6 Practices of Jesus to Employ in Developing Student Leaders

Chris James

Although circumstances on campus vary from region to region, it seems like most of us are getting back to a semi-normal state after the two-year challenge of COVID-19. We will be talking for years about all the ways the recent global pandemic adversely affected our ministries. But, perhaps one of the glaring ramifications of the last couple of years is the loss of leadership development and disciple-making among two different freshman classes. Though this leadership deficit is palpable in many campus ministries, all is not lost. In the collegiate world, every turn of the semester is an opportunity to start afresh. Each new school year is an opportunity to turn the page on what is not working, reinforce what is, and redefine normalcy for a new generation of students.

Regardless of your particular structure, I believe that campus ministry leadership is more about a biblical ethos of spiritual reproduction than solely a structural organization of positions and roles. When approached in that light, every campus ministry leadership development plan should model the basic disciple-making approach of Jesus. I see at least six characteristics of Jesus’ strategy that can be adapted in any campus ministry setting today…

Discover: Identify those you want to develop. I never tire from reading the simplicity of Jesus calling the first disciples: He appointed twelve…to be with him, to send them out to preach, and to have authority to drive out demons (Mark 3:13-15). To be sure, the disciples would grow up in the faith to do remarkable things—things of which they could never have imagined. First, though, Jesus appointed them. He identified those He wanted to develop. You might pursue the freshman who always sticks around to stack chairs or the transfer student who quickly signs up for campus outreach. You might use a formal application where students apply for your team. Regardless of the medium, you start with simply identifying the students you want to develop.

Develop: Train them to follow Jesus and to do their role well. Jesus appointed his first disciples to be with him and to send them out. There was both a relational and missional element to Jesus’ method. This means we should train students to faithfully walk with Jesus (relational) and diligently work in Jesus’ mission field (missional). This involves giving them something to learn and something to do. You might use a Bible-reading plan, a discipleship workbook, or a Christian book. They need biblical content to know how to follow Jesus. But they also need missional work. It could be as simple as set-up and tear-down duty at your weekly meeting or as challenging as planning a Bible study series or reading the Bible with a lost friend. Like Jesus, we must develop those we are leading.

Demonstrate: Show them how to follow Jesus and to do their role well. The genius of Jesus’ strategy was that He did not just tell them what to do, He also showed them how to do it. He wanted His disciples to be with Him. The first disciples had a first-row seat watching Jesus minister, listening to Jesus pray, and hearing Him teach. This is instructive for us leaders 2,000 years later. As we develop our student leaders telling them what to do, we must ensure we are also walking with them showing them how to do it. They need to see us minister, listen to us pray, and watch us share the gospel. They need us to get our hands and feet dirty with them in Jesus’ mission field.

Deploy: Commission them to do their role. Along the road of discipleship, Jesus took off the training wheels and sent the disciples out to minister on their own. We must do the same. Any prospective student leader starts working alongside us. Eventually, though, they have to lead on their own. Here, the onus is as much on us than it is on them. We must be willing to entrust Jesus’ mission to them. One of my mentors often told me, “Students will rise to the level of responsibility we entrust them with.” College students can pray with a lost friend, lead Bible studies and book discussions, plan events and outreaches, run errands with the ministry credit card, etc. We must deploy them into Jesus’ mission field by entrusting them with responsibility. 

Debrief: Check in with them regularly to affirm, correct and answer questions. When we deploy students into Jesus’ mission field, we should expect mixed results. Sometimes it will go well. Other times, not so much. Here, though, we continue to follow Jesus’ example. We regularly check in with them to hear how it is going. We affirm them, correct them, and just give them opportunity to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes, this happens proactively at scheduled accountability meetings. Other times, this happens reactively in an unplanned conversation. But any leadership development plan must include times of debriefing.

Duplicate: Challenge them to train others to follow Jesus and do their role well. Spiritual reproduction is always the goal of Christian leadership. Leaders are not built by themselves; therefore, leaders do not exist solely for themselves. We develop leaders so that more leaders might rise up. Early on in the leadership development process, we want to lay out the expectation of duplication. Whatever a student learns in Bible study, she is expected to pass it on to others. Whatever a student organizes or leads, he is expected to involve and teach it to others. As we train them to follow Jesus and do their roles well on campus, we should expect them to also train others to follow Jesus and do those same roles well.

The last two years have been tough. No doubt. But, the genius of Jesus’ disciple-making strategy always provides direction for building leaders tomorrow. So, whether you are leading a ministry of 1,000 students or 10, each of us can build an ethos of spiritual reproduction by following Jesus’ pattern for building disciples and disciple-makers.

Chris James has lived in Lowell for seventeen years serving as a campus minister at UMass Lowell and founding pastor of Mill City Church. His primary responsibilities at Mill City involve the visioning and leadership training in the church as well as the weekly teaching during Sunday morning worship gatherings. He holds degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi (B.A. in Music) and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.). Chris is a frequent speaker at collegiate events across the country and is the author of Commit: Releasing the Hold of Reluctance and the forthcoming Intentional: How the Gospel Transforms the Way we Date, Relate, and Marry (Spring, 2019). An avid baseball fan, he has watched a game at every Major League Baseball stadium. Contact Chris at chris@millcitychurch.net.

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