So, You Wanna Be a Youth Leader

In most churches across the country, Promotion Sunday has either already occurred or is right around the corner.  If you’re in the dark about this phenomenon (it may be a Methodist thing, I don’t know), it’s when all the kids move up to the next Sunday school class.  It’s also the time of year when youth groups get some new faces and not all of them are youth.  Every now and then, a parent or adult church member sans children will find themselves drawn to youth ministry.  Now, most everyone else in the church probably thinks these folks are crazy.  You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes around some teenagers to realize they’re loud, messy, obnoxious and they can ask some very inconvenient questions, why the heck would anyone subject themselves to that.  I’ve been a volunteer youth leader at Knightdale UMC for about seven years now and I’m still not sure how to answer that question.  But, the truth of the matter is that if you feel the need to ask that, you’re probably not cut to work with teens anyway.

All those years ago, when I started working with youth, I went into it totally blind.  There was no one to hold my hand and share the benefit of their experience and that made for some rocky times, let me tell you.  But, I learned; sometimes the hard way.  Since I believe that knowledge should be passed on, I’m going to drop a little of mine on you.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up in my time with teens:

  1. No BS _ Since teenagers are experts in seeing through BS,  I can’t stress this hard enough.  Don’t try to be “down with the kids”, it won’t work and you’ll just look like an idiot.  If you’re a nerd, embrace your nerddom (as my daughter Olivia says “Nerds ROCK!); if you’re an athlete, be athletic.  The point is to be yourself.   Most importantly, though, if you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, admit it and do whatever’s necessary to get an answer.  Believe me, it’ll be worth the effort.
  2. Don’t start giving orders _ Be aware that these aren’t your kids and you really don’t have a lot of leverage with them.  To begin with, you have zero credibility with these kids and a bunch of authoritarian pronouncements will make sure it stays that way.  Right about now, you’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to get anything done.  I want you to remember a word: relationship.  You’re supposed to be a leader and you can’t lead people you don’t know.  So, take some time and do the hard work of building relationships with the kids.  It works better than throwing orders around and you’ll make some amazing friends
  3. Shut up _ For your first few meetings, you really shouldn’t say much of anything.  Just sit back, watch and learn.  Every group has its own dynamic, its own leader and its own rhythm.  Take some time and learn who and what they are.  This information will be invaluable to you. 
  4. Be prepared _ For what you ask?  Anything, anything under the sun.  I can guarantee that you’ll be asked questions that make you extremely uncomfortable and you’ll be challenged about almost everything you say.  It’s going to be messy and noisy and chaotic…, and loads of fun.  It won’t be long before you find yourself looking forward to youth nights.
  5. Keep your opinions to yourself _ More than likely, you’re not going to like the music they listen to, the movies they like and the television they watch.  If you have (or have had) teens, you already know this.  But, if you keep yakking about it, you’ll come off as a grumpy old fart and that will bring your career to  screeching halt.
  6. Listen _ Kids today have stresses most adults couldn’t imagine.  Because of that, they often need a sympathetic ear.  As a youth leader, you’ll be that ear.
  7. Keep it confidential _ Like I just said, you’re going to be called upon to lend an ear from time to time.  When that happens, keep to yourself unless there’s some dangerous behavior involved.  You don’t really have a licensed counselor’s expectation of privacy, but that’s how you should treat it.

Let me close by saying get ready for something amazing to happen.  You’re about to start a journey that has the potential to change you as much you might change some of the kids you’re involved with.  They will constantly amaze you with their spirit, their intelligence and their drive to make a difference.  If you’re lucky, some of that will rub off on you.