Leadership 101: Super Modelling

For many of us, leadership is a byproduct of youth ministry. Our vocation is dictated by our passion for young people rather than a desire to lead others and, as such, we focus more on developing our work with teenagers than we do our leadership skills. So, welcome to Leadership 101, a page where each month we’ll unpack an issue we face as leaders, and offer some guidance to traverse it. This month, Serious4God’s Tim Alford tells us to model it…

I was walking through my home town the other day when a parked car caught my attention. Not because it was a particularly dazzling sports car, nor a beautifully refurbished classic; not even because there was a dog wearing a neckerchief hanging out of the window (sadly), but because of the sheer quantity of bird poo liberally lathering the vehicle. I mean, we’ve all parked under a tree and returned to our vehicles to find a nasty surprise on the windscreen, but this was something else: a proper bird poo paint job. How, I wondered, could a vehicle owner safely navigate their automobile when no trace of visibility remained through their thickly encrusted windscreen? And then I saw it. A large, bright-yellow advert affixed to the top of the car, proclaiming in big, bold capital letters: ‘HAND CAR WASH, THIS WAY’. That is a car wash I will not be visiting anytime soon!

Isn’t this sometimes what we do with our leadership in youth ministry? We encourage our young people to develop their personal relationship with God when our own devotional life is intermittent at best. We teach our young people to live lives of purity when our own internet history has recently been ‘cleared’. We want our young people to be disciplined in their GCSE revision when we hit the snooze button five times every morning and roll into work ten minutes late. We talk to our young people about how important it is to be sharing their faith at school when we shy away from those same conversations with our friends and neighbours. We want to see our young people passionate for Jesus when we’re more passionate about our football team. We encourage our young people to honour their father and mother when we go home to constant arguments with our family. Or to put it another way, we advertise a car wash when we’re covered in poo.

Here’s the thing, leadership is primarily about embodying that which we invite others to follow. Or, to quote Paul, ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 11:1, but he expresses similar sentiments in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and Philippians 3:17.) I used to think it would be arrogant and presumptuous to say something similar to my young people and team members. But then I came to realise that this is leadership. Example is everything. We have to model it.

A few months ago I assembled a team of students from Regents Theological College to pioneer a new youth ministry for 15-18s in Malvern. After getting involved in the schools and researching the area, we launched a new club called Limitless. I knew it was going to be tough going because the church we were working with doesn’t have a building, and that meant every week would involve shifting a whole load of gear into a venue space, setting it all up, packing it all down and shifting it all back. In order to make this happen, everyone would need to bring the best of their energy and effort from start to finish, and we would need to keep smiling throughout. For that to happen, I would have to model it. Are the team capable of doing it without me? Very much so. But what would it have said to them if I had expected them to do the leg work while I rocked up just in time for the start? What would that have done for team morale? And what right would I have to challenge anyone in the team for showing up late or not pitching in? Example is everything.

That’s not to say I always get this right. We recently took a group of young people to laser quest. One young person went over on her ankle and a couple of us took her to A&E. Now you need to know that, as we’re a new club working largely with unchurched young people, we decided as a team that one of our ‘measurable wins’ is when we take the opportunity to pray with young people. And in this moment I was presented with an incredible opportunity to offer to pray for healing… but I didn’t. I missed it. And I was gutted. I would have expected my team to do it, but I didn’t model it. So, in our next team meeting I made the point of apologising to the team because I tried to set a culture that I didn’t model, and that culture will not stick. Example is everything.

Leadership is primarily about embodying that which we invite others to follow

We cannot ask people to go where we are not willing to go ourselves. So we must model in our own lives what we want to see in the lives of our teams and young people. In David Kinnaman’s excellent book, You Lost Me, one young person, Emma, was asked what she wanted in a youth leader. Her answer has gripped my heart since the moment I first read it: ‘I want you to be someone I want to grow up like. I want you to step up and live by the Bible’s standards. I want you to be inexplicably generous, unbelievably faithful, and radically committed. I want you to be a noticeably better person than my humanist teacher, than my atheist doctor, than my Hindu next-door neighbour. I want you to sell all you have and give it to the poor. I want you to not worry about your health like you’re afraid of dying. I want you to live like you actually believe in the God you preach about. I don’t want you to be like me; I want you to be like Jesus. That’s when I’ll start listening.’ Example is everything.

What do you want to see flourish in the lives of your teams and young people? A passionate and contagious faith? Model it. A love for the scriptures? Model it. Faithfulness and a servant heart? Model it. A love for the poor and underprivileged? Model it. Sexual purity in their relationships? Model it. A deep desire for the lost to be found? Model it.

There is simply no escaping the truth that who we are speaks louder than what we say. So let’s be sure that if we’re advertising a car wash, our car is clean.

Tim Alford is Serious4God’s national director

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