Releasing wild animals is a fascinating concept. In Montana, we live, work and play on the grounds claimed by all manner of animals. From the cuddly ones that can’t decide which way to run and end up flat on the highway, to the ones that taste great and the ones that would like to taste me, we are surrounded by wildlife. I love watching the reality shows that deal with wildlife and always enjoy the scenes where a trailer backs in to a piece of land, and some manner of wild animal, hung over from taking a tranquillizer dart to the hind end, senses freedom and starts to rock the cage. I am on the edge of my seat when they throw that door open to the cage… Will smoky the bear see the trees and run towards his new home, or turn on his former captors and drag a tasty snack into the woods as a self-acquired house warming gift?

Releasing leaders can have the same degree of excitement and trepidation. After walking alongside someone providing avenues for training, nurturing and healing, releasing them into a season of leadership is rewarding personally, but also for the community (local church) and for our movement. Obviously, selecting and training leaders, as a leadership function, will take away much of the guess work and trepidation, as well as limit the releases that lead to casualties. While that is true, it brings us to a point in the discussion about training and equipping student leaders to ask a vital question, one that must be asked and answered before a student leadership track can exist. When is a leader ready to lead leaders? And specifically, when is a youth leader, ready to lead student leaders? 

As we consider student leaders, a helpful place to start is by evaluating the youth leader. Before any discussion about the use of student leaders or how to employ them, the youth leader must self-evaluate and be honest with themselves about what they find in relation to their readiness to lead leaders. While I do not have research data to support this, I have found that one common thread in student leadership debacles is that the youth leader was not prepared to select, disciple, train or evaluate the student leader. While the student leader commits the act that demonstrates their lack of preparedness, the chain of custody in terms of fault usually ends with the youth leader.

To inform that self-evaluation, I recommend the following questions be considered by the youth leader:

  1. What does your longevity look like? Will you be around long enough to build relationship, disciple, train, release and evaluate student leadership? Depending on where you look, some data suggests that the average youth leader will lead for 18 months. A more realistic study was done by Student Ministry Essentials, which found that the average tenure is closer to 3.9 years. Either way, if you are utilizing youth ministry as a launching pad to some other ministry gig (I don’t recommend that, but that is another article!) then perhaps mentoring students into a leadership role isn’t where your energy should go.
  2. What does your availability look like? Speaking of energy, how is it? Do you have the space in your week to add the time needed to lead leaders correctly? Do you have time to help them prepare? Do you have the ability to observe them as they lead? Do you have time to give them feedback and training? If the answer is no, then act accordingly. When we lack the resources to execute an idea correctly, perhaps timing is off. Don’t half-ass leadership development; people matter more than that.
  3. Are you mature enough to lead leaders? This one is more difficult to answer, and one you should seek the opinion of the leader to whom you are accountable to, as well as folks that have been there before (if you read my last article, ask your Don). This question speaks to where you are in terms of Spiritual Formation, how comfortable you are in dealing with conflict, how invested you are in the wellbeing of your community, and how prepared you are to handle one of your leaders when (notice the bold!) they need to be handled.
  4. Are there things you can give away? Here I am talking tasks and responsibilities. If you have nothing for a student leader to do, or if giving up something isn’t what you want to do, having a student leader isn’t advisable. Nothing frustrates a budding leader more than being given a role that they aren’t allowed to execute.
  5. Do you have tangible candidates? One might think that this is a no-brainer, but I have punted this one straight into the bleachers before myself. Round peg for round hole… This one is huge. Do you have students that have demonstrated a level of discipleship and spiritual formation that suggests the LD part of EDLD? Can they do what you will ask them to do? Are they teachable? Will they respond well when they need to be corrected? Do they love people, or do they crave a title or place at the table? Pride is best dealt with prior to the leader’s release in order to avoid the scene I morbidly hope for on my wildlife shows.
  6. Does the season fit the plan? There are seasons for everything. If you are rocking board shorts and a sun-out-guns-out type shirt during a polar vortex you will likely get a bit chilly. Respond to the season you are in, not the one you long for. If you are not able to do this well, don’t. People matter.

The transition from a leader that leads a ministry to a leader that leads people that do ministry is not an insignificant step. Our honesty on the front end ensures that the people we are called to serve are served well. Don’t place an absurd measure on where you are and what you “should” be doing; respond to what is in front of you and accept where you are in the process. Love God, love people and lead them well. Don’t be afraid to evaluate your readiness and respond to what you find!

Adam Greenwell