Some Tips for Youth Leaders/Workers and the Youth Leader

Some of my experiences which are here to help, not to patronise. I will add to this as God puts things into my mind and convicts. As ever, use what’s useful, ditch what isn’t!! This is growing into both a training session on youth leader development, and personal growth as a leader. 

What Is A Leader?

Define what you mean by a leader. Some people want to be youth leaders but aren’t cut out to be. Others will do over time. By defining, even writing a job description (or basics of being a youth leader) you can clarify the role, enhance the role and protect the youth work.

Use the Bible in your definition obviously. I say this to root the youth work in the Bible and so that you are aware of what a leader is. This helps you grow and youth leaders know and grow.

One suggestion is to have youth helpers and youth leaders. Helpers can go on to become leaders over time as they prove themselves and as God builds them up through different means. This is because leading something is very different to working on it and calls for different gifts. The categories are ultimately fluid however and it does not set leaders as being better than workers.

Define the roles, responsibilities clearly. This also requires time to invest to help the youth helpers become leaders. At the end of the day, however, someone has to be responsible, and take the key decisions.

Youth Leaders or Those Involved in Youth Ministry

There are 3 types of youth work leaders, very generally. First up, you have the key core group – these are the ‘elders’ as it were of the youth work, they are usually youth specialists and have a real burden for this work. Secondly, you have other youth workers passionate for the work with students, but not necessarily those who will (yet) take the key decisions. They are involved in the decision making process, however. Finally, you have what I describe as youth work helpers. These are those willing to lend their support to the youth work, but aren’t really youth specialists. They tend to be involved in a limited way. 

Within your youth work, you must have a balance of all these types of people. I’ve seen too many youth ministries with alleged ‘leaders’ who really shouldn’t be in youth work at all, those who’ve been roped in, or ‘involved’ by youth pastors seeking to involve people in the work. Be careful how you balance your leaders. Sometimes it is better to have less ‘leaders’ and do less ‘ministry’ than simply involve anyone, regardless of youth work passion or ability. But remember that people do ‘grow’ into the work. Make space for this too, so helpers can grow into real leaders, where appropriate. But be very careful not simply to ‘involve’ people. This doesn’t create a very focused youth ministry. 

For example, how many of your youth leaders spend time (appropriately) with young people, outside of the youth groups they are involved in? By this I mean, do they meet up for coffee? Do they chat to the young people in church? If young people see them out in town, do they come over to chat or hang out even? There are 2 youth ministries I know. One is full of youth workers who love to chat to, disciple and be with young people – and this is reciprocated. This youth ministry is fun, growing and sees large numbers of young people attend and grow spiritually. I know of another where youth leaders and young people rarely engage with each other outside of the sessions. Maybe you need to give some consideration to yourself, as the main youth leader and how you relate to young people / how they relate to you. You need to be setting an example, encouraging and maybe even training / praying for your leaders to be more young people focused throughout the day, not just in sessions. If you do, watch your youth work really grow in depth, care and love – and prayerfully, numerically too. 

Question: which young people are already showing leadership gifting? How can they be mentored through effectively?

Consider informal contracts

This gives a clear indication of the leader’s responsibilities etc. along with the limits and discipline/complaint structures. If you do this, it can help. The contract can be simply drawn up within a single page and is signed at the bottom. You can have a ‘probationary’ time period so that people don’t feel tied down, or fix for 6 month / 1 year period. You don’t have to do this kind of thing and it is not about becoming rigid and inflexible. Instead, like the 10 Commandments, they are a set of guidelines to be obeyed in order to protect the youth worker and the young people, and to inspire them within limits. 

I had a group of leaders criticising me at one stage. I think it would have been avoided if they knew what their role was and the discipline structure was also clear. I have also experienced this within a city wide group of youth leaders. The set up wasn’t thought through carefully, people didn’t know their roles, people assumed control who weren’t appointed, the group wasn’t sure what it believed (in fact it didn’t even think about it). But this led to misunderstanding, frustration and hurt. It could easily have been sorted if people had been clear about: what they believed, what the purpose of the group was, what the structure was and who did what. Informal structures produce un-informed decisions too often. Same in leadership. 

Training for Leaders

Consider youth leader training. This may be informal, it may be formal. How does the individual leader respond best to learning? Bible College training can be good, where the course and training is good. However, we need to be careful and not make hard and fast rules about ways, locations and types of training. Bible College / courses do not work for everyone. 

A great model throughout the Bible is people accountable to one another, and of people mentoring others (Eli and Samuel for example, or Paul & Timothy, Jesus and the disciples etc). However, the mentoring strategy needs to be good. Like any training, it stands and falls on the delivery and the quality. Consider a strategy where you invest into leaders who show an enthusiasm and will to develop and change. See below.. 

Other training, weekends away, courses, retreats can be very good. We can all learn and must. This is Biblical – a constant pattern of growing and becoming better in the areas where God calls. There are many things we need to have formal training in – child protection, the law, insurance and more.

Time-Out for Leaders

I love this true story told by Gordon MacDonald: When he and his wife were visiting Switzerland, they watched a traditional Swiss couple cutting grass with traditional blades. After 9 minutes they stopped and sharpened their blades. Then they carried on cutting. 9 minutes later, they sharpened their blades, then started cutting. And so on.. As Gordon MacDonald says, he learnt a great principle that day. In order to stay effective, you have to take time out and get sharpened. This may come through rest, time away, a break from youth work, attending a conference or having a holiday, reading an inspiring book, listening to some teaching CDs, just getting away with God and hearing from him.. Or all of the above. But stay sharpened. You can’t last the race with just your skills and talents. You and your team must be filled with God in order to pour out. If you find yourself in a place of being and feeling drained, do something about it. 

Other ‘Personal Growth’ strategies

Keep your mind active. Some youth work can be mentally un-stimulating. So, do things to keep your mind in shape whatever that may look like for you. Your mind should be as sharp as is possible. 

Keep yourself in good physical shape, as far as you can. We all have our limitations and these are different as we get older. But eat healthily with a balanced nutritious diet, keep away from microwave meals, do exercise, avoid excess, play sport etc. All this will help you significantly and boost energy levels.

Read books / watch DVDs / listen to CDs that will challenge your thinking, shape your direction, refine your strategies, encourage and equip you, inspire you beyond where you are.

Have good friends. You need friends where you can just be you, rather than you the youth leader. Be a friend to others, share your life with people you trust and have integrity. Have friends who are disciples and those on the journey to seeking God too. Don’t cut off from ‘non-church’ people. 

If you have a family, then spend time with them. This is a great training ground and the main place where God will use you to pass on your skills, learn new skills and be shaped. Your family must come first. If you find that church is taking over, make some changes quickly.

When people are critical, consider that there may be something in what they’ve said that is true, even if you’re just getting flak from them. Consider yourself. To paraphrase a great David Pawson remark – when you’re being misjudged, just be thankful people don’t see all the actual sin in your heart. 

Stay informed with what is going on around you – world trends, youth culture, new ways of thinking. Don’t be obsessive about this, but a couple of websites may help this process. 

Empowering Leaders = Discipling Them 

This is about empowering leaders with effective support to grow in faith, love for God, and their ministry with young people. This is about effective support, accountability, support structures and even discipline. Empowerment is half the key, the complete picture is the word ‘discipleship’. 

Again, this needs to be defined within a larger ministry. This helps avoid some of the conflicts and problems. As ever, effective communication is key.

What does mentoring mean? Meeting with leaders, hearing their visions, hopes and dreams. Helping them fulfill those visions, becoming a more effective disciple of Jesus, loving God and young people more. It means praying with them, loving them, supporting them. Showing them the best way to do things. Sharing visions and new ideas. It means including them, making them know they are valued and special.

It may mean sending cards of encouragement, keeping them right up to date with what’s going on, Christmas and birthday cards. It means supporting them in areas they love even when you find it hard.

Empowering is essential. One of your duties to pass on what you’ve learned and release people – you must do it. If you don’t release others and let others try (and fail if necessary) then your control of the youth work will suffocate, frustrate and ultimately ruin the youth work. I’ve seen leaders who insist on doing everything so much so that other leaders leave as there seems to be no need for them. In turn young people leave too. I’ve seen other leaders do everything so much that when they go the youth work collapses. Watch out. Ain’t no pre-madonnas in God’s Kingdom!

Meeting Together

Essential to meet together regularly and pray. As a youth leader, we did this once a month. We also met to discuss youth work plans and the way ahead. If something was happening, we’d try to let everyone know. In the schools work project, this would be every week – meeting together, sharing info, sharing our hearts and praying.

Prayer Team

Have a prayer team for the youth work – the young people, their programmes and the leaders. Due to child protection and privacy, you do not obviously disclose specifics unless to very trusted prayer people with anonymity of names. But you can keep the prayer team informed.

The Church

Essential. We’re in this together, love it or hate it. I struggle at my church. It’s often irrelevant to me, let alone young people or non-Christians and more. But we’re all imperfect, we can’t operate in isolation and we all need each other, as 1 Corinthians 12 explains.

Your experience is going to be unique to the church you are in, but there are general principles that will help you..

Keep the church informed. Let them know the encouragements and difficulties. This may mean a weekly or monthly report. It means putting articles and getting leaders/young people to put articles in the church magazine, website, information board, whatever. It means standing up in church and letting people know. This means phoning people, encouraging them, talking to people because you value and love them. 

People love the youth work in most churches. They may even want to be part of it, even though you’d be mistaken for thinking they only want to criticise it. At the very least it shows an interest! You, the leaders and young people are part of the church and must be involved. Help around the church, communicate with all people and generations, serve with the young people, take services and more.

The Leadership above you 

Are there people who you are accountable to? If not, why not? How are you going to be wisely guided, corrected, developed and supported if not? Being a complete lone ranger isn’t always the greatest idea, unless absolutely necessary. What about prayer support? 

In one church situation, I was not allowed on the church leadership team due to Baptist rules. Not rules that lend themselves to great efficiency, to be polite..! If you’re not on leadership team or not quite there, then keep the leaders informed. This will take different forms in different situations. 

In the Baptist church, we found the most effective way was to meet as leaders, sort a programme and then let the leadership know. We didn’t always ask permission about every last detail, but presented it to them before it went out to young people and parents. This provided some accountability with the ability to get things done. 

However, in other situations, you’ll be able to keep the church leader informed of what is happening, by meeting with them and letting them know what is happening, what you hope to do. At the very least, email or phone with details and ideas – run things by the leader and see what they think. 

Keep the pastor on board. Meet with him, share stuff, pray together etc. All obvious stuff but important not to forget. Let the pastor and leadership know about special events, situations that need resolving. Communicate to be effective.

I realise that not everyone has a supportive team above them. If you don’t, try to find someone who will help and mentor you, someone who will love and support you and advise on strategies don working with those in the church around you. 

A Leadership Strategy

Do you have a plan of things you want to achieve? Do you know how to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’? Are there certain things you’d like to develop or change? If so, you need to have some kind of a strategy. I mean this in terms of your personal development as a leader, your development of others, and the progression of your youth work and ministry. For some people, this will be a formal process. For others, more informal. But it is good to keep a record of where you are and where you feel God is leading you. It may help in keeping you on track, away from distractions and knowing where to focus. 

Be Up Front with how you operate 

Be clear with youth leaders and young people and the leadership about how you operate best as a leader. If you like consensus and everyone on board, that’s fine. If you like to move things forward and don’t feel you need to have consensus, fine. Be clear to everyone about your personality and how the youth work will move forward. Be humble and willing to learn, but don’t be held back because you were not clear enough about how things operate. I have seen some leaders who have said they want agreement, but bring finalised strategies to meetings, or don’t do what the team has agreed to do. This is not good working practice. 

Get Your Hands Dirty

First one in, last one out. The one sweeping the floors, picking up the litter, giving lifts, being there for people. The word leader (‘ekklesia’ in Greek) is the word servant. Jesus said if you want to be a leader you have to serve. If you want to be the leader then you’ve got to be a kind of slave, serving everyone, right there at the bottom. Then God lifts you up!

There is a perception in some churches, usually the more ‘religious’ ones that the pastor or priest is somehow closer to God than most ‘ordinary’ people. No way son. Some leaders don’t get involved in the nitty gritty. That is poor leadership. I spoke to a deacon in my church who works in prisons.. ‘I never ask my men to do something that I don’t or am not prepared to do.’ Now THAT is leadership example. Jesus washed his disciple’s feet. What is the ‘foot washing’ that you need to develop with your leaders and yourself?

Despite this, and included in this, is the fact that you are the leader. Things must go through you. Don’t be undermined by those ‘below’ or ‘above’ you. If you’ve been appointed to a role, you must be given the authority to properly do that role.

Get Your Spiritual Life Sorted!

If you aren’t going on with God, growing as a Christian, reading your Bible daily, praying and getting alone with God daily, leading, being proactive in your faith, stepping out your comfort zone – then how do you expect the youth work, leaders and young people are going to grow!

This is the area easily neglected. The one where Satan will pressurize you the most to squeeze your time, finding loads of things for you to do. Often, ‘doing’ is not what’s required but getting alone, quietly and praying to and hearing from God is. As youth leader I have tried to follow the example of Jesus (not often enough I have to say!) in getting quiet on my knees and hearing from God. He alone is and must be the source of your power in ministry. It’s not you who lives but Christ who lives in you.

Confront Where Necessary

A good leader is someone able and willing to confront other leaders in love with truth. If leaders are getting above themselves, bullying others, think they’re indispensable, aren’t doing what they should, are doing too much etc. then be prepared to deal with this.

A good idea comes with Safe To Grow type policies. The Baptist Union policy states that youth workers should have clear contracts defining roles and responsibilities. Once someone has completed one of these, they can be held accountable to it. If they don’t do it or do too much they can be brought back to the contract they agreed on. Another idea is to write into one of these contracts 3 monthly or 6 monthly, 1 yearly meetings where you can review how the youth worker has done. If you build in informal contact you can nip things in the bud.

A Lack of Good Leaders

I once heard someone say, ‘Get where God is’ and another say, ‘Get yourself under a good leader who’ll train you really well’. For me these were 2 bits of very cool advice. The church lacks quality leaders. 

Getting where God is may mean physically relocating, but it also means keep your spiritual eyes open for what God is doing, and get on board. So, if God is opening a door into a school, get into the school. If God has put the idea of a new youth club on people’s hearts, test the vision and go where God leads. 

Secondly, if you want the very best from God, find yourself someone who can lead you on, train you, disciple you, be interested in you. If you are a a leader, find people you can invest time in. Train them, disciple them, love them and release them. A leader who effectively disciples then releases others is a leader who will impact the world.

If your bag is training then go get training. My mate went to London Bible College which I highly recommend though I’m not a fan of most Bible colleges or theological seminaries / courses. 

If you need practical training, go find that if you can! Go visit people, stay with churches with youth works you respect, leaders of integrity you trust and who God shines through like the sun. Find good people, watch them, pick up their strategies and personalise them. Where are they weak? How would you do things differently? 

If you need to develop skills in leaders then communicate that expectation regularly. We need to grow in Jesus, need to be accountable, need to move on with God. Challenge yourselves daily, weekly, monthly. As Dwight L Moody famously said:

“The world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to Him”

Dwight L Moody