Can a graduated student leader still serve?

Graduated student leaderDevon just graduated from high school June 10th and on June 12th his youth pastor made him a youth ministry leader for the high school group.

“Devon is ready to do ministry.” His youth pastor contends. “I wanted to plug him in right away using his gifts in ministry.”

Interestingly enough, Devon is now considered an “adult leader” in charge of the very kids that were his peers one week ago, including his ex-girlfriend Amanda, now a senior.

Is this the place Devon should be serving?

Let me be the first to say, I’m a huge advocate of “ministry by teenagers” (hey, that’s a catchy title for a book). There’s no better way to help a student grow than to get him or her plugged into the church body using their gifts for ministry. It’s great to see high school students teaching kindergarten, being a junior high Bible study leader, or being a counselor at vacation Bible school during the summer.

But what about students leading other students?

I’m a huge fan of student leadership. I love developing student leaders to use their gifts to serve and minister to their peers (following Jesus’ model of servant leadership). Last year Devon was one of these student leaders in his youth group.

So is this year any different? Can’t Devon just keep serving the same group even though he graduated?

I see two red flags with keeping Devon involved in leadership with his high school group:

1. Devon needs to move on.

Consider Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Dazed and Confused<" as he stood there staring at high school girls. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”

Some people never move on.

Devon needs to move on. I don’t know a counselor across the country that would recommend that a high school student keep living out the high school years. Don’t assume that Devon is beyond that temptation. I’ve seen it backfire one too many times. (Every time the youth pastor says, “I didn’t even see it coming.”)

Sometimes freshman in college need a boost to get them to truly cut the umbilical cord and start living like an adult. We’re asking a lot from our student leaders if we think that they can instantly morph into an adult, putting all “high school ways” behind them.

Think about it. His ex-girlfriend is sitting 5 seats down the row from him. Do you think he sees her as a student or a peer? Do you think he sees his buddy Josh, now a senior, as a student or a peer?

That brings up the second red flag I see…

2. Devon will always be seen as a peer to this group.

We can stand around and debate the subject all we want. We could try to justify that Devon already was working with his peers the year prior, we could even talk about how adults regularly elect their peers to be leaders, blah, blah, blah. But that doesn’t deny one simple fact: Devon will always be a peer to those high school kids.

Devon doesn’t just need a break from high school, the high school group needs a break from Devon. Devon was their peer; they aren’t going to see him as anything else. It’s time for Devon to go into the wilderness a little bit and develop his gifts serving somewhere else. If he stays in the high school group, drama is sure to emerge.

There are plenty of places to serve

Youth ministry leaders need to do Devon and the rest of our recently graduated high school student leaders a favor and give them an opportunity to serve in jr. high or elementary school ministry. If your church is like mine, there are abundant opportunities to serve and never enough workers. Plug Devon in somewhere else.

Peer leadership is peer leadership. Being an adult mentor is something else. Don’t confuse the two.


  • What do you do with the Devon’s who want to serve in ministry?
  • How long before “Devon” can serve in high school ministry?
  • For those who insist on keeping Devon in high school ministry—are there any drawbacks to helping him serve somewhere else?

Posted on July 20, 2011

  • Jonathan Couch

    Our rule is your first two years out of High School Ministry you can serve in Middle School if we believe the maturity if there and it's a good fit (just like we would anywhere else). After two years out we can talk about HSM. Our reasoning is that they need separation from their former peers and they need to develop as leaders. Parent perception is always a factor there too.

  • Our student ministry is a relatively large group but we all meet together (junior and senior high) – at least for now. Because of this, I can't do the 2-year junior high model Jonathan was talking about (but I like it). We do make all graduates take a full year off. What I have seen is that usually those who are really passionate about working with student ministry will come back to me a year later and ask if they can serve. Those who just wanted to stay as a social club move on to whatever lies ahead of them.

    However, I don't put these college students in major leadership positions. I use them as Assistant teachers, Assistant family group leaders at camps and retreats, I will put them on a team to serve with our tech team and sound team (since we already have leadership there). Basically I try to find places they can serve but still have someone over them to train and equip them.

    Students for sure need to take a break from student ministry and begin discovering who they really are and what God is calling them to do.

  • pjski

    Devon needs to take a year off. I agree with the same reasons already presented.

    I have ran into this problem in the past and did not handle it well the first time. After that I set a policy that you must be out of Youth ministry for at least one year before serving in it. It is healthy for the person desiring to serve and for the ministry.

    Usually the reason they want to stay is because of a fear of moving on. We now have a terrific college aged group and we also push the newly graduated teen to serve in some of the other ministries so they can see where else they fit into the church.

    Keeping Devon around is not only possibly harmful to the ministry, but also to himself. Help him see the bigger picture of what it means to serve in the church. Let him work with the older kids in the children's ministry for a year and see how he does. That could set him up for success for a long time.

    • Yeah, that fear of moving on is a big concern. Hopefully the youth ministry has been intentional throughout high school of helping these students connect and engage with the larger church body and not just the youth ministry. That tends to make these transitions much smoother and it's been my unscientific observation that those kids tend to connect to a church when they move away from home, too, because they've already been a part of one and not just a youth group.

      • pjski

        Yes Tim, that is an excellent observation that we noticed when i first started in the ministry. One of the problems was that before me the only place they were serving was in the youth ministry.

        We took on the concept from Northpoint's Student Ministries called: Student Impact. This is where teens are encouraged and given the opportunity to serve in virtually every ministry available. We always choose one teaching series a year to emphasize the fact that they are part of the church now, not tomorrow. Throughout the series we have open opportunities within the church for them to get involved. This has helped tremendously with getting them engaged, and to show them that when they do move away, they can serve in the church they eventually decide to attend.

  • Totally agree with the "waiting period" for recent high school grads being a good idea. Sometimes the desperation for help – any help – can make letting them stick around very tempting, but over the years I have seen that the problems usually outweigh the benefits. I have a two-year waiting policy, and what frequently happens is that after those two years they discover that their desire to continue involvement in the Student Ministry was indeed a hesitancy to move on. I have had 2 students before who were exceptional, and I allowed them limited involvement as leaders with Junior High students, which worked well.

  • adamwormann

    I have the exact same policy as Couch (1st post). You've got to serve elsewhere (Junior high is cool) for your first two years after graduation. I'll also take high school students who are juniors or seniors to work with the junior high ministry. Same reason.

    The only exception I can see is if it's at another church. When I went away to college, I helped with a high school ministry for those 4 years. Looking back though, even though it worked out, I probably wouldn't do it again. If someone carries themself as older, it can work, but I think it's still a little risky. I'd have someone work in junior high for at least a year, maybe two, then move up with those kids.

    Honestly, I'm also re-examining the thought of people right out of college leading youth ministries…

    • Psh… I had my first paid youth pastor gig at a church when I was 19 years old! No problems there. ;)

      Seriously, I wouldn't have hired me.

  • Good questions! We have struggled with the very thing a couple times, but have succeeded in plugging them into our middle school ministry.
    We usually tell them that they need to be 21 in order to serve in high school ministry and we've only made one exception – because she was never a student in our group and had a great way of relating with the students as an adult – she was very wise for her age – but the key there was that she was never involved as a student. The kids didn't know her as "one of them." The 21 age limit serves for a couple reasons.

    1) age brings maturity – we often use the image of pruning a tree. you can't prune a tree that's taller than you. in the same way, we cannot provide an adult model to students if we haven't reached a level of maturity higher than that of the students we serve.
    2) you have a few years out and are no longer seen as a "peer" (except for the one student we had that graduated high school at the age of 20 – but that was a whole 'nother internal debate in itself – for students going to an alternative high school until they're 20/21, how old is TOO OLD for high school youth group? yeah, wrestle with that one for a while… we did.)

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