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Student Leadership: The Key to Building Ownership in Your Ministry

The following is an article that I wrote for the youth ministry blog for my friends over at Youth Ministry 360:

Student leadership is an often overlooked but essential element to youth ministry.  This element is often neglected due to the time, energy, and investment involved versus the seemly small tangible pay off.  Student leadership, though the small part that it plays in most groups, is a key to building ownership in your student ministry.

At NorthPoint Community Church in Georgia, lead pastor, Andy Stanley, lays out the key, which I use to explain the idea of ownership and leadership to students.  He uses the analogy of a house to explain people’s levels of involvement in the church.

When people come into a house, the first room that they enter is the foyer.  In the foyer stage, people are probably visitors who are in a new place checking things out.  They are not sure if they are comfortable or if this is even somewhere they should be.  This category includes every visitor in your student ministry and maybe even some of your newer students.  These students are going to “the youth group down the road.”

The next stage, according to Andy Stanley, is the living room.  In this stage, people begin to feel comfortable in the environment.  They have checked the church out and have decided it is a place where they are willing to spend some time.  This is the stage where most of your students are.  “The youth group down the road” has become “the youth group which I attend.”  This is a crucial step in creating an environment where students want to be.

Most student ministries stay in the living room stage and do not ever get to the final stage of the kitchen.  In this stage, students become part of the family and as part of the family they have roles and responsibilities as part of the youth group.  In this final stage, “the youth group I attend” becomes “my youth group.”  This stage is bridged through student leadership where students take ownership in the ministry.

How do you build a student leadership team?

Enlist Students to Be in Leadership

From my experience, the best leaders will not be the first to volunteer.  Many students with leadership potential are already serving as leaders in many different areas and may be hesitant to sign up for something else.  The same students that serve in leadership at the church where I serve are also leaders in athletics, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and First Priority clubs at school.  They are not just leading in these areas logistically but are stepping up as spiritual leaders in the arenas where they have influence.

I have found that it works best to enlist student leaders.  If you are in a church where you are the lone youth worker, look around you for students who are stepping up and showing leadership potential.  If you are in a larger church with a ministry team, incorporate your ministry team in leadership decisions.  I have found it helpful to let your leadership team be your primary people to select student leaders because they know students that you may not have had as much interaction with and they also serve as a buffer to the charge of the youth leader “playing favorites” in selecting a leadership team.

Explain the Cost and Responsibility of Leadership

According to Andy Stanley, “Leadership is a stewardship.  It is temporary, and you are accountable.”  This quote hangs on the wall in my office so that I am reminded of it every time I walk out of my door to minister.  Students must also understand that leadership comes with a cost and they are responsible to God and others for how they lead.

In order to present the cost and responsibility of leadership to students, I gather them for the first student leadership team meeting of the year and present a leadership covenant.  This is a single page document that each student takes home and prays over before signing.  This document underscores the importance of prayer, Bible study, modeling Christian character, developing spiritual gifts, and witnessing.  These are all essential elements to leading other students well.  After the first meeting, students are given an opportunity to step away if God is not leading them to serve.

Explore Students’ Spiritual Gifts

Serving as a leader is not going to look the same for every student.  Just as you, as the youth leader, have certain strengths and weaknesses, your students do as well.  Many students, however, have a hard time on their own defining these strengths and weaknesses.  This is why student leadership forms an important role in developing students through personal growth and discipleship.

As students learn their strengths and weaknesses, they will grow as individuals.  This is why student leadership often does not have immediate, tangible results.  As youth leaders, we will never know the impact that we have had on a student with regard to their growth both spiritually and in leadership.

Empower Students to Serve

Empowering students to serve is the final step in developing student leaders.  This is a phase that many youth leaders struggle with because at this point some level of control and responsibility must be given over to students.  This can be a messy but rewarding process.

It is important in this process to create spaces for students to serve based on their spiritual gifts.  In doing this, we allow students to play to their strengths and to have success in leadership endeavors.  Setting students up for success is essential in helping students be willing to step out and lead in the future.

Through this process, the connection of ownership occurs.  The movement from “the youth group down the street” to “the youth group which I attend” to “my youth group” is accomplished while encouraging, teaching, and empowering students to lead.

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Ben Birdsong works with middle school students at First Baptist Church in Pelham, Alabama. He holds degrees in Marketing and Human Resource Management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is currently working on his Masters of Divinity degree at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. Ben has served with Student Life, Inc. and First Priority of Alabama. He loves to minister to students and challenge them to become campus missionaries and to live out their faith. Ben enjoys movies, reading, coffee shops, and blogging at http://www.benbirdsong.com.