I’m spending this week in Fort Collins, Colorado at the Ignite Summit for Leaders to be ignited with a passion for youth and kids. I had the privilege of leading a discussion with around 100 youth leaders from all over the nation, and one topic we had a chance to discuss was what we would say to senior leaders, if they asked for our advice on how to work with youth leaders. Then the senior leaders invited me to come speak to them–and I simply brought with me the ideas the youth leaders had shared with me!
Below is an encapsulation of the main themes that were shared (of course I can’t include every single idea, but these are the main themes). Whether you have volunteers, parents, or full time youth pastors, these ideas could be vital to your church having happy, healthy, and highly motivated youth workers!
1) Communication Is Key
One of the most important ideas that I would communicate to senior leaders is the need for communication with their youth leaders. There are several levels on which this communication could tangibly take place. One, for instance, is the job description. Have you created a well-communicated job description for your youth leaders? It doesn’t really matter if they are paid or unpaid; everyone will benefit from a clearly defined set of expectations and roles. Then, of course, this needs to be followed up with regular check ins (you decide at what intervals). This will ensure that both you and your youth worker are on the same page moving forward. Often without communication, we begin to make assumptions about people–”I assume they are not doing this, or have forgotten this”–when in reality it could be very different. So communicate! It is huge.
Another form of valuable communication is being the advocate and cheerleader of both your youth worker and your youth. If we are creating cultures were youth and kids are priorities, we need to celebrate them as a regular part of our culture. Sunday morning from the mic, in our media and announcements, on our website–what if we regularly trumpeted the accomplishments of our youth? What kind of value would that add to their experience of church? What kind of value would that communicate to others looking to join your church?
2) Be Relational Before Being Task-Oriented
It is so easy to forget that we are working with actual people sometimes, isn’t it? Other people on our staff, or in our volunteer core, can easily just become the face behind that one idea, or that one problem, or that budgetary issue. We can start to feel alienated from each other, and even at odds with one another. Is this a healthy way for a church leadership team to operate? Of course not. Senior leaders, be willing to let your youth leaders get to know you. Be wiling to listen to them, and not just assess a situation and make a decision. Be willing to listen as they figure out why things are working, and why they aren’t, instead of just telling them.
Oftentimes with my pastor, I have found that we can begin to get at odds over ministry issues we don’t see eye to eye on. In those moments, we have found it is really a good idea to just go out to lunch together. This takes us away from the “office mentality” and gets us into relational mode. In that context we rediscover that we like each other! And more than that–also that we’re on the same team, that we believe in each other, and that we have each other’s best interests at heart. So invest relationally! Not only will it be healthy for you, but it will create greater unity of vision and purpose.
3) Make Their Growth a Priority
It’s important to create opportunities for your youth leaders to grow spiritually and theologically. Is this your personal responsibilty? Not neccessarily. But you can be a vital catalyst in ensuring this happens. Does your youth leader have a mentor? Are they reading books to personally grow? Are you creating space for spiritual retreats (even short ones)? Are you helping them get to educational resources like conferences and training sessions? And are you setting as a high priority their investment in relationships with other youth leaders?
This last one is a huge one for me personally. Some of my greatest personal growth as a youth leader has come from lots of discussions with youth leaders in my region that I have grown to love and respect.
My vision, philosophy, and practice of youth ministry have all been refined and shaped by countless conversations with other guys and gals doing the same ministry as me. And it will also be good for your youth groups! Youth groups that intermingle and build bridges are so good for the future of our church. It provides our teens with a sense of being part of something bigger, which in turn motivates greater involvement at the local level. The cross pollination of relationships is so cool to watch, as teens from all over the country support one another, and see themselves as part of a movement!
4) Casting Vision Together
In my experience, people are not looking to be a “hired hand” in youth ministry. You will struggle to find someone who will sign on for this–”We need someone to take the kids and do something with them, for as little remuneration as possible!” People, and especially youth adults (which is the primary demographic for youth leaders), are looking to make a difference. They don’t want to just “fill a slot,” they want to change lives. This is where sharing the vision with passion of why you want/need youth leaders is so crucial. Explaining that the youth of our churches are the NOW and the FUTURE of our churches, and that we need someone (or several people) to disciple the next generation of the church, to rescue kids from bad situations, to raise them up to be powerful disciples–now that’s a vision people will get behind! People are looking more for a calling, than a job. Can we create this job in such a way that it is more vision driven?
5) Focus on Family Values
This is the last one. Many youth leaders are young, and have young families. Many of them start out at a pretty low salary, and see very gradual increase. Many of them are stressed and anxious about doing a great job at church, and also trying to be a great dad and parent. I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t have high expectations, and that youth leaders shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice for the Kingdom, etc.–I AM saying that I have met many youth leaders who are burning out, because they feel over-used by their church. They feel a constant tension between their boss and their spouse! And they feel like they will inevitably let both of them down!
Is this a healthy place for our youth leaders to be ? I’m not saying to just let them do whatever they want. But I am saying, let’s start a conversation. As an older leader, you may not remember what its like to have 2 kids under the age of 4 at home. You may not remember that night hours are more valuable often than day hours, because night time is so difficult with just one parent. So that’s why it is worth the conversation.
In our society young adults are looking for jobs with flexibility in hours, opportunities to work from home, etc. I don’t know how all this shakes out in your church culture, but what I’m saying is talk to your youth leader. Find out if their family is being sacrificed for this job. This is probably the hardest of the five to figure out, but it is so important. Let’s do the work to figure it out, so we don’t short circuit some of our brightest leaders in the movement.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list. It is just meant, really, as a discussion starter. Also, it is not meant to be AT ALL condemning or judgmental. I believe senior leaders have the best intentions at heart. But sometimes, even our best intentions miss some things. Hopefully this will inspire you, senior leader, to spend some face to face time with your youth leader, and help you to create a really positive and healthy working relationship.
If you have any other ideas, feel free to leave them in the comments below!