Straight Talk On Staff Dynamics: A Youthworker Roundtable

October 9th, 2009


Brent Bromstrup, Gary Flanders, John Hall, Alexia Newman, Earl Palmer, Mark Senter

Asking a roomful of youth workers to discuss staff relationships, especially their staff relationships, can be like asking people to talk about their salaries. Top that off with the fact that what they’re saying will show up in print, and the chances are good that a mutual fidgeting contest will be the order of the day.

Yet, refreshingly, that wasn’t the case when five men and one woman gathered in a hotel room in Atlanta to wrestle with the number one “underground” issue in youth work. They dove into the subject with gusto and guts, and the results make for provocative and interesting reading.

This issue’s six Roundtable participants hail from a variety of backgrounds and positions. Brent Bromstrup is youth education director at Barrington Baptist Church in Barrington, Rhode Island. Gary Flanders, at the time the interview took place, was minister of youth an education at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, Florida. He has since accepted a call as youth minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, Iowa.John Hall is youth minister at Hope Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Alexia Newman is a veteran camp and conference director who now serves as youth minister at Calvary Church in Abbeville, South Carolina. Earl Palmer is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, as well as a regular contributor to YOUTHWORKER Journal. Mark Senter served in youth and Christian education positions at several churches prior to assuming his present post as assistant professor of Christian education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

YW: What is the quality level of a typical staff relationship?

SENTER: Many youth workers feel brutalized by their staff relationships, but most of them think it is worthwhile to stick with their ministry anyway.

YW: Why?

SENTER: Because youth ministry is critical. And if God is doing something in their churches, good staff relationships or not, then they are going to stick with it.

FLANDERS: Nonetheless, we all need to have a support system. I’ve been re-evaluating whether or not my senior pastor can be part of that system, or if it is even realistic to think that a supervisor can be part of a support team. My conclusion is no.

HALL: That’s an overgeneralization. I represent the whole church, and my goal is to involve my young people in the life of the whole church. It’s important for the whole church to see that I have a good relationship with my senior pastor and other pastors on my staff. The kids need to know that I haven’t built a youth ministry if I didn’t have a good relationship with my senior pastor. Of course, I have to earn it.

FLANDERS: Maybe it’s my own failing, but I feel that my senior pastor isn’t supporting me while I’m slogging it out in the trenches. It is easy to become bitter.

SENTER: Why do you feel that he’s not in the trenches with you?

FLANDERS: I believe my senior pastor should be interested in not only what I’m doing, but who I am. Yet my pastor doesn’t know what’s important to me.

SENTER: Whose fault is that?

FLANDERS: I feel—maybe due to my own failing—that the atmosphere for that kind of relationship building doesn’t exist with him. To be honest, I think it’s his fault. He hasn’t created the atmosphere. Maybe that’s laying too much responsibility on him, but as senior pastor, he’s got to set the tone for the staff.

HALL: I disagree. We’ve got to take the initiative. It’s a big burden to pastor a multiple staff. At times my senior pastor probably feels I don’t care about his pressures and how hard he’s gutting it out in his trench. If I can communicate to him that I care about what he’s going through, the attitude will be reciprocated.

YW: Earl, what’s your view from the pastor’s side of the fence?

PALMER: So much depends on the personalities involved. If we have a staff of strong, competent entrepreneurs able to get on with their work, they won’t need as much support. What can then happen, however, is “empire building,” where each of us builds our own constituency, and that constituency becomes a ghetto within a large fellowship.

The church may even applaud this approach. And we may feel it’s only fair. After all, we’ve built our constituency—the kids. For a while, we may even thrive on that Lone Ranger role. (It happened to me in my own career at one point.) But this staff model will only work for so long. It’s an invitation to burnout: The empire builds and builds without the accountability necessary for resolving conflicts and healing hurts. Resentments begin to build among the members of the staff.

YW: How do you avoid these ghettos?

PALMER: By developing a sense of mutual support in a staff where weendorse each other’s visions. I tell my staff that I want them to build a constituency, because we’ve all got to have people who look to us. That doesn’t threaten me, and it shouldn’t threaten other members of the team. But our individual constituencies must be balanced by the collegiality of shared vision.

YW: Who is responsible to initiate this collegiality? The pastor or the staff?

PALMER: It’s the senior pastor’s primary pastoral responsibility to care for his staff. It’s wonderful to hear you say, John, that you want to pray for the care about your senior pastor. He needs that. But the primary responsibility for creating a supportive environment still rests with the senior colleague.

Now this is the awkward part. The senior pastor is our mentor, but he’s also our critic. He has to evaluate our work. Our accountability to him means that we should have a separate support person or group who is not also our supervisor.

In my church we’ve separated the evaluation process from the support process. We’ve established a separate support group for each staff member. Each person gets to choose three members of his or her support group, and the church board chooses three. The evaluation of staff is done by the personnel committee and the senior pastor, but not by the support group. So each of us has a team of people who don’t evaluate us; they only love us.

YW: What components make up the “ideal” staff relationship?

SENTER: Freedom to fail—though not a license for incompetence or laziness. I won’t risk trying things that put myself on the line unless I have freedom to fail. If I do fail, my pastor and peers should help me succeed the next time through encouragement, redirecting my efforts, and careful critique. I should be able to trust that they won’t reject me or my competence.

HALL: I need the freedom to ask for help without being told that I’m incompetent for having to ask in the first place.

BROMSTRUP: First I’d envision a shared spirituality; interaction on deep spiritual issues, not just church business. Second, an enhancing of each other’s spiritual growth; creative action where vision for ministry is shared to create a stronger vision as a team. Third, personal support—a sharing of life’s struggles and joys.

SENTER: In a sense, though, your question’s dangerous, Noel, I used to look for the ideal staff relationship. Now I’ve come to realize that there ain’t such a thing! Most pastors don’t have the least idea of how to do what you’ve done, Earl. Besides, you’ve been there…

PALMER: Fifteen years.

SENTER: It takes time to develop systems. Most of the youth workers—and pastors—I talk to haven’t been around all that long. Pastors and youth workers are usually inept in their staff relationships.

YW: What do you do when you’re a youth worker trying to build a relationship with a senior pastor who doesn’t seem to care; or if he does, who can’t overcome his ineptitude in relating to you?

PALMER: We can shrewdly—and I use that word carefully—draw our pastor into our vision by skillfully exposing him to our ministry. Get him into settings where he has a chance to catch the heart and soul of our group.

Last weekend I was invited to speak to our church’s college retreat. They could have invited anyone, but they asked me to come, and they even assigned my topic, They were very explicit about what they expected me to do.

To be with these college kids for a weekend gave me a whole new appreciation for the college pastor’s ministry. We have to realize that our senior pastor is an ordinary human being who operates in several circles—and people can operate in only so many circles at once with intensity. So we must skillfully get him inside our world. Then we’ll have him completely on our side.

When I say “shrewd,” I don’t mean devious. I mean skillful. Many youth workers wait around for their pastor to come to them while the pastor is trying not to invade their territory; yet he’s dying to know what’s going on.

NEWMAN: But there are times when I ask him to join me and he won’t come because he thinks the youth ministry is my responsibility. How do I deal with that?

YW: What you’re asking is how your realities compare with your ideals.

BROMSTRUP: And reality doesn’t stack up to our ideals. It certainly doesn’t in my case. We have a shallow “friendship” among our staff; we pray together. But we lack creative interaction; we just file facts with each other. We’re not going anywhere as a staff, even though there is not personal animosity.

HALL: Our staff moves in very different social circles. We’re not likely to have each other over for dinner. But we’re now going through a stress management course together. We’re talking about our particular stress points and how we can help each other through them. It’s not recreational, but we’re sharing who we really are and how we operate. It’s been good for us; it’s what a staff needs.

We don’t have to be buddies. We do have to know that we care for each other and for each other’s ministries. It’s my responsibility to know what my senior pastor’s vision is for his ministry and his church, and to make everything that I do an outreach of his vision. When he knows that, then he’ll be with me, and I’ll have reached my ideal.

FLANDERS: But the reality is that very few pastors know why they’re in the business. Very few know what their vision is.

YW: What’s your situation like, Gary?

FLANDERS: My pastor is in business to perpetuate the institution—to keep the doors open Sunday and Sunday.

SENTER: Then it’s time for you to get out.

FLANDERS: That’s the conclusion I’m coming to.

PALMER: Don’t discount the possibility of renewal. That can happen, even in your situation, Gary. But it doesn’t happen without a certain degree of pain for everyone. In order to have renewal, you’ll all have to rethink what you’re doing.

YW: How does a staff do that kind of rethinking?

PALMER: At our staff retreat last year, we asked ourselves: “What kind of people do we want our youth to be by the time they graduate from high school? We realized immediately that every single one of us is involved, somewhere along the line, in the development of a twelfth grader. We all grappled with the issue together for an entire evening—nothing was taken for granted. It turned out to be a life-changing experience for all of us, and helped clarify our goals.

BROMSTRUP: That’s a great concept, Earl. But it functions because your staff desires to work things out together. Many of us are on staffs that don’t have that desire, and we feel powerless to change the situation.

YW: And to balance things out, Earl, your church until recently had the reputation of being a meat grinder for youth workers.

PALMER: That’s true. We struggled with the tension created by an extremely high-powered parents’ support group with extremely high expectations, and a youth minister covering a territory that includes twelve high schools and eight junior highs. Trying to fulfill those expectations became a meat grinder experience for the youth pastor. We’ve conquered this tension in the last year, but not without pain.

YW: Brent and Gary are saying that many youth workers are struggling with frustration in their staff relationships. Given that to be true, what are the chronic problems that hinder these relationships?

NEWMAN: Dishonesty.

YW: In your relationship with your pastor?

NEWMAN: Right.

FLANDERS: And much of the responsibility for this lack of honesty is ours. Too many of us have not worked through the concept of submission. I’ve had to pray like David over and over, “Lord, search me and see if there are wicked ways in me.” Why am I reluctant to be open with my pastor? Is it because I don’t want to submit?

SENTER: There are two kinds of honesty, though. There’s a dumping “honesty” where we just let things fly with no regard for the pastor’s feelings. They may be true statements, but he feels attacked by them.

Then there’s the other kind of honesty that says, “What I feel about the situation may be a sign of immaturity on my part, but these are my honest feelings anyway.” This allows the senior pastor the option to respond rather than react.

HALL: I know youth ministers who are frustrated with their senior man because deep down inside, they want his job. They’re frustrated at being on the bottom of the ladder.

NEWMAN: Pride gets in the way, too, Our denomination is small, and I’ve worked in the presbytery so long that I know everyone. It hurts my pride now to have my pastor, the session and the parents question things I do.

BROMSTRUP: Another problem, especially in small churches, is that the youth minister might be better read, a better speaker, and more energetic than the pastor. The youth worker may begin to think the pastor is incompetent.

Meanwhile, church members may be telling him or her, “I wish we could get rid of our pastor and put you in.” People love to criticize the pastor to an associate. Sadly enough, the youth worker sometimes starts to believe the things people in the congregation are saying.

NEWMAN: Earl, when your youth program is flourishing and receiving recognition, do you ever feel jealous?

PALMER: I’m surprised that concern wasn’t brought up earlier. In my conversations with youth pastors, one of the biggest stress points I hear about is their pastors’ jealousies. They’re “punished” in direct proportion to the success they’re having.

It’s a real and very difficult problem that grows out of the insecurities of the senior pastor—but not just his. The jealousies can be worse from other colleagues on a multiple-member staff if their ministries aren’t thriving as much as ours. There are no easy solutions for this problem. Sometimes we must simply have a confrontation.

I like to think I’ve never been jealous of my teammates. I have a philosophy that we’re in this together, but with different gifts. We’ve got to celebrate each other’s gifts, which means rejoicing with our colleagues when they rejoice. But the hardest thing in the Christian life is to rejoice with those who rejoice. It’s much easier to weep with those who weep.

YW: So how do we learn to rejoice together? How do we build better relationships among staff?

SENTER: It all starts with me. have to be the initiator. I have to be the one who goes to my brother or sister and opens up my soul. I have to tell others what my pain is, and what specifically I would like to receive from them: “I need praise from you.” “I need a sense of love.” “I’d like to be able to pray with you.”

HALL: Before I would do all that, though, I’d first ask myself if I have a sound understanding of my situation. Once I had that understanding, I’d give myself three months to patch up relationship subtly, to improve things without resorting to a confrontation. Because that’s what you’re talking about, Mark—a confrontation.

PALMER: There are no easy ways to do this in a church, but there has to be some way each staff person can be cared for. There has to be some place where each can check in, be prayed for and supported, and pray for others.

We start every weekly staff meeting with a time of unstructured sharing and prayer. Some weeks it’s fabulous; some weeks it’s very routine. But over time, it’s created a sense of caring between us that has helped to foster a vision of shared mission and collegiality.

FLANDERS: What makes me sad when I hear you say that, Earl, is that too many of us youth workers have the feeling, “Once burned, twice shy.” I’ve opened myself to my pastor, and I got nailed.

Awhile back, my senior pastor asked me to start visiting some of the housewives in our church during the day when their husbands were at work. I was uncomfortable with the idea on moral grounds, and I shared my concern with him. He replied, “I guess you’re just inadequate, aren’t you?”

HALL: That’s why we need to do all we can subtly before we actually meet with the senior pastor about our frustrations. When I do go to the pastor, I want to be sure I’ve done everything I can to resolve the situation—like scheduling my housewife visitation at times when the husbands are home.

SENTER: And before I get to that point of confrontation, I get opinions from those I can trust. I’m not smart enough to make a crucial decision such as the one we’re discussing by myself. I need a personal board of directors.

YW: Official or unofficial?

SENTER: Unofficial. They’re my private board: I “hire” them; I “fire” them. But they’re people I trust, where I can go for advice and counsel.

YW: Let’s say you’ve examined yourself, gotten advice, made the proper subtle moves, opened yourself up to your pastor, and you’re still getting nowhere. Then what?

FLANDERS: Quit and form my own church. (Laughter)

PALMER: We do have to recognize that here may come a time when we must agree to disagree, and honorably move on. But it’s tough to know where that point lies in each situation, and when there may still be the possibility of renewal.

Confrontation is a risk, and we should be very cautious in our use of it; but it can be a good experience for a staff to have even a painful confrontation. Our staff has had that happen several times, and in each case it’s been for the good of each of us.

We never would choose confrontation gleefully. No one likes confrontation because it means admitting that we’ve failed each other somehow. But we ministers are in a prophetic tradition—the tradition of the prophets and of the church in Acts, where the leadership confronted itself with the real issues of the time, such as “What will we do with the gentiles?” We shouldn’t sun away from that positive heritage of confrontation, yet it has to be done with skill and love.

SENTER: And, as with Paul and Barnabas’ confrontation, we may end up with two different missions.

PALMER: Yes—the risk we take is that we may end up agreeing to disagree, and have to find another post. But that’s not the end of the world.

YW: If your pastor was sitting in this room right now and asked you, “What do you need and want from me?”, what would you tell him?

FLANDERS: Understanding. Understand that I’m a professional—I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I want to work for your success.

HALL: Credible affirmation. Not affirmation like, “John, you’re doing a good job with our kids,” but “John, you’re an asset to our church. What you’re doing is advancing the ministry.” Credible affirmation helps me feel that I’m a professional and my position is critical, so that I can handle it when people ask me what I plan to be when I grow up.

NEWMAN: I’d say, just love me and be my friend. We need mutual appreciation and caring in the ministry. We’re not a corporation just “working” for Christ.

SENTER: I need honesty. Sometimes my senior pastor wanted to protect me, and I appreciated that, especially when he was protecting me from those parental phone calls. But sometimes the protection went too far, and I thought he was holding back his honest feelings about how I was doing and who I was.

BROMSTRUP: Give me a sense of shared vision so that I know I have a significant role in the context of the whole church’s ministry.

YW: Let me turn it around for you, Earl. If your youth director were here and said, “What do you need and want from me?”, wha


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