Can a 20-year old lead a small group of 17-year olds? How big an age difference should there be between youth leader and the students? It’s an interesting question I got this week from a youth pastor.

Here’s what he wrote: “We have stated that a leader needs to be at least 5 years older, but we are currently having trouble finding older leaders after our main leader stepped down. There have been leaders in training (16-18 year olds) in the group who help to plan events, etc. The question was asked, “Now that these younger leaders have gotten a taste of working with youth as leaders in training, do they really have wait until they are 23 to be an actual leader? What are they supposed to do in the meantime?”

I’ve encountered this same dilemma in my previous youth ministry, where we had a ‘teen group’ for 12-16 year olds and a ‘youth group’ for 16-22 year olds. We’ve had ‘youth’ serve as assistant leaders in the teen ministry and we had young adults as young as 23 serve in the youth ministry, meaning there was quite a small age difference. It worked for us, because we kept their responsibilities fairly limited and provided good training and supervision.

How big an age difference should there be between youth leader and students? 

How old is old enough?

The question is then how old a youth leader needs to be to be completely responsible, even spiritually. That’s not so easy to answer. When my husband and I were ‘just’ 25, we became responsible for a teen group with 40+ teens and our age was never an issue. But I’ve also known 25-year olds I wouldn’t trust to mow my lawn so to speak.

In short: I don’t think there’s one correct answer here. As I wrote this youth pastor, a lot depends on the cultural circumstances (example: in the rural area where we now live students tend to be more mature than in the urban area we lived before) and the maturity of the people involved. I would look at factors like:

  • Spiritual maturity
  • Life experience (it makes a big difference if someone has been through a lot already or has been raised in a fairly protected environment)
  • Maturity in general (for instance responsibility, being able to deal with finances, etc.)
  • Availability of other leaders or mentors to coach and supervise
  • Type of role and the level of (spiritual) responsibility involved (organizing an evens is different than leading a small group)

I think you have to weigh each situation carefully and then make a decision. Personally, I’m not a fan of letting students lead people their own age when it comes to spiritual matters (I’m not talking about leading a Bible study or leading worship – I mean structural spiritual leadership like leading a small group). My main reason is that they lack the ‘distance’ and life experience to lead their own classmates.

Mentoring and supervision

But on the other hand, I think we tend to underestimate what students are capable of. I’ve had a few exceptional student leaders in my ministry who could carry a lot of responsibility. The key however was to mentor them well and provide sufficient training and supervision.

So my response to this youth pastor would be: by all means, let your 16-18 year olds lead in the youth ministry. Let them organize events or youth services, let them try leading worship, or giving the message. Let them experiment, use their spiritual gifts. But protect them spiritually and don’t make them responsible for more than is healthy for them and for the ministry. And don’t forget to equip them and mentor them, help them grow into respected leaders.

That’s just my two cents, I’d love to hear some more responses from others. What would you advise, what age difference does your youth ministry require between youth leaders and students?