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Spring 2002    Vol. 31 No. 1    pp. 46–53 

Virtues of an Effective Youth Worker

Derrick Mueller

If the local church is to continue to play a role in shaping today’s youth, then youth workers will need to become aware of the training, skills, and personal qualities needed to be effective in that context. Many of the problems of youth ministry are due in part to a lack of awareness of and training in the essential virtues.

Youth ministry does not just happen; it is a deliberate process of evaluation, reflection, and the acquisition of specific knowledge and skill, in the midst of an ever-changing youth culture.

The following are beginning points for addressing this problem:

  1. Youth workers are in a unique position to influence young people, but many are inexperienced and need to identify further areas of growth.
  2. Developing a philosophy of ministry requires that the youth worker know the needs and expectations of youth as well as those factors that make their ministry effective with young people.
  3. When youth workers identify the skills needed for ministry and seek to improve those skills, the practice of {47} ministry is altered in ways that enhance ministry and relationships with youth.
  4. The church needs to be proactive in mentoring, nurturing, and encouraging the personal development of youth workers.
  5. To neglect and underestimate our youth ministry is to endanger the future of the church.

The following article identifies and reflects upon the characteristics and key factors that make workers effective in youth ministry.

YOUTH MINISTRY RESEARCH

As part of a four-year study, I interviewed camp directors, youth workers, parents, and youth in a quest to discover the factors that make a youth worker effective in long-term ministry. The goal was to discover how to increase both the longevity of ministry and the effectiveness of those who work with youth. Getting the perspective of youth is a vital ingredient in understanding how youth workers can become more effective in their ministry. As a teacher who trains youth workers, it was my desire to identify the skills needed and to teach them to potential youth workers.

Before identifying the characteristics that I discovered, it is important to understand a bit about the origin of the data that helped form my conclusions. As a major part of my research, I had youth just out of a youth group experience write a letter to their youth pastor reflecting on the ministry of that youth worker. The letter was merely an assignment, not a letter that would actually be sent.

The project was based on grounded theory research strategies, using qualitative methodologies for data collection. The purpose was to discover, through the data, patterns and major themes of what youth identified as important to their own relationship with their youth worker. Through the analysis and coding of the letters, I identified five distinct themes which I saw as major needs of youth: a need for a relationship with the youth worker, spiritual input, a sense of community, pastoral care, and leadership.

These findings, coupled with youth worker forums, interviews, and research, helped form the list of characteristics which are briefly examined below. With an understanding of what makes a minister effective, youth workers can take steps to develop these nine virtues: (1) the ability to relate to young people and develop relationships; (2) the need for ongoing personal development; (3) the ability to work as part of a team; (4) the skill of communicating, teaching, and witnessing to youth; (5) the {48} desire to develop as a leader, as well as the skill to administrate a ministry; (6) the insight to work with both families and youth; (7) the desire to study and understand youth culture; (8) the ability to foster community; and (9) the development of pastoral and counseling skills.

RELATIONAL SKILLS

One of the characteristics most prominently noted as essential for effectiveness in ministry to youth is relational skill. Often the reason for the neglect of this skill is an overemphasis on program and structure at the expense of tangible interaction with the youth themselves. A healthy youth program must put relationships first.

Developmental theorists, such as Erickson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, all reinforce that during teen years, youth are most influenced not by knowledge, but by human relationships. This need for relationship is an indicator of how God has created us in general. “Youth Ministry focuses on relationships not only because of who teenagers are but because of who God is. God is relationship” (Dean and Foster). If God is relationship, then being in relationship with youth provides the basis of modeling that relationship.

Being relational involves making time for youth, meeting them in connection with their life situations and their communities of faith. To be relational is to associate and share one’s life with the youth to whom we seek to minister by being available, being accessible, and walking alongside them. In order to be available, youth workers must structure their ministry in such a way that lends itself to a continual bumping or colliding with youth.

At the core of youth ministry is not programs, new structures, or new technology but a deepening relationship with God and with youth. To be relational involves bearing witness to Christ, being active in winning the lost, and sharing our lives with youth. To be relational is to have a deep, sensitive, personal concern with the whole life of the youth to whom God has called us to minister. Jesus’ primary strategy was relational; therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the youth worker must also be relational.

ONGOING PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

The second characteristic is a commitment to ongoing personal development in all aspects of life: intellectual, social, spiritual, emotional, and physical. One who is effective in youth ministry must have the ability to be a lifelong learner. The youth worker must not only attend to the needs of youth but also be aware of his or her own needs.

Healthy youth programs need fresh ideas that come from reading, interacting with others, acquiring new resources, and learning new ways {49} of practicing ministry. The key to personal development is to be ready at all times to continue the learning pilgrimage and become aware of and develop one’s spiritual gifts. It is a process of sharpening skills, growing spiritually, and giving appropriate attention to self.

Personal development is actively seeking opportunities to learn more about who we are and how we minister. It is acquiring fresh ideas and insights from others and receiving training in that which we do. We cannot assume that a Bible college or any single experience in youth ministry provides all the knowledge and experience needed to minister to youth. If a youth worker is to impact today’s spiritual formation of youth, his or her own spiritual formation needs to be nurtured as an ongoing, daily process. This nurture takes place in the form of mentoring, ongoing study and theological reflection, courses and seminars, and accountability partners. It is evident that regular personal development is essential for effective youth ministry.

TEAM ORIENTATION

The third characteristic of an effective youth worker is the ability to work with others in a team dynamic. This process involves becoming part of a group of individuals who collectively work and join together in a designated task. Youth workers increase their effectiveness as they form part of a team. The ability to work with others increases their success and avoids the trap of becoming a lone ranger.

Teaming requires work with the various stakeholders of youth ministry, including volunteers, adult leaders, sponsors, the church, social institutions, parachurch institutions, and parents. A youth worker who cooperates and believes in others incites cooperation from others and uses the skills of many to accomplish the ministry mandate.

Youth work is hindered and its effectiveness diminished when it becomes a lone ranger activity. Teamwork calls others to come together in a joint endeavor to minister to youth. A team envelops a community of individuals who are equally concerned with ministry to youth. Team-oriented youth workers recognize their own gifts and are able to develop and use the gifts and talents of others. They view their ministry as part of the whole. They are able to delegate and empower others. They see people as resources and themselves as members of something greater. Learning to work as a team multiplies effectiveness in ministry.

COMMUNICATION AND TEACHING SKILLS

The fourth characteristic is the ability to teach and communicate the gospel effectively in an ever-changing youth culture. This {50} communication is an active way of winning the lost, discipling youth, and increasing knowledge in the ways of the Lord. Imparting Christ’s truth is accomplished informally through relationships, and formally through programs and teaching. One of the underlying factors of youth ministry is teaching and educating young people, but often youth workers have little or no training in how to teach or train.

Teaching includes choosing and evaluating curriculum, equipping others, contributing to the spiritual knowledge of youth, understanding the environment of youth and using creative methods to get the message across. As a teacher, the youth worker becomes a vehicle for revealing truth that can enhance and nourish youth. Some youth workers are involved in as many as three formal teaching situations per week. Thus, for a youth worker to be effective, learning how to teach and communicate becomes an important factor in having a profitable youth ministry. As one who transmits the gospel, the youth worker must bear witness in a fresh, relevant, and practical way to today’s youth.

LEADERSHIP AND ADMINISTRATIVE SKILLS

Another major characteristic is the development of leadership and administrative skills. Youth workers are in a place of leadership. Their interaction with youth requires that they lead, manage, and give vision to the ministry to which God has called them. Knowing how to lead and develop purpose becomes an essential factor in creating an effective youth ministry. Youth today are looking for role models that can lead with vulnerability and integrity. The youth leader becomes a picture of how a Christian lives, a copy of what is good, and a standard to follow. One must not only lead but also have the ability to develop leaders.

Leadership includes organization, management, planning, directing, and developing vision. It has been stressed by leaders that leadership and administration are not optional but critical skills for managing a youth ministry. As a leader, the youth worker instills vision, identifies goals and strategies, models Christlike behavior, and develops the spiritual gifts of others.

As administrators, youth workers are called upon to manage their time, people, program, youth, and ministry in such a way as to glorify God. They are involved in organizing many activities and events. Proficiency in administration is a major factor in determining success in youth ministry.

INSIGHT INTO FAMILIES

In a world where youth feel distance from adults, it is apparent that a further characteristic of effective youth workers is the ability to minister {51} to the whole family. It is not enough to simply be in contact with youth; youth workers must be actively involved with families. Youth workers need to understand family dynamics and be proactive in partnering and involving parents.

Since the 1990s there has been a growing recognition that youth ministry cannot occur effectively in isolation from the family. Youth ministry does not function as an entity in itself, but is connected through a web of relationships to other systems. Systems theory has been integrated into youth ministry philosophy as an essential component of understanding its effects and interworkings. It recognizes that a change in one part of the system will result in a change to the whole. Youth are part of a family system and as such are influenced by those relationships. When one ministers to families one partners with parents instead of leaving them out.

An effective youth worker knows how to relate and work alongside families. He or she has an attitude that values parents and considers them important. Families can bless or sabotage a youth worker’s ministry. Involving families is an ongoing attitude that considers parents as a resource and communicates that parents are a part of the greater picture.

UNDERSTANDING OF YOUTH CULTURE

The seventh characteristic of an effective youth worker is the ability to understand and minister to youth in their unique culture. Today’s youth are in a subculture of their own. In order for youth workers to be effective in ministry, they need to understand this culture.

Therefore, youth workers are called not only to exegete the Word of God but also to exegete culture. To exegete culture is to uncover and analyze what is shaping and influencing young people and thereby to help youth critique their world. Youth workers need to bridge the gap between their world and the world of youth so that they can remain relevant in their ministry practice. This enables them to become spokespersons for the issues of youth, able to speak on behalf of the youth to whom they minister.

Identifying the issues that youth deal with, and appreciating the reasons why they deal with them, requires that workers explore the culture of youth. It means becoming a sociologist and investigator into their issues and lifestyle. Connecting to culture means being sensitive and aware of what is happening to youth on their level.

COMMUNITY-BUILDING EXPERTISE

The eighth characteristic is having the expertise to create a {52} community for a group of young people so that they can feel secure, loved, and nurtured. Thus, effective youth ministry involves working on and developing community among young people. Community involves individuals connecting, sharing, participating, and associating with one another in various ways. Youth group and its activities form a basis for community to happen.

Community helps form identity and provides a place for healing. A youth group that builds community is a group whose members develop significant and lasting friendships. Since youth find relationship to be an end in itself, community plays a powerful role in shaping the whole life of youth.

Youth group activities have also been identified as a major influence and a strong contributor to spiritual growth. Community is not only necessary; the activities and interactions within this community can be life-changing.

PASTORAL AND COUNSELING SKILLS

The ninth and final characteristic of an effective youth minister is the capacity to care for and give guidance, addressing the diverse needs and changes of adolescence. Within this time of biological, intellectual, and social change, pain and hardship arise. The youth worker becomes strategically positioned to offer pastoral guidance and counsel to young people in search of a shepherd.

Pastoral ministry is one that positions the youth worker to be an instrument of healing, direction, and love. Youth see themselves as having frustrations, problems, and the need to be listened to and guided. For youth, counseling involves talking, problem solving, and being understood. Youth workers are needed who are willing to help and connect with youth. The pastoral youth worker needs to have the ability to listen, give advice, consult, discuss, encourage, and show compassion to today’s youth. Youth workers need to be equipped with helping and counseling skills. These skills are essential in giving pastoral guidance to youth in the main changes and choices they will make.

CONCLUSION

Among the important skills which are beneficial in ministry to youth, some are unique to youth work itself while others are general skills needed for all ministry. Effective ministry is not an overnight process but an ongoing one. Acquiring and developing skill requires a desire to learn and grow personally, as well as to continually evaluate the skills one has and needs for ministry. {53}

Two major themes can be identified across the characteristics of a good youth worker. First, a youth worker must be system sensitive. Youth ministry affects the church, parents, youth, the community, and the world. A youth worker who understands the mission of the church and can work in various organizational structures works as part of an overall system.

Second, youth ministers by their very work are disciples of Christ and disciplers by profession. As disciples, the youth workers let the teachings of Christ influence who they are and how they minister. As disciplers, they seek to show others the way of Christ. To make disciples is to model one’s ministry after Christ. It is to be Christ (or incarnate Christ) in the practice of ministry.

In summary, there are some basic factors or characteristics that a youth worker should have that are critical to the quality of ministry to youth. These nine qualities, if learned and polished, will increase the effectiveness of such ministry. The major characteristics that arise provide not so much a formula as a starting point for shaping one’s philosophy of ministry. Youth ministry does not just happen; it is a deliberate process of evaluation, reflection, and the acquisition of specific knowledge and skill, in the midst of an ever-changing youth culture.

WORK CITED

  • Dean, Kenda Creasy, and Ron Foster. 1998. The Godbearing life: the art of soul tending for youth ministry. Nashville, TN: Upper Room.
Derrick Mueller is a faculty member at Bethany Bible Institute, Hepburn, Saskatchewan, where he has been teaching in the area of youth and family ministries for the last eight years. He developed the youth ministry track for the college and has served as Executive Director of Youth for Christ in Calgary. In April 2002 he will complete his Doctor of Ministry degree, specializing in youth and family ministry, from Carey Theological College, Vancouver, British Columbia.
This article is based on the author’s D.Min. dissertation entitled, “The Characteristics of an Effective Youth Worker.”

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