I 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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