Let’s continue our discussion of what youth want from their leaders (Did you miss last week’s post? Check out What Youth Want from their Leaders Part 1)
Many times, I’ve felt the frustration of talking to someone who I knew was watching the clock behind my head, waiting for me to leave–or the person whose eyes were roaming around behind me, looking for other people to talk to. That hurts, no matter what age you are.
In fact, sometimes I’ve been tempted to slip a pair of sunglasses on those wandering peepers, just so I’m not quite as annoyed by their rude behavior.
Being a good listener doesn’t mean you simply wait for the other person to finish talking so you can jump in and start running your mouth again. It also doesn’t mean you oh-so-obviously bide your time until someone more interesting comes along to rescue you from your boring conversation. To me, it means putting my personal comfort and my own exciting stories aside and actively listening to others. That means actually paying attention, nodding my head along with them, asking them to explain in more detail, and sometimes even tearing up as they relate a poignant story.
Sometimes all your students want is to have someone ask them about themselves–that’s it. As one of my youth related, “Just knowing that there is someone there that you can talk to about life in general is comforting.”
It’s a very simple concept, really–I figured it out myself in eighth grade, when I moved to a brand-new school and had to deal with classmates who had little interest in the “new girl”. At the end of the day, people just want someone else to be interested in their livesand by asking questions about people and truly listening to them, you fling open the doors to relationships. That’s really all it takes to get you started down the path to a meaningful friendship.
Doubt is rampant among middle schoolers–and among people in general, really. We live in a world that makes us second-guess everything about ourselves.
On a daily basis, we watch shows that tell us that our real life just isn’t quite up to par with “reality” television, with commercials that inform us how out-of-touch we are with the latest technology and products. We walk past magazines that scream how our bodies, hair, and behavior isn’t good enough. We attend schools and jobs that challenge us to meet stressful deadlines and produce work that we may not enjoy doing. It’s a difficult world for all of us.
Our kids need our support in their pre-teen and teen years, while they’re forming their backbones to stand in this challenging world. We need to be the ones who can help lift them up when they fall to their feet, unsure that they can stand on those wobbly knees. We need to be their cheerleaders, telling them that no matter what, they have a loving God who walks with them (and carries them!) through these taxing seasons of life.
Middle school kids feel like no one in the world quite gets them. Heck, they’re very well aware that most adults are scared to death of working with this age group because it’s such a challenging life stage. But, at the same time, these kids long for someone to confide in–someone that will simply understand them. Or, at least try to understand them.
As one of my students said, “I want to be able to tell my youth leader my doubts, whether they be past or present, and to have him or her understand.”
Middle school is a time of self-discovery. There’s a reason why kids this age are fascinated with the slew of personality tests and semi-worthless “What Pop Song Are You?” quizzes–they’re learning about themselves. They’re coming into their own as adults.
When we as youth leaders take the time to share our observations about kids with them, it’s a powerful thing. That’s us demonstrating that we understand them, which validates the fact that they’re important. And that’s an essential thing for every person on this planet to know: they matter to someone.
A Good Example
I recently discovered that some of the unique teaching particularities and catchphrases I’ve used on my youth have resurfaced, but not from me. Where are they coming from?
They’re coming from the kids I’ve taught, who are now growing up to teach them to younger kids as they interact with them at church in Sunday school classes and various activities.
Yes. Imagine hearing your words and seeing your actions, but from the mouths of teenagers you used to work with. It’s just as unsettling and bizarre as you can possibly fathom.
Actions don’t just speak louder than words, they shout from the rooftop with a megaphone. Middle schoolers are watching to make sure your words and actions align, and they’re watching intently all the time. Your actions will speak volumes to them, even the smallest, unthinking details–like if you shake your fist at the car that cut you off, or if you sneak a cookie off the tray while no one is looking.
It’s a daunting thing to get used to the idea that your life as a youth leader is essentially a fishbowl. And, to be fair, that’s probably not how it should be–but that’s what it is, so we deal with it. It’s essential for us to be a good example for our kids at all times. Our jobs extend beyond five o’clock on Friday afternoons–they’re our lives.
I’m learning that the most important thing I can do in my entire ministry is to simply invite students into my life. I let them see the real me, with all my faults and failings. I tell them that I’m not perfect, and that I screw up often. I acknowledge that I fear and doubt and struggle with things, too.
But, in the midst of the very real wreck that I am, the Holy Spirit is at work. And allowing this Spirit to shine forth without me getting in the way is the most powerful ministry I can ever be connected to.
As 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Amen to that.