One of my mentors, Mark DeVries, told me a few years ago that if students are not leading, then they are leaving. The more I thought about it and the more I viewed the ministry through that lens, the more I realized he was right. Even now as I think about my own faith journey and especially my journey into ministry, I know that to be true of my own story. I had a youth minister who constantly put me into leadership positions, even to the point where I, as a 17-year-old, was leading our biggest youth worship night, speaking weekly. I look back on that and think two things:

1. Man that guy was an idiot.  2. Thank God for that idiot.

I do think we need to nuance our thought on this a little, however. I do not think that we need to empower youth to lead as a retention mechanism. What I realized later was that retention alone was not why Mark was telling me they should lead. He wanted me to know that it is our job to empower students to lead because that is what God is calling them to do. We are a training ground for these youth, teaching them how to have ownership, allowing them to mess up, and celebrating them when they succeed. It is our calling to wean them off of the consumer model of ministry and launch them into a life of servant leadership.
There are many wonderful ways to mold leaders; here are a few that I use and have found to be the most helpful.

  1. Strengthen Their Strengths: The first thing I like to do in student leadership is to help them know who and what they are in clearer ways. We do this in our ministry by taking them through Strengths Finder 2.0, the Enneagram, and  a few other assessment tools. We use these tool and activities so that they are not wandering around the leadership landscape aimlessly and can focus on their God-given strengths and talents.
  2. Let Them Practice: What I realize now is that my youth minister did not put me in front of 120 kids on a Wednesday night as my first test in leadership. He had started me long before that as a small group leader, filling in for Sunday School teachers and doing devotionals at other events. We have to give our youth a low consequence, low risk space to practice as leaders. They have to be allowed to mess up and see little if any consequence. We have to teach through these situations and gradually move them to more challenging leadership opportunities.
  3. Recognize the Leader in Everyone: Too often, as in the examples above, the leaders are identified as the up front leaders. I was and am one of those types of people. What I have had to learn in my ministry is to make sure that everyone knows that their leadership style is just as important as everyone else’s. A few years ago I had a youth who was quiet and did not speak up a lot and was never up front, but she was an amazing leader.  She led from within. Make sure that you recognize the leadership qualities in everyone and help them find their ways of leading, then validate that style again and again. Strengths Based Leadership is a very helpful book in recognizing the different kinds of leaders in our midst.
  4. Lead Your Leaders: Do not just set them out to sail. Walk alongside them. Help them. Act like a set of guardrails for them in the process of leading. They need to be able to have a boundary to bump off of and not go over the ledge. They need to be coached and led. Leaders, good leaders, are always in a process of being mentored, coached, and led in some way.
  5. Give Them License: Finally, you will have to trust them. At some point you will have to give them some creative license, trust, and room to spread their wings. What you will find is that they will not do things exactly as you taught them. This is good. If they find their own nuanced way of leading they you know that you have done a good job. At that point you know that you have not created a clone, you have developed a leader. Still be there to coach, mentor, and help, but do it from the background. Be their biggest fan and their biggest critic.

The best leaders do not selfishly cling to their leadership and power; they gladly give it away to others. It is a gift that ultimately gives back. Leadership is a gift that I hope you are giving to your students every day. They are capable, willing, and passionate. They just need someone who will recognize their potential and believe in them enough to see the power of possibility bubbling inside of each of them.
Stephen Ingram is a dad, husband, and foodie. He serves as the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He has a BA in Religion from Samford University and a Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Stephen has worked as a student minister for more than 13 years and also serves as a consultant with Youth Ministry Architects. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Mary Liz and their three kids Mary Clare, Patrick, and Nora Grace.
Stephen’s book Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the Gospel is now available from CYMT Press. He blogs at