Great Youth Ministry Requires Vulnerability


By Beth Ruzanic

Lately I’ve been thinking about what best motivates young people. As a 25-year veteran of youth ministry (volunteer and paid) and a mom of four kids (17, 16, 14, 10), I have spent an untold number of hours talking to, praying for and worrying about teenagers. There is no doubt that our culture has gone through massive transformations in the last 2.5 decades, but I’m not at all convinced that the hearts and lives of young people have.

When I was a teenager (which, in my mind, doesn’t seem like that long ago) what I wanted more than anything else was to be deeply known and even more deeply loved. There’s no way that I could have communicated that to anyone but I think I knew it myself. I wanted meaningful connections with people—connections that plumbed the depths of life and didn’t just remain on the surface. In my conversations with young people today I hear that longing still and maybe even more strongly than ever before. The yearning for a connection with someone that taps into what is really at stake in life, that doesn’t let them off the hook or give up on them when things get tough. These are the kind of connections that young people need and the connections that will motivate them to greatness. Not greatness in the typical, American sense but the greatness that comes from knowing they are meant for something more than this world has to offer.

So, how can we accomplish this in our youth ministries? It all starts by nurturing an atmosphere of VULNERABILITY. Having adult standards for kids is the wrong way to build resiliency within them. We have to be nurturing to build up strength within the kids we minister to. In the last few years GRIT has become a buzzword in our culture, and there have been countless conversations in school and at home about how to develop grit in young people. Grit in and of itself isn’t a bad thing at all but I believe most people are thinking about in the wrong way. Tough love isn’t how to develop grit—parents, teachers and youth workers have to be nurturing, empathetic and vulnerable in order to develop grit and resilience in kids today. We need to provide them with a connection that is stable, reliable and unconditionally loving. This will motivate them to growth, trust and depth in all areas of life.

Vulnerability gets a bad rap. By its very nature it is leaving yourself open and unprotected—and that isn’t a comfortable place for most of us. Perhaps we can tweak that narrative a bit and create spaces where we help kids learn that being vulnerable is much closer to how we were meant to live. Spaces that will make them want to leave their phones at the door so they can be unencumbered enough to let their guard down and be loved in ways that are transformational. There is no magic formula but there is a catch: you have to embrace vulnerability yourself first. We cannot take anyone to a place we aren’t willing to go ourselves. The journey towards vulnerability isn’t an easy one—it requires us to get real on every level. It insists that we let go of the idea that we can do things on our own. This road is relentless in its pursuit of tearing down the walls we have built up to protect ourselves. We will walk this journey for the rest of our lives and it will reward us with connections so deep and true that we will realize that we were never protected before; that our walls were a joke that tricked us into believing we were okay.

Embrace vulnerability. It will transform you and then it will transform how you relate to young people.