priorities in relationships. Even Jesus did.

    Good article, but it’s a bit too “Tim-Keller”ish for me…
    Way too idealistic.

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