Developing Student Leaders
Millions of teenagers are apathetic about their faith, and their indifference greatly reveals itself each year when many teenagers graduate high school… and exit their faith altogether. It’s a problem that every youth worker in every denomination acknowledges.
In the last decade I’ve seen a growing trend to try to change this phenomena with new curriculum and better teaching.
Is a new Bible study going to do the trick?
Could it be that today’s youth ministries are too focused on offering ministry TO teenagers instead of leading ministry BY teenagers?
Teenagers must get opportunities to serve and use their gifts in ministry prior to high school graduation. Then, when they are out on their own, forced to take full ownership of their faith development, they will have a strong foundation from which to start.
WHERE DO I START?
I could spend pages laying out the benefits of why you should develop student leaders. But since you’re already reading this article… I’m going to assume that you’re already convinced of this fact. You might be asking questions more like these?
How can I tell if I even have any student leaders?
How can I put a student leadership team together?
Where do I start?
In other words: Give me something to help me get started!
Glad to help.
Jesus developed leaders under him- we should do the same. Let’s take a look at what a student leadership team can look like.
SELECTING POSSIBLE STUDENT LEADERS
The first thing we have to figure out is how we’re going to select our student leaders. Many youth workers like just “selecting” students. That way you can choose students who’ve demonstrated a strong character and potential to serve God in this way. The drawback with this method is that we are not the Messiah (even though we all know a few workers who think they are) and we might miss some good prospects who God can use. We need to admit our limitations. Even the scripture reveals in 1 Samuel 16:7 “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at a person’s thoughts and intentions.” (NLT) Very often we might choose the “studly leader” of the youth group, who’s coincidently sleeping with his girlfriend, and we miss the shy, backward student who is the next Dwight L. Moody (the next Andy Stanley, for you young’uns).
With this in mind, I like to open it up for students to apply. I announce it for several weeks and make the applications available. I also like to make it so students have to ask myself or my staff for an application. That simple step of making them ask a staff person seems to filter through some of the students who aren’t that motivated.
Another step that I take is requiring all student leaders to find a Christian mentor that they will meet with weekly. They actually have a “Will You Be My Mentor” form that they give to an adult mentor to fill out. This explains the commitment to the possible mentor and asks a few questions about the mentor’s faith so I can evaluate if it’s a good match. That form is due with the Student Leadership Application.
The Student Leadership Application is not just a simple name and address form. This is an overview of the program stating the requirements and expectations of the leadership team. Some requirements might be: regular church and youth group attendance, modeling a healthy commitment to family, personal growth through Bible study and prayer, a weekly meeting with an adult mentor, etc. Expectations might be: 2 hours a week of service on a service team, weekly training meetings, etc. I include these requirements and expectations along with a detailed application with several questions about the student’s faith, personal walk and skills. (For an example of these forms, check out our LOGISTICAL CRUD page for free downloads of these forms.)
These applications helped us select students who wanted to make a difference, and were willing to make an investment of time. You may choose to be a little more flexible, or a little more rigid.
CHOOSING YOUR TEAM
After students turn in applications, there is the process of filtering that needs to occur. I do this by, first, reviewing the applications with some of my staff people, then setting up interviews with the students. These interviews are good times to hear the students’ hearts and listen for the areas that they might be interested in working. These interviews will also help you screen out students that shouldn’t be leaders. Luckily, a good application will filter out a lot of the students who shouldn’t be applying. Some students just won’t meet the requirement of “Lifestyle befitting one who is a role model and an ambassador of Christ.”
I had a student who showed great leadership skills. Other students in the church loved him, he was popular on campus, and he was great up front. Yet . . . this kid couldn’t keep his mouth shut. There wasn’t an event that went by that he wasn’t getting in a fight, mouthing off to a staff person, or just disrupting. Bottom line: he didn’t live a “lifestyle befitting one who is a role model and an ambassador of Christ.”
I hate turning a student away that wants to be on the team. That’s why I set up such a stringent application and interview process. Any student who fills out the application, gets a weekly mentor, and commits to the time commitment is basically in. But every once in a while you’ll interview a student that shouldn’t be on the team. Use this as an opportunity to talk with him or her about the problem and lay out a plan to work on it, with an end goal of “joining the team.” This can work as incredible motivation for life change in students.
MINISTRY AREAS/LEADERSHIP ROLES
As you saw on the application, there are many different ministry areas that students can choose to apply themselves in a student leadership program. One student could help administer outreach programs, while another maintains the student database. Creating such a variety of ministry jobs or leadership roles might seem cumbersome to plan or maintain, but the reward is well worth it.
If you want to see a brother or sister in Christ blossom, find their gifts and enable him or her to use them. There is no greater joy than being used by God in the area of your strength. Now this isn’t an article on spiritual gifts, and it would take too long to teach that in this article. But I recommend using some method to discover students’ gifts and strengths so they can use those in your ministry.
Some youth workers give a spiritual gifts test that asks student leaders questions about what they enjoy and where they’ve been used by God in the past. Other youth workers may just include questions in the interview process. There is no “ONE ALL POWERFUL METHOD.” Just make sure that you don’t just assign a student to do announcements each week when they really want to be used behind the scenes. Take the time to find out what a student’s area of strength is and place them in that area.
I worked in a student leadership program where we brought in a guy who gave every student leader a spiritual gifts test. That year we had students with a passion to teach, leading Bible studies and sharing in front of the whole group. We had people with the gift of compassion running mission outreach programs, planning day trips to nursing homes and homeless shelters. It was incredible to see God using people in the area of their gifts. Possibilities are endless. Just plan a time, either during the interview process or on the retreat to simply LISTEN to the student leader. Find out their gifts and help them use those gifts for Christ.
Once we have our team together, I like to start the year with a “Student Leadership Retreat,” exclusively for student leaders and staff. This is a great way to kick off the year. I use this time to lay the groundwork for the ministry we’ll be doing all year.
The temptation would be to immediately train students to plan good programs, lead good games, and run fantastic activities and events. After all, these are important skills. But let’s look back at what Jesus modeled for us. Early in his ministry, he taught his disciples the basics in “The Sermon on the Mount.” In this sermon he talks about how money, status and power aren’t important. Only things like righteousness, meekness, humility and compassion.
Start off your year by teaching your students about relying on Christ, teaching about integrity, and about personal character. Build this foundation with your student leaders so that they can build a ministry on the only foundation that lasts . . . a relationship with Christ.
I also like these retreats to be a time of “team-building.” I include team building exercises that might be as simple as stringing a rope about five feet in the air between two trees. Then I tell the team to get everyone over the rope like it’s an electric fence. Then I don’t give any other instructions. The group will have to work together to get one person over, then start passing everyone else over until finally one kid will have to make a flying leap into everyone’s arms (this is a good time to have overweight kids helping in the kitchen).
I go into more detail about this and include a sample retreat agenda in my book, MINISTRY BY TEENAGERS..
Regular Student Leadership meetings are essential to a student leadership team. After a retreat, there needs to be a regular time that the team gets together as a student leadership team to get refreshed, to be challenged, and to be equipped to do good ministry.
There are so many powerful principles and tools we can teach our students. The trick is finding the balance. Use your regular time together wisely. Allow time for getting to know each other, praying, and encouraging. Then have small bite sized training that students can pull from and use that week.
Then allow the individual ministry areas to get together. Many of these individual teams will get together more than just the time you provide. But it is still important to provide that regular time as a minimum. This will get students used to working together and excite them about projects in process. Hold students accountable to this time to accomplish ministry goals and tasks.
IT’S WORTH IT!
As you can see, developing student leaders and providing a student leadership team can really help a youth group. Student leaders help the youth workers get necessary tasks done. These leaders will also feel the incredible joy of being used by God to make a difference in the lives of other students. Those “Fringe” students will see fellow students shining for Christ with their actions and service. “Regular” students will see the fun retreats and weekly sessions that the leaders take part in and they will want to move that direction, becoming student leaders themselves.
Student Leadership can take a lot of work. But the reward is worth it. Follow Jesus’ example.
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Bullying Breakthrough; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on TheSource4YM.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.