Student Leadership Development

Am I a leader? For many years I didn't think of myself as a leader... written for the ACSI World Report (by Paul Madsen)

Am I a leader? For many years I didn't think of myself as a leader. I didn't think others viewed me as a leader because I wasn't the one leading an organization or a movement of any kind. I knew that I didn't have the qualities or gifts that a leader needed, like charisma or popularity. What I didn't realize is that others had influenced me, that I was influencing others and that God was making me into a leader, His kind of leader.

There are some very interesting contrasts in Scripture between what the world might view as a leader and a leader who actually measures up. Saul had everything going for him in I Samuel  9. He was tall and handsome. He was well respected and liked. He had money and a new position of power, being entrusted with the control of the army of Israel, God's chosen people. However, it all began to fall apart when he forgot to honor God. His failure as a King hinged upon his misunderstanding of leadership. Our students also misunderstand leadership when they demand respect but don't give it.  The task of leadership is to use our gifts for the good of the organization, not to hold our position as long as possible. We honor God and act on the vision that He gives us, establishing our confidence in His power and authority and setting the standard for our interaction with others. Others honor us because they see that we are people of integrity and value others who contribute out of integrity and a concern for others. Our value as leaders is based in the value that God has given us as we learn to care for, love, and lead others as God leads us.

So what kind of leader do we need in our schools and our society? At the 2006 ACSI Student Leadership Conference in Budapest, it became clear that we need to do more in planning, training, and providing opportunities for leadership among our students here in the Christian schools of Europe.

During a workshop there, a group of teachers and chaperones met to discuss leadership development. As we began to ask questions about what kind of student leaders we need, we made three observations. First, leadership, like the academic pursuits, is not really about school, it is about life; second, students are an active, functioning part of society right now and God wants to use them in ministry right now; lastly, as God opens doors for them to lead, we must be available to encourage and challenge them to step forward.

We also noted the changing demands of the cultures we live in. They will need to be flexible leaders, who are able to adapt quickly to perceive the spiritual, physical, emotional and social needs of those around them. They will also need to be able to unite and empower others to meet those needs because they won't be able to do it alone. We worked on a possible purpose statement, which I have further adapted:

"As Christian teachers we desire to disciple students as they learn to lead in unfamiliar settings, helping them to perceive the needs of their community, and empowering them to unite and equip a team to meet those needs in a manner that reflects the grace of God."

What are we doing in our schools to produce that kind of leader? Training students to think and act biblically is a task that demands intentional planning. What follows is a plan that can be adapted to your school to meet the needs your community faces.

1. Ask questions with a core group of students who are already concerned.

As you begin to look for student leaders, you may already find God moving in student's hearts. Some of the most important questions are about the spiritual maturity of our students. Where are our students spiritually? What is their current relationship with Christ? Is there any concern for the needs of those around them? Are they willing to be used by God to meet those needs even though it may be uncomfortable? How can we build true concern for others into our lives and our school? How are we allowing God to demonstrate His love through us right now?

Once you have found a small group of students with a burden for their peers and community, sit down and talk. Be sure to spend time praying for them and with them. They are the future leaders, if they are not already!

2. Evaluate the current activities and programs which develop student leadership.

Is it better to infuse biblically based training into what is currently being done or add a new activity to the school day? It is possible to develop a leadership program which allows students to realize their potential and begin to practice their skills if we carefully consider how to overcome the limitations of scheduling and current commitments. Here are some things to consider:

- What is the purpose of our current school leadership program?

How does it integrate with Bible classes, chapels, outreach, and other opportunities for student leadership and training?

- What do we want our students to be and to be able to do in and after high school in the areas of service and leadership? 

- What is the vision that God is giving our students to impact their communities now?

Second, you will need to evaluate the teaching aspect of the program, including, determining the target group of students, scheduling when to teach leadership, and buying or developing the teaching materials. One possible source for great youth leadership training materials are at At ACSI Europe we also provide an on-line leadership training follow-up for those who attend any of our Student Leadership Conferences.

Training should include at least 3 aspects: Character Development, Skills Development, and Vision Development. Character development deals with the personal discipline of the leader including, humility, courage, integrity, intimacy with Christ, and faith. Skills development is a chance to explore as well as practice the skills that are needed in a leader. Students will need training in effective communication as well as conflict resolution, financial planning, and team building. Vision is the ability to evaluate potential and is most often an exercise of our faith in God's provision and providence. In this stage we can begin to develop student's vision by evaluating how God has worked in their lives to this point and what He is moving them to do with the gifts He has given them.

In addition to training, schools need to provide opportunities for leadership. Be creative and willing to explore areas that will challenge students. Some things we have experimented with at ECA involve students leading outreach ministries to children in our neighborhood (kids clubs), students helping to teach English in various settings with children and adults, students planning and leading a youth group as a ministry to peers after school, pairing students with adults to work on specific tasks together with the goal of passing the responsibility to the student, and pairing secondary students with elementary students in a club called "Random Acts of Kindness". Look for new opportunities in your community and challenge students to be involved.

3. Focus on student ownership of the program.

This is a key aspect of student leadership. If students know that they are the initiators and they are being used by God to impact the lives of others, they will be forever impacted by the experience. Of course they will face great challenges and become discouraged at times, but that is where the teacher plays an important role. The training must address the crucial role of personal spiritual discipline and dependence upon God. The leader's first responsibility is to himself or herself in a daily connection with Christ and His Word. Only then can they see situations and people through His eyes with love and eternal value. Because of God's grace at work daily in their lives, they will learn to be gracious to others, always looking for their potential and dealing with conflict and opposition in love. However, be willing to let your students make mistakes. Failure is not negative when it results in learning and growth. Without the freedom to fail or succeed on their own, they will not really have full ownership and understanding of the responsibilities of leadership.

4. Focus on strong relationships between students and teachers or mentors.

Leadership development is best built through the encouragement of a trusted adviser or mentor to guide them through the challenges of spiritual commitment, personal integrity, communication, conflict, organization, and planning. Dr. Daniel Egeler has written a great book on mentoring, Mentoring Millennials, Shaping the Next Generation (NavPress 2003), which describes the types of mentors as well as how each type looks with real life stories.

Mentoring is not only a popular subject right now, but it is also actually a very important aspect of Christian living. If we will not be personally involved in the lives of young people to help them grow into mature Christian leaders, then there is no one who will. Encourage your staff and fellow teachers to learn and apply the concepts of mentoring and develop relationships which will allow for personal challenge, accountability, and openness. These are so often missing in the lives of adults who did not experience this process as teens.

As teachers who are concerned about seeing students succeed as Godly leaders within our society, we need to work together. If you are interested in asking questions and networking with me and others, go to God is calling our students to be leaders, not only in the work that He will give them, but in their daily lives and activities right now. Let us do all we can to provide opportunities for them to lead now, while they have the support structure of a concerned Christian community. This is their time to lead.


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