Lead Pastor, Your Student Pastor Relationship is More Than A Contract

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This is Part Two in a two-part series about navigating the youth pastor/senior pastor relationship. Read Part One here, written by Dave Steinbeck’s student pastor, Jon Watts.

Dear Lead Pastor,

How do you view your relationship with your student pastor? Is this person simply an employee fulfilling a job description, or a ‘true and dearly loved son in your common faith’ (Titus 1:4)? Do you view the relationship you have with him or her as simply a contract rooted in tasks and flowcharts, or as a covenant relationship framed by the gospel?

A contract is simply an agreement between two parties outlining each one’s particular responsibilities. If party A doesn’t fulfill her end of the deal, party B generally feels less obligated to uphold his portion.

On the other hand, a covenant relationship is much deeper; it is anchored in the gospel and in our relationships with the Lord. Praise God that our relationship with Him is not simply a law-based contract, but rather one that is rooted in the grace and truth of the gospel through faith alone. As gospel people we seek to reflect this type of covenant relationship with one another in the family of God.

As leaders we may be prone to see relationships among church staff as mere contracts. Is there a contractual element to our roles? Of course. We should be crafting clear job descriptions, implementing systems for honest feedback, and seeking to compensate staff in a fair and loving manner—to name just a few best practices we should follow.

But let’s not stop there. We must also see our relationship through the lens of a covenant relationship that seeks to be centered on the gospel.

As God’s people, we see all of life through the lens of the gospel, the Good News “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3b-4). We are people who continue to experience the grace, mercy, and love of God. We have been brought from death in sin to alive in Christ. We were once orphans but have been adopted by our Heavenly Father. We were once lost but now are found and known by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he urges them both to reflect this gospel as his “true and dearly loved sons” in the faith (1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). Paul has seen these young men come to faith in Christ and mature in their faith. There is a mentoring, fathering, disciple-making relationship between Paul and these young pastors. Is Paul charging them with specific things to do? You bet. He calls them to preach the Word, appoint elders, discharge the duties of their ministry, etc. These are tasks that would show up in a contract or job description today. At the same time, we also sense that Paul loves these young men and sees them as more than pastors who fill positions. These are also fellow partners in kingdom ministry, brothers in the family of God, and friends thanks to the grace of God.

Lead pastor, no matter your age or the age of your youth pastor, do you see him or her in this way? Or is the needle buried on the contract side of things at the expense of covenant friendship and partnership?

I’ve been in a lead pastor role now for 10 years, and I’m still growing in this area. Just ask the current or former student pastor at our church. So here are three encouragements from Paul’s letters to Timothy that I pray might spur us on in seeking staff relationships centered on the gospel.

1.) Speak of your own need for God’s grace (1 Timothy 1:12-17).
Don’t isolate yourself from mutual community with your student pastor. Walk in the light with him or her. I love Paul’s authenticity in sharing, because in doing so, it ultimately brings glory to God who has shown Him mercy and patience.

Where is the Lord at work in your own life? Where is repentance taking place? What idol is the Spirit exposing in you? How has the Lord been patient with you, not just in years past, but in the present day? As you and I model this by going first, it creates a mutual culture of humility in your relationship.

2. ) Fan into flame a student pastor’s gifting and calling (1 Timothy 4:13-16).
Your congregation has likely commissioned your student pastor for his or her role in the local church. The ‘gospel lens’ says that we are in Christ and we are becoming more like Christ. That progress and development must be part of our goal for relating to a student pastor.

So give your student pastor consistent opportunities to practice various gifts, not just in student ministry. Strive to equip this person for his or her current ministry as well as for future assignments. The first student pastor I led is now a church planter. I would envision that someday our current student pastor may be a lead pastor as well. Whether or not a student pastor’s role will change in the future, help this teammate fan into flame his or her gifts today.

3.) Flee sin, pursue righteousness, and fight alongside one another (1 Timothy 6:11-12; 2 Timothy 2:22).
I meet one on one with my student pastor at least every other week. Roughly half of that time is spent talking about our own relationships with the Lord and how we are doing spiritually. In those times and throughout the week, I seek to be very intentional in asking him how his communion with the Lord, marriage, and sons are doing.

The overwhelming emphasis in the New Testament on leadership is on the character of the leader. We are called to pay careful attention not only to our teaching, but to our way of life in Christ. Senior pastor, that command is for our staff as well as for us. Therefore, model shepherding and oversight that is as focused on mutual character development as well as mutual competency development.

The lens of the Gospel is how we then see and live all of life, including how we relate to the staff and lay leaders who report to us. May the Good News of Jesus continue to transform our leadership, and remind us that He who started a good work in His people, will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6).

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