Let Youth Lead: 7 Ways to Build Strong Church Youth Programs
Let youth lead.
This is perhaps the most difficult recommendation for anyone working with youth. It’s a simple statement, but what does it really mean?
- Stand aside and put them in charge?
- Teach them leadership skills?
- Teach them to organize and plan?
- Have them help organize and plan?
- Let them fail?
- Give up control?
- Work as partners?
- Make them assistant leaders?
In a church setting, this often becomes even more convoluted. Adults are, after all, called as youth leaders in the LDS Church and the Bishop is the president over the young men. Are adults teachers, leaders, mentors, guides, or coaches? Yes to all of the above.
For some adult leaders, letting go of control and perfection is natural; it’s more challenging for others. I’ve worked with adults who felt comfortable letting youth struggle with forgotten supplies or underdeveloped game ideas. I’ve also worked with adults who were so focused on creating the perfect activity and having everything go right, they only allowed youth minor assistant roles.
Both types of adult leaders want the same things:
- We want to plan successful activities
- We want youth to have fun
- We want youth to learn something
- We want youth to return
- We want to be successful leaders
- We want youth to have spiritual experiences
So, how do we find the balance as adult leaders, encouraging growing leadership skills and meeting other important goals?
There isn’t one perfect solution, of course. Context matters here. We have to consider the age, experience, commitment, and family support of the youth involved. More than anything, we have to be flexible and compassionate.
My past work with youth leadership training my role as a teacher have helped me experience both success and challenges in letting youth lead. Here are a few tips I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) along the way:
- Invite children and pre-teens to help in primary so that they have ownership over their experience. This might look like asking them to prepare a portion of a lesson, seeking their activity ideas, or offering consistent volunteer roles at Sunday services and activities.
2. Create group rules together. Scholastic explains the importance of this step, asserting, “Students are more likely to buy into the rules if they have a hand in creating them. Start with this list of adaptable ideas.” This should be short, specific, and easy to remember. I like this suggestion because it encourages community and youth buy-in.
“Students are more likely to buy into the rules if they have a hand in creating them. Start with this list of adaptable ideas.”Scholastic
3. Create goals based on the unique needs of your youth. Sometimes, the main goal will not be planning the most exciting youth activity, but instead successfully planning and organizing an activity. This will require adult leaders to spend more time focusing on the process and building organizational skills. Once youth have mastered some of these skills, it’s easier to trust them to plan and lead more complex activities.
4. Provide leadership tools. Don’t assume youth know how to create an agenda, lead a meeting or class, or assign tasks. Perhaps the first meeting with a new presidency, the adult leader creates the agenda. Next meeting, they work with the youth president to complete the agenda. After that, the youth leader takes responsibility for the agenda. Maybe the next activity requires calling and asking someone to teach a skill? If the youth isn’t comfortable making the ask alone, offer to speak with the individual together in person or by telephone. Coach the youth on how to ask and what information to provide. In the future, that young person may have the tools and confidence to approach a potential teacher or speaker on their own.
5. Value learning over perfection. Allowing others to lead means delegating responsibility and allowing others to learn. Adult leaders should guide and coach youth, but not take over. It’s okay if youth activities and lessons aren’t Pinterest-worthy. It’s okay if unexpected hurdles come up and youth need to problem solve them. It’s even okay if some youth don’t follow through and the youth leaders have to figure out how to improvise without adult leaders coming to the rescue with “back-up” treats or supplies.
6. Invite youth to delegate to you. My comment about “back-up” treats doesn’t mean I don’t think adult leaders should help or contribute. Of course, they should. Maybe you help print out instructions for a craft or are tasked with buying the necessary supplies. Perhaps you make out-of-this-world brownies and you bring the treat one week. Depending on your circumstances, budgets, the age of youth, etc., you may be the person primarily responsible for supplies. The difference here is inviting youth to plan what supplies are needed and organizing them, rather than just expecting you to show up with them.
7. Have fun and put community first. The goal of spiritual enrichment is always at the forefront of leader’s minds. But youth already spend their week at school, participating in extra-curricular activities, fulfilling home responsibilities, and seminary. Make room for socializing, laughter, and silliness, movement, and games. As I mentioned in 5 Ways Improve Primary – The Exponent (the-exponent.com), kids are looking for community, connection, and fun. Spiritual enrichment is intertwined with these.
As I read over this list, I can already anticipate the pushback. And, oh boy, is there legitimate pushback. I’ve been a church youth leader. Sometimes your primary goal is just to get youth to show up. Other times, you are stretched so thin, it’s everything you can do just to arrive on time to Wednesday activities with something to do. And, of course, youth, families, and wards all have different levels of commitment and interest in youth programming.
For me, this is where valuing process over everything else is a life-saver. Maybe your youth group isn’t anywhere near bringing supplies, fully planning an activity, or consistently showing up to meetings. While your ultimate dream goal may be to have activities fully planned, organized, and executed by youth, this is currently unrealistic. Smaller goals kept me going when I faced these hurdles in Young Women’s. They matter to youth too.