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 post is by Brad Hauge, who I met through the fine folks at The Youth Cartel. Brad is the Director of Student Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane and has no shame about driving a mini van with his beautiful wife Sarah and their daughters Jane & Alice. He is a big fan of student empowerment, experimenting in ministry, the Mariners, and the belief that we are all worthy of love. He also writes for The Youth Cartel and slings beers at a local brewery.
Around this time last summer I was able to experience one of the most sacred moments in my decade-plus ministry career. The moment occurred around 7:30 am, when most teens are normally struggling to function, in a small church on the coast of Washington state during a weeklong mission trip. In front of me, huddled together, arms around each other’s shoulders, were dozens of kids praying for and with each other.
Within this huddle were kids who faithfully follow Jesus, recently got high, consider themselves atheists, write fan fiction, have barely read the Bible, serve dinner to homeless neighbors, are cheerleaders, are homeschooled, have had sex, feel like they'll never be attractive, recently attempted suicide, love to explore Scripture, and collectively sing their hearts out to All the Poor and Powerless every chance they get.
This huddle was formed by our student leaders - kids who had applied, been accepted, and were now preparing to live out Jesus-centered ministry in and amongst their peers.
Since many of my friends and colleagues have initially told me, “That seems pretty irresponsible,” allow me to provide a bit more context.
A few years ago we made a conscious decision to open the gates to our student leadership team. We realized that this team, replete with its own mission trip, regular meetings, built-in discipleship, and clearly stated purpose, was our most successful avenue toward fulfilling our ministry’s goal of helping high school kids move forward in their faith. To allow more kids to experience what it means to be welcomed in to participate, we made our student leadership team “open.”
Instead of relying on a contract that lists out varying degrees of both moral and spiritual expectations, we ask our student leaders to commit to two basic, yet powerful, tenets:
1. Do you commit to moving forward in your understanding of what it means to love and follow Jesus, no matter your starting point?
2. Do you commit to making our youth group community the most welcoming and effective place for your peers, both those already within our community and those who have never entered, to move forward in what it means to love and follow Jesus, no matter their starting point?
When we create contracts that read like a list of behavioral and spiritual expectations, the unintentional consequence is often that we’re setting kids up to lie. Or fail. Or feel like they aren't good enough. Or, more than likely, a combination of all three. When we see Jesus invite Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him, he doesn’t check first to see what they buy into and what they don’t. He invites them, and when they accept, they get to work. (Matthew 4)
Instead of being intimidated by a list of behavioral expectations and Christian doctrines, students living in a post-Christian reality see barriers to their involvement removed when they look at our student leadership application.
Now, are there real and substantial drawbacks to an “open” student leadership?
In the past couple of years I’ve sat in a coffee shop with a couple of student leaders to help them through a pregnancy scare, taken a student leader out for pizza to talk about the frequency of their Instagram posts involving marijuana, calmed an adult leader’s fears after her small group of freshmen girls had been exposed to the doubts of the upperclassmen they looked up to, and watched helplessly as a student leader had a panic attack at the idea of giving up atheism.
Open student leadership is not for the faint of heart (or for those without the boss’s permission). But shouldn't youth ministry be messy, even among those considered leaders? Especially if it’s ministry that wouldn’t be possible if those in our group were expected to adhere to both moral and spiritual codes that weren’t authentic to their current life experiences?
I won’t pretend that all messes result in tidy “ministry successes.” But I also can't deny how God is redeeming so many stories through our experiment. One of the students involved in the pregnancy scare spent their summer doing full time ministry and leading groups of current high school students into the presence of Jesus at summer camp. The kid who had a legit panic attack while considering leaving atheism behind recently wrote the most beautiful essay confessing they are worthy of God’s love. The leader who was once worried about the negative effects of recognizing doubt now confidently creates space for her students to name and wrestle with doubt.
I’ll be honest, I still question whether this is the smartest way to go about student leadership. There are times when it seems clear that my work and life would be simpler if we pared down our student leadership team and made it a little less open. But there’s no going back for us, not after witnessing the Spirit-led growth in and amongst our community. A philosophy of open student leadership has led to this tangible growth. Growth that has removed barriers, opened doors, and helped kids move forward in what it means to love and follow Jesus.
More posts in this series:
To learn more about student leadership, get your copy of Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders here!