Opportunities and Obstacles for ISM Leaders

International student ministry presents unique opportunities to reach the world for Christ. In my last blog post, I wrote that developing internationals as leaders is critical. Yet there are many obstacles they need to overcome in order to lead well within their strengths and weaknesses.

There are two important questions to ask. First, what prevents internationals from becoming leaders? Second, how can international leaders be invited to lead? Understanding these two issues is critical to developing leaders among the international students on your campus.

Obstacles to Leadership

Consider these obstacles encountered by many international students you hope will step into a leadership role:

Time and study demands

There’s no doubt about it, all students are busy. Internationals, however, face additional pressures of language barriers and family expectations. Often they have to read and re-read articles and assignments and struggle with writing papers due to limited language proficiency. Low grades are not just perceived as personal failure; students also feel they are letting down their family, a family that often invests their entire savings into sending them to the U.S.

Faulty expectations

In our interviews with internationals we discovered a fascinating disconnect between theory and practice. On one hand, internationals offered a beautiful image of relational leadership. But when asked if they felt ready to be leaders, many seemed to apply different standards. They declared themselves unfit by saying, ‘I don’t have enough Bible knowledge,’ or ‘I am not an upfront leader,’ or ‘I am too young,’ or ‘I’m not sure I can do this job.’

We learned that many internationals were not sure what it meant to be a leader in the U.S. They wanted to serve well and meet the expectations of their Christian community and their staff member, but they didn’t always understand what this entailed.

Lack of opportunity

Lack of opportunity? But there is always a need for leaders! Yes, but internationals do not usually volunteer to become leaders. They tend to wait for the staff member or the community to ask them to lead and clearly showing support for their leadership. Asking for volunteers usually results in silence. International leaders have a longer onramp into leadership and need to grow into their responsibilities. Developing a network of supportive friends is fundamental for their success.

An Invitation to Lead

In spite of obstacles, many internationals may be waiting to exercise their gifts to help your community grow. Here are some suggestions for inviting international leaders to lead.

Start with vision, family and service

Internationals need a sense of belonging before they are ready and willing to serve. Don’t just jump in and start by ‘talking business’ or saying, “We need a small group coordinator and you are a Christian, so do you want to do it?”

Instead, spend time together, get to know each other and let a sense of belonging grow. Find out what a student’s interests and passions are and find a place for them to serve in that area. Affirm the gifts you see in the leader: “I’ve noticed you’re very good at welcoming and talking to new guests in the group.” Encourage the leader to use his or her strengths for the good of the community.

Watch your words

The word “leadership” can sound scary. Instead of using the corporate language of “leadership,” “goals,” etc., try casting vision for how their help and service will benefit the community and contribute to the shared mission. Rather than asking them to ‘do a job’ or take on a leadership role, ask them to serve the community or assist you in identifiable ways.

Be specific about what you are asking the student to do and how much time this will take. For example, “The group needs someone like you to invite others into our community for the rest of the semester. Are you willing to greet every guest, introduce them to another fellowship member, and make sure we have their email and phone number?”

Invite them in

America is a direct, action-oriented culture. People are not afraid to ‘step up’ and volunteer for projects and positions in academic classes, at work and in Christian groups. But many internationals come from backgrounds where they need to be invited into responsibility.

For students from Asia, it is helpful (and expected!) to ask more than once (three times in some cases) and to give them an “out” so they can save face​.  Don’t hesitate to ask but listen patiently to objections and possibly an initial ‘no’. Then ask again, expressing your full confidence in them and your appreciation for how their service will help you and the community. If you find that the student is not ready to become a leader, allow for a ‘no’ without pressure.

Lower the risk

Consider the structure of your chapter and leadership selection process. Can you create room for internationals to ‘try out a role’ instead of submitting to a full semester or a year-long role? Start with small responsibilities to help them develop confidence. For example, ‘Can you provide rides for the next four weeks?’ or ‘Can you collect everyone’s birthday and get a card we can all sign?’

Another great way of easing people into responsibilities and also allowing for relationships to grow is pairing them up with another student (an older student to help them in a big brother/sister role) or having students lead as team.

By making an effort to uncover and support the hidden talents of your emerging international leaders, your community will be a richer and more diverse expression of the body of Christ on your campus.


Engage the international students on your campus to follow Jesus and influence others in their relational communities with valuable resources from International Student Ministries, including Starting Something New with Internationals and Discipling International Leaders.

Heidi Kempt Chew

ISM Associate Director for Leadership Development and Formation

Heidi serves with InterVarsity’s International Student Ministry. She holds degrees in theology, journalism, education and cross-cultural psychology. Heidi and her family come from three continents and live in Cleveland, Ohio. She enjoys scouring thrift stores for fabulous fashion finds and eclectic objects to infuse color into long, dreary Ohio winters.