10 Things Every Adult Leader Should Know

On a recent mission trip, I interacted with adult leaders from across the country.

One was permanently attached to her phone. She called her office every 10 minutes to see if a crisis had developed she alone could solve—from 800 miles away. Another was overbearing, completely dominating his work crew at the expense of his team. Another complained constantly—in the van, the showers and at meals. Her mood spread among the group as a cancerous growth. Still another had no qualms about yelling at students—as long as they were students from churches other than her own.

As I observed how the behavior and moods of these leaders affected the students around them, I was reminded of the power adult leaders have to make or break a student's mission experience. Knowing this, here are ten things every mission trip adult leader should know.

1. You set the tone. Students will mimic your attitude. If you're positive, they will be, too; If you're negative, they will be, too. Never share complaints (even justified ones) with students. Instead, talk concerns over with other adults. Then work together to problem solve.

2. There is good, even in the midst of an awful day where nothing goes as planned. Find it. Name it. Focus on it. Choose joy. Trust God to use imperfect days in the lives of you and your students.

3. Your world at home will not collapse without you. So disconnect. Set down your cell phone and laptop. Communicate value to students by being with them, free from worries about what's happening at home. If you must call home, do so once a day, as quickly as possible, away from your students.

4. Mission trip schedules are really just an ordered list of what you'll be doing in a given day, not specific times at which you'll be doing them. When large groups of people serve and travel together, things happen. People get lost. Dinner takes longer than expected. A discussion runs over. Be flexible. Focus on who you're with and what you're doing rather than on the time. Be in the moment, trusting that everything that needs to happen will.

5. Leading is best done from behind. When you're at a work site, before volunteering for a job yourself, ensure students are serving. Help them find jobs and cheer them on. Once they're working, serve alongside them.

6. Students need encouragement. Catch them doing things right. Tell them what you saw, specifically and honestly. Speak your hopes and dreams into them.

7. No one likes to be publicly shamed. Since most students know when they've screwed up, there's no need to point out their failure to a room full of people. Instead, talk privately. Communicate your feelings, without lashing out. Walk your student through what needs to be done to repair damage and reconcile. Be a vehicle of God's love and grace by offering forgiveness and allowing your student to start fresh without fear of having his failure haunt him.

8. Authority is derived from relationships, not position. Don't try to discipline a student you don't know. Regardless of your intentions, this will only make the student disrespect you. If you have a legitimate concern about a student you don't know, talk to their adult leader. Trust that leader to deal with the issue in a way that honors God and the student.

9. You are not the point of a youth mission trip, even though you'll likely benefit from it. Focus on your students, who are the point. Sit with them. Be with them. Ask them questions about what they're seeing and experiencing. Then listen.

10. Relationships matter more than work. Be people-focused; Not task-oriented. Invest in students. Get to know who you're serving. Help students do the same. The most important hour you spend at a ministry site probably won't be spent painting or weeding; It'll be spent in a God-infused conversation with a stranger you'll remember long after you've returned home. 

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

More about Jen

Jen's Books

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Now Available!

Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

Based on National Research

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