We all know youth workers who have lost credibility with their students. We often pass judgment on them and know personally what we would have done differently. However, what makes a youth worker credible in an teenager’s eyes may be different from what a youth worker thinks will make them credible. Credibility is often confused with trustworthiness and likability, or the youth worker is more concerned with being liked than respected. But teens are smart consumers, and they know the difference between authentic adults and those just trying to sell a product.
We cannot transmit something we don’t have. When we minister to youth and don’t take care of ourselves first, we end up taking shortcuts, overcompensate, or look for the easiest ways to do the bare minimum. Usually the intentions are good, but sometimes the outcomes of our ministry efforts are not. Adults in general can try too hard, control too much, or pretend something is working when it clearly in not, and this is typically because they don’t know what else to do. When the glass is empty, it’s empty and there’s nothing left to give to others.
1. Craving Student’s Approval
For some of us the validation we receive from the teens we serve can be a powerful experience. Many of us involved in youth work are there because we had a particular experience in our own adolescence. For some of us, it is an opportunity to return the favor and investment made on our behalf. It is a chance to make a difference in the lives of the youth in our community and we have a sense of calling and/or obligation to do this.
For others though, it may be a more pathological motivation. I have met, on more than one occasion, the youth worker who is trying to re-live their teenage years vicariously through the students they minister to. This is an insidious and often beneath the surface drive but is none-the-less real. It plays out like this; I didn’t get validation from my peers during my formative years so now I am living that out in ministry and trying to gain their approval today, as if my intrinsic worth is tied up in their opinion of me.
This typically results in shallow ministry fruit because the goal, intended or unintended, is not spiritual growth but personal validation from the students to the adult. This does not mean that God won’t use a person’s past hurts in ministry today but if these hurts cloud your ability to see things clearly then the person may do more harm than good. This is a good indicator that someone is running on empty because they are disconnected from the Source of their validation, Jesus.
2. Being too Cautious
As a result of seeking the student’s approval the youth worker must then measure everything that said to the youth. This is much like a couple’s first date. The person does not want to say or do anything that would reflect poorly on them and end the chances of future endeavors.
This can occur in ministry as well. During the early stages of rapport building this is quite understandable but as time goes on trust and trustworthiness should develop. These two things cannot develop is one party has an ulterior motive. Also, once the relationship does develop it is difficult for the youth worker to speak challenging truth into the lives of their students for fear of losing their affirmation. A wise man told me once that I should “love people enough to tell them the truth”. This can’t be done if one can not remain objective.
3. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
Rainbows, Pixies, Jelly Beans, and the Warm Fuzzies are not the substance of (most) teenagers lives. Often, we sell them a fantasy world that says, “If you just accept Jesus then everything magically gets better!” Ta-Da! The quickest way to lose credibility, and your influence, is to pull a bait-and-switch about what it means to follow Jesus.
4. Trying Too Hard
Sometimes we can try way too hard to convince the students that they need Jesus. Kids can tell when the experiences they have with us are more about us meeting an objective that when we are genuinely loving them. Sometimes we need them to believe because we are the ones that doubt. It’s like them coming to believe in Jesus validates our own faith. This can be dangerous to both the students and us. A faith that is built on “sand” is shaky at best and the damage it can do to the budding, young faith of a student is very real. We must get this in check, and we do this by first taking care of our own spiritual life.
Lastly, we lose credibility when we try to be the expert on all things. There is nothing so apparent to teens than a know-it-all youth worker. We mask that we don’t know the answers and kids can pick it up in our voice, our choice of words, body language, eye contact, and the stammer in our speech. Our attempts to cover this lack of knowledge only reduces our credibility and makes the situation worse.
5. I’m Stumped
This list is not even close to being exhaustive. We should constantly be aware of those practices that erode our influence over our students. It is our belief that students are looking for credible adult guides to lead them out of the wilderness of adolescence. Teens will usually follow those that earn (i.e. real, authentic) being followed and their loyalty remains for many years after they leave our ministries.
How do you care for yourself as you are being poured out for youth students?
Are you leading in such a way that you keep a high level of credibility?
Are you leading and serving in a way that young people know you are trustworthy of following?
Chris Schaffner is a counselor and veteran youth worker. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.