I know I’ve only been a volunteer youth leader at my church for 5.5 years, but there are so many things that keep going through my head that I need to type it up. If you are looking to become a youth leader, or just started your journey as one, I hope you can learn something from this. If you have experience in the field in the past or you have been a leader for way longer than me, then please, give me some pointers! [These are not in any specific order]
1. You’ll never be the cool person you think you might be. I’m a naturally cool person, in my head. I always was, but I know most people disagreed even when I was a youth. I’m just a little crazy. Youth leaders are either really mellow or really crazy. I’m the crazy. Stop trying to get students to like you. Be yourself, but don’t push it too far (sometimes it is hard to control). The real cool kids are the ones who tolerate you each week for however many years you lead them along the way. Show them that they are cool. Learn about them and take interest in them. Encourage them to be individuals while encouraging them towards Christ.
2. You’re old. Get in on the times. I did start as a leader in my early 20s, and now that I am nearing 30, the “old” is hitting me hard (I’m the oldest youth leader lady, my husband is the oldest youth leader lad). Anything I try to quote that was phrased in the late 1980s/early 1990s, they won’t understand. Some of the leaders I work with were born in the early 1990s as it is, so I can’t expect some of these kids who were born in the late 1990s/early 2000s to “get” my humor. Therefore, brush up on what your students are into NOW. When I find out about what music they listen to or movies they like (which I keep updated on this as it is), fashion icons they like, sports’ players they are into, TV shows they obsess over: all to understand their lingo (you don’t have to enjoy those things). In learning about what they are interested in, the students will appreciate your listening ear.
3. You will watch your students transform. You’re going to watch students hit puberty. This can change their appearance drastically as well as their actions. The way they react to God will change as well. Don’t lose hope for the kids that seem uninterested in God or just seem to be at youth group for the games, rather than for the conversation about scriptures. Others might just be there to spend time with the opposite sex or to be jesters with their friends. You might see them mature spiritually, while others you may not. Both my husband and I can name youth leaders we had who saw our hearts, rather than judged us the way our fellow peers judged us. It helped encourage us in a time when we felt rejected. No person is a hopeless cause. Don’t give up on reaching out to them or showing them love. Extend your grace to them as Christ has extended it to you and them.
4. Talk to your students. I try to make a point to get to know everyone: both male and female. I love learning about them. Make sure you offer an ear to them on a regular basis. Let them have your phone number. While they may never call or text you, they’ll know that they can trust you. If you give them advice, make sure it is godly, and not of the world as to appease them. It will be their choice to heed you as you are trying to build discipleship; not trying to become a bff. Also keep in mind that it is good to be patient with a lot of kids. You can’t think that they can change overnight (though it can happen). Be careful with what you say, because even if you are trying to be helpful (by asking them a simple kind question to understand why they may have done something), they may not understand your heart and they can really use what you say against you (and possibly twist your words)! It is not fun to have to explain yourself to their parents when they hear what you said >.<
5. Be involved. If they are participating in sports, clubs, dramas, graduations, etc, ask if you can go to the events or find out when an event is going on so you can cheer them on. As a mother of young boys, I have a hard time being there for my students with all of their events. If you can’t make it to all of their going-ons, make sure another leader has a chance to go to an event in your stead so that the students realize that they are supported by the leaders in general.
6. Remember team work! If the leadership in a youth group is unstable, how do you expect the kids to react? If they notice tension between leaders, it will possibly rub off on the students and maybe even cause them to take sides or go against another as well. Jealousy and competition is really not cool. If a student seems to want to talk to a specific leader, let them. Be glad they go to one of you at all! Trying to make kids like you more than other leaders is sad. I love seeing when certain kids attach to certain leaders, because it shows they are comfortable around them and have truly felt blessed by them. Joining together in unity IS cool. Unity in leadership can bring unity in students. I am currently with a new staff of people this year, and so far it is really great because we get together regularly, or we sometimes meet with some of them with tasks needed to be done on the building at church or pizza get-togethers outside of church or large or small group lunches after church. It is really a nice sense of community and unity in the leadership even though everyone is so different. In getting to know the other leaders, it is easier to know their heart (and it is so beautiful).
7. Prepare for heartbreak: get on your knees and pray. You’ll see some of your students turn towards the world. Maybe it will be in middle school, maybe it will be in high school, and most likely it will be once they are entering college. It will break your heart to see some of the things they say and do, but it is important to have hope that they’ll form their own understanding of God while remembering the way that their parents raised them (if they had parents involved in their spiritual lives) and the lessons they learned while in youth group. Maybe they’ll come to a grand transformation one day. While I had grown to love quite a few students who are now in college, only a few of them seem to be into living for Jesus. I have hope for all of them. I pray for them. Some of them send me messages here and there (or letters even), but understand that you need to let go and try to keep in touch every so often asking how they are or what school is like, etc. (even if it is as long as every six months that you send them a “hello”, they need space, and if they contact you first, that is a really nice feeling). I actually work alongside two of my former “youth kids” who are leaders too. I treat them as the adults they are and adore them, and it is really awesome to know where they once were and see who they are now because of Christ moving in their lives.
8. Brush up on your Bible! If you don’t read the Bible, it is going to be really hard for you to be involved in youth leadership. If you are not trying to live out what you are reading, it is going to be even harder. Make sure that you are willing to open yourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit in your life so that your students can see “fruit” in your life. How are you to advise others to live for Jesus if you aren’t going to take your own advice? Often times you might be surprised at some of the amazing insight from students who are reading scriptures on their own. It is so encouraging and makes me cry with joy.
9. Tell stories. Kids like them. Jesus told stories and we like them. Make sure you use analogies to make the gospel simpler. If you use some stories from your own life, I believe students have an easier time trusting you, that you are okay with being open, so they should be as well about their own sins they might struggle with. When I listen to leaders speak with humility, it amazes me because that is what we need to all be like! I am pretty confident in the leadership I am working with now, because they seem pretty open about where they have faltered and how God has brought them out or even is bringing them out of something in whatever they currently are dealing with. I am a very open person about my life and hope others to be that way. This will help encourage kids that it is okay to express their own imperfections to you and their peers, which can bring healing in their lives.
10. Have fun. Youth group is a great. I am sure that Jesus had some fun laughing with his disciples. If you play some strange games for a half hour before winding down to dig into scriptures, go for it! Play games with your students. Guys tend to actually stream “good times” in their memories to connecting with activities with others while girls tend to connect more on an emotional level. Some love a bit of both (as I always have – even when I was a youth group student). Try to get everyone involved (you know there are always girls who don’t feel like playing, but if you find games that they might like too, you’ll see them smiling and having fun as well).