Walking with Generation Z: Reaching Youth with Relational Authority – Catholic World Report

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Eighty-five percent of Gen Z say that they are more likely to take advice from someone who cares about them, and sixty-nine percent say that “a person’s expertise doesn’t matter if they don’t care about me.”

Walking with Generation Z: Reaching Youth with Relational Authority – Catholic World Report
(Image: Michael Henry/Unsplash.com)

This series has so far covered critical research and statistics on Gen Z, but this abstract data is not enough on its own. Those who work with the youth know that we need more than a new perspective; we also need practical ways to minister in light of this data. Consequently, we must now ask how can the insight presented in the previous articles translate into our real-world experience?

In this article, we will focus on establishing relationships with Gen Z because, as we previously saw, this relationship is the most important part of guiding Gen Z. In fact, Springtide Research Institute has developed a whole framework called relational authority “based on the understanding that young people often need to feel they are cared for before they can be receptive to the influence or authority of others in their lives.”1 While relational authority sounds good on paper, those who work with Gen Z know that developing healthy relationships without compromising one’s authority can be very challenging.

This article will offer seven practical guidelines for mentors to develop greater relational authority with Gen Z youth. These suggestions come from Springtide Research Institute and from my own experience of teaching this generation in both secular and religious contexts. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully it can begin a much larger conversation about effectively bringing about real change in the lives of the youth we serve.

Seven Guidelines to Relational Authority

First, as mentors, we must pray for those whom we teach and guide. This guideline may seem obvious, but it is the most valuable thing a mentor can do. Ultimately, God directs these young people, and we are simply His instruments. We play a critical role in the lives of these youth, yet we are only part of His plan. Through prayer, we acknowledge the role God has given us, which frees us from feeling that everything relies on us.

Of course, when we pray, not only we should ask the Holy Spirit to lead our conversations with the youth, but also we should ask God to open the hearts of the youth and our hearts. Both parties can grow closer to God when our conversations are transformed by God’s grace. If we are having a hard time finding an opportunity to engage with a particular young person, we should pray that God offers us this opportunity. Personally, I have found that when I ask God for these moments, He offers them very quickly. Lastly, we should pray for the salvation of all our students. I remember when one of my own professors told me that he had been praying for me for over thirty years, I was shocked because I was not even alive thirty years ago. But then he explained that he prayed for all his students past and future every day for over thirty years. Not only was I won over by his care for me, but I know that his prayers made a real effect in my life and in the lives of my classmates.

Second, we must meet the youth where they are at. This sometimes means that we need to meet them in the same physical location. For example, when I first started teaching college freshmen, I had an office and specific hours when students could come to meet me. But once I moved my office hours to the cafeteria, my engagement with my students increased dramatically. Not only did more students come to ask me questions about the class, but I enjoyed talking to them as they passed by. Even though this type of physical proximity looks different for various types of mentors, it is still important to know where we can meet and engage with these young people naturally.

Oftentimes, we cannot wait for the youth to come to us, we must go to them. The mentors who have mastered relational authority go above and beyond just to get to know the youth and spend more time with them. This extra effort, even when it means sacrificing our free time, helps mentors meet the youth where they are at personally. For example, mentors can attend sporting events or college professors can host movie nights in one of the school auditoriums. Personally, my favorite event when I taught college freshmen was the annual fall hike with my students. These efforts show that we, as mentors, care about the wellbeing of the youth as persons made in God’s image and likeness.

Finally, meeting this generation where they are at requires that we listen to what they have to say with authentic interest. We should not only inquire about their life, but we must remember what they said. According to the data collected by Springtide, this generation is statistically more likely to open up and trust a mentor who has spent meaningful time with them, listens to them, and remembers their stories and interests. When we listen to them, we must be careful to not interject because these interruptions are often interpreted as talking down to them or revealing a lack of care. Instead, we must sympathize with them, suffer with them, and genuinely care about what they are going through. While these suggestions about listening may seem small, a mentor who consistently fails to meet the youth in these ways will not be able to establish relational authority.2


Third, we must be honest and admit when we are wrong or do not know something. Sometimes, mentors may think that to protect their authority they must hide their mistakes or ignorance so that they do not show any signs of “weakness.” Yet a mentor who practices relational authority sets a good example by taking ownership of his mistakes and trying to make them better. For example, if a parent is harsh with his child without a good reason, he should circle back and apologize. This humility is critical for regaining the trust of Gen Z youth because 80% of young Catholics say that they trust someone who admits when they were wrong.4 Furthermore, mentors should admit when they don’t know something. The youth do not expect us to always have the answer; if we cannot answer one of their questions, it is best to praise their question, admit our ignorance, and follow up with further research. The truth is that Generation Z is more interested in honesty and sincerity than with bravado and hypocrisy.

Fourth, we must be consistent and follow up on our promises. Trust is seriously damaged if we make a promise to the youth and then fail to follow through. If we want to win their respect, then we must be consistent. If we want the youth to honor their promises and commitments, then we must honor ours. For example, a football team will not work as hard for their coach if they do not see him putting in the same effort on and off the field. Of course, none of us are perfect, and at times we all fall short, fail to be consistent, or keep our promises. But in these moments, we should admit our fault and make adjustments to do better next time. As mentors, we set an important example through our words and deeds, and sometimes our true character, for better or worse, comes out when we fall short. If we want the youth to take our advice seriously, then we must live what we preach.5

Fifth, we must establish proper boundaries and our own expertise. We all know certain mentors, teachers, or parents who have tried to be cool. They lost their authority not because they did not care for the youth, but because they were not authentic. They tried to be best friends with the youth instead of their mentor, and they wanted to be liked more than they wanted to be in authority. When the natural social boundaries are broken and mentors try to act, dress, or talk like Generation Z, they lose the respect of the youth. To avoid this common pitfall, mentors must maintain personal and professional boundaries, which will look different depending on their occupation or vocation. For example, parents should have greater involvement in the personal lives of their children than what would be appropriate for a youth minister. Whatever the role of the mentor, all relational authority requires that a certain level of distance and respect is maintained. We must ensure that our care for these young people compliments our authority, rather than undermines it.

One way to establish healthy boundaries is by exhibiting your expertise. However, your expertise must be proven through your actions, not through your title or the letters after your name. For example, Gen Z are less likely to respect the spiritual and religious authority of a priest simply because he is called “father.” But if that priest is truly holy, his virtuous actions will win them over such that they will now heed his advice and follow his example. Therefore, we must let our teaching, character, wisdom, and experience speak for itself because the youth will respect who we are now more than what we accomplished in the past.

Sixth, we must share our experiences with the youth, both the good and the bad. The youth want to know who you are interpersonally; they will be curious about your likes and dislikes, your hobbies, and your stories, especially if you show an interest in who they are. By sharing yourself and your experiences, you can develop greater relational authority because they can relate to you more. But if you try to be somebody that you are not or do not share who you are, then you will fail to establish any real relationship with these youth and the guidance you offer will be less effective. Therefore, we ought to show the youth who we really are through our actions, stories, examples, and even through our vulnerability and past mistakes.6

But as in all things, we must carefully and prudently discern what we share and when it is appropriate to reveal our past. The previous practical guideline talked about maintaining boundaries, and that certainly applies to what and how much we share with the youth. In general, it can be helpful to talk to the youth about our past and to teach them through our mistakes; this is one way we let God draw a good out of evil. But mentors should only share their mistakes to draw about a greater good and should not process their ongoing struggles with the youth. Too much vulnerability and openness from a mentor is off-putting because it is not appropriate for a relationship between people at different stages in life. Even so, mentors should aim to be honest and authentic about who they are and use their experiences to relate to and engage Generation Z.

Seventh, we should love the youth authentically. This is the most critical guideline because every effort we make will be ineffective if we do not genuinely love the youth whom we guide and serve. The word “love” is used intentionally because to love someone is to will their good. If we are mentoring the youth just because it is our job or responsibility, then we are not doing it for the right reasons. Our love for the youth must be the fundamental motivator for our actions and should inform everything that we say, do, and teach.7

I have personally seen many teachers, priests, and youth ministers who become exasperated with Gen Z and look down on them and even grow to resent them. While this response is natural, as Catholics, we are called to love even when it is difficult. This love requires us to have concern for these youth as individuals and not just as our job requires us to care. We are called to go the extra mile and even be willing to suffer for and be hurt by the youth whom we serve. If we genuinely love Gen Z, it will show in everything that we do.

Eighty-five percent of Gen Z say that they are more likely to take advice from someone who cares about them, and sixty-nine percent say that “a person’s expertise doesn’t matter if they don’t care about me.”8 Therefore, loving authentically is the most important of these seven suggestions. Once our love and our character have established our relational authority, we can effectively guide Gen Z through our conversations with them.

Previously in this series:
 “Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation” (August 11, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion” (August 21, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Religiously Complex” (September 6, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Steps Toward Flourishing” (September 19, 2022)

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