3 Important Things Youth Want to Get from Their Leaders
- Bill Delvaux Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2019 21 Jun
I worked as a youth minister in my 20s and then as a Bible teacher and running coach at a Christian high school for over two decades. Over that time, I learned what youth are really looking for in their leaders. Along the way though, I made plenty of errors.
I once thought they wanted me to play the comedian. The more laughs I got, the more they would listen to me in serious matters. I also felt that I needed to be accepted as one of them—that they wanted someone to come down to their level. Finally, I felt that they were looking for me to have all the answers, to be the perfect guide. Needless to say, all of this put an inordinate amount of pressure on me. It created a burden of false expectations that weighed me down.
It also fogged my intuition. I couldn’t clearly see into their hearts because I was so concerned about my own appearance before them.
But as God graciously worked on me, He brought my false expectations into the light. As He did so, I began to see into the youth I taught and coached. I felt their confusion and hope in the words they spoke and in the papers they wrote.
No longer so obsessed with how I appeared to them, I saw what they longed for from me, what they longed for from all those who are in a leadership position over them. I can boil it down to three main points:
Youth can sniff out hypocrisy with startling precision. They can see through false fronts with X-ray vision.
I saw their sensitivity to this with those leaders who would say one thing and do another, or pretend to be someone they were not. They would put the game face on when the moment demanded it and then take it off when no longer needed. These adults were sadly dismissed, criticized, or worse still, mocked by youth.
But inside the heart of every young person is a desperate search for identity. At that stage of life, they are trying to individuate from their parents. In the process, they try on all sorts of identities, like changing clothes in a dressing room. They wear whatever mask is needed to gain acceptance around whatever group they happen to be with.
Underneath this frantic mask exchanging, there is a sharp revulsion. They hate feeling fake without a solid center from which to live. It is this self-hatred that gets turned outward on those who live the same way, so as to escape the bitterness of that revulsion.
But on the positive side, they are forever hoping to find someone who has a center, whose inner and outer life have coherence, someone who is not hiding, someone who is real. We often use the word ‘authenticity’ today to describe such a person. But I like the older word ‘integrity.’
‘Integrity’ means that we are integrated, whole, with our inner feelings and outer actions moving in increasing alignment. It sounds nice, but somewhat theoretical—even unrealistic. So, let me give you a couple of practical examples of what integrity could look like.
When we would interview new potential Bible teachers for the high school, I would always tell them that they would need to learn the three most important words as a Bible teacher: I don’t know. When a student asks a question that is beyond a teacher’s ability to answer, it does not serve the teacher well to make up an answer or sidestep the question.
To admit the limits of one’s knowledge is not demeaning but a matter of integrity. There are so many things we don’t know. So, I would tell them to admit that they didn’t know the answer, and then to follow that by stating that they would research the question and get back with the student.
Here’s another example of integrity. You are the teacher and a discipline problem comes up in class. You become irritated and then angry. But in handling the matter, you direct the consequences to the wrong person. You only discover this after the punishment has been meted out. What do you do? Here is what integrity tells us to do. Go before the class, admit your misjudgment, and ask for forgiveness. Such a move requires courage but ends up bonding the class to you in a deeper way.
These two examples demonstrate a candor that will surprise youth. The leader who walks this path will become one they want to follow.
This seems like an obvious point, but there is much more here than just giving advice, offering wisdom, or imparting new ideas. Youth long for leaders who can offer unspoken guidance by living a life of integrity and basic empathy. They are not looking for perfection but for men and women who are allowing the love of God in Christ to shape them and energize them.
It is the guidance of a life lived increasingly in God’s presence. They may not know much about the Christian faith. They may not be sure if they even believe it. But they will see something in such a leader’s life that will remain planted in them. Such a seed sown can bear fruit years down the road.
But the guidance factor can come in another way: correction. Believe it or not, youth who are unruly or undisciplined are not hoping to get away with murder. Deep down, whether recognized or not, they know that something is wrong with the way they are living. They want guidance and attention, even if acting out seems to be the only way to get it.
I made two classic mistakes in my attempts to correct youth. The first was to not correct at all for fear that I would lose the relationship with them. The second was to overcorrect with anger. Over time, I learned that the correction they needed had several distinct qualities.
First, the correction was to be done in private, never before others so as to shame or degrade them.
Second, the correction always offered a way to restore what had been lost. It was never just discipline.
Finally, once the restoration had happened, it should never be held over a student’s head. They should get a clean slate to start again.
Such correction can be a guiding light for them and help set them back on course.
The deepest hunger inside of youth is to be known and loved. So much of their tumultuous inner life is driven by this hunger. They long to be loved and known first for who they are and then for what they to do. Here is where leaders of youth can make their most powerful impression.
Youth ministers, teachers, and coaches are in a position to see into the unique talents of adolescents and call those talents out. In that calling out, there is not only a revelation of their uniqueness but also an affirmation that powerfully incentivizes.
Let me illustrate.
I remember a student who took my Bible class on basic counseling skills. We would talk about biblical principles of helping others and then do role plays in class. I remember being amazed at how facile and intuitive this student was with others. I then spoke to him about what I was seeing and even encouraged him to consider looking into counseling as a career path. That was almost 20 years ago. Today I still see this student regularly. He is a full-time counselor with a growing practice. I even refer others to him!
I know that others spoke to him about his gifts as well, but that affirmation he received in high school got him started down that road. That’s the power of affirmation.
Becoming a Leader Like This
How do you become a leader that youth will follow? How can these three points become more of your daily life? Instead of muscling down and trying harder, go at this a different way. Ask God to take you on a journey to become a leader in the image of His Son, who modeled these so well. Use these three points as places of prayer:
- Ask God to grow integrity in you, making you someone without guile or hypocrisy.
- Ask Him to grow you as someone who can offer both guidance and correction in the spirit of love.
- Ask Him to open your eyes to youth that need to be affirmed.
I encourage you to pray as you finish this article—and keep praying. God will lead you to become such a leader.
It’s His promise and our sure hope as leaders.
Bill Delvaux is a graduate of Duke University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has been a church planter, a high school Bible teacher, and a running coach. Six years ago, he pioneered Landmark Journey Ministries to help men find their guide, own their identity, and discover their quest through Christ. His latest book is Heroic: The Surprising Path to True Manhood. His greatest claim to fame is being married to Heidi for 33 years and having two amazing daughters. He and his wife currently reside in Franklin, TN.
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