Guest Post: Why Student Leadership Works by Emily Gorz

My new book, Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders, is out! I'm convinced that when done well, student leadership has the ability to transform your youth ministry. With that in mind, over the next few weeks, we're going to be talking about student leadership. You'll hear from several different youth workers about why they value student leadership as well as how they do student leadership. Their opinions vary and many of their perspectives on student leadership are also different than what you'll find in my book.

Today's guest post is by Emily Gorz, someone who grew up in my youth ministry and was part of our student leadership team for three years. A recent graduate of Marquette University, Emily has spent the last three summers working for Youth Works Missions. This summer, she'll return to work there as an Area Director. 

I was a talentless child. I don’t say this in a self-deprecating way, but in more of a matter-of-fact kind of way. Growing up, I had brief stints with choir, dance, the viola, and softball but nothing seemed to stick for more than a season. In high school, I played field hockey and was the team’s benchwarmer, lucky if I played at all. I tried out consistently for school plays but never even got a call back. At church I knew nothing about the Bible and really wasn’t sold on the whole God thing. It was for all these reasons and more that I felt surprised when I was asked to join the student leadership team of my high school youth group. But low and behold, at the end of my freshman year, I skeptically applied and was floored to actually be accepted.

My first year on leadership I was the only underclassman on the team. I looked at the upperclassmen as if they hung the moon. They were infinitely cooler than me, star athletes, talented artists, and popular. To top that all off, they had working knowledge of the Bible. I did not compare.

Whether I felt worthy or not, I was catapulted into what turned into a three-year leadership team career. I helped plan events and retreats and our first ever end-of-the-year banquet. I helped choose our mission trip destinations. I read books about leadership and serving others that I would never have gotten the chance to touch otherwise. I got to lead a book club discussion on Blue Like Jazz. I helped Leadership apply for a grant (which we then won!) that gave us the opportunity to run a Kids Club for children of refugee families in our church. I then got to run that program, proudly bearing the title “ ESL Kids Club Coordinator.”

However, the biggest challenge and most rewarding part of Leadership Team was not the behind-the-scenes work or the up-front leadership. It was the week-to-week responsibilities of being in charge of welcoming others who came to youth group. Leadership Team members, above all else, were responsible for making sure everyone felt included. It was our job to pursue the person who was sitting alone and hadn’t been to youth group in a few weeks. We excitedly welcomed everyone who entered with a single mission to help them feel like they belonged. This taught me that the real importance in being a leader wasn’t those moments where the spotlight was on me. Real leadership was happening when it was in service to others. This lesson has been invaluable to me.  

When I was inclusive, encouraging, and acting as a servant leader, the other parts of leadership followed. Slowly, I found that when I spoke, others would listen. And it wasn’t because I was popular at school, or because I could dazzle you with my charm. It was because I really cared about the members of my youth group and because the Leadership Team created an environment where others felt comfortable.

With the discovery of what true leadership was came confidence in myself and my abilities. Where I previously might have shrunk away in the face of an awkward interaction or having to share a personal moment, I learned to be encouraging and strong. These leadership qualities were not something I would have ever guessed I possessed when I began Leadership Team as the sole talentless underclassman.

At the end of my time in youth group, I had coffee with our youth pastor, Jen, as well as some other graduating seniors, also members of Leadership Team. Reflecting on our time on Leadership Team, myself and the other seniors came to a conclusion: “It works.” 

Just weeks before I'd served as a student leader on a mission trip to Milwaukee. As we hung out with community members we had served with on the last night, I found myself comfortable going up and talking to people, many of whom were strangers to me. Not only that, but I was able to encourage other, younger friends to do so, too. I remember thinking how four years ago, I would have never imagined that to be possible. But years of being taught the importance of including others, sometimes at the cost of your own comfort, paid off.

Perhaps the sweetest fruit that leadership team gave me wasn’t my own personal development, but the confidence and boldness to call someone else into that growth. Riding back from a winter retreat with my friend Stephanie, a year below me in school, the subject of Leadership Team came up. The applications for leadership team for the next year were months away from even being available. That didn’t matter though. I immediately and instinctively told Stephanie she should apply and then listed all the reasons why she would be a great addition to the team.

At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. However, it’s a moment we’ve both looked back on as formative in both our experience in ministry and our stories of leadership. For her, it was a peer recognizing her gifts and encouraging her to pursue something she felt unsure of. For me, it was a chance to pay forward the opportunity that had been given to me.  

In the years since my Leadership Team career I have gone on to hold other leadership positions on my college campus and in my professional life. The root of many of these accomplishments was my youth pastor taking a chance on and seeing potential in a messy, awkward, self-conscious (and quite frankly sad) fifteen year old. My experience on leadership began a personal journey where I began to rewrite my story. While I made many mistakes during my time in Leadership, this experience grew me, challenged me, changed my mindset, and laid a foundation for me to grow on.

As an adult leader in my old high school youth group, I now appreciate the impact of Leadership Team even more. I smile as I watch Leadership Team kids. I pay attention because I know. When I see an underclassmen student leader nervously tackle an upfront speaking role, I know exactly what is running through their mind. When I see a senior warmly invite a freshman into a joke, a game, or a circle of conversation, I know exactly what they are doing. Now as an adult I know that God smiles on that too. The beauty of Leadership Team is that it is planting seeds that may be harvested later. It teaches youth there is a place for them in ministry. Leadership Team is important because it glorifies God and shapes the lives of teenagers. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

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More posts in this series:

The Number One Reason for Student Leadership by Rachel Blom

How To Have Student Leaders Actually Impact Your Student Ministry by Justin Knowles

Toward an Open Student Leadership by Brad Hauge

Emily With Unleashing

To learn more about student leadership, get your copy of Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders here!

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling.

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