“There is no such thing as a good leader or bad leader, just simply a leader that connects or fails to connect with their subordinates.”
If you and I were to picture who we would consider to be the best leaders we have ever been under, we would most likely think of a leader who connected with us in a profound way. Maybe you would picture a sports coach who had a unique way of motivating you, a teacher who had a great gift to make you understand difficult subjects, or a pastor who stood with you through a difficult time. The power of connection is incredible. It speaks to the place in our heart that longs to be loved and accepted for who we are.
I am all on board for connection. Here is the problem I have when applying the above quote to student ministry: It can make connecting with our students the primary objective. Whether by us, or by those watching us, our ability to connect and to be real with students has become the main metric for success in youth and young adult ministry. The pressure of being popular or being well liked by young people has often driven us to drift from why we are in ministry in the first place. The worry that students might not like us or enjoy student ministry can drive us to spend more time thinking about how we can say the right thing to win their approval rather than what God wants to speak. We start to steer away from God's leadership in order to use the seemingly surefire method we see working in someone else's ministry in order to insure everyone enjoys our services, outings, retreats, or one-on-one meetings. It can be subtle, but left unchecked and over time we notice our reliance on the Spirit fading as we spend more time trying to win the favor of our students than we are concerned with the favor of God on our lives.
I visited a church a number of years ago and during my meeting with the youth pastor, I was rather shocked at the lack of vision he possessed for his student ministries. “The ultimate goal is just to give these kids a place where they can belong, where they can feel that they are loved and accepted as they are.”
“That's awesome!” I replied. “What happens after you accomplish that goal?” I was expecting to hear about student leadership opportunities, outlets for students to pray or learn the Word, or ways students could be leaders on their local high school campus.
“That's it,” He responded. “If they can know they have a place they can hang out and not be judged, we have won as a youth ministry. I am not the type of youth leader that is going to force spirituality down their throat. There are lots of places they can get that. I am just here to love on them like Jesus."
When we elevate connection beyond its proper place we are sacrificing authority. Proverbs 29:25 says the fear of man brings a snare. The snare that obsession with connection brings in student ministry is one that forces you to do anything, say anything, or be anything it takes to keep the praise of man. It is called a snare because it is impossible to get out by getting enough approval, praise, friendship, or even love. You can only be set free by valuing the acceptance of God over your life and your ministry more than man's.
In Revelation 1, Jesus is called the “faithful witness”. This, and this alone, is what we are called to. Having a ministry goal of being a faithful witness to who God is and what He is saying breaks us out of the tyranny of trying to gain something that will be there one day and disappear the next. But it doesn't just liberate our hearts, it causes us to be effective. If we are speaking His words not ours, and His Words are living and active, then they will not return void.
We do not need any more trendy youth pastors who are primarily just friends to students. We need leaders who are spiritual fathers and mothers. Most students have some friends who accept them for who they are. Most of them do not have a single person in their life that view them through the lens of God's plan and grace for their lives. A leader that is just a friend might want to listen, support, and love others; but a father or mother is willing to do all of that while using their position of authority to call others into their destiny. I am who I am today because I had spiritual fathers in my life that highlighted blind spots to me and spoke forth the gifts and callings of God on my life. A friend can stand with someone while they go through a trying time, but a parent can speak a word and shift a wrong paradigm or birth a new season in a son or daughter's life.
Being a spiritual father or mother who is faithful to God does not excuse us from connecting, focusing on, or loving our students. Quite the contrary. When we put reaching students at the heart level in its proper place, we have more energy and strength to pour ourselves out like a drink offering to those we are ministering to. The change in values gives us our voice of authority that will not be silenced because we are not longer ruled by the fear of rejection.
If our fear of not being able to connect with our students is greater than our burden to lead them in to what God has for them, then we have made connectivity the “win” and we have been willing to sacrifice our students being free, knowing who they are, and having a vibrant relationship with God. Jesus connected with people in their brokenness, but He never left them there. He always called them higher. He always loved on them in order to break them out of their current state and to cause them to step into who they were. Whether it was healing every sick person who came to Him, or pulling the woman caught in adultery out of the dirt and telling her to sin no more, or inviting the woman at the well to drink of the waters of salvation, Jesus always called people higher. Jesus used his ability to be “real” with people in order to show them who they really were and who they could really be in His love. In this, He was a perfect representation of the Father. The Father would never sacrifice His authority to call anyone into their destiny, and neither should we.
Caleb lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Rachel and daughter Aaliyah. He is a Pastor at New Life Church and is the associate director of their young adult program "Desperation Leadership Academy" and serves as the director of DLA's School of Worship. He also plays keyboard for Cory Asbury and Pas Neos.