How To Lead Your Youth Ministry When The Future Feels Uncertain
Think back to the first time you were REALLY in a leadership position. For some of you, this was decades ago. For others, it was last week. Do you remember the moment when you finally had the responsibility to lead others? How long was it before you realized, “Oh, snap. This is harder than it looked!” A month? A week? 30 minutes?
Leadership, on any level, isn’t easy. Anyone who projects anything different is not being honest. But leadership is extremely rewarding. Especially the insane season that has defined 2020, and yes, dare we say, 2021.
Wait . . . that sounds counterintuitive. How can something hard be rewarding in the midst of the kind of upheaval we’ve seen in 2020? I believe the reward comes from providing direction and reassurance to your people, even when things are anything but certain. Whether it’s parents, volunteers, or students, there are people in your ministry who look to you for leadership. HOW you lead them in a time where things have never felt more uncertain is critical.
Look, I don't have all the answers. If you find someone who does, shoot me his or her cell because I have questions. But I do have thoughts. From the position we're in, we interact with countless numbers of youth workers each week. We see people leading their youth ministries exceptionally well. While not perfect, the ones who do it best seem to have a few things in common.
Here are three traits for leading your youth ministry when the future has never felt more uncertain.
This may seem like an impossibility. How can you confidently lead when you don’t know what tomorrow will hold for your youth ministry? Will the dates you’ve put on the calendar actually happen? Will you have to cancel one of your weekly gatherings? What happens if you test positive and have to go into quarantine? These questions, and many more, are super real. And if anything, time has shown us that they aren’t quite ready to go away yet. So how do you lead in confidence when you may be anything but?
A posture of confidence doesn’t come from knowing all the answers or outcomes. You can lead your youth ministry with confidence and not have any idea what tomorrow will bring. You lead with confidence when YOU are confident in YOURSELF. You lead with confidence when YOU are confident in your TEAM. It's not a confidence that says, "I can 100% stand by the information I am giving you." It's a confidence that says, "I don't know if anything I tell you will be true tomorrow. But if and when it changes, I'll be here. And our team will be here. And we'll deal with whatever comes." THAT'S how you lead with confidence.
Listen, I think every one of us understands that change is the new normal. Whether it’s a student, a student’s parent, or a volunteer, we all are used to change. But it doesn’t feel good. Knowing that you are there to provide consistency and a steady hand allows people to be confident in you even when things are going nuts all around you.
It’s easy for us to get frustrated with the situation we find ourselves in. Leading anything in this season is not for the weak of heart. It is no fun feeling like it's "safe" to make plans only to find out that it's not . . . and the plans are all canceled. . . again. The work you've done, the risks you've taken, the effort you put into making sure every stone was left unturned only to have something crop up and force you to cancel, it can make you crazy.
And then, on top of your wasted efforts and the strain of making tough decisions (or the strain of going along with tough decisions made by your leadership that you may or may not even agree with), you have to hear how disappointed others are. You hear it from students who were finally pumped about the event being back on the calendar. You hear it from parents who disagree with the decision. It's enough to make you want to work in "median adult ministry." OK, well, maybe it's not that bad. But it isn't good! You get frustrated. You want to lash out. Or ask them if THEY want to do your job. You want to say, "Do you realize how hard this is for me?" But you don't do any of those things. Why? Because you're a good leader in a time of uncertainty. And good leaders have empathy for their people.
Yes, things are hard on you. But it's hard on your people, too. They have expectations. They want normalcy. Youth ministry matters to them, whether they always articulate that or not. And losing things that matter is never fun for anyone. When the event gets canceled, or when things look different, and people express their displeasure or frustration, be there for them. Listen. Affirm what they feel. Honor their emotions. Put yourself in their shoes. And then keep leading.
Finally, I think transparency in this chaotic climate is critical. What do I mean by transparency? I think it cuts a few ways.
First, I think it's appropriate for your people to hear from you during the process. As you consider the details of a decision, it's not a bad idea to shed some light on that process. Maybe in the past, you simply told people what you were doing, when it was happening, and so on. In this new uncertain landscape, perhaps it's better to let them hear from you as you go. Pull back the curtain on the factors going into your decision as you're planning. Maybe let them hear the options you had to choose from and what led you to choose the way you did. Transparency in decision making helps you if it comes down to making the tough decision to cancel or postpone. People know that it was being considered from every angle.
Second, I think it's important to let people know upfront how you feel, how you're doing, how certain you are about a decision, what concerns you have, and so on. Just because you're a confident leader doesn’t mean you have to project an air of unapproachability. It’s OK to let people know how you feel and what you’re dealing with. When things have to adapt, as has been the norm in this season, you’ll have a lot more relational equity in your account if you have been transparent as you lead.
Leadership isn't easy. But it's always worth it. In this season, your youth ministry needs stable leadership more than ever. But you're the right person for the job. You got this. Let's go!