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Betwixt: Essential Items a Youth Leader Should Never Be Without

Recently, I had an enlightening conversation that started the wheels turning in my head. Interestingly enough, it was with a hair stylist I had just met.
Inevitably, small talk between two new acquaintances always turns to “What do you do? as soon as chatter about the weather is exhausted. So, when my stylist asked the question–right on cue–I responded that I was a youth leader. She listened with amusement as I recounted some colorful stories about my job, and then hit me with a question I’ve never heard before:
“So, what are some things you always need to have on hand, as you’re dealing with middle school kids all the time?”
I had to admit, I’d never considered that question before. Without even thinking, the first thing I blurted out had her in stitches:
“Trash bags. Lots and lots and lots of trash bags.”
By the way–having your stylist shaking with laughter while holding a razor-sharp object alarmingly near your brain is a slightly terrifying experience, in case you were wondering.
So, what are the top 10 items a youth leader needs to possess, in my opinion? Read on for the first five. I’ll share the rest in my next post.
#10. Tarps (or, as I think of it, a mediocre substitute for an attentive janitor)
Here’s something that most people don’t know about me: I really dislike being dirty. I’m very tidy and won’t even eat a single meal without a napkin. So I can’t even begin to explain why every youth event I do seems to be the messiest, goofiest activity you could possibly plan. Exploding flour bombs? Drippy paint projects? Tie-dying socks and shirts? Mashed potato sculpting? Gingerbread house building on kids’ heads? I’ve done it all…and believe me, having a plentiful supply of tarps has saved me quite a bit of clean up.
#9. Febreeze (or “Save-Your-Nostrils Spray”, as we fondly refer to it as)
If you’ve ever spent time with a seventh-grade boy in the middle of summer (um, or any other time of the year), you know why this is a must-have for any youth leader. And if you’ve ever had to spend a few days or longer with middle school students, you know that you can’t survive without some sort of top-notch stench-masking spray. I always restock our Febreeze supply right before mission trips, and every year I have leaders confess that it’s been the most-used item on the trip. Take a cue from our book–on our mission trip to central Florida this summer, we ended up lining our large group up and spraying them down, military-style, to save all of our noses.
#8. A Clipboard (a.k.a. “The Portable Command Post”)
This one seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes we attempt to tackle our busy events and activities sans clipboard. It’s always at that moment when you’re talking to a parent, frantically searching for a pen to write down a phone number, and three more people are handing in forms, that you find yourself desperately wishing for a clipboard to organize your twenty-eight thousand papers and envelopes. As a clipboard connoisseur, may I suggest a fine storage clipboard, which has a handy locking container for storing a sizeable bundle of papers and pens, along with a lovely clipboard front to hold your most important documents?
#7. A Rubber Chicken (or as it’s also called, “Catnip for Middle Schoolers”)
Any youth leader worth his salt can think of forty-six games utilizing a rubber chicken in no time flat. But, if you’re like me, you’ll revert to the good ol’ standby: Capture the Chicken. At the very least, toss it to your middle schoolers and watch them squeak and stretch your rubber chicken for hours on end–much like an alligator plays with its prey before chomping it to bits.
#6. Trash Bags (a simple staple that parents will never stop praising you for having on hand)
If I had a dollar for every trash bag I’ve used in my years in youth ministry, I’d be a rich woman. If I had a dollar for every time I used a trash bag in a wildly creative way that I never figured I’d use it for–I’d be Bill Gates. From sledding aid to harmless weapon to protective gear for messy events, I’ve done it all with the help of my trusty trash bags. After all, how else are you going to send kids home in their parents’ cars when they’re covered with powdered sugar, ketchup, or chocolate sauce?
#5. An iPod, radio, or CD player (or possibly a banjo, if you’re from the Deep South)
This goes without explanation, right? Much like aloe soothes a blistering sunburn, music soothes the wild beasts that are middle schoolers. Well…it can also fan the fire of their energy, too. But fifty-fifty odds aren’t bad, really. Oh, and a helpful tip? Put your iPod in a bowl to make it louder. Works like a charm.
#4. Markers and Scrap Paper (for your inner preschooler and/or Leonardo da Vinci)
These supplies present a win-win: girls will sit and doodle for hours, while boys will make vicious paper airplanes and color all over each other’s faces, effectively allowing both groups to do what they love most at the same time. But careful, fellow youth leaders, permanent markers and middle schoolers do not mix. Unless you want to break the news to a student that someone spent an entire night sketching all over his face with permanent marker, take my advice and lock those in your desk.
#3. A First-Aid Kit and a Plan for Dealing with Emergencies (and yes, that includes planning for zombie attacks)
I always make sure to have an easily transportable first-aid kit on hand. My most frequently utilized tools from this kit include sterilization swabs, tweezers, band-aids, and ice packs. Bonus points to you if you keep a freezer stocked with fruit-flavored ice pops–those can be a tempting substitute for an ice pack, too (although I don’t recommend trying to use five-gallon ice cream containers as ice packs–I’ve tried). It’s also important to have a plan for dealing with emergencies–every leader needs to know where the phones, exits and fire extinguishers are, and accident report paperwork and your first-aid kit need to be easily accessible to everyone. Consider going through some worst-case scenarios with your leaders and discussing what roles you would play–including how you would handle a zombie attack. Hey…just in case.
#2. An Endless Supply of Patience (or, my mantra, “This will make a great chapter in a book someday”)
Someday, your former students will write poetic masterpieces praising your everlasting tolerance. But don’t get your hopes up–they won’t appreciate it while they’re in middle school. In fact, they won’t even think twice about how hard you have it as a leader trying to deal with one of the most challenging ages you can possibly work with. But, to love like Christ does, it requires an incalculable amount of patience…even when students aren’t listening, things are going wrong and you’re completely fed up.
#1. A Servant Heart (that beats steadily when beating in rhythm with the Savior)
I’ve wiped up blood, put out fires, washed dirty feet, loaned out clothes and books that I’ll never get back, listened to tearful temper tantrums, pulled kids back from attempted leaps from roofs and cliffs, played endless rounds of boring games, slept on the floor and stayed up hours later than I wanted to. And that’s not even mentioning the countless other unpleasant things I’ve encountered as a youth leader. But through it all, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the Holy Spirit works through me–and through all of us–when I simply follow His promptings and serve His children to the best of my ability. Being a youth leader who positively impacts the lives of others and points people to our Heavenly Father is simple, as long as we keep that thought at the forefront of our minds.
Now, I just need to schedule another haircut and recount this list to my stylist…where’s my clipboard?

Published February 9, 2012

About the author

Cassie Moore is an author, speaker, and Director of Next Gen Ministries at St. Mark Lutheran Church & School in Houston, Texas. She’s author of “Authentic Youth Ministry: Straight Talk about Working with Kids, Teens & In-Betweens”, contributor for “Connected for Life: Essential Guide to Youth Ministry”, and an upcoming historical fiction series. She grew up in Illinois & Minnesota, has a degree from Concordia University in Irvine, California, has worked on national & district youth gatherings, and enjoys speaking nationally. She loves observing culture, travel, & talking to strangers. She and her husband, Pastor Tyler, have two dogs. Connect with her at cassieahmoore.com.
View more from Cassie

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