Those who work with middle- and high-schoolers are some of the greatest unsung heroes around. They are called to lead young people into a vibrant relationship with Christ, and they often carry their students’ burdens as part of that. They help youth grow from children into adults, from dependents into those ready to live independently. And often, they have families or another job that calls for their attention and energy as well.
“Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:13-14).
Here are 7 ways to practically acknowledge youth leaders’ work and to hold them in high regard:
- Actually pray for them (don’t just say you will)
While it may feel encouraging to tell them you’ll pray for them, it goes a lot farther if you actually do! That’s because God answers prayer, so you can know that the time and attention you give to pray for your youth leaders will be a true source of encouragement for them. If you’re not sure how to pray, check out this brief list of needs that apply to any pastor.
- Encourage them to rest in the summer
Student ministry is very season-based. The start and end of school are exceptionally intense. While youth activities may still be held in the summertime, your youth leaders need a lull in the activity in order for them to be at their best when school starts again.
This kind of rest is hard to achieve if a congregation is expecting them to crank out lots of activities or other forms of work in the summer. Did you know that lots of pastors feel a little guilty taking a vacation? They want to be available no matter what, just like a family member would. The problem is, their family is much larger than most people’s! It needs to be okay for them to step away, turn off their cell phone, and spend extended time with God and their nuclear family.
- Show them appreciation in tangible ways
This is similar to the way you would do for a teacher or coach. In other words, cards with encouraging words and cash or gift cards! (Most youth leaders don’t need more coffee mugs…) Great times to do this:
After graduation season is complete – youth leaders have the fun of attending a zillion open houses and high school graduations, celebrating the students they love. But this is often a sprint to the finish for them, so showing appreciation at this time is especially helpful.
When you notice them struggling either for personal or ministry reasons. Pastors often serve as support people when those in their church are hurting. The pastors’ own pain in the process is often overlooked because “this is their job.” Acknowledging their personal grief or concerns in the matter can be a big encouragement in such times.
When they’ve reached milestones in their ministry. Youth leaders need to know that it matters when they’ve stayed the course long-term. If they’ve made it to their fifth year in one church, they’ve outlasted many of their peers. So please take this aspect of their sacrifice seriously.
- Speak well of them behind their backs
Word gets around. If you’re complaining about your youth leaders, they’re very likely to find out about it. This will mitigate your attempts at in-person encouragement.
On the other hand, if you’re speaking well of your youth leaders when no one is around, they’re less likely to hear about it directly. What they will experience, however, is an increased responsiveness from those they’re ministering to. You’ve helped to spread a culture of honor and respect, which will definitely be encouraging in the long run!
- Affirm their giftings and godly character
Your youth leaders may or may not look the part. But comments like, “you’re so cool, you fit right in,” are not going to build them up in a lasting way. At some point, no amount of cool-ness can make a grandma fit in with the tweens, though she may excel in her leadership with them. If you want your youth leaders to stick with it through the years, affirm the things that will remain or even grow in them as they mature.
For instance, do they speak with authority and clarity? Do they lead worship with passion and excellence? Do they listen exceptionally well to cloudy-headed kids? Do they live a selfless life for the Kingdom? Be bold and speak aloud what you see God doing through them.
- Refocus your criticism whenever possible
Teenagers are some of the most critical creatures on the planet. They do not yet possess the brain circuitry to understand cause and effect at some levels.
For instance, if they’re feeling socially awkward because they are socially awkward, they may complain about how the youth leader makes them feel awkward. Or they complain because he can’t keep up with which worship songs are in vogue. Anything you can do to minimize your criticisms, especially about nonessential matters, will be much appreciated.
Granted, misconduct should never be covered up, even for a respected leader. If you have objective evidence of wrongdoing or inappropriate behavior, it is not showing dishonor to your youth leaders to bring up your concerns. Just do it in as careful and respectful a way as possible, with direct communication with the youth leader or their superior. See Matthew 18 for a guide.
- Help them to keep the long-term in mind
For better or worse, youth’s lives are always changing. One minute, you can feel great about your impact on their lives, and the next they’re going out with the kid from the atheist club.
You can help your youth leaders remember the big picture by sharing the “win” with them when an alum of the ministry is doing well. Perhaps you hear about how a graduate is thriving at college, or how the kid they ministered to 10 years ago is now a great mom. As you celebrate with them, remind them of their impact on that student’s life. This will help him or her to carry on in the day-to-day fluctuations of student ministry work.
And when the youth group kids are acting wild, remind your youth leaders that this is not the end of the story. God has a really great book written for each kid and for the youth ministry as a whole.
Focus on the eternal impact of youth ministry
To share a personal story, while I had many wonderful youth leaders, including my own parents at one point, I remember fondly the times that Clark and Sharrie were serving as our youth leaders. I don’t think either of them had ministry training, and they were just volunteers. But they were gifted in loving teenagers, and they were very godly people. That’s pretty much all we needed from them.
There was a kid in our group who had some kind of developmental delay, and he did really socially awkward things. Clark and Sharrie demonstrated to us how to love him like Jesus and treat him with dignity while still communicating in a way he’d understand.
I didn’t have a lot of personal interaction with Clark and Sharrie after I graduated, but when we reconnected years later, I learned that they were both teaching at a special needs school, and later they adopted several special needs kids. Leading our small youth group was not the endgame for them personally. God had plans to use them in life-giving ways for countless kids that others find it hard to care for. And the slice of time that I was in their youth group was a building block that has lasted in my relationship with God.
Paul taught that our ministry to others will be tested with fire. If we are building with cheap materials (like being cool and looking the part), those things will be burned up. But ministry made out of the right materials will last forever. Clark and Sharrie, along with many other quiet heroes in youth ministry, are building with costly stones and gold, and their impact will last into eternity. Their eternal impact is not usually obvious in the moment, so they need you to believe with them that God will see these kids through to the end.