Servant Leadership in Youth Ministry

Posted on January 21st, 2013

There have been many books written about “servant leadership” in the past decade. But the term, though in vogue currently, is an old concept. Jesus himself lived this model of ministry and spoke of servant-leadership often. “Those who would be greatest in the kingdom of God must be servant of all.” “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” “If anyone would be great, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Such is the nature of the servant-leader.

Henri Nouwen, in his classic title, The Wounded Healer, addresses ministry from the perspective of one who must first be wounded if he/she is to heal others. One cannot be above pain and suffering if one is to address pain and suffering, or serve those who hurt. But in fact, the most effective leaders are those who have themselves been wounded, or hurt. These injuries, of course, are not necessarily of the physical variety—but can be any pain or struggle that is emotional, relational, or even spiritual. The servant-leader is one who is not above serving, but who has earned the right to lead because he or she is, in fact, a servant.

Youth leaders and those who shoulder the responsibilities of leading teenagers can take much from the model of servant-leadership. In fact, this model is essential when working with teenagers . . . and the greatest leaders are those who also serve.

But what are some of the features of servant-leadership? How can we model it in youth ministry?

A Servant-Leader is Humble

This may go without saying . . . but leadership is not about being first in line or having the top spot or even holding authority over others. Great leaders are always learning, and learning requires humility and a willingness to be open to new ideas and processes and procedures. Great leaders are able to see their own weaknesses and deficiencies and bring other people around them who have these strengths and gifts.

Many years ago, I recall having a conversation with the pastor of a large church who had gathered a very eclectic group of people around him. The diversities were astounding—younger and older, experienced and inexperienced, a blend of gender and race. When asked about this, he made it a point to explain that he wanted to bring others onto the staff who were very unlike himself. He wanted to make sure that his weaknesses would not be a detriment to the church because of the strengths of others.

Humility cannot be forced. Humility comes from the center of a person—from integrity and honesty. But a true servant-leader is one who can essentially stay out of the way—whose ego is not at the center, but the periphery of the work of God. Great servant-leaders in youth ministry are able to embody this spirit as they work with parents, staff, volunteers, and the youth themselves.

A Servant-Leader is a Teacher and Mentor

Over the years I have had the privilege of mentoring many up-and-coming youth leaders, pastors, and people exploring the implications of a call to ministry. These experiences and conversations are always energizing to me, as I learn so much from the people I am mentoring.

As I think back on my own history, I realize that the greatest leaders were those who were able to teach others in a clear and forthright manner. Servant-leaders bring people together and are able to point the way without being overbearing or threatening. A servant-leader inspires others and brings them into the vision and gives them a place of service. In other words, servant-leaders are great a forming teams. They serve as the coach—the one who gives the game plan and the point of attack, and when the team is down, the coach helps everyone stay focused, lifted and driven.

A Servant-Leader is a Good Communicator

Many people consider themselves “people persons” . . . but a servant-leader is more than this. A servant-leader is one who is forthright and persuasive. Good communication skills are not necessarily centered on the verbal, either, or on up-front presentation or board-room talks.

Communication today can take many facets: including concise and precise written communication, in-house memos, and more. But face-to-face and one-on-one discussions are also essential. The servant-leader is personable, available, accessible and is always teaching—especially when others come to him/her with a problem or a heavy decision.

The best communicators are those who can instill confidence in others, describe the job to accomplished, and then get out of the way. Great youth leaders can embody this by communicating well with volunteers and giving them each a job and duty to perform—and then allowing them the space and ability to do it. Praise is also key, and thanking volunteers and others on the team really helps.

Writing thank you letters, giving appropriate gifts, and supporting those on the team with praise are all important communication pieces. This is especially true in youth ministry.

A Servant-Leader Serves by Example

There are many facets of the servant-leader example. One of these would be a willingness to do the smallest of jobs—and thereby gain the authority to ask others to do them.

I’ll never forget seeing my first mentors leading the clean-up brigade after a large youth event, or even cleaning toilets. I could never figure out why they would be doing these things when others on the team could do them. But later, I realized that leadership by example is a powerful thing. Those leaders who have cleaned toilets, or shoveled snow, or set up tables before an event gain the authority to ask others to do these things. Authority comes by experience, leading by example . . . not by title.

Once people see the leader doing the small jobs, they will eager, in fact, to do them.

Years ago, a friend outlined this servant-leader strategy to me in a four step process that looked like this:

1.   I will do the job and you watch me do it.

2.   I will do the job and you help me do it.

3.   You will do the job and I’ll help you do it.

4.   You will do the job and I will do something else. (Repeat process of teaching)

As you can see, servant-leadership is not about leadership, per se, but about serving. The servant was modeled by Jesus—who actually gave us a great model for youth ministry, too.

Through call, discipleship, sacrifice, and new life, Christ gave youth leaders a path to follow and a method of living out the servant-leader life.

Now . . . serve on!

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