In most organisations, leadership is one of the keys to the successful achievement of the organisation’s goals. This is true in relation to church leadership in general and leadership of youth ministry in particular. In our studies of youth ministry across 21 churches in Anglican, Catholic and Salvation Army denominations conducted in 2014 and 2015, we have observed youth leadership, interviewed youth leaders and discussed leadership with young people. This article discusses some of the findings. For the sake of clarity, we will use the term ‘youth minister’ to refer to the senior or leading youth leader, and the term ‘youth leader’ to refer to other people who assist the youth minister in the role. It should be noted this was not the way these terms were used in many of the churches we visited.
Qualities for Youth Leadership
A youth leader wrote in his blog: A lot of Christians think they aren’t cut out for youth ministry. But if you love Jesus and you care about kids, everything else falls into place (Ryan Nelson 2014). Many of the youth we have interviewed over the past 18 months and many youth leaders would echo that. However, a caveat is required. People who ‘love Jesus and care about kids’ may well find a place in a youth ministry team, but there are many more qualities and skills needed in a team as a whole. The following is a summary of those qualities for a team.
- Care for kids, communicating well, building trust and appropriate relationships
We asked young people in youth groups what were the qualities of a good youth leader. They wanted someone who was friendly, engaging and easy to talk to. They spoke of the importance of youth leaders being empathetic and caring, patient and helpful. At the same time, they wanted someone who was happy and fun to be with. Some of the
young people said it was important that the youth leaders were fairly close to their own age and, hence, people they could relate to easily and who knew where they were at. The heart of youth leadership is the development of good relationships with the youth. What youth are looking for is interest in them as people and acceptance of them as they are. They want relationships in which they can share something of life’s challenges and joys. If youth feel the leaders have their best interests at heart, trust will grow. Many youth leaders reaffirmed those qualities.
Youth ministry, some said, was primarily about building relationships through seeing the value in other people and empowering them. It was about caring for the youth. Sometimes that meant ‘going the extra mile’ to support them in difficult times. In building good relationships, some mentioned the importance of honesty, integrity and authenticity.
Others spoke about the importance of the youth leader being passionate, but also calm and having good sense. The youth leader needed to be seen as someone wise.
The quality of the relationships between youth leaders and youth is foundational to youth ministry. This was strongly affirmed in the study of youth ministry conducted in the USA by the Exemplary Youth Ministry team (Martinson, Black, & Roberto, 2010, p. 129). However, in a recent book on Catholic Youth Ministry, Teresa Rhynehart notes the importance of drawing boundaries around those relationships to ensure that they do not become manipulative or inappropriate. She wisely notes:
It is essential that youth ministers take care not to place themselves in a position where a young person may come to rely on them emotionally, or develop an exclusive relationship. It is always the responsibility of the youth minister, in their position of trust and responsibility, to set appropriate guidelines and boundaries and model appropriate relationships (Rhynehart, 2014, p. 105).
Our society requires more than that ‘youth leaders love the kids’. Youth leaders must know how to create a safe environment for them. They must know how to ethically create some boundaries in that relationship for the sake of the youth. They must know when youth are at risk of harm and to whom that risk must be reported. They must abide by codes of conduct and protocols to ensure the physical and social environment is appropriate.
2. Loving Jesus and living the Christian life while open to questions
The other quality mentioned in the quote above by Ryan Nelson was ‘loving Jesus’. This was also echoed in many of our interviews. Some of the youth and many of the youth leaders said that one of the necessary qualities was that youth leaders should have a strong and vibrant faith. It was important that they be good role models in regards to faith and they should act in such a way that something of their faith should ‘rub off’ on the youth.
We suspect that underlying much youth ministry today there is a remnant of a socialisation model. Primarily the youth leaders are working within a church context with young people who have parents and/or friends who have a Christian commitment. The church and the parents want their children to grow up with that commitment and see the youth ministry as having a role in ensuring that happens.
The truth is that it often does not happen, however committed the parents and the youth leaders are. The socialisation model is not working well, largely because we live in a highly pluralistic society and few parents can isolate their children from influences which are contrary to their own faith commitments. For people under 40 years of age, the retention rate in involvement in church from childhood is about 30 per cent. For those now aged between 40 and 59, the retention rate was even lower, closer to 20 per cent (Hughes, 2011, p. 20).
Some commentators have suggested that churches are not trying hard enough in their efforts to socialise their children. Kenda Dean, for example, suggests that The hot lava core of Christianity … has been muted in many congregations, replaced by an ecclesial complacency that convinces youth and parents alike that not much is at stake (Dean, 2010, loc.238).
But it is not as simple as Dean suggests. Within a pluralistic environment, in which young people have a strong sense that they can make their own choices about matters of faith, faith becomes an intentional life-style decision. It is noteworthy that most decisions about faith among Protestants are now being made in adolescent years in youth
group rather than in childhood in Sunday School (Tuovinen, 2013).
In some of the youth groups visited, the importance of encouraging young people to ask questions, to come to their own conclusions about faith, and to personally own the commitments they made was recognised. In other groups, leaders said they were ready to answer questions, but did not fully appreciate the importance of young people finding
their own answers and owning them.
We noted that a few youth ministers and leaders we spoke to were rather protective towards the youth in their care. Some were reluctant for us to question the youth at any depth. Perhaps part of this was recognition that they had the responsibility for the youth while the researchers were there. But there were some occasions when we wondered if their reluctance was partly an attempt to protect their own influence, ensuring that their particular version of the Christian faith would not be challenged. But do such attitudes help to build that sense of personal ownership of faith?
The other factor is that it is not simply a matter of ‘loving Jesus’, but exploring what the faith means in personal daily living and in living in society. The Exemplary Youth Ministry study noted the importance not only of a focus on Jesus Christ, but a consideration of life issues within the context of youth ministry. Discipling, they argue, makes faith into a way of life (Martinson et al., 2010, p. 127).
One of the questions we asked young people was their thoughts about future occupations and how their faith might influence those choices. Some young people recognised that their faith might have implications. Others did not. In few of the churches we visited were young people encouraged to think about what their faith meant for their involvement
in society, for social justice, for their choice of consumer products, for the environment or their ways of living in a globalised world.
One church we visited had conducted a mission trip to Africa and a few young people had accompanied the adults on that trip. The trip had had a significant impact. It had taught those young people something about the big questions of global social justice. At the same time, it had cemented some strong relationships with older adults in the congregation through whom they grasped something of the maturity of their faith.
One of the concerns arising from our case studies was that faith of some young youth leaders, while passionate, was sometimes narrow. Some youth leaders themselves had not thought broadly about the implications of their faith for life and society.
- Bridges between the youth, the church and parents
It was noted in a number of interviews that the youth ministers were bridges between the church and its structures and the youth. It was important that they could encourage the church in the support of youth ministry and in direct support of the youth themselves. They also needed to be trusted by the parents and able to work with the parents in the faith development of the young people. There appeared to us to be some advantages in the pattern found in several churches where the youth ministers were mature people, perhaps parents themselves, assisted by youth leaders who were in their twenties and not long out of youth group. It was noted in several of these places, that these older
leaders had strong relationships with parents, were often more experienced in organisation, and were able to provide good support and guidance for the younger leaders.
In the United States, the pendulum has swung from an emphasis on age-specific activities to more intergenerational activities (Snailum, 2012). This does not mean that there should be no youth group. Rather, it means that there should also be intergenerational activities in which parents and other people from the church are involved. Just one church reported that they had intentionally included some intergenerational activities in their youth ministry program. The need for intergenerational activities in Australian churches should be re-examined.
Certainly, a number of young people spoke warmly of their involvement in some of their church’s intergenerational activities. Young people in The Salvation Army spoke of the fact that they appreciated the fact that some of the older members of the brass band whom they met weekly at practices looked out for them. In the few places where young
people were involved with older people in social justice or community welfare projects, the young people spoke appreciatively of the relationships they formed with the older people. These relationships, where faith is modelled and care demonstrated, can have a profound impact on young people.
4. Flexible, multi-skilled, and well organised
From the perspective of the youth ministry team, it was important that youth leaders were able to reflect well on what had happened, and were ready to be flexible. If something was not working, they would be open to trying something different. The youth minister would be humble enough to accept constructive criticism. This was noted as one of the key factors in the Exemplary Youth Ministry study in the USA (Martinson et al., 2010, p. 132) and was echoed in our interviews. Young people often indicated that they preferred some activities to others. The youth leaders noted that while some of the youth would attend youth group whatever was on the program, other youth came only if they thought the activities were ones they would enjoy. Some girls noted that they did not like the same physical activities as the boys. On the other hand, the boys were not as keen with the more craft-type activities that attracted the girls.
In the past decades, there has been an explosion in the possible sporting activities that young people can take up. Football (whatever the code), cricket and netball no longer suffice. Part of the change has come about because young people, with the assistance of their parents, have become more mobile. Some travel frequently to the snow-fields for their sport, while others head to the beach. Some like rock-climbing while others race bicycles. Some are engaged by physical interactions like kick-boxing, while others are attracted to athletics. The list is endless.
The churches used to provide a home for the sporting clubs of the primary sports, but they can no longer compete with this diversity. They may still have a few clubs associated with them, but many churches have moved out of the sporting arena altogether. The patterns are similar in regards to other activities. Youth look for specific activities which
attract them, whether it be music or dramatic performance, art or playing computer games. Their passions are often very specific. They approach youth groups as they approach most aspects of life: as consumers who continually evaluate what is on offer.
Youth leaders have noted that it is important that they do not invite youth into their groups on the basis of offering ‘fun’, and then try to wedge in a little devotional at the end. Youth quickly see through that sort of manipulation. Many have seen a need to focus on discipling, and then adding some fun times. Nevertheless, young people can approach faith itself from a variety of perspectives. Some young people will be attracted to in-depth Bible study groups.
Others will find the expression of faith as part of a team which mows lawns for elderly people far more attractive. Some will find great attraction in being part of a music band that plays Gospel music.
Others will find it through turning some of the stories of the Bible into drama. Studies of students in church-run schools have found evidence that young people are already finding their ways into the specific expressions of faith that are meaningful to them (Hughes, 2013). The future of youth ministry will probably mean the opening of a greater variety of doors. Youth ministry needs to look for leaders who can invite youth to share in their passions for social justice, music, drama, small group discussion, or whatever their expression of faith may be.
Small churches may well find they cannot offer a great diversity of programs. Indeed, mega-churches are growing partly because of their ability to offer a wide variety of high quality programs and activities. Small churches may need to look at partnering with other churches to ensure that they offer together a wider range of activities and each focus on doing a few things well.
While youth leaders need to be flexible, they must also have some organisational skills. Organisation was not something named frequently by the youth as an important quality of youth leaders. Yet, when asked about the importance of organisation, they readily agreed that it was significant in their youth ministry activities. In one church, youth leaders admitted that there had been times when they had not been well organised. They had arrived for the
night not knowing what they would be doing or what their various roles would be. Youth group had not gone well on those occasions. It was noted by parents that they appreciated youth group leaders who communicated with them as well as with the youth, who were well organised ahead of time in terms of the activities that they would be conducting. The Exemplary Youth Ministry study goes further. Youth leaders, it suggests, should be involved in ‘long range planning, implementation, evaluation and innovation in an atmosphere of high expectations’ (Martinson et al., 2010, p. 132).
5. Engaged and Networked with the Wider Community
Most youth leaders have grown up in the church and are engaged in serving youth who are growing up in church families. In our studies of youth ministry in local churches, few leaders had networks in the wider community and the ability to offer appropriate activities to youth who were not associated with the churches.
If the church exists for those who are not part of it, is not this also true of youth ministry? Is not one of the great challenges of youth ministry to offer wholeness of life in a fragmented world, to offer peace and hope to youth who find life troubling and challenging, to help young people to find purpose and fulfilment in the Christian faith? (Murray & Evers, 2011). While the need was often recognised by the youth leaders we interviewed, most said that this type of youth ministry was beyond their present capacity. Some said it was something they aspired to. In a couple of places, there were marginal in-roads in engaging youth outside the churches. By and large, this remains one of the great unaddressed challenges.
Engaging in such youth ministry is certainly challenging. It may demand quite different programs and activities from youth ministry among youth growing up in church-attending families. It demands some different qualities in those who would be youth ministers. In summary, while it is not necessary for every leader to have the same skills, it is important within the youth ministry team that a range of skills are present. These include the skills of organisation and communication, the commitment to and understanding of faith and involvement in various forms of expression of faith, and the care for young people which leads to the building of authentic relationships, recognising the need to set appropriate boundaries.
Selection of Youth Leaders
Most clergy are professionally trained and are selected by the church in conjunction with the appropriate denominational bodies to work in a particular church. This is not the case with most youth ministers or youth leaders. In most cases, churches look for people among the attenders at their churches who appear to them to have the capacity for leadership. In one case, a youth minister was also a curate and had been appointed by the bishop to a church. In another case, a person from outside the church had been appointed. However, in 19 of the 21 churches we visited, both the youth minister, that is the senior youth leader, and other assistant youth leaders, were appointed from among the attenders at their respective churches. Indeed, in some churches, there was an implicit expectation that former members of the youth group would become leaders in some role or other as they became old enough.
This practice has several implications. It certainly means that those appointed to be leaders are people who are well-known in the church and, in general, people who have built a reputation for being trustworthy. It means that they are embedded in the ethos of the particular church. They generally have a good understanding of the local church’s practices, its language and its theological assumptions. They are in a good position to be part of the process that socialises young people into the church.
In many cases, when people become youth leaders, they already know the families in the church. They may well have some prior relationships with the youth themselves. Because of this, they are trusted by the families. Thus, they are often in a good position to build strong relationships with the youth themselves who are connected with the church.
However, there are some disadvantages of looking only within the local church for leadership. Most youth leaders have limited experience of youth ministry. They often have a narrow experience of the expression of faith, having seen it only in the churches in which they have grown up and within their particular denomination. We noted in the research that most youth leaders were carrying on the practices that they had experienced themselves within their church. They were not approaching the task innovatively or creatively.
Having said that, it should be noted that, in fact, many youth leaders had participated in camping programs and beach missions run by inter-denominational or denomenational organisations. In these contexts, their experience had been
broadened. They had been introduced to some new ideas and ways of tackling issues or situations. Another consequence of the system was that most youth ministers felt that there was no career path. If they succeeded in youth leadership, there was nowhere to go except into adult ministry. There were few pathways for people with experience or
even with training in youth ministry to move into other churches. The fact that most churches do not look outside
their own attenders for youth leaders means that they either use the best of the people available to them within the church, or they do not have youth ministry at all. Many churches do not find suitable people to lead, and youth ministry simply lapses.
If it was acknowledged that youth ministry could be a specific calling or vocation, then churches might realise that one possibility was to look for youth ministers and youth leaders outside their own walls. Churches might look for new ideas and new vision through the appointment of those youth ministers who had had experience elsewhere. In more general terms, the quality of youth leadership could be enhanced by being more intentional in accrediting and recognising youth leadership as a calling or a vocation, and not simply the consequence of being too old to be one of the youth. Malcolm Hart, as the Director of the Office for Youth for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, sees this as being one of the ways of addressing the significant problem of transcience in youth ministry: that most people who act as youth leaders only do so for a very short time (Hart, 2014, pp. 18–19). Alongside the provision of support and accreditation, he raises the issue of training.
There is some training available for youth ministry in some colleges, but few youth leaders that we spoke to had taken part in training. In talking with youth leaders, many gave a strong impression that they knew what they had to do and were doing it to the best of their ability. They did not need feel the need for training.
On the other hand, when asked about the faith they were hoping to develop in youth to whom they were ministering, some responses from youth leaders were simplistic, indicating that they had not thought about it deeply. They wanted the youth to come to love Jesus and to be committed to the Christian faith. They looked for signs of this in the youths’ willingness to come to youth group and to church and in their willingness to talk about their faith. A few spoke about looking for signs of mature relationships among the youth themselves. One or two spoke about seeing the youth develop their questions, rather than their answers, about faith. However, there were few comments about how
young people related faith to life beyond devotional practices or comments about the social dimensions of faith.
In most cases, youth leaders have developed youth leadership practices through experience and through talking with each other. As an example of learning through experience, some leaders had noted that they had put considerable effort into encouraging some of the youth to stop smoking. In the end, the leaders gave up trying. Their encouragement had not been successful. They decided it was better to focus on the faith of the youth and let other behavioural issues be resolved as consequences.
Few youth leaders had given attention to the issues of adolescent development, behaviour management, mental health, or many other issues that present when dealing with adolescents. Nor had much thought been given to how they worked with parents and the wider church in order to maximise the impact they wanted to have. The expectation that youth leaders would do some training, even if only a few days of intensives, would strengthen the confidence of youth leaders and enhance the quality of leadership. It would also help youth leaders to know when they should refer young people to others for additional help and advice and when reporting was mandatory. As noted before, Australian society now has strong expectations about the protocols that must be followed in dealing with children and youth (Rhynehart, 2014).
In approximately seven out of the 21 churches visited, the youth minister (senior youth leader) was a paid employee of the church. Only in two cases was the paid position full-time. In several cases, the person was also employed for other duties apart from youth ministry, or was employed part-time. One of the major issues with paying youth ministers was finding the funds within the churches. In some places, people said that the youth group was simply too small to warrant the funding of a paid youth ministry worker. However, there was also some ambivalence about having paid people in youth ministry. In a number of churches, they said that paid youth ministers might not be motivated in the same way as volunteers, suggesting that paid employees might not be as passionate about youth ministry. Others simply felt that there was no need for paid employees if there were volunteers available.
On the other hand, it was recognised that people who were paid could devote more time to youth ministry. They were also directly accountable to the parish for their ministry. Certainly, a number of youth leaders indicated that time was a major challenge for them.
In times when most university students have part-time employment, it would seem reasonable to provide some remuneration for dedicated youth leadership. There was no evidence from the case studies that such remuneration reduced passion. At the same time, payment could help ensure that time was given to the task and that there was
accountability. It might also be expected of the paid part-time person that they would do some training and be engaged in some development and networking activities. It is certainly true that many of the churches visited could not afford a full-time wage for an additional person in ministry.
However, most young adults have part-time work while they are involved in university studies. Many have several part-time jobs when they are in the work-force. Many churches could afford to pay someone half or one day a week. In developing the expectation that the youth minister, if not other youth leaders, were paid, the idea of career paths
When asked about the support that they had, youth leaders most commonly mentioned the senior pastor, minister or priest. Indeed, support from them was critical for the youth leaders to be able to perform their ministry. Youth ministers, in particular, appreciated the regular times they had with the senior ministers. It has been suggested that
where support from senior leadership is not present, or when senior ministers try to micro-manage the youth ministry, youth leaders have sometimes felt they had no choice but to leave youth ministry.
In several places, the role of the area youth co-ordinator was mentioned as very supportive or as setting up support structures. These were people who were helpful partly because they were outside the local church, but also because they had a wide knowledge of youth ministry and were able to share resources.
Junior leaders often found much of their support from the senior leader and among themselves as they worked together as a team. In a few instances, people noted that they had mentors or prayer-partners who had given them great support. Supportive families also made a great difference. Some spoke of spouses in that regard, while some
junior leaders spoke of the support they received from their parents.
While people find their own support, it is important that there are official channels of support available. Area youth coordinators can perform an important role not only in giving support, but linking people to support systems in the wider church.
There are church-wide questions which must be asked. Is the church investing in leadership for youth ministry? Is it developing appropriate leadership? It has been noted that most decisions about commitment to faith are made in the teenage years. This is the critical time for the development of faith. Many of those commitments are made in the context of generational-specific activities such as youth camps. Effective youth ministry plays a very important role in the development of faith, and more so because of the widening cultural gap between the church and the Australian culture.
Investment in youth ministry is critical for the faith and spiritual well-being of young people in our society. It is vital that the church invests in selecting suitable people, in training them and in providing them with support for ministry.
In one church, the youth ministry had reached a low point. A new person was appointed to take responsibility for youth ministry. However, he did not start up a youth group immediately. Rather, he began working with young adults. He developed Bible study and discussion with them. After a year, he put to them the challenge of being youth leaders
to work with him among teenagers. He argued that all of ministry has to be team-work. Creating the team should be a priority.
One particular concern was notable in our studies. None of the churches visited were effectively engaging many youth who were not associated with the church either through families or friends who attended. Most youth in Australia have no church connection and are not being engaged in any way by youth ministry. How can the churches more effectively engage the wider population? What are the ways in which the spirit of young Australians can be nurtured and young people can be challenged with the commitment to faith?
In order to address these challenges, the churches will need to invest more financially in youth ministry. They will need to intentionally identify, train and support leaders who can develop youth ministry. The long-term benefits of such investment could be considerable.
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