How to Develop Student Leaders
Doug Fields shares practical insights on how to identify and develop servant-leaders.
I believe one of the elements of a healthy and effective youth ministry is the presence of teenage leaders. In addition to simply having teenage leaders, I’d also say that a sign of health is a plan to develop them. I’ve never found this to be a simple task, but I have discovered that a ministry’s health is within reach when teenagers are empowered to be leaders.
There’s no magic formula and/or pixie dust that a youth worker can use to seek and develop young leaders…sorry. I wish there were! It simply requires intentional actions. I’ve outlined some easy-to-implement ideas below that you can follow and begin to immediately launch teenagers into ministry.
BROADEN THE DEFINITION OF STUDENT LEADERSHIP
An important first and easy step is to broaden the definition of leadership. So often, we fall into and follow the ways of the world when we define a leader in terms synonymous with extravert, influencer, charismatic, dynamic, good in front of crowds, etc… (you get the point). While I wouldn’t dismiss these as helpful qualities for any leader, I surely wouldn’t use them to limit the potential leaders within your ministry. I think that in youth ministry, leadership should appear different than the cute, fun, and popular teenagers who are voted into most leadership positions at school.
When we broaden our definition of leadership and align it more closely to the words of Jesus, our potential audience for finding leaders may dramatically change. Jesus said, “But among you, it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.” (Mt. 20:26) Bottom line: Christ-following leaders are different! These types of leaders serve.
IDENTIFY THE SERVANT-LEADERS
What if you began a student leadership strategy by just looking within your youth ministry setting and asking yourself, “Who are the teenagers who seem to have a more natural leaning toward service, helping, and/or humility?” Be on the look out. Who stays after youth group to help clean up? Who isn’t afraid to step up and serve when a need arises? Which teenagers can you depend on when you need some help on a particular day, service, or event? The ones who are most likely to say “yes” to helping. Start listing names.
PAINT A VERBAL PICTURE
Never underestimate the power of a well-timed and prophetic verbal challenge. After you identify a potential student leader, speak the future to him/her. Cast vision for who he/should could be. Say something as simple as:
“Kyle, I think God has great plans for you as a leader…I’m not exactly sure what they are, but I see something in you that I’m not sure you see in yourself. I see a lot of leadership qualities that Jesus views as important.”
Your words can become a visual portrait for a teenager to hang onto and strive toward.
Jesus did this type of verbal painting with Simon. Jesus looked past Simon’s big-mouthed misadventures and gave him a new name: Peter, Petros, Rock. I’ve got to imagine that some of the disciples heard Jesus declare that name and think to themselves, “Really? Rock? How about calling him Pebbles or Sandy? That would be more accurate.”
Jesus saw something in Simon that he didn’t see in himself, and that fisherman became a rock-solid leader in the Jerusalem church.
Try it this week. Put a caring arm around one of your students and say…
· “I’ve been watching you. You have an amazing heart! I believe God can use that heart for his purposes.”
· “I love how you treat people. I see you being a man/woman of God who deeply cares for people. That’s an amazing gift you have to offer others.”
· “I’ve noticed how comfortable you are in serving in the small ways. I really appreciate that and believe that God uses that type of servanthood to impact others. He will use you.”
Don’t say it just once; repeat it, rephrase it, return to it by using similar but different words, and let that teenager know you are sincere and excited about their future. Your affirming words may be exactly what a few teenagers in your ministry need to hear.
“BUT SHE’S NOT READY YET…HE’S NOT A LEADER, YET”
Every leader can recall a starting point where the little boy sat down, and the man stood up. Leaders need to be called into action. If we waited until everyone was ready, we’d never invite teenagers to participate. That’s what you’re calling teenagers to do—to stand up and lead.
When you paint the future, don’t simply point out the obvious. Highlighting the obvious doesn’t inspire anything new. That’s not the type of ministry we want to be known for as we develop teenage leaders. We want to be leaders who enter into a teenager’s storyline and look for the “could be” in them. We see potential. Potential breeds hope and change and adventure.
When I’m not focused on potential, my youth ministry becomes routine, and I tend to define teenagers in terms of their problems rather than their potential.
• “Oh, that’s the kid who is always late and talks during my teaching time.”
• “That’s my kid with the high-maintenance mom who has the squeaky voice and painted-on eyebrows.
I want to be the type of leader who sees it, says it, inspires it, and then follows up on it. I want you to be that type of leader, too!
PROVIDE THEM WITH SPECIFIC SERVING OPPORTUNITIES
Teenagers need to “taste” serving, they want to do something that is making a difference, and they’re more than capable of succeeding in the service opportunities we identify. A common hurdle keeping them from service is when we don’t take the time to identify service opportunities, or if we do, we assign them all to adults.
I coached my own kids’ sports team until they got into high school. As a coach, I quickly learned that a kid may have thought he was a shortstop or a parent wanted their kid to be the QB, but the bottom line to figuring out what they were really good at (and enjoyed) was to give them playing time and the freedom to play. That principle transfers to developing student leaders. The kids in your ministry need playing time; they need to experiment, step across the line, and move from sitting to serving. That’s it…just get them in the game and give them somewhere to serve.
Why I like the term “service funnel” is because the visual image is helpful for people to grasp (wide opening at the top that narrows toward the bottom). At the top of service funnel are several “entry-level” service opportunities. As you move toward the bottom, the opportunities become more risky, time-consuming, and sacrificial. The challenge for youth workers is to identify the opportunities, make them known, and then start casting vision for teenagers to “get in the game” and start “playing” with service.
My 19-year-old son is serving in Kenya, Africa, for 7 months working with children living on the street and sniffing glue. After his first semester, he abandoned the safety of his college plan because he felt called to do something radical for God. That type of sacrifice, time, and risk is bottom of the funnel. He’s serving there because he tasted dozens of entry-level serving opportunities during junior high and high school. Serving was a value that he heard over and over. His volunteer small group leaders cast vision that he was a leader and challenged him to lead through service rather than lead through a microphone and stage time.
Are there “jobs” within your youth ministry that adults are doing that teenagers could be doing instead? Are your other adult leaders on the lookout for opportunities for a teenager to serve? When you discern them, give them to teenagers, and get them in the game and see what God does.
IT’S OKAY TO GO INFORMAL
Every time I’ve tried to formalize a student leadership “program,” it turns out just “okay.” It’s never been great; it always gets some momentum when I start it and restart it, but it doesn’t deliver what I dreamt up on my office whiteboard. I think it’s because I focused on a building a team of players more than getting the team members into the game. Today, I get much more excited about a non-program style of leadership development process. Now I just want to identify servant-leader teenagers, cast vision for them, encourage them to participate, and give them opportunities to play.
I want to do the possible and put my faith in God that he’ll do the impossible and change a Simon to Rocky. How about you?