So, once upon a time, I volunteered for this thing called coffee house. My church hosted it a few times a year, and it was an event for teens where local bands would play and it would be a substance free event. I, of course, thought back to my own high school years, and the negotiations for rides for things and how easy it would have been to get my parents to let me go to an event at a church and thought I want to support this. (Later one of the teens told me most of the kids don't realize it is a church.)
There some of the other adult volunteers asked me which were my kids and were surprised to find I did this not to keep an eye on my kids but simply out of my strange desire to volunteer. (I will tell you it is very loud. And these local bands are often populated by teens themselves so it is a little like a de facto rock talent show. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
So, one adult, who turned out to also run the youth program at our church handed me a folder about being a youth advisor. I asked to ponder, but found her a few days later and agreed. It was January. I was, essentially, a mid-season replacement for another adult who had been over-committed. I came to a session, was introduced to the group and the teens were told that after today if they had any concerns to let the coordinator know. My first glimpse into youth empowerment was that they, essentially, had the power to fire me. (I will tell you, that I never saw them abuse this power. I did once, have them ask me about another new adult, was that person for sure going to be there for the whole year, and I told them that they could express any concerns they had and it would be taken into consideration.)
I learned so many things from them. The strange thing about working as a youth advisor is that, due to the four walls or Vegas rule, so much of what happens I cannot speak about. I always thought my life would involve working with kids. There is a long line of teachers in my family (and writer, and cops). When my career went in a different direction, it now seems obvious that I would end up finding another to work with kids. I never thought they would be teens. Teens scared me a bit, because, let's face it, the power balance is pretty tenuous once they are too big for you to pick them up one handed and they are old enough to understand your lack of power. So it is amusing now that I not only ended up working with teens but working with them in an environment where the power balance was pretty firmly on their side.
The adults absolutely help and monitor and suggest things, but the teens run this program. They design the program, they often led the meetings. They worked on things that supported the church and their own activities, it was amazing to see. And through them I remember that sense of being a teen and having all that energy and all those ideas and being so ready to go make change in the world.
As an adult its really easy to get stuck on the logistics. Someone will say we should create a community garden and I'll say, well, I think that requires permits. And here's the thing, I may be right about the permits, and the logistics are an important part of it too, but as an adult I sometimes get stuck on the roadblocks and they reminded me of all the plans I had to fix the whole world. (All of it.)
In the time I worked with the youth group they have gone from being relegated to the expansion trailers (which our then minister kept trying to call cottages) out back, to having their own room. (Well, as much their own as can happen in a multi-purpose building.) They started the now annual Murder Mystery Dinner Theater. They used to only meet at second service. One year when the numbers were high, the choice was made to meet at both services. And now, echoing a congregational shift, they only meet first service, and hold extra classes second service. They suckered me on to Facebook. They have acknowledged me when running into me on the street or on coffee shops. They give the most amazing service every year. (Seriously, people, often people who don't know I work with the youth, tell me how it's their favorite each year.)
And the last batch of years, we've had a winter retreat where as an exercise in our final worship, we write affirmation papers for each other. It is one of those ides that sounds so hokey and ridiculous, and now you will pry those papers away from my cold, dead hands. Each person passes around a piece of paper and everybody writes something about them. Something nice. Now, it's hard, not because people aren't lovely, but writing thirty individualized nice things is a bit of a challenge. But here's a sampling of some I got over the years.
"You are a great person and have a good outlook on life. Thanks for being an amazing advisor."
"I like your knitting. I also like your silly anecdotes. I like you too."
"Keep on rollin' and keep on being a BAMF!"
I am, well, right now we're calling it taking a break from being an advisor. When I started, the max was four years. My fourth (or three and a halfth, since I started mid-year) coincided with a number of other advisors' fourths and the rule was revisited and discarded. The challenge was that I have seen people who do it for too long get too attached to the way things have always been done, and the other idea for cycling some new blood in is to increase the number of people in the congregation who know how cool the youth really are. So, that time has come. And I keep reminding myself that the goal is too leave while it still feels like I am giving something up. I have been advised to not try and fill this spot right away, even if I already have another great idea. (That person is wise.)