No Jerks Allowed (An Unpolished Presentation of Youth Ministry Values)

I scheduled a four hour planning retreat for our youth ministry staff for this week, and after reading Marko’s post on values I decided to commit a significant piece of our meeting time to them. I hope it’s the first step in a broad conversation about what matters to us in our work with teenagers. I also employed this Harvard Business Review piece about different types of values, because the distinction between, say, core values and aspirational values feels pretty important.

Here is an unpolished presentation of what we uncovered.

Relationships, community, and belonging are core values for us. We prioritize activities that foster face-to-face conversation, especially in small groups. We want teenagers to feel at home when they’re at church.

Another core value is exploration and questioning. We want students to delve deep into their doubts and their gaps in understanding–about God, themselves, the world–in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

We have some aspirational values too. We think these are critical to our success, but we’re not sure we’re fully embodying them yet. Being Biblically thorough is one of those. The arc of the Biblical narrative ought to shape our students’ emerging understanding of who they are and how they’re called to live. We also value inclusion: the spaces and activities we’re cultivating need to be accessible to teenagers we don’t yet know and who don’t know the church yet.

We also think that adolescents need to be incorporated into grown up expressions of church life, so we’re aspiring to a value of youth/adult integration. At the same time, adolescence is a long runway with a world of isolation between its extreme ends, so it matters to us that early adolescents and older adolescents are connecting with one another and not only with peers their own age.

Spiritual vitality, too, needs to matter. We are in the spirituality business. Youth need to experience moments of transcendence, gratitude, penitence, and glory, and they need to be invited to respond in those moments with commitment, yet in ways that do not traffic in emotional manipulation.

Our “Pay To Play” values are pretty straightforward: we must enjoy teenagers. We must have healthy personal boundaries. Collaboration, enthusiasm, patience, and authenticity are all non-negotiable for us. We can’t be jerks or bullies either.

Professionalism, long term involvement, a preference for the big and the best–these are some of the “Accidental” values we notice in ourselves, things that, for better or worse, seem to really matter to us based on an assessment of who’s already here and what’s already happening. We also clearly value youth leaders who are not parents. Getting away on retreats is another accidental value. So is ritual; we invest a lot of meaning in doing things the same way year after year.

Here’s to a robust and honest conversation about what matters to us in our work, and here’s to that conversation leading us to work that is daring and smart.