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How to have a winning student leadership team

August 21, 2017

Mo was an excellent campus leader. He could lead people, teach, and make decisions. But on his own he was overwhelmed.

Then one day his father-in-law, Jerry, came to visit, and saw Mo’s ministry in action.

As impressed as he was with his son-in-law, Jerry knew Mo was on an unsustainable path, and the ministry’s growth was threatened.

So, he came to Mo and said, “What you’re doing isn’t good, Mo. You’ll wear yourself out, and besides, the ministry is growing fast and you can’t keep up with all the new people! You need a leadership team!” (Read the first-hand account in Exodus 18.)

Maybe you feel like Mo: You’re overwhelmed and overworked, but not sure what to do about it. You know you need student leaders, but you’ve been burned in the past by unreliable or unteachable students.

In this article, I’m going to share with you four principles for creating a killer student leadership team that will help you to multiply your impact on campus.

Use different types of leadership teams to intentionally groom students for leadership.

You don’t run a marathon without training, so you don’t ask students to jump into high levels of leadership without developing them.

Having various leadership teams and opportunities gives students a chance to develop their leadership skills.

We usually had two types of leadership teams for upperclassmen that we called the “Servant Team” and the “Shepherd Team.”

The Servant Team was primarily tasked with running programs like weekly meetings, social events, retreats, and conferences. This was mostly for sophomores and juniors.

To be a part of this team, you had to be committed to Cru as your primary place of ministry (i.e. you weren’t also involved with IV or Navs and spread too thin), connected to a Cru small group (we wanted them to be getting spiritual input), and desired to be more involved in helping out.

This group met every three weeks for about two hours on a Friday afternoon.

The Shepherd Team was our team of campus ministry elders.

For all intents and purposes, this was our student staff team. This team really owned the movement. They didn’t lead programs, but they led people. They were concerned with how people were doing and how the movement was faring overall.

This hand-picked group of 8-12 students was heavily involved in evangelism and discipleship. Most had been on summer missions and owned the movement as much as, if not more than, much of the staff. This team met every three weeks for about two hours.

Because this group owned the mission and vision, all I needed to do to set the meeting agenda with them was to ask, “What are you guys worried about?”

Whatever problems or issues were on their minds became the agenda items we tackled.

I met with this group personally and loved it every time. Not surprisingly, most of these students ended up joining our staff right after graduation.

So, what about the freshmen, you ask?

Sure, sometimes you meet a freshman who is way beyond their years and ready for a significant leadership position, but more often than not freshmen are flaky and still need more baking time in the oven of life.

What if you have some spiritually mature freshmen who are ready for bigger leadership opportunities?

Odds are, if you don’t give them a chance to lead, someone else will and you’ll lose them.

For these freshmen, we created a “Freshman Leadership Team” (FLT). We hand-picked some key freshmen to be a part of it and launched it at the Fall Retreat.

For a while, I met personally with that group, then in later years I handed it off to one of my senior staff.

The FLT also met every three weeks for a couple hours.

We spent the first hour doing some sort of leadership/spiritual development with them. The second hour we tasked them with two things: Develop a plan to create community amongst the freshman class, and plan an outreach to the freshmen on campus.

The FLT was a great way to let highly qualified freshmen know that we saw them and we wanted them to lead.

Student leaders must not only own your mission, vision, and values, but also your tactics and tools.

Giving a student a key leadership position who is not in agreement with the ministry’s tactics and tools is a sure-fire recipe for unaligned student leaders.

Dan came up to me after one of our weekly meetings and asked if he could lead a small group with us.

As much as we needed more small group leaders, and as much as Dan was committed to Jesus, I knew Dan didn’t agree with us on some key points of theology, and he didn’t like the tool we used in evangelism. So, after a hard conversation, I had to tell Dan no.

If Dan had led a group, he would have taught them his theology, and he would have soured the group on our tools.

Since people pass on what they’ve seen, those students would have taught the same thing. As Jesus said, “A little yeast works its way through the whole dough.”

Organize around what you are trying to accomplish

I heard a rumor that Andy, a junior, was thinking about leaving our ministry to do something else.

When I asked him about it he told me that since he was about to be done as the leader of our weekly meeting team, he didn’t think there were any more opportunities to lead in the ministry, so he was looking elsewhere.

What is the pinnacle of leadership in your ministry? Is it to lead a ministry program or to lead people? Hopefully, it’s about leading people.

Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not to run programs and serve on committees. But far too often, campus ministries organize around ministry teams to run programs and not around evangelism and discipleship. I believe this not only keeps you from accomplishing the mission, but it drastically under-challenges students.

C. S. Lewis once famously said that you need to put first things first and second things second. He said if you put first things first you’ll get second things thrown in, but if you put second things first, you’ll get neither.

I think this applies to how you organize leadership on your campus.

In my example with Andy, the weekly meeting, as important as that is, is a second thing.

Leading and discipling people is a first thing, so that’s what I challenged Andy to be a part of during his senior year.

If you have students involved with evangelism and discipleship, you probably will at some point need a weekly gathering, but I’ve never seen a weekly gathering lead to evangelism and discipleship.

We ask a lot of student leaders, but oftentimes burnout is a sign that we are using them and not developing them.

Don’t use your student leaders, develop them.

Have you ever had a student leader talk to you about feeling burnt out on ministry?

Granted, we ask a lot of student leaders, but oftentimes burnout is a sign that we are using them and not developing them.

Burnout happens when our responsibilities exceed our resources, so your job is to help increase the capacity of your student leadership by giving them more resources.

Yes, you want to make sure students have the materials and money they need to do what’s being asked of them, but you also want to make sure they know that you care more about them than what they produce for the ministry.

You can do that by reminding them often of your love and care for them. You can also make sure they are walking with God and enjoying their relationship with Him.

Make sure they are in a healthy small group and being discipled. Teach them leadership and ministry philosophy, not just skills.

Before diving into business, we always began leadership meetings with a devotional to remind us why we do what we do and why it’s worth it.

We focused on the character of God and the person and work of Jesus in the devotionals in order to center us on the God who loves and cares for us deeply.

We also talked a lot about grace and the idea that God honors grace, rather than duty, as a motivation. And we had a lot of fun together, eating meals, playing games, and joking around.

You’ll be amazed at how much this kind of atmosphere mitigates feelings of burnout.

Like Mo, you can’t reach your campus or your world all alone. You need to raise up other leaders to share the burden and move the ministry forward.

It’s my hope that these principles help you develop teams of leaders you trust wholeheartedly and love working alongside.

Recommended books

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

The Wisdom of Teams by Douglas Smith and John Katzenbach

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Developing the Leaders Around You by John Maxwell

Reflection questions

What’s your current strategy for developing student leaders? Do you have one? Does it take into account where the student is in their development?

What lessons have you learned from leadership delegation mistakes?

Have you clearly laid out the requirements for student leaders? What are they?

What’s the pinnacle of leadership in your ministry? Are you under-challenging students?

How are you doing at developing the heart and soul of your leaders? When was the last time you thanked them for leading or told them that you love them no matter what?

Is there anyone currently leading that you are unsure of? What needs to be done about that? What needs to change so that won’t happen again?