“What are you doing?”

Reading this out loud, most of us will see it as an innocent question wondering about what is going on. However, if you capitalize everything and add some more question marks, all of a sudden there’s a catastrophe taking place: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???” Unfortunately, when we’re talking about student leadership, we have to take some time to look at the potential for the second version of that question to be asked. Other frequently asked questions for student leadership include: how old is that candy, are you sure that’s safe, have you really thought this through, and why didn’t I think of that first? While we tend to be a little accusatory sometimes when it comes to making sure youth have thought something through, what we’re really getting at with these questions is not “what are you doing” but “why are you doing that?” I think that is an important question for us to ask as youth leaders, not just what are we doing to promote leadership in the youth, but why are we doing it?

In the previous installment (part two) of this series on youth leadership, we looked at why giving youth a chance to lead is important. To help illustrate this point, we started with a story from my own student leadership experience when I was in school, which involved getting everything ready to host a student-led dodgeball event for our marching band. Everything was great when we paused the story, now let’s see what happens when we throw in some chaos:

We got the word out about the dodgeball game and the afternoon of the event, and we have almost 60 students show up–about one third of the band. Because of this, my well thought out plan, which was meant for a smaller group, went out the window and the event turned into what could generously be described as “controlled chaos.” But we had made it through about 45 minutes of the event, we had no injuries, and it seemed like everyone was having fun. It looked like another surefire victory for the band leadership. At this point, one of the custodial staff for the school district came in and he didn’t look super happy. Unfortunately, he was a guy that didn’t look super happy most of the time, so I didn’t think anything of it. He watched us for a  while, and then started talking to some of the students to try to figure out who was in charge. Eventually he got over to me and we stepped outside of the gym so we could talk. I expected him to maybe ask a few questions, but I certainly didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects that, though). He grilled me with questions about whose permission we have to be there, if we’re being safe, and the fact that he as a school employee could be in trouble if something happens since there was no other employee supervision for the event. I did my best to assure him that we had permission to be there and that we were being very responsible. This didn’t  really convince him, but he at least realized it was something he had to take up with the administration, and not with me. He went back to what he was doing and I returned to the gym, having put out my first leadership fire and feeling pretty proud of myself.

At this point, I walked back in the gym to find one of my classmates had gotten out a ladder from the equipment closet, set it up on the court, and was now trying to sway the game in his team’s favor by being a sharpshooter throwing dodgeballs from the top of the ladder. Again, this is moments after I had just reassured the custodian that we were going to be responsible. If I hadn’t been in charge of the event, I would’ve just laughed and enjoyed the show like everyone else was, but instead I ran over there and yelled “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???” at the guy, had him come down and put the ladder away. We had a stern “what were you thinking” conversation and the event was over shortly after that. We had survived, but barely.

As we did in the previous post, 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:

Leadership gives multiple chances for youth to grow up and step up.

Yes, youth can learn a lot from planning an event well and executing that plan to perfection. But sometimes it is also a very good thing when an event doesn’t exactly go according to plan. As leaders who are equipping leaders, we need to ask ourselves if we’re okay with an event not following the plan, not being done the way we would do it, or perhaps even failing completely. If any of these happen, how are we going to use it as a learning opportunity for the leaders? Youth can learn from the planning, the actual event, and the debrief or processing time afterwards. Are we as leaders giving them the opportunity to learn from all three? It may be easier to lead and plan the whole thing yourself, but you’re missing out on a great learning experience for your youth if you do so.

Allow your youth leaders to take care of small “fires.”

I felt the need to put fires in quotations, just to clarify that you probably shouldn’t have real fires for most of your events, even though youth are totally fascinated with fire. The leadership point here is to give youth a chance to work through some of the issues as the event happens. I was given the opportunity as a student leader to talk with the janitor about his concerns and to handle the issue with the “student on a ladder” incident. I wouldn’t encourage having a lack of adults at most events– because it is very good to have someone there to step in for the bigger problems. But as you or other adults are there while the youth are leading something, give the youth leaders a chance to take care of an issue first instead of swooping in and doing it for them. Let your youth small group leader try to encourage a quiet student to share their thoughts or try to redirect a distracting peer. Consider being an observer at a leadership meeting rather than the facilitator. Bring a problem to a leader’s attention and maybe give them some guidance in how to handle it rather than stepping in and handling it yourself.

Don’t forget about safety.

In today’s litigious society, it seems like we are more afraid of legal action than about someone getting hurt. Our concern should not be in covering our rear ends in case something happens, but in helping everyone be safe during the program. Most adults are more conscious of safety simply because they don’t have the invincibility complex that many kids do- we know we’re not invincible, in fact we’re breaking more all the time! Don’t sacrifice safety just so that your youth can step up and lead. If an event is a “church event,” make sure there are a couple adults there, even if the youth are leading most of the programming. If it is just a gathering of people off-site that some of the youth plan on their own (just like they get together on the weekends or evenings on a regular basis) at least make sure that the parents of the leaders or whoever is hosting the event knows what is going on.

In Conclusion…

Adversity, criticism, and problems sometimes are why we don’t allow students to lead, but those things can also be some of the greatest tools we have to help our youth grow. Yes, there are some limits as to what student leaders can do, but don’t allow that to dissuade you from letting them do what they can. The overall thought that should be running through our heads is this, “How can I be a Christ-like shepherd as I serve these youth leaders?” It involves a lot of love, grace, patience, truth, and perseverance but it’s worth it because it’s an investment ultimately in the youth themselves. It’s one thing to tell them in a Bible study, “God wants to do great things through you!” It’s another thing to actually give them an opportunity to see that in action as God uses them in your church and community. At this point in the story we have made it through the dodgeball event itself but unfortunately that isn’t the finish line for the problems. In the last part of this series, we’ll look at the benefits of a good debrief for leaders and also talk about responsibility for your youth. Stay tuned!