Youth Ministry Leadership: Friend or Leader?

Students don’t need youth workers to be their friends, they need adults who will lead them to God and invest in their lives. Unfortunately, many of us have bought the lie that we need to be ‘friends’ with our students in order to have influence in their lives. Some of us have even allowed our need for acceptance from students to cloud our need to lead them effectively.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love doing youth ministry and I love investing in students. I love spending hours talking with them,  laughing with them, and getting to know their heart. But I do this as someone who is leading them and is invested in their lives as their pastor and youth leader... not their friend…

Besides, students don’t see us as their friends. They see us in a distinct role as youth leader, youth director, youth pastor, (or whatever your title is). Even though we might try to gain acceptance as their friend, they will never see us that way, so why keep trying? God has called us to be their leaders. They already have a bunch of friends, why would they need more?

Over the years, here are some observations I have made when I see youth leaders trying to be a friend instead of a leader.

friend to students can easily get caught up in popularity of students but unknowingly take away from the person of Jesus. A leader to students will do everything they can to point them to Jesus and ensure that He gets the glory. A leader to students also recognizes the need for team and looks to applaud fellow youth leaders

A friend to students can easily get sucked into unhealthy need for acceptance by students. When a student rejects that leader, it can feel devastating. Whereas a leader to students feels totally accepted by God and is focused on helping students discover the same acceptance. If we are devastated by a students rejection, we must consider if we are getting sucked into an unhealthy need for acceptance. Unfortunately, I have met many youth leaders who are fueled and ruled by the need for acceptance from their students. This is a very dangerous path to walk down.

friend to students will often hold back from challenging poor decisions a student is making. A leader to students is concerned about speaking truth in love in order to see long-term change, even if it means disgruntling a student in the short-term. As leaders, if we are challenging students to pursue healthier ways, we should expect students to push back or get frustrated with us from time to time.

friend to students will often stay on the shallower end of spiritual conversations. A leader to students is fixated on the urgency and need to take students spiritually deep. Sometimes these deeper questions and conversations can feel awkward, but they are imperative. If we are too focused on keeping our ‘friendship’ we can easily lose sight of digging into the deeper and more challenging conversations.

friend to students can easily act like ‘one of the kids’ and make ridiculous decisions. A leader to students will be create funny and exciting experiences, while also keeping common sense in full view. (If I am honest, this is probably the hardest one for me. My wife reminds me frequently that there are certain lines a dad should not cross when trying to make his own kids laugh…)

friend to students might be inclined to dress like one of the students and look completely ridiculous… A leader to students knows their age and knows when they look like an old person trying to be young. Fortunately these days there is a lot of cross-over in clothes that students and adults wear, but there are some things you and I should not be wearing. If you are not sure what I mean by this ask your students… Remember they don’t consider you to be their friends, so they will probably be brutally honest with you 🙂

There are probably many more YOU could add to this list, and I would love to hear them. Feel free to comment below and share how being a friend rather than a leader has caused you challenges in your ministry? 

Phil <><

11 Responses to Youth Ministry Leadership: Friend or Leader?

  1. Andy Blanks March 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Thought provoking article my friend! Well written. I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with you, which is super fun for me. Thanks for making me think!

  2. Tom Shriver March 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Interesting post, Phil. Always love reading your stuff. I’m with Andy a bit, though.

    One of my closest friends now is my old youth minister. We do ministry together all the time now (including a 30 hour famine this weekend!). He started as my youth leader and quickly became a good friend – even in high school. I guess I’ve pretty much always looked at him as a friend first and youth leader second.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on that. I find that he (and myself, really) fit a lot of the “friend” roles that you have listed above, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. Maybe I should? Thanks, Phil!

  3. Phil Bell March 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    Tom and Andy, you know what? I could have been a little clearer on my definition of ‘friend’ as far as youth leaders are concerned. It’s the kind of youth leader friend relationship that is focused on being liked by the students. I should have also asked the question from this point of view: If you were to ask students what their definition of ‘friend’ is, would a youth leader fit it. I know Tom mentioned that about being friends a youth pastor, but I wonder if that relationship changed and developed deeper after graduation and moving into adulthood?

    I think what is important in this article is to note that these things can and will happen if we are not careful. Not in all cases is it detrimental, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are challenges when we seek to be a friend first and a leader second.

    Thanks so much for giving this point of view. I think it’s worthwhile to keep looking from both sides here! So thankful for good conversation and ideas! 🙂


  4. Tom Shriver March 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    ” If you were to ask students what their definition of ‘friend’ is, would a youth leader fit it. ”

    Phil, I think that youth leader should fit – shouldn’t your closest friends build you up just as much as a youth leader?

    I totally understand what you’re saying, though. Discipleship should always come before friendship, though ideally they will go hand in hand. I just like the conversation sometimes! Lol

  5. Brandon March 17, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    Friends are reciprocating relationships. I have my friends over for dinner and they do the same. I tell my friends my problems they tell me theirs. I am friendly to my students, but I am a professional who is in a paid relationship with them which makes it more of a one way relationship. I don’t expect them to listen to my spiritual issues and give me council like I would a friend.

    [A friend to students might be inclined to dress like one of the students and look completely ridiculous] This is an undervalued observation. I think many youth ministers want professional recognition and engagement from adult not realizing the mixed message their clothing sends.

    Great post! Boundaries are so important.

    • Phil Bell March 17, 2012 at 9:11 am #

      Brandon, thanks for your comments! You communicated the differences better than I did. I think it is especially important to consider the message we send to other church leaders by the way we dress. There is a good balance that needs to be gained here. Thanks again for your insights!

  6. Zach July 30, 2012 at 3:28 am #

    Hey Phil, I’m 20 and for the first year at the church I’m now a youth leader at I built friendships cause I was still a youth. Now after three years (1 1/2 being on the leadership team) I’m getting to the point where I need to grow more as a leader than as a friend. I exhibit most of the leadership skills more than friend skills. Except for 2 and 3. I had a youth tonight reject me, unfriend me for a really stupid thing. A simple conversation about the olympics where he flipped out on me.

    This is a kid who’s now going into high school and we’ve been friends since I got down here. I’ve always connect better with the younger crowd because that’s where God has put me. But now it seems like I need to shift into leadership because I’m getting older. How do you do that? What are things that you can do to move into the new authority without damaging relationships there…

  7. Phil Bell July 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Zach, hey thanks for your comment. I would love to give you some advice, but I would love to get some clarity first. Is this a church you grew up in? What age did you start as a volunteer? What age group of students are you working with? What is your role as a youth leader? What does your pastor have you overseeing?

    I am trying to get a better idea of your situation.

    Thanks mate. Prayed for you tonight!

    Phil <><

    • Zach August 1, 2012 at 6:04 am #

      Hey Phil thanks for responding. No, it’s not the church I grew up in. I started coming at age 18. I started serving as youth leader 19 1/2 or so. Right now I’m three months away from my 21st birthday. I work with all ages but because of being close to high school my primary focus is middle school. My role as youth leader is assistant to middle school youth pastor. And middle school is my main oversight. We changed hs youth pastor so everyone is shifting into new roles.

  8. Phil Bell August 2, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    Zach, here’s some things I would encourage with.

    First, age does bring experience, but you will always struggle with students who will choose to shut you out. Even having been in ministry as long as I have, it still hurts. However, I have found that choosing to find confidence and comfort in your identity and calling in Christ is the best way to avoid those moments eating you alive.

    Second, “shifting into leadership” is a process. Don’t expect to wake up one day and feel like you have arrived. Leadership is a journey and I am still on it and still learning. I would encourage you to do three things to grow in your leadership:

    1) Be fully committed to you walk with God and pray earnestly for Him to show areas that He can help you develop.

    2) Surround yourself with leaders who are doing a good job in leading others. Watch them, talk to them and ask them their leadership tips. Doug Fields says, “leaders are learners,” so therefore become a learner of leaders!

    3) Read books on leadership. I highly recommend ‘Next Generation Leader’ by Andy Stanley.

    Finally, realize that we work with students who are often highly sensitive and full of mixed emotions. Often their decisions to ‘unfriend’ us and shut us out are done in the heat of the moment. Often they will look back and see the foolishness of it all. In my time I have had former students seek me out when they were in their twenties to apologize for their behavior when they were in my ministry in earlier years… Therefore, try to see the big picture of how you are helping them take steps towards deeper faith and maturity, knowing that they will not always receive you well… It’s our job to plant seeds, water the soil, and nurture as best we can. Ultimately, it’s up to the Lord to work in His time.

    Let me know if you have any questions?

    Phil <><

  9. Hannah May 10, 2015 at 2:50 am #

    How can you say than one of the most influential people in a person’s life is not to be their friend. As I am friends with some of my youth leaders I can honestly say that it has made my walk with God so much better. This is because I feel like I have someone I can trust. Of course I understand how a leader or pastor crossing the line of what is professionally expected of them is wrong, I cannot see how being friends with them can be discouraged. If I didn’t have youth leaders which were my friends there would be things I would have never dealt with. Also to be honest, most youth are friends with their leaders and that is what makes a youth group different to a school where you are being lectured on God.

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