Middle School Leadership: An Untapped Resource
By Cliff Olson Posted on October 10 2009
"It will never work," were the words I heard from a trusted ministry colleague, "you're just wasting your time!" I couldn't believe it. I had just spent months devising a plan that I believed would revolutionize our church's middle school ministry.
"Why?" I asked.
"Middle school students don't have the maturity or the attention span to be leaders" was the reply.
Today, I'm glad I didn't take that advice and abandon our plans for a middle school leadership program. It truly has been revolutionary in our middle school ministry. The program has given our middle school students a new sense of ownership in ministry, fostered in them a new ministry mindset, and prepared them to go further and deeper in their walk with God now and when they hit high school.
I remember my first youth group meeting as the new middle school/junior high pastor at Golden Hills Community Church. I was excited about the new ministry and looking forward to focusing on this one ministry demographic. But I was scared at the same time, not having a clue as to what the future would hold for this ministry. Students began to arrive. We divided them into teams for games, sang "Pharaoh, Pharaoh" a few times, then sat down for a brief devotional. During the cleanup, I was struck by the students' inbred consumerism. We leaders set up, led games, taught the lesson, and cleaned up when it was over. The youth simply "consumed" the program and went home. Why couldn't they feel more like it was their ministry? Why couldn't they lead most, if not all, of the activities? We decided to give it a shot.
Through my experience with middle school leadership, God has taught me some very valuable lessons about ministry as a whole, as well as student leadership. The initial goal in establishing a middle school leadership program was to allow each student to understand their giftedness and encourage them toward a ministry mindset. God wants to move them past consumerism and toward serving others. How did we strive to accomplish this?
Compelling Vision—We often fail because we have a hard time seeing beyond our noses. I was often approached by well meaning people trying to talk me out of pursuing leadership for middle schoolers. But we perceived a vision from God that we had to pursue. It may not have made sense to others, but we felt that God was pushing us in that direction.
Seeing Outside the Lines—One of the long-standing theories in youth ministry has been the ministry pyramid. The higher the level of commitment and leadership, the fewer students will be interested or able to be successful. However, I believe that though there is truth in the fact that the greater the commitment level the less the response, we limit in our minds how many students can be in leadership. Why can't we have 20 percent of our students in positions of leadership? Why not 40 percent? The greater the number of leaders, the greater the potential impact in our community and among the leaders' peers. We need to be willing to risk, willing to step out in faith and trust God to identify those students in whom we need to invest. We also need to be open to students who may not fit our idea of what a student leader looks like.
High Level of Accountability—Middle school students need a high level of accountability. Before our current program, we had never attempted to hold our middle school youth accountable for anything. Most of the time we would excuse their immature behavior, believing that they were not yet capable of following God. In setting up our program, we decided to establish a very extensive application process, asking very deep and probing questions. We also established a network of accountability through adult team leaders and peer accountability groups.
Focus on Spiritual Development Rather than Task—I believe that we have made the mistake of believing that leadership consists solely of completing a task or leading a team. How sad it would be to have a student successfully lead a crucial area of ministry, yet ignore their walk with God. Our leadership program is, first and foremost, a mentoring/discipleship program, and secondly, a task-oriented ministry. It is amazing to watch a middle school student move toward intimacy with God.
Balance—Any leadership program should contain a balance of learning and doing. This is especially true in any middle school leadership program. If all they do is learn, the youth will quickly become bored and lose interest. If they are always doing, the youth will become overwhelmed because they haven't been properly equipped through study to do the ministry asked of them. The doing of the ministry can motivate students to learn which, in turn, can motivate them to do even more.
The first year we started our leadership program, we had about 20 students involved. We initially focused on helping the students develop greater intimacy with God. Leadership is more about who you are than what you do. It begins with a heart that seeks to follow and obey God. We then looked for significant ministry opportunities in the church and the community and began to establish ministry teams. The program also provided skill development to equip the students to do what was being asked of them. Students received training in sharing their faith, developing a personal testimony, leadership basics, spiritual giftedness, apologetics, teaching, and inductive bible study. We ended our year with a weeklong missions trip to Tijuana, Mexico with "Spectrum Ministries" to work in the poorest of communities. We handed out food and clothing, built relationships with children, and helped Spectrum provide foot washing and showers. It was awesome watching our students serve faithfully without complaint, while the high school students present spent their time complaining or chatting. This further confirmed for me what I believed all along: middle school students can be leaders.
What are some of the barriers faced by those wanting to start a middle school leadership program?
Adequate Time—Most churches don't have the luxury of having someone to focus only on middle school/junior high ministry. Developing leaders is a very time consuming task; most youth pastors feel that they can't afford to invest that much time solely on middle school students. Let's face it, student ministries tend to revolve around the high school program. The expectation of many churches is for a primary focus on high school. But wouldn't it be awesome to graduate a mature, leadership-ready group into your high school program? Sometimes our attention should not be on the tyranny of the urgent, but on what will provides us the greatest long-term success.
Skepticism—Most adults, parents, and church leaders love the idea of investing in middle school students but really doubt that it can work. It's hard to get their support, especially when you talk about missions that could take their children out of the country. You must prepare yourself to deal with the initial skepticism.
Resources—It takes an immense amount of time to develop the curriculum and resources for a middle school leadership program. Very few good resources exist for middle school, let alone for middle school leadership. Junior high ministry is just now starting to be taken seriously. Through time, resources should become more available; but for now, adequate curriculum is scarce.
Progressive Adventure—We need to be somewhat careful as to the extent of these middle school ministries. These limitations need to exist not because the students are incapable of doing ministry, but because it is easy to create an atmosphere of "been there, done that." If they're involved in and experience everything in middle school, students may become bored or burnt out by the time they reach high school. Any middle school leadership program should be mapped out with the assistance of the high school pastor or keeping in mind the entire scope of junior/senior high ministry.
Will It Last?
God has used the junior high leadership program to make a huge impact on our youth ministry. When our high school pastor left three years ago, it was natural for me to move over to the high school group. The hardest part of the move was not being able to watch God work in the lives of our middle school students through the leadership program. But I am pleased to report that John Pontius, our current middle school pastor, has taken the program even further. This year they have 45 students involved in leadership and are very involved in every area of ministry. Some are currently serving their middle school group by leading worship, organizing activities, reaching out to visitors, and using multimedia. Others are actively serving the Lord through our local Community Outreach Center by teaching, sharing their faith, working with children, and serving meals. An even greater emphasis has been placed on spiritual development and intimacy with God. Last year during their mission trip to Mexico, they established a disability ministry, but they discovered these needs were way beyond what they were equipped to deal with. So this year, they have been training and planning how to make an even greater impact by ministering to the disabled in Tijuana. I am proud that our student leadership group would even consider ministering to the disabled, let alone while on a mission trip.
Why does junior high leadership work as well as or better than high school leadership?
Developmental Level—Junior high students are developmentally ready to start taking responsibility for their own faith, they're able to begin to understand more abstract principles, and they're able to apply biblical truths to their lives. Serving others is their first opportunity to use their newfound faith. They also are much more event oriented. In high school leadership, "relationship dramas" can distract or impede the direction of the group. Middle school students are much more able to focus on the event aspect of leadership.
They are F.A.T.—More so than any other group I have seen, middle school students are faithful, available, and teachable. Once they develop a level of trust with the adults in leadership, they're willing to commit to the leadership group with their heart and soul. They generally have much more time than their high school counterparts. Students who begin to make ministry a priority in middle school are much more committed when they reach high school. They're also very teachable, more so than most people believe. I have found that middle schoolers are able to develop skills that many adults are lacking.
Opportunity—Junior high students are dying for an opportunity to prove you wrong. They can give the appearance of not being aware of what others think about them, but they are very aware that most adults don't think very highly of them. When given an opportunity to do something significant, they usually rise to the occasion. We need to give them that opportunity.
What are some other benefits of starting a middle school/junior high leadership program?
Highly Developed and Equipped High School Students—After two years of weekly leadership meetings and ministry involvement, incoming freshman are ready to conquer the world! Since they were taken seriously in middle school, they know coming into high school that they will play a significant role in the church's youth ministry.
Ministry Minded Students—Most students in leadership gain a fresh perspective on things around them. Rather than grumbling and complaining about issues or problems, they respond with "lets pray about it" or "what can we do to solve it." Many new programs and ministry teams have been formed because a student saw a need and decided to do something about it.
This year marks our seventh year of middle school leadership. Many students from that first class are now seniors in high school. It's awesome to have incoming freshmen each year with two years of leadership and missions under their belt, as well as a heart to continue to learn and develop. It has allowed us to take students even further in their walk with God and allow them to serve the Lord in some very dynamic ways.
I believe that the future of youth ministry depends, at least in part, on our focus on middle school as a crucial ministry emphasis. Leadership, whether through a designated program or through mentoring and discipleship, should be a key to any middle school ministry development.