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Listening Youth Leader

The Listening Youth Leader

“I won’t care about how much you know until I know how much you care.”

Have you ever heard that phrase before? It is a key phrase that I heard over and over again, emphasizing the importance of listening while leading youth ministry.

Listening Youth Leader

As I have shared in previous blog posts, I grew up in youth ministry around giants who did not know (or care) that they were giants. This is the kind of wisdom they would remind us of.

Humble Leadership

In those early days I don’t have a single memory of someone driving home the point that we needed more kids to show up. I don’t recall anyone hyper-critiquing my Young Life talks to ensure they were 100% theologically accurate or delivered with perfect diction. I don’t remember having a smoke machine or the best music. I certainly don’t remember having a multi-million dollar worship space.

There is nothing more nutritious to the soul than being listened to well.

What do I remember?

I’ll never forget the day our Young Life area director, Reid Estes, invited me as a confused college kid to drive out to the local high school with him and visit with some kids during lunches. As we pulled into the parking lot of the high school, Reid confessed he was pretty nervous and really didn’t feel like going into lunches that day.

His vulnerability left a mark on me. His prayer was no different: “Father, we are nervously here to visit with some folks who You know and love. May they be attracted to You in us, nothing more.”

I was struck by this moment. Here was a man—a leader—authentically confessing his fear and weakness.

Listening Leadership

It would be Reid’s tears the following summer that struck me again. Just like the trip to the high school, Reid invited me to join him as a co-leader in his cabin of high school guys at Windy Gap.

Midweek sometime, Reid invited me to play disc golf with him to check in. Over several holes, he gently floated a handful of questions that I casually answered as we meandered from hole to hole.

I remember glancing over at Reid at one point and noticed that he was tearing up. So I inquired and he simply said, “Hayne, I am so, so sorry.”  

My story and my pain were as common as the rain to me but Reid appeared to be listening beneath the surface. He risked allowing my pain to affect him.

Good Leadership

What do I remember? In other words, what made Reid a good leader?

  • He was really tuned in as a listener.
  • He walked with me. He stayed nearby and allowed our conversation to be the centerpiece, not the game. We walked slowly.
  • He was genuinely curious and his questions were laced with compassion.
  • He reflected my own pain back to me and gave me permission to begin acknowledging my neediness.
  • He did not offer advice or remedies…just his quiet and gentle presence.
  • He hugged me with tears in his eyes.
  • He gave me permission to cry over my own story…and the stories of others.

There is nothing more nutritious to the soul than being listened to well.

Rushed Leadership

It angers and saddens me to remember how ferociously I chased the idols of event-making and crowd-gathering. In the fury and frenzy of crafting the latest greatest pop-up events, I literally raced right past kids in whose eyes I saw a hunger to be heard and known. I write this with tears in my eyes even now…I really wish I had possessed the awareness to do more listening.

There is this idea that the most influence will be made on a platform, standing in front of a large crowd with a mic in your hand… I’ll be super honest. I can’t remember what any youth leader ever said from the platform under any spotlight. Not a single sentence.

What would those kids (now adults) remember about what we offered them?

  • Funny skits?
  • Large crowds?
  • Amazing trips?
  • Obnoxious program budgets?
  • Random event promos and flyers?
  • Packed parking lots?
  • Stuffed youth rooms?
  • Millions of pieces of pizza?

None of these are bad or evil. And I know I did some listening in there along the way. Maybe even some good listening. I grieve not having done more of it. I mean…I feel like I should write letters of apology to former students for being so unavailable.

How To Be a Listener

There is a great book that every human should push to the top of their reading lists. It could even be called “Being Human 101.” The actual title is The Lost Art of Listening, and it’s written by Michael Nichols.

Let this wisdom land on you…

“When we attempt to listen we can impart to the speaker our unawareness of hearing them, by the shift of our the eyes, our glance away, letting our eyes glaze over, looking around, or interrupting them to speak to someone else. All of these signals leave the speaker knowing they have not been heard.

Not  being heard limits our responsiveness in all areas of our living. We long to be understood by someone listening to and hearing us, with understanding and compassion. We become stronger when we are recognized.  The simplest things can trigger a sense of rejection, even an unreturned phone call.”

Do you want to know something? Listening is good for students. It’s good for you too. Listening cultivates empathy in the listener. It provides a context for noticing. It catalyzes discovery. It promotes vulnerability. It helps eradicate shame.

Ed Dobson frames it for us simply and beautifully.

“It is one broken person talking to another broken person. And there is power in that.”

How To Lead as a Listener

Allow me to offer three simple suggestions:

1) Begin with one

There is no earthly way to listen effectively to more than one student at a time. Let that be a word of freedom. You don’t have to be superhuman. Live within your means and be with kids one at a time…even in a crowd. Especially in a crowd.

Recently in a leader meeting with youth leaders, one middle-aged woman whose large heart for students could not be restrained spoke up…

“How do I offer this kind of empathic listening to the girls in our small group when there are as many as 40 girls showing up this year?”

I think you’ll see the answer slowly lift off the page. Begin. With. One.

2) Be yourself

When opportunities present themselves, avoid the temptation to be anyone other than who you really, really are. Teenagers can quickly sniff out a fraud. And they are quick to flock to someone who is willing to honest, open and vulnerable.

There is this idea that the most influence will be made on a platform, standing in front of a large crowd with a mic in your hand. I chased it for years. Like a dog chasing his own tail.

I’ll be super honest. I can’t remember what any youth leader ever said from the platform under any spotlight. Not a single sentence.

But I can tell you intimate details of moments when one of my youth leaders sat with me and simply listened. I can even remember what we talked about. I can remember their questions. I can remember the expression on their face. I can remember how it made me feel. Human. Normal. Loved.

3) Be there fully

When a student begins to speak with you…relax. Make eye contact. Be careful not to divert your eyes to more interesting things happening in the background. Lean into the conversation. Linger. Rest easy. Be grounded in that space.

So when your next event is over…

…and the crowd clears out…

…and the fluorescent lights get turned on…

…and all of the mess is cleaned up…

…and all the leaky trash bags get hauled down to the dumpster…

…and the doors are all locked up behind you…

…and you head out to your car under the glimmer of street lights…

…and on the drive home you start to evaluate the evening’s agenda…

…can you confess that you have done more listening than being listened to? 


About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.