Youth Ministry Essentials: The "Perfect Age" Minister
"I don't like my small group leader." It's a comment I get from freshmen from time to time. However, this was coming from a teenager whom I considered a leader in middle school. As usual I responded, "Why?" "We can't connect. She's not what I expected." I asked her what she expected and she compared her to another leader, a younger leader. She was trying hard not to say it, but I heard what she didn't say loud and clear: "Hey, Chris, I really wanted a younger leader."
Though she didn't come out and say it, I knew from conversations with her mother and other students that she was upset about receiving an older leader. She had a point with the lack of connection; however, it had only been two weeks. You and I both know this isn't even close to enough time to see if a connection develops.
It seems I find myself often debating the "perfect age" for a small group leader with teens, parents, ministers and other youth workers.
I think the right answer is to say that there isn't one. However, is that true? If we were to list the top three characteristics of a small group leader, I don't think age would be there. Yet when it comes to recruiting, there is a tendency to go for the "fresh out of college" type. Is age a factor?
In my opinion, I believe it is. I think a leader's age can have has it's positives and negatives. Here's what I mean . . .
- Pros: They're vibrant, energetic and will have a better grasp on what's relevant in a teen's life.
- Cons: They're not settled, they lack experiential wisdom and it's easy for them to blur the lines between mentor and friend.
- Pros: They're filled with experiential wisdom; they have more self-confidence and are settled in their beliefs.
- Cons: They may struggle with relating to the issues that today's generation face. There is a tendency to over compare their generation to the current one.
We could go back and forth. Some might handle this situation by placing an older leader with a younger; however, that doesn't always work. In order to take age stigmas out of certain age groups, you need to do the following:
Set-up Clear Expectations
Let people know why your groups meet. Some students, and even their parents, come in expecting a social hour. Others expect a more traditional religious education. Certain expectations match up with certain age groups. If you are clear that age is not a factor than people won't be caught off guard when they meet their leader, which will cut down on any disappointment.
Challenge The Paradigm
Age is not just an issue with the teenagers; I've had parents asking me to give their teen a hip, young adult. I always see this request as a subtle way of saying, "I don't trust your decision." Or "I know what's best." And I get it. However, I boast about my leaders despite their age and give the parents a vision of how this adult will affect their teen's life.
Give Them A Timetable
Most times teens will comment about their leader within the first month of their small group. I strongly believe you need to give it at least 6 months (if you are meeting weekly) to form a good impression of where your group is heading. I ask teens who come to me early on to give it a few months before they make the call. I want them to look at the positives of their small group leaders, if they come back after some time saying, "I haven't learned anything," I help them find a new group.
Have Them Work To Their Strengths
If they feel their age is a strength I ask them to use it to their advantage. I never want them to see it as a weakness. I want my leaders knowing all of their strengths and to have the confidence to use them. When a leader focuses on their gifts and talents their teens will learn to appreciate them as well. When an adult can lead in the way God has commissioned them they are showing the teens how to be authentic, transparent and real.
There is no perfect age for ministry because it's what is going on inside that matters the most. It sounds cliche, but it's a truth we tend to forget. There is this pressure out there to be bigger, better and more engaging; however, that's not going to come from a cookie cutter ministry leader. Life is messy, complicated, and beautiful, and we need different men and women to help different teens navigate in and through it.
Do you think there is a better age range for small group leaders than others?