Good Reasons Not To Have Student Leadership

By Doug Franklin July 16, 2014

Student leadership can be a tricky game. What if you teach your students about leadership, but they recognize that you don’t possess good leadership qualities in your own life? Or you might struggle with teaching leadership if no one has ever taught leadership to you. It’s not like there’s a class in college on how to teach leadership. Leaders are responsible and mature—we really don’t want people calling us out on those issues. These are all good reasons not to develop a student leadership program at your church.

Developing student leaders is a concept that makes sense to most of us in youth ministry. Enabling students to lead gives them ownership of the ministry and fosters the skills they will need to make a difference in the kingdom of God. Student leadership is important to develop full-fledged followers of Christ.

Because these benefits are so attractive, many youth workers jump into the student leadership movement without considering the hidden costs. As with anything in ministry, there are trade-offs. Obvious costs include time and money that will need to be allocated to the student leadership program. Those are the types of things that most of us consider when we start a program like this. But there are other costs you may not have thought of.

Loss of Control

One of these hidden costs is the feeling of loss when you give up total control of your ministries. If you really want to let students lead, then they need to help shoulder the responsibilities of leadership. It’s easy to see what this will mean for the student: tension, struggle, and ultimately growth as a leader. It’s harder to know how it will affect you. You might not always get your way. The students may choose to do things differently than you would. They may even fail where you would have easily been successful. Loss of control can be difficult to deal with, but it is essential that you sometimes step to the side when developing leaders. After all, how can you develop leaders if you aren’t willing to let them lead?

I have seen this dynamic at work on our leadership development trips. While in the wilderness, each day we put two students in charge of navigation. Most adults are okay with this decision when the going is easy. As long as the group doesn’t get lost and everyone gets to camp early, student leadership is a great idea. But it gets tougher when the group has walked the wrong way for an hour and gets back to camp in the dark. It’s tempting to take over for the student leaders when they start to struggle and make mistakes, but that’s the worst thing to do. Times of struggle are the best opportunities for growth. That’s when students begin to feel the full weight of leadership.

Undefined Adult Roles

Another good reason not to have student leadership is the loss of specific roles for the adults in your ministry. When students are in charge of an event, many of the traditional roles your adults typically fill will be taken over by the students. The students will be in charge of the worship, the food, the logistics, and other things. Adults used to making these decisions will feel out of place.

I was recently at a youth group event being facilitated by student leaders. The students were doing a great job running the event. It was immediately apparent, however, that the adult volunteers did not know what to do with themselves. All of the roles they normally would have filled had been given to the students. So they stood around the edges, watching the action. They were out of their element. These adults needed help redefining their ministry roles.

The Solution

Thinking through all the issues is essential if you want to ensure a successful student leadership program. Spend some time considering what these changes will mean to you and your volunteers. By putting students in charge, you will be giving up control in some significant ways. Only allow students to lead in areas where failure is okay. Don’t allow students to lead activities that might jeopardize their safety or the ultimate success of the ministry. Give them a safe leadership environment—not comfortable, but safe. Prepare yourself as well. Practice and perfect your leadership skills from behind the scenes. You’ll be better able to speak into the lives of your student leaders.

Prepare your adults for the shift in roles they will experience. Hold a training session before the first student-led event to confirm that they understand why you’re making the shift. Ask for their help defining their new role within the student leadership program. Encourage them to coach the students but to avoid stealing the leadership roles back.

Empowering your student leaders will make a huge difference in your student ministry. But don’t do it unless you’re ready. Think about the radical ways this change will affect you and your volunteers. Only then will you be able to set your student leadership program up for success years down the line.


About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More