Monthly Archives: March 2009

Assessing Where Your Students Are At

How many times have you heard this from a member or your congregation, “When I was in youth group, we did (fill in the blank). You should try to do that.” When that person said that to you, did you slap them in the face and say, “Wake up”?  I’m just kidding about the slap in the face, but not kidding about the “wake up” comment. I couldn’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and tried to tell me that I should model our current youth ministry program after their youth group 20-30 years ago. I am sure you have had similar experiences.

What I feel that people fail to realize is that the tactics youth ministers used 20-30 years ago are not as effective in reaching today’s youth. A perfect example for this is the newspaper industry. Just recently the Denver Rocky Mountain Post and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had to close business while the Philadelphia Inquirer just declared bankruptcy. How could this happen? These are big newspapers in big markets! What could have caused these newspapers to struggle this much?

What happened was that times changed and more and more people were getting their [the newspapers] information for free off of their website. Why would anyone buy a newspaper when they can get the exact same information for free!?! We have become a digital world and less people are buying papers. Because less people are buying papers, ad agencies are spending less to promote in newspapers. Ad revenue is the money flow that all newspapers need. These newspapers (and probably more to come) have failed to adapt to the change in the world thinking and have paid the price for it.

The Washington Times, however, has taken a radical approach to this change. For starters, they stopped producing a Saturday newspaper in order to save money. Then, on March 24th, 2009, they hired Thomas Culligan to serve a new position called “Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer”. In a statement, the Washington Times said, “Mr. Culligan will lead the Times’ advertising and marking departments as the company carries out an ‘aggressive transformation’ from a printed product to a multimedia company serving customers in the local, national and global markets.”  The Washington Times was proactive in responding to the change in how people are receiving information. With this hire and change in approach, did the Washington Times sacrifice their core values and mission? NO! They simply changed their approach at reaching their audience.

How does this relate to assessing where your students are at?

It relates because just like newspapers, youth ministry needs to be think of adaption. The way we adapt is through evaluation. We live in a post-modern world. If we are still doing ministry the same way our youth ministers and pastors did when we were young, we have failed! Now, don’t get me wrong. You can still have the same goals such as community building and outreach. Those are good goals that can stand the test of time. But, if you approach community building and outreach the same youth ministers did in the 70s or 80s, we are missing our potential. Most importantly, students are missing out because we are failing to reach the teens of today.

That is why it is important to know your students. What is the make up of your students? Are they churched or unchurched? Are they public, private or home schooled? Where are they at with Christ? Do they have a relationship with Christ? If not, how are you going to reach them for Christ? Do you have any leader students? What are their interests? These are just a few questions you can be asking yourself about your students. By answering them, you are beginning to understand who they are and what makes them tick. Once you understand your students better, you can start reaching them for Christ in a more effective way.

Understanding your students will help be more effective in organizing your gatherings. For example, if you decide to start doing expository teaching, but your youth are not spiritually mature to handle that depth, then you will not be as effective in reaching them. A topical teaching approach would be better. In the same way, this applies to how you organize your meetings. If you decide, without knowing where you youth are at first, that you want to be outreach focused in which you organize your meeting times with all fun and games, then conclude with a brief message, yet fail to have anything for strong believers to go deeper, you may might not be adequately addressing the needs of your youth to take that next step in Christ. Whatever your situation is, in order to move forward and producing real fruit, it is always best if you know where your students are at first!

Once you have identified who they are, you can begin to set up a strategy for reaching them. A few years ago, I took a hard look at my ministry. Out of that time of assessment and evaluation, I discovered that I was not reaching my students where they were and taking them to that next level. In some ways it was very difficult to realize that we were not being as effective as we could be. But, out of that time came a new strategy for the program (we will talk about developing a strategic plan in my next post). Out of your time of student assessment, may come a time of re-strategizing. Or, it may just confirm what you are doing is reaching your students for Christ.

As you begin to look at understanding your students and possibly re-strategize how you reach them, I want to encourage you to talk to your Senior Pastor (or Senior Director) about what you are processing and learning about your students. I have found that, when you are thinking about taking a shift in where your program is headed, it is best to make sure your Supervisor knows what is going on and why are thinking about this. Then, they know what is going on and can help you process further. Also, this helps because if someone complains about things, your Supervisor will already know what is going on and can be supportive, rather than caught off guard.

I want to be clear here. This is not an evaluation where you are looking at your mission statement and focus on being purposeful (we will talk about that in our next post). This is an assessment of the progress you are making at reaching students in this post-modern world. You can have the best purposes out there, but if you do not understand your students or the students you are trying to reach, your purposes will fail. Whether you are new to your ministry position or have been there for a few years, it is always good to take an honest, regular assessment of where you are at in reaching students for Christ.

The key to this assessment is deciding how you judge success. For each ministry it will be different. It could be having the most students go to summer camp so they can hear about Christ and be changed. For others it could be having a solid and growing small group ministry. It does not matter what you are striving to be – that is between you and God. It only matters how you judge your success. Once you are able to determine how you will judge your success, you can begin the process of knowing just how effective you are in reaching students for Christ.

By understanding your audience and setting realistic goals to encourage them in their relationship with Christ, you have a way to adequately judge your success and be more effective at taking them to the next level in Christ. Let’s not have our program die off, like some of the newspapers out there, because we fail to adapt our program to these post-modern teens. We can be more effective. It begins with taking an assessment of who they are.

TAKE A MINUTE and…

1. Begin to assess your students. Print out (or write out) every student in your program. Then, begin to write down notes about who they are. Where are they with Christ? What are their life interests? How is their home life? You may not know all the details about each student, so ask your volunteer leaders to help you (make it a leaders meeting time in which you are critically looking at these students).

2. After you assess who they are, start looking at how you are doing ministry. Is your ministry effectively reaching these students for Christ? If not, how can you begin to change and adapt?

Source: “The Washington Times”, March 24, 2009, A8/Business

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Assessing where YOU are at

I love football. Whether it is college or the pros, I can’t wait for it to get started and to see how my favorite teams do during the course of the year.

At the end of each season, one of the first items of business football teams do is to spend time evaluating how the season went. Sure, they do evaluating over the course of the year and make adjustments as needed. But, at the end of the year, they sit back with all the coaches, players, owners or Athletic Directors and go through the year and evaluate what needs to be changed and what needs to stay the same for the upcoming year.

In the same way, Youth Pastors and Ministers need to be evaluating constantly. Whether you have been at your church a long time or are just now starting, it is vitally important to take an assessment of where your program is at and what needs to be changed. In order to move forward, you have to be able to look critically at yourself and your ministry. That is what I did at each of the ministries I was at. Whether I was just starting at a new ministry or had been there a while, I wanted to either take an initial assessment as to what I was getting into or seek to make changes in what we were currently doing.

This assessment process is divided into two parts – You and Your Ministry (this will be next week’s post).

You, Personally:

In order to take a good assessment of your ministry, you have to first start by looking at the head honcho – YOU! This seems obvious and I hope that this is something you do regularly, but I have found often in my life that I do not do this nearly enough. As a Youth Minister doing this for over a decade, I realize that I can be set in my ways and feel that the way I have been leading myself and others is the right way. Do not get trapped into this thinking as this kind of mindset can do more harm than help.

Take this time of evaluation as an opportunity to examine your heart and open yourself back up to God and his ways. Isaiah 55:8 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord”. God’s plan and path are often different than ours. So, how do you align yourself with God’s plan and make sure you are walking down the same path with him? These are some self-examination questions you can be asking yourself (in no particular order):

  • How are you doing with Christ? Are you spending time with Christ daily?
  • Are you being taught weekly (at Church or through a small group)?
  • Are you surrounded by people who will challenge you and hold you accountable in Christ?
  • How is your heart? Are you in ministry for the right reasons? Do you have the passion to take students to that next level?
  • How is the balance in your life? Are you balancing your personal, family and ministry lives well? In order to be truly effective, we have to have balance in these areas.

These are not the only questions you can be asking yourself in your personal, self-evaluation, but it is a start. In fact, these all may seem like no-brainers, but when was the last time you asked yourself these types of questions? When was the last time someone else asked you these questions? Again, as I have found out about myself that when I fail to ask myself these questions, I suffer. When I suffer, my ministry suffers and most of all, the students suffer.

As great as personal evaluation is for us, this can also be challenging. The main challenge I have found is that we are in ministry! After all, we are put into a position of authority and are being paid to do a job – lead others in Christ. Shouldn’t we have our act together? No, we will never have our act all together. But, because you are in this position, you need to be in evaluating yourself and being held accountable just as much as any other. I know this can be hard as I have heard too many times of people in ministry being vulnerable with others and getting burned because of it. But, in order to be effective for Christ, you have to find others you can trust and share openly with.

To encourage me in my life and my relationship with Christ, I began to develop 3 different sets of relationships. They have helped me examine my heart, be accountable and have given me that extra kick in the pants that I desperately needed.

1. The first relationship I developed was with my Associate Pastor. For some, a relationship with your Associate Pastor may not work, but this is a natural person for me to connect with as we have a lot in common. We are able to talk about life, ministry and our relationship with Christ. I would not say that we have the deepest of relationships yet, but by meeting with him in an informal setting, we are able to digest life and ministry issues that push me in my relationship with Christ. The more we meet, the more I trust him and know that he is for me as a person.

2. The second set of relationships is with two other men who DO NOT go to my Church who I am being held accountable to. For the longest time, I did not have anyone to hold me accountable regularly. This was primarily because of the reason I mentioned above – I’ve heard of too many people being burned by sharing with others in their own Church. But, by being working alone in ministry for so long, I have realized that I needed people to challenge me in Christ and hold me accountable. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to form this new group with these two others. It has really helped a lot and I know that they do not just care about me as someone who is a Minister. They care about me as a follower of Christ, a husband and a father and I know that they are going to ask me the hard questions and challenge me so that I can be all that I Christ desires of me.

3. The last set is with some other Youth Pastors in the area. Let’s face it, ministry stinks when you do it alone. I have 3 part-time Interns that work with me right now, but I need to stress Part-Time. That is why developing relationships with these other Youth Pastors in the area has been so encouraging for me. We get together and chat about ministry, but also personal stuff. It is great to realize that you are not the only person who is dealing with or struggling through a certain situation. As we talk about life together, it challenges me to step up my game in areas I may struggle with. The more I meet with other Youth Ministers, the more I benefit.

The phrase I hear all the time is “You can only take students as far as you are allowing God to work in you”. Have you heard that one before? I bet you have. But, it is very true. If we fail to self-evaluate ourselves by looking at our heart and relationship with Christ, we will not be as effective as we need to be. We NEED that encouragement and extra challenge we get when we are being pushed and encouraged in Christ. Are you asking yourself these hard questions and making sure that you, personally, are being objective in your evaluation of yourself? Are you surrounding yourself with others so that you are fit to do the work God has called you to?

TAKE A MINUTE and…

1. Continue to seek Christ! Each day we fail to intentionally seek him and follow him, we fail to strengthen ourselves, thus fail to strengthen others.

2. If you do not have people to hold you accountable regularly, identify people in your life who can push and encourage you in your relationship with Christ. Then, call them up and see if they can get together and talk about life. Do not wait for people to call you, seek them out.

3. Identify youth ministers in your area who you can meet with. Then, set up a meeting. Just because you meet once does not mean you have to be soul buddies with them forever. It may take you a few attempts to build a relationship or for you to find the right youth minister to connect with. But, call some up and meet with them. You will benefit.

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Follow Up with Students

If you went to Church when you were in elementary school, do you remember when your Sunday School teacher would give you all handouts to give to your parents that highlighted what you learned in class?  I remember them because now, as a father, I am getting them from my daughters.

What are the main purposes of those handouts?  Carolyn Covert, the Children’s Ministry Director at my Church said that the purpose of those handouts are “to enforce the lesson they learned that day.”  Different teachers may expect different things for the students to do with those handouts, but hopefully two actions will become of it:

  • The children will look at it throughout the week as a way to reinforce what they learned on Sunday
  • Parents will sit down with their children and go over it together.  What a great way for parents and children to do together! Parents get to know what their children are learning and it is an activity they can do together as a family.

If reinforcement is the key, then why, when students reach the middle and high school grades, do we stop giving out these handouts?  Most likely it is because they are no longer age appropriate.  If Youth Pastors handed out papers to their youth, odds are that most youth will probably trash them before they even reach their parents.  So, does that mean that there are no effective ways to follow up with the youth to reinforce what they learned on Sunday? Of course not!  But, it does mean that we have to be creative in how we do follow up.  Handouts that talk about little Jimmy and the Toaster that talks probably wouldn’t work well with middle and high school students.

Follow up and reinforcing with students is important for a variety of reason.  Most importantly, if we are in the business of life transformation (which is what I think we do, right?), then we cannot expect life transformation to happen just on Sundays.  Life transformation happens when we help them process and apply what they learn on Sundays throughout the week. In addition, when we follow up and pursue the students, it shows them that we care about them and their well being. In a world where students go through a roller coaster of emotional relationships with their peers, it is great for them to have a steady adult-friend relationship in which they know we care about them and who they are. As Youth Pastors we have to find ways to take what they hear and follow up with them throughout the week. But, how do we do that?

I use 4 different ways to follow up with students and reinforce throughout the week.  The first way is a devotional blog I do each week. Each Sunday morning, I will cover a topical series (currently, we are focusing on the Sermon on the Mount and challenges Christ had for us in his sermon).  Then, on Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week, I post a devotional based on the message so that the youth can rediscover the principle again, just in a different format.  This way, the message and application are reinforced when they do this online devotional. I believe this works because we live in a digital world where students spend countless hours on the internet. By creating this devotional blog, my hope is that instead of looking up scores on ESPN or Youtube videos, they can do something more productive by being challenged in Christ and review what they learned earlier in the week.

The second way I follow up and reinforce is similar.  I record my messages and upload them as podcasts on iTunes.  As with the blog, I am taking a media platform that the students are very familiar with – iTunes/podcasting and put our weekly messages on it. Unless you have been living in an underground layer for years, it is hard to walk by any number of students and not see a variety of iPods or mp3 players. Students love them and practically everyone has them.  If they do not have an iPod, most people have computers that they can easily download your message to their computer and listen to it from there. This way, they can review what they heard on Sunday and the application/challenge can be reinforced.

Setting up a blog and/or podcast for FREE are easy to do.  For a free blog, you can go to either http://www.blogspot.com or http://www.wordpress.com.  For a free podcast host site, go to http://www.podomatic.com.  If you want your messages on iTunes for easy downloads, you will then have to go iTunes and submit your podcast.  It takes a few days for them to approve it. Do not be intimated about setting these up. They are fast and easy to do!

The third way is to have students share how God is impacting their life.  At the end of each message, we discuss a challenge for students to take with them and apply to their life.   As our leaders follow up with students throughout the week, we are challenging them to apply what they heard and to see if someone would like to share about their experience to the other students the following week.  What we are looking for is someone who earnestly sought the Lord that week and be able to share how it went. When you have students share about experiencing God in their lives, it inspires others to do likewise. As Rick Beckwith, the Senior Director of Field Initiatives for Young Life said to me, “if we are constantly having kids share what they are learning, how they are being changed, so that becomes ‘normal’, then those who are just letting it go in one ear and out the other will start to feel left out.” Having students share is a great way to reinforce what they learned the week before as it shows that students are doing something about it and desire to be impacted and changed.

The last way is to encourage leaders to be following up with students throughout the week. I believe that this is the most effective way as it promotes the incarnational ministry style that Christ modeled. As much as I love these other ideas, you cannot process with another student or get that great face-to-face time that is needed through a blog, podcast or even someone sharing. It is only through this valuable personal time with a student that real ministry can get done. This can happen through regular contact work or in small groups. What is important is leaders getting together with students to help reinforce teachings and to walk through life with the students.  When we are able to do this, life transformation begins to happen.

These are four ways that I have found to be successful in following up with students and reinforcing what they are learning.

TAKE A MINUTE and…

1. Brainstorm different ways you can follow up regularly with students. Although some ways may be better and more effective than others, think outside the box and look for new ways to follow up with students.  Then, try them out to see how effective they can be.

2. Try a blog! Again, it’s quick and easy. If you want to look at my examples, goto:

What are ways you all are using to follow up with youth?  Post them so we can all benefit and try them out.

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Brainstorm Time: PARENTS!

As a father, my wife and I see books like these, “Family Devotions” and “Devotions for Kids” by Tyndale.  The point of these books is to get families together by doing a devotion and talking about Christ together as a family.

Obviously, this works and is a great idea for families with young children as it allows them to spend time together and be encouraging each other in Christ.  But how do you encourage this same kind of time together in families with tweens and teens without it being “lame”?  Is there a way to do this?  Also, do the parents with youth in your program know what you all are doing (curriculum) so that they can be engaging their youth at home?  If so, how do you communicate that to them?

So, if you want to post back your comments on these 2 questions, I think we could have some great encouragement for each other as we attempt to be more effective in ministry:

  1. How do we encourage time together in families in which they are spending time talking about Christ?
  2. How do we communicate with parents what our curriculum is so that they can be engaging their children at home and following up/reinforcing the teaching points and application?

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Surround Yourself with Parents

“Parents? What do we need parents for? They are just going to try to control what I do and turn a fun event into something boring. Teens will NOT want to come to an event where their parents are.” That was my mentality for the first 5-6 years of my youth work. I never really wanted parents to be involved as I felt it was my job to take the burden off of them and support them in their efforts to raise Christlike teens. Have you ever felt that way?

I wish I could say that my mindset instantly changed once I got to Cedar Run but it did not. However, my mentality began to gradually change once I got there to the point now where I have consistent parental involvement in our youth program.

What changed? My thought process. In the years before, I kept on looking for reasons why parents should not be involved and how they would negatively impact our group. But, as a non-mega-church, I had to stop looking at the negatives and start looking at the positives. If we were going to have the impact I desired, I realized that we needed parents to be more involved. As I had parents more involved I saw the benefits they offered.

Some of the benefits I have seen having parents involved were:

  1. They could be a positive role model, showing teens that parents do care and are involved, in a healthy way, in the life of their children
  2. When asked, parents step up and are reliable. Parents want to help. After all, they help with sport teams, school activities and community events. Why wouldn’t they be able to help with church stuff?
  3. By having parents involved in some way, it promotes your event and hopefully you will draw more students to whatever you are doing.
  4. It takes the burden off of you to do one more thing. For instance, providing food for an event. If parents help out, you can focus on other details of the event rather than wondering how you are going to get the right amount of food.

The benefits of having parents involved are there. The question is, are you utilizing them? For me, a simple change in my thought process has made all the difference.

Two Kinds of Involvement

I believe there are 2 kinds of parental involvement you can have. The first one is General Involvement. This is where any parent can participate and help out. There are plenty of opportunities for this kind of involvement to take place. If you need snacks or drinks for a youth event, you could have any of your parents help you out. Another way they can help is for special events. For example, in order to make our Super Bowl Bash a no cost event, we have parents provide all the food. Not only is it home-cooked and better than take-out, but then the parents get to see the huge turnout and see, if just briefly, our ministry in action.

Another way parents can help you and your ministry is by supporting your family. That’s right, I said it, supporting your family. Youth Pastors and Ministers work odd hours and days, but that is our calling. In the same way, parents have callings too and it might just be to serve you! Imagine that, someone serving you for a change. I have had numerous offers by parents who actually wanted to babysit my 4 beautiful daughters for free or offer a meal, especially during a rough week. We have to allow these ministers to serve us. Do not let pride get in your way of them serving you. However, I do want to caution you, do not try to take advantage of other’s spiritual gift and hospitality. I know we do not get paid much, but that is no reason to take advantage and abuse the goodness of others. Remember, it is ultimately the Lord who will meet all your needs (Philippians 4:16). Allow parents to support you AND your family, but we wise in not taking advantage of their generosity.

The second kind is Core Involvement. Core Involvement is a group of parents you select to help you. This is NOT for everyone. These are parents who are strong supporters of the youth program and are ones you have built a relationship with. In addition, these are parents who:

  • Are caring individuals who support you and want to help and serve you and your family
  • Have a healthy family life (as healthy as can be known – no family is perfect, but hopefully you can identify families that are more healthy than others)
  • Have excellent spiritual lives – you will benefit from their conviction and commitment to Christ

The purpose of your Core Involvement parents is two-fold. First, they are to help you process ministry issues, decisions and direction. At non-Mega-Churches, it is highly unlikely that you will have multiple staff to bounce ideas off of and process information. By having these parents, you will be able to process these issues and decisions that come up with others who want the best for the program. Keep in mind, though, that you are still the ultimate decider on issues. You want parents involved but you have to be the one who has the final say. Otherwise, as great as they may be, these parents may feel that they choose the direction of the program and you could have a whole new set of problems on your hands.

At Cedar Run, I was blessed as we had some people who started, ran and held high positions in businesses in the area. They were well educated, successful and knew what it took to run a profitable business. In addition, they were huge supports of my family and me. So, I gathered these men (it started with 2 and eventually became a core of 4 after 2 years) and we began meeting together every 2-3 weeks to catch up on the latest news in the ministry, check in how they could help my family and me personally and how we are doing in fulfilling the mission of the youth program. Each area that we covered was important because it kept them up to speed on the latest news and it helped me process how to best manage the youth program. Having these men involved in helping me process has been invaluable to me!

If you do not have these types of people in your church, John Fontanella, from Gateway Community Church in Herndon, VA, told me the other day how he was tackling this issue. He is getting ready to enroll in an MBA program to help him be an effective manager of his youth program. What a great idea! As he explained his reasons, it made perfect sense as Youth Pastors are great at relational ministry, but management is not always our strong suit. As your ministry grows and your duties expand, you are going to need to focus more time and energy on management of people and direction and less on direct ministry. I know that relationships are the main reason we got into youth ministry, but if we overlook this key training and help, we will not be as effective as we can and should be. Whether you find a core group of men walk side-by-side with you or you decide to enroll in an MBA program, this can be extremely helpful. (By the way, John gave me the go ahead to for you all to email him with any and all questions about the MBA program – jfontanella@gatewaychurch.org).

Secondly, your Core Involvement parents help promote the youth ministry and events to other parents in and outside the church. I have found that even thought I have informative newsletters and send out weekly emails to parents, a good amount of parents still do not know what exactly we do and why we do it. Therefore, having this core team of parents adds just one more way for the parents to be hearing what is happening in the youth program. The great thing about this is that parents are hearing about this from excited parents! That goes a long way because they are not hearing it from me, but from a parent, just like themselves.

I believe that we all need a core group of parents to help us in our work. Whether it is a core group of men that help you process ministry or a group of parents (4-6) that meet every other month to go over upcoming events and news it does not matter. The key is that you surround yourself with some people to help you be more effective. This group enables that to happen.

Thinking Outside the Box

Have you ever thought about doing contact work with parents? That was thinking outside the box for me as I never would have dreamed or even desired to do contact work with parents. But, now I wish I could say that I came up with this idea. My Senior Pastor asked me to do this as he felt that this not only helps parents feel that they know what is going on in the youth program, it also allows me to get the pulse of the families in our Church and challenges they may or may not be having. It could be a simple phone call or email. Or, it could be a time where you go over and meet the parents and sit down with them. The point is that by doing this, you show them that you care about them and their needs. Plus, you may get some great insights on students and family issues that you would not normally have known about. As great as this opportunity may be, do not be offended if parents did not respond, maybe they do not have anything to talk about. The point is that you offered and by offering, you showed them that you cared.

As I have learned over the years, parental involvement is key to youth ministry. It may have taken some time to start using their help, but when you have the parents helping and committing time and effort into your ministry, you AND the student will be blessed.

TAKE A MINUTE and…

  1. Identify your needs and seek parents to help as part of your General Involvement. You may need admin help, food needs, planning help or something completely different. Whatever it is, identify your needs and seek these parents for help in those areas.
  1. Identify 2-3 parents who have a child or children in your youth program that can be apart your Core Involvement Group. They can come along side you and help you process and set the course for the youth program.
  1. Start doing contact work with parents of your youth. Ask them to coffee or lunch and share with them your vision and desire for students. Who knows, out of that time, you may have much more support from them now that you have spent time with them and shared your vision and heart. This has benefited me so much as parents feel heard and that you value them.

Like this? Hate this? Have thoughts? Post a comment.

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Surround Yourself with the Right Leadership Team

Finding the right leaders has always been a struggle for me.   Who are they?  How old can a Youth Leader be and be effective?  Where can I find them?  I need girl leaders!!! The questions of who, where and how seemed so overwhelming at times. Have you ever asked yourself these questions?

I believe that anyone can be a leader. However, I also believe we should not be just leaders. Rather, I believe we need to emulate Christ, who modeled Incarnational Leadership when he came down to us, on earth, to save us.

An Incarnational Youth Leader is one who reaches out to students as an adult friend. They are NOT someone who waits for students to come to them and they are NOT just another buddy to the students. They take an active interest in the students and are able to draw boundaries with them as they help them in the students’ personal walk with Christ.

In order to find these types of leaders to surround yourself with, you have to first identify who and where they are. At small, medium and even large churches or ministries, the pool of potential leaders is not what they can be at mega-churches. So, you have to be creative in where you look for your leaders. They could be:

  • Graduating seniors from your youth program are solid believers and are staying in the area for school or work.
  • Friends of existing leaders. Have you ever challenged your current leaders to be looking out for new leader potentials amongst their friends?
  • A young married couple with minimal obligations (such as children of their own) that can connect with youth and be a model of good, godly relationships.
  • A mature adult in your church looking to serve in some capacity. He/she may be a great teacher and share about life experiences that the youth could really benefit from.

As Pastors and Ministers to smaller Churches/Para-Churches, we have got to be resourceful and creative in how we identify and recruit leaders. Do not have the mindset that they have to look a certain way to be effective.

After we identify who and where your potential leaders are, the second key is to do your homework on each potential leader.

At times, when I was desperate for leaders, I tended to look for warm bodies, stopgaps to meet the growing needs of our youth. That is always the wrong approach to take. I was so desperate for help that I tried to fill the gap with someone who should not have been a leader. I did not rely on God to provide. I sought to fill it by myself. I should have looked at Matthew 9:37-38 where Christ says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” God promises to provide the workers. The problem is that too often, I failed to ask him to provide.

You have to do your research and get to know exactly who this person is, why they want to be a leader and what their personal life is like. As I said above, anyone can be a leader, but in order to be one, you need to be held to a higher standard. For example, one leader disaster was of a girl who grew up in a Christian home, went to a Christian High School and seemed, on the outside like a solid, well-rounded girl. When she graduated high school, I asked her to be a leader and met with her. In that meeting, I never asked her for her testimony, her beliefs on some hot topics nor did I ask her to fill out a Leader Form. I assumed I knew how she would respond so I never asked the question.

When she got to the local university as a freshman, it seemed that all she believed and all she wanted quickly left her. The problem was, she never had it to begin with. All I thought she believed, all the morals and the maturity that I thought she had was never really there to begin with. But, because I never did my research on her and properly interviewed her, I never knew her. After putting out a few “fires” she started with leaders and students, I had to let her go. This could have been avoided if I would have done my homework.

Some of the things you should discuss with potential leaders are:

  • Their life story (how did they grow up, what was their family life like, how is their relationship like with their siblings, what are their hopes and dreams for the future)
  • Their testimony (how did they come to know Christ, what are they learning now)
  • How would they like to serve in the Church (do they want to be a small group leader, give talks, help with administrative needs, be involved on the worship team or be up front doing a game)
  • Make sure their vision of youth ministry lines up with yours. You may have some of the nicest leaders with some of the best hearts around, but if their vision does not line up with yours, then both of you could end up being very frustrated. For example, you may want to build a program that focuses on outreach. But, your potential leader may believe your group should be a small group that focuses strictly on discipleship. It is best to know their view and for them to know yours in the beginning so before potential problems arise about the different styles.

A third key is to have a job description for them. Do not limit what a leader can look like. Do not assume that all leaders have to be in college or a young adult who plays sports and looks like a model (are there any out there?). Those would be great to have, definitely, but if we limit ourselves to just this type of leader, we eliminate other potentially great leaders. Whether it is a parent, a teacher, an older adult, it does not matter. You have to look for a person who loves the Lord, can relate to today’s youth and desires to win them to Christ.

In the same way, we cannot have the same expectations for what each leader does. We have to think outside the box and be flexible with roles. For example, I had an older adult help me one time with our Sunday School program. He was awesome! He took the material and presented in a great way for students. Now, he was not a good fit for some of our other components of our ministry, but for the Sunday School program, he was a perfect fit. Another time, I was short on female help, so a mom asked me to help out. She was great as she helped me organize girl-centric events and small groups as well as give presentations to the leaders about discipleship.

We need to identify roles you need to fill and create job descriptions for them. Be flexible with different roles for your leaders. Not every leader is going to have 10-15 hours a week to give to being with students and youth events. But just because this person does not have that time does not mean he or she cannot be effective within a certain role. Maybe you need a small group leader to focus on 4-5 teens. They do the small group, keep in touch with those students throughout the week and that is it. That is great! Those students are being invested into.

The key is to have a job description for that role and have them stick to it.

Lastly, we need to properly train and equip them to be effective. I have had some great leaders working with me that were underutilized and ended up leaving our program frustrated and feeling useless. That is because I failed to give them the vision and did not equip them to be effective. How can a leader be really effective if they do not know where you are going or how to get there?

At first I thought it was necessary to just connect with every leader and see how they are doing. I thought that they could just quickly pick up on how we minister and be able to do what I model to them. Boy, was I wrong.

I had to come up with some core leadership topics that I wanted to train and equip the leaders in. Some of the topics I wanted to train the leaders in were how to lead a small group, how to give an effective message and winning ourselves to Christ daily. When we started training our leaders, a funny thing started to happen – they actually learned how to minister to students!

These times together where we were training to be more effective ministers were great, but I quickly realized that we needed to give our leaders more. Not only do we need to train them to be effective in ministry, but we need to invest in them by training them to be effective in life. It can often be portrayed that all Youth Pastors and Ministers care about is about getting the job done. We only care about what leaders can do for us and the program. By invest in our leaders by training them in life skills, we show them how much we care about them as a person. Instead of having a Leaders Meeting that focuses on planning on how to give an effective talk, why not talk about financial responsibilities (especially now) or how to manage your time. These are topics that the leaders, no matter what age they are, will benefit from. And, when they leave your program, they will know that you cared about them because you invested in their future.

Right now, TAKE A MINUTE and…

  1. Identify some potential leaders you can meet this week
  2. Brainstorm some potential roles for your leaders
  3. Brainstorm some life skills you can train your leaders in and some practical ministry topics

I have made my share of mistakes in recruiting, training and developing leaders. It is when I fail to take these steps that the mistakes happen the most. Our students deserve the best leaders out there. They need the best. We cannot always control how effective a leader will be, but when we identify, train them properly and give them a vision and role, the leaders can be successful, the students will benefit and angels will be singing in heaven as more and more students will come to know him and be strengthen in their faith.

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