As a youth leader, you pray for those moments; moments when students surprise you, when they take ownership, when they lead others—when they take leaps and bounds in their spiritual growth. Witnessing it is like a shot of adrenaline. Once you experience it, you want more of it. A new standard has been set, the bar raised, and the expectations redefined.
Yet sometimes it seems more like an anomaly than the norm. Sometimes we are left wondering how it happened, and questioning will it ever happen again. Maybe you saw growth in a particular group of students in the past and have yet to see it repeated. Or worse, you are left wondering if, as a youth leader, you will ever witness breakthrough growth and leadership potential in your students.
When I first began working with students, the idea of students leaders, mentors, and disciple-making among students wasn’t even part of my ministry vocabulary. I had never seen it, had no frame of reference for it, leaving me no chance of ever achieving it. But as time went on, I had the chance to inherit a student leadership program. We called it L.E.A.D. Leadership Education and Discipleship. I spent the next seven years trying every combination I could imagine. Some worked. A lot didn’t. But in everything that I tried, there were a few constants that continued to emerge. Most of these came from allowing my high school leadership team to ideate, create, and execute our middle school winter retreat.
Despite the advice of my elders, mentors, parents…well most everyone, I put students in charge of nearly everything. I coached, I watched, I corrected when necessary. But mostly, I learned. I’ve pulled a few of those lessons out that I think translate to almost any scenario or ministry. Regardless of church size, socio-economic status, group dynamics, use of space, or any of the other countless differences that each youth ministry has, we seem to all agree that student leaders are a must. We all agree that spiritual growth is a primary part of the calling to lead youth. And we all agree that we want to see students take charge and lead.
What did I learn?
Allow for innovation.
Create space for relationships.
Invest in regular coaching.

Students are innovators

Have them design a program from ideation to execution—ideally, a program for the younger grades. This will dramatically improve buy-in and commitment from your students. I am not a big program guy, but they can serve as powerful tools to help train students as well as provide the necessary feedback and accountability. They create the necessary parameters to help students actively participate in the disciple-making process. Students still need structure, a framework to work within. It will help channel creativity in productive ways.
Let’s go back to my middle school retreat. I provided my students with the overall framework—days, sessions, and the reason for a retreat. But that was it. They helped decide location, theme, games, speaker, band, small groups formation and discussion, even the flow of service. But it doesn’t end there. I encouraged different thinking, out of the box ideas—as many new ideas a possible. Nothing was considered dumb. We challenged the ideas and analyzed what would be required for execution. Let’s be honest, some ideas are great, but there is not always the money, resources, or time to make it happen.
And then, yes, I made them execute it. When problems arose, they had to create solutions. This is the hard part. Allowing the possibility of failure for the sake of learning. But it also creates a greater capacity for investment in others and the building of relationships—the context for making disciples.
So think about what programs or initiatives that currently exist in your ministry or ones you can create that will allow your students to innovate and invest in. Then leverage as many talents and gifts as you can and watch what God does with them.

Create space for relationships

Create the notion or sense of a higher standard for behavior. Don’t create a “do as I say, not as I do culture,” but a “do as I do” culture. Whether your student leaders realize it or not, they are being watched by younger students. My goal was to take advantage of this. So for my leadership team, retreat responsibilities did not end when we all came home. The relationships they created with the students in middle school were far too valuable. The momentum built up at the summit of the mountain needed to continue when we came back down.
Let me explain how this worked in the school I taught at.
The school I taught at had two floors. On the first floor was the middle school; the second floor was high school. You might imagine how intimidating it was for middle school students to wander upstairs and walk through the area of the high school lockers. Occasionally there was a need, but most students avoided the walk if at all possible. So I had my student leaders develop mentoring relationships with middle school students by walking downstairs to the middle school locker area to do nothing more than saying hi, give them a high five, ask them how their test went the previous day, etc. You can imagine how special these kids felt. So much so, they began to feel comfortable coming upstairs if they had a specific question or need. It became a brand new open door.
But the best part was that over several years I had the privilege of seeing middle school students come up to high school, join the leadership team and begin to mentor the younger students again. It quickly became my favorite picture of discipleship.
No specific questions, or curriculum, just authentic life-on-life mentoring.
But none of this can be left without proper guidance and coaching from you.

Create an ongoing conversation between a pastor and student leaders

Consistent feedback, encouragement, and support are vital. Our student leaders need to feel comfortable and confident that you are there to support, encourage, rebuke, and correct whenever possible. For me, this was an ongoing conversation nearly every day. Sometimes it was formal; other times, it was a 30-second conversation before a class. But my students always knew I was watching and always coaching.
As they poured into others, I had to be sure I was pouring into them.
Once your student’s creativity starts to flow, you will never run short of opportunities for coaching. Mistakes will be made, the wrong thing may get said, someone may get offended, projects may fail, but learning will happen. You have to be sure to take advantage of every opportunity you have.
So, what are your students capable of? What can they create that will carry the ministry forward and propel their spiritual growth in unexpected ways? You are on your way to making disciples who make disciples. No longer an anomaly, but the new norm for your ministry.
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