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Talking Trash with Students Who Want to Serve

I’d advertised the opportunity well.

“You’re invited to join our Student Leadership Team.”

It was my second week at the church, and the students didn’t know me or what to expect from this invite. All they knew was that whomever was on this team would become point leaders in our youth group. Dreams of wielding power over their peers caused around 25 students to show up.

trashThat’s when I passed out the trash bags and plastic gloves.

“Real leaders serve,” I explained. “Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. You need to be willing to serve the lowliest needs of your community.”

They all looked at each other, as if to ask, “Is this guy serious?”

I was.

So… they went out. Each one filled their trash bag, eager to be affirmed into a role of influence.” It only took about thirty minutes for all the students to return back to me at the building with each of their contributions.

(Raise your hand if you see the problem with this yet. I certainly didn’t at the time.)

All of these students made the cut. Each found an appropriate way to serve in the ministry, whether they were checking in their friends for attendance on Wednesday nights, helping organize games or taking on a slot up-front in our program.

We’d meet at least once a week to go over plans for the youth ministry. If any other students wanted “in” on the student leadership team, we’d require them to do what had been expected from that first opportunity – we’d pass out trash bags and gloves so they could go out and pick up trash. Then they’d bring it back to us.

(Raise your hand if you’re just now catching on to the gap.)

I felt pretty proud of myself. Our student leaders felt pretty proud of themselves, too.

In fact, I remember when it all became clear to me.

I was turning the corner out of my office and heading into our meeting space in our youth building. It felt so good to have my own definitive area to be a youth pastor. “This is why I went to college for ministry,” I concluded. I was at the top of my game.

Emphasis on “game.”

As I turned into the main room, I saw one of our key student leaders leaning into another kid. “Shut up and listen to me,” he demanded. “I’m a leader.”


I quickly jumped in, and we quickly sorted it out. How did one of my core students get such an elitist mentality?

Let me just pause and add that God is so, so good.

The Holy Spirit has this way of bringing the right image to mind in such moments, as if He has a remote control and can take you back to the moment it could have all been different. He brought me to that significant second and made stare right it.

I should have been out there with the students picking up trash from day one.

That’s the image that blitzed me all at once.

elitistWhat I had assumed was “leading by example” was “hazing by position.”

After spending a week kicking myself over and over, I came to two conclusions:

  • We needed to dissolve the student leadership team and start over from scratch. To join, you had to understand that every one of our meetings we would all go out and pick up trash – every week, every one of us. As we did this, the size of our team split in half… but things were a lot healthier.
  • “Trash pickup” had to become a part of our overall ministry strategy. After local football games, we’d open up our building for basketball, pizza and more. To take part in this, you had to join us after the games for twenty minutes as we cleaned up under the bleachers. It helped us forge a great relationship with the school and made sure students attending knew we weren’t just a place to party but care takers for them and the community in the name of Jesus.

Any takeaways?

P.S. The teen who yelled at his peer? We recently became Facebook friends. He now has a kid of his own he’s  trying to lead. From what I can tell, he’s doing an amazing job.

Thank you for loving students!

– Tony

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Talking Trash with Students Who Want ...

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