Student Leadership Team Basics: Training Your Leaders by Reading

Last week, we talked about how the fundamental role of student leaders is to create a culture of welcome. A common question I get in response to this idea is “How do you train and equip student leaders to create a culture of welcome?”

There are three things I use to train and equip students for leadership and in particular, for their role in creating a culture of welcome: Required readings, blogging, and weekly evaluations. Today, we'll explore the first of these methods – required reading.

Since student leadership is really about discipleship, we have to build time into our schedule for training student leaders. To this end, my student leadership team meets approximately 6 times over the summer. Because these meetings are focused almost exclusively on training students for their role as leaders, this gives us plenty of time to equip student leaders for their role in establishing a culture of welcome before our program year begins in September. To facilitate this training, I require student leaders to read and discuss a book together.

Since a student can be a leader in our ministry for at most three years, I have a three-year cycle of books we use. The first year, we read a book specifically focused on leadership. The second year, we read a book about Jesus, who is the ultimate model of servant leadership. We also read a book about Jesus because student leaders cannot take teens deeper than they are in their own faith. As a result, I want to push student leaders to grow in their faith, even as they help other teens do the same. The third year, we read a book about the church. We do so because as student leaders, I want teens to understand and appreciate the church as well as their role in it. I want them to understand how our youth ministry fits into the bigger church. I also want to challenge them to find a spiritual community long after they “graduate” from our youth ministry.

Though I use a wide variety of books, in general, I look for books that are: 

- Thought-provoking: Often, this means I don't agree with everything the author says. However, disagreements with an author's opinion or even with their theology make for great discussion fodder. Such discussions expose teens to other viewpoints and give them the opportunity to really wrestle with faith-related issues.

- Accessible / Relatable: As you can see from the list of books I've used with my teens (below), most are not specifically geared to teens. Yet, all are accessible for them. To that end, I've found that teens relate best to memoir – to seeing and encountering God through another person's story.

- Reasonable length: I won't give teens a 500 page book on the theology of the church. Instead, I tend to choose books that are 200 pages or less. I then divide the book up between our six summer meetings so that by the time school starts, teens will be done with their required leadership reading.

- Applicable to leadership: Clearly, the books we read and discuss about Jesus and the church are not as obviously tied to student leadership as the book specifically about leadership. But by selectively choosing books about Jesus and the church, I can pull nuggets from them that relate to our broader topic. I then tailor each meeting's discussion so that we not only talk about the book, but we do so in a way that specifically pertains to a teen's role as a student leader in our ministry.

Though there's a wide-assortment of books that could work well for discipling student leaders, here are the ones I've used:

- Leadership books:  Help! I'm a Student Leader! by Doug Fields (It's the only book I've ever used in multiple cycles.)
- Jesus books: Relearning Jesus: How Reading the Beatitudes One More Time Changed My Faith by Matthew Paul Turner; Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough by Jefferson Bethke 
- Church books:  Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community by Enuma Okoro; Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Trust me. Regardless of what book you choose to read with student leaders, they'll initially moan and groan about having to do so. But I've lost track of how many teens have told me – years later – just how much a particular book that we discussed in leadership influenced them. What I've found is that well-chosen books help student leaders to actively engage in discussions about their faith and leadership and in the process, grow in incredible ways in both areas of their lives.

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), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

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