Who Let the Dogs Kids Out? Reclaiming the Adult Role in Student Leadership

October 9th, 2009


She had the kind of reputation that made you shudder at the possibility that you might wind up in her 2nd grade class. Everything about her said, “Don't mess with me.” I survived her class with only one paddling, but it was a few years later—after I messed with her, I guess—that she gave me the first leadership challenge of my life.

By that time I was a 6th grader at William Carr Elementary School in Moline, Illinois. My buddies and I patrolled the recess yard like we were small town cops with an attitude. One day, for reasons that are not at all clear to me now, we decided to violate the rules by crossing through the kindergarten area and visiting the younger kids' play zone. Mrs. Snider, all 6' 9″ of her (she seemed that tall, anyway!), intercepted us as we were strolling back to our own turf. She demanded to know what we were doing; and instead of cowering and apologizing like I should have, I offered her a confident response that included challenging what I thought was a stupid rule.

The look that passed over her face made me regret immediately what I'd said. She surprised me by not growing furious and letting the craggy wrinkles on her face spew lava-laden rebukes all over us. Instead she got quiet, refusing to conceal her disappointment in us. We had “let her down.”

Her response gnawed at me all day. I realized that I had a genuine respect for Mrs. Snider and had treasured her opinion of me more than I ever knew. After school I shuffled into her office to whimper an apology. Instead of letting me off easy, she told me why she was so hurt by my flippant attitude. She told me that she had always thought I was an unusual young man, in a category with only two other students she ever had. I was the kind of person from whom she “expected great things.” My smart-aleck backtalk earlier was in another category entirely. It was just “common.”

At that moment I realized I never wanted to be common. Mrs. Snider was the first in a long line of adults who have variously modeled, taught, inspired, encouraged, challenged, and corrected me. Seeing potential that I wasn't aware of, these grown-ups helped me to discover the joy of leadership, and eventually the thrill of being used by God to influence my friends forever.

And so, in honor of Mrs. Snider's memory, I'd like to make a declaration. Those who believe that student leadership in youth ministry is simply about adults getting out of the way so kids can take over are wrong-headed and short-sighted. Their brain genes have been doused with the same sort of laughing gas that led French philosopher Rousseau to conclude that the problem with education is…ADULTS! If we tyrannical adults would just leave children alone they would learn, grow, and develop just fine on their own. Like wild flowers in a meadow, kids have everything they need to bloom their way toward a beautiful life. Only adults could mess up such a naturally perfect plan.…


I think that today's version of student leadership in youth ministry aspires to something more than a vision of teens who come early and stay late so they can set up and clean up. If that is true, then adults must play a significant role in the process. That means there are at least three things adults need to keep out of the hands of teens.

Don't Let Kids Set the Direction for the Ministry

When you want to travel to Chicago from San Diego, direction matters. There is one correct direction. Everything else is, at best, a temporary detour and, at worst, a South Pacific Gilligan's Island episode waiting to happen. “Which way should we go?” Anyone who's looked at a map should be able to come up with the correct answer. “We head east…and a little north.”

Some adults think they are doing cutting edge student leadership by asking kids to supply the direction for the youth ministry. They're wrong. Direction-setting needs to be the exclusive domain of those who are geographically literate. Non-map-readers need not apply.

The terrain with which we must be familiar in ministry is the Bible. Without solid theological grounding any ministry is vulnerable to misdirection. And biblical misdirection is characterized in at least three ways: lostness (when we never had a clue that God even cared about where we should go); sin (when we knew what God wanted but decided to go our own way); andimmaturity (when we thought we knew what God wanted but learned that we were wrong). We don't do students any favors when we ask them to do something they aren't ready for.

We need to carefully and prayerfully learn what God wants from our ministries so we can respond faithfully. Those best suited for this task are described in the Bible as mature. While not totally inaccessible to teenagers, the biblical concept of maturity seems connected to three types of understanding that are not easily crammed into the first 18 years of life. Mature people know Jesus. They understand themselves. And they possess insights about the nature of life.

Hope was one of my earliest student leaders, a serious follower of Jesus, and her dedication to studying God's word was impressive. More than most teens, she was a little clueless about how she came across to others. Her friends liked her, but she was painfully shy. Eventually her faith compelled her to take the plunge into youth group leadership. She did it with a passion. Her enthusiasm for inviting persons to outreach events was somewhere between zealous and missionary. It would have been fun to watch her boldness grow if it weren't for the pain of seeing her aggressive style drive people away muttering. Her social antennae were bent in such a way that she didn't know that others held little respect for her.

All of this did not serve her well when I asked to help set direction for the youth ministry. Without a lot of grace, mercy, and tolerance (these tend to flow out of life experiences) she promoted what she knew best: her way of experiencing Jesus. As it happened, there wasn't much about Hope's proposed direction that reflected Jesus' style of love. I had asked her to do something she wasn't ready for.

In the name of helping kids to have ministry ownership (a good thing) many adults have let teens set the direction of their ministry. Sometimes the results are clearly disastrous: “Let's make the church basement ourdance 'n drink safe zone. Kids'll come to that!” Other times, the results are simply misdirected efforts by miscast young people. Like Hope, they're often not well-equipped for direction-setting.

Many on-campus student-led Bible clubs fall into this last category. Presumably they were planted on school property for evangelism purposes. But when outreach is awkward or “doesn't work,” many groups simply abandon their direction in favor of other purposes, like Christian fellowship. After all it makes perfect sense to the students in charge.

Sometimes we confuse ministry direction with ministry strategy in our attempt to secure student ownership. Just as there are a number of ways to travel from San Diego to Chicago, so we can get kids to help us plan the journey together. “Kids, we're traveling northeast tomorrow to visit a place you've never been. How would you like to go? Plane? Train? Bus? Car? How long would you like the trip to take? How about if we make it a three-day drive where we stop at cool motels along the way? Can anybody think of some ways that we could all enjoy the trip better?” Ownership takes place when students join the journey. Some even learn a thing or two about following directions if they pay close attention.

From Link Institute's national study of the best student leadership practices in the country we learned there are two major ways that adults set direction. The first is by modeling; we show the way. For example, if we really want students to understand what it means to follow Jesus through evangelism, we need to demonstrate evangelism through our own lives. Secondly, we should teach the Bible. The best student leaders we know appreciated how their youth ministers taught the Scriptures to them regularly. That's how they learned what direction God wanted them to go.

Don't Let Kids Decide Who Will Be Student Leaders

Some forms of student leadership feature peer elections. Jim got elected youth group president because he was well-liked. Others create a wide open student leadership invitation, so that anyone who wants to join is welcome. Mike came to the Friday morning meetings because his friends did, and it seemed to be what he ought to do. Both of these strategies ignore the reality that not everyone is ready for the same kind of leadership. Jim and Mike certainly weren't.

What type of student leadership weren't they ready for? I believe that student leaders take both initiative and responsibility to reach their friends for Christ and help them grow in Christ. It takes the youth ministry equivalent of a major league scout to identify these types of students while they are still developing. Interviews and invitations don't provide us with enough information to determine such readiness. We need to observe kids over time to learn something about their character.

Maybe we should try Jesus' approach. He invited everyone who was willing to consider the cost to follow him. As they did, they became his disciples, presumably experiencing the costs and benefits of such following. From this dedicated group he chose the twelve.

Note, however, that his “student leaders” surfaced in stages. The crowds who checked him out began to yield a smaller group of faithful disciples. For a time, it would have been accurate to describe this bunch as leaders. There was no higher level of following yet designated. When the twelve were chosen from among the disciples, the actual leadership standard shifted upward. And it may be that there was yet another promotion as Peter, James, and John got “backstage access” to Jesus during the transfiguration.

Adults need to monitor the levels of student leadership necessary to constantly pull their young people toward closer followings of Jesus. We need to create opportunities for students to respond to Jesus at whatever level is appropriate for them. Eventually, as some kids become more responsive, leaders will emerge. Their effectiveness will be evident to sharp-eyed adults with scouting skills.

We learned from our research that the best student leaders engage in three practices more often than do their friends. They pray frequently for their non-Christian friends. They invite non-Christians to meetings and conversations where Jesus may be made known to them. And they tellthese same unbelievers their own story of faith, as well as the gospel itself.

Does that mean that prayinvite, and tell challenges shouldn't be given to all Christian students? No. But it suggests that those who are truly responsive to those challenges are those who most accurately meet the definition of student leadership being advocated here.

One of the additional insights we picked up from our research was the importance of peer models. The student leaders who reported that they'd seen their friends lead other students to Christ were the most evangelistically fruitful of any of the 424 in our sample. Students learn from other teens about the real expectations for student leadership.

Why hold the standards so high? Because we never know for sure how much potential someone has unless they are appropriately challenged. Jeannie never thought she could give a gospel talk in front of over 100 friends at Campus Life until I encouraged her to try it. Joel started a prayer movement in his city because of the constant encouragement his parents provided.

Adults—not teens—need to determine who will be invited into student leadership. They not only know the direction the ministry is heading, but also they can adjust the leadership standards at a level appropriate for the group during its current phase of development. And as Jesus showed us, when it comes time to work with those who've demonstrated the most promise, it'll take a lot of time.

Don't Let Kids Neglect Their First Priorities

Thinking she was about to be elevated from among her peers, Donna was quick to agree to student leadership. It wasn't long before she became disenchanted. “I've got better things to do than draw maps for the meetings.” She quit her group entirely. Donna neglected her first priorities because her youth minister thought student leadership was some sort of glorified go-fer program to help cover his own administrative weaknesses.

Ron spent hours each week pouring over books and magazines, trying to plan meetings for his on-campus club. He enjoyed the status of being in charge, and felt he was growing in his leadership gifts. But Ron neglected his first priorities because he was so busy in worthy program preparation. He expressed his regret to me at the end of the year by saying, “I feel I lost my whole senior year just to keep the meetings going from week to week.”

As I suggested earlier, student leadership ought to be primarily about helping Christian teens (who are actively growing in their own faith) exercise influence on all of those around them. When students concentrated on praying for lost friends, inviting them and telling them, they were staying connected to their first priorities. They were also dramatically more effective in evangelism than were others. On the other hand, when students spent their free time energy in program preparation they reported a much smaller degree of evangelistic success among their friends. And there are too many times that student leaders (the “star players” for many youth ministries) get pulled into multiple programs/group meetings throughout the week to “lend their support.”

What should adults do to help students stay on track with their first priorities? One of the most dramatic findings of our research was the discovery that when adults met student leaders at least weekly in small groups (or less) those teens were more fruitful evangelistically than any of their peers. These meetings were of the mentor/coaching variety. They allowed a caring adult to come alongside younger brothers and sisters for the purposes of encouragement, prayer, teaching, and challenge.

That's the kind of atmosphere that allows honest discussion about balancing life's competing demands. The entire scope of a teens' life is the agenda. In this loving context, accountability can be practiced and student growth experienced.

Too much student leadership being practiced today uncritically assumes that adults ought to erase themselves from the ideal portrait of youth ministry. This notion is downright strange. The Bible teaches clearly that the Body's different parts should work together toward a common purpose (direction). It also respects the role of (and need for) wise counsel in the leadership development process.

Kids will suffer tremendous loss if adults aren't purposefully involved in their lives. The Mrs. Sniders of the world have too much to offer.


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.