Every year at work, we host thousands of volunteers in groups, from adults all the way down to middle school students. Usually, there is a designated leader for the group, sometimes two. Typically, this is the same person who has taken the time to contact us, set up the experience, and mobilized the rest of the volunteers. With a group of entirely adults, there is almost always an intrinsic motivator for joining the group of volunteers that matches the motivation level of the leader. This means that the leader doesn’t have to do too much work to get the rest of the group to actually do the work.
With a group of kids led by an adult, this dynamic is completely different. Over the almost three years I’ve been in volunteer management, I would argue that the most important factor in the overall quality of an experience with a group of kids is the adult who’s in charge. This is true in an educational setting, too. Research bears out that quality teachers can overcome all other potentially negative external factors bearing on a student’s education…combined.
Two summers ago, one of the first really big youth groups who visited our agency from two states away had two leaders, both in their late 20’s. They were both staff members at the church, and the kids knew them well. For some reason, I just remember those leaders as being absolute taskmasters. The kids worked a typical 9-to-3 or 9-to-4 day, took lots of water breaks, and had fun during lunch. The usual. But the leaders stood for absolutely no slacking on the job, no horseplay, no carelessness in the work. None.
And all of this was done in the most loving, relational way I have yet seen in youth group leadership. The kids absolutely respected and adored their leaders. All day, you could see the kids coming to just be around the adult leaders, talking to them, seeking advice, and sharing stories. The adults knew why the kids were there, and it wasn’t for a vacation in the name of their church.
As a lifelong Methodist, I’m a bit of a sucker for being methodical, for loving discipline. Do I ever actually take that part of myself seriously enough for it to matter? Unfortunately not. But what is it that we fear about God being a father who requires we take our childhood seriously? We are children of the most high God, not some ordinary deity.
The more I slowly, hesitantly lean into the ancient disciplines of our faith (scripture, prayer, fasting, community, worship), and do them consistently, whether I feel like it or not, the more I start to become who I didn’t think I could be.
Those senior youth from a couple of summers ago are probably all in college by now. And I am sure they know exactly who they will call on the phone when they begin the series of questions about their faith that defines so many of our college-age Christian journeys. May they and we have the fortitude to know that God’s discipline is wholly unlike that of our earthly parents. It is always just. It is always full of forgiveness. It always expects the greatest possible version of ourselves.
Kenneth J. Pruitt is the Director of Volunteer Management & Service Learning at Kingdom House, an IVC partner agency focused on social services and founded during the settlement house movement. Sometimes he blogs, tweets, or hangs out on Facebook. He is proud of St. Louis, his adopted home. His wife is far more attractive and intelligent than he. He loves what you’ve done with your hair.