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Why It’s Time To Kill Student Leadership (IMHO)

Somehow, it’s working…

For the past 10 months we’ve been trying to nurture a “community within a community” inside our youth ministry. We call it Squad, and it’s changing how we do everything.

It began a year ago, when a few adult leaders and I talked about getting more of our teenagers serving in leadership roles. It wasn’t the first time I’d built a student leadership team, but I felt prodded to reconsider my default assumptions before we got started. For starters:

  • Did we have to use the word “leadership?” Years ago as a high school student, I was given a leadership position way above my spiritual maturity. I faked it most days, fearful someone would find out I wasn’t growing with God outside of church. Thankfully, a mentor helped me sort through the dissonance—he highlighted the difference between “meeting the expectations of my leadership role” and, simply, modeling a Jesus-centered lifestyle. In my many years involved in youth ministry, I’ve seen students clamor after a “leadership” role because the title is impressive. Today, I wonder if designating some teenagers as “leaders” is as important as teaching them how to be “disciples.”
  • What if we shifted from long-term to short-term commitments? What if we treated the Squad like a small group, asking for a quarterly commitment instead of our typical year-long, never-ending assignment? I think the shorter commitment window opened up possibilities for some on the fence, and worked against the clique-ish tendencies of most student leadership teams. Every few months teenagers already on the team knew they’d have to make space for new people and personalities.
  • How can we shift the focus from internal to external? My experience with student leadership teams told me they almost always stay focused on the internal culture of the group, instead of an outward focus on drawing others into the community. If we emphasize a Jesus-centered “norm,” then we’re teaching them to join Him in His Kingdom of God mission, not concentrate on building a better youth group culture.  We emphasized that a growing relationship with Jesus translates to joining Him in what He’s doing—loving people who don’t yet know Him, and inviting them into our community.
  • How could we provide the right climate for them to deepen their roots? We decided to gather together twice a month to eat, study the Bible, and dream up opportunities together. We also encouraged them to do something together that they planned without adult oversight at least once a month—a bowling outing, a cookout, a movie or whatever. We used the free app GroupMe to help with communication.

What Did We Learn?

  • Our teenagers actually preferred to not call themselves leaders. For a lot of teenagers, “leader” is more like  a dirty word, because it implies onerous responsibility—more “have to” than “get to.” Ironically, the less they identify themselves as leaders, the more they’re acting like leaders.
  • They fill in for each other. During different sports seasons or times of the year, certain students are maxed out and can’t serve. The others step up to fill in the holes, but then step back when the other students can serve again. It’s like the old analogy of birds flying in a “V” to help each other maximize flight and rest.
  • Yes, they do initially lean toward inward-focused ideas. Thankfully, as we remind them of our mission, they have grown into an emphasis on broader, more outward-focused thinking.
  • We had to give them more conversational space. We found that instead of just using GroupMe to exchange information, they wanted to lean on each other for prayer and share what they were learning in their personal Bible study time (which, I believe, inspired some students to start having one). They also enjoyed sharing memes, creating a fantasy football structure, finding someone to go to the movies with, and more. And they also shared praises! Recently, one student said this before a Wednesday night gathering: “Tonight there will be a whole bunch of non-Americans at the church! lol Because my two South African friends from last week are coming back, and I also invited two foreign exchange students from my swim team that will come with me. And Grace invited a foreign exchange student from Cross Country, too, so that is super exciting and I want to make it feel welcoming for them!”

[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]Our teenagers actually preferred to not call themselves leaders. For a lot of teenagers, “leader” is more like  a dirty word, because it implies onerous responsibility—more “have to” than “get to.”[/tweet_box]

Honestly? My favorite part?

My oldest son… a high school senior who over the years has been burned a few times by people who called themselves Christian leaders… he’s all in. And so is my 9th-grade son—because my older son talked him into it.

For the longest time, the word “leader” was something my senior son avoided. Now it’s an understanding he embraces because we’ve created a discipleship community, and he actually wants to step up. He told me recently, “I have Christian friends, Dad. The kind I can talk to about anything—from Fortnite to my faith to girls. And I feel like I’ve figured out more of what I’m good at in life.”

Feeling nudged here? Maybe it’s time to experiment with a “leader-less” leadership team—make it a team of disciples instead…


8 thoughts on “Why It’s Time To Kill Student Leadership (IMHO)

  1. I love this approach. It really makes sense and changed my view of building leadership in youth .

  2. Hey Tony,
    Just out of curiosity, do you have a capped size for the Squad or is it open? Do students sign-up or are they picked?

    • Great question. We actually just had a chat on it, and we had the students wrestle with it. What we came down to is sensing that 10% of the student ministry would be the ideal size for Squad at our size. So around 25-30 students max. Beyond that it’ll become a separate youth ministry.

  3. Denise Andrews

    Can you share how you get the ones who participate, how you get more to step up, what exactly they do, what you actually do with them that is different from what you do with the others? And how to keep it from becoming a “clique” and train them to be intentional about making others feel a part of the whole group? (I have wanted to build a core group but don’t know where to start. My group is young, only one above 9th grade who is faithful and she is SUPER quiet and shy.) Sorry for all of the questions but i would love help!

    • Sure thing. We made it clear from the beginning that there wasn’t a “right” version of a leader in terms of skill set. Some might be gifted up front, and others behind the scenes. The goal was to find their “thing” and do it. To help, I drew a map on a whiteboard of our typical student ministry night facility and asked them to write their name in two places they’d most like to make a difference – from greeting, to stage, to tech, and so on. We dignified it as important in any role to simply give your best.

      As far as the clique goes, yep – we’ve stayed on that reminding them to be Jesus-centered and outward-focused. So sometimes when they plan a bowling night or hang time for themselves, we say, “Go for it!” Other times we ask, “What if you invited others to this?” And they realize that’s why they got into this in the first place.

  4. would also like to know how you did it. Thanks

  5. Johnelle Wright

    What are the basic requirements to be a member of the squad? A certain level of faith maturity? We have a lot great “leaders” but their Christ likeness is in consistent. An average of 50 regular students in youth.

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Why It’s Time To Kill Student Leaders...

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