Some fascinating detective work conducted in a Wisconsin second grade classroom offers insight into how youth leaders can create positive change in young peoples’ lives.
Two counselors sat in the back of a classroom recorded the behavior of the teacher and students. Every 10 seconds, the researchers recorded how many children were out of their seats. In every 20-minute period, at least one child was standing 360 times and the teacher was saying, “Sit down!” seven times. (That probably makes you feel better about any restless kids in your group.)
When the counselors suggested the teacher increase her commands to sit, it had a definite impact on students’ behavior—but in a negative way. Increased commands (27.5 times per 20-minute period) increased the negative behavior 50%. The more the teacher focused on negative behavior, the more constant it became.
Here’s the zinger: Near the end of the study, researchers asked the teacher to totally stop saying, “Sit down!” Instead, she quietly complimented children who stayed in their seats and worked. As a result, their roaming behavior decreased 33 percent, the most positive response of the entire experiment.
So what’s the takeaway for leaders of teenagers? People unconsciously increase whatever behavior gets them attention, even if it’s negative attention. Wise leaders train themselves to “catch” kids doing something positive and reinforce it with authentic encouragement.
Human nature, inside youth ministry and out, gravitates toward things that need improvement. And obviously, there’s a scriptural place for correction and discipline, but we give kids the emotional energy to change when we sincerely help them first know what they’re doing right. As Romans 2:4 says, “God’s kindness leads us to change.”
All of us crave someone who believes in us, focuses on our strengths, and helps unleash the hero in our own lives. So get going—and start “drawing”! Lots of young people need your positive influence.
I remember it well. I had only been in youth ministry for a couple of years. As I finished up my preparation for that week’s message, I was sure it was going to be an incredible night. I sensed that my topic was really relevant, my Scriptural base was clear, and my illustrations were bell-ringers. As I glanced at my notes one final time before I entered the youth area, I inwardly smiled, looking forward to a great evening of authentic spiritual impact.
Fast forward two hours later. I dodged out of our youth gathering as quickly as possible. And all the way home, thoughts of frustration and failure echoed in my head. What had happened? My mind raced to come up with some answers as to where I had missed the mark that night. Then, right as I pulled my car into the driveway, a mental “light bulb” came on. The talk had gone well until I started to close it. Maybe my lack of thinking through my conclusion had helped to create my disappointment that evening. After all, great salesmen train carefully in “making the right close.” I turned the car off and sat thinking in the garage for another minute. Maybe I was on to something simple but significant in the realm of communicating with teenagers.
Let me share a few specifics that have become clear to me after giving several thousand talks to teenagers. The concepts may not be profound; but I think they are strategic whether you are communicating to five teenagers or 5,000.
1) Above everything else, take a few minutes each week to think through the specifics of how you are going to close out your evening’s talk. It’s a reflection of the old quote, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail.” This means that you mentally go over some of the components I will list below. Don’t just assume that things will fall into place as you wrap up your sharing. Plan your closing. Take time to decide what aspects of communication you are going to use to create an atmosphere of engagement and response.
2) Determine specifically what your “ask” is. In other words, what specific response are you desiring from your talk? The unspoken question in every teenager’s mind as you communicate is “So what?” That’s why you need to be able to clearly articulate your “ask.” Maybe you’ve talked on family issues and you conclude something like this: “I think several of us are honestly wanting to change our attitude at home. It would be great if you take a few minutes tonight to ask the Lord for His help on that.”
Or maybe your youth service was a “Heroes Night” like one we hosted recently. Your closing “ask” could be something like, “We’ve had a great night talking about what makes a hero and honoring some of our own. But as we wrap things up tonight, I think lots of us would like to ask for the Lord’s help in becoming a hero ourselves to someone in our own world. If that’s you, would you raise your hand so we can pray for each other specifically? Your raised hand is saying, ‘I want to be God’s kind of hero to someone in my everyday life.’”
3) Don’t underestimate the power of the right music during your closing. Granted, too much dependency upon music can become manipulation or hype. But heaven will be full of music, so it has a lot of spiritual impact when chosen correctly right here on earth. You don’t have to have an incredible worship band to pull this off. Just pre-think one song (usually slow) that helps to create the atmosphere you desire. Then cue up your CD player and hit “repeat.” Simple as it sounds, even repeating one appropriate recorded song over and over can be powerful. Obviously, if you can use live music, it is even better. Discuss before the service with your head musician your topic and talk over possible choruses for the end. Never allow your worship leader to “punt.”
4) Watch your wording as you close out your night. Avoid phrases that produce guilt, defensiveness, or alienation. Use language like “we” instead of the finger-pointing “you.” Include inclusive phrases like, “I think we all struggle with this from time to time” or “I think it’s so cool that you’re mature enough to be honest on this whole topic.” Make sure that your choice of words makes it honorable to honestly respond.
5) Avoid high-pitched emotions. Just as quickly as that emotion melts, so also will the resolve to follow through.
6) Consider a carefully-chosen story or personal experience to help close out the night. Jesus was a parable-teller and built much of His communication around the power of a story. So I often use a relevant story to help close-out the evening. It helps cement the focus of the evening and open up hearts to an authentic response.
Granted, there is no right or wrong way to close one of your youth talks. But whatever your theological background, just take a few minutes when you communicate to think through your closing. Real estate and insurance agents sure do when they make their presentations. And your “Product” is infinitely more important.
I gave the sign a position of honor in one of my earliest youth ministry offices. The words still echo in my head often:
“If you compare and compete, you’ll live in defeat.”
You would think after four decades in exciting, full-time youth ministry that I wouldn’t deal with those mind games any more. But in all honesty, I think we all struggle with painful comparison and competition occasionally in our lives. After all, we live in America where only “gold medal winners” are trumpeted. Unfortunately, part of the “comparison and competition game” spills over into even the youth ministry trenches.
So since Dr. Phil isn’t anywhere around, let me share some of the ways I’ve dealt with this “dreaded duo” in my own life and youth ministry:
1) Prioritize the art of “do it yourself encouragement” in your personal life. Remember poor old King David in the Old Testament when his family, houses, and cattle were destroyed by enemy troops? David’s response? The Scripture simply reads, “And David encouraged himself in the Lord.”
For me, “do it yourself encouragement” involves controlling my thought life and choosing to focus on the positives around me, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Trust me, it’s easier to write about that choice than to practice it. But the voices inside your own head will always be your greatest source of youth ministry encouragement or youth ministry defeat.
2) “Murder” the attitude of competition in your life by sending an encouraging note or email to a person you secretly compete with in your own mind. I don’t know how it works, but I promise that it does. It probably pivots around the scriptural principle of, “If you want to be the greatest in the kingdom, learn to be the least.” Life in God’s kingdom often comes through purposeful death to parts of our human self-centeredness. So “murder” part of the competition in your life by being encouraging to someone who stirs that very sense of competition up in you.
3) Clarify what “rabbit” you want your life to chase. You know the principle: “If you chase two rabbits, both of them will get away.” And in like manner, youth ministry has lots of different facets (rabbits). So take some time to determine how God has wired you up and what “youth ministry rabbits” you are going to most prioritize. What appears as success for others in youth ministry is probably not going to be God’s version of success for you.
Maybe your “rabbit” involves leadership development, one-on-one discipleship, worship, evangelism, or reaching at-risk kids. Granted, youth ministry demands that we minister in all of these areas. But if God has wired you to be a one-on-one discipler, youth ministry success is probably not going to involve building a huge group numerically. Without coming to terms with this, it is easy to look across town at larger youth group and internally feel like you’re not cutting it.
4) Remind yourself often that you “play for an audience of One.” Most of us wouldn’t worry so much about what others think about us if we realized how little they really do! So I often remind myself that if I’m doing my very best to please the Lord, everything else is going to eventually come into line.
When I was in middle school, I had a short-lived career as a track star. I even made it to State Finals. (Impressed, aren’t you?) At the state championship race, there were thousands of voices lined up along the cross country path to cheer us on. But I quickly learned to tune out all of their voices and listen for only one voice that I wanted desperately to please. That, of course, was my coach.
So as my run in youth ministry has progressed, the “voices” have often become noisy and confusing. Their shouts have brought the dreaded duo of “comparison and competition” to the forefront on countless occasions. But as I’ve matured in youth ministry, I’ve learned to tell myself often, “I’m running this race for an audience of One.” And borrowing from God’s words to His Son, I choose to believe the Father is saying, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”
One of the questions I’m asked most often after nearly four exciting decades in full-time youth ministry is, “How do you keep your love for teenagers fresh and genuine?” That’s a great question. Truthfully, it’s a battle that needs to stay front-burner in my heart. Without that, I’m sure authentic, fresh love would be a thing of the past and emotional leftovers would be my reality. After this many years in youth ministry, I’ve heard almost every imaginable story, counseled almost every imaginable problem, and cried through almost every imaginable tragedy. Solomon was really right when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So with that in mind, how DO you keep teenagers and your love for them fresh and real, especially after you’ve been in youth ministry for a few years?
My mind races back (a few centuries, it seems) to my college days. I was on a tour bus returning from a college ministry tour. Even as a senior in college training for full-time service, I was beginning to feel the drain of ministry. Staring out the bus window, I mumbled to the Lord, “How do I keep my love for people fresh? I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to do this thing long haul.”
Almost immediately, a Scripture I had read earlier that morning from Matthew jumped back into my mind. “And Jesus looked upon the multitudes of people and saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Then His heart was moved with compassion.”
It was one of those Holy Spirit “bump moments” we all occasionally have. “OK, Lord.” I thought to myself. “So Your motivation factor came from compassion. That’s what ‘moved You.’ But how do I realistically pursue that kind of compassion? I hear a lot of people talk about it. But I don’t see much long haul fruit of it in ministry that spans the years.”
I’ve had only few times in my walk with Christ when I’ve experienced a supernatural “Thus sayeth the Lord.” (Sorry if you’re so spiritual that you’ve had lots of them. Unfortunately, most of mine are straight from the Word and pretty non-glamorous.) But nearly 40 years later from that morning on the tour bus, I really believe that what happened next was one of those moments. The word “compassion” divided mentally in my mind into four smaller words and, with no effort on my own, I clearly saw what the Lord was trying to speak to me.
“Compassion” broke into “Come” and then “pass it on.” Jesus gently tutored me that morning in the art of authentic, Christ-like loving. “Come to Me first,” He softly prompted, “and through your times alone with Me, drink in of My love and My care for people. Just make sure you never get too busy to consistently practice the ‘Come to Me’ stage.”
“Then for the rest of your life, pass THAT LOVE on.” My mind heard His steady, Fathering voice continue, “All other sources of love will be shallow and short-lived. But if you keep coming back to Me each day to allow Me to fill you with My love, the long haul will be marked by My consistent love flowing out of you.”
Granted, there have been countless times in these past years in youth ministry when I have violated the “Come to Me” stage and found myself seriously depleted and drained. Human love, at its very best, is short-lived against the backdrop of the youth culture we serve each day. But this simple truth has helped to keep my priorities aligned and my “emotional tank” from crashing on empty.
When the books are closed one day on my run in youth ministry, I doubt that many people will remember the size of my youth groups or many of the main points from my messages. But if the Lord smiles on me, maybe a few people will remember that I was a person who sincerely, authentically loved. If that happens, I think both Jesus and I will be smiling.
Is it OK if I hate you for another couple of days?” the sharp teenage girl asked me last week.
“Sure,” I responded. “I know you’re hurt. Just let me know when I’m back on your good list.” We both laughed, hugged each other, and parted company.
You see, a few days ago I had to make a tough call. I had to tell another young lady that for the next three months, she was no longer welcome at our youth group. The reasons were complex. Just let me assure you that it was an unavoidable and right decision. As you can understand, I became Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of a few of her closest friends. Not a very fun place to be. However, I learned a long time ago that you can never be their leader if you need them to always like you.
I call it the balance between being a coach and being a companion in youth ministry. Granted, all significant youth ministry is relationally strong, but when the unavoidable times come where one of those two roles must win, I suggest that your coach role usually needs to trump your companion one.
Let me do some comparisons:
Now don’t hear me wrong. It’s strategic in youth ministry to be a touchable friend and companion. Relationship is always king. But take it from somebody who has been “hated” countless times through the run: Don’t sacrifice your credentials to be their spiritual coach by your insecure need to always be their buddy and companion. Jesus wasn’t always popular with His guys…and you won’t be either.
Let me begin with an honest confession: I’m a personal goal fanatic! And research tells me that if you want to be your best in youth ministry and life, you might want to join me. Let me give you some pretty impressive statistics.
Yale University did a study in 1953. The researchers followed specific graduates for more than twenty years. Results showed that 3% of the Yale grads earned more money than all the other 97% together! The only difference between them was that the top 3% had written goals and a plan of action for those goals which they reviewed daily. I bet you’re listening now! But take time to read the rest of this blog before you start goal setting.
Harvard University later did a study of business school grads from the class of 1979. Only 13% of the business majors had goals. Out of this group, only 3% had written them down along with a specific plan of action. But get this! The study results showed that that the 13% who at least had mental goals were actually earning twice as much as the 84% with no goals. Even more mind-blowing, the 3% who had written down their goals and drafted a plan of action were earning ten times as much as the other 97% combined!
The point is obvious. If you want to make a significant difference with your life, having written, well-planned goals will be hugely important in your pursuit. I’m always amazed by youth leaders who spend so much time in the daily grind of youth ministry that they don’t carve out time to make at least one or two ministry goals. In all honesty, most of us spend more time planning our weddings than we do our ministries or our lives. We’ve made the mistake of confusing activity with accomplishment.
Let me share with you a few of the ways goal setting in youth ministry will benefit you:
1. Written goals will help strengthen your character through promoting a long-term perspective.
2. Written goals will allow you to lead your youth ministry as opposed to simply managing it and responding to all the crises and complaints.
3. Written goals will help you stay focused, so your ministry makes steady progress, even if it’s small and incremental.
4. Written goals will enhance your ability to make wise decisions and to recruit others to partner with you in your vision of reaching today’s youth culture.
Remember, it’s not a true goal unless it is specific enough that you can say, “Hey, Mom, watch me_________.” Allow me to suggest a few ideas:
1. As a youth ministry, we will begin a specific follow-up system for our visitors within the next 3 months. It will include 2 letters and 2 phone calls.
2. As a youth leader, I will enhance my creativity when I speak by including 3 of the following creative ingredients each time I speak to the youth group: a) story; b) video clip; c) relevant sharing on the topic by one of our students; d)drama sketch or monologue; e) related token; or f) background music behind part of my message.
3. I will enhance our student leadership factor by launching “The Core” this fall. I will meet with them twice a month for leadership training, feedback, and motivation. I will include from 5-10 students in this group and will assign them other specific teenagers to begin reaching out to.
Don’t discourage yourself by making too many goals or by making goals which are too lofty (ie. “I will grow my youth ministry by 200% in the next 12 months!” Good luck unless you only have 2 students presently.) Take some of your key students to a restaurant one Saturday afternoon and share your ministry goals with them. Ask for their help and watch what “shared purpose” will do to set fire to their passion and enthusiasm.
Inside my desk, I have a question that my eyes see often. It simply reads, “What is the most magnificent goal you desire to pursue in the next three years?” Most youth ministry leaders seem to be sprinting in a dense fog. They are running hard but going nowhere. Why don’t you be different?
Let me ask you a surprising question, “How long has it been since you let a kid break your heart?” I mean, the real kind of brokenness that quietly aches to the core of your being?
It happened again for me recently. I had chased, discipled, and loved a girl in our previous youth group pretty tirelessly. She had the goods, I promise you that. I had scribbled her name on my “spiritual hit list” right after I arrived in Atlanta and with great intentionality I stuck my heart out on a stick and gave it away to her.
The details of the story are immaterial. All you need to know is that six years later, she’s made some decisions that have headed her down a slippery slope spiritually. I want to be wrong. I want to discover a year from now that she is thriving spiritually and that her own personal legacy is being powerfully shaped. But four decades in youth ministry tell me that often “destiny delayed” becomes “destiny detoured.” My heart sinks as I type it. Please, God, let me be wrong.
So what’s the “upside” of this gnawing sensation in the pit of my gut right now? I guess it’s that I’m still fighting to love kids personally. Several years ago, I was tempted to do youth ministry differently. You know, the kind of ministry that leaves your heart at a professional distance. It’s so much less painful that way. But I couldn’t stomach the emptiness, the shallowness of the more vogue, professional approach. For that matter, I’m not sure Jesus could either.
So here’s what I’ve come to know: Deep life-change involves deep risk. The Risk of being betrayed, let down, taken advantage of, being misunderstood—the risk of having your heart broken. But the day you cease that kind of raw vulnerability, you forfeit the possible legacy of deep, eternal impact.
So go home, dust your heart off, and put it out on a stick to a few of your kids. And right after a few of them break your heart, know that heaven is leaning over, applauding for you. After all, the greatest Youth Leader of the universe did ministry that way and He had one of His closest “kids” betray Him for a few pieces of silver. I guess that means that legacy living can be pretty costly, even when people call you Messiah.
My greatest joy at this exciting season of my ministry is to multiply myself in a significant way into a few of this generation’s most exceptional youth leaders. I have spent much time prayerfully considering how I might do this most effectively. As a result, the CADRE has been birthed from my heart and become one of the most fulfilling ministries I GET to be a part of.
I have long admired Dr. Jack Hayford and have personally respected a similar mentoring ministry of his called, The School of Pastoral Nurture. Dr. Hayford has hosted this mentoring ministry for several years in an effort to multiply himself into a smaller group of people. Dr. John Maxwell also suggested that I launch a small mentoring group like this. Though I, in no way, parallel myself to these extraordinary ministry giants, I do respect their example and counsel to me. So, I started the first CADRE in 2005 and since then hundreds of men and women have walked on this journey with me.
Emerson put it wisely:
“The years will teach us what the days will never know.”
The CADRE is my chance to take what the years have given me and impart it into youth pastors and leaders coming up behind me. It’s my way to leave a mark of significance on the next generation.
The Cadre is a 12-month personal mentoring journey with Jeanne that includes the following:
|• Two Intense Advances||• Conference Calls|
|• Email Mentoring||• Small Iron Groups|
|• Ladies-Only Breakaway||• Meaningful Surprises|
Take a moment to find out more about this truly unique opportunity at http://www.youthleaderscoach.com/cadre_requirements.asp. It would be my honor to have you be a part of this journey with me.
“Control freak!” That’s the term we use in youth ministry for senior pastors who won’t give us our way or elder boards who veto our latest hot youth ministry idea. But to be honest with you, I have an element of the “control freak” still inside of ME. And from time to time, it has been costly in the progress of our youth ministry. How about you? Let me share some of my thoughts.
1) Excellence is not always as high a goal in youth ministry as participation. Thus, I need to “chill” and let my students own more things—even if the quality is lower than what “the select few” could have produced. One time, one of my high school guys wrote a skit to go with a portion of my talk that night. When I saw it at rehearsal, I almost canned it completely. My initial impression? It stunk! But I’m so glad I allowed the guy to share his skit. The kids responded to it far better than I expected and better yet, the guy spent the rest of the night grinning from ear to ear. Point taken, Little Miss Control Freak: Involvement sometimes trumps excellence.
2) When I was a teenager, church leaders cheered my most feeble attempts to be involved. I was given a chance to learn and grow. How well am I doing that now for the teenagers around me? Yes, I’ve got to admit that I can be a tough coach sometimes. I cringe when the youth worship set has a bunch of dead time or a couple of leaders show up for our youth service dressed in something like their bathing suits. But, I have to remind myself that someone was amazingly tolerant of me when I was young and learning. They lived by the mantra that “failure isn’t fatal.” So, I need to often remind myself that I thwart people’s growth when I allow myself to focus more on “control” than on “encouragement.”
3) High control takes a lot of the fun out of youth ministry. And it also runs off some of your best potential leaders. Strong leaders want to be clearly led, not controlled. They want to feel trusted and given space to pursue their dreams. They want to feel like comrades, not bellboys. Insecurity, on the other hand, makes us paranoid of strong leaders. Thus, we easily create a team of weak people and “yes men” around us—people who can be easily controlled (Did I say “manipulated”?). Youth ministry becomes so much more fulfilling and fun when we surround ourselves with strong individuals who are empowered to be “make it happen” people in the youth ministry.
What is sometimes my greatest involvement in student’s lives? It’s for me to be on the front row cheering them on. That’s about it. I’ll probably also be the informal “encouragement giver” afterwards if the huge crowd they envision doesn’t appear. I’m learning the joy of being “out of control.” How about you? Just remember this simple principle: If you have to tell people that you are their leader, you probably aren’t.
Okay, I don’t consider myself an expert at many things. But I think I am an expert at having my volunteer youth leaders quit! Quite a claim to fame, don’t you think?
From lots of painful experience in this arena, let me tell you some of the repeating bottom lines that have emerged. Maybe you can avoid repeating some of them with your leaders:
1) Volunteer youth leaders quit because they’re tired of feeling like huge youth ministry failures. Nobody signs up to attend “Failure 101” each week, and neither do your leaders. So connect them with specific students and responsibilities that can give them positive feedback on a regular basis. I often send some of my most affirming students to new leaders to “take care of them.” Why? I don’t want their insecurities and sense of awkwardness to chase them away. Remember the old sports motto: “Nothing hurts when you’re winning.”
2) Volunteer youth leaders quit because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. We’re pretty decent in the church world when it comes to motivation. But we’re often rotten when it comes to giving specific training. Please know I’m not suggesting those long, 12-week training courses most people quit by the third week. Just make sure you give clear marching orders to your leaders. A vital one I tell all my leaders is, “Show up 15 minutes early and stay 15 minutes late.” Another clear directive is, “Make phone contact with the students in your small group at least once a week.” My guidelines are specific and doable. Make sure your directives are the same.
3) Volunteer youth leaders quit because they feel like servants more than partners. Your leaders should constantly get the vibe from you that they are honestly some of your most valued relationships. This means that you occasionally pick up the phone and check on them as “people” ‒ not just as “leaders.”
4) Volunteer youth leaders quit because they find little fulfillment in merely moving chairs and playing security policeman. Make sure your leaders have students as their primary focus, not just tasks. Tasks and responsibilities are obviously part of every ministry. But make sure that is not all they are doing. People want to feel like they are making a difference in a few teenagers’ lives. So set them up for success and make sure this is the focus of their involvement with you. Tell them often about students who like them.
5) Volunteer youth leaders quit because we “give orders” more than we “give encouragement.” Mark Twain said that you can keep a man going for a whole month with one good compliment. I think he was really right. In like manner, those on your volunteer staff need to feel authentically and frequently appreciated by you. Don’t wait for the yearly “Appreciation Banquet.” Words are cheap then. Make constant “encouragement calls” on a rotational basis to your leaders every month. Even a sentence of sincere appreciation in the church hallway will mean the world.
Most of all, don’t allow discouragement to set in when some of your volunteers choose to walk away. It happens to all of us ‒ more often than we want to talk about. It’s easy to take those times very personally and want to quit yourself. (I’ve considered a new defense mechanism. Someone comes to resign and I quickly say, “You can’t resign to me because I just quit myself yesterday!”)
Just tackle these five reoccurring challenges and leave the rest to the Lord. And when you’re tempted to think He doesn’t understand, remember that He once said to His volunteer team, “Are you going to walk away too?”