Expert Shares Tips on How to Empower Youth in Leadership
By Lindsay Peyton
Clay Smallwood, director of student ministries at Lakewood UMC, Houston has some suggestions for ways to make youth ministry a success at your church, especially when it comes to empowering youth in leadership.
With 12 years of experience in student ministry and a master’s degree in youth ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary, Smallwood lives and breathes the topic every day.
“If we can get this right and make students spiritual leaders at 14 to 18 years old, when they’re calling the shots as adults, the world is going to be a vastly different place,” he said. “If we get this right, at this age, then we can change the world.”
Here are his top 10 suggestions for making your youth ministry shine:
1. Give students a leadership role in ministry. Real opportunities matter and make a lasting impact for youth. Put them in charge of a retreat, give them huge chunks of mission trips to plan and teach them how to budget and manage a project. Show them time management and delegation, as well.
“They’re capable of so much,” Smallwood said. “If you raise the bar for them, they will reach it. They definitely rise to the challenge.”
2. Present the gospel to students. Don’t forget that sharing the gospel and connecting with Jesus is the entire point of youth ministry.
“Fun is a huge part of what we do,” Smallwood said. “But it’s also about creating an environment where we can present the gospel. In order to make disciples, you have to give the message. It has to go back to the gospel.”
3. Develop a network of adult volunteers. Student ministry can only take off if there’s an infrastructure in place to develop and support it. Adult volunteers are key to making that happen. Spend time recruiting and training adults who are passionate about youth ministry.
“Maybe you have awesome plans, but if you don’t have adult volunteers, all of those ideas mean nothing,” Smallwood said.
4. When you do mission work, invite the community and the home church to participate. When students plan a mission trip, consider ways to make the most impact – and one that is truly lasting. One of the best ways is to join with the church hosting the whole thing. Build relationships and connect with the local community.
“Mission work is often a flash in the pan, when it could be so much more,” Smallwood said. “We can be a catalyst for those who still live there.”
5. Operate with excellence. Speaking of taking the extra time to make a mission trip the best it can be – why not let that same spirit carry over into everything you do? Smallwood says that sometimes youth pastors get a bad reputation, for not being organized or on top of finances. He encourages his fellow youth pastors to change all of that.
“We can be professionals and be excellent at it,” he said. “Plan in advance and pay attention every step of the way. It’s in everything that we do – teaching and preaching.”
6. Know your why and communicate your why. Spend time understanding what you do helps you hone your vision and share your message with others.
“If you don’t know your why, you fall into a trap of this is what we do, because it’s always what we’ve done,” Smallwood said.
7. Use the power of a team. Jesus worked with a team of 12 disciples. Don’t think you can do everything on your own. Smallwood has developed a vision team at Lakewood to develop its youth ministry program.
“Work with a team to arrive at the vision from God,” Smallwood said. “We can accomplish more as a team than we can by ourselves. The Lord blesses teams”
8. Be willing to be wrong. Just because you’ve done something before at one church, doesn’t mean it will work at a new congregation. Perhaps the program needs updating or the church has different needs. If you’re afraid of being wrong, you are less likely to try new things.
Smallwood advocates taking smart risks, or “holy” risks. “We can try the same stuff, but it doesn’t always work,” he said. “Maybe something else is more fruitful. But we won’t know unless we take a risk.”
Sometimes a new idea does not work – but don’t let that stop you. “If we’re going to fail, we fail spectacularly,” Smallwood said. “We’re going to try. We’re going to give it our all.”
9. Listen. The best ideas can come if you’re willing to open your mind and heart. “You get a lot of good ideas you would never have thought of, if you are willing to listen to other people,” Smallwood said.
10. Understand your context and be open to change. Youth ministry can only thrive if it keeps up with an ever-changing world. “If we’re not constantly evolving and understanding our context, we’ll wake up one day and realize the world is passing us by,” Smallwood said.
Still, it’s not about changing for the sake of change itself. Instead, positive change responds to context, Smallwood explained.
It’s never too late to begin evaluation your youth ministry program and taking some steps towards improvement.