Developing Student Leaders
You hear many people say that today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. I agree with that statement, but I also think today’s youth can be today’s leaders. Having student leaders in your youth ministry can be a huge asset to your ministry, and it’s a great training ground where students can begin to hone their leadership skills for what God has in store for them.
Many of us in youth ministry are trained professionals with education and years of experience under our belts. It would be easier to run our own programs and not have students lead, but we would miss out on the opportunity to further develop our students’ potential to be amazing leaders. So how do you effectively develop student leaders in your youth ministry? How do you choose who should be a leader? Once you have a team of student leaders, what do you do with them? How do you keep it from being just another social group and actually give them real leadership responsibilities?
Why Student Leaders?
Before we address the how, let’s look at the whys of having student leaders. As I mentioned before, having student leaders gives students a great training ground for gaining and sharpening leadership skills. They’re in a safe environment where you can mentor, evaluate, and walk with them as they test out the waters of leadership. When students are in a leadership role in your ministry, it helps make it their ministry as well—they become invested in seeing it succeed and grow.
When students are given leadership roles, they gain valuable tools and experiences that help them become even more effective leaders in the future. It helps them see the needs around them and develops in them a heart of compassion and service. It also helps older students who might otherwise begin to drift away stay connected and invested in the ministry.
Choosing Student Leaders
So how do you choose student leaders? Always start with prayer, asking for wisdom and insight from God. Seek out students who are teachable, serve others, look to the interests of others in the group, want to go deeper in their faith, aren’t afraid to be challenged, and are at youth group not only to grow but also to help others grow. Ask your current student leaders who they think would be good student leaders, and have them make a case as to why—it’s not enough for a student to be popular or outgoing, because these qualities don’t guarantee a solid student leader.
For students interested in becoming student leaders, have an application form they need to fill out and have signed by their parents. This form should include the expectations for the position so that the students and their parents are aware of what will be asked of them. This also helps create some accountability. After you receive an application, interview the applicants to get an idea of why they’re applying, where they are in their walk with God, what some of their goals would be as student leaders, and how they envision their gifts and passions being used on the team.
Throughout the process, pray for wisdom and discernment.
What to Do with Student Leaders?
You have your student leadership team all picked out—now what do you do with them? In short, you train them and give them real leadership opportunities.
For the student leaders in my ministry, we meet every other week on a Sunday afternoon after church. We share a meal together, which helps with fellowship and team bonding . . . and also provides a free meal for a teenager. We do a devotional together each meeting, which helps us to continue to grow spiritually and reminds us whom we’re serving and why we do what we do. We spend time brainstorming and planning events as well as evaluating events that have just happened. We also review our team goals to make sure we’re moving in the right direction and achieving what we set out to accomplish. We have several planning and training retreats during the year as well as times when we serve and have fun together.
I have adult leaders who serve as mentors for each student. They meet every few weeks to check in and see how well the students are doing with the spiritual and leadership goals they set at the beginning of the year.
My student leaders run the first half of each youth group night, and they run all of our outreach and service projects. They plan, lead, and evaluate each event. It’s important for students to have real leadership opportunities rather than be given something you’ve planned for them to run. Work closely with your students in the planning process by asking them insightful questions, helping them think about things from a different perspective, evaluating events with them, and giving them honest feedback as to how they’re doing and where you see them growing. Don’t jump in and save them if they’re floundering. If they plan a game or activity and they forget their supplies, don’t run to get them what they need. Instead, help them brainstorm what needs to happen and let them do the rest. This helps them learn to think on their feet and to see the consequences of poor planning. After each event look at what went well and what needs to be improved for next time. Through this they’ll learn that it’s okay to fail (a hard lesson for any of us) and how to learn from failures so as not to repeat them. They’ll learn to utilize the gifts of their team and to lean on each other. They’ll learn both the blessings and challenges of leadership and how to take advantage of the opportunities God gives them to influence and lead others to Christ.
Let Them Lead
Our student leadership program sets us apart from many of the other ministries in our area. There aren’t a lot of youth pastors truly willing to give students real leadership opportunities, but it’s worth it. The students who have come through our leadership program have gone on to use those skills in leadership positions in college and in their workplaces. They often say that the opportunities we gave them to lead helped them see that they could be effective leaders. They also say that their leadership opportunities gave them insight into how God had gifted them to impact those around them. This has been a game changer for our ministry.
Bottom line: Let your students lead—really lead. Train them, encourage them, evaluate with them. Let them succeed, and let them fail—and love them through both. Student leadership can take your youth ministry to the next level.
Frank Newburn is a husband, father of 3, and youth director for Wesley United Methodist Church in Bloomington, IL. His ministry focuses include mentoring and discipleship, student leadership, and missions and has over 25 years of youth ministry experience. You can contact Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his ministry at http://wesley-umc.com/wesley/index.php/get-connected/youth.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.