Empowering and Equipping Student Leaders
Heidi was a skinny, talkative seventh grader who was going through a very painful divorce. She was brought to our youth ministry by a friend, and she immediately felt accepted and cared for. She called it a home away from home. A few years later, Heidi made a profession of faith at a winter retreat, and she joined our student leadership team. She began to thrive in her leadership skills, and she developed a passion to see her friends come to Christ.
When she left our youth ministry for college, I wondered if her discipleship would continue. I'd seen a lot of students from our youth ministry over the years crash and burn when they went to college. But not so with Heidi. She got involved in a “Side Walk Sunday School” for inner-city kids. She also got connected with a church and their youth ministry, and today she is a director of an inner city kids outreach program.
When we look back over our years in youth ministry, the overwhelming majority of those who are still strong disciples and making a difference with their faith are those who were challenged and developed as student leaders. We believe God can turn apathetic, couldn't-care-less students in your youth ministry into fully-engaged followers of Jesus Christ when we challenge them to become leaders in the youth ministry, rather than just spectators.
The first step to implementing any plan is to ask God for direction and then wonder about the possibilities. Your job will be to evaluate both your specific ministry context and the particular kids God has given to you. No youth group exists in a vacuum and you must adapt your thoughts to your particular situation. Assess where your young people are spiritually and build from this point.
Be realistic about where your kids are spiritually, but also look for the possibilities. A good youth worker needs to have the courage to be honest but have “sanctified imagination” as well. Pray for discernment and wisdom as you assess your students and ministry so you can sense God's direction. Pray alone. Gather caring adults to wonder with you and pray together. Pray with some teenagers. Always pray before you rush into implementation.
After seeking God's guidance, it's time to decide which student leadership opportunities you'll present to your group. No matter what you decide, there should be adult leaders in place who are also excited about this new opportunity to develop student leaders. In other words, if you decide to start a student worship team because your ministry would benefit and there are teenagers who could develop in that area, then it's essential that you have one to three adults who are also excited about a student worship team and sense God's direction in this area. Otherwise, it will fall back on you to manage, direct, implement, and maintain it. Peer ministry? Do you have—or can you find—some adults who are willing to work in this area? Don't move ahead without lining up some help from adult leadership.
Do the hard work of sowing seeds.
Before you rush out and change your ministry focus, it's crucial for you to sow the proper seeds to ensure long-term success. With any new idea, the wise leader has to do hard, behind-the-scenes work before a public announcement about a program is made. It would be important to have a clear, succinct statement of your vision and goals so you can articulate these to key church leaders.
Each church is different, but you will need to sow the idea with the pastor, the youth ministry committee, some of your students, and key adult leaders and parents in order to get a sense of support for this vision. This way you'll understand the questions and potential concerns that may arise as you implement your plan, which will help you build the necessary foundation for change. If you can answer their fears and present a clear rationale for the benefits, you will be able to move ahead with key support systems in place.
Remember—change is never neutral. There is a cost to change. A leader needs to have planted the right seeds in order to make the idea for change a reality that actually transforms things. If you do what you've always done, then you'll get what you've always had.
When you present this concept to your students, an important aspect is the atmosphere that surrounds it. Your job is to build an atmosphere that believes young people can do incredible things and then calls them to the opportunities. There are many places where kids are challenged and motivated, but often the church is not one of those.
Why is it that the school can expect time, talent, and sacrifice from teens who want to be in a play, on a team, sing in the choir, play an instrument, work on the yearbook, or help in the office, but often the church doesn't? Work at motivating your students to see the potential in the student leadership program. Be practical. It may mean a young person needs to come in early every week or attend a monthly training session or meet monthly with an accountability group.
Set the standards.
An important, and often overlooked, area of student leadership is in the area of standards. Of course Christians understand the need for grace, but it's imperative to set standards and expectations for your student leaders. Don't lower the bar of expectations or you will water down the whole idea of leadership. A simple truth is that leadership is not for everyone.
Remember—how you get them is how you keep them. Setting clear expectations and standards is crucial for the success of developing student leaders.
Select the leaders.
The development of student leaders begins with asking two questions, “How do we decide who are the student leaders?” and “How do we select them?” There are a variety of different ideas on how to select the leadership group, but the two most common methods are election or selection.
1. Students Elect. It has a democratic feel to it but runs the risk of only electing the popular teenagers. These teens may have high social status, but not a high level of spiritual commitment or interest in the youth ministry program. Election can also produce jealousy, contention, and division in a youth group. This kind of leader becomes more of a hindrance than an asset.
2. Adults Choose. This usually means you or you and the other adult leaders choose the strong spiritual leaders subjectively, but it almost always creates resentment by other students and cries of favoritism. The other problem with this method is that it doesn't uncover the desirable leadership traits of those students who might be less-obvious choices for student leadership positions.
The Objective Process.
It's important that the selection process be an honest start to your expectations and understandings of leadership. You should not lower the expectations so that leadership is defined as anyone in the youth group. Leadership involves more than attendance and good intentions.
Two things are important as you select leaders:
1. Clearly state your intentions and goals for the student leadership program. Articulate the areas of student leadership you believe will work in your ministry. Identify your vision for this ministry and work on articulating this to others. Be able to put it in writing and to give verbal answers to anticipated questions.
2. Let the process be the form of selection. The best selection process is an honest statement of what is expected. When creating the opportunity for our program planning leadership team (we called it the youth board), we'd write a serious letter to every youth group member in grades eight through 12 regarding the youth board, its roles and responsibilities, and an invitation to consider being involved in this leadership opportunity. A job description and application were included.
It was clear that there were expectations attached to the student leadership roles, and they had to fill out this application and be interviewed. We still had the opportunity to recruit some teenagers who we believed had leadership potential, but they had to complete the application process in order to be on the student leadership team.
The clarity of the standards and the selection process are the keys to making this work. Clearly hold up the standards during this process so people know what they're committing to.
Some kind of application or commitment sheet is essential to the process. The length of this will depend upon the leadership role. A six-week involvement with the servant team will not require the same amount of effort or dedication as a year-long commitment to the worship team or youth council. Whatever method you use to select student leaders, it's essential to challenge the teens and set clear expectations. A sure formula for failure will be to leave leadership positions open to everybody with no expectations attached to them.
Train and develop them.
After you recruit and select your student leadership team, it's essential to develop them in their area of leadership. This crucial component to leadership development is why the next section of this book exists. We believe that your job is to teach, model, nurture, and develop these young people into leaders. It's not something that will happen overnight, but it is something that you must work toward.
Focus on formation.
It's important to note that this training and development is more than just giving information. Pure information, even if it has a Bible verse attached to it, is only the first step. Your student leadership program is about the formation of these young people into men and women whose relationship to Christ shows up in servant leadership. Student leadership begins with and builds from solid, personal discipleship. Forget discipleship and you may as well forget leadership.
As you train and develop your student leaders, it's important to plan for classroom training, modeling, individual mentoring, crisis experiences, and on-the-job training.
Build community among your student leaders.
One of the foundational issues in any leadership training, but especially with the teenage audience, is to work at building community within the group. The relational focus of the adolescent makes this imperative. Therefore, you must include group-building elements in every training session or meeting. Have fun along the way as you grow in grace, serve others, and encourage one another.
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.