Encouraging Student Leadership

Youth ministry and summer missions trips go together like campfires and roasted marshmallows, Disney and Mickey Mouse, teenagers and drama. You get the idea… Summer is the time for missions. I often tell people that planning and organizing our summer missions trip is among the most difficult things I do as a youth pastor. Even still, they are worth it because I see the growth in many students on the team.

Last year’s missions trip, however, was different. I didn’t see change in some of the students. I saw a significant change in all of them, and I’m still reaping the fruit. We served with LeaderTreks, a fantastic missions organization that really “gets” the gospel and how it drives us to serve others. Throughout this trip, our adult leaders intentionally took a step back so that students could step up. Students were taught that “Leadership is influence,” so if you have influence over anyone then that makes you a leader. We explored different ways for each team member to discover their own leadership-voice and encouraged them to put it to action.

Student leadership has always been a high value for me, since that is how I first got involved in ministry as a teenager. But I’ve always struggled with how to equip students to rise to the challenge. After a few failed attempts, I put student leadership on the backburner. What I realized, and now acknowledge should have been totally obvious, is that I needed to take a big step back.

By creating a leadership void on this trip, there was space for students to fill.

When there was a need, they stepped up. Each day, students broke into various teams to fulfill our projects and a different student was assigned as team leader. We didn’t only pick the people who had “obvious” leadership skills, but we also sought to empower those who tended to be quieter and more reserved. Now that my students knew first-hand what was expected of them as a leader, that there was more to leadership than standing up front and bossing people around, they finally felt confident enough to embrace their own God-given leadership voices.

Since returning, we’ve explored a few different ways to continue student leadership in our ministry.

We have restructured our Sunday School class for Juniors/Seniors so that they teach the class with me as co-teacher. The students loved the idea, but were pretty intimidated by being the teachers. Surprisingly enough, the quietest kid in the class volunteered to go first. When he told the class the curriculum was easy to use, they started to sign up. I email the lesson to student-teacher one week ahead of time and then meet with them on Friday after school to walk through the lesson. I do my best to set them up for success. It’s not always a home run, but this has definitely revitalized Sunday School for our students.

We also formed a Student Ministry Crew which meets monthly to equip students to grow as servant leaders in the church and outside the church. They have completely planned and run a few events. They’ve been commissioned as greeters to the visitors at youth group. Additionally, students have been reminded that leadership is also for introverts, sent out as ambassadors of Christ among their peers. Not only did LeaderTreks provide the missions trip which jump-started our student leadership efforts, they also published the handbooks and study guides that have consistently born fruit in my youth ministry.

This missions trip prompted student leadership and spiritual growth in ways for which I can only praise God. This might sound like a paid advertisement for LeaderTreks (I promise it is not), but if your student leadership is stalled and needs a jump start then check out their discipleship resources and missions trips.

If LeaderTreks isn’t for you, then follow their lead and take a step back. Create space for your students to lead. You never know who will step up.


Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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