When I first started out in youth ministry, I had a deep desire to see young people realize their gifts and grow in those giftings. As a worship leader who myself ‘got in the game’ at an early age, I wanted to see students come alive with the call God had placed on their life and get real experience in ministry at a young age. In my enthusiasm, I made the mistake of giving some students too much leadership too soon.
One such time, I remember a young girl who was eager to sing on our youth worship team. She came up to me after youth group, and made a compelling case for why she would be a great addition to our team. And while I didn’t know her very well, in my eagerness to let students get involved, she was scheduled to sing the very next week. To put it lightly, it was a complete disaster. Not only was she not ready to sing in public, but her life choices quickly proved she was also unable to be seen as a leader in our youth group. I was devastated that she had not risen to the task and worse, that I now had to “dismiss” her from our team. The experience was painful for all those involved.
As hard as that was, I began to realize that I needed some structure around how and when to plug student leaders into our team. How do we balance an eagerness to get involved with a readiness in our teens? How can we give students opportunity to grow and yet assess whether they are ready? Here are a few ways I’ve learned to navigate this tension in teens.
Test in the tiny. One great way to see students’ ability level is to give them a small task to accomplish and see how they handle it. This could be as simple as showing up on time. Or maybe you invite them to help you set up for youth group and see how they do following a few simply directions. Then, give them feedback. Assessing their response to feedback is also a great inside look at their willingness to learn and grow. Had I auditioned this young woman, I could have quickly realized she wasn’t ready and given her some next steps to get there.
Get to know their story. I know this can seem like a no-brainer of youth ministry, but often we spend more time getting to know our students who seem far from Jesus than the ones who seem to have leadership potential. We often assume that a student who is willing to serve or get involved, must be solid in their relationship with Jesus. But the problem is we just can’t assume. We must be in touch with the students we are working to develop into leaders. Ask the hard questions, like “How is your time with Jesus going?” “How is your relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend going? Are you making decisions that God would be pleased with?” A lack of character can quickly destroy a calling. One of the best foundations we can give young leaders is to teach them that a healthy interior life is critical to a thriving exterior life.
Set clear expectations. When I had to dismiss that young lady from our worship team, one major lesson I learned was it is better to set clear expectations from the beginning. Had I laid out what was expected from her and what she could expect from me, we all could have avoided a painful and damaging experience. In my immaturity, I hadn’t even thought about what I expected out of a student leader. Take some time to write down expectations for your young leaders. Realistically think through what your young leaders can expect from you. This conversation can also invite them into the process of their own leadership. What do they want to grow in this year? What experiences are they hoping to have? Having these conversations early on can shape the journey of leadership for our young people and give them tools to ask those questions throughout their leadership journey.
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