Bringing Social Justice + Student Ministry Together

Social justice is something we’ve seen students become more interested in and passionate about over the years. With more awareness comes a desire to lend a hand, speak up, and participate in various ways. Students are finding new and creative opportunities to make sure their voice is heard.

If social justice is something your students are interested in, I encourage you to step into it with them. As youth leaders we can join in social justice campaigns with our students, foster community and conversation around these issues, and model what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ who has a heart for justice.

If you’re wondering how to practically engage social justice initiatives within your ministry context, I have some suggestions to get you started. You may find different approaches, campaigns, or issues are more relevant to your group. So I would encourage you to start simply.

Talk to your students about their passions.

You may find a wide range of interests within your group, but you also may be able to identify a common theme. Or you may be able to uncover a few key areas where your leaders and students can get involved together.

Rather than trying to generate interest in a random cause, I think it’s important to begin by identifying what social justice issues currently fire up your students and leaders. You may find a few key individuals who can help lead the rest of the group. From there, you can plan how to move forward in specific ways that are relevant to your group.

Host a social justice night.

Take a regular “youth group” night to discuss, share, and take steps forward as a whole youth group. This is a great way to raise awareness and leverage the passions and involvement already existent within your group. If some of your students and/or leaders are already passionate about particular issues, you can work with them to help lead your social justice night. 

You may also want to consider bringing in someone professionally involved in a social justice issue to speak. You can share a short video, host a panel discussion, or invite students to select and attend a breakout session on a specific topic. Again, not everyone may be passionate about social justice, so consider education your primary focus. Some students may be moved to action, which is why its important to have an involvement plan you can share.

Help students get involved.

You may have a social justice issue knocking at your back door. Or you may have no idea how to get students practically involved. If you can identify a local need that your group can meet, that is an excellent place to start. Tap local experts to help you look into opportunities that are possible for your students. If you’re struggling to find something local, look for ways to partner with a national or global organization.

A great and simple place to start is by advocating through an organization called Dressember. Participants commit to wearing a dress or tie throughout the month of December to raise money and awareness for organizations that fight human trafficking, modern day slavery, and other social justice issues domestically and abroad. You and your students can form a team and those who participate can create their own fundraising page–and monetary goal–through Dressember’s website. (If you have questions about Dressember, feel free to ask; I would love to share more with you!)

Leverage social media and story telling.

However you and your students decide to practically participate, don’t forget to share what you are doing on social media. This is a great platform to not only show people what you are doing, but more importantly, tell them why. This is one of the ways your students can learn how to incorporate the Gospel into their social justice involvement. By explaining the heart behind the work, they can begin sharing the love of Jesus not only within their involvement, but also their extended community.

You can also encourage students to tell their story–many times a desire for involvement comes from a personal connection. That personal connection can often be a bridge to draw others in. Students don’t have to put all the personal details out there, but if they feel comfortable, they can share why social justice matters to them, and what things have come about as a result of their involvement.

If your students have stories to tell, don’t hesitate to share these with the church body at large. Your students can lead others in this area through their passion, care, and commitment. I encourage you to not only let your students lead by example, but to allow and encourage others to follow. Maybe your students can help lead a social justice night or initiative for the entire church, showing how the Gospel can move us all to action.

Criticism and What to Do with It

Criticism. For many of us it’s a “four letter word” that evokes worry, doubt, and at times fear. It makes us question everything we are doing and worse still, in some cases we question if where we are serving is the right place and if our calling is actually true.

Criticism has and will take many forms during your time in ministry. It could be when the facility director chastises you for marshmallows in the carpet and how ministry shouldn’t involve destroying the church. It may take the form of a parent talking about you and your philosophy, or claiming you haven’t connected with their student. Perhaps it is an elder who openly asks you if you even care about students growing in their faith. It may be a volunteer who stops by your office to offer “help” by telling you how great the old pastor was and how you should go back to the old way of doing things. Or maybe it is your senior pastor who tells you that fun shouldn’t be a part of your ministry and you need to change or look elsewhere.

If you’re like me, you’ve been on the receiving end of criticism more than you’d care to admit. It may be easy to brush some of it off by saying “oh, that’s just Karen” or “they don’t get student ministry…no one calls it youth ministry anymore.” But I would assert that just brushing it off or dismissing it isn’t the appropriate response in all circumstances. In my years of serving in ministry I’ve handled criticism both well and poorly, and I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to respond to it.

Respond humbly.

So often our knee-jerk reaction is to throw up defenses, to take a stand, to answer with a quick retort. Much of this is a defense mechanism because we take criticism personally. How dare they attack a ministry that God has called me to, that I have poured blood, sweat, and tears into?! But the reality is that we need respond humbly, and be willing to process what has been said.

We are called to be representatives of the Gospel in all moments, even the hard ones. How we respond will show people Jesus, and we must be aware of that. I am not advocating for you to simply take punches, but to not lash out or respond in kind. It is okay to explain yourself, but don’t become defensive or angry. Instead hear the person, love the person, and look to respond as Christ would.

Be willing to listen and have conversation.

When critique happens, let me encourage you to listen to the person and engage in conversation. I know there are times that won’t happen because it could be a passing comment from a parishioner, or an anonymous note left in your mailbox (What you don’t get those? Guess it’s just me.), but when you are able, engage with the person. So often it is because someone doesn’t understand, isn’t sure how to ask, they don’t know any other way to do ministry, or just want to be heard.

Instead of getting upset and talking about the person and their remarks, engage with them and take them out for lunch or coffee. Ask them to share what is on their heart, and then share what is on yours. I find within conversation you can care for the person, explain your mission and vision, and rally support as they see who you are and what you are about.

Acknowledge growth areas.

This is a hard one because it forces us to think through what is said, and admit that we don’t have it all figured out. But that is the truth; we are all in process which means there are areas where we can grow. Instead of becoming defensive about that, be willing to say “you’re right, and I am working on that.” I find that showing humility and acknowledging where you need to grow actually brings in people who want to champion you and your ministry. Sometimes people want to support you, and they just need to know how. By acknowledging your growth areas, you open up opportunities to be poured into and stretched.

Invite others in.

This one is huge, and something that took me a long time to understand. I think for many pastors it is easier to be a maverick, to stay on an island. But we aren’t called to do life alone. We champion this to our students and leaders, but so often we act in an opposite manner. Let me encourage you to find a mentor, to let people speak into your life and ministry, and be willing to listen even when it is hard. Those are the moments that will grow and stretch you. As you listen and hear from those who have done this and those who care about you, you will find yourself becoming a better pastor and shepherd.


As ministers and as people we should actively be engaged in self-evaluation. This process will help you grow and mature, and prayerfully become a better leader and minister. Some questions to consider after receiving a critique are:

  • Why does that comment upset me?
  • Is there any truth in what was said?
  • What do I need to do if there is truth here?
  • How did I respond?
  • What should I change about how I respond in the future?
  • How did my heart feel during and after the conversation?
  • How can I approach, minister to, and love the person who said these things to me?
  • What is God trying to teach me in this moment?
  • Who is pouring into me and speaking truth about this moment?

Find a safe place to decompress.

Decompression and processing are necessary things to do after receiving criticism, but I believe there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to do them. Speaking to a mentor, a ministry partner, close friends, a supervisor, or other trusted confidantes is a great thing to do. They allow you to be open and honest, they don’t mind letting you process and work through emotions. And they will also give you direct and honest feedback to help you grow and mature.

However, I do not think social media is a healthy place to to decompress or seek out support in these matters. I’m a part of many Facebook groups where people come “seeking input and support” only to be met with “that’s so unfair,” “walk away,” “you’re better than they are,” or thousands of other thoughts and opinions. And arguably what it turns into is a critique-fest of a person or church no one knows about. Feelings of hurt and frustration grow within the original poster, and the community spirals downward in the chaos of bitterness and resentment. Social media can be used in great ways, but it isn’t a place to go to for healthy decompression as not all of the “support” or comments will be biblical, nor will they be able to respond impartially as they only hear one side of the conversation.

Caring for Volunteers

Being on paid staff at a church is an amazing job. You are paid to study the Bible, walk with people, see growth happen, participate in wonderful moments, and you get to fulfill your calling. But often times we forget that the reason we get to do what we do is due, in large part, to our volunteers.

They are the people who show up after a long day of work. They are the ones who take vacation time or unpaid time to go on youth trips. They are the ones fielding late night calls and interrupting family time to care for “their students.” They are the ones who grieve and hurt even though it isn’t their job to do so. They are the ones who take time away from their loved ones to pour into the lives of students who others would write off.

I think our propensity as paid youth workers is to assume that our volunteers can give the way we do. We believe they can sacrifice time and money the way that we do. We forget that this isn’t what they are paid to do.

But we cannot forget our volunteers. They are the glue that keeps our ministry together.  They are the self-sacrificing, servant-hearted, all-in people who make student ministry a reality. So how can we care for them well?

Get to know your people. 

One of the things I have found to be beneficial in caring for leaders is getting to know what they like and don’t like, what encourages them, what discourages them, where they like to go out to eat, what they do for a date night, how you can be praying for them, and what snacks they enjoy. I get all this information at our fall leader training when I ask my volunteers to fill out a quick two-minute survey. In that survey I get to know a lot about them in a simple format, and I find new ways to bless them.

Bless leaders throughout the year.

This can look different depending on the size of your ministry, your budget, and your space. But we shouldn’t let those things keep us from acting or put us in a box. Instead we should leverage what we have to bless our leaders. We use our Leader Christmas Party as our big gift time of year and a bunch of our parents cater the event for our leaders. They cook dinner, serve the meal, prepare desserts, and pray over them. I also love to meet up with leaders throughout the year and see how they are doing. I take them out for lunch or breakfast and do my best to pay for the meal and say thank you. I also pay attention to big days (Facebook helps with this a lot) and reach out to celebrate and honor them.

Get parents involved.

I shared this briefly in the above tip, but the more you can rally parents to support and bless your leaders, the more dedicated your leaders will be. At Christmastime and the end of the academic year, we send out a letter to parents asking them and their students to consider blessing our leaders. Consistently our parents go above and beyond and our leaders are blessed with cards and notes, gift cards, snacks, candy, and so much more. Our leaders and families love this and it is an awesome opportunity to see Body of Christ care for one another. We also ask our parents to jump in and serve at big events to allow  our leaders to be with their students. This helps parents see what is happening and has driven them to have more buy-in and care for our leaders.

Make a big deal out of trips.

When our leaders come on ministry trips we do leader gift bags. Based upon the trip length, style of trip, and funds on hand we offer a variety of gifts and blessings in the bags. For overnight trips we do paper gift bags and for trips of a week or longer we have done backpacks or drawstring bags. We fill these with some of the essentials like lip balm, sleep masks, ear plugs, hand sanitizer, gum, candy, salty snacks, protein bars, swag from our youth group, ibuprofen, pens, or a small notebook. Depending on the length of the trip and expectations for our leaders, we have gotten some nicer gifts as well like Yetis with our logo, full-size notebooks, or mugs.

Use your space.

We all have different spaces for programming and offices (if you’re blessed to have one). A great way to bless leaders is have a spot exclusively for them. I am not in my office much during youth nights so I have turned it into a relaxing area for my leaders. I have a seating area with a tea and coffee bar, along with bottled water and a few snacks. I get good coffee, a variety of teas, nice creamers, all types of sweeteners, and my leaders love it. They arrive after long days and to have something to get a little boost is a big deal. I also keep my office as a leaders-only space so they can have a place to collect themselves and breathe if they need to.

Utilize your leaders’ gifts.

One way to really value your leaders is to see their talents and allow them to utilize their gifts. If you have a leader who is a gifted communicator, get them in front of your group. Have a leader who loves to lead at their workplace? Ask them to help develop your leaders. Is there a leader who is can get anyone to do anything? There is your next game leader. If a leader is passionate about worship, allow them to develop your students into a worship team. Encouraging your leaders to utilize their gifts and strengths not only allows them to continue to grow, but it generates buy-in, creates a team mentality, and shows your leaders you see them as more than bodies.

Recognize and honor your leaders. 

The corporate world does this well. When someone succeeds they get a raise, a bonus, employee of the month, or recognized in a staff newsletter. We should be doing this as well. If a leader does something well, recognize it. It doesn’t need to always be in front of the church or youth group, but maybe at a leader meeting. Consider implementing a “volunteer of the month” where you send them a handwritten note and a small gift card to their favorite restaurant. Or when you get that chance to preach, highlight your volunteer core. Let them know how awesome they are!

Be present in all moments. 

As the shepherd of your ministry you must be present for your team in all moments. That means thinking past your program nights, and being present elsewhere. Take your leaders out. Celebrate their successes. Get to know their passions and their families. Also be there during the really hard moments. This is the part where your leaders see you actually care. I have sat in hospital rooms with leaders, I have held leaders after a loved one passed away, I have walked with leaders who have lost a student, and I have wept with leaders as they wept over their students walking away from what they believed. These moments weren’t the easiest or ones I was prepped for in “ministry school” but these are the moments we are called to as shepherds and ministers. To weep with those who weep and comfort those who mourn. Walk with your leaders in all moments; good, bad, and everything in between.

Commission well.

Part of what we should be doing as ministry leaders is generating high quality leaders who prayerfully will begin stepping up, which may lead to them pursuing ministry elsewhere as God calls them. This isn’t something to fear or be anxious about but something we should be excited for. That means our leaders are growing, being equipped, and following God’s leading. When this happens encourage your leaders, pray with them, and help them achieve the calling God has placed on their lives. But also celebrate and encourage your leaders both publicly and in private. Let them know you are here for them, honor them in front of the youth group, help them to grieve well as they leave, and celebrate them in front of the church.


Feel Like You’re Failing? Encouragement for Youth Leaders

Regardless of where you serve in ministry, you will likely encounter discouragement at some point. It may come from things others will say or do, or things you simply believe about yourself but have never actually been told. Discouragement in ministry is a reality we all face.

I think youth leaders easily and sometimes frequently feel discouraged. We can feel like we aren’t making a difference. We can question whether or not we’re cut out to be a small group leader. We may feel like students don’t like us. The list goes on…

Today I want to take some time to offer you encouragement and truth. Maybe you don’t feel like you need it right now. Maybe you’re seeing growth in your ministry and you know your students love you. But perhaps down the road, when times get tough and ministry is hard, you might need to be reminded of why your presence matters.

Your presence is meaningful and needed.

I think the great lie Satan tries to feed to youth leaders is that they aren’t making a difference, that they aren’t important or needed. If we can become convinced of that, we will inevitably give up on the ministry.

I want to encourage you: do not believe that lie. It may take different forms: I’m too old, students don’t listen to me, each week is just too hard, God isn’t working, I’m not making a difference. The important thing is to identify the lie that you’re believing and fight it with the truth.

The truth is: your presence is important and students need you. Students need adults who will consistently show up in their lives and represent Jesus Christ to them. Just by consistently being there for the students, you send a message that they have value and that you have bought into the truth of the Gospel. And by being there, you are investing in the work God is already doing.

Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. 

Last month I listened to a sermon where the pastor spoke on Christian community. He said, “We have to remember that the Gospel brings different people together. Sometimes what we view as failure is actually God bringing people together.”

This made me think about youth group, because it’s definitely true for my experience working with students. So many different types of people are brought together during youth group activities. And sometimes those people don’t get along–adults and students included. It can feel like each week is a struggle, trying to end cliques within your small group, trying to get the quiet people to talk, trying to encourage unity between different schools, trying to help students navigate life.

The list of things we try to do can become exhaustive, and when only some or none of them actually come to pass, we may feel like we’re failing. We may question what we’re doing, or if it’s even making a difference. Let me encourage you: just because each week is a struggle, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing something wrong. Which leads me to my next point…

Present difficulties can lead to future rewards.

I think if a lot of youth leaders were honest, we would have numerous stories of how we were not the “easy kids” in youth group. In fact, some of us might have been the student the youth leader secretly wished wouldn’t show up each week. We might have been the back-talkers, the disrupters, the “problem” students. In my own experience, the struggles I experienced in high school fueled my desire to be a youth leader.

The reality is we have no idea what kind of work God is doing through our perceived weaknesses or failures, or through the things our students are experiencing. In the moment, and even in the immediate future, we may not see how God is working. We may never know. But He is working. Each week, in each student, through every struggle, God is working.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 Paul writes, “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

As we invest in the lives of students, God will use us. One day, maybe on this earth or in eternity, we will see the rewards. We will see students coming to Christ, serving Him with their lives, and changing the world for Him. And we will praise God because He allowed us to be a part of it.

Your value does not lie in the actions of your students.

Yes, we hope to see students’ lives changed for Christ, but we don’t always see it. We long to hear stories of how we made a difference in the lives of our students, but we won’t always hear them. There may be whole seasons when it seems like nothing good comes of our efforts in student ministry.

We cannot root our identity in the people we serve, and we cannot base our success or failure on their lives or actions. This can be hard because the alternative–choosing to place our value in Christ and the kingdom work He calls us to–is unseen. It takes concerted effort to shift our eyes from what we can perceive to what we cannot, and to place our value there. But that is what will carry us when student ministry is hard.

I love the reminder Colossians 3:23-24 provides: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

At the end of it all, we are serving the Lord, being available for the work He has, and displaying His love to each person we meet. He will bring about success, He will produce the fruit, and He will change hearts and lives. May you rest in that truth today.