Kurt Johnston is Saddleback’s student pastor, and he has been on my youth ministry team since 1998. I know very few people who effectively “lead from the middle” like Kurt. Although his article is directed toward youth workers, I encourage you to pass this article on to anyone in your church who is “leading from the middle.”
The typical youth pastor in the typical church often appears right in the middle of the org chart—somewhere between the lead pastor and the janitor. If that’s you, you’re probably trying to figure out how to “lead up” and gain influence in your church from the middle of the pack.
Here are a few suggestions that will help you have an upward influence:
Honor the Decision You Disagree With
As somebody in the middle, you often get decisions handed down to you that you need to hand down to others. It can be painful and frustrating to be handed decisions that seriously affect your world—even though you had little or no input in the process. But this is a reality for nearly all leadership structures—in the church or out.
At times, you’ll be tempted to use your lack of involvement in the decision to your advantage. If it’s bad news that you are expected to communicate to others, it will be easy to say, “This wasn’t my decision but . . .” when sharing the news. If you don’t like the ramifications of a decision, it will be tempting to “play dumb” and act like you misunderstood the directives because you weren’t in the room when decisions were made.
Here’s the deal: If you want to be a leader, act like one! Stand in the gap and honor the decisions made above you by implementing them in your world the way a healthy leader should.
It’s important that you honor the decisions you disagree with, and it’s also important that you support the “old guard.” Don’t fall into the temptation to participate in negative “water cooler” talk. Look for opportunities to speak highly of the senior leadership of the church. Besides, someday you’ll be the old guy up front and you’ll want to be treated well, too.
One of the best ways to build trust is to honor the decisions and the people behind those decisions. Greater trust leads to greater influence.
Being in the middle is difficult because it isn’t always clear when your voice should be heard. Speak up! I’m not talking about barging into the elder meeting with a list of demands and “insights.” However, it’s important to take the time to share your perspective.
Be strategic about speaking up. Here are a few ideas:
- Send a weekly email with a short update to your pastor (or boss).
- Invite that person to coffee and have a short agenda to make the most of their time.
- Always be ready to share a few success stories when the time is right. When you’re asked about the ministry, be more specific than “things are good.” Tell stories that highlight the value and needs of your ministry.
Here’s the reality: You don’t have to be at the “important” meetings to influence the outcome. When you are speaking up consistently, your leadership will take your perspective into account.
Your voice is important, even if you aren’t the senior leader in your church!
Be a Team Player
If you really want to be taken seriously by the leaders in your church, it’s time to start caring about your church! Don’t allow yourself to only be concerned about the youth group; do what you can to gain a wider picture of your church. Look for ways to chip in and lend a hand in church-wide areas. When senior leadership sees that you care about the whole church and not just your little area within it, you may be shocked at how quickly your influence increases.
Being stuck in the middle is never easy—but it is possible to lead from that challenging position. And, as a youth worker, it is something you have to expect.
Lead on, friends!