SMS: “Student Leader” a Dangerous Title (pt. 1)

I was at the mid-season of my youth-pastorate career, I had just arrived at my new church; my first Sunday was going to begin my assessment of the youth ministry.  The volunteer team was to lead all the normally scheduled events so that the new Associate Pastor could see what he was inheriting.  Conventional wisdom advises assessing a new ministry for a few weeks, not making changes for several months and getting your entire team on board so that eventual changes are owned by everyone.

So here I was, my first Sunday at the new church…

Staff prayer… check.

Sunday School… check.

“Student Leader” Lunch… chuck!

Not a typo… I wanted to chuck that baby out the window right away.

Let me start by saying I am not a fan of the title “Student Leader.” I had come in to this new position with that bias already in place.  But everything I saw that day confirmed that conclusion.

Understanding that the vast majority of the readers of this article have a “student leader team” I know I may be swimming up against a white-water wall not worth treading. However, maybe, just maybe, it will cause a few to think about handing out the title “student leader” just because you feel you need to have a student leader team.

I also understand a “counterpoint” can be made for about every argument I can give to not having a student leader team; with that said, I’m very open to those discussions, this is not a hill to die on nor is it something worth splitting those last few youth-pastor hairs over.

Let me state the obvious… there IS such a thing as a STUDENT LEADER.  Even as I write this I look back on my years of pastoring and can identify scores of students who were truly gifted as leaders in my groups.  They were the ones who easily could draw, inspire and move a group of their peers in a godly direction.  And better yet, they did this without the title of Student Leader.

Let me state the not-so-obvious… student leadership is more effective without the title! I believe there are inherent problems with giving the title of student leader and further believe that not giving the title creates a better atmosphere for your group.  Let me quickly give three reasons why I believe a student leader title is dangerous.

  1. “I’ve Arrived”: The Student Leader often feels he or she has arrived. Title is power.  I have seen this too often, when a student is given the title of “leader” and they see that as a power position rather than a service position.  This was the case in the church I described above. The youth group of 150 or so had a student leadership meeting of about 40 students.  Pizza was served, students sat in cliques and argued about what the next event was going to be and when it would take place.  They referred to “the kids” in the group and which event would be the most fun.  In my first three months at this church, the events would typically draw 50% of the student leadership team in attendance with anywhere from five to ten others at the event.
  2. “Burn Out”: The Student Leader often burns out early.  Student government, cheer, club or athletic team captain–it seems that students are bombarded with the challenge to strive for leadership. With the title comes expectation to perform.  “As a leaders you’re expected to do this, that and the other.”  I am not saying that we should get rid of all titles, but I think we often create performance-based spirituality that can lead to burn out (emotional and spiritual) when we give students titles.  In addition, students who are given such titles in their younger years (freshman/sophomore) are often so burned out by the time they are seniors that not only are they no longer leaders, they are often completely gone from the youth group.
  3. “In The Minors”: The rest of the group often feels like they’re in the minor league of the group (it breeds unhealthy spiritual competition).  When students hear “student leadership” what comes to their minds?  I have asked this question and in the youth ministry sphere, the person who comes to mind for a teen is the student with a guitar and/or a good voice, or the boisterous upfront peer (the one most likely to lead games, be in the skit, or rally her team to a dodgeball victory).  What about the servant leader? The private prayer warrior? The guy who is looking out for the loner who walks through the door or the kid who likes doing all the menial administrative tasks with you leading into youth group night?  These students are just as valuable as the upfront and boisterous, but are often made to feel that they are in the minors compared to the teen who wears the Major League badge of Student Leader.

Instead of Student Leaders, shouldn’t we be affirming students in their areas of gifts and strength?  Student leadership will be raised and judged by the quality of student and his or her giftedness and not in title.  If he is a student leader, you will know because others follow him based on skills or example.  If she is a leader, you’ll know not because of the title, but by her actions.

Jesus didn’t name his disciples as “leaders,” he actually called them to be “followers” (Mark 8:34-35).  Let’s lead by being the best followers of Christ and call others to follow Him (and us) closely and make a sharp turn toward the cross!

Stay tuned (or take heart, for those who do have a SL team), next week I’ll speak to the practical ways you can use students in your ministry while avoiding the possible pitfalls I listed above!

Grace,

Brian

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7 thoughts on “SMS: “Student Leader” a Dangerous Title (pt. 1)

  1. I totally agree. All of my students last year could identify the people they consider to be the ‘student leaders’ of the group, but never once did I stand them up in front of everyone and say, “Here are your student leaders”. The title is not needed in my opinion, especially if it could potentially hurt things.

  2. Good word. It’s obvious when you have an actual leader and many times those on the team have little sway. In the past my SL teams have been so busy programming stuff for an outreach they didn’t bring their friends.

    1. Interesting thoughts, especially as I’m preparing for our SL team interviews tonight. Agree that there is some potential pitfalls of placing students on a pedistal or attaching a name like student leader. At the same time, there seems to be a lot of value in offering students an opportunity for more formal discipleship and service on a team they’ve committed to. When it comes to student leadership, our emphasis has always been more about discipleship than formal leadership. It’s been helpful to have something in place to direct students who desire more community, accountablity, encouragement, expectations, and growth.
      Following your logic, couldn’t you also go a step further and say that the titles “elder,” “deaconess,” or “deacon” could have the same pitfalls? While there are potential drawbacks to the designation of titles, I guess I still see a lot of value in a formal student leadership team.
      Great post, though. Interesting stuff that is getting my wheels turning more about how we do SL.

      1. Great stuff Mark… I believe next week’s SMS post will touch on this stuff. In regard to the “titles” I’ll quickly mention there is a big difference between the title/call of elder and deacon and that of Student Leader. The former being titles given in Scripture. But, like I said, we’ll go deeper next week. Thanks for your great thoughts on this and wrestling through it with other leaders!

  3. Brian,

    Thanks so much for your insight on student leadership. You’re so right about the pitfalls of a strategy that includes teaching and encouraging students to lead. It takes careful work and discipleship to pull it off.

    To be honest, it really doesn’t matter to me what you call it, students need to be in the game and have a sense of ownership in their ministry. If “student leadership” rubs the wrong way change the name, but find students opportunity to lead.

    For far too long students have set on the sideline watching adults play in the game, that’s why most ministries have huge attrition once students get car keys.

    Of course students should be taught to lead the way Jesus did, as a servant with a humble heart. And yes, teaching and modeling this to students isn’t always the easiest thing, but it’s necessary and worth it.

    The question is, are we willing to do the hard work of helping students discover, develop and utilized their God given gifts? It’s easier for my staff team and myself to do the work of the ministry ourselves, but we’re called to equip for service.

    Anyway, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for your next blog. Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in, I have to prep for my next student leadership lunch (just kidding)

    David

    1. Thanks David. I look forward to writing next weeks SMS. Appreciate you weighing in; we certainly need to have healthy discussions on such matters; thanks for your investment into your students! And for what its worth, I completely agree, semantics and titles don’t matter, ownership is what matters!

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