Who are ya?
The secret to youth ministry leadership doesn’t lie in another manual or self-help book. As Soul Survivor’s Bob Wallington explains: it lies in you
Developing yourself as a leader is more about a mindset than a programme or series of seminars. It’s a fast-forgotten-about value that finds its roots in humility and teachability, but must fight through the thick treacle of ‘youth work doing’ to remind us that it’s the ‘being and becoming’ that bears the real fruit. To invest in this place, we must remember that leadership is more about who we are than what we do.
Many of the young people we work with are at school and hitting the books hard (some of them will be hitting the books less hard). They are learning new strategies to solve mathematical equations, delving deeper into literature, and they may even roll into a biology class that unpacks the characteristics of all living things. ‘Yes!’ I hear you say as you reach into that old GCSE acronym locker to find… MRS GREN?! (Can you remember all seven? Answers on a postcard…) But let me remind you of the ‘G’ and the ’N’ for a minute, which point to the fact that all living things grow and require nutrients.
So frequently in my pursuit of doing more youth work, I have neglected the one doing the youth work: me. If I’m brutally honest, when I have caught my breath and found time to reassess my health and take stock of my leadership, it becomes evident that I have stopped growing and seeking out the nutrients I need to develop as a follower, disciple and leader. What becomes more shocking to me, as I ask questions like: ‘How could I get so carried away with being in charge of the youth work that I would forget to take charge of myself?’ is that if growth is a key indicator of life, not growing is surely a sign that something is beginning to die.
That’s why developing yourself as a leader is such a crucial aspect, not just of youth work, but of any leadership role. Because when you and your leadership stop growing you start dying, and dying things begin to decompose. No one wants to follow a leader who is decomposing.
So how do we ensure that we don’t start to decompose in front of our youth groups? One key area to focus on is learning and self-development. By that, I mean (going back to our friend MRS GREN) that we seek out the nutrients needed to fuel our growth and sustain the life of our leadership. It’s often true that as God grows us and develops us personally, this life and growth spills over into the things we lead. It is crucial for the life of whatever we lead that we never stop learning and developing as leaders.
Jesus didn’t want to lead on his own
JFK said, ‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.’ There is, however, a very important distinction that we need to make along this journey: developing the skill of leadership is different from developing leaders themselves. It is possible for us to grow our understanding of ‘how’ to lead without actually doing the hard work of developing ourselves.
Let me give you an example. When I started out in youth ministry I lived on my own and mealtimes were pretty boring. My love for food and my ability to cook it were not given to me in equal measure, so I stuck to combining the same old list of ingredients. It was fairly bland cooking, but it did the job. Then I had the brainwave of having some friends over for dinner one weekend, but as the time grew closer I began to panic. I reached for the Jamie Oliver cookbook, found something that looked hearty and impressive, and went to work in the kitchen.
As my friends and I tucked into the meal later that evening, I received some compliments like, ‘You’re quite the chef!’ and ‘This tastes really good!’. From then on, I started inviting various other friends for dinner and cooked the same recipe. Every time I cooked it, people said the same nice things and they began to assume that I was a capable cook. Little did they know that I actually only knew how to cook one thing, and that I was following detailed step-by-step instructions each time I made it.
My point here is that I wasn’t becoming a better cook, but people looked at what I was producing and assumed that I was. I wasn’t learning why the flavours made such a great combination, how the spices and herbs worked to complement the meat, or why things were done in a particular order. I was just developing the skill of following a recipe; I wasn’t really becoming a better cook.
One of the pitfalls to be aware of as we develop ourselves as leaders is to focus solely on developing our leadership skills because they appear more impressive and, in the short-term, more helpful as we deliver youth ministry. While these are crucially important to growing ourselves as leaders, they are just recipes, and they only develop us so far. If we are not careful we can get carried away, telling ourselves that after attending that seminar on vision we can cross off ‘leadership development’ for the rest of the year.
COOKING FROM THE HEART
Looking at scripture and the kind of people God used as leaders, we often see that they are almost always ill-equipped with the skills and tools of leadership. Moses had a severe speech problem and spent his days looking after sheep, not people. Peter and John were ‘ordinary uneducated men’. Gideon claimed, ‘I am the least in my family’, Jeremiah was young and inexperienced and so was David! While I do believe that growing and investing in the skill of leadership is really important, God clearly doesn’t call us into leadership on the basis of possessing these skills. God is interested in the heart: the things that make us who we are. He’s interested in the chef before he’s interested in the meal that is produced. It’s all over the pages of scripture:
God is interested in character. This is the area in which exceptional leaders choose differently from the others. Exceptional leaders are those who move beyond simply developing their skills as leaders, and who delve deeply into developing their character. It’s not quick, sexy, outwardly impressive or celebrated publicly, but if you want to seriously develop as a leader, turn your attention to growing character. It will impact everything you lead.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (5:3-4), ‘That suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ Now, all of a sudden, attending a seminar on vision seems like a much more comfortable way of developing ourselves as leaders! You can imagine the seminar blurb for the ‘developing character’ workshop in the event program reading something like: ‘This seminar is going to be painful, last a few months / years / the rest of your life, mess with your heart and head, and make you want to walk out several times, but you’ll leave at the end with hope.’
No thanks. Sign me up for the quick and easy vision seminar, please. That’s the attitude we have to change and choose to take captive when it rears its ugly head. If we want to develop ourselves as leaders who will really bear lasting fruit, we must not shy away from choosing to grow character. In fact, we must choose to put ourselves in situations that will grow our character.
Leadership skills will only develop us so far
JESUS THE CHEF
Whatever characteristics or attributes we think make up good character, Jesus provides the ultimate example. He shows us what characterful leadership truly looks like, and the more we pore over the words he speaks, the way he loves and what he reveals, we see some defining aspects of his character and how it distinguishes his leadership. Firstly, as we look upon the Jesus revealed in the Gospels, we see that he doesn’t want to do it on his own. Jesus has come from the Father, where he knew perfect community and relationship as the Trinity, and as he begins his ministry we see that it’s not just about people and for people, but with people. We often forget that Jesus’ disciples were far from perfect: frequently making mistakes, doing things he didn’t want them to do and arguing over silly things. Eventually one betrays him, the rest abandon him and one denies him. Yet he chose to invest in them, to impart all he had; to spend himself on them, bear with them and love them, even though they would let him down. That is character.
Many of us will be leading teams or be part of a leadership team, and often get annoyed and disillusioned by others who don’t behave the way we want them to. Our defence mechanisms tell us to withdraw and raise the drawbridge so we don’t get too close to ‘messy or difficult’ people and risk being hurt. But Jesus shows us the response of a characterful leader. He leans in and loves them anyway, and often from that place of love he addresses the issues and calls them higher.
Secondly, the conduct and character of Jesus we see in the Gospels reveals that servanthood is at the heart of leadership. He baffles his disciples in the upper room by taking the place of the servant who washes their feet. They cannot fathom how their leader and the one they believe to be the Messiah could stoop so low and dirty himself in such a way. But if people are going to see the kingdom of God displayed in your leadership, you had better get ready to stoop and serve. When we choose to do this, it changes us. It is often undignified and humiliating, but it grows Christ-like character in us. Philippians chapter two implores us even further to find a way to imitate Christ’s humility.
Thirdly, the Jesus we meet through the Gospels shows us what it truly means to lead with integrity. He is who he says he is. Why is this such a crucial aspect of his character that we must embrace and grow in as leaders? Because when a leader points in one direction and walks in the other, the people following get confused, hurt and eventually lost. The world has seen enough of leadership that lacks integrity; where a shiny public exterior covers up rotten insides, or where people determine their path based on personal gain rather than the benefit of those they are leading. Growing in integrity must remain a focal point of our own development as leaders if we are to grow more into the likeness of Christ and lead in a way that reflects him.
As Dwight Eisenhower said: ‘The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.’ Unfaltering integrity is an aspect of character that Christ’s leaders must establish as a foundation for everything else.
During my time working with young leaders and youth leaders from many different denominations and walks of life, it has always been a beautiful thing to meet people who, in humility, know that they are not the finished article. They are often people who are willing to learn from anyone, regardless of age or position. When I meet them, I want to be more like them; ready to learn and listen that they might continue to grow as leaders, but most importantly as followers of the one they love. Leaders who want to lead people into the life Jesus promises and remain fruitful are more focused on developing themselves as followers than developing themselves as leaders. A kingdom-focused leader’s greatest ambition is not for influence, fame or renown, but to become more like Jesus. I want to remain a leader whose heart is always singing an old Fanny Crosby hymn:
More like Jesus when I pray, More like Jesus day by day; May I rest me by his side, Where the tranquil waters glide: Born of him, through grace renewed, By his love my will subdued, Rich in faith I still would be; Let my Saviour dwell in me.
If my heart, as a leader, is always singing this song or ones like it, I know that I will always be growing as a follower and as a leader.