In his blog post, Give Every Teen a Voice on More than Dodgeball, Chris Wesley said, “I have mixed feelings when it comes to student leadership groups within your student ministry. While it’s important to create leaders, to group them risks creating a click within the ministry.”
As someone who's actually a big fan of formal student leadership teams, I'll admit this statement rubbed me the wrong way. On the one hand, I get where Chris is coming from. Without discipleship and guidance from a trusted adult leader, leadership teams can quickly go awry, becoming problematic when they're given too much power or when they misuse their power at the expense of others.
The problem with this logic, however, is that cliques exist everywhere there are large groups of teens connecting over shared experiences, interests, and passions. Teens form groups. That's a reality. And if we, as youth workers, fear that grouping teens together will create cliques, rather than just eliminate student leadership teams, let's also eliminate small group ministry of any kind.
I mean, let's be honest. If anything is going to spawn cliques, it's those pesky small groups in which we invite teens to share, deeply and honestly, about the reality of their lives so that they can truly know and care for one another.
In the church, we call this “authentic community”; The rest of the world calls this cliques. While these small group cliques don't always function the way we want them to, when they do, it's a beautiful thing.
So maybe small groups and student leadership teams do produce cliques, but maybe, just maybe, that's not a bad thing. Maybe not all cliques are inherently bad.
This doesn't mean, however, that all cliques are good. Some cliques can certainly be harmful to teens, their self-esteem, and their ability to fit in. These are the cliques that we, as youth workers, must constantly fight against in our ministries if we truly want all teens to feel welcomed, not just into our ministries, but into the greater church and our family of faith.
What I have found in my experience is that far from becoming this kind of destructive clique, when led well, student leadership teams can actually be the best tool we youth workers have for combating cliques. Through discipleship, student leaders can truly be taught and empowered to set the tone for our ministries.
In my ministry, I tell student leaders that while our discussions are certainly important, they are the reason other teens come to our ministry. If they're welcoming and inviting, teens will return; If they aren't, they won't.
Sure, this is a big responsibility to place on student leaders but isn't leadership supposed to be a big responsibility?
Time and time again, rather than shy away from the weight of this responsibility, I've seen student leaders embrace it. Rather than spend time with the people they already know well, they know that when they walk through the doors of our youth room for a large group event, their job is to find someone they don't know and get to know them. They know that follow-up with teens isn't just my responsibility, it's theirs, too.
They know this because week after week, as we discuss what it means to be a student leader, we talk about the importance of creating a culture of welcome. They know this is something our ministry values and they understand why. What's more, they've wholeheartedly bought into and embraced this value. This does more than leave teens “feeling empowered, encouraged and valued”; It actually empowers, encourages them, and gives them value because they know that without them, we'd be unable to achieve this culture of welcoming – this value that forms the very essence of who we are as a ministry.
So Chris, while you may well have “mixed feelings when it comes to student leadership groups,” I sure don't. I say, bring it on. Let's form a clique of student leaders who through formal and intentional discipleship and leadership development, learn what it means to be godly, servant leaders who care for others and fight against the cliques that actually do harm our ministry.