From Chaperone to Youth Leader: 3 Tips for Developing Youth Leaders

December 28th, 2016

I can remember back to my high school days when we would go to Prom or Homecoming dances, and you would always see those poor teachers being roped into helping by “chaperoning” the dance. They would stand off to the side while all the students had a great time dancing and having fun. Unfortunately, their concern (at least the way it appeared) was that they were forced to be there, and they just made sure you didn’t do anything illegal. I fear that chaperoning has made its way into youth ministry and infected good ministry philosophy by becoming “normal” or “common” amongst youth leader expectations. The biggest focus as a youth leader should be sharing your life with students, not sitting on the sidelines making sure they just don’t do something bad. It’s distant and doesn’t provide any merit to speak into their lives.

1. Stellvertretung – a crescendo of youth leading

In Andrew Root’s book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker he discovers and illuminates this word called “Stellvertretung.” In his words, it means “place-sharing” in German. It was a quintessential piece to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s youth ministry philosophy. Root shares in this book the action of this word. To share your life of Christ with others through the way you live. That you would engage and love people in a way that was “viciously” emulating Christ. Bonhoeffer spent a fair amount of time in a city where he was teaching some young boys catechism related material. He decided to move to this side of town, which was rather ghetto and dangerous so that he could be around his boys more. He even left his apartment open for the boys to hang out in after school. This was Stellvertretung, he was creating a space in which he could share his lives with these students. They were able to not just laugh but cry with him, as he was immensely a part of their lives. I have learned very quickly that unless your ministry has a sense of Stellvertretung, you aren’t really developing meaningful relationships with students, you are just yelling concepts that won’t have any weight to them because you are lacking an intimate relationship with them. I have been incredibly passionate about teaching the youth leaders to model this idea of Stellvertretung. That in order to be a fantastic youth leader you have to be integral to their lives, not just a “chaperone” on the sidelines.

2. Belonging > Believing

Rich Richardson wrote a book called Reimagining Evangelism. It’s a phenomenal book in which he argues that our philosophy in ministry, especially in youth ministry, should model that we focus more on belonging to a community than just believing. That we would inculcate a community where students want to be a part of it, regardless if they believe in Jesus or not. It focuses on building bridges instead of walls and encourages instead of ostracizes. When a student is able to feel like they belong to an authentic community, it helps them be much more receptive to what we believe and experience about Jesus. We start to see people as people, not just salvation projects. When youth leaders model this, they create intimacy in relationships where they can share their humanity with others in a way that reveals not just their triumphs but their struggles and weaknesses. It illuminates the authenticity that we have in following Jesus. That we would attempt to reveal God’s community in their lives by caring for the actual person, not just their salvation. If a youth leader focuses their energy and diligence on creating a community with both believers and unbelievers, it encourages us to share our problems and brokenness, not just the facade we often present to the world. This tears down a lot of walls and allows us to just love people for who they are. Believing can come later.

3. People > Program

Relationships, or should I just plainly say people, are the quintessential piece of the “why” behind our calling as youth workers and volunteers. I had spent a fair amount of time in internships where I was a part of some pretty awesome programming. We would do big scale events, plan like crazy, get the t-shirt and the hashtag and spend a ton of time and money on (usually) a one-day event. I got caught up in the push for programming and so did the youth leaders. It is so easy to just start doing and stop asking “why?” Sometimes the most joyful and successful ministry I have been a part of was the simplest, or even most unorganized programs.

It is so easy to foster an identity of yourself that is based upon your ministry. When this happens you become dependent on programming instead of people because programming is easier to evaluate and see simple numbers of success. Whereas relationships are hard, sometimes they actually take 5 steps backward before they even take 1 step forward. But relationships are worth it. People are worth it.

When youth workers and leaders become obsessed with programming (and just doing) over people, we start to think of relationships as projects, not people. We start to be disillusioned to our mandate as Christ-followers to foster authentic community where students can be themselves and learn from other youth leaders. Where they have someone to listen to them, that they would be heard and have a voice. I constantly have to pray and quite frankly preach to myself that students are more important than the awesome event I throw. It’s easy for a youth leader to come to a mid-week program and just sit on the sidelines. It takes work to engage with students because we are messy people, and have a ton of dirt to deal with. But I assure you that is what youth leading is about. It’s about creating an environment for them to be heard, to grow, and to be loved by someone who is willing to share their lives with them (Stellvertretung).

Most people may only see success in numbers or in the performance of programs. But true success is entering into lifelong relationships with students. To walk alongside students, to show Christ through the way you love them. To go to their soccer games, or drama performances. To wake up at 2 am to pick them up from some stupid party they went to. Or maybe to spend an entire event listening to a troubled teen instead of leading the event. To meet and shepherd the students God has entrusted you with. To motivate and inspire them to be lifelong followers of Jesus Christ.

So move from the sidelines to the game. Students need you…. Will you fearlessly enter into their lives with them?

trey gilmoreTREY GILMORE is the Pastor of Students at Vail Christian Church in Tucson, where He is currently working through his first year of full-time ministry. He seeks to empower students to become lifelong Christ-followers and to teach, write, and inspire in a way that exhibits the gospel in a profound but simple way. Apart from ministry, He loves fly-fishing, Taco Bell, and thrifting. You can follow him on Instagram, @TREEGILMORE


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.