Giving youth pastors the tools they need to make and shape disciples.

The Passionate Process Of Empowering Youth To Serve

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Buono, author of Youth Empowered. We walk through the process, and it is a process, of empowering students in your youth ministry to serve.

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Here’s the abbreviated transcript of our conversation.

Tell me a little about yourself and your background in youth ministry?

I’ve served in youth ministry for almost a decade. I’ve been a youth pastor for a season and now I am the small group director in my church.

You talk about relational truth at the beginning of your book. Can you unpack that a little and share why this is important to students?

It’s a mash up of things. Students are starving for relations and hungry for truth. Students need both. They can read their bible anytime they want on their phone. It’s not knowledge they’re looking for, they can get that by Googling. They are looking for truth in their relationships.

If youth ministry is only offering relationship or truth, they are missing the mark.

Student do not lack the vehicle for gaining information, they lack the vehicle of truth which is found in relationships, that is relational truth.

So, the truth is only as real, to a teenager, as the relationship that is delivering it?

Can you describe the roles of the youth pastor in small, medium and large churches. How do things change? 

There are different dynamics in every size of youth ministry. I consider a small youth group being 0-20, a medium youth group 20-50 and large youth group 50 or more.

There are different needs for every size youth ministry. With the intention of making a student led youth ministry, in a small youth ministry, you are doing more vision casting. You’ll be sharing more of the WHY behind serving and then offering opportunities, the HOW, for kids to serve.

Students doing the majority of the ministry, in youth group, is an audacious goal and a radical idea in many churches.

As you move forward, and more kids start serving, the youth pastor takes on more of an administrative role; mentoring adult leaders versus mentoring individual students.

The misconception is that youth pastors have to do everything. This is not only untrue it’s unhealthy. This is how burnout happens.

The lead pastor does not mentor every person in the church. He pours into few and they pour into others. Rather than talk about all he/she is doing they mirror the accomplishments of those he or she has poured into.

Grab the new chapter to Sean’s book here

Before we get to empowering students, you make some great points about empowering your team, because they will in turn empower students. 

Trust is a big component. Trusting their calling to youth ministry. Adult leaders have gifts and they want to use them to bless students. The worst thing that can happen is that you take on volunteers who have gifts and abilities and you don’t use them to their fullest potential. They wind up standing on the wall watching the youth worker do everything.

Adults who volunteer for youth ministry expect to be used in their gifts and callings. Those volunteers who do not feel like they are fulfilling that, will seek ministry where they can fulfill their calling.

Youth workers should not treat their volunteers like employees, putting demands on them or sending them last minute e-mails giving them some task that is not in line with their gifts.

They can leave as quickly as they came and we should respect their callings and gift. Youth workers should be peers, not bosses.

Planning together, and letting leaders be on the inside rather than the outside, is the positive way forward that connects your leaders to the vision.

Let’s talk about student leadership in small, medium and large churches. You do a great job of breaking this down. 

Regardless of size, the youth leader and the volunteers have to be on the same page on how they will address student. In my case, I asked volunteers to address our teens as students not kids. Addressing students as kids sound demeaning. So I made sure we all called our teens students, which is in itself empowering.

If students walk away from youth ministry having never served or led, I’d say that the church has failed that student.

Schools and parents train their kids to budget money and how to get a job. Part of our responsibilities as youth workers is to make disciples, teaching kids to serve in the church for the benefit of others.

We should always be intentional in helping students discover their gifts, talents and callings as a part of helping them discover who the Lord called them to be.

In a small group there are fewer opportunities due to the fewer amount of students, but as you grow those opportunities will grow as well.

Student trust their youth pastors, for the most part. Where trust really comes into play is with their friends. Do they trust that the youth group will be welcoming and warm to them. Training students to lead, gives students more truth to invite their friends because they have more control over how they will be treated.

While you are small, focus on building those relationships. Invest deeply in those students and the guest who join you. This investment prepares you to grow from small to medium. It lays the foundation.

Grab The Disciple Project Outreach Manual to get students leading

How do you balance the callings of your adult leaders and the callings of your students to serve? A student-led ministry can feel threatening to adults who signed up to DO youth ministry and it could cause adult leaders to retreat back to holding up the walls. How do you handle the tension?

I would challenge their notion that youth ministry only happens on a Wednesday night. I tried to expand our youth leaders mindset by letting them know, up front, that more ministry happens before and after a youth meeting than during a youth meeting. I also shared with them ways they could minister to students all week, between youth meetings as well as on Sundays.

I would also encourage put students under their care, students they could check up on or encourage through the week.

I think a youth leader has think about the ratio of adult leaders to students. Too many adult leaders and not enough students will definitely feel awkward and some of those adult leader will feel left out. I don’t know the scientific equation for an adult to student ratio but I do know that having too many adult leaders without enough opportunities to serve is bad math.

Adult leaders could be broken down into mentors and team coaches. Mentors spend time following up with kids, encouraging them and team coaches are those who lead teams of students in a ministry skill like tech or hospitality.

Mentors can text a student and say “Let’s hit Taco Bell after school” in a small youth group, but as the group grows you will need more mentors to mentor more kids all the while plugging students in empowerment teams with adult coaching leading those teams.

Let’s talk about the parent component of youth empowerment. Many youth leaders see parents as the problem to their plans, but tell us why they play such an important role in empowering students. 

Parents have to be a part of the empowerment process. They are major stakeholders in their students spiritual growth. They are also the drivers and they decide if the youth ministry is valuable enough to bring their students to.

As a youth ministry, we are responsible to use our youth ministry as a training ground for these students. Parents who do not understand this may see the youth ministry as a place to make their students happy and for them to be entertained.

Advance communication with parents, sharing principles of student-led ministry in small doses, will help parents get hold of the vision soon and you are able to explain the WHY behind your philosophy of ministry. You can do this through a weekly e-mil or quarterly Zoom call.

Ok, we’ve laid the foundation. Now, let’s talk empower teams. What are they and how does a youth pastor use them to get students involved. 

Empowerment Teams are the next step when a youth ministry begins to grow. Adult leaders have a role as mentor and coaches.

Empowerment teams are where students can plug into a safe, learning environment where it’s ok to fail. Students have to know it’s ok to make mistakes and that’s what causes learning.

Empower Teams are ministry teams that students can join that aligns with their gifts, talents and callings. This could be worship team., tech team etc. and you only create teams that align with the giftings your students have.

Launching any of the 10 examples of Empower Teams I share in the book, have to align with the DNA of your youth ministry. Launching a worship band Empower Team, if none of your students are musically inclined, is a waste of time.

Neither should you launch all 10 groups at once. If you are a small youth group, launch one, maybe two. Also, I didn’t launch an Empower Team without an adult to lead it or the resources to launch it. Wait, be patient, and when it’s time to launch a team the Lord will provide you with the leader to lead it.

You probably already have some leaders to lead the teams you should launch so plan around what you have while keeping an eye open for new teams to be created.

A good sign that you are ready for another Empowered Team is when someone says, “You know, we really need…” The adult or student who asks this, might also be your next Empowered Team Leader.

Empower Teams have something they can every week. There are what I called Featured Teams, every week I have one team do something extra.

I had our Teaching Empowered Team share a five minute sermon.

Our Prayer Empowered Team suggested at the end of one of our services that we pray over all our mobile devices.

Our hospitality team hosted a free pancake breakfast on a Sunday morning.

A couple a times a year or once a quarter you can have what I call anchor services, where students run the entire service.

Ultimately, if you, the youth pastor keep doing tasks that you are not called or equipped to do, they will drain you. Find and do what you’re great at and you’ll always be energized.

Sean Buono

What are the ways you have seen churches include students in whole church decisions? – MYM Resources

There aren’t many. Churches do not usually invite students to whole church decisions. Churches look at data about youth and program accordingly versus asking the youth themselves what they think the church ought to be about.

Note: I, Paul, was interviewed for youth ministry job by a council of students who asked me questions about my leadership, etc. So, on a macro level they were participating in, not deciding, larger church decisions.

Thanks to Sean for sharing his heart of student-led youth ministry. You can pick up his book, Youth Empowered, here.

Here’s how you can connect with Sean,

Connect with Sean

Twitter and Instagram: @SeanBuono


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