“Who’s in charge here?”

People ask to talk to whoever is “in charge” because we believe that the leader needs to take responsibility for the actions of the group. There certainly is some truth to this statement. This is why as a youth leader, I have a list of a few games that we do not play without serious planning and organizing ahead of time. Hide and go seek, sardines, or any game involving hiding or going off into dark places where there is no supervision all make that list. Youth may play that at home, in their neighborhood, or wherever else (not a good game to play at a bank or police station though) but it is not something we choose to do at our youth events unless we have a lot more supervision. Because I am in charge, I need to put the youth in situations where they can learn, grow, and have fun while also being safe and watched out for.

In the previous sections of this blog series on youth leadership, I told a story about my own leadership opportunities in high school. I had successfully (barely) navigated a student-led dodgeball event with our school’s marching band. I had a run-in with one of our school staff members but shared with him the steps we had taken to get proper permissions, and that seemed to be the end of that. I returned the equipment to the proper place, went to rehearsal the next day and there was quite a buzz about how much fun everyone had at our event. We had done it! Later in the day, while we were rehearsing down on the field, I got called over by one of our assistant band directors. He handed me one of those indestructible flip phones that could only be used for phone calls and not ten million other things like today’s phones and told me that our head band director wanted to talk with me. Uh oh, that was not good. All my bravado from the successful event had disappeared and I timidly answered the phone. The director proceeded to ask me a few questions about the dodgeball event, including if we got permission from the athletic director. I told him yes and he proceeded to say, “That’s all I need to know,” and the conversation was over. Clearly something was amiss that I didn’t know about, but apparently, it was being handled. At the end of the day, I got called into our head band director’s office and he proceeded to share the whole story with me. The athletic department was upset because of the report they got from the custodial staff regarding unsupervised students in the gym for a school event, but our director defended us by relaying that if they thought it was a big problem, then the A.D. shouldn’t have given us permission in the first place. We then proceeded to talk about some guidelines for future events and lay the groundwork for avoiding these kinds of leadership fires in the future. Not only had we planned a mostly successful event, but we now had learned a lot in the process which helped in a lot of different ways down the road.

As we did in the previous posts, let’s reflect back on the story here and pick up a few keys about student leadership from this secular experience that we can tap into as the church:

Be prepared to step in for bigger “fires.”

Hopefully this isn’t a literal fire, though I guess you should be prepared for those too. But ultimately, you are the one responsible for the events, activities, and overall plan for the youth ministry events–even if they are student-led.  When it comes to having youth leadership, there is a fine line here. Yes, I do want the youth to choose events, help organize them, facilitate and lead the activities, and be involved in other ways. At the same time, I need to make sure that I am okay with what they have planned and am ready to take responsibility if something goes wrong. Instead of letting me take the heat for the event, my director stepped up and took charge of that conversation for me, and I am grateful for that. Ultimately he was the one responsible for the activities of the group, so he handled it. It’s the same for youth ministry events. Set them up for success as best you can, but be prepared to take some heat if the event doesn’t go well, and keep in mind that there are learning experiences there, too. Is the end goal of your youth ministry to have the best-run programs or to build leaders? Perhaps both, but I would lean towards the side of having leaders be more important than smooth programming. Your biggest role in this is to ask questions that your student leaders probably haven’t thought of, especially when it comes to permissions, liability, safety, and just other things that you think through as an adult that may not come naturally to a young person with less life experience. Consider creating a checklist of must-do items that have to be followed in order to an event to take place safely.

The debrief is so important.

This is a time where you talk with your leaders afterward about how the event went, make some suggestions and notes, speak encouragement and life into your leaders, etc. After putting out the fire with the athletic director, my director made sure we talked about how to avoid those issues in the future and that was a big part in my growth process as a student leader. It would have been easy to tell me that because of this issue, students would not plan any more events for the band, but instead of taking that drastic step, we had a healthy discussion and became a better team for it. In youth ministry, we need to see the importance of talking with leaders after an event. Highlight with them what went well, share any feedback that you have heard, and specifically call out some great gifts and actions that you saw individual leaders displaying. Thank them for all the work they put into the event. Ask what thoughts they have, especially on some ideas to implement for next time, and be sure someone is writing those thoughts down. If a student-led event goes very poorly, still realize there are some great ministry opportunities there if debriefed well. Talk about what went wrong, get thoughts for next time, speak to what went well and what positives you saw in the process, and help create a plan for the next time and have that next time be sooner rather than later to keep the youth active in the leadership. Don’t overinflate their egos by telling them that everything was amazing, even if it wasn’t, but be sure to be heavy on the encouragement and thanks as you talk with your leaders.

Leadership is a process and a journey, not a destination or a program. Continue to not only give youth opportunities to lead but talk with them afterward. Encourage them, pray for them, share where you see their gifts, and then repeat the process again and again. One final encouragement I would give to you regarding youth leaders would be to share with their parents the amazing things that you see in their kids. Get them excited about their kids using their gifts in the church by writing, texting, e-mailing, or calling at least one parent after each main event (but feel free to do much more than that). Make it a goal that each youth parent, whether their child is on a formal youth leadership team or not, hears from you every year something great about their child (again, feel free to make it more often than that). Also make it a point to showcase your youth leadership in front of the church leadership and church members, so that they know that the youth are not the church of tomorrow, but are active, gifted, and powerful tools of Christ today. It is Christ is Lord of the Church, not you or your youth, and He will continue to raise up people to share His message throughout this world. Stay connected to Him, keep your youth connected to Him, and watch His amazing transformational work in your hearts and minds.