The Relational Role of Youth Ministry Leaders

Connecting and creating safe spaces to allow youth to thrive.


Let’s begin with a test!

I often use this test when speaking about the powerful influence that trusting, faith-modeling relationships have on young people. Pull out your imaginary pen and paper. You only get fifteen-seconds for each of the following prompts.

  1. Write down the three most influential sermons that have shaped your faith and life. 
  2. Next, write down the three most influential people who have shaped your faith and life. 

Times up! How did you do? Which was easiest? If you are like most, the names of faith and life-shaping people come much quicker than sermons. Not that sermons are not important, but it is often the relational connections, our models and mentors, who have reflected the Spirit’s attributes of grace, love, hope and peace that shapes who we are. Faith is greatly influenced by our relationships. 

Churches have wonderful opportunities to intentionally facilitate relational connections. I have seen some amazing cross+generational programs, grandparenting programs, equipping faith at home practices, mentoring and peer to peer programs. I would wish for every church to become relational connecting communities!

I am a huge advocate for intentionally connecting young people in faith and life sharing relationships. As the director of Peer Ministry Leadership I believe that youth shape the faith of other youth. We all understand the implications of peer pressure. While this is often used in negative contexts I am keenly aware of the positive modeling effects also. 

Let me share three favorite relational faith and life influencing memories! 


Mentoring programs are one of the most successful influencers on young people’s faith. Picture this: a high school small group, which I call a “candle group”. Imagine a campfire atmosphere sitting around a grouping of LED candles. A high school peer minister is leading the discussion. “What do you remember from confirmation?” Silence. A few claim they remember nothing. Three years and they remember nothing! Finally one youth says, “You know what I do remember? I remember a lot of things my mentor and I talked about. One by one all the youth shared specific memories from their mentors. 

This particular group had met four times with a mentor during Lent. The mentors were selected and invited in by youth and their parents. Whether long term, short term or even one time meetings, mentoring is one of the most influential faith and life shapers. 

Naming gifts

Adults often plug into youth programs. The adult volunteers that develop relationships above and beyond their job description have the larger effects. 

Let me take you back to be my seventh grade self. 

Dick was my 7th grade Sunday School teacher. I wish I could tell you what he taught, who was in the class or even where we met. I can’t. What I do remember is that Dick often called me on Saturday mornings just to talk about my week. He got to know my parents, even stopped in for coffee a few times with them. He was an art professor at the local university. I remember hanging out with him and helping with some projects in his art room. At the end of my seventh grade year Dick Harsh sat me down and said, “Lyle, your faith is strong, I hope you do something big with it.” I look back now and often say, “He ruined my life” albeit in a very positive way! Dick was one of my first gift namers. 

Peer influence

Let me boast: I am a good teacher. I could say I am a pure educational genius (please laugh with me)! Churches I worked for would assign me the task of teaching confirmation lessons, some on the Lord’s Prayer. I put together creative, interactive, experiential lessons on the Lord’s Prayer. Trust me, they were amazing. At least that is the way I remembered them. The problem? None of my participants were praying after my amazing, creative, interactive, experiential lessons!

It was not until I started using high school peer ministers to lead groups at camps, at retreats, and in the midst of various programs that I heard young participants pray aloud. Why? I learned spiritual practices are modeled and mentored more than they are taught.  We learn our spiritual practices, like prayer, from real people who pray. As a, “Paid pray-er,” I don’t know that I am as effective as I would like to think. Build a team of real people, who are eager and willing to learn spiritual practices that they can participate in and share with others.

Relationships matter

The Search Institute (, is doing the most recent studies on the impact and importance of relational connections. Their studies show that youth who have more positive developmental relationships are higher achievers, more responsible, and have strong social and emotional skills. The reverse is also true. The fewer positive influencing relationships, the more likely the young person will engage in risky behaviors. The implications for schools, organizations, churches and even parents and grandparents is to intentionally surround every young person with positive relationships. Search’s growing evidence suggests that strategically and systematically investing in building developmental relationships can be catalytic for effective education, programs, services and churches.

Search’s researchers identified five critical results reported by youth.

  1. Expressed and felt cared for
  2. Challenged growth
  3. Provided support
  4. Shared empowerment 
  5. Expanded possibilities

I hope this triggers enough curiosity for you to explore this major study further! 

Safe relationships

Intentional relational connections also need intentional safety practices. We have all heard about the negative influencers, even abusers. Taking precautions to safeguard young people is common sense and necessary. Every church needs relational safety policies. A quick search can bring up samples. Most denominations post these. Work with church leadership and a knowledgeable lawyer. Such policies protect your young people along with your staff and volunteers.

To trigger some beginning thoughts, this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are three common sense areas of safety.

Safe people 

Adults need safety policy training, which often includes signing statements that policies are understood. Young people can also be taught what to expect and what not to accept from participating adults. When it is known that young people are taught about positive, safe and appropriate adult behaviors, perpetrators are much more likely to stay away.

Adults working with youth…

  • consent to background checks
  • are in harmony with your congregation’s doctrine and leadership
  • do not wield power to manipulate, dominate or control
  • use dual leadership practices, meaning two or more adults are always present 
  • know that flirting, or sexually affectionate signals of any kind, are not tolerated 
  • know your church’s safe touch or even no touch practices
  • use open, visible spaces when having one-to-one conversations with young people

Safe places

Talking about safe spaces necessarily includes building codes and plans to minimize acts of violence. Relational connections are the focus here. Program spaces are accepting, inviting, welcoming as well as safe.


  • provide for comfortable, relaxed conversations
  • are designed to be open and visible
  • keep doors open or have doors with windows in program areas
  • respect the policies of camps and other off-site facilities
  • vehicle rides include two adult volunteers or staff along with parent permission

Safe conversations

Connections allowing the sharing of faith and life are essential. Youth need people with whom they can freely try out ideas, share beliefs, feelings, doubts, life stresses and wondering about faith and life.


  • are confidential, shared only with permission
  • are confidential unless sharing includes: 1. harm of self, 2. planning to harm another, or 3. being harmed by someone. These all require walking with a young person and finding necessary help according to child safety laws
  • in small group discussions are never forced. Participants always have a right to pass.
  • with adults are kept to appropriate adult-to-youth levels. Adults describing sexual behaviors, chemical use, or marital issues are not appropriate.
  • avoid private texting or social media use. Communications are visible to groups and normally are about programs. 
  • in which flirting or dependency is happening mean that it is time for that relationship to end
  • include self-awareness that adult sharing is not about meeting personal and emotional needs.

With precautions and policies in place, we have safe space for life-giving relationships. People need people. Young people need authentic, trusting relationships that become powerful, positive influences on their faith and life. Churches that strategize for faith formation make intentional relational connections a priority.

  • Lyle Griner

    Lyle Griner is the National Director of Peer Ministry Leadership, best known for teaching relational faith and life skills that allow people to love every neighbor.

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