Want to Understand the Teenage Brain?

Gracing the cover of this month’s National Geographic magazine is “The New Science of the Teenage Brain,” a headline the result of years of research on teenage brain development.  It attempts to answer the age-old question about teenage risky behavior, “What on Earth was he doing?”
As a person who works with and loves teenagers, what do you need to know from this article that will help you in your ministry?  

Based on new research by the National Institute of Health, this article proposes some new takes on the teenage brain.  Instead of saying teenagers do what they do because their brain is simply immature, it proposes that the teenage brain is actually  wonderfully adaptive for making the transition between childhood and living on your own.  The idea is based on evolutionary theory (called the adaptive-adolescent story) and suggests that even risky teen behavior is a natural part of development.

What I found most interesting is a new explanation on teenage risk-taking:

Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

While conventional wisdom might say that when a teen does something risky, they are not thinking of potential consequences, the study suggests that teens simply view risk/reward differently than mature adults.  In fact, studies showed that teens might even pay higher attention to potential risks.  However, teens tend to place a higher value on potential or even perceived rewards to behavior than adults.  In short, a mature adult may avoid a behavior (let’s say jumping off a cliff into the ocean) because of potential harm (let’s go with broken bones or death).  A teen will also be aware of the potential harm, but puts more value on perceived rewards like peer recognition…as in, how cool will I look when I survive.  Another idea is that youth thrill-seeking experiences can lead to positive traits – the love of adventure and new experiences helps teens to widen circles of friends and grow as a person.

The research, much like the adolescents themselves, is still in progress and well worth reading & sharing with your youth and adults.  A few thoughts from this youthworker on how we can apply this research: I think it can only help to cast the teenage brain in a positive light.  In youth ministry, we could feed into the natural tendency toward risk-taking and adventure by offering opportunities to try new things. We can also offer more ways to reward teens for their choices through recognition.

What do you think?  Are there ways we can use this research to work better in youth ministry?


Not Enough Volunteers – 5 Pitfalls of Volunteer Recruiting and Care

Want to spot a healthy youth ministry in 10 seconds or less?  Show up at a meeting and count the number of parent or adult volunteers.  If there is less than one adult for every 4-6 youth, youth could be falling through the cracks.

Volunteers are crucial to a healthy youth ministry.  If you are essentially running a one person or staff-only led program, you might just be on the way to running yourself into the ground.  And if you’ve found yourself thinking you just don’t have enough volunteers to help, maybe it’s something you are doing wrong.  Here are some common “Not Enough” pitfalls when it comes to working with volunteers:

1.  Not enough volunteers.

Sure, you probably can teach a message to your youth by yourself.  You can run the whole show…and if we’re honest, it’s probably simpler to plan if you are the one leading everything.  But is that biblically sound and healthy?  Is it sustainable in the long run?  By putting all the responsibility on yourself, are you leaving others out of the opportunity to minister to others?  Consider this: when multitudes came before Jesus, he didn’t try to individually minister to all of them, he trained disciples to do that.  He was closer to some people than others, and as much as you love your youth, you will be closer to some more than others, too.  Instead of leading everything yourself, enlist the help of volunteers to lead different parts of your youth ministry according to their gifts.

If an average adult can reach 4-6 youth, you should have a 1:5 ratio of adults to youth to make sure you’ve got enough volunteers to cover the group.   While that covers the ideal number of adults, you also need a variety of volunteers.  I know that as a female in ministry, I can only teach young men so much about what it means to be a man of God – so you also need a healthy mix of male and female adult volunteers.  (For more cool facts, you can check out this article on youth ministry numbers.)

You may already have a handful of faithful volunteers who you know will say yes whenever you need help.  That’s awesome – It’s great to have consistent volunteers, but you can enrich your ministry just by adding new voices to the mix.  You never know with whom teens will relate, so a mix of old and young and a variety of personalities is a good thing, too.

2. Not enough GOOD recruiting.

So you want to get enough volunteers, but no one is raising their hands.  It could be a problem with recruiting technique.  Maybe you are frustrated because you sent an email asking for volunteers or you made an announcement in church, yet nobody signed up?  Mass calls for volunteers like this, just like any kind of mass marketing, often leads to low response rate or worse, the wrong people volunteer.

To recruit well, spend time in prayer first.  Ask God to bring to light the ministry gifts you need to find and the right person.  Ask trusted church members and parents for suggestions.  Ask the youth to pray about it.  When you’ve come up with a potential list of volunteers, ask each person personally (or have the youth ask) to pray about volunteering.

And the key to great recruiting: The more you ask specific people to do specific tasks, tasks that align with their interests and gifts, the better results you will have.  It takes a special personality to volunteer with youth all the time, but I bet there are adults in your congregation who’d be happy to volunteer for special projects.

3. Not enough caring for volunteers.

Once you’ve got an awesome team of youth ministry volunteers recruited, what’s next?  Care about them.  Even the most faithful of volunteers needs to know that you care about them if you want them to care about your program.  Want a volunteer team that goes the extra mile?  Care about them.  Know what is going on in their lives, pray with them, keep updated.  Volunteers are going to really care and support what you do once they know how much you care about them.

In fact, if you want to multiply your youth ministry, realize that you are probably in volunteer ministry first.  You can only really reach a handful or so youth yourself, but if you can really invest in volunteers and get them to minister to youth, more youth will be positively impacted.

Keep a log of your contacts with volunteers – How often are you face-to-face with your volunteers, are you checking on them? Praying for them?  Have you had your student leaders say thank you to your volunteers?  A best demonstrated practice: a youth minister meets with his team at the local coffee shop right after youth group – they debrief the evening, plan for the next week & share concerns and prayers for each other.  Bonus: they minister to the employees at the coffee shop while they are there.

4. Not enough training.

Whether you lead the class, it’s a continuing ed class across town or the National Youth Workers Convention, volunteers love to be trained.  (Bonus, the time spent traveling to training is a great time to catch up on what’s going on in the lives of your volunteers.)  If you are the one leading the training for your volunteers, this is a great chance to share your vision for the youth ministry with your team.

A best demonstrated training practice is weekly training as part of a weekly planning meeting.  For example, it could be that one hour before the youth group time, all volunteers get together to go over the meeting plans, as well as learn something about better youth ministry together.

5. Not enough pruning.

It’s painful, but from time to time, you may have to ask a volunteer to step down.  Sometimes, we have volunteers that need to be asked to take a break from youth ministry because of personal issues or personality conflicts.  There are a multitude of reasons – maybe they don’t have the gifts for the role, or youth ministry has become their outlet for airing personal problems.  Whatever the problem, if you have a volunteer that does not support you and your leadership, they can be like poison for your ministry.  Do not keep unhealthy volunteers around just because no one else is lined up to volunteer.

When you decide it is time for a volunteer to step down or  switch roles, do pray about the conversation.  Bring in a pastor and keep things as loving and kind as possible.

Recruiting and taking care of volunteers may be the most important part of your ministry.  When I reflect on my own youth group as a teen, it was a volunteer 40-something year old hairdresser who touched my life and encouraged me to be in ministry (not the youth director.)  You never know who God will use in ministry.


What volunteer ministry successes/struggles have you had?  Would love to hear your comments and ideas.


Follow @ErinJackso

How I Survived Getting Fired

Ever been blindsided?

Maybe you’ve seen the show “Survivor.”  It’s a competition of physical survival, sure, but it’s primarily social survival.   A fascinating part of the plot is when a contestant falsely believes he’s secure in his tribe, safe at tribal council and then is completely blown away as he’s cast out from the tribe.  The old blindside – like watching a train wreck – it’s intriguing to watch from the safety of our couch, isn’t it?  In his post-tribal council interview, he is full of shock, hurt, anger, disbelief.

Ever felt that way in youth ministry?  I have.

It’s hard for me to share this so publicly, but a few months ago I was blindsided when I learned on a Tuesday morning that I had lost my youth director job and that the next Sunday would be my last one serving the church.  I was told that my ministry gifts were appreciated, but I was “just not a good fit” for that specific church.

From my perspective, here’s what happened: I knew without a doubt that I had done all that I was asked to do and that I had poured my heart into my ministry.  I could see the fruit of my hard work in the form of new missions, new excitement and even in the form of youth being called into ministry.  Good discipleship was happening.  Although there had been some snags along the way, things seemed to be on a good path.

Back to the game of social survival.  Clearly there were members of the tribe that were dissatisfied with how things looked from the outside and they had the social power I lacked.  I wasn’t given much in the way of warning signs – although in retrospect, there were a few.  It turns out “the tribe had spoken” months earlier when I wasn’t in the room… I know this because someone had already been hired to replace my role.

That hurt.  My head still spinning, I had a great conversation with my friend, Len Evans (perfectly gifted for his role at Simply Soul Care) about the five main reasons youth ministers get fired.  Here’s the deal – I had believed I was immune to getting fired, but getting fired in youth ministry is fairly common.  After talking to many a fired youth worker over the years, Len had found basically 5 common reasons.  His advice helped me to better understand what had happened in my own situation, so maybe it can help someone you know too. Here’s a great excerpt in Len’s words:

The phrase “It wasn’t a good fit” is often used to explain transitioning and turnovers between ministries and ministers. It’s an ambiguous phrase but it speaks volumes.  I’ve always wanted to establish a long-term ministry at one church and yet I’m serving my third church in nine years.  I learned through the transitions the importance of finding the mystical “good fit”. A good number of hurts that require healing can be avoided if you know which fits to look for.

1. Theological Fit: This should be obvious but too many youth workers who grew up Baptist wonder why they have a difficult time in a mainline church, or the other way around. Unless you plant your own church there will rarely be a 100% theological match so know your theological non-negotiables.

I had a perfect fit theologically at my first church because the entire pastoral staff went to the same seminary. The differences do make a difference. Just because you are able to get along with someone that holds different theological views doesn’t mean that you can serve in the same church with them. I have a lot of friends from the entire spectrum of Christianity, we can pray together and I know they loved Jesus but I would never be able to work in some of their churches. It’s a matter of conviction and integrity.

2. Philosophical Fit: You and the church may value evangelism but if you don’t agree on how to do evangelism eventually you will have conflict.  If one person in your church wants to hand out tracts to anyone and everyone and another person wants to have a holistic approach to reaching their friends, there will be a conflict when they discuss evangelism.  If the church defines youth worker as events coordinator and you think of yourself as a pastor who is about equipping others for ministry, there will be problems eventually.

Spoken or unspoken, there are different expectations about a youth ministry’s role in the church. Is the purpose of your youth ministry primarily outreach to the unchurched, discipleship of the saints, just keeping kids busy and out of trouble?  What do you think it is?  What does the senior pastor believe it is?  If everyone was really honest, what would other members of the church think it is?  Unless a clear, consistent message is communicated from pastoral leadership, and especially if different factions of your church disagree, you might find your own views (and your job) ending up on the fault line.  The tricky part to navigate is when the ministry’s stated purpose does not line up with the real expectations on your role.  In other words, even if your job description might say “equip students to be disciples,” your success or failure might really be measured by how many students attended your ski trip, retreat, etc.

3. Personal Fit: This applies primarily to the working and personal relationship with the senior pastor, although it also impacts other church leadership and personal interactions.  A friend of mine spoke to almost 400 senior pastors at the ’96 National Clergy Conference in Atlanta. He asked “Who’s really close to their youth pastor”?  Only one pastor slowly raised his hand.  Everyone in a church setting should do what they can to ensure that more hands are raised at the next Pastor’s Conference when that question is asked.

Another challenge to personal fit is change in leadership…which happens a lot in the UMC.  At the first church I served, the pastor who hired me stated clearly “When it comes to disagreements between the church council and staff, I am going to side with the staff person.  I’ve got your back.”  I didn’t understand the value of that statement until, two senior pastors later, the new pastor called me into a meeting to question me in front of a lay leader about a “concern brought to her attention” that really was just a misunderstanding I could have clarified if she’d only asked me first.  She clearly did not share the same philosophy as the pastor who hired me.

4. Vocational Fit: Does the job description really fit who you’re wired to be?  “Youth Pastor” can mean nursery through College at different churches. Make sure your church’s job description reflects your passion, your abilities and your calling.

The first question you should ask is “Can I do the job as it’s described?” The more important question to ask is, “Do I want to do the job as it’s described”? There will always be part of work that are not enjoyed but hopefully the majority of what the job description requires is what you are able to do naturally and with skill.

5. Cultural Fit: This applies to regional, socio-economic, education and more. My wife and I grew up in Alabama but we loved our time in New England. We were accepted and if you know any New Englander’s you know being accepted is a big deal. This is not a right or wrong issue but just a matter of personal preferences and deciding what you are able to live with because you will not change the culture of where you are living.

These Five Areas are not the only areas to consider but I believe they are the five key areas.  One of the hardest things about the interview process is it involves people.  I don’t believe that youth pastors or search committees ever mean to mislead one another just so they can find someone but I do think the problems come to the surface after they begin their working relationship because they don’t know themselves well. So people articulate the proper phrase but they may not have the actual values that put the words into action.

Most of us have been in situations where we didn’t have all of these and probably very few of us have all five so I’m not saying “Unless you have these you won’t have an effective ministry” but I am saying, “The closer your fit in each area the better chance you’ll have at having an effective and long-term ministry.

You could add a #6. Practical Fit.  Can you live off your salary?  You might have the perfect job in every other area, but if you can’t practically live on the wage you are getting paid, it can’t be sustainable.

In my story, I probably lost my job for reasons somewhere between it not being a good philosophical fit and personal fit.  I worked for a church that is still working to identify a clear purpose and vision for its youth ministry.

Why I am better for having been fired: I know better now what my gifts are, what kind of youthworker I am and what to look for in a youth ministry position.  I was asked to leave a good church, but I have learned that it was probably not a good church for my gifts and passions.  In hindsight, I probably sensed something wasn’t working there for me, but now I can articulate what went awry.  I imagine that God might call me to the perfect youth ministry church for me someday, but for now I love having this opportunity to minister to youthworkers and volunteer in youth ministry.

Even in the moment of being told I had lost my job, I knew God had a hand in all that was going on.

In God’s own creativity, He prepared me to minister to youthworkers in a way I could not have learned better any other way.  God has been able to use my experience to minister to others in similar situations.  Does it still sting?  Yes.  But the pain’s worth it when I share in the truly holy moments of understanding what another person in youth ministry is going through.  By surviving my greatest fear, I have learned to depend more on God, embrace change and be brave about following my heart.  God is good, all the time.



Theological, Philosophical, Personal, Vocational, Cultural and Practical Fit – Are there other areas of “good fit” you’d add to this list?  Do you have your own story to share about being fired over this?

By the way, if you know someone in youth ministry who might benefit from this article, please pass it on…we are, after all, our own best resources.

Be blessed,



Erin Jackson is National Director – Community & Care for the Center of Youth Ministry Excellence and the YouthWorker Movement. She is a veteran & certified youthworker as well, and loving her current role as a volunteer Senior High Bible Study teacher.  She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis, three kids and a dog. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/
Follow @ErinJackso







Article Resources:

More about Len Evans at his blog: www.lenevans.net
More about “The Five Star Fit”  http://lenevans.net/2010/09/the-five-star-fit/
More about Simply Soul Care: http://conference.youthministry.com/ForYourHeart/SoulCare/tabid/158/Default.aspx