Chris Allen is a Young Men’s President in Sandy, Utah. He works for a local blood laboratory and enjoys being with his family when he isn’t mountain biking. He has years of experience in the Young Men’s program and shares a fascinating approach to helping young men become leaders in his ward.
I was sitting in one of those 7:00-am-and-I’m-way-too-tired-
I’ve been serving in the YM program pretty much continually since I turned twelve, whether formally or informally and my leadership of young men has changed dramatically over the years. I used to try leading them from the front of the room where I could speak and teach and share my wisdom and knowledge in a strong and authoritative manner. As my understanding of young men and their needs has matured, I now lead from the back of the room.
This back-of-the-room approach is often referred to as shadow leadership and, in my experience, it’s much more difficult to master than the alternative, but yields significantly better results. The Church Handbook makes clear that the young men are the leaders, and the adults are called as youth advisors. As an advisor it’s my job to guide and mentor the leaders who can then lead the rest of the young men. I’m essentially acting as a sounding board and a validator. Let’s look at this in action in a few key scenarios: a presidency meeting, Priesthood opening exercises, a quorum meeting and a mutual activity. As we walk through each scenario, look for principles of shadow leadership. We’ll summarize them at the end of the tour.
The quorum presidency meeting is where it all starts. Presidency meeting for the young men is vital and we try hard to hold it every Sunday. This is where the quorum leaders learn how to lead. This is where they develop skills, knowledge and confidence for what they need to do the rest of the week. Presidency meeting is presided over by the quorum president, who is either a Deacon, a Teacher, or the Bishop, it can be conducted by any member of the presidency, but it shouldn’t be the bishop. The secretary should have prepared an agenda for the meeting as shown here. The adult advisors, including the bishop should try hard to not speak unless necessary. (For a fun exercise, try counting how many sentences you speak each meeting and try to reduce it each week). The conducting youth should lead the discussion seeking input from the adults when needed. This takes time to develop, but is amazing to see done well. At the beginning the young men will need to be prompted on each agenda item and will often look to the adult for permission to start the meeting, move to the next agenda item, or assign action items. Coach the youth to do these things on their own. Sit in silence and wait for that awkward tension to build while the youth venture out from being led to being leaders. The young men will discuss the needs of each member of the quorum, what Come Follow Me discussion topics would be best and who should teach them, what mutual activities will best meet the needs of the quorum, what training is needed for priesthood duties assigned to the quorum, and they will reflect on past activities or lessons and discuss things that went well and why as well as things that didn’t go well and why. Key training items can and should be assigned to the adult advisors, but once again, let the youth pick topics to train on. As they progress you can even try not showing up to presidency meeting at all, leaving the youth to run the meeting on their own. Ask how things went and be amazed at how capable they are without you.
After a successfully run presidency meeting, the young men leaders should be clear on what the plan for the upcoming week is. They should know dates, times, details, and assigned items for priesthood duties, quorum meeting discussions, mutual activities, and other activities or assignments. Why? Because they planned all of it. Now when the Priest quorum assistant is asked to step up to the microphone in Priesthood opening exercises, he has a written agenda with all this detail in front of him and can confidently say “The priests will be meeting on Wednesday at 7:00 to go shovel snow for the widows of the ward. Please dress warmly and bring your snow shovels.” He’ll be much more likely to send out a reminder to the young men midweek, and will be more likely to show up and lead the activity with enthusiasm. He planned the event and the details. He’s invested in making it successful, and the rest of the presidency will support him. As a leader, any questions from parents or other youth should be forwarded to the youth leaders, but support them as needed. They need to not only be formally recognized as the leader, but also treated as one at all times.
After a well executed opening exercises, quorum meeting is a crucial time to let the youth lead. All too often, I’ve seen a quorum meeting start out by having the adult advisor say something like “Why don’t we get started now?” or “Steve, are you conducting today?” Don’t do this! If the advisor is the person to start the meeting, he’s inadvertently telling the youth leader to follow and not lead. As the advisor, you should coach the leaders on this beforehand, but once you’re in quorum meeting, the youth should do the talking. Let them sit in awkward silence waiting for you to start the meeting. After a minute they’ll remember that they should be the one starting the meeting. The next week they conduct, they’ll jump right in and do it. Quorum meetings are also key areas where the youth need to feel safe sharing their feelings and thoughts for personal testimonies to develop, and having the youth lead will foster this environment.
The last part of the tour is the midweek mutual activity. This is a time for the young men to execute what they’ve planned. Mutual activities range from just-show-up simple to completely complex. Depending on the capabilities of the current youth leaders in the quorum, they may need more support for some activities. Ideally, the youth are making any arrangements ahead of time for the activities and assigning out action items in Sunday quorum meeting. Mutual is often an adult planned party for the youth. In my mind any time the adults plan an activity for the youth, the activity is wasted. Adults can certainly help and provide ideas and guidance. That’s what advisors do, but the youth should be ultimately running the show, handing out assignments, and accepting their own failures and mistakes.
When done right, leaders who lead from the back of the room may appear to other leaders and parents to be lazy. Shadow leadership is as it sounds. It’s done from the shadows. Everyone will see the boys doing all the work that’s done in public visible places and won’t see you. The shadow leader also has to be willing to accept criticism. When the youth are truly leading, they will fail. They will plan activities that don’t go smoothly. They will teach lessons that don’t go over well. This is okay. These are the real teaching moments. When the youth can step away from these failures with eyes eager to learn and a good shadow leader, they will be able to see mistakes they made along the way, and most importantly, they will see what to do better next time. We’re not serving the parents of the youth, we’re here to serve the youth and the best way to do that is to prepare them to become the leaders of the future.