If I Could Write A Letter To Me: 9 Lessons Learned From A 3rd Year Leader

November 20, 2012

A guest post from Ashton Fenster, a volunteer leader in Richardson, Texas. 


This is my third year leading now and I am completely different leader than when I started.
Every year, I begin the year by realizing how crappy of a leader I was the year before.
First off, I was eighteen when I first started and barely out of high school myself. I was leading at the school that I had graduated from just 3 months prior to that and had no idea how to talk to the freshmen girls. You’d think I would have been a pro at it since I myself had been one much more recently than any of the other leaders. But that was definitely not the case because I was so awkward! 

Now, I definitely don’t claim to be a super-star by any means. I know for a fact that there are plenty better leaders out there than I am because I have the privilege of leading alongside some of them every single week. I have, however, learned valuable lessons in my experience so far that I wish someone would have warned me of when I first started out.
And so, I was inspired this morning to write a “Top 9.” These are tips I wish I could write in a letter and send to myself three years ago, when I first became a Young Life leader. (Why yes, I did steal Brad Paisley’s idea about the whole letter thing.) 

Be Present

Latch onto a leader that’s been there longer and follow them around to all of the events they attend. 

Learn The Art Of Small Talk  

Talk to them about school, boys, girls, their favorite shows, sports, YL club, family, friends, their hair, their hobbies, their dreams, funny jokes, your failures, etc…

Just talk–even if it’s about the most insignificant things. Sometimes the beginning stages of building relationships with teenagers feels a lot like dating. At first, conversations are very surface level and sometimes awkward. But after some time, you eventually get to the conversations that really matter. There is a proper order for everything, and conversations are no different. 

Demand Honesty

Both years that I’ve been to camp as a leader, I begin our first cabin time by laying out a few ground rules. I make them all agree that everything that is said remains confidential and that we’re not going to talk about anything that’s said with anyone else once we leave the cabin. I tell them it’s a place where they can ask any questions they want, even the dumb ones. And if I ask them a question, they are to respond with blunt honesty — even if their response is to tell me they think I’m an idiot and they think I’m full of crap. I don’t want them to put on a show for me, or to feed me answers they think I want to hear. I just want to know them: the real them, not the “them” they present to everyone else. I want to know the things they’re proud of and the things they’re not proud of. I want genuine relationships. 

Avoid sarcasm 

This one might sound strange, but hear me out. Teenagers are fragile. They will take anything and everything you say personally. A teensy tiny joke about how they’re a pig because they had 4 helpings of mashed potatoes at dinner might be intended as a friendly tease, but what they’re hearing is, “You’re ugly and fat.” Lack of self confidence isn’t a struggle for girls alone. Boys deal with it too. And you, as their leader, need only to be building them up with compliments. You can never ever ever be too careful when using sarcasm, because they’re going to believe that every joke you tell carries a little bit of truth. 

Show Them Your Confidence

Teenagers thrive off of confidence. Their souls salivate at today’s celebrities and supermodels because of one thing — their confidence. No teenager is going to believe you have anything to offer them if they think you’re just as fearful and self conscious as they are. 

They Won’t Let You In During The Bad Times If You’re Not There For Them In The Good Times 

This is a life-changing realization I just came to last week. I used to believe that you earn the right to be heard with people through being there for them when they’re in a rough spot, or going through a tragedy. It’s exactly the opposite, though. No teenager is going to want you there for them when their parents divorce, or when someone near to them dies, or some other tragedy happens if you aren’t there to celebrate with them before that. You earn your right to be heard by people by genuinely celebrating with them — which is a lot harder to do than you might think! Genuine happiness for someone looks like that psycho, overenthusiastic mom that’s screaming at the top of their lungs as she cheers on her kid at their soccer game. It’s that dad that loses his mind and charges the umpire when they make a bad call at his 4-year-old son’s tee-ball game. It’s knowing their sports schedules and showing up to every single one — just to be a face in the audience. Genuine happiness for someone is so rare and valuable in gaining trust from teenagers. Show them that you have this, and you just might earn the right to be that person they call when they’re in a crisis. 

Be Consistent

In the words of my friend, Todd Tramonte: “Teenagers have enough inconsistent people walking in and out of their lives.” It is impossible to earn their trust if you look like every other figure in their life. 

Forget About The Numbers 

We say this all the time when talking about attendance at club. It really is about quality, rather than quantity. When I first became a leader, I was more concerned with making sure I knew every single one of the kids in my assigned grade (which is an impossible feat at a school of nearly 3,000), rather than latching on to the few girls that I first met, and growing those relationships. I was so consumed with the numbers, I can honestly say that I failed at truly discipling any kids until my third year. I wasted half of those years being overwhelmed with the numbers. In the words of Andy Stanley, “Do for one what you can’t do for all.” After all, Jesus called us to make disciples, not to know the name of every kid at your high school. 

Be A Tortoise 

Slow and steady wins the race.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t immediately have kids reaching out to befriend you. Sometimes teenagers are like scared dogs. (Please don’t take offense to that, guys.) Approach them too strongly and they’ll run away. Stand there and let them sniff your hand first, and they’ll let you pet them.
Don’t be discouraged if your relationships with kids comes about slowly. It takes time! 

You can read more on Ashton’s blog

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