Students Need a Leader, Not Another Friend

By Doug Franklin June 8, 2015

One of the most difficult things adult volunteers—and even full-time youth workers—struggle with is wanting students to like them. We tell ourselves, If students could just see me as one of their friends, I could start to really get through to them. But I have a harsh truth for you: students don’t need another friend. They need a leader. It’s one of those “Be careful what you wish for scenarios”—keep acting like their friend and you’ll get locked in the “friend zone,” unable to go deep with students like you planned to. Don’t let that discourage you, though. There are so many amazing things students can receive from leaders that they never get from their friends. Here are just a few:

1) The Hard Truth. Students surround themselves with friends who tell them what they want to hear: “You’re too good for that guy who dumped you.” “Your teacher gave you a bad grade because she just doesn’t like you.” “I don’t understand why you’re second sting—you’re a much better quarterback than Reggie.” But they need a leader who will tell them the truth out of love. They need someone who wants the best for them, even when it hurts. Will you love your students enough to be honest with them when you see an issue that needs to be addressed?

2) Unconditional Love. Friendships in middle school and high school can change in the blink of an eye. For most students, it’s based on shared interests and experiences. As long as everyone’s having fun, friendships flourish. But the minute one friend talks behind the other’s back or chooses to hang out with a different group of people on Friday night, the friendship is over without a second thought. Students will never understand unconditional love—relationships that persevere through good times and bad—unless they see it modeled from others. You’re in a position to show students that you’re willing to stick it out with them, even when they do things that make you want to throw up your hands and call it quits.

3) Vulnerability. Every single day, students interact with classmates and friends who are only worried about one thing: what others think of them. It takes thick skin to make it through the high-school gauntlet, but that same thick skin can prevent students from getting to know each other at a deeper level. You have the perfect opportunity to share yourself with your students. You can show them what it really looks like to open up and become vulnerable with another person. Glorify God by telling students your story—the story of your life before and after you started following Christ, and the troubles you encountered along the way. Worried this honesty will tarnish your reputation with the students? Remember, they already know you’re not perfect. It’s what you do with your imperfections that will stand out to them.

4) Compassion.
Anyone who spent time in middle or high school remembers how unforgiving other students can be. One zit, one embarrassing moment, one social faux pas can ruin a student’s reputation for years. Students could use a dose of compassion, a place where they aren’t automatically burned by every mistake they make. You can show them that grace. That doesn’t mean you should accept bad behavior, but you can remember what it was like to be their age. You can acknowledge the difficult, unpredictable, and unbelievably confusing time of life the students are in and share with them the compassion that Jesus shares with each one of us.

“They already know you’re not perfect. It’s what you do with your imperfections that will stand out to them.”

5) Selflessness. There is one thing most students love above all else: themselves. Even among friend groups, most students are mainly out for themselves. Guys joke around by putting each other down. Girls spread rumors to make themselves look better. It is a vital responsibility of youth workers to teach their students the act of selflessness. By putting others’ needs first—namely, the students’—leaders can consistently show their groups that life is about more than just getting ahead by stepping on others.

6) Value. Students are bombarded from every direction with images of who they should be in the eyes of the world: smart, attractive, talented, wealthy, funny. Every TV show or ad aimed at their generation sends the subliminal message “Just be yourself—as long as ‘yourself’ is someone everyone else likes.” When youth workers build intentional relationships with students, they’re put in a unique position to counter the world’s definition of value. Encourage and edify your students in areas that reach deeper. Remind students of their worth and how much you and God love them as often as you can.

7) Follow-through. Empty promises are hard to forget. But among student friend groups, they’re a dime-a-dozen: “Of course I’ll have my part of the group project done by the due date!” “I can definitely hang out tonight—no matter what my family is doing.” “I’ll be sure to take detailed notes for you while you’re home sick.” But when push comes to shove, these promises are forgotten as quickly as they’re made. What if your students had a relationship with someone they could always count on? By always doing what you say you’re going to do, you can teach students what it means to be dependable.

How do you think it would impact your small groups if every adult volunteer acted too much like students’ friends at school? In which of these seven areas do you feel like you need the most work? In which do you feel you are already doing well? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

CC Image courtesy Schmeegan on Flickr.


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