Most children’s ministries are strong on control, light on empowerment. By that I mean we’re good at keeping a lid on the creativity of our kids when, in fact, many of them are quite disposed to accomplish far more than we assume. Awhile back I was at Stanford University talking to Dr. William Damon, author of The Moral Child. He said, “The typical school in America tends to overlook the kids with more energy and creativity in order to get things done. We try to treat everyone as equals but in doing so, we undercut those with special talents for leading.”
What is true in schools is quite similar in churches, because we’ve adopted many of the same cultural norms in America. Treating kids equally is paramount in most of our ministries, in spite of strong biblical precedent to identify influencers as well as recognize individual God-given gifts. When we assume this cultural value, we overlook the reality that not all kids are created equal in terms of creative ability and social influence. What we’re finding in our work with toddlers and preschoolers is that even at very early ages, certain kids are inherently effective at helping their peers accomplish things together.
My friend, Tammie McClafferty, owns a preschool in Pennsylvania where we’re prototyping a leadership training program for toddlers and preschoolers called KiddieLead. Tammie and her staff adamantly believe that certain kids demonstrate an innate ability to lead their peers in play time and role play, and yearn to be teachers’ helpers. These are the kids we want to specifically tap, releasing their creative energies toward ministry projects.
No matter the size of your church, you’ve got kids who are wired to help the rest of their peers do some pretty amazing things. The key is to lessen our dominance as adults and provide them with opportunities to be more creative than merely coloring a page containing an outline of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Here are five ideas for unleashing the creative genius of your young leaders.
- Identify your more influential kids and let them brainstorm ways to improve your kidmin. That’s right … facilitate meetings where they take turns leading discussions on what can be done to have better Sunday school, service projects, children’s church, VBS, and social events. Then, let them participate in the improvement, not just critique from the sidelines.
- Create an ongoing creative team. Use this group monthly to come up with ways to spice up your Sunday school and children’s church by suggesting music, movie clips, games, decor and activities. This makes your messaging stickier so that retention increases. Tap kids who have ideas and who are more naturally creative than merely the faithful core or random selection process. We realize that creative kids may not be leaders, but most leader type kids tend to be more creative than most.
- Empower a team to plan a quarterly event inside the church that is primarily run and staffed by kids. You may give these kids guidelines in terms of budget, time parameters and resources, but don’t stifle them too much. Serve as a team member, not a leader, and see what they come up with as a creative team. Let them advertise in “big church” to recruit workers and team members. Be their wingman who runs interference for them, but let them do the actual leading.
- Encourage them to design a community service or mission project outside the church. We talked about this in more detail in the last issue of K! Magazine, but the big idea is to let them loose in something tangible outside of the church where the risk is higher and where they’re truly leading, not just following a bunch of adults.
- Introduce your young entrepreneurs to other entrepreneurs in your church. No doubt you have a few adults in your church who are self-starters and creative types who accomplish a lot through their leading. If not, find some in the community so you can meet them in their work or place of business. Let the adults know that these kids are a unique group, selected for their entrepreneurial spirit. You’ll be surprised who’ll take the time out to invest in a group like this.
An example of entrepreneurial leadership is Kelly Forscha. At age 11, Kelly went through a leadership training program provided by Denise McBride, a certified trainer near Lancaster, PA. During this time, Kelly heard about children in Haiti who did not have adequate drinking water. She turned her burden into a call to action by asking her parents if she could start a non-profit organization named Digging Wells for Hope.
Kelly’s board consists of other preteens and Denise McBride who acts as an advisor, not the leader. In their regular meetings, Denise provides leadership training for the board and then they discuss actions for Digging Wells for Hope. Through the sales of pencils and wristbands, they’ve raised over $50,000 in the last two years. Kelly has had the opportunity to make speeches at churches, community events, Lancaster Bible College, and media interviews. At the ripe old age of 13, she’s proven her entrepreneurial leadership abilities. For more info on Kelly’s work, go to diggingwellsforhope.org.
Another person I’ve been honored to meet is Austin Gutwein of Mesa, AZ. At age 9, Austin saw a video about kids in Africa who were suffering because of the AIDS outbreak. He started raising funds by getting sponsors for basketball shooting events. Austin is now 16 and his organization, Hoops of Hope (hoopsofhope.org), has raised more than $2,000,000. Austin’s story is in his book titled Take Your Best Shot. He now travels presenting speeches on his work.
Kids like Kelly and Austin should not be anomalies. Throughout history and even today in many Third World countries, people enter adulthood around the age of fourteen. The Information Age, emerging a couple hundred years ago, resulted in parents keeping children at home longer in order to increase their education, preparing them to be on their own. Adolescence is a relatively modern social construct, creating unique opportunities and challenges to what has been the social norm for millennia.
Because we’ve prolonged childhood through adolescence, we’ve also lowered the level of expectations in kids, especially for the budding entrepreneurs in our midst. They need far more than the “sit down and behave yourself” treatment. If Jesus needed to be about his Father’s business at age 12 (Luke 2:49), why shouldn’t our children? Turn them loose. As in Moses’ day, God’s telling us, “Let my young people go.”