If you keep your eyes open, you will find excellent leadership going on all around you. This was definitely the case when Young Life invited me to be a guest at one of their camps for high school students. They granted me full access to their senior leadership, leader training sessions and all-camp activities. Here are some leadership insights we can all take away from one of the best outreach organizations anywhere:
Identify a single purpose
The single purpose of Young Life is to introduce students to God and challenge them to have a lifelong relationship with Him. When working with students, there are many opportunities to be distracted from this focus. However, Young Life is good at keeping its mission from drifting. It’s all about a single purpose.
For greatest impact, align all activities towards your single purpose
Inside the camp’s daily leadership meetings, it was clear: every moment, every activity and every camp experience was aimed at Young Life’s single purpose. Experiences on Day One set the stage for Day Two. An example of this is the completely wild set of activities students experience on the first night. Most students have probably never had “good clean fun” at the level they experience that night. Later in camp, the first night’s experience becomes an example of how life can be fully lived without resorting to drug/alcohol use.
Throughout the week, various experiences build on each other and, as such, have multiplied impact. At week’s end, all the activities align towards the culminating experience (sharing Jesus’ story). Impact is created not simply through individual events but through the combined synergy of all the experiences together. In this way, leaders were able to take people to a place they might not otherwise be able to reach on their own.
It’s not a cliché … it’s all about relationship
While it’s trendy to say, “it’s all about relationship,” Young Life actually lives this out. Students come to camp already knowing their leader from school club events. At camp, the relationships are strengthened. Students know intuitively that their leaders care about them personally. When it comes time to talk about God, students know that their leaders are speaking sincerely with them, not impersonally proselytizing on a mass scale. Indeed, many hours of “free time” exist simply to allow each cabin leader to meet one-on-one with each camper. Jesus developed genuine caring relationships with a small number of people. Excellent leaders do the same.
Frontline leaders receive remarkable support
Cabin leaders are the people who interact with students. They are where “the rubber hits the road.” As such, they are the leaders who receive the most support. Young Life brings in their senior organizational leaders (the top of the organization chart) simply to support the cabin leaders (who are much lower on the organization chart). Six senior leaders are on-site throughout the week with no other assignment than to support the cabin (frontline) leaders. It’s an incredible demonstration from humble leaders who have a servant’s heart.
Joie de vivre
Equally impressive is the “joy of life,” demonstrated by Young Life leaders. This isn’t some “manufactured for camp” vibe. It’s the way Young Life leaders are. They love their life with God. They live strong and play hard. They’re loud, messy and fun. They get things done. They attract other leaders just like themselves. They don’t believe that you’re fully alive until you’re living with God … and it shows. Leaders of all kinds have significant influence when they personally live out their mission.
Rev up the fun
Every opportunity is taken to inject fun into the camp experience. An obvious example is arrival day. Buses wait at a restaurant off-site until all the campers have arrived from their various cities. Then all the buses travel together and arrive in the middle of camp. There, 300 campers literally run off the bus to find music blaring and dozens of camp workers cheering them on. Staffers on zip lines are flying by while others are running ski boats nearby. Food and drink await the arriving travelers and costumed emcees work the crowd. It feels like you’ve walked into an awesome party. This beats every camp arrival experience on the planet. The fun music, cheering and skits continue throughout the week at each meal and all meetings. It doesn’t cost a thing. It only takes a desire on the part of leaders to inject fun. Wow.
The “Wow” Factor
Speaking of wow, Young Life is intentional about “The Wow Factor.” This was seen in the selection of the campsite itself. Leaders wanted a site that had a lake—a striking setting that clearly displays God’s creation with a minimum of two acres per camper. It took years to find the site and longer to fundraise for construction. However, leadership had a vision for a high quality experience and stuck by their guns. Ultimately they got what they expected. The Wow Factor is also seen in camp amenities. Sleeping and meeting facilities are high-end. Recreation opportunities include a skateboard half-pipe, heated pool, lake (with blob), a huge zip line, a high ropes course, scenic hiking, mountain biking, beach volleyball, basketball and waterskiing. Fear of risk would keep most organizations from offering such things. But Young Life’s leadership knows these high-octane experiences are key to their mission. They have found a way to fund and insure these activities. Wow.
Camp leaders exhibited an unusual willingness to demonstrate their personal energy. Their enthusiasm and investment were constantly on display. They stayed positive while burning the candle at both ends. This is difficult, but they whole-heartedly kept their energy level high. Leaders were encouraged to laugh at jokes, sing the songs and smile throughout the week (even if they didn’t feel like it). This created an amazingly positive, contagious and energetic environment that made a huge difference with the campers. Good leaders are intentional about having high levels of energy on display, both personally and within their organizations.
Young Life’s mission is to reach students who don’t know God. This mission is so important that leaders are willing to make concessions from the typical “church” norm. Leaders meet students where they live. Commercial pop songs are played because that’s what kids who don’t know God listen to. The music gives students a common ground and a comfort level in an unfamiliar camp environment. There is a small smoking area for students who are of legal age to smoke cigarettes. Modest clothing/swimwear is recommended prior to camp. However, it’s quite amazing what passes for “modest” amongst non-church kids. Young Life never allows for things that are clearly inappropriate. However, leaders will make reasonable concessions in small things in order to achieve success in bigger things.
Even as leaders make concessions in small things, no compromise is made when sharing about God. Young Life is very straightforward and up-front in explaining basic Christian beliefs. This direct approach gives the message of authenticity and strength. Leaders are sensitive to avoid communication techniques that don’t work with students. They avoid cultural hang-ups. Leaders keep things accessible to young people. However, while they are careful in how they present, they are uncompromising in what they present. God is not watered-down and popular culture doesn’t compromise God’s message. Leaders ensure that the main thing is the main thing.
The intrigue of discovery
The camp’s event schedule is a closely guarded secret. Campers never know what event is coming next (or even what time they will eat their next meal.) Pragmatically, this keeps students from opting out of events that don’t immediately appeal to them. But the secret schedule has a more powerful purpose … it allows students the pleasure of discovering new things. It’s more of an adventure to be surprised by what you’re learning and by what’s coming next. You learn new things by not “self-selecting out” of experiences you prejudge as not appealing. The secret schedule is a departure from the “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them” model used by many leaders (and public speakers). Leaders can make a journey more intriguing by letting their followers discover new things (rather than simply putting it all out there at once).
While campers get all the attention, there is an even deeper form of learning going on at Young Life camp. The camp has almost no paid staff. Food is prepared and facilities are cleaned by a volunteer “work crew.” The work crew is made up of high school students who already have found their faith. They work literally from sunrise to sunset without pay. They do so for several weeks. Even so, the work crew is one of the most exclusive and desirable experiences in Young Life. Participants say it is significantly more valuable than attending camp. This is because in the weeks that they spend serving, adult leaders are building into them (with regular devotions, worship and life skills teaching). Day-in, day-out, work crew members are developing a community. They are developing close relationships in this “students live together” environment that simply aren’t possible at school. This is mentoring in fertile soil. From this mentoring comes most of Young Life’s future senior leadership. Leaders of all kinds can learn from this rather obvious model … find promising new leaders, develop them and put them on a leadership track in your organization.
Young Life camp is a living leadership laboratory. Leadership isn’t just something in a book … it’s displayed every hour that camp is in session. As adult guests, we were given 100% access to the camp, its activities and all of its leadership meetings. Young Life’s transparency and willingness to share with “outsiders” says volumes of good things. If you are ever fortunate enough to be invited to a Young Life camp, I strongly encourage you to attend.