Youth are Eager to Be Leaders
If you are a youth or campus minister, you’re probably faced with deciding what event, camp, retreat, or conference to take your young people to each year. While there is no shortage of opportunities to choose from, I’d like to share why YouthLeader, a CMD discipleship building experience, is an investment in the future of your parish or school youth ministry.
Personally, I have been honored and blessed to be a part of this life-changing program. I know, I know, everybody says their program is “life-changing” but I have witnessed over and over, year after year, how YouthLeader truly makes a tremendous difference in the lives of young people and in their parish communities.
The reason for my high regard is twofold. First, during YouthLeader, youth recognize (maybe for the first time) that they truly possess God-given gifts and abilities worth sharing and that their gifts can and do make a difference. Secondly, time spent at YouthLeader impacts the faith community back home because youth share what they have learned with others. The experience of YouthLeader empowers young people to become the leaders they are called by faith to be.
Over the past 25 years, we’ve updated the program but the teachings hav
e remained consistent because the leadership principles taught at YouthLeader are the same principles modeled to us by Jesus Christ. These principles include…
- Christian leaders make decisions and choices based on their personal values and principles. These values and principles are shaped by many factors but primarily by our faith in God and our Christian beliefs.
- Christian leaders take responsibility for their actions – good or bad. Effective leaders are proactive and not reactive in their responses to various situations and people.
- Christian leaders look to Jesus for an example of how to be a fair and just leader. Jesus modeled for us through his words and actions exactly how to be a compassionate leader.
- Christian leaders know and live their purpose in life. YouthLeader is designed to help youth reflect on what they value most and the importance of setting a clear direction for their lives.
The Balance of Head, Heart and Hands
The experience of YouthLeader provides a good balance between the “why” and the “how to” of being an effective Christian leader. Part of the process of learning at YouthLeader is practicing the skills necessary to effectively lead others such as good communication, facilitating group conversations, and the importance of planning and evaluation. I can honestly say that I am amazed by the personal growth that I witness as youth learn and progress through YouthLeader. I have seen firsthand the awakening of an inner confidence in many young people. This seems especially true for youth who are more introverted and quiet. Once it sinks in that the most effective leaders are not necessarily the loudest or most outgoing, youth begin to understand that true leadership is more about who the person is on the inside. In other words, when it comes to leadership, actions truly do speak louder than words.
Empowered for Change
My absolute favorite session of YouthLeader is when youth are lead through an exercise to examine the needs of the world. This session uses a creative approach to learning and asks youth to take a hard, real and honest look at what is happening in the world around them. As a trainer, I create a playlist of contemporary music to use as a backdrop to a slide show of photographs that illustrate poverty and global needs. Recently, I used a song by the band Switchfoot in which the lyrics in the song say, “Is this the world you want? You’re making it.” I chose to use this song because it powerfully speaks to youth about consciously making a choice to create the type
of world they live in. It is my hope that youth will become inspired to make a difference for good in their parishes, schools, and communities. This session concludes by asking youth to match their gifts with the needs of the world. To emphasize this idea, YouthLeader uses a film clip to illustrate how youth, even in their young age, can do something to change the world. Using the film “Freedom Writers,” we show the film clip where holocaust survivor Miep Gies tells a group of inner city Los Angeles youth that “even a teenager can turn on a small light in a dark room” and that they are “heroes every day!”
The real learning of YouthLeader often comes when youth are given the opportunity to plan and lead the prayers and community building activities for their peers. During planning, the adult leaders are asked to step back and allow youth to take ownership and leadership of the various activities. This process can be both challenging and exciting because all of the responsibility for leading the activities with their peers rests with them.
I do want to make mention of a trend that I have observed when it comes to prayer with youth. Over my years of being a YouthLeader trainer, I have noticed what seems to be growing difficulty for youth when it comes to planning and leading group prayers. Many have experiences of prayer from attending either Mass or a weekly gathering of their youth or campus ministry. Some others have an understanding of prayer from attending large conferences such as NCYC, diocesan rallies, or Steubenville. Yet, it appears as if many have not had an opportunity to plan and lead prayer themselves. In general, I have witnessed that youth have become accustomed to only adults planning and leading prayer. It’s as if youth have an expectation to be “entertained” in some way during prayer.
In many ways, prayer for youth has become all about which praise and worship song we are going to sing. Don’t misunderstand me, praise and worship music is great but there are many other expressions of prayer that youth could be introduced to. Attending a YouthLeader is often a young person’s first learning experience of choosing the readings and music, preparing the environment, and welcoming their peers into prayer. In terms of discipleship building, YouthLeader intentionally engages youth in the process of preparing prayers and then empowering them to lead.
Opportunities to Lead
Training youth for ministry in our parish and schools sounds great, right? Actually, I once had a diocesan director share with me that his diocese could not host YouthLeader because it might set the youth up for disappointment. “Why,” I asked. His answer stunned me. He told me that if youth attended YouthLeader and learn all these leadership skills then after they returned back home they would not have an opportunity to use them in their parishes. Sadly, he told me that there were no meaningful opportunities for youth to serve in leadership positions in their home parish communities.
This is heartbreaking and disappointing to hear and I pray that this person was misinformed or working under a false assumption. After all, youth through the virtue of their Baptism have a right and a responsibility to serve in their Christian communities. Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry, the U.S. Bishops’ document on comprehensive youth mi
nistry, clearly states that the parish should be “a place where youth and adults minister side by side.” YouthLeader was originally created to give young people the skills necessary to serve in their communities but there must be opportunities for them to do so. Parishes and schools who bring teams to YouthLeader often return each year because they understand the benefit of leadership training for their youth and they believe in the value of this investment.
This past summer, I had the privilege to be a YouthLeader trainer for Maryvale Preparatory Catholic Girl’s School. This was the school’s first experience with YouthLeader. The Dean of Students had participated in YouthLeader while employed at another Catholic school and he regarded the program so highly he wanted to bring it to Maryvale. A highlight of the week for everyone was when the students and faculty were able to discuss and negotiate actual issues that had been affecting the student body. After the exercise, the youth felt encouraged and affirmed because their concerns were heard by the administration. Likewise, the faculty recognized that the students had legitimate issues and together they could work on possible solutions for the next school year.
Maryvale plans to host YouthLeader again next year and possibly even invite a nearby all boys Catholic school to join them. YouthLeader is a natural fit for Catholic schools because it provides an opportunity for faculty and students to learn skills, spend time together away from the school environment, and build a faith-filled community of leaders that can positively impact the next school year.
I have seen how the lessons learned during a week of
YouthLeader are not just merely leadership skills but life skills. My son attended YouthLeader his sophomore year of high school and told me that what he learned definitely helped him to navigate his first few years of college life. Everyone, at one time or another, will need to be a good listener. We can all benefit from living our lives with a proactive and win-win attitude. Even those of us who minister need to be reminded from time to time that we are called to model our lives after Jesus and to humbly serve others. Yes, YouthLeader is about how youth can be leaders in their communities but it is even more than that. YouthLeader is about young people discovering the person that God wants them to be.
Adults as Leaders
As we teach in YouthLeader, an effective leader recognizes and acknowledges the gifts of others. YouthLeader would not be the program it is without the talented and dedicated trainers who lead the program and the diocesan and parish leaders who support it. Some of these adults even use their personal vacation time from work to volunteer and participate in the program. All of these adults deeply believe in the hope and potential of the young Catholic Church. Thank-you! Your dedication and commitment is inspiring.
For More Information
If you are interested in bringing YouthLeader to your diocese or school, please contact me at . I would be more than happy to provide further information. YouthLeader can be offered in a full 5-day, 4-day, or a 3 day model. CMD’s Youth Ministry Access (online youth ministry subscription) also has several sessions geared towards leadership development including an entire leadership series written by Don Boucher (NFCYM’s 2014 recipient of the National Youth Ministry Award).
“I really enjoyed myself at YouthLeader! Meeting new people and being able to lead was an eye-opening experience for me.” – Michael (Youth participant from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Georgia)