The Connecting Authority Figure

Originally published September 2004.

The following is an internet‑forum discussion off of the former YS Forum boards I jumped into.  It is reprinted here with permission, names changed and bad internet chat grammar in tact.

Youth pastor: “I do the whole substituting thing (substitute teaching) too, but that is mostly because my degree is in education and the church does not pay me enough to do just that. However, I am very intrigued by how you see subbing as an essential part of youth ministry. I hate the fact that I have to sub for youth that I have, and even for youth I could potentially reach. Because in the classroom I have to be “Mr. Stonehill” instead of Randy.

Also, I know can’t promote the youth group to kids because of church and state laws. I really wish I did not have to sub so that I could enter the schools as a youth worker and build relationships with the students instead of having to be an authority figure.”

Me: “You entering the school as a sub is a wider influence on youth than entering the school as a youth worker. Every study shows that teachers have way more influence on teens than clergy. Most studies also show that the number one stressor for teens is school stress. You being a sub gives you an automatic in with that stress as you truly know what goes on inside the school walls. You are not a visitor with a visitor’s badge. You are a school system employee. That also gives you way more pull with administration and teachers. As a youth worker you are a distraction (do you have security in your school? Security in particular sees you as a distraction).  They have to be polite to. But being one of them is something completely different. You are an authority figure as a sub, but a loved authority figure. Aren’t you an authority figure as a youth leader?

“I love being called Mrs. Seefeldt. When I hear it outside of the school walls, I know it is coming from someone I would not have met at my church. I know it is coming from someone who wants to talk to me outside of school because he/she thinks of me as an important adult to him/her.

“I love being called Mrs. Seefeldt.”

Second youth pastor: “The local school system here gave me an employee badge. I am welcome to come and go as I please. One of the first times I visited, I was waiting for a kid in the foyer when a fight broke out right in front of me. Of course I broke it up, but then I stuck around and made the reports. Finally, after all of it was settled, one of the principals asked, ‘and what do you teach?’

“The administration really appreciated what I’d done, and the couple of teachers who were around when the fight broke out thanked me for stopping it, because neither of them could have done what I did.

“When I got back to church, the news had gone (through) the youth group around that I wasn’t someone you messed with because I jumped right in there to break up that fight…

“Fun stuff.”

Youth pastor: “The problem I have is this: Disrespect is an epidemic problem in the local Junior high (I also substitute in a neighboring school system and it is not that bad there).  As we can all remember from our school days students are always much more disrespectful to a sub than anyone else. Also, as a youth leader it is much easier to build a relationship with a student than as a teacher. A student is much more likely to be friendly and respectful to someone they feel they can relate to. It is much easier for a student to relate to someone wearing a jeans and t‑shirt than someone wearing a tie going by Mr. whatever.

“To bring my jumbled thoughts together: Two weeks ago I had a lock-in where my average group attendance was tripled. Two of the new kids who came were two of the disrespectful type kids from the junior high. The entire night they referred to me and treated me like ‘Mr. Stonehill.’ Perhaps they would have been little punks anyway, but I can’t help to think that if their first impression of me would have been as Randy, youth minister as oppose to Mr. Stonehill, Sub, it would have been a bit easier to connect with them.”

Me: “I respectfully disagree. I don’t want to be friends with the youth in my youth group. I don’t want to be a jeans‑wearing, cool adult to them. I am a grown adult. I want that significant adult/youth type of relationship and that comes so much easier as a sub because the youth knows that I truly know what is going on at school. When I was just a youth pastor, I was clueless to this large part of their lives. I would tell them to ‘reach their schools for Christ’ without having any clue as to what that means to them.

“I sub at a true ghetto school. Disrespect is rampant mostly because there is so much disrespect for themselves. Yet I am loved, hugged and able to speak life into these students because I am amongst them in a situation where they feel like failures. That gives me more respect than I get from most youth groups I preach to.

“I don’t need to be cool to get that. I get that because I am an adult helping them with their number one stressor in their lives.”

I hate to use this youth pastor as a single example but there are some preconceptions he has in his responses that have me concerned.  Preconceptions I wonder if other youth leaders also have.

1.  Youth leaders are authority figures. You are not big buddies.  You have been entrusted by the parents with the welfare of minors.  That means you have to be concerned with safety and safety means rules.  Rules need to be enforced by the authority and that is you.  You are an authority figure.  Go, look in the mirror and repeat that to yourself until it sticks.  Embrace that you are an authority figure.

Your youth will still like you because in safety and authority there is comfort and security.  In comfort and security anyone can learn and that is what you want to see happen which is why you work with youth.  Even if you are 18 years old and in charge (the age when I started) you need to separate yourself as an authority figure.

High school students do like to have older friends.  Older friends give high school students more things to do so they feel more grown up.  Older friends also own their own cars and can buy the beer.  You being a buddy to your youth group sends the wrong message to teens.  You’ve let them down‑‑both the parents and the teens.

But don’t let authority go to your head like Mr. Rooney, the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

2.  Youth leaders should connect with youth with what they deal with: school, stress, parents, etc. You should be an authority figure who connects with what is important to them.  One of those areas is school and not just because they can be a campus missionary there.  School means rote teaching, overcrowded hallways, mean words said to each other, survival, expectations, failures, and wounded spirits.  How can you as a youth leader and as a youth group better minister in those areas?

Very few of us can take the time in our schedule to substitute teach or coach or find another way to help the school.  For practical ideas how, read Be a Blessing to Your School.  Whatever your schedule allows, you still can be a bridge with your approach to school in your youth group.  Remember what ministered to you when you were subjected to rote teaching, overcrowded hallways, mean words said to each other, survival, expectations, failures, and wounded spirits.

I want to close with a story about authority and connecting.  At my school where I sub I have gotten to know a student named Manpreet.  She comes from India and can barely speak English.  She is a student in regular classes as well as English as a Second Language classes and I’ve subbed for her in both.  Whenever and wherever she sees me she comes running for that hug and we have small conversations.  They are small because I have a hard time understanding her broken English.  I can’t say we talk about anything profound much less about spiritual things like I do with other students.  But we connect in a deep way.  Why?  In a very scary setting for her, she sees me as a safety net.  She sees that when I am in charge (authority) not only will I work to communicate with her the lesson but I will also protect her from any comments by other students.  She sees that I am a part of her learning progress and she can learn because she feels safe.  And in the process, this sweet girl has more prayers to the true God going her way.

Have you embraced that connecting authority figure you are yet?

Back to May, 2011:  I am still substitute teaching in this school.  I have the same stories to tell with different students.  This truth still holds.