The Brain Science Behind Why Many Youth Leadership… | UMC YoungPeople
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September 2020

The Brain Science Behind Why Many Youth Leadership Teams Fail

By Jeremy Steele

By Jeremy Steele & Chris Wilterdink

You’ve read the article, or talked to the consultant, or just finished the seminar . . . and you are convinced that the youth ministry should be a ministry “completely by, for, and with youth” with young people making every decision. Or maybe your senior pastor read the article or went to the seminar and hands you that idea too. Either way, you set up the teams, and the people, and begin to turn all the planning and decision-making over to the kids – only to watch the program take unexpected turns and begin to falter.

The first event goes OK (even if they didn’t get their act together until the last minute). When it comes to selecting the next trip location, the leadership team comes up with an odd place that is the favorite family vacation spot of one of the kids in the group. And then there’s the strange power dynamics that you start to see expressed in the different friends related to the students on the leadership team. When no one begins to sign up, and students stop showing up, the adults and staff look at you as if all these decisions were yours.

Sound familiar? It’s an uncomfortable position to find yourself in, but don’t worry – there’s a scientific explanation for this.

The explanation lies in the way the adolescent brain is transforming from its childhood form to its adult form. The main piece of the adolescent brain that is working against your leadership team is the prefrontal cortex. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is hampered by a rewiring operation that is happening all over the brain. This important part of the brain is responsible for some key things you need on a leadership team: forecasting the future and impulse control.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that sees a car heading toward an intersection ahead of you and forecasts that, at its current rate of speed, your car and the other car will crash. It tells you to stop and then, because it also manages impulse control, it quashes your brainstorm about gunning it, so that you actually stop.

The rewiring of this part of the brain in adolescents is why students will engage in some risky behavior; and when an adult asks, “What were you thinking, didn’t you know that X might happen?” they say, “No.” As crazy as that sounds, they mean it. They were truly unable to forecast the dangerous results of their actions. AND their brains did not give them the ability to say “no” to that impulse to do something dangerous.

Leadership teams that are making key, strategic ministry decisions are all about impulse control and forecasting. Looking at potential retreats, games, big events, curricula, and so on requires minds that are able to think ahead to see the benefits and possible pitfalls. Such planning often requires decisions that may run directly against the impulses that draw a huge crowd or make everyone walk away saying, “That was super fun!”

I’m not saying that you need to have an adult-run youth ministry, or that youth leaders aren’t important, or that you need to limit the voice of youth. What your church needs is a group of youth leaders who are given roles that they can fulfill and are supported by people who have the abilities that the students may lack (like a fully functioning prefrontal cortex). To do that, here are a couple of tools to have in your leadership tool chest:

1. Provide Frameworks and Limited Choices

Youth need fewer blank whiteboards and more fill-in-the-blank processes. You know how to design a successful retreat. So, design it. Set a schedule; decide on a location (we all know it’s going to be the place you went last year); and come up with some theme options. Then take that framework and allow your leadership team to give feedback, make changes based on their experience, and be creative. Whenever possible, come up with a handful of good options to choose from for important pieces. Don’t ask them to create things out of the air; give them a solid pallet from which to paint the painting and some great outlines to get them started. Even places like Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery that have more than thirty flavors of ice cream and nearly infinite mix-ins to customize your treat provide a framework of menu items. When there are too many choices in front of an immature prefrontal cortex, it is often easier and more effective to order from a limited menu of options as opposed to starting from scratch.

2. Provide and Receive Feedback

You need to hear the unvarnished truth of what students think about what you are doing. Now, there is a saying that “Honesty without empathy is simple cruelty,” so providing and receiving honest feedback needs to be done with some tact and awareness of ongoing relationships among the people involved. You may choose to take the advice offered, or not, but it is essential that you know what others who care about your ministry think. Leadership teams are perfect for this. Task them with asking friends what they thought about a game, or retreat, or lesson and bring it back to the next meeting. It will help them know their voices are being heard and get you the feedback you desperately need. Additionally, make sure to provide feedback to the leadership team from other stakeholders in the youth ministry, such as parents, volunteers, and other adult church leaders to provide the leadership team some practice in receiving honest feedback well.

3. Encourage Recruitment

There is nothing as successful in getting students to come to an event, or an adult to volunteer, as a youth asking directly, in person. Schedule a leadership team invite-a-thon for your next event; order pizza and fill the youth room with the sound of texting teens and voicemail messages. Have the leadership team brainstorm lists of adults who seem like good fits or have gifts that the youth ministry needs in order to thrive. Work through that list together by assigning names; come up with script drafts of how to make invitations; and have the leadership team practice with one another; then, do the outreach to potential volunteers, supporters, and champions for your youth ministry. Then if (when) you’re getting low on volunteers, get a student leader to call and ask a specific adult to chaperone. It’s a lot harder to tell youth no than to tell you!

4. Create Opportunities for Up-Front Leadership

Students who participate in any of your ministry programs may feel a greater sense of buy-in when there are youth-aged individuals in visible leadership positions. This is a great way to use your leadership team and highlight the existence of a youth leadership team. Ask leadership team members to welcome students from the stage, say a prayer, and even go over “camp rules” or “this is what we do here and why we do it” to set a culture of welcoming expectation. When you introduce a youth leader, give no more than two sentences. For example, say, “This is Alyssa, and she is part of our leadership team. We believe that youth should be involved in leading, not just listening, so let us know if you are interested in joining our youth leadership team.”

5. Delegate Fun Jobs

The thing that many youth who are leaders do BEST is doing “hands-on” tasks. Do you need a bunch of hula hoops constructed to mark out your physical distancing? That’s a leadership team member’s job! Do you need to create artwork or make displays or update posters around your space? Boom – youth handoff. Make sure that the best, most fun jobs always involve students. When you need to test a game, or come up with a shirt design, or plan sixty-five different sidewalk chalk concepts (we just did that), or even create graphics packages for social media accounts, delegate it to members of the youth leadership team. Knowing your team’s gifts and skills is also helpful as you delegate fun jobs – so do some personality tests, or spiritual gifts inventories with your youth who serve as leaders. This will help them get to know themselves and one another better; plus, it will give you an idea of who may do an excellent job at a certain task and have fun while doing it.

At the end of the day, the goal is to create godly leaders, right? That means that all along the way, we are coaching, teaching, and challenging these students to lead. We are helping them discover who they are and their purpose, then sending out these leaders to change the world. They don’t need to be able to evaluate the benefits of a foreign mission trip over a domestic one. They need to be caught up in the mission of God. So, do that, using these five tips as a starting place.

When he's not playing with his four children with his wonderful wife, Jeremy is the associate pastor at Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, CA. Jeremy has spent over twenty years working in youth and children's ministry and continues to train children and youth workers as well as writing and speaking extensively in that field. His most recent book is the "All the Best Questions." You can find a list of all his books, articles, and resources for churches at