Recently I was having a conversation with another adult leader on a retreat. While we were talking, a group of youth was working to set up one of the activities for the night. We both noticed this and proceeded to steer the conversation towards reasons why it is better for us to continue being on the sidelines while the youth did the work. If we went and helped, we might mess things up. They’re doing so well on their own. If we go help, then they’ll have to split the sense of accomplishment five ways instead of three, so each person will feel less accomplished than if we stay here. There might be some interesting sociological research in that last excuse, but what kind of surprised me after thinking about this longer is that we actually had a point. In our joking and musings about the situation, we might have stumbled upon something profound. There are certain times where adult leaders, especially the main youth leader, need to be hands-off and on the sidelines. This isn’t out of pure laziness, but actually is an important part of youth development.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in the way of youth growing into the mature Christian adults is….Christian adults. I’m sometimes standing in the way of my own goal as a youth worker! If I am only telling youth what it looks like to be a Christian adult, but not giving them opportunities to grow in those areas, then I’m missing a crucial opportunity. That’s like a coach spending all their time talking about how to dribble, but never letting the players touch a basketball. That coach may even take a positive step and demonstrate themselves what it looks like to dribble the ball. That’s better than just talking about it, because now the players know what it’s supposed to look like. But it’s still not the same as following all that up with an opportunity to dribble on their own. Don’t get me wrong, setting an example as a Christian adult is so important for kids. One of the roles of youth workers should be to surround the youth with as many caring Christian adults as they can so they really get a good view of what it looks like to love Christ as an adult. But this serves to enhance the actual hands-on experience for the kids rather than replacing it.
So I recognize that I am sometimes unwittingly a part of the problem. But what do I do about it? How about taking a few steps in the right direction:
- Don’t just delegate the “easy things.” It’s easy to see delegation as simply a way to get things from one place to another in less trips. How can I move a half-eaten bag of Twizzlers, a deflated volleyball, four Bibles, a mask from the 2005 Fall Festival, six sweatshirts and a left shoe (collectively known as “lost and found”) from my office to the youth room in the shortest amount of time? I know, I’ll grab some kids to help! Super Delegator to the rescue! Not only does this inevitably result in coming up with a catchy but annoying theme song for Super Delegator, but it also doesn’t make the youth feel like they’ve really accomplished anything. So don’t just give them tasks that involve little to no brain power or effort. Stacking chairs is a needed service, but is not the only way that youth can serve. Same with yard work, running games for a church picnic or helping someone move. There are so many other ways for them to use their gifts. Be creative! Challenge them by having a group of youth lead the game for youth group. Have a few upperclassmen serve as small group leaders. Get kids involved in running the technology, making the announcements and preparing promotional materials. Find relational ways to serve like having conversations with new members in your church or scheduling a visit with a shut-in member.
- Limit your rescues and safety net. This is one area that I really have some growth potential, as I’m sure many of you do as well. Not only do we need to give youth some important jobs, but we can’t just swoop in and save the day every time they need help, forget or make a mistake. In college, I was a part of a team that needed to plan a short conference for a nearby congregation. We had not planned out our timeline correctly for getting the word out and having the details figured out, so we were really worried about the event happening. Instead of stepping in and taking care of everything for us, our supervisor cancelled the event and outlined the things that needed to get done that weren’t accomplished. We learned a great deal from that experience, probably more than we had if things had gone off without a hitch. If we give youth the responsibility to take care of setting up for an event and it’s not set up, maybe we need to leave it not set up for a while. Now we can’t do this all the time and then blame everything on the youth (“But sir, the youth were in charge of the fire extinguishers and turning the ovens off” will not fly well in the case of a burned down church after the youth bake-off) but with the proper exercise of wisdom, we can turn these “failures” into great learning opportunities. They can help us work with the youth to make plans for the next event, provide accountability and set deadlines. If we step in and do everything for the kids, we’re like those parents who do their kids’ science fair projects for them. The model solar system might look great, but the kid didn’t learn anything more than “the big yellow one’s the Sun.”
- Celebrate youth accomplishments! When you delegate something to an individual or group of youth and they do a great job, make sure they know they are appreciated. If you get comments from others in the youth group or church about a job that the youth were involved in, make sure you give the credit to the kids in that conversation and also pass that compliment onto the youth the next time you see them. Even better, let their parents know as well! Write thank you notes, send encouragement texts and credit youth by name in bulletin announcements. Hold up these youth as an example to the congregation of what young people can do when given some encouragement, responsibility and guidance!
- Ramp up the responsibility. Don’t just throw the whole responsibility of the youth ministry or church into the youths’ laps right at once. Start with having a few youth pray for the group each week. Then have those kids maybe plan a game for a week, while a different batch of kids does the prayers. Then have the game group move to helping lead a small group discussion, while the prayer group moves to the games, and a new group does the prayer. A simple progression like this can quickly get almost everyone involved in something, but also increases the responsibility and opportunities over time.
Appropriate and intentional delegation is so key in the transition of youth into Christian adults. Instead of just saying “you’re confirmed or graduated, now be an adult,” let’s give youth that opportunity over the course of 4-6 years to take steps in that direction so that it’s not one giant leap at the end, but simply another step along the way. Learning the “art of delegation” is a lifelong process that takes wisdom, experience, discernment, and courage but it is something that has the potential to really impact youth in the long-run. Isn’t that what we’re looking for?