5 steps to practice keychain leadership with students

Once as a youth pastor, a student showed up at my office door wanting to talk to me about how, in her opinion, youth group could be better.

It was a Monday morning.

I was tired, and in the middle of cleaning up from said youth group’s activities the night before. I probably wasn’t in the best mood. But instead of thanking her and sending her on her way, I sat down and listened. And then I gave her an internship.

FYI’s Growing Young project set out to ask why certain churches succeed in their ministry with young people. From our research, we discovered that these “bright spot” congregations—diverse in region, size, denomination and culture—had six core commitments in common. One of those commitments was keychain leadership. In other words, they were brimming with staff, volunteers, and parents who help their church flourish by handing over the “keys” of power, access, and ability to their students.

Often the persons who are most trusted in an organization are given a set of keys to the building. Those people also hold the most power—they can literally decide to let people in or to keep people out. Keys provide access to physical rooms, as well as to strategic meetings, significant decisions, and central roles or places of authority. The more power you have, the more keys you tend to possess.

But while we can think of a set of keys tangibly as a physical privilege and responsibility of leadership, they can also be symbolic of the capabilities, power, and access leaders in a church have to carry the potential to empower young people. No matter how many “keys” you hold (whether physically or symbolically), if you are willing to entrust your keys of leadership to young people, they will trust you with their hearts, their energy, their creativity, and even their friends.

Tweet this: If you are willing to entrust your keys of leadership to young people, they will trust you with their hearts, their energy, their creativity, and even their friends.

Handing Over the Keys

When Kara Powell speaks of keychain leadership, she talks about the first volunteer role given to her as a teenager in her home church. “I’m here today,” she explains, “because someone handed the keys over to me.”

I, too, have pursued a career in ministry because of the responsibilities and encouragement handed to me by pastors and mentors in my teenage years. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been excited when a student wants to help and why, when the young woman in my youth group took the initiative to come and share her ideas with me, I knew that God was stirring something in her. With a less-than-stable living environment at home, she welcomed the chance to come to the church for a few hours each week. Helping me plan and prep the youth group activities gave her routine and a sense of place in the youth group–and gave me the opportunity to encourage and mentor to her as she grew in discipleship. Today that young woman, who has grown out of the youth group, continues to be committed to that church, gives willingly of her gifts and time, and is making very responsible choices for her own life and future.

Sharing leadership and responsibility with your students will be messy. But there’s collective creativity and energy to be gained when we invite young people to be co-participants in the mission, and in doing so we fulfill the call to make disciples who use their gifts with confidence. As you think about what “keys” to leadership you might hand out to students in your ministry, here are a few steps—mostly learned by trial and error—to help you raise up young leaders with care.

Give your student a job title.

Not only will it recognize your student for their efforts, but it’s also a first step in defining and communicating the job you’d like them to do—and if necessary, makes it easier to have boundary-setting discussions about what’s not their responsibility to do.

Connect your student with mentors.

The difference between student leadership and student labor is relationship.  In any role you encourage a young person to fill, ask a member of the congregation who is skilled in that area to come alongside them regularly and offer encouragement. Time spent with a mature Christian who shares the student’s interests will open the doors to discipling discussions. Don’t just offer a role, offer a relationship.

Treat your student as you would an adult volunteer.

Put them through the interview process and assign them the paperwork. Ask them to attend the meetings. Giving them the nametag and the status—along with its freedoms and restrictions—is not only good life experience, but it paves the way for conversations about responsibility and integrity which will serve your student well.

Thank your student as you would an adult volunteer.

As church leaders, we know the importance of making our volunteers feel valued and appreciated. This is even more true for our youngest of volunteers—many of whom will not know what their gifts are or whether or not they’re doing a good job unless we tell them. Take every opportunity to recognize your students’ contributions and shout them from the rooftops.

But keep in mind…

Remember that your student is not an adult yet.

They’re going to make mistakes. The pressure of balancing school, home, and church responsibilities will be too much sometimes. And your church or denomination most likely has some policies on where minors can and can’t be, and what roles they may and may not take on. All these limitations present opportunity for you to guide a teenager towards mature decision-making. Know that these topics for discussion are going to come up and take the opportunity.

Moving towards keychain leadership in your ministry takes time. Young people are going through significant developmental changes in their friendships, schools, and physical bodies, and often juggle the pressures of balancing academic responsibilities and extracurricular commitments. As you listen to your students and begin to hand over keys to leadership with care, know that by doing so you are unlocking the potential of young people in your church, and unlocking the future of your church as it grows young.

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