I originally posted this Women in Youth Ministry article at the Youth Specialties blog. But it’s generated some interesting conversation, which I think is worth broadening the horizons on!
So… here goes. Feel free to comment here or at the original post, but I’d love your thoughts, regardless of whether you’re a man or woman in youth work!
How Women in Youth Ministry Can (Totally, Effectively & Compellingly) Work with Boys.
I’m not afraid to admit that girls scare me. I grew up as the eldest daughter in a set of three, in a mostly single parent home (Mum). Yes, I carried some extra responsibilities, and I didn’t always have much time or interest in make-up, fashion and other ‘girly’ stuff. When faced with being the small group leader of a set of 14 year old teenage girls, who wanted to do nothing but sleepovers, makeover parties and shopping – I freaked out. What can I say? I love working with middle school, teenage and young adult guys. It’s not always easy, there are some minor and some major differences in communicating and working with guys but I can absolutely testify to some of these relationships being the most rewarding and surprising of my youth ministry career.
At NYWC in Cincinnati, I hosted a conversation for women in youth ministry and these topics came up a couple of times. So, I thought it would be great to share some tips, some experiences and encouragement if you’re a youth minister or a volunteer working with guys in your youth ministry.
1. Finding confidence in yourself.
When you’re the person that’s there and available – you’re the one who can make a difference. Being confidence to your interactions with any young person is going to be really helpful, regardless of gender. But with boys especially – if you feel confident in yourself, you’ll be able to focus more on the young person and less on what you’re getting “right or wrong”. In order to get there – focus on what you know and what you need to know. There are some great resources out there – specifically Teenage Guys by Steve Gerali – to help you get a handle on what guys are experiencing. This is valuable youth ministry info! Start to gather this information AS WELL AS reflecting on your own experiences to look for patterns, insights and understanding. As with any youth ministry situation – identify specific insecurities and triggers and then proactively look for solutions or understanding to help you move past it. Keep working on this and your confidence will grow. If nothing else, remember that hundreds of women youth workers have had life-changing impact working with teenage guys – so can you.
2. Talk shoulder to shoulder.
Heather Ameye-Bevers was the first female youth pastor I ever worked with. So naturally, I asked her for some of her most valuable tips. This one is hers: “..the old adage that it’s important for girls to talk eye to eye but to talk to a guy it’s better to talk shoulder to shoulder. While you’re playing sport, walking somewhere or you’re setting up youth group stuff, work on something together. Talk to guys then so that it’s not as confrontational or uncomfortable.”
Talking shoulder-to-shoulder allows you to create rapport, relationship and respect for one another. Engaging in that kind of relationship gives you the opportunity to then talk eye-to-eye. Remember that as guys get older, they’ll be more willing to talk about deeper stuff – but don’t feel that you’re only being significant if you are having “deep & meaningful’s” all the time. Often with girls, you’ll be used to talking around and around and around whilst feeling like you’re getting nowhere. With boys, a few words at the right time can often take you miles. Being interested in what they’re interested in will make a huge difference – and you’ll sometimes be surprised. Not all meaningful ministry with boys is about football or girls! Sometimes it’s music, books, a particular subject that you have common ground on.
3. Find creative ways of working with the ‘important’ stuff – physical touch, playfulness, passion and word count.
So – physical touch and playfulness are really important parts of working with guys as they grow up! And then, there’s all the sexuality stuff. Some basic tips:
– Make space for healthy touch, by playing sports, games, get in amongst it. In addition, create some vocal cues for ‘impromptu’ rumbles and tag matches. If you’re able to encourage and be the whistle-blower (literally, give the signal that they have permission to create chaos for a few minutes), you’ll gain massive yards and lots of ‘fun’ in your relationship with your teenagers. Helps with the playfulness.
– When it comes to passion & sexuality – don’t ignore the subject, just because they’re male. Also – be really careful about presuppositions about adolescent male sexuality. The stereotypes are not all they’re cracked up to be, so LISTEN more than anything else. It’s a privilege to be able to speak about this stuff with guys, so honor that by letting them express their stories and thoughts as they are ready. You have a great position to be able to offer insight into female sexuality and it’s connection to love & relationships. Regardless of whether you’re single or married, the way you talk about sexuality with guys may differ than with girls, but it’s still the same content – healthy heart, healthy relationships, healthy sexuality. Don’t be distracted by the gender question. You’ll be amazed how much a little direct speaking will gain you in confidence and trust with guys.
– Word count. Women love to tell stories. It’s a stereotype but we generally have a tendency to communicate in narrative far more than men do. So – remember that mastering word count is key! Speak directly about the ideas you’re wanting to communicate. And often, the fewer words the better.
4. Dealing with infatuation, love & relationships.
What happens if one of my students is physically inappropriate or has a crush on me? What if I develop feelings for a student/volunteer/youth pastor/mentor? What about dating and trying to start a new relationship? What if I’m the new girlfriend of the youth pastor?
– Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. You need to have healthy self-awareness and people to process that with (not volunteers!), as well as an observant eye for boundaries in other youth ministry relationships – students and other volunteers, students and yourself. But again, don’t be driven by the paranoia either. This is the exception, not the norm – so don’t let the fear of this stuff over-influence the direction and focus of your ministry. A good rule of thumb here is keep the main thing, the main thing.
– Don’t meet one-on-one in private – public places are great for those conversations (and you can totally meet with a male student or volunteer!). Make sure you have an open diary – document as much as you can, or feels reasonable and discuss this with your supervisor or lead pastor, so they know what your plan is. Transparency is key.
– When a student is physically inappropriate (holds a hug too long etc), what’s inappropriate is determined by YOU. Then you need to communicate it, but in a way that’s non-destructive to the relationship and especially non-humiliating to the teenager. Use humor to diffuse in public settings ie: “Hug…2….3…and release!”. Narrate it out loud. Or, if they’re super confident.. “Hey, I know I’m cute, but I’m outta your league!”
A story from a female youth pastor:
“If you think th
ere’s something up ie: you or they are trying to spend a lot of time alone, txting late at night, you think about them overly much, they are making strange comments to you, looking at you funny – if you suspect you have a crush on them or vice versa – Warning!!!! Go talk to your supervisor asap, avoid deep personal conversations, always have a crowd around, don’t be a egg and talk to them about your feelings for them – you may as well shoot yourself in the foot. Be smart about technology as you should already as a professional youth worker – don’t private chat on Facebook, Twitter, MSN, txt. Sometimes it happens. You feel certain things – my advice is to live smart in the first place, but if you experience weird thoughts or feelings or do strange things –
1. Acknowledge it immediately to yourself.
2. Bring it into the light with a trusted professional supervisor.
3. And then keep going doing the amazing work you have been doing.
If you keep it hidden in the dark it will grow and make your life a misery, it will leave you with regrets and might even take you out of ministry. That is a scary place to be. I know I ‘ve been there. Several years ago when I was young and stupid I dated one of my youth leaders who was 4 years younger that me. It all started because I enjoyed the buzz that came when I started receiving daily txt messages from him. Instead of deleting them and talking to someone about how i was feeling, I went with the flow, txt turned to visits, turned to outings, turned to dating then to a romantic and unwisely physical relationship. I abused my role as a leader and carried the relationship on to its disastrous conclusion which left him broken and hurt. I felt unable to minister in that church, I felt unworthy and rotten inside.”
– Be aware that when starting new relationships, dating or going through relationship trauma, you want to remember NOT to do your immediate processing with your young people. Often it’s helpful to share our lessons learned as reflections or insights, but moaning or rejoicing about your new relationship probably isn’t the best bet. Also – your students may be jealous or anxious about losing your attention as often you are a primary relationship in their life, regardless of whether you’re opposite gender. Be conscientious of how hostility, anxiety and fear might be expressed in your ministry and openly address those fears. Also, if you’re the partner of the youth pastor – you may face some jealousy on part of the students. Build unique relationships and be reassuring that students won’t “lose” their youth pastor.
– Especially as your students grow older, be conscious of helping them grow into great men. Advice on women, relationships, being straight-up about when they’re being a jerk, immature, getting smelly or when they’ve made you exceptionally proud are precious and great moments. In addition, the youth ministry relationship that grows into genuine friendship is priceless beyond compare and JUST as likely to happen with your teenage guys as with your teenage girls..
5. Can my youth ministry mentor be a guy?
This really depends on what you’re looking for from your mentoring relationships. There’s a lot of wisdom in looking for holistic mentors who can help you process all aspects of life – relationships, career, personal development, sexuality, work. It’s always great if you can find a same-sex mentor because it saves some effort and work and precautions.
However, 3 out of 4 of my greatest mentors in life have been men, really exceptional, Godly, trustworthy men. The So it’s been completely safe to establish mentoring relationships that were for specific purposes. So, if you have no options and you’re looking for skills-based professional development – a lot of the same boundaries rules apply – but this can work. One of the major things that makes this a winner or not – is whether or not you are a trustworthy woman. That means having transparency and good self-awareness, in case you are the one that crosses the boundaries!
Also – remember that some things are actually best processed with a professional counselor, therapist, psychiatrist or spiritual director. Don’t be afraid to look for the specific help you need.
6. This is worth it!
Seriously, this is worth it. It’s worth it to go through the tough stuff of being a female youth worker with guys. How the rewards come can be very different, but the outcome is still the same – young people who love Jesus and have meaningful faith in practice in their lives. Years on, I love the meaningful and close friendships I have with some of my graduated students, because you can make a difference and they’ll certainly let you know when you have.
There is some great stuff to have fun with.. rites of passage, boys weekends, lots of helping hands on deck for youth ministry camps and retreats (you can play the “girl” card for instant man-up factor!). Don’t be intimidated, just get educated both generally (read some books! have some conversations!) and specifically (analyze your specific youth group culture).
As always – when you get stuck, if you have questions or you learn something great along the way = shout it out to the other youth workers that are travelling the same path.
Now – I’d love to hear your stories!