Eric Miller, director of ministry operations for CE National, talks with Dan Gregory and Greg Foote, pastors on staff at Grace Church of Greater Akron, Ohio.
The goal for this discussion was to help pastors and youth pastors develop healthy, working relationships. Statistics show that the average tenure of a youth pastor is anywhere between 18 months and 3 years. That means that most students will have more than one youth pastor during their time within their church’s student ministry.
Several recent studies have shown that an unhealthy relationship between the youth pastor and the senior pastor is one of the top reasons for a youth pastors early departure.
Eric, Dan, and Greg spoke into that relationship and helped youth pastors learn how to approach their senior pastor to have a healthy relationship as well as how senior pastors might pursue and pour into their youth pastors.

Shockingly, the average tenure of a youth pastor is around 18 months. This means students most likely will have multiple youth pastors before graduating. One of the top reasons for the shortened “life span” of these leaders is the relationship between them and the lead pastor. In this Digital Lab, Eric Miller, director of ministry operations for CE National discusses this leadership dynamic with Dan Gregory and Greg Foote, pastors on staff at Grace Church of Greater Akron in Norton, Ohio. Dan is the church campus’ lead pastor and Greg oversees youth and family. Both men have worked together for over a decade and share in this Lab how they foster their relationship which directly impacts their ministry.

What did you do early in your relationship to set a good foundation? What have you done to keep that relationship?

Dan vividly remembers sitting with Greg at Bob Evans talking about the open youth pastor position and the potential of Greg filling the role. Not only was he looking for someone who loved Jesus and whom he could trust, but he knew the importance of having chemistry with that person. He didn’t simply want a hire, but someone to lead with in a team setting. Dan says he has greatly enjoyed his relationship with Greg. Greg was the youth pastor to his own kids as they were growing up so he was able to observe Greg’s leadership from the parental side as well. When it comes to the hiring process, Dan says it’s easier to “fire them than hire them.”  It’s important to make sure they are a good fit for your team–that you share the same heartbeat.
To continue to foster the relationship, Dan says he and Greg engage in constant conversation. These conversations range from the hard stuff, the fun stuff (like sports), and everything in between. When describing Greg, Dan says he “adds value beyond his ministry role.” He can’t stress enough the importance of the relationship between a lead pastor and the other pastors on his staff. He has learned a great deal from Greg over the years. To other lead pastors, Dan emphasizes the importance of finding a youth pastor who is solid, trustworthy, and can relate to adults and parents–not just a “rock star.”
Greg says everything goes back to communication. When he first arrived at the church, the region and students were different than where he has been previously. He felt overwhelmed at the adjustment and didn’t feel like he was supposed to be there. Dan encouraged him, gave him a “headlock hug” and said “I didn’t hire you because I didn’t think you could do it, I hired you because I knew you could.” Greg says he and Dan can laugh together and even cry together. They strategize, talk about the hard stuff and the fun stuff. They see their staff as a team.
Dan said an event that meshed them quickly in the beginning of their relationship was a church fire that wreaked havoc on their sanctuary. They had to quickly pivot and readjust the whole paradigm of their ministry. The team bonded over creative strategy and Greg was a huge part of that process.
When asked if there was any added pressure with Dan’s kids in the youth group, Greg said there was not. He said it was neat because he had vested interest. He was also able to witness Dan practice his parenting. They weren’t just words from the stage but rather modeled in his kids.

As a lead pastor, how do you invest in your staff?

Dan says it’s wise not to micromanage. Rather it’s wise to hire leaders and be their coach. It’s wise to encourage them, inspire them, and equip them. It’s wise to be a sounding board. Dan knows there are many aspects of a youth pastor’s role Greg knows and does better than he does. He reminds lead pastors that they need to be okay with that and understand that. Pastors are in prime position to inspire and give courage. Sometimes that includes pushing those on their staff to dream more. But if at any point the relationship becomes competitive, it will derail your ministry. Personally, Dan loves it when he sees Greg succeed. He gets a sense of joy and pride to see Greg and others on his staff do well. Dan also believes it’s important to look beyond your team and see his staff as also having lives outside the church and ministry. When he looks at Greg he also sees a husband and father and views his family as part of the team. At least once a year Dan will evaluate each pastor and include their spouse in the process. He realizes wives will see a different side of their husband and can give unique perspectives on ways Dan can better encourage and counsel them.

As you are investing in your pastoral team, what does that look like from a time standpoint: week-to-week or month-to-month?

Dan realizes he is fortunate to not be the solo pastor and it’s a privilege to have a team. Once a week he holds a church-wide staff meeting and an additional, separate meeting with just the pastors. He and Greg meet once a month (as with his others pastors) for some one-on-one. He describes this time as a “dashboard meeting” where he wants to know how things are going with his ministry, family, and if there are any problems to address. Dan desires his team to know they are a priority to him. He tries to be flexible with meetings and move things around when something more pressing comes up that needs discussed. Another big part of their interactions are the “organic meetings”. The random texting throughout the day, chatting in the hallway at the office, or popping into each other’s office to run something by the other person.

Looking back over the years of being lead pastor, what are some unique things you have done to create the relational dynamic?

Dan admits he is not the most unique or creative person. Something he tries to do is see the church staff not as a business, but a family store. They are all in this together, doing life together. He and his wife try to open their home up to the staff and their families and be accessible as much as possible. He says he wants to knock down as many walls as possible. He adds, “When there are walls, you’ll lose effectiveness.” For example, if a pastor on his team is struggling but is afraid to talk to him or feels he needs to keep something from him, he loses effectiveness. He tries to find ways to encourage his staff personally. Greg’s kids play sports and Dan likes to try to attend some of their sporting events to show his support. Their staff tries to spend time together by having yearly retreats and doing fun activities. These are things that allow them to laugh together and enjoy each other’s company.

From a youth pastor perspective, what are some things you have learned from your lead pastor?

Greg cautions other youth pastors to ever think they have their job or position because they are at the same level as their lead pastor. He says, “Don’t short circuit. Some things take time.” Youth pastors can be guilty of coming in and thinking they can do things better or want to change everything. That’s the wrong perspective. Greg observes Dan’s leadership style and learns from him and implements it into his own leadership. It’s important to be open to learning and be humble, but remembering you are not the smartest.
Greg has learned a lot from Dan over the years. He appreciates his availability and his perspective. They enjoy each other’s company whether that’s sitting at a sporting event or grabbing a burrito at lunch. Greg has implemented Dan’s leadership style of investing into those under him (his volunteer staff) as they invest in those in their church.

Why do you think it’s so important to have a healthy relationship with a pastoral team?

Dan quickly responds, “It turns the lights bright on Jesus.” If pastors don’t have a healthy relationship with each other, yet are encouraging their church body to have healthy relationships with each other, it’s hypocritical. Dan says if he and another pastor ever have conflict they deal with it quickly. Relationships matter more than any conflict and letting a conflict grow only fuels mistrust. Also, when relationships aren’t healthy, instead of breeding cooperation is breeds competition. For a relationship to be successful, there needs to be mutual respect and trust.  Dan recounted a memory where Greg texted him after a Sunday service to let him know how impactful the message was to him personally. Dan said it was a such a little thing, but it breathed new life into him.
Greg adds that healthy relationships build confidence. If he thought Dan was against what he wanted to do, he would feel the need to always be tiptoeing around. He reminds that it’s not our agenda. It’s the Kingdom agenda. It’s important to respect and listen to each other. This allows freedom to share ideas without fear or shame. As a bonus, having healthy, positive working relationships creates a creative environment that is fun to be in.

What have been some obstacles you have seen in others hinder their lead pastor/youth pastor dynamic?

Dan says egos can get in the way and be a huge problem. As a lead/senior pastor it’s vital to invest in younger leaders and let them fly. If not, they will fly away and not return. Lead pastors need a sense of security to be okay with what their youth pastor is doing and not micromanage their job. There will be times of failure, and it’s their job to help walk them through those. Egos and pride can be tricky and makes people defensive. It’s tempting to want to draw attention to yourself and cling to control. Dan poses the question, “Why would you hire a team you don’t want to build a relationship with? If there is conflict, don’t let grass grow. Communicate and deal with it right away.”
Greg admits sometimes lead pastors forget where a youth pastor is coming from. Many times, the youth pastor is a younger guy who may have just finished college/seminary or has a young family. Ministry trips and conferences are a big part of youth ministry and can take a youth pastor away from home. Lead pastors need to recognize this and help their youth pastor find balance with their family by giving them freedom to redeem the time away from family. Dan says it’s important for lead pastors to seek to understand what is going on in the youth pastor’s mind. It all goes back to needing that relationship so they can know them well enough to coach them appropriately.

What is a final piece of advice for others to be aware of as they develop healthy relationships?

Greg shares that a big thing is to find ways you can learn about your supervisor/your boss. What makes him tick? Send them an encouraging text. Remember they are people too. Ministry is life on life. Get to know their family. Don’t think you have this position and now you want to work up to their job, but rather how can I encourage and help equip you?
Dan can’t recall a single time in 10 years where he has felt disrespected by Greg. He says they may have disagreements, but it never leads to disrespect.  We need mutual respect for each other’s roles and try to understand the other’s unique role. He wants to encourage other youth pastors, “If you cannot support the leader of the team you are on, do not stay and make it a war zone in the church. Acknowledge it and say it. Don’t shed blood in the church over this.” To senior/campus pastors he adds, “Don’t miss the value of pouring into youth leaders and let them fly. If they fail [like you did] love them and lead them.” Dan concludes by saying it’s amazing how quickly time passes. It’s not worth it to waste it on turf wars, but rather do everything possible to foster relationships.