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Dealing with a Failing Student Leadership Program

By Guest Contributor January 3, 2020

Youth ministry a strange and beautiful animal, isn’t it?  It’s built upon the incredible hope of reaching a generation and creating lifelong disciple-makers. Youth ministry requires vision and action, but it also requires risk, vulnerability, and sometimes failure.

I’ve been a student pastor for nearly 19 years now. I have seen extreme growth and extreme decline over these years at different churches. Back in 2013 I took the position of student pastor at a church in Waco, TX, inheriting a youth ministry that was a shell of what it once was.

A rough start

My job was essentially to rebuild and reform from ground zero. I knew going into this position it was going to take work. And I knew if long-term discipleship was going to take place, it was going to require a team of real student leaders with boots on the ground being trained and equipped to be disciples and disciple-makers. 

My first several attempts at student leadership were miserable failures. I began with a hurried approach, and in my haste to get students on board, I unintentionally tried to force them into roles they were unqualified for and uninterested in.

I quickly found myself back to the proverbial drawing board. 

Looking for answers, I started to ask questions. 

I asked questions to students, adult volunteers, staff members, other youth pastors, and really anyone who I though might be able to shed some light on how to experience success with student leadership. I got incredible amounts of feedback, and all of it had one common denominator: you cannot force leadership. 

a new approach

So my team and I began reformulating and praying through a new approach to student leadership. Not long after, God dropped an opportunity–a leadership lab–in our laps.

The camp we decided to go to that summer had a unique twist regarding camp small groups. You could, if you desired, have students 10th grade or higher be the leaders/teachers of those groups instead of adult volunteers.  Adults would be in the group to help facilitate, stay on course, and help with any potential disciplinary issues, but they were not to teach. That responsibility was squarely on the shoulders of students. 

We began to inquire among our students to see if any would be interested.  At first only 1 or 2 students showed a flicker of interest, but eventually we found 10 students ready to accept the challenge. 

For each student leader, we required an application, 2 recommendations, a written testimony, and 6 weeks of training. At first, our student leaders were somewhat hesitant. Making the jump from observer and participant to leader was not an easy one.

Long story short, these students absolutely killed it at camp! And our students who sat under their leadership were enriched and blown away by how well they had led.

driving it forward

I decided to extend an invitation to those 10 to continue their leadership in the youth ministry. We spent the whole summer and early part of fall training, equipping, and vision casting. We gave these student leaders a say in what we did, and it paid huge dividends. 

The next year we grew the number of student leaders to 14. The more it grew, the more impact our student body felt. Our students were now being discipled, led, prayed for, encouraged, and shown how to live a Jesus-shaped life by their peers. 

Five years later God called me elsewhere. It was a difficult transition, and I was fretful about how the student ministry would hold up with another absence in central leadership, but my anxiety was assuaged by one of our student leaders who told me, “We’ve got this. This is what you trained us for.” I couldn’t have left on any better terms.

If you’re looking to start students in leadership, here are 3 principles I’d encourage you to think through.

3 principles for getting started

Be okay with failure

1.  Be ok with failure.  It’s going to happen.  At some point something you try will not work, and at that point, you’ll have to decide to either surrender to failure or use your failure. Fail forward. Learn from what went wrong, use it, and try again. 

Be patient

2.  Be patient. Developing leaders takes time. There’s no formula that creates instant disciples or disciple makers, and there is nothing you can do to force it any earlier. Spend time praying alone, with your adults, staff, and other workers in the trenches about how God would direct your steps.  Let it happen on His time, not just yours. 

give students opportunities and training

3.  Give students opportunities AND training. When you find a student that wants to take that next step in leadership, give them an opportunity. Ask them to lead a small group, help organize an event, or be involved in strategic planning. Once you’ve identified an opportunity, provide the student with training and resources.  Then they’ll be ready to help your vision for their leadership role become reality.

Use these principles as a guide to help start your students in leadership. You may not see great success right away, but in time you’ll see students equipped as disciples and disciple-makers.

You may even get to hear your students say, “We’ve got this. This is what you trained us for.”


Dylan Manley is a long-time youth pastor and speaker. He likes coffee, theology, books, and, of course, beards. He is a husband, a father, an apologist, and, most importantly, a believer in Jesus and his gospel of grace.

He serves full time as the student-pastor in Denton, TX (North DFW), and he also gets the opportunity to travel and speak to different groups about apologetics and evangelism. You can read more from Dylan at www.beardedapologetics.com

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More