The key is to communicate.
When starting a student leadership program many people in the church are going to have questions. Church leaders are going to want to know how far you are going to carry this idea of students making decisions. Parents are going to want to know who is going to be on the team and what the criteria is for choosing student leaders. The adult volunteers in the ministry are going to want to know what their role is in this program. These are all good questions and for you to have a successful program you need to deal with them honesty and openly.
Let’s start with the church leaders. Often times church leadership will be on board with a student leader program; after all who can better understand the need for growing new leaders. They will however be cautious about how far the program will go in letting students make decisions. Remember part of their job is to minimize risk and students being in charge doesn’t exactly scream risk free. When presenting the program to them be complete in the scope of the program. Detail what decisions students will be making, describe the boundaries you intend to put in place to insure safety and clearly explain how the program is based on a mentoring relationship with an adult. Remember when you say “students will be in charge” the adults are envisioning a food fight followed by a small urban riot. Be clear and complete when making your presentation. The benefit of having the church leadership on board will be to create support for the program even during difficult times.
Helping parents understand the program is very important. Nothing could be better than having parents support for the leadership team and nothing could be worse if they feel left out of the process. Parents always want to know two things: who is on the team and what is the criteria for getting on the team? When answering these questions be consistent and honest. We sometimes feel like we need to tell parents what they want to hear – be honest; if their son or daughter doesn’t meet the criteria for being on the team tell the parents and layout for them the conditions on which they could be on the team. Also remember to be consistent; if you let a student on the team that doesn’t meet the criteria and you keep others off nothing will ruin your credibility faster and the ramifications could be bigger than you think.
Consider this plan. Call a meeting of the parents and explain to them the reasons for having a student leadership team, the program itself and how students will be selected. Before the meeting ask a few parents to serve with you and your volunteer team on a committee that selects the student leaders. The benefit of this will be to have cover in that you are not making this decision alone. This also gives ownership to the parents by being involved in the process. Announce who is on the committee so all the parents understand. Communicate often, let parents know the deadlines for getting applications in, let them know when the team will be announced and let them know how you will tell the students that apply and don’t make the team. I do suggest having a private meeting with students that don’t make the team to let them know why and what they can do to make it next year.
I want to encourage you to see parents as your partners in student leadership development. In the twenty plus years I have been doing this I have never been successful outside of a strong relationship with the parents.
Surprisingly adult volunteers often struggle with student leadership teams. They struggle because when you talk about students making decisions and taking leadership for events and programs you are usually talking about students taking their positions. As the youth director everybody knows your role but for the adult volunteer their role is leading the small stuff. You know, the stuff that you want to now turn over to the student leaders. See the problem – adult leaders often don’t buy-in for this reason.
The answer is to re-train your adults – move them from chaperones to mentors. Let’s be honest; you don’t need van drivers and cooks you need adults that will pour their lives into the lives of students no matter how messy it gets. By helping your volunteers see that their role is to develop deep relationships with students you will give them a vision for the future and their ministry that is powerful and inspiring.
I suggest presenting you ideas about a student leadership team soon after getting church approval and before going to parents. Volunteers will help answer parents’ questions and help identify potential student leaders. Having them understand changes they will have to make early on in the process will insure a smooth transition to the new program.
The key is to communicate. Don’t just share the reasons behind the program once; state it over and over again and have people start saying it back to you. Starting a student leadership team sounds great but remember before you start get the church leaders, parents and adult volunteers on your side. It will make all the difference.