It keeps coming up in conversations I’m having about church initiatives: somebody needs to be in charge. Without leadership from someone who cares, no project can succeed.
I heard about a young mothers group that met in homes and was led by a motivated volunteer who didn’t ask but just took charge of things like scheduling. It was great. But it stopped working when it tried to meet at the church and become part of the organizational decision-making structure.
I’ve seen adult Sunday School classes whither after a committed leader quits or moves away. In her absence, nobody feels qualified to lead, so no one does, and everyone is the worse for it.
It’s not just church. Seth Godin developed and gave away free curriculum for self-directed groups of leaders to use for their own development. It didn’t work. Nobody felt they had permission to lead them, so they were ineffective.
It’s not just the church, this problem, but it has a particular shape in the church. Because we deal in “spiritual” matters, and because the Bible, theology, and church history are things that titled church leaders tend to know a lot about, many people in congregations feel like that knowledge is what is required of those who would lead.
How do we normalize the behavior of taking permission to lead? How do we not only tolerate but encourage the habit of inviting people to join you in the thing you’re interested in, without waiting for direction from a person on the staff or on a committee?
There are four levels to youth ministry. One is the congregational level, where young people are integrated into the life of the grown up church in meaningful ways and where the grown up church comes to value youth’s contributions to congregational life. There are lots of ways to do this, some of which work great in one context and poorly in another. For example.
- Youth Officers. Done well, the habit of nominating and electing a youth, typically a high school student, to an adult leadership office in the church is a meaningful way of both sharing governance responsibility with the youngest of the church’s active members, forming them as leaders in concrete ways, but also of expanding teenagers’ pool of trusted adults, women and men who are not related to them and who do not expect things of them like teachers and coaches, but who know their names and express interest in their lives. Done poorly it makes a token of young people and asks them to sit through long meetings where they don’t know what’s going on.
- Mission Trip Fundraisers. These can be oppressive events that feature students pleading with strangers to buy overpriced baked goods. They can also be thoughtful invitations for the church to participate in youth mission work. They can involve students sharing their hopes and their fears about the upcoming trip.
- Adult Education Classes. One of my best experiences in youth ministry was an adult Sunday School class that I taught with two ninth graders. The class focused on a book about teenagers and digital media, and the ninth graders demonstrated and interpreted for the adults how they thought about and used digital media in their own lives. We recreated the SMS conversation they’d had about their Confirmation statements of faith. Last year I proposed an adult class on another book by the same author and nobody came.
- Youth in Worship. Youth need to experience and be seen in the community Lord’s Day worship service. They need to be invited into leadership as Scripture readers, leaders of prayers, and all the other things. Coaching them in this role is another opportunity to expand their pool of trusted adults.
How else do you integrate young people into grown up congregational life?
There are four levels to youth ministry. One of them is the leader level. This level involves inviting, equipping, supporting, and developing the women and men, staff, and volunteer, who are doing the youth ministry work (including yourself). Here is one thing I’ve found help with that and two that don’t.
- Cohorts. I’ve written here before about the Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort I participated in. I had such a positive experience with it that I helped launch one. I have *nudged two colleagues to join coaching cohorts, and I’m getting ready to host one next fall. They are short enough (one year) yet rigorous enough (two days of work at a time) to allow for focused, measurable development work, and their emphasis on peer feedback is so, so valuable. Love the cohort.
- Vague tools. Curriculum that lacks specificity and that leaves learning objectives up for interpretation will not be received by most volunteer leaders as liberating, but rather insufficiently specific to be useful. When we are developing materials for leaders to use with students, they should spell out their aims in concrete terms, and they should spell out their processes in detail: do this, then do this, next say this, and so on. Leaving it up to leaders doesn’t help.
- Lunch. The “Y’all come” monthly lunch for youth leaders is nice (who doesn’t like lunch), but it doesn’t look like a great use of peoples’ time to get everyone who is working with any students of any age together at the same time without a clear learning or working agenda. It’s probably better to schedule lunches (or breakfasts) with the specific teams of leaders who are working on the same thing. The issues addressed will be limited to things that can be usefully worked on in the short term.
I love this level of youth ministry, and I want to get better at it. What is your favorite tool for developing leaders?
I banned cell phones from church youth trips. Then I allowed them. Then I banned them again. And again.
Now I think it’s time to lift the ban again and allow phones on trips. There is a lot of work to do to ensure phones are used constructively and in limited, consistent increments during trips, and the conversation about gossip most certainly needs to be had with a group prior to the trip. We can talk about those things later.
I have long recognized that parents, as much as students, have a very difficult time leaving kids’ phones at home for a week-long mission trip or even a weekend retreat. Honestly, I have perceived this as a kind of helicopter parenting that is overly dependent on constant contact with one’s teenager. That may be the case for some parents, but there is something else phones give to teenagers that parents rightly want them to have: agency.
Mobile phones give youth agency. They can reach a trusted adult in a crisis. That is how parents justify giving their kids phones.
Requiring phones be left at home strips students of this important agency in a meaningful way that is not remedied by constant text updates from trip leaders to parents or posts to a shared blog or Facebook page. If a student, particularly a young student, particularly a young female student, feels threatened or unsafe on a church trip in a way she can’t share with a leader, even restricted access to her phone grants her agency to help herself.
I don’t like to think that any student or any parent would feel threatened by me on a trip. Nor do I like to think that their interactions with any of the trip leaders, women and men whom we have submitted to criminal background checks, would cause concern. But I can’t fault the parent of a 6th grader, who just met me, from having that thought. I am an institutional authority figure in an age when stories of such figures’ abuse of their positions have proliferated. I sympathize with the thought.
Maybe meeting that thought by demanding phones be left at home is worse than meeting it by allowing them.
I think there are four levels to youth ministry. One is ministry with parents. Here are three things that help with that and one that doesn’t.
- Clarity. I am learning the hard way that clear, consistent communication with parents makes most everything work better. So we publish an annual events calendar in August. I write a weekly e-newsletter with the upcoming weekend’s schedule and assorted announcements requiring action. I also write a monthly e-newsletter just to parents (hat tip to this Youth Cartel Course). I use our website to post static information with clear links to register and sign up, as well as, increasingly, explanatory descriptions of those things. Finally, as I wrote here, I’m going back to sending things home in the mail.
- Trips. I’m big on youth ministry trips. One reason is the partnership they offer with parents, especially, in my experience, parents of young teens. We took 5th-8th graders to Detroit last summer, led by a team of five parents. Some of those parents were already involved in youth ministry activities, but most weren’t, so the trip provided really valuable time to get to know them as we drove long hours, worked side-by-side, and strategized each day. It is perhaps the most valuable parent ministry I’ve done here.
- Coffee (or tea). One-on-one conversations at coffee shops or related public spaces are the lifeblood of effective ministry with parents. Some contexts make this more challenging than others, if people live over a wide geographic area and transportation is complicated. Also, most of my students’ parents work the same hours I do and aren’t necessarily looking for things to add to their evenings, so this requires some flexibility. But it’s worth it. There simply is no replacement when it comes to learning about the youth in your church, their families, and the things they’re both struggling with and thriving at, for an hour-long talk with a parent. Also, I find that these energize me more than almost anything else I do.
- Meetings. I have a calendar of Sunday morning parent meetings that I’d hoped would generate meaningful connections among parents and help me grow my relationships with them, but they’re not really killing it for those things. I’m finding them mostly to be vehicles for sharing information. That’s fine (see #1), but I want them to be more. Perhaps one hour on Sunday morning isn’t enough. Maybe there aren’t enough of them. Whatever the reason, parent meetings were something I expected to be a big part of my ministry with parents but that aren’t really.
Have a nice weekend!
I think there are four levels to youth ministry. Each level requires a different way of working and different skills. Here are two skills that help with the “youth” level and one that doesn’t.
- Listening. This is the most critical skill for working with young people. Adolescence is a time when teenagers are told things by grown ups: what’s going to be on the test, when the application is due, what time to be home, and how many laps to run. Youth ministers have things to tell young people as well, like when youth group starts and where to find the book of Titus, but the more valuable work we do with students is listening to them. We don’t listen to collect data. We don’t listen to diagnose or treat. We listen to listen. Youth ministers listen to teenagers out of interest, because we are curious about who they are as people created in the image of God more than as players on a team we’re coaching. Learning to listen well, both in one-on-one interactions as well as in group processes, goes a long way toward excellent youth ministry.
- Facilitating groups. Learning how to structure group gatherings and how to steer them toward productive outcomes is one of the most important things we can learn to do well in youth ministry. It’s important as a tool for welcome and hospitality above all else, in my view. Young people who are uncertain of themselves or who are uncomfortable in group settings or who are new to the group will benefit tremendously from a well-designed gathering that accounts for their contribution. Planning is only half the battle, though. Unexpected things occur, and the best youth workers know how to incorporate those things into their plan and how to ditch the plan and improvise in the moment.
- “Relating” to youth. I’ve spent hours in my youth ministry career trying to demonstrate to teenagers that I get them, that I experienced the same kinds of things they’re presently experiencing, that my tastes in music are not that different from theirs, that I know how to use Snapchat (actually, I’ve never done that). I don’t do any of that anymore. I think young people are much better served by adults who own the distinction between themselves and teenagers than by ones who are trying to collapse it. Now, when I feel like I don’t relate to teenagers, I revert back to skill number one above.
There are at least four levels to youth ministry in a congregation.
- The youth level. This is the most obvious and feels like the most urgent. The youth level is where all the interaction with students happens. In vans and Sunday School classrooms, in coffee shops and church basements, youth ministers talk with and listen to young people in ways that, we hope, mediate the acceptance, the call, and the love of God.
- The parent level. Relationships with parents are indispensable to strong youth ministries. Parents are partners who have a far greater influence on the faith and discipleship of young people than do youth ministers. Processes for listening to parents are critical tools for youth ministers to learn and to strengthen their work with students.
- The leader level. At this level, youth ministers tend to their own spiritual and professional development, but also do the work of inviting and nurturing leaders from the congregation to work with youth. Some of these leaders are parents, many are not. Congregations are full of talented women and men who have time and attention to share with students if only invited and given some simple tools.
- The congregational level. Youth Sundays, fundraisers, and adult education classes are just a few expressions of the fourth level of youth ministry. Here is where leaders invite students into grown up roles–as worship leaders and teachers, officers and ushers. Here, too, is where youth ministry leaders interpret adolescence as a gift to the church and adolescents as its bearers.
Youth ministry isn’t one thing. It’s at least four things.
Curriculum is nothing more than a plan for how to spend time together. For youth ministry, it tells you what you’ll do with a group of 20 junior high youth on Sunday morning for a month or three high school students for a year. It could be scribbled on the back of a worship bulletin or photocopied from a published unit, but if you don’t have a curriculum you don’t have a plan, and youth ministry without a plan is very frustrating–for everyone involved.
I’ve been laboring under the assumption for awhile now that I should be designing my own curriculum. For the Sunday morning youth groups, for our retreats and mission trips, for lock-ins, I feel an obligation to be the one giving thought and structure to what happens, down to the last detail. Two things are challenging that assumption.
- The stuff I’m coming up with isn’t working very well. At least some of it isn’t. I’m not leading it, but writing it for others to lead, and I’m sensing that it’s a different ballgame when you’re creating lessons that others–who aren’t you–are going to have to lead.
- We’re using a printed curriculum for Our Whole Lives, and it’s terribly, terribly liberating. Because of the subject, I am relieved to defer to the thoughtful and experienced hands behind the writing and editing. I have never successfully taught this subject without a curriculum designed by someone else.
In the balance of all the youth ministry you’re doing, maybe you don’t need to come up with all the curriculum. Maybe you can buy one for Sunday morning groups and design your own for retreats. Or maybe you design the weekly youth group lessons but use someone else’s for a mission trip devotional.
Maybe doing curriculum well, on the whole, means not trying to do it all.
Somebody I’ve never met and who worships at a church I’ve never visited called me the other day to talk about their church’s youth ministry. He’s part of a team assessing their high school program, calling other churches to learn what they’re doing.
I don’t know if he got anything out of my description of what we’re doing, but I at least got something out of giving it. He asked very basic questions, about structure and purpose, that are easy to leave un-asked when you’re in the weekly weeds of banging out flyers and plans.
Even as you speak the rationale, for example, behind running three youth groups during the same hour every week, a voice in your head speaks up: Why are we doing it this way again? What assumptions are we making? Who does this not work for?
If you’re stuck, ask someone to interview you.
I was so proud of our digital communication plan. We put flyers and sign ups online, and then we created a weekly e-newsletter filled with links to those flyers and sign ups. We even started sending event-specific emails with compelling “register now” subject lines. We even put a job application on our website.
Everything digital. Nothing in the mail.
It’s working to tell most youth and parents in our orbit what is coming up and how to participate. But it isn’t telling them why they should.
Perfect example: the fall Confirmation retreat. Lots of students knew it was happening and when (they’d received emails galore), but many, many of them did not know what it was. Like, they didn’t know what a retreat was. So they planned to skip it.
We’re pivoting back to sending some things home in the mail. This event is on the website and has already been sent out as an email flyer, but I also wrote a letter about it and sent it home. I did the same thing for our Our Whole Lives retreat.
The resurrection of mail is about explaining why we’re inviting students to retreats and trips, not just what those things are and how to sign up.