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.

What Kind of Leader Are You?

It’s been my experience that there are three kinds of primary leaders. When I say primary leader, I mean the person in charge, giving direction to a team or group of individuals. Most people seem to fall somewhere in between these three types of leaders.

Set it, and forget it

The “Set it and forget it” leader is someone who typically likes to set things into motion and walk away. This could be through creating a team that will carry on the work or even someone who just wants to be hands-off ad only looped in when absolutely necessary. 

One challenge is that it’s easy to focus on the “forget” part. Sometimes, things actually run amuck when you “set it and forget it.” Maybe the team needs support but doesn’t know how to ask, or perhaps the individual doesn’t have enough training or confidence to make an independent decision and needs some help. When you get stuck in the “forget” mode, it’s easy to think everything is going fine, but in reality, things could be burning to the ground, and you have no clue. 

If this is your leadership style, my encouragement is to set a time and place where you consistently check in and see how things are doing. You should also create a communication line that actually gets to you if you’re needed. You can still “set it,” but instead of forgetting it, you “think of it from time to time.” 

The Central Cog

The “central cog” leader is someone who plays a primary role within a team or organization. They make the system turn, and without them, nothing would happen. Think of a watch cog that moves the gears along. Without that central cog spinning, everything comes to a stop. This model of leadership is common in church ministry and start-up organizations. 

One of the challenges is the amount of responsibility and effort one person needs to have within the team or organization. The first problem is that so much pressure can actually be bad for an individual, which is often the cause of burnout. The second problem is outside of anyone’s control; the problem is life. What happens if your hurt, slick, or dead? What if there is an emergency with your kids and you can’t come to work. What if you’re caught in a snowstorm and can’t get to your office for youth (this happened to me).

If this is your leadership style, you need to decentralize some of your roles and responsibilities. Sometimes this is called “passing the keys,” but I call it the Aaron Bartell rule. After getting stuck in the snowstorm, I asked Aaron Bartell to have a set of keys to my church. I also made sure he knew our protocols super well, and I gave him a chance to publicly lead so that everyone would be comfortable with his leadership. Over time no one person was the central cog anymore; instead, a team of four emerged, and we even started to pass responsibilities on to a new generation of leaders.

The Maintenance Man

The “maintenance man” is exactly what it sounds like. They exist outside of the team, organization or program and are responsible for making sure things run smooth. They swap out what’s broken, support what needs to be fixed, and are consistently looking for upgrades to improve things. But they are not central to the team, organization or program. The maintenance man can change from time to time, but the machine stays consistent.

One of the challenges in this kind of leadership is that people can become tools to be used, swapped, and changed as needed. This can be a good thing in some ways, but it can swing to the negative really easily. It can be easy to lose sight of relationships and why people matter because the program’s productivity is what’s most important. 

In this leadership style, you need to double down on your relationship with your people. To know what is best needed, you need to know who your people are, what makes them tick and how to best connect them to find success. This takes time and can be very rewarding. Think of it like a good mechanic and a car, they can often hear the problem and know the solution without even lifting the hood, but they can also take it all apart and put it back together if they need to. This leadership style can lead to long-term health and success if you don’t lose sight of people.

A Bit of Everything

If we are honest at times, we are probably a bit of all of these things. I have areas of my job that I’ve left to my team to do. I’m helping drive key aspects of other programs while trying to maintain my teams and add others to their success. 

Most people have a bend within them, but the key is not to slip into the problem areas. You can’t just say, “I didn’t know what they were doing,” and you can’t drive every conversation. If your team feels like pawns on a chessboard and not partners on the team, then soon your not going to have a team. Each leadership style has its pitfalls but knowing what they are and what trips you up personally is half the battle.

Take some time this week to consider the following three questions.

  1. what kind of leader are you? ‘
  2. Where do you get tripped up the most?
  3. How can you function in the strength of your leadership style better?

I’m Bored

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been slipping on my goal of a post a week in 2022. I’ve been travelling a fair bit for work, and the time zones are starting to catch up to me (I’m going from Vancouver to Toronto and back each weekend). All that airplane time has got my brain spinning with some new ideas, but I want to jump back into an old one this week.

Part of what’s been so challenging about my current travel situation is that I’m out of rhythm. My life is a bit off. My days off are on the wrong days, I often don’t know what time it is, and I still have a ton of work to do on top of the reason for the travels. It’s forced me to think about Sabbath, rest and how I use my 5 hours of travel time on each flight.

Back in the fall of 2019, I wrote a blog titled Sabbath = Brilliance. It’s based on a podcast series and book that I love. What I love about it is that it just makes sense. The basic premise is that our brains need boredom to function correctly. We need to “turn off” our work, phones, TVs, Netflix etc. and just be bored. But what Manoush misses is that she’s really talking about is sabbath rest. God designed Sabbath to do precisely what she is talking about.

In this crazy season (for me anyway), it’s easy to fill my time with stuff to do, projects to work on or shows to catch up on. But I think I might take some time to just sit, maybe draw or read a book on my next flight. Unplug from the world a bit, let my mind wander and see where the Holy Spirit leads me.

You can read the original article here, and I strongly encourage you to check out Manoush Zomorodi other work.