Communication That Builds Trust In Youth Ministry
Student Ministry is very satisfying when there’s a deep reservoir of earned trust between the youth leader and those involved in the ministry. Having ministered through seasons where trust was deep and seasons where it was shallow, I’ve realized there are communication habits, skills, and practices I must pay attention to and develop if I’m going to earn the trust and respect of those in my ministry.
This thing we call “church” has brought people together from different family units, walks of life, education levels, and ethnic backgrounds, creating an environment demanding clear communication. The alternative, poor communication, can easily lead to strained relationships and a breakdown of community where trust evaporates, motives are questioned, and conflict is a regular occurrence.
I’ve learned that people’s trust is not an accident but the result of some intentional choices I make to develop habits and skills where good, clear communication takes me into deeper levels of trust and support.
Wading into the Shallow End
I learned early on that my communication habits must be regular, disciplined, and accurate in order to lay a foundation of trust. The learning curve was pretty steep on this one as I immediately learned the importance of clear communication.
My defining moment happened in the first week of my ministry, during the first outing with the students. During Sunday morning class, I made plans with some of the students to meet at the church building on Wednesday, load up in the van, and head out to see a movie. The whole thing seemed so simple, and I had no idea that a drive across town to see a two-hour movie could cause so much confusion. First off, several students absent that day didn’t know there was an event, so they felt left out and rejected by the new youth minister. Second, one of the students misunderstood the meeting time and arrived late to an empty parking lot, not knowing where to find us. Third, several of the students didn’t have enough money (having bought sodas at 7-11 before they arrived), so I emptied my pockets of spare cash. Finally, we returned an hour later than estimated and I was greeted by a parent whose frustration, anxiety, and crying baby had her on the brink of yelling at me. I went home that evening, completely overwhelmed at how a simple trip could have gone so wrong.
My rookie mistake was forgiven. But I understood that once my honeymoon period was over, similar failures to communicate would eventually drain my trust reservoir and I’d be left wondering why no one took me seriously.
This is beginners’ stuff, and it might seem like wading in the shallow end of the communication pool; but I wonder how many of us veterans still struggle with regular, disciplined, and accurate communication. Even several years into my ministry, I still tend toward the sporadic. Over the course of three months, there’s one week where I scramble my administrative assistant to send out a post-card, another week I just post the change of time in the bulletin, another week I send out a letter, and then on several occasions, I just resort to making phone calls. I am not bothered by the constant change, but it drives my parents, students, and adult leaders a little crazy because they don’t know where to look for information.
I now see that if I’m regular and disciplined in how I communicate, using one type of communication (whether it’s a letter, brochure, Web site, or calendar), I teach people that there’s one place to look for information. This consistency builds a foundation of trust, simplifies my task list, and makes it possible for even the most scatterbrained parent, adult leader, or student to find out basic details such as what time we leave for the movie, who’s invited, how much money to bring, and what time we’ll return.
Let me be clear that mere attention to detail only gets me into the shallow end of communication; it’s the messages I broadcast with my life that take me into deeper waters where I can earn the right to be heard.
Water Wings for the Deep End
It slowly dawned on me that effective communication is not only found in giving out details, but also a clear understanding of the heart and soul that I bring to the ministry. Every day in ministry the phrase “perception is reality” becomes more profound to me. I must be aware of the messages sent by my actions, habits, and areas of attention.
After all, people will follow me for a while because they picked me; and they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt in the beginning because I have a degree, some experience, and a vision. But they’ll only offer me their trust when they clearly see my heart. It’s my job to make sure I don’t send the wrong non-verbal messages.
It was a year into my ministry that my defining moment arrived. It still makes me wince. During that summer we were meeting in students’ homes, taking advantage of the warm months to be outside and break up the routine. When a cookout/worship night was planned at a student’s house, I received a call from a parent wondering if the event would be accessible to her son, whose mobility had been curtailed by a type of muscular dystrophy that constrained him to a motorized wheelchair. I was feeling confident of our plans for “Mike” to stay outside for the cookout and then be carried inside for the worship time. I wasn’t sure how to proceed when he refused to be carried into the house. So, I stuck to my plan and, leaving the bugs outside, the rest of us walked up the three steps to the living room door, moved inside, and closed the screen door while Mike sat outside, listening to the worship music while mosquitoes tormented him. Do you see why I still wince?
A week later, his mother confronted me with a well-deserved rebuke. I felt horrible and apologized several times, but it was one comment, tearfully made, that really stuck; “Just because my son is limited, he shouldn’t be excluded from time with the other students.” I knew my intention was to include her son; but her perception, and thus her reality, was different. Now I’ve grown from that experience and have a great relationship with that student and his family, but I almost demolished any chance to build trust because my actions that day gave the perception that I didn’t care about their son.
It always seems a little unfair that my actions in front of others are completely open to interpretation, but I realize that people are watching me constantly and listening much more closely to what they see, making judgments about what I do and don’t care about, who I do and don’t invest in, and placing trust in me based on this assessment. Their perceptions are indeed their realities, and I must remember that if I do ministry in Jesus’ name, paying attention to my non-verbal messages is one way of serving, loving, and laying my life down for those whom God has entrusted to me.
Early on, I spent most of my time complaining when I was misunderstood or received criticism. Then, when a mentor suggested I work through some exercises, I realized I had a choice. I could become wisely proactive and start doing some things (leaving a message on my office voice mail of my schedule that day) and stop doing other things (appearing to only care about the “non-Christian” kids). I thought of them as water wings that helped me venture out into the deep end.
Write down all the criticisms you hear, and see if there’s a common thread among them. This showed me blind spots I had (and the ministry had), because people presumed I didn’t care about the areas they were mentioning.
Ask some key parents, students, fellow staff members, and adult leaders what messages you broadcast, both positive and negative. This one was both very encouraging and very painful as I learned how I was perceived. For example, one morning I heard I related very well with unbelievers, and that afternoon I heard I tended to be legalistic and judgmental. However, when all the feedback was in, it was invaluable, helping me zero in on some things I was doing that distorted others’ perception of me and my ministry.
Listen to your heart and to your passion, and see if the positive messages you’re broadcasting align with the calling God has placed on your life. I believe God has called me to a specific role in his kingdom, and I should constantly seek to find how I can be the best steward of the gifts God has given me. As I do this, my focus narrows, my words form, and my future unfolds as God guides my ministry into a unique expression of my relationship with the Holy.
While the first two exercises help me be wise in my role as a youth leader, this last exercise clarifies for me that my communication is not about image maintenance, but about serving and loving others and about bringing my life and ministry into alignment with God’s calling.
The Mile Swim
People can have such varied expectations of student ministers, bringing unreasonable expectations that distort their perceptions of my role, relationships, and performance. While I can make a reasonable attempt to be wise and judicious, I brace myself, knowing that messages I clearly broadcast can strain and rupture relationships. There’s comfort knowing that if I’m to win the trust of my people, I must listen clearly to God’s guidance and let the whisper in my ear become the message I shout. There came a point in my ministry that I had to leave the pool and strike out across the lake, where the bottom is no longer visible. I had to listen only to God’s voice in my ministry, confident that people will continue to extend trust because they know I’ve heard them but am following God.
I thought I’d earn trust if I was diplomatic and no one was upset with me. However, Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4:5: “You should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at bringing others to Christ. Complete the ministry God has given you.” This reminded me that there are times that I’ll be faithful to God, minister well, and deeply offend people in the process.
I’ve had two defining moments in this area. One came while our first retreat drew near. Two students in my ministry had dated and then, due to the girl’s parents, been forced to break up. It was a big soap opera; and the entire youth group was stirred up about it, especially because the two were holding hands and sneaking kisses after youth group, defying the parents’ wishes. The girl’s parents took my wife and me out to dinner, and it was a pleasant evening until we started talking about the retreat. “We’re not sure if our daughter can go on this retreat,” the father began. “We wanted to hear your plan for the weekend and decide after that. We’ve made it clear to our daughter that she is not to be involved with her old boyfriend; and if he’s going, we’d ask you monitor them so they don’t sneak off and spend time together. If they do, we’d ask that you tell us about it.”
I looked at the father and as gently as I could, said, “If your daughter understands your wishes, I will expect her to honor you, and I can and will remind her, but beyond that, I cannot do what you’ve asked.”
That evening began a series of exchanges where my refusal to play spy deeply disappointed the parents and led to a rupture in our relationship. The second defining moment came a few months ago when a student who’d become a Christian through our ministry requested I visit with her non-Christian mother. I spent several hours one evening trying to mediate the family tension between the parents, siblings, and the lone Christian daughter by explaining the Gospel, their need for Jesus, and his offer of salvation to this entire family. At one point the mother said, “Look, I appreciate all that you’re sharing with us, but this is what I want to know—If we don’t accept Jesus and become Christians like our daughter, does your church teach we will go to hell?”
I paused, prayed for wisdom and said, “Yes.” The already tense meeting became more strained, and our conversation quickly ended. I offered to return to talk more with them, encouraging them to really hear Jesus out before they rejected him. However, I haven’t been asked back.
Those moments taught me that if I remain faithful to the things I’ve been taught, I’m going to leave the deep end and begin the mile-long lake swim of communication, with an inner conviction that my messages, when clearly broadcast and clearly understood, will bring about conflict. There’s a very real sense that I’ve ventured out beyond the safe constraints of the deep end and I’m in some treacherous waters. However, I’m reminded by Paul in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. So you must never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord.” There’s a fear in this but also a real freedom to say no to the tyranny of being tossed about by the waves of opinion and staying focused on God’s call. After all, the people I respect and model my ministry after are, to this day, miles from shore, swimming in a direction known only to them and God, listening to God’s voice, speaking truthfully to their people, and enjoying the trust of many who follow them. I hope to join them.
As I keep in mind that I have limited ways to express love, I try in every way to make my communications, verbal and non-verbal, hard truth and loving words, another way of imitating Jesus Christ in my ministry.
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.