Handing Over the Keys: Building up student leaders in your ministry

October 7th, 2017

Recently a student showed up at my office door wanting to talk to me about how, in her opinion, youth group could be better. It was Monday morning. I was tired, and in the middle of cleaning up from said youth group’s activities the night before. If I’m honest, I probably wasn’t in the mood. But instead of thanking her and sending her on her way, I sat down and listened. And then I gave her a job.

In her latest talks on Growing Young, Kara Powell speaks of keychain leadership: the idea that we can help our churches flourish by handing over the keys of power, access and ability to our students. She tells of the first volunteer role given to her as a teenager in her home church and explains, “I’m here today because someone handed the keys over to me.”

Handing the Keys

I, too, am in ministry today because of the responsibilities and encouragement handed to me by my pastors and mentors. Perhaps that’s why I’m always excited when a student wants to help and why, when this young woman took initiative to come and share her ideas with me, I knew that God was stirring something in her. With her family in an unstable living situation, I knew that this particular student opts for independent study over attendance in school. Asking her to come in for a few hours each week to help me plan and prep the youth group activities has given her routine and a sense of place in the youth group – and gives me the opportunity to be a mentor and encourager to her as she grows in discipleship.

Sharing leadership with your students will be messy. But there’s collective creativity and energy to be gained in sharing the mission with your students, and in doing so we fulfill the call to make disciples who use their gifts with confidence. As you think about what keys you might hand out to students in your ministry, here are a few things, mostly learned by trial and error, to consider.

Give your student a job title.

Not only will it recognize your student for their efforts, but it’s also a first step in defining and communicating the job you’d like them to do – and if necessary, makes it easier to have boundary-setting discussions about what’s not their responsibility to do.

Connect your student with mentors.

The difference between student leadership and student labor is relationship.  In any role you encourage a student to fill, ask a member of the congregation who is skilled in that area to come alongside them regularly and offer encouragement. Time spent with a mature Christian who shares the student’s interests will open the doors to discipling discussions. Don’t just offer a role, offer a relationship.

Treat your student as you would an adult volunteer.

Put them through the interview process and assign them the paperwork. Ask them to attend the meetings. Giving them the nametag and the status- along with its freedoms and restrictions- is not only good life experience, but it paves the way for conversations about responsibility and integrity which will serve your student well.

Thank your student as you would an adult volunteer.

As church leaders, we know the importance of making our volunteers feel valued and appreciated. This is even more true for our youngest of volunteers– many of whom will not know what their gifts are or whether or not they’re doing a good job unless we tell them. Take every opportunity to recognize your students’ contributions and shout them from the rooftops.


Remember that your student is not an adult yet.

They’re going to make mistakes. The pressure of balancing school, home and church responsibilities will be too much sometimes. And your church probably has some rules on where minors can and can’t be, and what they may and may not be involved in. All these limitations present opportunity for you to guide a student towards mature decision-making. Know that these topics for discussion are going to come up and take the opportunity.

Rachel Dodd is Director of Youth Discipleship for Kent UMC in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and an MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary.  She and her husband Carl have been serving churches students and families in England and US for over 15 years, and have two daughters who keep life full of sparkles, adventure, and coffee.


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.