I just work with children, I am not a leader… debunking this dangerous myth

“I am definitely not a leader – I just work with children.” If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard someone say this when I’ve been delivering training in a church, well, I probably could afford to stop delivering training! What do children’s leaders mean when they say this? Why are they so definite about not wanting to be called or recognised as a leader?

In some ways this attitude is understandable – most people come into children’s ministry because they are passionate about working with children and not because they want to be a leader. When they discover that others are looking to them to lead they can get a little worried and shy away from the leadership role. One woman has even said to me: “I am called to be a children’s worker not a leader.” When I pointed out to her that they are one and the same thing and you can’t be one without being the other she was very surprised.

So, why are those who work with children so resistant to be called a children’s leader and does it really matter? I think it does matter a lot and here is why:

  • If those working with children do not think of themselves as leaders they will not fully grasp the privilege and responsibility they have in their role. If I do not think I have influence over children, then I will not watch my life and appreciate that everything I do and say will impact the children I am working with.
  • If I do not think of myself as a leader I will be unaware of the fact that I am modeling a way of leadership to children that they will grow up emulating — is that what I want? What kinds of ‘leadership’ are you modeling to the children you are working with? If I do not think of myself as a leader, then I will not reflect on the kind of leadership I am modeling and make changes where necessary.
  • If I do not think of myself as a leader then I will not advocate or speak out for children in the church or organisation I work in, as I will not consider that I have the right or even responsibility to do this.
  • If I do not think of myself as a leader then I may not recognise the leadership skills and abilities in the children I work with and therefore the children will not be encouraged to exercise leadership and develop in it, as they grow in faith.
  • If I do not think of myself as a leader, then I will not develop in my leadership skills, so that I can be even more effective in leading volunteers and children.

I believe there are many reasons why children’s leaders do not think of themselves as leaders – the main one being that children’s ministry is not always given a high priority in churches. Someone standing at the front of church asking for a volunteer to help with the children that day, as they do not have enough workers, really devalues the role and makes people think that anyone can do it – it gives the impression that we are just ‘looking after children’ rather than making a difference for eternity.

When people offer to help with children there is often a lack of resources and budget and so, again, they can feel disempowered and devalued. Many people fall into ‘helping out’ with children in a church and so do not see themselves as leading anything – people often say to me: “I only help out with the children” or: “I am just a helper”. Children deserve so much more than this.

Leadership does not develop in a day. It develops daily.

The attitude that says: “I’m not a leader” has the potential to devalue children’s ministry even more than it might already be within the church; every other ministry in Church has leaders – church leader, house group leader, youth leader – so why not children’s leaders?

Children deserve people who know they are called by God to this very important ministry, who have a passion to see children come to know Jesus as their Lord and saviour and to see them develop spiritually, so that they can be all that God created them to be. Children deserve people who will not stand by and see them ignored by the church or treated as second-class citizens. After all Jesus took a little child and embraced the child (Mark 9:36–37) and told the disciples that they were to become like the child if they wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:2–5). Jesus treated the child with respect and dignity – he made sure that the disciples did not treat them like second-class citizens. In order to serve God among children we will need to change the culture that says “I just work with children, I am not a leader.” We need to reflect on what leadership is.

What is leadership?

Leadership expert John Maxwell says: “Leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less.” If we go for this definition then those working with children are definitely leaders, as they have some influence over the children they work with and the volunteers they work with. If you doubt this to be true, watch how children copy what you do. After one Messy Church I ran, I went back into church and Chloe (who was 5 at the time) was standing at the front with other children sitting all around her telling them a story. When I asked her what she was doing she said: “We are playing Messy Church.” “Who are you then?” I asked. “Well, you of course”, she replied. Children will watch and copy what we do – that is influence.

I believe that leadership is much more than this though. Leadership requires vision: vision to see children as God sees them; vision to see that the way some children are treated in church can and should be different. Do you have vision for the children you work with? How are you developing that vision? We can get so consumed by the week-by-week needs of working with children that we forget to think about the big picture. Where would you like the children you work with to be at the end of the next academic year? What would you like to see happen in the children’s ministry by next summer? Asking yourself these types of questions will help you to develop a vision for the ministry you are involved with. It is vision that will see you through the tough times that you might go through in your ministry and these times will come if they have not already. Developing vision is part of a leadership role.

Leadership is also about making sure that the right people are in the right roles – it is about identifying what gifts people have and putting them in places where they can work out their gifting. There is nothing more frustrating than people doing something they are not gifted for. So, as a team (even if there are only two of you) think about what gifts you have between you and then do the jobs that fit that gifting. If you feel that there are some gifts missing that are essential, then pray that God will raise up people with those gifts. This will maximise the contribution of individuals on the team and, by doing this, maximise the impact of the team as a whole.

In your role working with children you will be influencing, so you will be leading, but leadership does not develop in a day, it develops daily. To become more effective in our work with children we will need to invest time in developing our leadership skills and abilities. When churches ask me to go and do training for them and I ask them what they would like training in – the main topics that come up are: discipline, storytelling, teaching the Bible, and resources to use.

Very few will ask me to train them in leadership skills, vision, strategy or leading a team. This is not surprising, as I have already said people feel they are called to children’s work not leadership, but I think this is very short-sighted. Training in leadership would help them in all the other areas mentioned as well. It is important to have a long-term view of the training needed and what you are trying to achieve in the children’s ministry rather than trying to get short-term gains by being trained in what is immediate for you. Of course it is good to have regular training in discipline, storytelling and so on, but be prepared to think wider and mix this type of training in with the type of training that gives long term vision.

Realising that you are a leader of children and entering into all that this can mean will help you to develop leadership skills and grow these skills in the children you work with.

Developing leadership in children

As we develop our own leadership skills and abilities we will naturally see signs of leadership in those we lead, as we will begin to know what to look for. Identifying leadership in children is a process and one that I would argue all children’s leaders should be engaged in. Again, it starts with vision: a vision of the future; a vision that says I will not be doing this for ever and I need to be raising up others to come after me. Once we have this attitude we will start to invest in this area of ministry.

Then we need to look for potential. As we reflect on our lives we will probably be able to identify one or two people who recognised potential in us and then helped to develop that potential – it might have been a parent, grandparent, teacher, Sunday School teacher, camp leader or employer. These people probably challenged us to step up to a challenge and, in doing that, we developed our leadership. So who are you identifying as having leadership potential among the children you work with?

Once you have recognised potential, then you need to invest in the child by encouraging them, giving them opportunities to exercise their leadership and giving them feedback on the way they perform. This is what Jesus did with the disciples and it worked. Jesus also trusted the disciples with responsibility and we need to do that as we develop children in their leadership – obviously it must be age-appropriate and always with a safety net in case things go wrong.

Please do not say that you are only a helper in the children’s ministry. Embrace the fact that God has called you to this amazing role of leading children in the ministry you are involved in. Step up to the line and run the race with your head high, making sure that you are adequately trained and prepared for the privilege that God has given you. So that one day he will say to you: “Well done, good and faithful children’s leader.”

5 tips for developing in leading children’s ministry

  1. Develop your passion for children by asking God to help you see them as he sees them.
  2.  Develop your vision for ministry by reflecting on what you would like to see achieved over the next few months or year.
  3. Develop an eye for identifying people’s gifts on the team and putting them in the right roles.
  4. Take time each day to develop in your leadership eg read a book about leadership, listen to a recording of leader or go and talk to someone you know who is a leader and ask them questions about their leadership journey.
  5. Identify leadership skills in the children you are working with and help them to develop those skills appropriate to their age and stage. Recognise potential and invest in them.

Sharon Prior is senior tutor at Moorlands College (Midlands)

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