Developing the KidLeaders in your Ministry

by Alan E. Nelson

As I wrote in last month’s INCM article on identifying young influencers, “I’m convinced that the most overlooked single resource in the church today is our children leaders.” That why my ministry journey has taken me the reverse direction of most; from the senior pastor that worked with church leaders, to focusing on preteens and those who reach kids.

After three years of prototyping an executive quality leadership training program for preteens, rivaling $5,000-$10,000 corporate models (www.kidlead.com), we’ve begun rolling it out to organizations serving 4th-7th graders. The program is called LeadNow and is starting to be incorporated in premier Christian schools and larger churches. It is akin to the “Intel Inside” sticker on your PC but for training future leaders. Even after identifying God-wired influencers and training them, it is important for parents, teachers and children and middle school workers to develop young leaders in their organization. I believe that the local church is best suited to do this, but rarely values it or knows how to do it well. That is the essence of this article, a best practice brief on developing the young leaders in your ministry and church.

The first priority is in seeing the importance of leadership development. I find it interesting that we’re so focused on teaching what Jesus taught and did, but typically overlook “how” he did it. We don’t use his methods. Jesus spent most of his time with hand-selected leaders. These were individuals in whom he poured his energy because he recognized the return on investment would never be matched with the masses. In fact, I believe that the reason Jesus led so many large events was to provide experiential, on-the-job training for his future leaders. You would often see him running from crowds and dispersing them. Go to Exodus 18 and you’ll find the same thing stated: to develop leaders.

On the occasion that I run into a church with a designated leadership program, nearly always it’s related to serving or discipleship, neither of which is really about leading. Teaching a preteen how to turn the knobs on a PA system or singing on a worship team isn’t leading, no matter what you call it. Having a small group Bible study for the committed core isn’t about leading either. Teaching character, spirituality and service are important to all kids, not just leaders, but leaders should be selected for specific leadership development.

In my book, KidLead: Growing Great Leaders, I define leadership and leader this way:
• Leadership is the process of helping people accomplish together, what they could not as individuals.
• Leaders are those who get leadership going.

Based on this definition, you’ll find it most effective to identify the 10-20% who are God-wired to influence. Then you can create some very intentional programmatic ideas that will help these individuals accelerate their development. I’d recommend finding a specific adult team to do this, since your existing ministry team is probably overwhelmed. Often the people drawn to children’s ministry have good hearts and deep talents, but are not themselves leaders. This is not a put-down. The same is true of pastors. Barna found that less than 10% of pastors identify leadership in their gift mix. I’d concur with this from a non-quantitative assessment. That’s why after more than a decade of trying to do leadership training with pastors I have come to realize the return on investment was very low. Aptitude is by definition the ability to learn, meaning that when we lack aptitude it is very difficult to learn a skill or task. That’s why no matter how much training I procured, I’d make a lousy mechanic, accountant or counselor.

The point is, don’t be discouraged by thinking of this as one more thing to add to your plate. We’ve found that the biggest challenge of introducing LeadNow to schools and churches is status quo; people are consumed with what they’re already doing. Stephen Covey referred to this as a Quadrant II issue, meaning that it’s important but not urgent, therefore it gets overlooked by more pressing issues. John Kotter noticed the same thing in why over 70% of organizations fail to change, even when they try. The result is that we’re forever putting out fires instead of taking the time and energy to multiply fire fighters. That’s what Jesus did.

Unless you have the gift of leading and are passionate enough about it to make it a priority, find a cracker jack team of others who are willing to invest and keep it from getting clogged in the machinery of your ongoing programs and events. Start with prioritizing the value, identifying the young leaders and recruiting the champions. Then implement these 5 practical ways to develop leaders organically, in addition to concentrated training programs.

1. Gather young leaders together. There is a powerful synergy that takes place when leaders gather with their own kind. This can be very effective in a nurturing environment like a church community. Whenever you bring people with various gifts and passions together, you create a unique chemistry. Leaders influence various social circles, but they often don’t connect with each other unless someone intentionally brings them together. They typically respect and relate to each other because they’re wired similarly. There may be moments of battling strong personalities and wills, which is why you need a spiritually and emotionally intelligent champion team to work with them. Too often young leaders get pounded down for their non-compliance and opinions, when in reality they are merely acting out of their undisciplined gifts. Call the group whatever you want, but make this an intentional affinity group. The verse, “as iron sharpens iron” is never truer than with leaders. Together they gain confidence, learn from each other, and realize they’re not weird or odd for being wired the way they are.

2. Introduce young leaders to other leaders. I’ve found that healthy leaders of all ages have an interesting way of relating to each other. This is a great way to engage adults in the margins of your church. Church is often not seen as a leader-friendly environment. People with strong leadership abilities are often under-utilized in ministries. Giving the CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation a stack of bulletins to hand out isn’t the best use of talent, but it’s common in church. Figure out how your “leader team” can meet and talk to these adult leaders. Let them shadow them, ask questions and perhaps even work together on projects. Don’t just assume those in leader roles really are leaders. Look to those who are entrepreneurial, who oversee staffs larger than a dozen and who are leaders within the community. Don’t just look for Christians. Talk to politicians, community leaders and beyond.

3. Provide opportunities to lead. We all learn best by doing, but especially preteens. They’re concrete thinkers, so hands-on activity is the most fruitful means to teach the nuances of vision, team building, conflict resolution, strategic thinking, problem solving and such. Whether it’s dealing with an ongoing challenge in children’s church, or letting the team come up with a community service project that will involve their peers, or putting them in charge of one aspect of VBS, you want to provide a safe place for taking risks and actually leading something. Don’t just train followers who fulfill tasks barked by an adult. Give them some authority. In most cultures, the threshold of adulthood is crossed between ages 12-14 (Bar Mitzvah, Walk-About, Mary, Jesus teaching in the temple, David and Goliath). Take these kids seriously and give them increasing amounts of budget, resources and opportunity. You’ll see them bloom.

4. Make sure to coach and debrief. Merely giving kids an opportunity to lead isn’t what we’re talking about. Be sure to meet before the project for brainstorming, assisting them in developing potential ideas and their results. The goal is not telling, but asking. Think Socratic teaching. We instruct our Certified Trainers and their Koaches that less than 25% of the talk time should be from them and 75% should be in the form of asking strategic questions. “What do you think about that?” “How could we accomplish this goal?” “What worked well?” “If you were leading, what might you have done differently?” Overlooking a good debriefing and post-mortem may be the biggest stewardship fumble in training.

5. Train parents how to raise leaders. We don’t have space to go into details here, but since your time is limited, make sure you’re assisting parents in rethinking how they’re raising leaders. If you want to see what it’s like for a non-leader to raise a leader, just watch “Nanny 911.” Strong child leaders often are mistaken for rebels, bossy, non-compliant and troublemakers, both inside and outside the home. The beauty of the family life movement is that the church is returning to the biblical model of empowering parents to assume the responsibility for their child’s spiritual growth. No reason not to include leadership development. It has longer term results than one soccer or music lesson.

I wish these words could convey the excitement I feel as I wrap up this article. I am so thrilled to see what the church can become if people like us will develop those whom God has granted with unique influence abilities. Like the old saying goes, anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the apples in a seed. May God give us the ability to see young leaders with Godly eyes, so that we unleash the incredible potential of these future world changers.

Content adapted from Alan’s book, KidLead “Growing Great Leaders.” Alan E. Nelson has a doctorate (EdD) from the University of San Diego, is the founder of KidLead (www.kidlead.com) and lives with his family near Monterey, CA.

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