Navigating Leader Territorialism and The Problem of “My” Kids

Tim Branch September 25, 2019

This semester on Tuesdays we’re taking a deep dive into Young Life team dynamics. If you missed the first couple posts, check them out here:

This third post in the series was written by Tim Branch.

Nobody else talks about it. So I’m going to talk about it.

“What is SHE doing hanging out with HER. That’s MY kid.”

“Why can’t he go find his own guys to hang out with…?”

Leader territorialism.

A while back, a youth group leader from a church told me a peculiar story:

She went to visit some of her high school friends in the lunchroom and was met with excitement and hugs. Then one of the girls said, “Hey, do you know our Young Life leader?”

“Hey, it’s good to meet you!”

“Oh, hey,” the Young Life leader replied. Then she gave her the ‘why are you talking to my girls’ look, and stormed off.

The high school girls were confused. “Did you see that? What was that all about?”

“Ehh… I’m not sure.” She felt strange and sad like a competition had started. She wanted a companion and instead got a turf war.

What Causes Leader Territorialism?

What causes us to say, “Get off my turf!” as opposed to “Yes! Reinforcements!”?

From my own experience, the cause is our deep, fear-driven need for significance.

We’re all going to be insecure sometimes. That comes with being a Young Life leader. But sometimes those insecurities cause us to use our high school friends as a measuring stick for our worth.

We let interactions with high schoolers determine how cool/funny/interesting/worthy we are. We develop this desire to be desired, this need to be needed, this want to be wanted around.

And when we do that, we become as needy of feeling important to our Young Life kids as they are of our leadership and guidance.

Codependency: Excessive physiological or emotional reliance on another person; i.e. relying on one’s role as a caregiver for emotional
sustenance or worth.

Leader codependency = a need to feel needed by the people we’re leading.

We find a group that satisfies both our need of personal approval and our need to feel successful (due to our investment), and we just latch onto it as an energy source. Our hard work has paid off, and we DESERVE to have these kids.

We become understandably hostile when it feels like someone’s gonna take our place!

The Total Destruction It Causes

But when two leaders go after the same kid, and then get mad at each other, here’s what happens:

  • They lose out on the strength of each other’s community
  • They create friction in the body of Christ, causing it to stop working well.
  • The kids get weirded out (because they feel like a commodity)
  • Their Young Life team loses the chance to reach more kids


So What Do We Do About It?

I know these situations are hard. I’ve been there. If you’re dealing with this right now, my heart goes out to you.

I get that tears may well up in your eyes if you hear your kids call someone else “my leader.”

But take a minute to remember why you signed up to be a Young Life leader. Was it to feel good about yourself? Or was it to bring the Gospel to whichever kids needed to hear it?

In most cases, everyone’s fighting over the fun, easy kid who thinks Young Life leaders are super cool. Who’s bringing Jesus to the other kids?

It’s not an easy fix. It takes the effort of everyone involved to come back into harmony. But here are three things YOU can do right now:

  1. Check your security blanket. Is it something it was never meant to be?
    If God sent someone to take your place, would you lose what makes you feel worthwhile? Love = giving without needing anything in return. 
  2.   Fill yourself with God. He redefines our value. Allow praying and listening to Him to be your highest priority. Even higher than contact work.
  3.  Know the truth about yourself. We long for the applause of someone else. But what we really were made for is the applause of God. And we have it. Right now. Because unlike us, he FULLY understands the worth of what he’s created.

I don’t care if your high school friends think you’re the coolest human on the planet, or whether they’d rather hang out with the principal. Your worth doesn’t come from last week’s interaction with 16-year-olds.

A Word of Caution to New Leaders

So, for you new leaders who may be thinking, “I knew it was fine for me to just hang out with my team leader’s seniors! Yayyy now I don’t have to meet new people!”

There are two sides to this coin. The unhealthy territorialism is a need to be needed, but the HEALTHY territorialism is a response to Matthew 9:37:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

There are too many kids who don’t have a mentor in their lives for 4 leaders to be chasing the same kid. We leaders spread out for the sake of the broken world—because they need us to spread out.

So spread out! But above all, let your need to feel successful be satisfied by the real success: You followed God’s call. And that’s worthy of celebration.

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