“It builds character.”
This has been one of my favorite phrases for a while, but it became even more engrained in me when I became a father. I’m convinced there’s something hardwired into dads that causes “it builds character” to become the only acceptable reason to do things we don’t want to do. For example, when I was holding my newborn son, hours after he was born, and he was crying and very upset due to receiving his first bath, I had to fight the urge to look down at my precious child and give him his first “it builds character, son” pep talk. That phrase and the desire to make puns at every possible moment (also known as “dad jokes”) are the extra powers that all dads are bestowed with when given the new responsibility of fatherhood. So while I may be a little biased here, I truly believe that this “it builds character” mentality is built on a foundation of truth. Perhaps we are shaped and formed by not only the things we do, but even more by what we are given responsibility and leadership to do.
In part one of this series on youth leadership, we looked at expanding our view of ways youth are capable of serving and making a difference in the church and community. In this post, we’re going to continue that conversation and dig more into why giving youth a chance to lead is important. As stated above, yes, I believe that character is built through leadership and service opportunities, but I don’t think that’s the only reason we should raise up youth leadership. Rather than talk in theory about what this looks like, let me share from my personal experience how being asked to lead as a young person impacted my life.
One of my first brushes with leadership growing up was my senior year of high school. I had been elected Band President (which is just as cool as it sounds) and in meeting with some of the other student leadership, we had decided to do more social events as a marching band before the school year started. We also somehow got permission for these events to be totally student-led. So we did kickball and Ultimate Frisbee at a local park one day and did a night-time game of Capture the Flag on another evening. Those went off without a hitch and without any injuries, so we decided to attempt an on-campus event one evening after band practice. The overwhelming request from the group was to play dodgeball in one of the gyms. In order to make that happen, I talked with a few of the P.E. teachers to make sure we got the equipment we needed, picked up the equipment from one of the local schools (and actually got time out of practice to do so), and made sure we had permission to use the gym by catching our athletic director in the hallway and telling him what we were going to do.
Let’s pause the story here and pick up a few keys about student leadership from this secular experience that we can tap into as the church:
Student leadership increases individual ownership of the group.
I had never felt as excited to be in the band, worked to get others excited or involved in the band, or worked harder to help the group succeed than when I was in an official position of leadership. I was given responsibility and rose to the occasion, which was not unique to me in that situation either. Many of my classmates who were section leaders or had some other type of responsibility suddenly stepped up their game and were much more involved in the group as a result. Think about other clubs or groups at your local school. Who are the people most involved in a group like National Honors Society, French Club, or Drama Club? Normally it’s the people who have been chosen to be President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Bodyguard (to protect the NHS from the National Dishonor Society, the French Club from the Spanish Inquisition—which no one ever expects, and the Drama Club from, well, themselves). I saw it happen with my peers and have seen it time and time again with youth at my church; they get more involved when they are given a chance to lead. Not to downplay the clubs or teams that our young people find themselves involved in, but if they get so excited about NHS as more than just a resumé booster, how much more excited could we get them about living as a disciple of Christ by activating them in the ministry as a leader? One of the keys of almost any youth group I know is the idea of ownership. Not just ownership of the youth group itself, but more importantly, ownership of their faith and their church. It’s great to hear a young person get to the point where they confess “this is my faith, my youth group, and my church.” We can facilitate that growth through youth leadership.
Student leadership helps a variety of tasks get done.
As great as my band directors were, they weren’t going to plan kickball or dodgeball for the students. But that was something that we as student leaders were motivated to get done. The head director wasn’t going to pass his baton over to me and tell me that I was in charge of the whole program, but he did give his student leaders the freedom to do those things we were able to do. We planned social events, yes, but we also created a mentor and fundamentals help program for some of the younger students because we knew that would benefit the whole band. We accomplished more as a group because more people were involved in helping to make it successful. In the same way, what are tasks in your youth ministry that you believe your youth could take on? Could your youth serve by planning games or activities, picking or leading worship songs, sharing a devotion, leading a small group discussion, contacting a local organization for a service project, calling or texting youth visitors after an event, taking pictures or putting together promo videos, or helping to train the next group of acolytes or small group leaders? Those may be tasks that you already do on your own and your youth could take over from you, with your guidance and help, of course—and we’ll talk more on that in the following post. Also, be thinking of tasks or ministry areas that you aren’t currently doing that you could raise up some youth leaders to help with. What is that dream that you’ve had for your youth ministry that you haven’t been able to implement yet and how can you use the youth themselves to make that a reality? Or perhaps a better way to approach this is to ask the youth themselves what they would like to see happen and talk about how you can support them in making their collective dreams for the group a reality.
Student leaders can accomplish more than they thought possible.
This was true for our group of leaders in the band program, and I have seen this countless times throughout my time in ministry. Until I chose to plan this dodgeball event, I wouldn’t have thought I could put something like that together. I contacted teachers, the local schools, talked with our athletic director, and arranged times to pick up the necessary equipment. Those may seem like pretty simple tasks to me now, but it’s because I was given that experience when I was younger. Giving a young person responsibility and support is a way of saying “you can do it, I believe in you.” Those are words that young people need to hear, and what better source than from the church? I’ve been using examples from the secular realm so far to illustrate these points about student leadership, but one of the most impactful leadership opportunities I had in high school was at my church when my pastor asked me to give a devotion to the group at our fall retreat. It wasn’t like he created this formal leadership team, with meetings, titles, and T-shirts. He just picked a few of us and said, “I think you can do this.” We weren’t as sure about that as he was, but then we did it. More than that, afterwards, pastor talked to me about the devotion and called out some gifts that I had in that area. This led to an ongoing conversation about pursuing full-time church work ministry (which took a while to actually get through to me, but that’s another story for another time) and God used that in powerful ways in my life. All of this, because a youth leader gave up some control to a few of his youth and encouraged them while doing it. It’s no secret that we are facing a shortage of pastors and professional (and volunteer) youth workers in the upcoming years of the Church. Perhaps this has less to do with our universities and seminaries than it has to do with our local congregations. Maybe we don’t have more people pursuing these careers because they’ve never been given the opportunity to try leading in the church before, and perhaps we don’t have adults willing to step out and lead a Bible study because they’ve never been asked to give their voice as a young person. So ask, encourage, pray, and then watch what God will do through the people He has gifted in His church—adults and youth alike.
Leadership and responsibility build character, yes, and that is a great thing. But they also build ownership of the group and enhance the experience in so many ways. I am convinced that the secular realm, specifically school clubs and teams, understand this concept much better than many church ministries do. So let’s get caught up by tapping into the same truths that they do, but also building our leadership on the rock of Jesus Christ. At this point in the story all is well in student leadership land right now, but unfortunately it will not stay that way. In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the limits of student leadership. “Brandon, do you mean that having a bunch of students plan a dodgeball tournament on school property may not have been the greatest idea the world?” Why yes, that might be the case. Stay tuned!