Get Outta Here!

Developing young leaders through service projects

Leadership Development - Kids //

We work so hard getting kids and their families into the church, don’t we? But in today’s culture, effective evangelism is incarnational … putting feet to our faith. People are not so interested in what we believe as they are in what we do with our faith. Serving is the new apologetics. If you want to reach your community, stop inviting them to church and start inviting the church to serve others. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Our good works lead to God’s glory. That’s a pretty good transformation. Don’t make me sing “This Little Light of Mine” to you.

But if you do this in the traditional way, you’ll line up local, regional or even foreign projects where adults lead and kids follow. That’s great if you want to raise followers, but what about developing leaders? I’m convinced we need a lot more leaders, so let’s not waste great opportunities to do young leader development. We need to “Go Green!” Identify your green, up and coming leaders. Letting them lead community service projects is one of the best ways to provide on-the-job training for them. You’ll be developing your leaders at the same time you’re teaching them to value serving others. That’s a lifelong benefit so that when they become adult leaders, they’ll continue to give back instead of becoming self-centered.

In our preteen leadership curriculum, we lay out authentic young leader service projects, but in our teen program, half of it is designed around leading a single, big, project. We’ve put a lot of time and energy into making these practical and effective learning tools. Here are four factors we’ve learned that make a service project into an authentic kid led project.

First, let the kids pick the project. We’ve found it wise to provide 2-4 idea suggestions, if you want to save some time from blue-sky brainstorming. If you can afford that, great, but if not, come with a few preselected options in terms of feasibility, needs, and contacts. That means you’ll need to do a little leg work beforehand so that you can offer these suggestions. Preteens can spend a lot of time wondering about feeding the poor and solving world issues. Your goal is to help them be productive, so although you’ll probably want to let them bring up their own ideas, prime the pump with 2-4 of your own that you’ve checked on beforehand as feasible. You don’t want to get everyone excited about serving the homeless, only to learn that the local soup kitchen doesn’t need help for another six months or they don’t allow kids for legal issues.

Let the kids actually lead. Don’t pretend to let them lead. If you’ve given them options, let them choose, even though you may have your own personal favorite. You’ll want to select an executive leader, to serve as a point person. If you’ve not done a project like this, pick the child who seems to exhibit the strongest aptitude for leading. Otherwise, you may end up with a volunteer who is popular, but doesn’t have the horsepower to lead well. Take advantage of the free online assessment at, where an adult completes it on a child. (Click “parent” in the responder question if you want to see the results.)

Second, be sure they make their goal clear. Your goal is not to tell them what to do. Rather, the role of the adult is to serve as a facilitator or a consultant. This includes the size of the project and timing. You want to make sure that the young leaders have a feasible possibility of accomplishing the project. Again, your job is not to take over, but rather to provide consulting in helping them comprehend the size and scope so it fits a realistic outcome. If the goal is not clear, then planning it will become very frustrating and they’re apt to get stuck in the process.

Third, a leadership project includes at least three or more people. Those who say the Boy Scout Eagle Scout award is about leadership aren’t correct if you define leadership as a team process. The reason is because you can accomplish a project by yourself to get the award, when leadership is really about helping people accomplish things together. Therefore, a leadership project must involve multiple people. Doing it by yourself, or even having one other person as a helper, is not enough to really constitute a leadership situation. That’s why we list three as the minimum.

One challenge in having a strong leadership project is making sure that several of the students actually get to lead. If you have one leader in charge of the rest of the team, you are only developing one leader at a time. A better approach is for “executive team” members to each take turns in helping lead planning meetings. If you break the project into major tasks or components, you can assign one kid leader to be responsible for developing a team to accomplish that task. This multiplies the leaders being developed.

Fourth, there must be legitimate authority to make decisions. This is where your wisdom will have to interact with the team’s ability. If you remove the risk of failure, you are not really allowing your kids to learn how to lead. This may mean giving them a budget to spend, letting them make decisions that normally a parent or adult would make, or even trying to be bigger or faster than you think is feasible. If you remove the risk, you short-change their ability to learn how to lead, because leading involves risk taking. Naturally, we’re not talking about physical safety. You need to be realistic, but typically, we adults pamper our kids and undercut their ability to experience authentic leading. Even if you disagree with a decision your young leaders make, go with it. We learn far more from failing than succeeding, so either way you can help them grow.

Prior to the event, consider contacting the media as newspapers and television stations often like the idea of kids leading community service projects. This provides a great model for others and gives them even more experience in being interviewed.

After the event or program is done, you’ll want to make sure you celebrate their hard work and their leading. Be sure to include a time of reflection when they analyze what they did well, what they would improve on next time, and how each member contributed to the outcome. This is important since we (as leaders) often overlook the importance of quality reflection in order to move forward more effectively. If you do these things, you’ll be able to turn outreach service events into dynamic leadership training opportunities. This will be one of the most satisfying ministry events you’ll do in your church.





About the Author

Alan E. Nelson, EdD is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and founder of KidLead Inc., ( He lives in Monterey, CA with his family and has pastored for over 20 years.