By Brant Cole
One of the harsh realities of youth ministry is that every once in a while you will have a youth leader who needs to be removed for one reason or another.
They might have an attitude problem, they might be a domineering leader, or they may just not possess the skills right now to function well within your current team. Whatever it is, there are times when your ministry will benefit from removing a leader from active service. It is not what you signed up for, and it is certainly not fun. But for the sake of your students and the health of your ministry environment, it is necessary to know how to do it well. By avoiding it, you may be slowly sabotaging your ministry efforts. By coming at it too harshly, you could set off an atomic bomb that takes years to recover from. So how do you ensure that you maintain the health of your ministry environment while still addressing the issue appropriately?
In my youth ministry experience, I have already had to remove a couple leaders from active service….and there was nothing fun about those conversations. But here is what I have learned from them:
1) Pray pray pray. I think the most common mistake that youth workers make is to forget about the power of God in their ministries. We somehow get this notion that we are the saviors of people, and that because we are the ones interacting with them that we are the ones who will change them, and we forget that the Holy Spirit, who called us to this in the first place, will always be the one actually doing the ministry. Paul warns of a day–probably one that is not too far off–where people will love themselves far more than God or others. And one of the things that will characterize them is that they will have “a form of godliness but deny its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5). It is crucial that before we ever enter start talking to our leaders about ministry that we first talk to God about our leaders.
2. Define your expectations to the team before ever deciding to remove a leader. If no one on your team knows what the expectations are for their life and their leadership, how in the world can you expect them to live within them? Before any hard conversation takes place with others, you must first make sure you have a hard conversation with yourself. Have you clarified expectations before ever placing them on your leaders?
3. Define specific actions or omissions that cross the line. One of the things that to made sure to do if you ever have to remove a leader is to specify the actions that cross the line. In so doing, you will actually separating the leader’s actions from his/her identity. The last thing you want to do is to give your leader the idea that they are not valuable. Of course they are! They are a beloved child of God. But they must know that at this time, their behavior, or skill set, or attitude doesn’t fit with what your ministry is about, and for THAT reason, you are having to ask them to step down.
I remember I had a leader one time who obviously had a heart to do ministry, but because of personal insecurities, she had a tendency to put other students down in her comments. When I talked to her about it, I made sure to tell her that I loved her, and that I loved her heart to do ministry, but that the words she was using were unacceptable in our ministry environment. Without ever belittling her identity, I was able to call out the action that crossed the line.
4. Call out greatness in your leader and allow for restoration once those positive qualities are regularly demonstrated again. Don’t leave this conversation without making sure your leader knows that they are valuable in the kingdom of God. Call out a specific trait of theirs that may be currently dormant.
I remember in my conversation with the aforementioned leader, I made sure to call out her potential for encouragement. I told her, “Sally (not her real name), the way you are interacting with the students is not acceptable. Because you are feeling insecure about yourself, you are putting them down every time you’re here. But I know that there is something greater inside you. I know that Sally The Encourager exists, and I am just waiting to see her come out. So for now, I want to give you time to begin to let her out again. I am going to have to ask you to step down from leadership for now. Once you begin to show that you can be a source of encouragement and joy for others again, let’s revisit this conversation on the other side.” And then we prayed together.
5. Don’t spread the news. Let this process happen quietly. Obviously, the leader’s absence will be noticed, but there is no need for you to let everyone know. As best as you can, protect your leader’s dignity. The ultimate goal is restoration, so you want to make sure the way is paved for them to be reinstated years later. Don’t sabotage that now because you think you have to spill the beans. You don’t. Allow time and space for God to heal them without having to worry about their shame being exposed.
6. This is a process, not an event. Finally, continue the follow up. Like I said earlier, the ultimate goal is the restoration of your leader. Continue to follow up with them over time. Just like Jesus is continually reconciling us to himself, we are also called to bring his ministry of reconciliation with us wherever we go (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Don’t stop the relationship with your leader once you have removed him/her.
Removing a leader is never fun, but it might be necessary. You may find afterwards that you enjoy not having to deal with the issue for a while or worrying about when the next incident will occur. In the end, we have to do some hard things to protect and shepherd the people God has entrusted to us.
Brant Cole has been in youth ministry since 2010. He’s a graduate of Moody Theological Seminary and is currently the Youth Pastor at Walloon Lake Community Church in Walloon Lake, Michigan. You can follow Brant and his youth ministry on Facebook and Instagram.