I’ve done a lot of great and not so great things with preteens and leadership. We’ve experimented over the last several years with different servant leadership programs for preteens. They’ve ranged from little service projects here and there to a full-blown leadership program that ran weekly through the year. Each of them has had their highs and lows. The one big take-away is that preteens need to be given the opportunity to lead. They need to be encouraged to serve. Preteens are full of energy and curiosity about how the world works and about how they matter as a part of it. Each time I’ve reinvented a way to do this “leadership” thing for preteens I’ve been blown away at so many “only God” moments. Now, don’t get me wrong, each one has come with many challenges and tensions, but I wouldn’t trade those amazing breakthrough moments for any of the times my patience was tested or things went off course from what I had planned.
I’ve tried to “let go” and “let them.” The goal is to teach them the broader principles, encourage interactions with others, but also allow them to find ways to lead on their own. Often during our youth meetings, I encourage a few of my leadership kids to “love on” others by engaging with those kids who are otherwise by themselves. Most often, I point out someone I see sitting alone and encourage the preteen leader to attempt to engage with them.
One night, I was surprised by one of the preteen leader girls who, without prompting, went over to a girl who I knew wasn’t very open to others. She came from a hard background and wouldn’t let down her guard and talk to anyone. This particular night she came into the room and sat by herself, huddled up against a wall. As the program started, I turned to see this preteen leader sit right next to this girl and smile. I have no idea what words were shared between the two, but I watched from across the room in delight as they sat through the program together. This preteen girl had broken down a barrier, if even for a moment, with this other girl in a way that no adult leader could have ever done. As a result, we began to see this girl more often on Wednesday nights and she began to engage with us. This preteen leader had shown tremendous initiative and courage because she was encouraged to lead and serve.
A key component with helping preteens to become leaders is to allow them a variety of opportunities to serve. They’re at an age where they’re starting to recognize their gifts, but also need opportunities to explore. In our leadership program we allow them to try serving in different areas, from check-in and greeting … to food service … to running media and tech … to doing on-stage announcements … and even leading devotions. By allowing preteens the opportunity to try different areas of leadership, they learn that they can serve and lead based on their gifting. They come to realize that each of them has a place in God’s story, that they can lead in different ways, and that each of the ways are important.
Not only is it important for preteens to explore different areas of service, but they need to see examples of others leading in those ways. During our leadership program I always start by allowing the preteens to watch the example of others who lead and serve in a particular way. I use my college leaders and interns as mentors for the preteens, so they can observe more seasoned leaders and learn from them. It’s important for preteens to see faith in action in others.
By allowing preteens opportunities to lead and serve we help them grow in their faith journey. They begin to take ownership. We allow them the opportunity to move from “see-ers of the Word” to “do-ers of the Word.” We affirm their uniqueness in Christ as they begin to discover their gifts and talents. There have been so many object lessons, connections, and thoughts shared by my preteen leaders that inspire me. It gives a unique view into how their brains work and how God can speak through them in amazing ways. Preteens can (and should) lead!