PART I: The Hunch & Part II: The New Model
So obviously, I'm not the first person to ever think about youth leadership in church.
I thought it was important to cover some of the other models I've seen and think about why I didn't choose them.
One leadership model I've seen uses the natural age-reverence of high schoolers. Seniors were automatically enlisted as leaders in any youth program. When the minister needed the group to settle down, she'd just say "Seniors," and the seniors would get everyone to shut the hell up. Magic.
But this didn't work for me. For one, at that point in time, I didn't really have any seniors… or juniors… or sophomores consistently showing up every single time. But also, that sort of leaves off the chance for underclassmen to practice and earn their leadership.
My home church growing up was more based on the student council model. At the beginning of each year we voted on 4-5 representatives for each grade to serve on the Youth Council. It was a solid model. It was a role you wanted to achieve because it was a vote of your peers. It gave us the chance to be leaders even as Freshmen. Our senior year we could put on our college resume that we were "President of the Youth Council." Although we conveniently left out the fact that we were one of four presidents. It also teaches kids the tried and true congregational tradition of voting. That's never failed us, right?
The major downfall of this project: what if you didn't get elected? Some of our Youth Group faithful disappeared their senior year because they were so hurt they weren't elected by their peers. It's the same foible of sports, theater, music, school, you name it… There's always hurt feelings when you're not picked. And too much damage has been done by churches for doing the same thing to people's soul. There's always hurt feelings when you're not picked. I wanted something a little more exclusive and a little less exclusionary.
So here's how I solved this problem: I designed my Youth Group's leadership model to be self-selecting.
That is how we were going to maintain the theology that everyone has the ability to serve and no one gets turned away, but still maintain the feeling of specialness and selectivity.
Anyone was welcome to opt in, but you had to earn it.
So my idea about church leadership being something you earn isn't actually a new idea. It's just not typical in my white mainline protestant congregation.
Sometimes more Evangelical and theologically conservative churches often employ the Elder or Deacon model. After many years in the church, and after years of training, you earn the title "Elder" or "Deacon," and sometimes it's a title that sticks for life. Your status in the church is almost equal to the minister.
What this leadership model lacks is term limits. I view term limits as a crucial component of sharing the work of the church and preventing abuse of power.
With high schoolers, there's a built-in term limit since they end up graduating. They also have to earn their "Intern" title every year. I'd be interested in thinking through what that would look like for adults, earned leadership with term limits?
Some churches have pulled it off. Some churches have Youth representatives on every committee in the church. They fully live into the idea that once you are confirmed then you are a full adult member of the congregation.
One of the issues I've had with my intern program is Senior Year. Once you've applied to college, the incentive to fulfill the intern requirements sort of disappears. In theory, by this point, the interns will have performed all the intern duties for 2 years, so active involvement in the church will just be their habit. But the intern program is new. We haven't yet had a senior class that has run the full course yet. But my prediction is that it will still be an issue next year when we have our first fully formed senior class. So I'm considering altering the Senior Internship to mean serving on a church committee of your choosing. Right now we have youth reps on our Outreach Committee, but that's it. I would love to get some interns on the Christian Ed Committee, the Deacons, and the Council.
There are numerous other leadership models. I've seen ordinations for Youth Ministers. I've seen Youth Deacons be the Chair of the Deacons Committee. I've seen groups with hundreds of kids and groups with 3 kids all find ways to give their kids a feeling of leadership.
Please send me a note about your own leadership models. What works? What are you struggling with? What have your learned from it?