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Honestly, I can’t remember how our small group discussion ended up here. All of a sudden a very animated 16 year old yelled,

“I hate it when adults tell me I have potential.”

“Why?”  I inquired.  In my own mind that is a great word that helps others understand that we were made for more.

The boy continued, “Well,  first of all I mostly hear the word from teachers or my parents when I am getting lectured. It never really seems positive. Also, I don’t ever feel like I am allowed to make mistakes. It’s like everyone just thinks I am a mess. When I do something right, it’s like that was wrong.” I wanted to make sure I understood. “So what I hear you saying is that you feel like people just think you can’t get ever get it right? When you do that is just a deviation from the norm. What you want is people to see that you are really not trying to mess up. It just happens sometimes.” (Yes, I used the word deviation. Yes, I had to explain what I meant by that.)  His eyes went wide, “Exactly! It’s like when adults say “potential,” they can’t see I’m trying.”

As I listened “between the lines,”  I realized this young many was saying,  “Help me don’t talk at me.”

So in those moments when we need to call a student to “more,”  how do we? For the reason we throw words like “potential” around is often because we feel our students are either going down the wrong path or are just plain apathetic.

What’s the approach?

 Make Sure They Know WHOM They Belong To:

1 John 3:1a tells us,  “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”  I asked some students recently “Do you know what it means to be God’s child and the benefits that come with that?”  None of them could give me an answer. They would describe themselves as “Christians” and had grown up in the church. We must help them know when Salvation comes we now belong to Jesus, learning to live in that.

Let Them Mess Up and Wrestle with the Hard Stuff:

Our role in a teen’s life is to help them know what following Jesus looks like. We also need to recognize that sometimes they may wander. Other times they turn around and want to know,  “Why does following Jesus look like this?”  Many times they are trying to figure out what being with Jesus means. When we see destruction ahead our role is to tell them what it looks like, and how to avoid it.  Then we need to trust they will ask the right questions and stay on the narrow path.

Walk It Out:

Here is how Christ modeled reaching our “potential:”

I will do it  - You watch.   (Miracles performed, life lived, lessons taught.)

You do it  -  I will watch.  (Sending out of the disciples twice while he was still on earth to cast out demons and spread the good news.)

You do.  (Jesus sent them out.)

“There is nothing sadder to those of us who disciple kids, when we see you get stuck and not want to change,”  I told this boy. “We can see Jesus wants you to lead where you are now. So many times we see you walk away, and it hurts our hearts. We use the word “potential,” because we see you choosing to turn away from who the Lord is calling you to be. However, I want you to know that all of us, me and the other leaders, we haven’t reached our potential either. Being all Jesus wants us to be takes us into eternity. Potential doesn’t have to be a bad word, it all depends on how we spin it.

Do your students have “potential?”

Applications for our student leadership program are opening up again in a few weeks and it has me reflecting on what I look for in a student leader. Over the past week, I decided that I want our student leaders to be a leader third. Before they can be a student leader, they need to be a Christ follower first and a servant second:

1. Christ Follower
Student leaders are the ones that make things happen. But one of the first things I tell student leaders is, “this isn’t ASB.” I think it is important to make the point that they aren’t planning events and running ministries just for fun, they are doing it to help fulfill the purposes of the Church. A leader of a ministry isn’t like the leader of a club. A leader of a ministry is the spiritual leader of a group of people. In order to have a team that can be spiritual leaders of your ministry, you need to have a team of students that are pursuing the Lord. Before you say yes to putting a student in your leadership program, make sure you know what is happening in their spiritual life. Ask them questions about their relationship with the Lord, what their quiet times look like, where they are being challenged, etc. Dig deep. Don’t be afraid to talk to a spiritual leader in a student’s life or even a parent!

2. Servant
Is this student serving already? One of the mistakes that I have made is overlooking this on some applicants. In my mind, I thought, “I can help motivate them to start serving.” But that isn’t something you should have to say about a student leader. Student leaders are the ones that are already serving in your ministry. Sometimes this means saying no to popular students in your youth group. When I took a closer look at our “core” students, I found that most of them weren’t serving. Saying no to students like this might be tough, but it is a perfect opportunity to really challenge them and take them to the next level. Do be on the look out for students that are serving on ministry teams, showing up to serve projects, staying after events to clean-up, or just students that are servants in your ministry.

When I look for students that have leadership potential, I look for those two things. The more I develop our program, the harder I get on student leadership applicants. Don’t be afraid to say a few no’s. Letting in students that aren’t ready can make your program ineffective, or worse, harmful to your ministry. Saying no to some students is okay. It is healthy for your program and it is helpful to grow the student that needs to grow.

Colton Harker is the Student Leadership Coordinator at Saddleback HSM.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at coltonharker@gmail.com or on twitter at @ColtonHarker.