by Peter Carlson
Some of the best youth ministry happens when a student knows and trusts an adult who is willing to be a mentor, someone who can, on a regular basis, intensely show Jesus to the student through word, action, and lifestyle. With a growing or already large youth ministry, it’s nearly impossible for a head youth pastor or director to be an effective mentor in the lives of this many youth. How can we effectively extend our reach to really invest into our students’ lives?
The first church youth group I led had less than 10 total students. There was something really amazing and special about leading a group that size! Part of the beauty of this group was that my wife and I personally knew all of the students incredibly well. We were like a family and really felt like we could easily be involved with the lives of all of our students!
However, as our youth group grew in attendance, to my disappointment, I discovered I could not get to know everyone as well as I used to. To retain the original elements that drew those first members to our group, I discovered I needed more leaders to help mentor these young ones. It than became a growing part of my job to mentor the adult leaders who, in return, could spread this influence to the students! Once I realized the importance of relying on the other leaders I also realized I was not the starting point for all of this. I was being mentored and led by Christ. As Christians, we call this spread of mentoring “discipleship”!
Here are a few things I have learned about mentorship/discipleship over the years:
Seek: Seek out the leaders. Try not to advertise publicly you are looking for leaders. Be selective with who you choose. Don’t make “hip” or “cool” your main criteria for a good youth leader. Invite people in whom you see strong leadership traits. These leaders may not have ever thought about working with youth. They are people who you see regularly on Sunday mornings and other church events and thoroughly understand the DNA of your church or organization.
More: Sometimes we worry about having too many adults in the room. However, I have yet to witness an issue with “too many” adults present. More than once I was involved with a youth Bible study that happened to contain one or two students and four adults. After high school graduation, those students still remember their special dedicated Bible study over any lesson I ever prepared. (Of course this only works if the adults are intentionally engaging with the students rather than each other.)
Adult: Over the decades the stereotypical youth leaders are college-aged and young adults. However, if you are seeking leaders who can be mentors, the older the adult is, the more life experience and wisdom they can teach from. I’ve seen senior citizens who are amazing youth workers and the best mentors! If Godly parents have the time and passion to lead, they are adults already entrenched in youth culture and are often living and breathing mentorship and discipleship to growing kids. It’s often easier to find the time from those in their late 20s and early 30s, but don’t be hesitant to ask those who are older.
Leaders: I have a strong belief in never having “chaperones” only “leaders.” This goes for looking for extra help on larger social events, camps, and retreats. A chaperone’s job is to look after and watch over a group of people. Basically, to make sure everyone is safe and no one is getting into trouble. For a youth to avoid getting into trouble, they need to be certain to avoid the chaperones. Leaders, on the other hand, guide, engage, and get youth to follow them as they lead them closer to Christ.
Earlier I stated with a growing ministry you need to extend your reach. If your ministry is growing, there is a good chance your time dedicated to the youth ministry is more involved than your leaders’ time. You are spending more time learning leadership lessons and researching what is the most effective way to minister to the youth of your church or organization. Be a filter and pass the most valuable information along to your adult leaders. A start-of-the-year training is valuable, but not enough. Continue to train your leaders through short weekly meetings and longer monthly meetings.
At your weekly meetings, be sure your leaders understand the message you will be presenting the youth that day. Make sure you have the time to answer their questions about key points and theology.
At your monthly meetings, don’t waste the leaders’ time. Give them a leadership lesson that is valuable and will strengthen them as leaders. Draw them closer to the understanding of your church or organizations’ mission, goal, and vision. Help them understand youth and their current culture even more. Draw your leaders closer to Christ and each other. Make your leaders a community of their own. They may not have the time to be involved with other adult community groups due to their dedication with the youth ministry.
For your leaders to truly trust you, they need to know you. Spend time with them. Hear about their life and current struggles. Be sure they know you care. Pray with them and help them understand scripture more. By dedicating your time to mentor your leaders on an individual and relational level, you are exemplifying how you would like them to dedicate their time with the students of your ministry.
Most likely you entered youth ministry to spend time investing into the lives of teens not just adult leaders. If a growing attendance no longer allows you the ability to directly invest your life into all of the youth in your group, then choose a handful of your key students to invest in and train them to invest in other students’ lives. This may feel like favoritism, but it is healthy for your entire ministry.
Jesus did it, why shouldn’t you?
Peter Carlson is The Director of Young Adult and Student Ministries at The Village Chapel in the Hillsboro Village district of Nashville, Tennessee. He has a passion for connecting youth and young adults into community and ministry. Peter’s favorite day of the week is “Family Day” which he spends with his wife Whitney and 19-month-old son Monroe. He also loves playing games with friends, watching movies, and going on vacations.