If you delegate responsibilities to your students within your youth ministry, sooner or later they will mess up. Not because they’re incompetent or irresponsible, but because they’re students and therefore young, relatively inexperienced and yes, only human. How you handle their mistakes can have an enormous impact on them and can determine how they will serve not only in youth ministry, but in the whole church afterwards. Here’s seven golden rules to keep in mind when students make mistakes:

1. Confront them right away

If they have made a mistake, don’t delay in telling them. Pull them aside and confront them as soon as possible. Usually, they’ll know they have messed up and the agonizing wait for you (or any leader) to say something can be a huge stress factor for them. Obviously, confronting them in person is best. Never, ever deliver criticism via email, no matter how small it may seem to you.

student mistakes 

2. Be specific

Be sure to tell them what they did wrong and be specific. Don’t leave it at vague stuff like ‘you should have organized the service better’, but name the facts: ‘you forgot to inform the worship leader of the changes in the service’. Check if they have understood what they did wrong.

This may seem like a total superfluous thing to you, but often people ‘close off’ once they know they’re going to get ‘reprimanded’ and they can remember completely different things from a conversation than what you were trying to get across. Add in the factor of students reacting emotionally to emotional stress and you can have a drama on your hands (‘he said I was a total failure and I completely suck at organizing’). So do make sure they understood you correctly.

3. Show the big picture

It’s important that they know what the consequences of their actions are, so give them the big picture. How has their mistake affected the youth ministry? Not to make them feel guilty, but to make them aware. And there’s a huge difference! Say for instance ‘because you didn’t tell the worship leader there would be a testimony, he had to cancel a solo at the last minute, leaving the soloist very disappointed’.

4. Affirm them

After you’ve told them what they did wrong, do not forget to take the time to affirm them. Tell them how much you value their efforts, their time and hard work. Don’t say this because you feel you have to, say it like you mean it.

5. Keep it short

Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of negative feedback, so keep it short. This whole conversation doesn’t need to take more than say a minute or two.

6. Forgive them and trust them again

The most important thing for you after you’ve had this conversation is to forgive them and start trusting them again. This can be hard, especially if they messed up big time. But students need to know and feel that there’s room for mistakes, that they get second, third and even fourth chances.

7. Protect them

If possible, protect your students after they’ve made a mistake. While it’s perfectly okay to make a mistake, don’t underestimate what shame can do to students. Protecting them by not revealing their role can give them the courage to try again without losing face. I’ve more than once taken the blame for something others did and I never regretted it. I could take the criticism, they couldn’t.

A couple of years ago, two of my student leaders messed up big time when organizing an event. They signed a contract with a company without my knowledge or permission and it ended costing us about $1000. But years later, these guys came to me to thank me for how I’d handled this. Nobody ever knew what had happened and they had kept serving in youth ministry, both having learned a lot from their mistakes. My trust in them had meant the world to them and had given them the confidence to keep growing as a leader.

How do you handle it when students make mistakes?