One question comes up in virtually every phone call and roundtable discussion I have with youth pastors. Just last week I stood in a buffet line with a student ministries pastor when our conversation turned to the familiar inquiry: “What are you doing to develop student leaders?” The question is thrown around all the time. It is a topic of conversation in megachurches with hundreds of students and endless programs. But it is equally discussed in the humble-size church without a developed youth ministry. In any setting big or small, we have an itch to fulfill our duty to grow new generations of leaders. The good news is that cultivating leadership among students can happen in a church of any size. Even better, it doesn’t necessarily mean having to add an additional program focused on targeting and training an elite group of teens. Here are a few simple principles I have found helpful for understanding how to nurture young leaders. What’s Your End Game? I have attended a fair number of churches where the desired outcome for student leadership begins and ends with a teen simply filling a particular ministry slot for the church or youth group, such as projecting PowerPoint slides on a screen. These nearsighted efforts fail to keep students engaged long-term and leave students feeling used. Students’ opportunities fall short of a broader view of leadership that extends beyond the borders of the church. As church leaders, we need to affirm the genuine passion that causes us to seek leadership opportunities for students. Otherwise, the outcome
will look a lot like cheap labor. In addition, we need to embrace the idea of letting go of some responsibility and putting trust into the hands of students. Allow them to serve in places that offer the flexibility for them to put their own stamp on things. We cannot have such firm control that there is nothing about this opportunity in leadership that gives students a chance to celebrate their own uniqueness. Hold the Cream, Please I once listened as a highly respected youth guru spoke at a convention seminar. Between my fingers was the handout I received when I walked in the room. Over the course of the next hour I methodically filled in the “14 Essential Qualities of a Student Leader.” Later, as I reviewed my completed list, my first observation was that after 14 years in ministry and 30 years as a Christian, I barely met half of those expectations. We have to move away from the notion that leadership development is only for the “cream of the crop.” I am a big believer in setting the bar high enough to challenge students. However, our attempt to write out benchmarks for who can be a leader often ends up reading more like a proclamation of who cannot. Rarely in the pages of the New Testament do I find anything that could legitimately justify an exclusionary leadership model. There are a number of ways we can broaden our view of leadership to include students who aren’t musical, athletic, extraverted, highly intelligent, organized or serious. Perhaps Jesus was confronting similar narrow views of leadership when he said, “But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26 NLT). Ponies Are More Important Than Mail In 1860, the Pony Express attempted to solve a significant problem. Effects of the California gold rush and subsequent western expansion made communication across the nation extremely difficult. For example, in 1845, it took six months for a letter from President James K. Polk to reach its destination out West. To expedite delivery, the Pony Express stationed horses across thousands of miles to relay messages back and forth. As valuable as those messages were, the true commodities were the ponies themselves. Neglecting the care of the ponies would bring it all to a skidding halt
faster than you could say, “Whoa, horsey.” The same can be said regarding our approach to the development of young leaders. Spend time thinking about and processing growth plans for each individual. Don’t get caught up saying things like “I need someone who will …” Rather, say “I believe you would be good at …” We need to demonstrate a commitment to care more about the people than the product.Use a Thesaurus Words are an incredibly potent tool. People tend to become who the most influential people in their lives project them to become. This truth challenges us
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on two levels. First, it prompts us as parents and church leaders to fight hard to stay in that key circle of influence. It also reminds us that what we chose to say to student is substantial in shaping their views of themselves and their confidence in becoming people of significance. Don’t underestimate the impact of a well-timed word of encouragement or a prophetic word. As we work with student leaders, it is critically important that
we speak the future to them and help them see themselves as accomplished individuals years from now. Find some way to say it. Then find five other ways of saying the same thing. Our teaching should emphasize that the investment each student is making now is an important piece in achieving a future outcome. Jesus demonstrated this with Simon. The Lord saw something special in him that Simon had been unable to see in himself. At just the right moment, when Simon had taken a step out in faith, Jesus leveraged the situation to help Simon see something new in his reflection. “Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’” (Matthew 16:17–18). The successful development of student leaders is never going to be easy. No single program, charismatic youth leader or training resource will produce ironclad results. There will always be students who jump ship along the way. Don’t give up on them and don’t lose sight of the opportunities that are present in every interaction to teach, challenge or encourage a student to unlocking their divine potential.