The Benefits & Challenges of Servant Leadership in Youth Ministry

I sat down with a college student this week. He had asked if he could interview me for a class he’s taking on leadership.

I love talking with students who are interested in leadership, so I gladly agreed.

Here’s how the conversation went…

How did you come to understand the importance of servant leadership?

Trial and error mostly. My background is in athletics. I played baseball in college, and then went on to coach as a graduate assistant for the team at Liberty University. In that context, you can tell players what to do and when to do it. They might not enjoy it, but they’ll do it for fear of the repercussions that could come to them. For example, they can be removed from the starting lineup for lack of compliance. For the worst offenses, they could lose their scholarship money. There are ways to get your way and enforce discipline as an athletic coach.

But when I tried to use that same approach in ministry with volunteers, it was a non-starter. I began to look for a different way to lead, which leads to the answer to the next question.

How did you learn and develop this way of leading?

By this time, I’d already earned a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership so I was able to look back through the various leadership models that I had learned about. It seemed to me that Servant Leadership was the most appropriate model for ministry.

My understanding of Servant Leadership grew when I read The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller.

In that book, they present the key tasks of leadership in the larger framework of servanthood. Those tasks include:
See and shape the future.
Engage and develop others.
Reinvent continuously.
Value results and relationships.
Embody the values.

When I figured out that I could perform the tasks of a leader in the mode of a servant, everything changed.

How do you measure the success, impact, and/or influence of this kind of leadership?

I measure my results with Servant Leadership the same way I would with any other kind of leadership. I ask 2 questions:
1) Is this way of leading moving the organization in the direction it needs to go?
2) Is this way of leading attracting and keeping the kinds of people that the organization needs?

In other words, I keep an eye on results and relationships to measure my effectiveness. If we aren’t achieving our goals, then we have a problem. If we aren’t attracting people, we have a problem. If we aren’t keeping people, we have a problem.

The Gallup Organization did an extensive study on worker engagement that found one of the primary causes of disengagement is the inability to get along with a direct supervisor. If I operate in a servant mode as leader, people find it easier to get along with me and they’re more likely to stick around. That longevity is what eventually creates lasting results.

What are the benefits of servant leadership?

I see 4 main benefits:
1) Higher team morale.
2) Personal humility.
3) Organizational health.
4) Conformity with Christ.

What are the challenges of servant leadership?

The main challenge that I have encountered with Servant Leadership is that it can be hard to let people go for poor performance. Because you care about people and make an effort to serve them, you want to help them succeed. That makes you more likely to give someone too many chances when they continue to mess up. You’re also more likely to overlook issues that need to be addressed because you’re concerned with people’s feelings.

Granted, that’s not always the case. Sometimes the best thing you can do is help redirect someone’s efforts toward an area where they can experience more success and satisfaction. But some people take correction personally and allow their feelings to get hurt in the process. That’s hard.

How have you used servant leadership to develop teams?

When I’m developing a team of people, I:
1) Create a desirable culture that attracts the right kind of people.
2) Cast compelling vision that helps people see the big picture.
3) Get to know people on a personal level (passions, strengths, needs, likes, dislikes).
4) Intentionally connect their roles on the team with their areas of competence and giftedness.
5) Give them the tools they need to do their job.
6) Offer increased responsibility to high-achievers.
7) Provide continuous performance feedback (celebrate them in public when they get it right; correct them in private when they get it wrong).
8) Come up with creative ways to make them feel valued and appreciated.

Because I see my role as leading by serving, I believe our team is healthier and more connected. I work alongside them and do what I can to support them. That looks very different from other models where the leader feels like people are there to serve him or her.

How do you continue to grow and develop as a servant leader?

I meet with mentors.
I read lots of books, blogs, and articles.
I listen to podcasts.
I try new things.

It really comes back full-circle to trial and error. I try a bunch of things and keep what seems to work best.

Your Move

Look for ways to lead by serving. When you do, your team will be stronger, your ministry will be healthier, and you’ll feel better!

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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