Navigating the Wolf Pack: My First Year in Ministry with Teenage Boys

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Editor’s Note: This post is a product of the Communicating the Gospel to Youth class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.

by Heather Kauffman

I will never forget the night I met the youth group at my church. They welcomed me with a youth event at a local family’s farm which I learned has a rope swing out over the lake. It’s a popular spot for the teenagers and most of them went there immediately after arriving at the farm. A group of parents offered to lead me out to the swing so I could meet the rest of the students. The moment I saw the students was the moment I knew that my first year would be a challenging one.

In front of me was a group of about eight girls and 25 boys! As I stood next to the previous youth pastor, a male, I could not help but immediately get discouraged. How on earth was I supposed to connect with a youth group of mostly male students? They were going to hate me! Although I am the type of person who could talk to a wall and keep a conversation going for hours, fear crept in my mind that I would never be able to have a relationship with these students like they had with their previous youth pastor. I immediately began a relentless pursuit to try to learn what it would take to reach the boys in my youth group and earn their respect.

Fast-forward to a recent youth event, now with a year of youth ministry under my belt. While driving to a nearby water park, I overheard an interesting conversation taking place among the middle school and high school boys sitting in the seats immediately behind me. They began calling themselves the “Wolf Pack” and discussing how when they get to the park, “No man gets left behind!” Throughout the day, they invited me to join them on the rides and even told me I was a temporary member of the Wolf Pack, which is a huge honor. How did I get from point A to point B in a matter of a year with these boys? With God’s help, obviously, but also by gaining an understanding of the ways boys think and learn.

Let’s take a deeper look at the male brain and investigate how boys learn using the gray wolf and wolf pack analogy. Studies on the brain and verbal skills actually find that men are better at analogies, so it is only appropriate that we use one for our purposes of understanding the male brain (James 23).

1. Gray wolves are endangered in many parts of the continental US

No, this does not mean that we need to worry about the extinction of the male population, but it does relate to the way many male students have found themselves “endangered” in their schools and communities. In researching the topic of the way boys learn, it is evident that schools are either lacking information about the way the male student learns or not applying this information in their classrooms. National testing and assessments have found that boys score much lower in reading and writing than girls. They once had a lead over girls in math and science but that lead has now almost disappeared. In addition to these findings, boys are less likely to take challenging courses, earn good grades, and participate in school activities (Neu and Weinfeld 3).

There are many places in the schools, however, where boys outnumber girls. These areas should really capture our attention. In Paul Slocumb’s Hear Our Cry: Boys in Crisis, we find a list of these areas:

Slocumb also writes, “Statistics on boys and men reflect the results of a society that has ignored the social and emotional life of boys” (3). All of these statistics should make us wonder what needs to change in our school systems. A recent survey found that boys’ attitudes about school are more negative than girls’. In fact, with the option to agree or disagree with the statement, “I often try to do my best in school,” 67% of female students agreed while only 41% of male students agreed (Neu and Weinfeld 5).

Are boys falling into the same difficulties and frustrations in our youth ministries?

Let’s look at some of the challenges and implications of this information for our churches as we discover how to navigate the wolf pack of the teenage boys in our ministries. One of the most important things to note about wolves is their lifespan when they live in the wild, which National Geographic notes as typically six to eight years. This is approximately the amount of time most churches have with students in their youth ministries. During the middle school and high school years, this is where most of them probably feel like they are living in the wild. There is so much going on around them, but before we know it, they are graduating out of our youth ministries and entering into the real world! Our time with them is short, and we must make the most of it.

There is a tendency for churches to structure faith development as school is structured. If boys tend to have such a bad attitude toward school, our youth ministries must look different than school in order to best reach our male students. To truly understand what it is that makes them struggle more than girls in school, we must look at the specific strengths of male students that may be ignored in the classroom setting, which leads us to our next fact about wolves.

2. Wolves have unique howls that tell them apart

It doesn’t take long to realize that there are many differences between males and females. The differences are not just things noticed on the surface; much brain research reveals these differences as well. Many studies show that in the brain, more males are right-hemisphere dominant whereas more females are left-hemisphere dominant (Sousa 92). The right-hemisphere of the brain tends to have strengths in creativity, patterns, spatial skills, and interpreting language through context rather than the literal (86). Males also tend to perform better than females with motor skills that involve targets (darts, archery, etc.), spotting small objects such as shapes in complex diagrams, and mathematical reasoning (92).

Whereas the first portion of the brain to develop in girls is language, the first segment in the male brain is the part that works with special skills. In boys, language is the last portion of the brain to develop (Slocumb 16). Communication of thoughts and ideas, especially in regards to their feelings, requires precise language, and boys tend to have a more difficult time with these words. They relate better with things like diagrams, abstractions, and problem solving than information using words (16). In regards to communicating and processing emotions, it is found that boys take much longer to process emotive data than girls. Boys can take up to five hours longer than girls, who tend to deal with emotive data immediately. They also do not typically have as large of an emotional vocabulary as girls (26).

As mentioned previously, male students tend to have a worse attitude about school than females. Most educators would agree that K-12 schooling mostly functions in a way that appeals to a left-hemisphere learner, which is typically a female student (Sousa 94). As youth ministers, we must figure out a way to incorporate both the right and left hemisphere learners in our youth ministries.

We must understand the various learning styles and apply them in our youth ministries.

It is found that most boys are not good auditory learners, so the “me-talk, you-listen” style of teaching does not work well for many of our male students (James 43). They tend to acquire information easily that is visual, using pictures and graphs rather than words (44). They also learn best by manipulating their environment through touch (39). Touch is essential for boys to learn because it is a major source of information for them. A healthy youth ministry learning environment for our male students provides much visual stimulation and hands-on experiences. This ministry includes activities such as navigation skills (spatial skills that boys excel in), solving puzzles, strategy games, building activities, and hands-on experiments.

One extremely important application is to give male students plenty of time to respond. Pausing after asking a question is important for male students who need time for the question to register and to find the words with which they want to respond (James 38).

We ask our students plenty of questions throughout our group time, but do we ever truly allow much time for reflecting before responding? Why not try something other than a typical out loud question-and-answer? Ask your students questions and put a paper bag in the front of the room in which they can put their answer. This lets them work at their own rate and also helps shy students participate in responding. Get creative with some different ways of asking questions and getting answers. This will help male students find time to really reflect before they respond. (Read Sara Palm’s “Teaching to Multiple Intelligences in Youth Ministry” for ideas on teaching to different learning styles.)

3. Wolves need lots of land to roam

Wolves tend to roam about 12 miles a day (National Geographic Online). Give many of our male students the opportunity to roam, and it is very clear they are similar to the wolf. Boys develop their gross motor skills (i.e. running, climbing, throwing, jumping) before they begin to work on their fine motor skills (i.e. writing). Throughout their lives, boys tend to be more comfortable with their gross motor skills (James 51). This is one of the reasons why you may observe more male students who are restless when sitting than female students.

When it comes to free time activities, more boys tend to choose to spend it outdoors. An environment that is unstructured like the outdoors gives them the opportunity to design their own games and use more visual skills, rather than verbal skills (Sousa 93). Boys often learn on their own during times where they are given large space and some time to visualize and create.

Give boys the opportunity to move in your lessons.

Instead of remaining in one location for the entire lesson, give them the chance to either move themselves to different stations or move as a group to an entirely new location (James 50). If you are limited on space, give the students an opportunity to stand up and spread out mid-lesson. Have your students answer questions by using the different walls of the room as answers. If they answer “yes,” they move to one wall; “no,” they move to the other. Or put a multiple choice question on the board or screen for students to answer and use all four walls. There are many ways to incorporate this activity into lessons.

In my youth group, we take “stretch breaks” if working through a lot of content that does not allow for movement. Give students the opportunity to quietly stand up and walk around if they are getting restless. If it’s nice outside, do lessons outdoors and utilize that as a way to give them some space to move around. It doesn’t matter which way you choose to incorporate movement into your lessons, but help your male students out by giving them the opportunity for it.

4. Wolves live, travel, and hunt in packs of six to 10 animals arranged in a strict hierarchy

Boys think of their friendships in terms of group membership. Research on middle school boys has found that they prefer to work in larger groups, whereas girls prefer groups of two or three. It has also been found that a power hierarchy within these large boy groups keeps the work positive (James 160). Within the group, boys will most often times find themselves craving competition. Some competition, however, makes it difficult for boys to make friendships for fear of competing and “beating” their best friends (Slocumb 16).

Two types of competition are indirect competition and cooperative competition. Indirect competition involves individuals who work to improve upon their past achievements. Cooperative competition takes place when a group works together to accomplish a task or work towards a common goal that benefits the entire group (James 132). Both forms of competition are important for male students to grow and feel a part of the group. It is also critical that male students have male role models as either an indirect or direct part of the “pack.” This makes a huge difference in their attitudes towards any activity like school or church (James 175).

The Practical Application in Your Youth Ministry

As you think about ways to incorporate this into youth ministry, recognize how important it is to give our male students a place of belonging. If they think of their friendships in terms of group membership, their attitude towards the youth ministry is most likely going to be much better if they feel like they are a part of something. When the male students in my youth ministry went to the water park, not one person felt excluded because they were a part of the whole “pack.” Give your male students the opportunity to find belonging among the whole group, but especially among the males in your youth group.

Also, make youth group a place for safe and healthy competition. When choosing games, make sure that the games do not only appeal to the boys who are athletic, but switch it up so that other students may rise up as leaders during competitions. Find creative ways to give each student the opportunity to be leader and follower. One way to do this is to put restrictions on the group (i.e. only one group member can talk, each member of the group must be leader at some point, etc.). You could also give the boys a task to complete in a large group where they compete against the girls in order to meet the needs of the male students, but also to stretch the female students who work better in small groups. Competition can be used as an excellent motivator for students if used properly.

Lastly, and this is extremely important, make sure your youth ministry has a balance of male and female leaders. Not every student connects with every leader, so be intentional about finding leaders with different interests and strengths. If you struggle to find male leaders, ask parents and students to write down two or three names of people they look up to in the church. Pray about them, run this list by the pastor, and give your male students some role models to help make their attitude towards church be a positive one.

Educational research suggests that that we must stop trying to change male students to fit the design of our schools; rather, schools need to begin to change to capitalize the strengths of boys and help them to discover and reach their full potential (Neu and Weinfeld 2). The same is true in our youth ministries. We must help our male students recognize their God-given gifts and abilities and teach in ways that incorporate the differences between boys and girls. We must always remember the opportunities we have to foster positive attitudes about church by our presence and our teaching.

The wolf pack is howling loudly in your youth ministry to be known and understood. Male students are on the prowl for a place of belonging where they can roam and learn together. Listen to their call so they can listen to God’s call for them.

(Please note: Female gray wolves are also a part of wolf packs. This idea of “wolf pack” was chosen strictly for the analogy and purposes of this article.)

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Sources for further reading on how boys learn:

James, Abigail N. Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2007.

Neu, Terry W. and Rich Weinfeld. Helping Boys Succeed in School. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press Inc., 2007.

Slocumb, Paul D. Hear Our Cry: Boys in Crisis. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2004.

Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns: A Classroom Teacher’s Guide. Reston, VA: The National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1995.

Sources for further reading on wolves:

National Geographic Society. 1996-2014. “Wolf.” Accessed 28 July 2014. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/wolf/

Defenders of Wildlife. 2014. “Fact Sheet: Gray Wolf.” Accessed 28 July 2014. http://www.defenders.org/gray-wolf/basic-facts

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Heather Kauffman is a third year CYMT graduate resident and serves as the youth minister at FUMC Dyersburg in West Tennessee. She is still an honorary wolf pack member.

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