Story from a (Volunteer) Youth Worker: Ten Tips for Supporting Your Youth Pastor
by Alison Burkhardt, Center for Youth Ministry Studies
I served for three years with the middle school ministry of Christ Church of Oak Brook in the suburbs of Chicago. I was part of a fantastic team that served students in sixth through eighth grades, under the leadership of Pastor Josh Higgins. I look back on those years fondly, knowing I was part of a “dream team.” We had a volunteer team of three men and three women, and Josh was consistent about empowerment, encouragement, training opportunities, and communication with the volunteers. Things were not always perfect, and I learned a lot of lessons along the way. One of the most important lessons I learned was how significant supporting your youth pastor can be for the success of the ministry. Here are ten tips and lessons that I learned along the way:
Spend time with my youth pastor, but respect boundaries. This relationship helped me understand what sorts of needs would be of service to him and the ministry. For example, I learned that he spent several hours each Wednesday prepping for our youth ministry night. I started showing up immediately after work to help out, and be present with any youth so he could take a dinner break.
Participate in every activity, every week. Understand that my presence with students significantly impacts the ministry and supports my youth pastor. Sitting among the students during lessons, participating in the activities, and playing the games is important for developing relationships. I learned that standing in the back often results in students feeling like we aren’t fully committed, and they often take that as a sign that it’s okay for them to wander or come stand with us. As volunteers, we also need to commit to participate in meetings, trainings, at least one to two trips per year, and significant time spent in prayer for the youth pastor, the team and the students.
Volunteers are an important part of the team, but we don’t need to know every detail about every situation. Part of our job is to trust the youth pastor and remember that just because she didn’t tell us she talked to the parents of the kids who heckled last week doesn’t automatically mean she didn’t do it. I need to do my part in the trust relationship, giving her the ability to trust me not to make assumptions.
If I trust my youth pastor, I can agree to disagree and defer to his judgment, understanding how important it is to model this behavior to students.
Ask questions when I am not sure what to do. It’s important to recognize my limitations and bring student issues that require counseling to the youth pastor. I learned the hard way that I needed to defer requests for confidential information to my youth pastor rather than trying to answer the questions myself. This includes not repeating any confidential information (even to others on the team) unless cleared by my youth pastor.
Offer to lead activities, even if I feel like it is out of my comfort zone. Find out what preparation activities need to take place before a big trip or a youth night and offer to help or pick things up for her.
Be your youth pastor’s biggest cheerleader. Find out his favorite drink and bring it to the occasional youth gathering for them. Give him a gift certificate for the movie theater or other activities he enjoys. Coordinate surprise encouragement or “thank yous” from students to the youth pastor. Be sure to communicate to the elders, parents, and supervisor of the youth pastor the things you are grateful for or notable moments. They often hear complaints from parents and need the positives for balance and to put in his employment file.
Support my youth pastor by being her advocate regarding boundaries. These include her time and how she is being spoken about. Encourage doubters to schedule a time to discuss the issue with her, while helping communicate to fellow team members and parents her days off. Draw boundary lines when appropriate, listen when appropriate, but always remember that we are modeling for our youth how to handle these situations and we should not triangulate.
Recognize that my youth pastor is human. He will make mistakes and deserves the same grace I want extended to me. If I am upset with him for any reason, I should discuss it with him and be open to agreeing to disagree, respecting that my youth pastor is the decision maker.
The youth pastor is the decision maker, team leader, and spiritual head of the team. Even when I get my feathers ruffled, I need to stand behind and respect my youth pastor. Disrespect amongst team members will be felt by the students, and result in division. If I am struggling to respect my youth pastor, I should consider stepping away from the ministry for a time of prayer and reflection.
Serving with a student ministries team is a rewarding experience with amazing community. As with any community, there are times of highs and lows, calm and chaos. The key is to remember that at the end of the day, we are all on the same team. Bringing the Word of God and the saving news of Jesus Christ to young people is something pretty special that requires pretty special people. I'm proud to be in such company.