Students are students, not adults

This post is part of our 10 Leadership Principles series. Here, you can find more information on the series and catch up on previous posts.

Before you skip this post because it sounds very “Youth Ministry.” I want you to hear me out because this leadership principle is extremely critical for anyone in a primary leadership role, regardless of the organization.

This principle does come from my time in Youth Ministry, but it may not be what you think it is at first glance. This principle has a story, and it’s centred around some drama I was dealing with in one of the churches I worked for. Our youth ministry had been picking up steam, and we were starting to grow. Nothing too crazy, but we were growing. That growth meant more teens, and more teens often meant more chaos.

My good friend and mentor Randy Carter once said that if you put a bunch of Jr High students (Grade 6-8) in a room together, it will get chaotic. Not because they are bad kids, but because they are young, impulsive and have limited motor control. They will goof around, fall over each other and probably break something. Then throw puberty and hormones into the mix and watch out. The lack of impulse control can lead to some funny, embarrassing and disastrous situations, and it can all happen in five minutes.

Now to our story…

We were in a new facility, and it seemed like weekly, kids were breaking something or falling into walls. There was so much boy/girl drama it was hard to get anyone to talk about anything else. On top of that, one of the boy’s Small Groups started and ended each night was a fart session… in a locked room.

Needless to say, some of my church Leadership Team felt like things were out of hand. Eventually, I was “talked to,” and the pushback I got was that my students needed to be sitting in rows of chairs hearing a solid message about Jesus and then having deep discussions. They needed to come home talking about the power of the Holy Spirit, not the power of the fart smells. It was a hard time in my ministry because, from my perspective, things were a bit crazy, but Jesus was on the move. Kids were learning and growing in their faith, but people expected my students to be something they weren’t… adults.

I thankfully had one member of our church Leadership Team that understood my situation, and I remember talking things through with him. We both came to the same conclusion; students are students, not adults. We needed to adjust our standards to meet them where they were at. Yes, the bar of expectation could be raised but only within their ability to reach it. Older students could be held to a higher standard, but they were still students, not adults.

At the end of the day, the church Leadership Team and even some of my Small Group leaders were getting stuck in their expectations of what and who students should be. They processed the world through “their lens,” but they are adults who see the world through the lens and experience as an adult. No Jr High boys Small Group will function as an adult discussion-based bible study. It’s not realistic, so we shifted our viewpoint instead of fighting against that expectation.

We started to hold to the value that “students are students, not adults,” and then we began to ask students why they felt like the expectations should be, and over time we found a balance. There was still chaos, hormone and farts, but we redrew the line of success to something our students could achieve. We continued to grow because of it, and over time, we’re able to paint a better picture of how God was moving in our group to those in leadership.

So what does any of this have to do with you?

The answer is simple; you need to meet the people you lead where they are at. I think it’s way too easy for us in primary leadership roles to believe that everyone should come to us. The adults in my ministry projected what they felt or wanted onto students who couldn’t understand or grasp what they were being asked to do. I think we do the same thing in adult leadership, but we think it’s okay because we are all adults.

However, we are not all wired the same. We might not be ruled by chaos, hormone and farts anymore, but we are defined by our unique experience, skills and baggage. Not every adult is the same… so it’s our responsibility as primary leaders to redefine success based on where our people are versus where I am as the primary leader. This is counter-cultural in so many ways but integral for growth and development. If you want your team to succeed and thrive, you need to help them win, and the only way to do that is to meet them where they are at. The best part is that as they succeed, so do you. Not because you’re a fantastic leader, but because you are all in this together. That’s your role as their primary leader; your job is to help them succeed. But that doesn’t happen when we project our personal lens of success on our team.

The saying goes, “students are students, not adults” in youth ministry. But for us, I think the phrase should be, “adults are adults, but not every adult is the same.”


Take some time to consider the following questions.

  1. Who defines the success of your team right now?
  2. How would you define success right now for your organization or role?
  3. How would your team define success right now for your organization or role?
  4. Do you think your team can meet your definition of success? why or why not?


I have two parts to this activity, but I want to give you one final piece of advice. Everything in this chapter is going to take time. You’re not going to figure it all out right away, and redefining the win is not always an easy task. The suggestions below help you start the process, but this is not a one-and-done exercise. You will need to come back at this time and time again for it to become part of your culture.

  • PART #1 Understanding – Get your team together and get to know each other more. Google some “get to know you” mixer games and learn about each other’s experience, skills and even baggage. The goal is relationship building and getting to know where your team is at on a personal level. You want to discover their unique experience, skills and baggage. There is no wrong way to do this, but it takes intentionality.
  • PART #2 Defining – Plan a time as a team to go over how everyone measures success. You can consider doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats) style review or walk through roles, responsibilities and expectations. Keep the conversation open and listen to what your team is saying. Remember, “adults are adults, but not every adult is the same.” Look for the places you agree and note where things are different. Then seek to understand those differences more and find the middle ground. Remember, you succeed when your team succeeds, but they need to know what that means for them.

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