"The key is to develop a team of adult sponsors who work together in the best interest of the youth."
Youth Ministers Need Support
Lone Ranger/Pied Piper youth directors tend to weaken the very program they lead. With a single director, burnout becomes an issue and solo decision-making can lead to unbalanced criticism. Finally, without support, the program falters when the youth director leaves. Prevention does not rely on multiple directors (that has its own problems)! Rather, the key is to develop a team of adult sponsors who work together in the best interest of the youth.
A strong, support team requires a multi-year commitment from adults who truly care about the youth in their community. Finding committed volunteers can be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. I've offered a few guidelines, below.
Seeking Supportive Adults
It takes special gifts to relate well to young people. It is crucial to have adults who can connect with youth as listeners, encouragers, and mature friends. Seek adults who have already proven themselves in working with the youth, or who have demonstrated an interest in youth, or someone you have observed visiting with the youth at events at the church.
- Key Tip! Ask the youth for names of those adults that they would want as sponsors. If you approach an adult by saying, “the youth specifically asked for you,” the adult will rarely turn you down.
- What about a Parent? If a parent seems to be genuinely interested in the youth and relates easily to them, first run the possibility by their own child for approval before inviting them to be a sponsor.
- No "all-calls." In all of this, I approach those I think would make a good support team. I never simply make an "all-call" to the congregation. I learned the hard way that I might get a volunteer who expects that his/her role is to “straighten out the youth“ or “help” them examine their faith and push them a new level of spiritual maturity. This sort of agenda is not helpful.
Adult Sponsor Team Meetings
Equip your adult sponsors by giving them training events as well as social events that build community. We had bi-monthly Youth Ministry Team (youth reps and adult sponsors present) at the church to plan activities. But in addition, every other month I hosted the adults (just the adults) for dinner at my house. I picked up take-out food and they paid $8-10 to cover the cost. Forming friendships at these dinners strengthened the adult sponsor group, and we had an opportunity to sort out problems, either with a particular youth or with glitches in the program.
Don't be the “Expert” or “Keeper of Information”
This type of youth ministry is a ministry of partnership, so equip the adults for their work. Give them articles on youth ministry to read and discuss at the dinners. Some years we would read and discuss together a current book on youth ministry.
I found the adults to be more invested in the brain-storming and more creative in problem-solving when we all had the same exposure to the basics/trends in youth ministry. As a colleague in ministry has said many times, “there is more Holy Spirit in a group of us than in any one individual.”
Make a List of Qualities for Adult Sponsors
Important characteristics of a sponsor include the ability to:
- Be a good listener who genuinely cares about youth, offering them dignity and respect.
- Maintain confidences.
- Be willing to take time to build relationships with the youth, earning their trust.
- Find ways to encourage them on their faith journey without manipulating them.
- Avoid being the center of attention or dominating conversations. Instead, listen and affirm.
- Observe the group dynamics and draw into the activity those teens who are left out, or who feel left out.
- Be part of the group by participating in activities, not standing aside with other adults.
- Be able and willing to articulate your faith when appropriate.
- Be a solid role model.
Jann Treadwell is a retired certified educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2010 Educator of the Year for the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators, and author of Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips.