"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Training Student Leaders

Developing Kids As Leaders

Burt Laine

A summer leadership strategy that plunges young teenagers into a learn by doing ministry experience

In today?s culture, teenagers are expected to shoulder daily adult-level responsibilities. More than half hold down part-time after-school jobs. Three out of four do volunteer work. On average, they each spend almost $3,000 of their own money every year and have a combined yearly income of $121 billion. More than half say they?d like to mentor a younger child. And they influence $50 billion in family grocery purchases every year.

Given the weight kids pull in almost every area of their lives, it?s surprising how often churches discourage teenagers from taking on significant leadership roles. It happens so often that it?s reached clich? status?"You?re the church of tomorrow" really means "You?re not the church of today." We?ll let them help with programs that adults plan, but we require they follow the script?they won?t make actual decisions or really lead anything. And that fuels one of teenagers? top gripes?they say the #1 adult misconception about them is that they?re "not mature enough," according to a Teenage Research Unlimited study.

I believe the only sure way to develop kids as leaders is to give them real leadership responsibilities. That?s why we created a Christian summer day camp program for children that?s staffed by junior highers who?ve been trained and mentored by senior highers.

Our day camp strategy helps young teenagers...

* learn new skills, then teach those skills to others;
* practice their leadership abilities by teaching young children;
* learn to work together as a team and support their peers? success;
* learn to plan and pull off a significant ministry event;
* learn to express their Christian faith to others in a safe setting, strengthening their own faith in the process; and
* practice skills that can be adapted for other church responsibilities.

In addition, Luther Seminary professor Rollie Martinson is researching why some kids stay active in their church long term. So far he?s found two keys: (1) The church recognizes a young person?s passions and invites him or her to lead something, and (2) The church offers teenagers chances to get involved in intensive service.


We recruit junior highers with leadership potential to plan and conduct a weeklong Christian day camp program for elementary age children. These kids are often wrestling to "own" their Christian faith for the first time, and they don?t have many opportunities to express themselves in a safe environment. They?re typically eager to help and excited about taking on a volunteer commitment.

We also recruit senior highers with camp counseling experience to lead a two-day training and planning event for our junior high leaders. These senior highers work with us to brainstorm the training program and the basic theme for the day camp.

The counselor training includes examples of recreational activities, nature programs, songs, crafts, devotions, and Bible-learning ideas. We also help the junior highers learn how to teach using active and interactive strategies. And we cover typical troubleshooting situations they?ll likely encounter at camp. Finally, we offer them a menu of leadership roles (including devotion leader, game leader, song leader, craft leader, nature-walk guide, and others) and ask them to choose what fits best for them.

During training it?s crucial to stress commitment and reliability to your junior high counselors. That?s why we plan a two-day block of time away from home to separate kids from their everyday lives and bring focus to their training. Last year we camped at a state park just a few miles from home. We borrowed tents from a local Boy Scout troop and outdoor cooking supplies from church members.

We spent one day focusing on camping and leadership skills and one day planning the day camp program. Three senior highers with camp-counseling experience provided most of the leadership for the training.

We set up a flip chart on an easel in the middle of the campground and gave the junior high counselors notepads and pens. Kids brainstormed ideas, wrote them on the flip chart, and then created their program. Afterward the kids chose the activities they planned to lead. Once their names were attached to songs, games, or devotions, their leadership roles became real.

Samantha Woodward, one of the senior high trainers, says, "At first we were frustrated, because [the junior highers] would participate, but they didn?t take many notes or keep track of what we were teaching. Then we got to the second day and gave kids blank pieces of paper so they could plan their day camp program. It was like, ?Wow, they really meant it when they said it would be our program.? There was a major attitude change, and they got really involved in making program decisions and deciding who would lead which activities."

Early on, the senior high trainers stood in front of the group directing the discussion, but it wasn?t long before the junior high counselors took over and began leading each other in the planning process. We gave them 4x6 note cards to write down songs, devotion ideas, games, and other activities as they learned them. Later we laminated these cards, punched a hole in one corner, and grouped similar ideas on a metal ring so the counselors could refer to them during the camp. The trainers told junior highers they?d need extra ideas on their resource cards in case their planned activities ended sooner than expected.


We do recruit a few adults to help with the day camp program, but we don?t ask them to fill teaching roles. We find one person to serve as camp director and recruit two others to serve in program support roles. We look for people who really believe our young teenagers are capable of planning and leading the camp program.

The adult volunteers learn about their jobs from the junior high counselors. After the counselors plan the day camp program, we invite the adults to the last two hours of their training program. The counselors explain their plan and assign the adults to support responsibilities.

We also recruit adult volunteers for short-term tasks such as gathering and delivering craft and outdoor cooking supplies to camp.

Their job is to have all the supplies ready and divided up so the counselors can easily do their job. It?s also helpful to recruit someone to spend a couple of hours starting charcoal fires for outdoor cooking so the coals are hot and ready to go at lunchtime. While the day camp is in progress, we expect the adults to serve the junior high counselors, not lead activities.

At a short staff meeting after camp each day, the camp director and adult volunteers encourage the counselors to try new strategies and ideas. They also offer praise and constructive criticism.

Because our junior highers know their leadership is crucial to the day camp?s success, they?re energized and motivated. One counselor?s parent told me, "My daughter has been sleeping in until noon all summer, but since the day camp started she?s been up and ready to go in the morning before it?s time to leave." We?ve heard similar comments from other parents.

While youth leader Melanie Sprecker was getting a haircut, she overheard women at the shop talking about summer youth programs. Someone mentioned our day camp program: "That day camp was really well run. The thing I liked about it was that the counselors were older kids the children see every day, and they were great role models for my kids. We?re not attending church right now, but we?re leaning toward that one." Two months after the program, when school was in full gear, parents were still talking about the impact of our day camp on their children.

Long after the camp experience is over, our kids can use the skills they learn in just about any church ministry or community leadership responsibility. After last year?s camp was completed, one of the junior high counselors joined the worship team to help lead songs for the congregation. Two others became recreation leaders for a local Boy Scout pack. During a hayride for children, three former counselors pitched in to lead games with half of the kids while the other half were on the ride. They also planned an inspirational program for the campfire closing.

Experience translates to confidence in tackling future leadership responsibilities. Our former counselors now think and act like seasoned leaders, because that?s what they are.


I think it?s not enough to "kid-test" youth ministry activities; they need to be "kid planned" as well. When we develop the craft activities for our day camp program, we ask our kids to get on the Internet to search for ideas that fit our camp theme. We give them a head start by directing them to several Web sites. They print all the activities they find, then select the best ones.

A few days later we get them together to field-test the ideas. The adult helpers make sure they have everything they need to do the testing. After several successes and a couple of flops, they pick the ones that will work best at the camp.

We use a similar process for developing a meal plan for the camp. We gather the ingredients for several recipes that work on an outdoor charcoal or wood fire. Then we invite two families with children to an outdoor "test kitchen." We set the ingredients and the recipes on a picnic table, then set the families loose. By the end of the day, our camp menu is set.

When we work with senior high trainers to plan our two-day counselor training experience, we ask both adult helpers and teenagers to brainstorm and teach game, devotion, craft, and song ideas. Then we give them a rough program structure, including a starting time, break times, outdoor cooking times, and a closing time. They fill in the blank portions of the schedule with the best ideas from our brainstorming time.

Teenagers who?ve never worked this way before are initially shocked that the adults aren?t telling them exactly what to do. They?ll test a few of their ideas just to see if we really intend to trust them with the responsibility. Once they?re convinced we?re serious, the program plan starts flowing.


Burt Laine is a longtime volunteer youth leader and director of Leadership Bus, a youth leadership development organization in Minnesota.


Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright March/April, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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