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Characteristics of a Healthy Youth Ministry: 9. Exemplary Leadership

Youth leaders are good role models for young people showing maturity and a genuine Christian faith that is evident to all.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)


At the primary school I attended a local minister would come in each week to teach us about the Bible. It was a long time ago and for all the times he led our class I can only remember one thing he said. One day we must have been especially difficult because he exploded in anger at us. Shocked we sat there in silence while he told us what he thought of us!

It was sad because here no doubt was a godly man who was freely giving of his time to serve God and years later all that I, at least, can remember is not the gospel he taught but his one angry outburst.

I have great sympathy for him. Perhaps he was having a bad day and our behaviour simply pushed him over the edge, but it reminds me of how easily weeks, months and even years of good work can be undone in seconds.

For better or for worse, it’s no doubt true that eventually, young people remember who we are more than what we say. In time, our Bible studies, messages and even words of advice will be mostly forgotten. When young people think back on what impact we have had on their lives, they are likely to recall character qualities: that we were loving toward them, patient and forgiving.

Some might argue that the expectations we have for a Christian leader should be no different to the expectations we have for any Christian.  There is a sense in which this is true.  God has standards for holiness and purity and all Christians are challenged to aspire to these standards of conduct.

However, a youth leader has greater authority than those they lead and with this greater authority comes greater responsibility and accountability (James 3:1).  Youth leaders generally do more than run programmes. They are role models for our young people, demonstrating what Christian maturity and faith looks like. Young people should aspire to be like them while increasingly youth leaders need to be able to say, “imitate me, even as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Therefore, the church must be careful to recognise God’s calling on a person and appoint those who are worthy of this great privilege. These are people who have “proven themselves faithful in lesser things” (Matthew 25:20,21). They are people who show evidence of progress in overcoming sin as they set an example for those whom they lead (1 Peter 5:3). 

We are naturally inclined to favour “externals” when it comes to assessing and appointing leaders. Are they confident and charismatic? Are they popular and attractive? Are young people drawn to them and are they talented? God, however, is only interested in the heart (1 Samuel 16:7); He favours character over competency and charisma. Competency can be taught; character must be developed.

Character is revealed through our actions but again, character is more than “externals”. It has to do with attitudes of the heart. The fruit of the Spirit lists some of these attitudes: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:23). Are these qualities you see in each of your leaders? Discuss with them the areas in which they feel strongest and those in which they especially need God’s Spirit to be at work in their lives.

This fruit of the Spirit though, can at least outwardly appear in the life of someone who doesn’t know Jesus. Therefore, we look also for people who convincingly articulate their faith in God, describing what lead them to faith and what Jesus means to them. These people will be able to talk about the nature of their relationship with Christ and will be able to describe its impact on their lives.

While it’s important that leaders have a good grasp of doctrine, it’s more important that they have a genuine faith. If someone is not able to describe their faith in the context of a relationship with Jesus, it’s doubtful that they have one.

Character is more important than competence or charisma.

Spiritual vitality and maturity is one dimension of character. A second is a social dimension, which reflects the quality of their relationships with other people. For younger leaders especially, it is good to be aware of the nature of their relationship with their families. Look for signs of genuine love and respect toward their parents and find out how they get on with their siblings. If a young leader is facing difficulties in these areas, check to see that they are taking steps to repair the relationship.

Part of this social dimension of character is the reputation a leader enjoys with believers and unbelievers alike. Are they honest, reliable and trustworthy? Are they in control of those difficult emotions that have the potential to do harm?

Poor character and bad reputation are increasingly hard to conceal. Thanks to social media, character flaws and poor behaviour are more on display than ever before as photos, videos, posts and comments can be “shared” widely. Probably like you, I have even had to talk to leaders about what they are “liking” or who they are following on social media as these relatively minor actions can be a poor example to others who might consider such choices as being evidence of approval of everything the person or organisation posts.  

Some time ago our leadership team spent several weeks talking about repentance and purity. I produced a self-checklist for us all to prayerfully work through, not to leave leaders feeling condemned but to encourage us all to confess sin to God and to keep short accounts with Him. As we were working through this, one leader came to me and confessed that she had been sleeping with her boyfriend. I asked her if she was prepared to stop.

Her answer was, “no” and so my next question was to ask what she thought it meant for her continued involvement in leading young girls, to which she replied that it was best that she step down. Even while being unwilling to forsake sin, she did, to her credit, understand that as a leader, her conduct needed to be exemplary.

In conclusion, it is important to note that “exemplary” doesn’t mean “perfect”. We all have faults but an exemplary leader is one who is actively striving to be more like Jesus. When they fail, they take appropriate action, repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness so that they can continue to reflect Christ to those they lead.


CHECKLIST: TEN INDICATORS OF EXEMPLARY LEADERSHIP

  • Leaders are able to identify specific ways in which their faith in God has grown over the previous year.
  • Leaders consistently practice spiritual disciplines including Bible study, prayer, worship and church attendance.
  • Before being given responsibility, leaders have shown evidence of faithful service in areas of lesser responsibility.
  • There is evidence that leaders are growing in character and becoming more Christlike.
  • Leaders are able to identify and describe their own character weaknesses and flaws. Awareness is the first step in overcoming these things.
  • Leaders are able to cope with disappointment and problems and there is evidence that these occurrences drive them, closer to God rather than driving them further away.
  • Leaders apply themselves well to existing responsibilities such as study and work and are diligent and consistent in fulfilling responsibilities?
  • Leaders have a good reputation among people who know them and are liked and respected by all.
  • As much as they are able, leaders have good relationships with members of their family.
  • Leaders are able to handle their emotions, keeping them in check and not allowing them to negatively influence their behaviour and choices.