One of the hardest things about being a youth minister is moving between drastically different subcultures and generations. In one week you may be participating or leading a group of adult leaders, sixth graders, seniors in high school, and business leaders on your board. Navigating these can be difficult, and too often I have seen, and sad to say committed, my youth ministry friends make stupid mistakes moving between cultures and lost the respect and confidence of parents and church leaders. Below are the major ones… let us join in learning from others’ mistakes:
1. Dressing like a Teenager in an Adult Setting
I know, you want to look like you are relevant to the younger generation, but the church doesn’t hire teenagers to do youth ministry, they hire adults. That is because parents want adults to be in charge, and like it or not what you wear to your next parent meeting will communicate whether or not you can be trusted as an adult.
Please don’t get me wrong, unless everyone in the room is in a tux, you don’t need to don your bow tie, but you do need to dress like a professional adult. The simple rule you need to follow is this: try and be the middle of the room. If some parents are wearing flip flops and others are wearing ties, wear khakis and a button up shirt.
It’s all contextual, your wardrobe will look different in Pasadena, California than it does in Montgomery, Al. Take your cues from the adults in your church and try your hardest to look more like them than an oversized one of their kids when you enter the room. Click here for more quick tips on how to dress like a youth ministry professional.
2. Talking like a Teenager to Adults
Language is a big deal. Learning the slang of teens allows you to speak to them as a native, as one of the few adults that understand their world. It can give you access to a deep well of youth culture that veery few adults are allowed to see. Depending on your age, it can be very difficult to become fluent in teenish, but is worth the work.
However, when you walk into your adult leadership meeting and say, “Sup? How you bees?” you do not look cool, or relevant, or like an insider. You look immature or worse (and probably the same if you use that particular phrase to teens too).
Just as your clothes communicate about your ability to be responsible and be trusted as an adult leader of teens, you language does the same thing. Beyond slang, being able to speak with confidence and sound like you are prepared will win you even more points, but it does require you to… prepare. Next time you have an adult setting in which you will participate, after you prepare your piece walk in with the intention of shedding the teenish you’ve picked up along the way and speak like a native of the adult world.
3. Acting as if You are the Authority on Parenting Teens
I can’t tell you the number of times I have been appalled by how someone has chosen to parent their child, from the innumerable parents who decide to homeschool their kids because they are being bullied (thereby robbing them of the opportunity to learn social norms and how to deal with hostility), to the parents who help their kids buy pot or host unsupervised substance-laden parties at their home. There are many times I have thought, I could be a way better parent than these people.
However, the reality is I have neither parented teens at this point, nor am I the parent of their teens. That means that giving parenting instruction or advice makes me look arrogant and judgmental. That is because I have neither the experience nor the authority to offer that kind of advice.
On the other hand, I do have significant training and experience with youth culture, counseling teens and spiritual formation. Instead of offering parenting advice, I have learned to say, “I have never parented teens, but I can tell you what I’ve seen other parents do that have worked for them.” If I don’t have that sort of information, I often say, “I have never parented teens, but I have listened to enough of them to give you an idea of how this kind of thing makes them feel and why they may be reacting the way they are.”
If we need an expert, we bring one in from the outside, police to talk about substance issues, counselors to talk about emotional issues, etc. Do yourself a favor and let someone else be the parenting expert and you be the youth culture expert.
More than any of these three specific issues, our goal needs to be to find those who are more experienced than us and spend some time learning from their mistakes and getting advice.
Jeremy Steele has been working in youth ministry for the past sixteen years and now serves as the Next Generation Minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL. He writes for Group Magazine, RETHINK Church and various publications and organizations. You can find a link to all the places he contributes on his website at JeremyWords.com.
Follow him on twitter: twitter.com/unpretending