Navigating Conflict with Your Senior Pastor in… | UMC YoungPeople
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January 2024

Navigating Conflict with Your Senior Pastor in Youth Ministry

By Jeremy Steele

Conflict in any workplace can be challenging, and it's no different when you are employed in youth ministry. Navigating conflict with your senior pastor requires a blend of humility, understanding, and strategic communication.

The relationship between you and your senior pastor is pivotal. Part of that is recognizing the influence and authority of your senior pastor. The senior pastor is not just a supervisor of staff, but also a spiritual leader who generally feels his/her vision guides the church's direction, including youth ministry. A senior pastor is tasked with organizing the life of the church, and you are part of that ecosystem. Keeping that in mind is essential when you feel like you are getting pushback or concerns from your senior pastor.

The best way to deal with conflict begins before the conflict occurs. The old saying is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Having a healthy relationship with your senior pastor will pay huge dividends when (notice I didn’t say, “if”) things get rocky with him/her. Before any conflict arises, make sure you establish a strong, respectful relationship with your senior pastor. Understand where the pastor is trying to lead the church and make sure you are trying to align your ministry programs and goals with it. Find ways to support the pastor’s visions for ministry. Connect with him/her spiritually and personally; those foundations for a working relationship will pay dividends professionally.

It is more than trying to match the beat of the senior pastor’s drum though. You also need to make sure he/she knows what you are doing and how you are trying to follow his/her lead. Regular communication and seeking feedback proactively can lay the groundwork for mutual understanding and respect. Share your three-, six-, and twelve-month plans with the senior pastor and ask if there are pieces of your plan that might positively impact the whole church, or conversely, if there are parts of your plan that might cause conflicts about space or crowd the calendar too much. Invite the senior pastor to different events in your ministry; don’t let this individual be a stranger to the spaces where you get to be the leader.

When the moment of conflict comes, it's essential to stay calm and avoid becoming defensive. Approach the situation with a mindset open to constructive feedback. Instead of going right into defending your program or choices, ask questions to understand the root of the conflict and listen actively to your senior pastor's concerns. There are often two things you need to clarify. First, what happened (or didn’t happen) that is a problem? Basically, who reported what to your senior pastor? The second is rarely stated at the beginning, but it is the most important thing to get clear on: What does your senior pastor think went wrong?

Once you have gotten clarity about the problem, you need to work collaboratively to resolve the conflict. Begin by acknowledging any valid points in the criticism and then move to discussing potential solutions. Remember, this is not about winning an argument but finding a way forward that benefits the ministry and respects both parties' perspectives. What you absolutely must do at this point is get clear, concrete actions that your senior pastor would like you to perform to move toward resolution. This is essential because you want to make sure you can report back that you did what was asked of you. If you skip getting clear on this step, you can end up in an endless spiral where you do something you think will resolve it, and the senior pastor doesn’t think that was a good approach; then that makes you do something else that ends up not approved after the fact by the senior pastor, which makes you … You get the idea.

One last note – always maintain professionalism in your interactions. Avoid losing your temper or yelling. Don’t argue, and above all else, avoid discussing conflicts with other church members or volunteers, as it can lead to a million other problems, including the loss of trust with your senior pastor.

Dealing with conflict with your senior pastor is an opportunity for growth and learning. It requires a balance of respect, open communication, and a willingness to adapt. When you handle these situations well, you’ll see that what begins as a negative can quickly move to a positive that builds both your program and your relationship with your senior pastor.

When he's not playing with his four children with his wonderful wife, Jeremy is the associate pastor at Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, CA. Jeremy has spent over twenty years working in youth and children's ministry and continues to train children and youth workers as well as writing and speaking extensively in that field. His most recent book is the "All the Best Questions." You can find a list of all his books, articles, and resources for churches at