Shift #4- from Centralized to Decentralized

It was my first year as a youth pastor at my church. I was fresh out of college and I looked very young. (I still have a baby face some would say)

I remember being at a conference/retreat with my youth group and a handful of my middle school guys…well let’s just say they got into some trouble for misbehaving.  One of the organizers got our group together and angrily asked “Whose in charge here?”.

I came forward and said that I was in charge, to which he responded, “What adult is in charge here?”.  He didn’t believe I was the youth pastor even after I showed him my credentials!  Still to this day, he probably believes that some high school student pulled a prank on him and he got punk’d!

I remember vividly cringing when I heard those words, “Who’s in charge here”, because clearly it implied that no one was in charge and things chaotically got out of hand. Those words implied a lack of leadership, vision, responsibility, and ownership, and that very question haunted me for some time.

I will refer back to that question later on, so hang in there!

I used to love being “the man”.  Hey, I was one with the youth ministry degree from a Christian college. I was trained to lead students, do bible studies, organize retreats, and counsel.  I thrived on being needed and wanted, so much so that I quickly found my identity no longer in the person I was, but from the youth pastor I was trying to be. It some ways, I created and structure our youth ministry to revolve around  me.

Organizations that function from a top down approach (much like denominational or church hierarchy) tend to suceed or fail based on the drive and talent of a single person.  If that person fails, so to does the company.

Eron anyone?

Churches and youth ministries that operate in similar ways or mode of operation,  can easily fall prey to the same problems.

I read once that one particular church (whose teaching pastor is very well known) drops on average 3-4,000 people each Sunday that this one particular guy isn’t preaching.  Now, what would happen if he left the church?

Just as our programs should not be attractional (based on attractions), as youth leaders, we must be careful not to build our ministry around our own character, charisma, personality, giftedness, and even ideas.

There is a great book that I will refer to (and pretty much borrowed this entire concept from), so I want to give the authors credit and highly recommend you pick up this book.

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Braffman and Rod Beckstrom

starfish and the spider

I have included an excellent excerpt/summery of the book’s premise.  Well worth the read (especially if you want to understand the type of shift I am proposing!)


“One thing that business, institutions, governments and key individuals will have to realize is spiders and starfish may look alike, but starfish have a miraculous quality to them. Cut off the leg of a spider, and you have a seven-legged creature on your hands; cut off its head and you have a dead spider. But cut off the arm of a starfish and it will grow a new one. Not only that, but the severed arm can grow an entirely new body. Starfish can achieve this feat because, unlike spiders, they are decentralized; every major organ is replicated across each arm.

But starfish don’t just exist in the animal kingdom. Starfish organizations are taking society and the business world by storm, and are changing the rules of strategy and competition. Like starfish in the sea, starfish organizations are organized on very different principles than we are used to seeing in traditional organizations. Spider organizations are centralized and have clear organs and structure. You know who is in charge. You see them coming.

Starfish organizations, on the other hand, are based on completely different principles. They tend to organize around a shared ideology or a simple platform for communication- around ideologies like al Qaeda or Alcoholics Anonymous. They arise rapidly around the simplest ideas or platforms. Ideas or platforms that can be easily duplicated. Once they arrive they can be massively disruptive and are here to stay, for good or bad. And the Internet can help them flourish.”

So in today’s world starfish are starting to gain the upper hand.


I believe there is beauty and power in shared vision, shared teaching, shared leadership, and shared ownership in youth ministry.

Having one unifying platform of ideas, principles, and plans can unite and strengthen our youth program.

I sort of learned this the hard way (well at least it was hard for me when it happened!)

When I first came to my church, we had a handful of students and about 4 volunteer leaders.  I decided to aggressively pursue more adults leaders and recruit some capable college students from a nearby Christian college. (After all, I myself was a product of internships as a college student).

The first year we had about 3 and then added about 3 each year, to the point that I had about 10-12 college students helping run the program.  But then something terrible and wonderful happened.  “My” students (notice the quotations) started to gravitate towards these leaders.  They were spending more time with them than me, confiding in them, and eventually our ministry started to take on a much different feel.

Over time I learned to give not only these college students, but the rest of my adult volunteers more freedom to dream, more responsibilities and roles, more ownership of our ministry, and much more credit!

I started to really focus on training and discipling them and then allowing them to run the ministry.  Listen, it was (and still is) very hard for me to back away from things I used to do and still like to do.  But I have watched our leaders and our students grow much more by this approach. No longer am I the one doing everything, making all the decisions, teaching all the lessons, counseling all the students, and taking all the credit.  I have intentionally taken a step back and allowed others to flourish.

My youth ministry professor at Gordon College, Bob Whittet, stressed this approach:

“Work hard to work yourself out of a job”

What we meant was that as youth pastors, all of our hard work and effort should work toward promoting and equipping others (and not our own reputation or legacy).  We should work diligently to reproduce others (but better versions) and to produce new emerging leaders who could own day take over when we leave.  This approach should not change even if we feel called to say for a decade or longer.

I can honestly say that if I left my church or my position this month, the ministry would continue to roll with a smooth transition. I am happy for that. I also think that I have some really gifted leaders who could completely run their own youth ministries and probably do a better job than me.

Back to the analogy of the book.  If our youth ministries are Spider-based, then if the head (youth pastor) gets cut off, the ministry may be in danger of dying. I have seen this happen far too often. A good youth pastor leaves and then the program is in shambles until another “good” full time person comes.

In a Starfish youth ministry, all parts are equal, and if an arm is cut off, another grows back to takes its place.  Also interesting, is that apparently the arm that is cut off has the unique ability to grow into its own starfish.  Our youth ministries should be a place of intentionally and lovingly “cutting” off student leaders and adult leaders to allow them the freedom to expand and start their own ministries.  It will end up with more starfish (ministries) and ultimately a bigger and hopefully healthier species (kingdom of God)

So now, if and when I hear someone ask…..

“Whose is charge here?”, it takes on different meaning and signficance.

That question no longer brings a sense of embarrassment, but rather pride and accomplishment.

When people come to visit our youth ministry, I sincerely hope they wonder that very question.

I hope I am in the back blending in and hanging out, and that my adult leaders, volunteers, and students have so much ownership of the ministry, that it is hard to figure out who is in charge.  I realize that it is one thing to structure our weekly meetings that way and quite another to implement this way of thinking and approach to our entire ministry. After all, we are the ones spending the most amount of time thinking,dreaming, planning, (and writing) about these things.  But I suppose we can begin to do these same things (think, dream, plan, write, talk, etc..) with our leaders instead of in isolation.

I believe that when we shift away from centralized (youth pastor as the head) to decentralized (leaderless or shared leadership), our ministries will grow healthier, expand quicker, and survive any departures or transitions.



5 thoughts on “Shift #4- from Centralized to Decentralized

  1. Dan,

    As always, I appreciate your insight. I discussed this book with a friend about a year ago (now I need to actually read it) and he shared some of the ideas from the book. I love the depth of connectedness you have to youth ministry and how reading a book you immediately ask “how can I use this where I am”! Thanks for bringing good, solid theological questions to the youth ministry table!

  2. WOW! Really enjoying this series! Read through it all and caught up today! Totally struggling through how to make the volunteers the leaders and how to create a “Sustainable Youth Ministry” as some might say! Thanks for blogging Look forward to the rest of this series!

  3. Thanks for sharing your story and the insights you bumped into along the way. I couldn’t agree more that our goal should be decentralized ministry. Another way to put it is to see our role as ministers is to “equip the saints” so that our lay leaders find their path to ministry. It can be a challenge. If we have volunteers in our ministry who resist this, who just sort of want to “be there” but don’t want to be asked to actually do anything that smells of responsiblity, perhaps they need to be guided to another ministry for which they have a greater passion.

  4. I can relate to what you had to say about giving your volunteer leaders “more freedom to dream, more responsibilities and roles, more ownership of our ministry, and much more credit!” Because of the fact that I was one of those leaders you trained, I see the importance of this and I now utilize this with my own leaders. I began training and discipling them right from the get go. I saw the outcome of what doing that can provide for a ministry (from my training at BCC) and I didn’t want to waste any time in my new ministry!

    I agree with you in that it is definitely a hard thing to do; to back away from certain roles/tasks and allow your leaders to take ownership of them.

    I really like your closing statement to this shift:

    “I believe that when we shift away from centralized (youth pastor as the head) to decentralized (leaderless or shared leadership), our ministries will grow healthier, expand quicker, and survive any departures or transitions.”

    I’ve never thought about it like that before but now that I have reflected on it for a while, I see the value in it!

    Thank you so much for all you have done for me to grow me and mold me into the youth pastor that I am today. If it weren’t for my time at BCC, I wouldn’t know what to do with some of the things I’ve faced here at my church in the past 8 months. Because of our discipleship times, I am striving to provide that for my leaders as well!

    It was an honor my friend. I am proud of you and excited for your ministry. You will continue to do great things. Be yourself. Lead by example. Stay Christ centered.

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