To many parents in the pew, the youth pastor represents the “authority and will of God. Wherever you have an authority role, a very specific kind of transference happens. The “role” of pastor, not the “person,” but the “role” encourages a complex set of transference reactions.
Students and parents tend to idealize you and then “transfer” to you their unmet dependency needs that they carry over with them. You become the good loving parent they never had. You become “Better than… Purer than… Kinder than… Gentler than… .” The youth pastor, being the human being that he/she is, will sooner or later disappoint people, who in their disillusionment will begin to turn on their leader who failed to meet their needs after all.
A search of youth ministry want ads will often reveal the list of the church’s priorities for a new youth minister. At the top of their list is usually something like this: “A person who will meet the spiritual needs of our youth.” At first glance, this looks fine, but look more closely. No human being would be equal to the task, because God alone can meet spiritual needs. The task of the minister is to point people toward this Source. Whether they choose to draw from their Source is beyond the minister’s control. Problems come… from expectations youth pastors or volunteer leaders — perhaps because of their perceived association with God — can do superhuman things…Congregations can put unreal expectations on the staff, when there is not a legitimate way for them to respond to concerns without appearing to want to hit back.”
Congregations cannot stand too much transparency, because they [have a need to] idealize you. They cannot relate to you as human… It is not so much you as a person, but the role you play. When you step out of the role, you immediately start to get into trouble. Things fall apart. The youth pastor has a relationship of power. You can only “resolve” the transference by stepping out of the pastoral role, but you do that at the peril of the pastoral/congregational relationship. In one-on-one counseling relationships, where transference inevitably occurs as well, the goal of therapy is ultimately to resolve the transference, by enabling the client to begin to assume responsibility for his/her own dependency needs. One wonders how a congregation of families that transfers its collective needs onto one youth pastor or volunteer staff, can ever grow into wholeness and maturity — if the transference can never be resolved.
Do you see transference in your ministry? From students? Parents? Other staff?
Do you struggle to set boundaries or communicate regarding healthy expectations?
Do you recognize countertransference in yourself? Are you trying to “fix” students to “fix” yourself?
Are you living vicariously through the students you serve? Attempting to relive or capture a lost part of your adolescent experience?
If you answer yes to any of the above you may be experiencing transference or countertransference and they can get in the way of your usefulness to God and others. Explore with your staff the expectations and boundaries that either exist or need to exist to protect you from what Adam at adammclane.com writes about here.
Transference leads to burnout. Countertransference can lead to deeper problems. If you think you struggle with either talk to you senior pastor and decide together how to best address these problems. You may even have to make the difficult decision to take time off to gain perspective.
This is not to say that we need to be without blemish before we can serve in the Kingdom. To the contrary, we need to understand our own brokenness to be truly effective. But that brokenness cannot cloud our judgment when leading others.
Chris Schaffner is a veteran youth worker and certified counselor. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.