The benefit of staff-driven youth ministry.

I was watching The Voice on NBC last week and found myself really enjoying it and laughing a lot, not as common when watching TV these days.  I thought, “Why am I laughing so much?” Then it hit me that I was captivated by how much fun the four judges were having together and how much they seemed to be enjoying each other.  Most reality shows feature arguing since producers think conflict and snippy judges make for interesting TV.  This year Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, and new judges Usher and Shakira (who is other-worldly popular among the four judges, illustrated by her  20+ million Twitter followers) really like each other – and you could tell it.  It was like a bright light on TV and Twitter lit up about how much fun it was to watch the show because of the fun the judges were having together.

Think about why the YOUTH MINISTRY GARAGE video show is so popular among youth workers.  It’s not the content that we’re drawn to (just don’t tell the hosts that) as we watch Doug, Josh, Katie and Matt interact with each other.  Maybe we like that they answer questions and interact with the audience.  But, I think we’re drawn to them as a group because they like each other (as far as we know, at least).  We watch it to be encouraged by that, we laugh with (and at) them, and we are drawn into their world.  And because of that, many of us feel encouraged and like we can continue on for another month in youth work.

What if you could see a similar encouraging effect in the lives of youth because you and your fellow youth staff/volunteers liked each other so much?

I am surprised how often I hear about youth ministries where the youth leaders and volunteers don’t like each other, don’t get along, have conflict in front of kids (a no-no), and compete against each other for, well, I am not sure what they compete for.  It’s too common and I’m exploring what the root causes of the conflict are.   But, it gets me dreaming about what could be: 

  • What if in our youth ministries we go to the point where we  were having so much fun as a staff – making each other laugh, honoring each other in special ways – that students came away encouraged and renewed and could see Christ’s love in our lives together?
  • What if our Christian community was so real that people knew we were Christians by how we treated each other and put each other ahead of ourselves?  Our youth would jump right in and participate in that warm c0mmunity.  And it would be transformational.

I remember the month at my last church where I looked around at our success and realized it was partly because we were what I called a staff driven youth ministry.  Now, let me clarify, we weren’t doing things for our comfort and our interests (well, ok, we did make a rule that “all-nighters” ended at 1:00 a.m), but we really LIKED to be together.  And kids could tell. We did things for each other and often created events that we liked and could invite students to like with us.  I remember being interviewed about the youth ministry during that period and I told the person that I was most proud of the character of our community, that we were truly a Christ-centered group that lived out his love.  And that “success” would follow that versus an attractive program.

The shared Christian character of a community is a stabilizer that will withstand a lot of storms.

I think four practices contribute to our unique health and I offer them for you to consider for your youth ministry:

  1. Level the authority structure.  I can’t stand the word “sponsor” when it comes to volunteers in youth ministry. I think it’s best when everyone is on “staff” and works together without consideration of who is more talented, gifted, who has degrees in what field, or who has better hair.  Be on mission to oversee a youth ministry that is effective, fruitful, and faithful to what God has called you to do.
  2. Like being together as a staff.  We never recruited openly to fill slots in our ministry.  We let the group grow organically and were picky with who was a part of the youth ministry staff (even for those who worked with young middle schoolers).  We weren’t exclusive to outsiders, but character and ability to blend in to the existing community were part of the consideration.  And since we had longevity among volunteers, we didn’t have that many openings.
  3. Do small things to promote the big thing of volunteer longevity.  It’s difficult to have close friendships when you’re always turning over volunteers.  If you have professionals and parents volunteering, you’ll have to work with time to create a schedule and series of expectations that allows them to be involved in teens’ lives each week (versus just helping run the big program) and yet not overwhelm them and burn them out. This will vary depending a particular ministry’s context, but it was a stated value of ours.
  4. Lead with maturity and the big picture in mind.  Nothing fractures the community if the point person lives at either end of pride or insecurity – and we all have to work through one or the other at some point.  Your group of volunteers will have a wide range of personalities and if the leader is easily threatened, irritated, or intimated, then confidence is lost and it’s difficult to move forward in community. What will matter to you when you look back on these days in youth ministry won’t be the program, but the relationships and the fruitfulness of your work.

WHAT IF YOUR YOUTH MINISTRY STAFF’S LOVE FOR EACH OTHER WAS SO EVIDENT THAT STUDENTS NOTICED AND CAME AWAY FEELING ENCOURAGED AND CARED FOR EVERY WEEK?

I think the effect would be like we see when we work with families.  It’d be like the kid who knew his or her parents loved each other. He or she would feel secure, cared for, and that it was way parenting should be.  When a youth staff gets along, youth feel secure, cared for, and that it was the way Christian youth ministry should be.