I recently got an email from a youth pastor named Zack and here’s what he wrote:

I find it difficult sometimes where to draw the line between being a follower and a leader. For instance most youth I know just want someone to love them. This means asking questions about them and generally laughing and having fun but sometimes the youth can take things a bit too far. This is the line I had mentioned. Where is the line between youth follower and youth leader?

Zack is absolutely right, it can be a blurry line between leading youth and following them. In our honest desire to connect with youth by hanging out with them, we can lose sight of our role as a leader and end up following them instead of leading them. What does this look like in extremer cases?

  • We become their BFF instead of their youth leader, we spend inordinate amounts of time with a few youth
  • We are invited to parties, events, nights out and other things outside youth activities and with no other adults presents
  • God starts to play a minor role in our talks and it’s more about their lives
  • They influence us instead of the other way around, we change our opinions for instance to be more likeable, modern, etc
  • We adapt our habits, lifestyles, choices, etc to fit in with them
  • And maybe we even let them influence the things we do in youth ministry

So how do we stay on the right side of that line? Here’s my advice.

Keep your students in your prayers

One thing that has helped me to grow in my role as leader when I was starting out, was to pray for all my teens and students on a daily basis. I had a list with all their names and I spend time every day praying for each and every one of them. It helped me to grow in my love for them and to feel responsible for doing everything I could to help them connect with God. Praying about every little problem they ever told me helped me to never lose sight of why I had decided to become a youth leader.

Keep your vision clear

If you know you have trouble staying in your role as youth pastor, make sure your vision for what you do is clear. Why are you a youth leader? Why are you spending time with youth? Every time you’re about to hang out with youth, remind yourself what the bigger picture is, why you are doing this. You may even set specific goals for an activity, like ‘get to know Jason’s home situation’ or ‘develop trust with Jessica’. It may help you to keep your head in the ‘game’ during your time with your students.

Keep it age-appropriate

A sure way to lose sight of your role as leader is to connect with your own inner youth so to speak and to start doing things that young people do, instead of what befits your own age. When you spend time with youth, always draw the line at doing things that aren’t ‘appropriate’ for your own age.

This may be hard for leaders who are still in their twenties, as they are still so close in age to the students, but it’s important nonetheless. You don’t have to behave like your grandmother of course and of course there are instances where you can be completely crazy and silly (like engaging in water balloon fights, which I find completely age-appropriate for a 36-year old like me!), but you have to remember you’re the adult, not a teen anymore.

Keep your own needs in check

Something I have seen a couple of times in youth ministry, is that youth leaders become youth followers because of unfulfilled needs in their own lives. Maybe they were never popular and now have found a way to relive their youth, only better. Maybe they have a strained marriage and find the ‘connection’ with youth instead of with their own partner. Maybe they’re lonely and hanging out with students makes them feel better.

Whatever underlying needs cause them to lose track of their role as leader, it’s a dangerous road they’re taking. Not only is it unhealthy for both leaders and youth involved (not to mention completely contra-productive with regards to your goals in youth ministry), but it can also lead to even more potentially damaging relations. When needs form the basis of a relationship between youth pastor and youth instead of unselfish love, the road to sin is a short and slippery one.

So keep your own needs in check when hanging out with youth. If you sense you’re looking forward to spending time with students for any other reason than to be a good influence in their lives and ultimately lead them to Christ, stop and examine your heart. Make sure your motives are pure and when in doubt, talk to someone, like a pastor or a pastoral worker.

This being said, there will be instances when you still cross that line and become a youth follower for a little bit. Don’t fret, it’s happened to all of us and when corrected in time, no harm is done. Just stay close to God, talk to Him about everything you do and experience in youth ministry and ask Him to continually guide your ways. Then you’ll find your way back to being a leader real quick.

Do you recognize what Zack wrote about that fine line between being a youth leader and a youth follower? Have you ever experienced crossing this line? How do you stay on the right side of it?