Practical Tips for Counseling Students

Students today are dealing with a variety of issues. There is stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, disordered eating, eating disorders, body image, bullying, crises of faith, peer pressures, identity, gender and sexuality, and much, much more. Whether you have had a student approach you with one of these issues (or something else entirely) or not, we as ministers and leaders must be prepared for handling the conversations that come our way.

I felt so ill-equipped the first time I counseled someone. I felt like the rudimentary training I had received did not prepare me for what I was experiencing. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, or how to help. But somehow the Spirit of God worked through me to help that person, and they began to move toward healing. However, that cannot be our M.O. for each session. We must be prepared and equipped to enter into these very important conversations. Today, I want to offer some practical tips on how to prepare for counseling students and families, and to offer guidance in how to move through some of these conversations. At the end of this post I will also share some extremely helpful resources I think everyone in student ministry should have.

One should note that these tips and resources are not all-inclusive. Nor are they the only qualities that make for an effective counselor. These are simply tips to help prepare you as you step into these counseling scenarios and to prayerfully resource you as you lead and guide the students God has placed under your care.

Before entering into any type of counseling relationship, here are a few tips on how to be better prepared for them:

Resource yourself.

This is something we should all be doing. Get to know counselors who can provide you with insight and understanding. Talk to your local health professionals about trends they are seeing in students and what they are dealing with. Purchase books on counseling, listen to podcasts, and talk to other youth workers. Gaining this wisdom and utilizing these resources will help prepare you to step into counseling situations.

Know your referral network.

There will be many times where a student or parent comes to you with an issue you cannot help with because it is outside the scope of your skill set. Never try to help someone in an area for which you are not equipped because you could actually cause more issues or offer flawed advice. This tends to go against what we feel within our hearts because we are shepherds and want to care for our people well. But the reality is that even well-intended and well-meaning people could offer advice that is good in intention but flawed in practice.

This is why knowing your referral network is huge. Become acquainted with the counselors in your community and build a relationship where you can refer students to them when necessary. Know your first responders and how to get in touch with them when needed. Meet with mental health professionals and find out how you can work together. Connect with schools and the counselors there so you can both be resources for one another. Having this type of network and community allows you to know who you can refer to and allows for there to be trust and rapport that will help when transitioning a student to a knew contact.

Be a trustworthy person.

In order for students to come to us as a counselor, we must be someone they trust. This is showcased by our actions, reactions, speech, and care that we provide on a daily basis to students. Who we are must be the same both inside and outside of church. When students see our hearts on display and our authenticity it helps them to know that we are people they can trust with the issues and hurt they carry.

Be in prayer and grow your spiritual health.

To be effective counselors (and ministers) we must be in constant prayer and growing in our relationship with God. Our tank needs to be filled so we can pour into others. If our tank is running dry or isn’t filled appropriately we will not be able to care effectively for those under our guidance. So make sure to spend regular and consistent time on your own spiritual growth and make sure you are spiritually prepared to step into the role of counselor.

Here are some tips on what to say or do doing a counseling session:

Listen well.

This is huge! Students are coming to you because they see you as someone who can be trusted and someone who loves them. Nothing can fracture that relationship more than for a student to have an experience with a youth worker who doesn’t listen or doesn’t listen well. Sometimes we need to be silent and just give students space to share. It may not always be pretty. They may swear, they might cry, there may be intimate details shared, and there may be some moments you need to involve the authorities. But in listening well you are validating the student and what they are going through. You are hearing them fully and continuing to create a space and trustworthy place for them to be. A simple rule of thumb is if you find yourself doing most of the talking, stop and listen more.

Take notes.

This can be both during and after a meeting. Sometimes taking notes during a meeting may feel very clinical and disconnected, so if it suits the scenario better make your notes immediately after the session is over. Much of this can depend on how you process and hear information. If you do need to take notes during the session, make sure the student knows what you are doing and why. A simple explanation can be, “I want to make sure I hear everything you say, and this will help me to also follow up with you because I care about you.”

These notes will not only allow for you to better recall what was said, but they will help you in moving forward with the student. Take notes about their body language, how they answer, the emotions they are presenting, the language they use to describe things. All of these notes will help you better understand how to love and care for them.

Be empathetic.

Empathy is the ability to “feel with” the counseled individual and understand what they are seeing and feeling. This is something that connects you with the student and helps you to relate and interact with them. This is not you taking on what the student is experiencing or forcing tears to relate, but is a heart reaction to the pain and reality facing you. Show this through your response. Even if you do not emphasize well, your physical response will help to show this. Make sure your facial expressions show engagement and understanding. Allow for your tone to indicate how your heart is responding. Let your body language show understanding and engagement. These reactions help the student to see that you feel with them and are engaged with their world.

Follow up.

Follow-up is hugely important and necessary regardless of what was shared. Even if it was a single counseling session and all that was needed was for the student to be able to share what was on their heart. The follow-up of “I love you and I am praying for you” or “how are you doing and how is your heart” will go a long way because it shows the student they matter to you and have value. If the session warrants more in-depth follow-up, be willing to do that as well. Ask about the circumstances, ask how they are doing, if they have dealt with those thoughts or desires anymore, and how you can continue to pray for them.

Follow-up may also include continued meeting or referring them to a trained counselor. Part of counseling students means there may be more sessions to continue to process and work through what was talked about. But in some cases this may not be something you can do because of limited training in this field. If that is the case, be willing to refer out to a trusted counselor. If the situation allows for it, I would personally recommend walking physically with the student in this transition. Meaning, introduce them to the counselor in person. Vouch for the counselor and do all you can to help with a good transition to the new counselor. This will allow the student to see that you trust the counselor and will open them up to sharing more with the counselor.

Recommended resources:

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers

Helping the Struggling Adolescent: A Guide to Thirty-Six Common Problems for Counselors, Pastors, and Youth Workers

Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Youth

Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide

The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling

Our Picks: Reasons for Thankfulness in 2020

Have you felt like this has been a year for the record books…and not in a good way? Have you found yourself wishing that 2020 would just be done? Have you been frustrated or discouraged for far too much of this year?

We get it, 2020 has been a difficult year in many ways. But if we think honestly about this year, there are also many things for which we can and should be thankful. This week we want to share with you reasons we are thankful for this year and ways we have seen God show up. Our hope and prayer is that you find this to be encouraging and uplifting, and that it helps you to think through the ways you have seen God at work in your life during this season.

Ministry is still occurring.

Even though this year has brought challenges and differences, ministry is still happening. Yes, it looks very different in some ways, but ministry is still happening. We are still able to fulfill the calling that God has placed on our lives, and in many ways we have been stretched and grown during this season as we continue to pursue that calling. Ministry hasn’t died, but instead is growing and shifting in how it is done for the better.

Students and families are hungry for what you offer.

Students and families desire community and the truth of God’s Word. And during this season we have seen that so clearly. Students want to be encouraged and challenged, families desire a place for their students to grow, and students want to be with people who love and care about them. This is an opportunity for us to rethink how we are getting the truth of the Gospel to our students and how we are looking to engage in community with them. This hasn’t stopped because it’s 2020, rather we have the privilege to rethink and reshape how we do this for our people.

More time at home with families.

I’ll be honest: in the beginning this was awesome. Working from home, just changing from lounging sweatpants to work sweatpants, having unlimited amounts of coffee, lunch dates every day with Elise. But as time moved forward, I realized I began to get frustrated because home and work were no longer separate. I no longer had a place to retreat to after a long day because I stayed in the same spot…well I moved from the dinning room table to the couch, but still. Eventually I took a step back (in thanks to meeting with our counselor) and realized that working from home is a huge blessing and setting boundaries is key. I set work times, I put my phone on do not disturb after hours, and created the space I needed. This then allowed for me to be more focused on time spent with Elise, to be all in. I got to spend my days with the person I am closest to and to truly do all of life together. This allowed for us to take advantage of the time we had together and to leverage it for the good of everyone involved.

God is still at work.

This is something I need to remind myself of weekly, and sometimes daily. It is so easy to be discouraged in 2020 and to find yourself feeling down, overwhelmed, and questioning if what you are doing is working. While connecting with leaders, parents, and students it has been easy to ask “what has been difficult” and “how can we serve you?” But it has also been encouraging to ask “how have you seen God working” and “what is going well?” Asking these questions has helped us to see God is doing amazing things and that just because how we do ministry has changed doesn’t mean that God has stopped working. It can be easy to just see the hard things, but it is also important to remind ourselves that God is working, even during those hard moments.

We have been forced to assess what is needed and working.

I know this isn’t necessarily the way we wanted to go about this, but if we were to look at 2020, many of us would admit we have taken a hard look at what we have done in the past and changed it. And in many ways we have been forced to change it for the better. This year has given us insight into how ministry should look and perhaps has encouraged us to change what we have been doing. I have found that the big programs and weekly gatherings aren’t the capstone to ministry, but rather small groups and discipleship. We moved from a large gathering to small group meetings and it has strengthened our program so much that we will continue in a similar model moving forward. This is something we would not have considered if not for 2020, and now we are reaping the rewards from it.

As we think through this past year it is easy to just pull back and say “2020 is a wash and I can’t wait for 2021.” I get it, we’ve been there. But if we do that, we ignore the power and work of Christ in our lives and in the world. We want to encourage you to take some time to step back and think through reasons you are thankful for what happened in 2020. What were moments that should be celebrated? What did God do in your life this year? What were ministry wins in this season? How has God stretched and challenged you? How has God provided and blessed you and your family? What were moments that made you smile?

These questions allow for us to step back from all the craziness and discouragement this year has brought, and instead allow us to shift our focus to what God has done in and through us. Yes, 2020 is one for the books, but it is also one where God has continued to move and do great things. Let us remind ourselves of what He has done and thank Him for the continued blessings He gives to us.

Ways to Decompress & Rest

Feeling tired from the past nine months? Are the pressures of doing ministry becoming overwhelming? Has your home become more work place than refuge? For many of us in ministry, the reality of doing kingdom work in the middle of a pandemic has been taxing and overwhelming. The constant push-back, disappointment, discouragement, and cancellation of events and trips has been difficult to say the least.

These things compounded by our own emotions, personal struggles, and realities we are facing can be felt deep within our souls. The more I have reflected on this time in our lives the more I am convinced that we as ministers of the Gospel must be decompressing and modeling healthy rhythms for those we serve. But the great question before us is, how? How do we do this well? How do we do this when time is at a minimum? How do we do this when our sacred spaces have all but been removed?

Today, I want to share with you some ways to decompress and some tips for building healthy boundaries to protect your own spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Healthy ways to Decompress

  • Take a Sabbath. I wrote on this about a month ago, but the more I think about it and study Sabbath rest, the more I realize ministry leaders are not good at this. Let me encourage you to build this into your rhythms and find time to incorporate the Sabbath into your life.
  • Find a counselor. I could not be a bigger advocate for counseling. This is something that I firmly believe everyone in ministry should be doing. Having someone you can talk to who can help you think through difficult circumstances, help you see through the fog, and allow for you to have a place to freely express how you are feeling and where you are at is not only healthy, it is life giving as well.
  • Turn off your phone. This is a big one for me that I have talked about before. But so often our phones are tools that actually bring about more anxiety, worry, and doubt. Our phone buzzes with an email or text, and our hearts jump a bit. We see a message from a parent and we instantly wonder if everything is okay or if we messed up. While phones are great resources, they are also a direct avenue to our hearts and cause problematic emotions and thoughts to creep in. So consider turning your phone off or putting it on “do not disturb” on your days off. If this is something you believe you cannot do, then consider sharing that you will be doing this with your superiors, volunteers, and students so they know your rhythm. Or consider turning it off for a portion of your day off so you can focus on what’s important.
  • Find a new hobby that can be completed. This is something I have found helpful among ministry leaders. Our jobs are never done. Unlike many other careers where there is a metric to tell you when you have completed your goal or target, we don’t necessarily have that. What that means is we are constantly working to accomplish a task that is never fully accomplished. And that can be exceptionally frustrating. So consider taking up a hobby like lawn care, reading non-ministry related books, creating something, cooking, visiting all the new restaurants in your area, or trying to find all the ice cream places in your state and try them. Yes, some of these are crazy but who doesn’t like ice cream? But the point behind them is they all have a completion point. Doing something new that has an end goal will help you feel at piece completing something.
  • Write things down. This is huge, and I will be honest, I am not great at this. I don’t do well with journaling or putting my feelings to paper. But Elise is. She has journaled for as long as I have known her, and has done it for most of her life. Being able to write down how you feel, the tensions that are in your life, the victories, the low points, and just to put your thoughts to paper will help you to process and think through what is happening. It also gives you a resource to look back on and reflect on how God has answered your prayers throughout your life.
  • Pray. I am not throwing this in because we are Christians but because this is true. And I think often times we can be just as guilty as others when it comes to forgetting to go to God. We tend to do this in difficult times, but we must remember that we need to be praying constantly to build spiritual protection, awareness, and depth in our lives to help us weather the difficult moments. So let me encourage you to build healthy prayer rhythms into your life to help you decompress and process what is happening. Carve out time each day or throughout the day to take your requests, praises, and deepest longings of the heart to God.

Tips for Setting Boundaries

  • Be honest. Often times as leaders in ministry we aren’t honest with ourselves or our superiors about how we are doing. In order to actually be able to rest and decompress we need to be honest with ourselves that we need it. And we must bring in others to avoid getting to the place of exhaustion and burnout.
  • Take a spiritual checkup. This is so important for us as leaders. How is your spiritual walk with Jesus doing? And I am not asking if you are reading your Bible and going to church. I am asking if you are feeling nourished and refreshed by God’s Word and by His Spirit. Do you still find joy in your walk with Jesus? Is it something that is feeding your soul? These types of questions will help us to see where we are at in our relationship with Jesus and how we answer will be reflected into our physical lives as well (i.e., no time with Jesus leads to frustration and exhaustion, time with Jesus helps to remove the stress and weariness).
  • Bring in your spouse or close friends. Our spouses are wonderful people. Without them we wouldn’t know what to do. And our spouses know when we aren’t doing okay. But for some reason, we try to shield them from how we are doing and in doing so, alienate them and cause them to worry. Our spouses love us and we are a team. So be honest with them. Let them walk with you. Allow for them to be a sounding board of wisdom, discernment, and encouragement. If you are unmarried, find a close friend or group of friends you trust who will walk with you and you can bring in. Don’t try to go through this journey alone.
  • Ask for help. It is okay to admit when you need help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or like there is too much to accomplish, bring others in. Ask your volunteers to help with things. Consider bringing in some of your students to help run different aspects of your program or to organize that one closet that is always a mess. Go to your supervisor and be honest with them that you need help. Allow for others to step in and help you when it is needed.

Fall and Winter Programming During COVID-19

This fall we had to implement a whole new style of programming for our student ministry. In years past we had gone the traditional route of meeting on Sundays and midweek. But as our state, like the rest of the world, grappled with how to handle the pandemic, it quickly became clear that our traditional methods would not be able to continue.

So we took a risk. After sifting through no less than 10 different plans, we finally settled on one we believed would work. We switched from meeting on-site to meeting as small groups in houses throughout our community, calling them Home Groups. We believed this would be something that would continue to champion our values and mission, and after much prayer we initiated this new phase. And honestly, it’s worked. We have seen steady numbers, consistent attendance, and a deepening of discipleship-oriented relationships.

In order to do this and do it well, we had multiple steps to consider. These steps weren’t all handled the best, and in hindsight some of these are things I wish I had done. The reason I want to share this now is because as we are entering cold and flu season, there is an increased chance of programming changing for many of us. So here are some steps to help you think through program changes.

Prayer, lots of prayer.

This may seem pretty obvious, but the truth is sometimes we can get stuck in planning mode. We run ahead when we believe we have found the perfect plan without seeking God’s wisdom and direction. And perhaps you did find the perfect plan, but did you stop to thank God? The reason I want to remind us to pray is because so often during this new stage of ministry in a pandemic, we can get hyper-focused on just getting ideas and content out as quickly as possible, and we don’t stop to consult with our God. Prayer is needed (perhaps even more so now than ever before), and without prayer even our greatest plans will not succeed. So remember to go before the throne often.

Over communication.

This is one I wish I had done better at. Looking back we communicated well with most of our church staff and with our volunteers, but I really wish we had done better at communicating with parents. I can make all the excuses I want like “we put up videos on social media,” or “we sent out emails,” and “it was in the newsletter.” But the reality is our people are so inundated with communication right now, we need to be able to find ways to clearly communicate with them. In looking back, one thing I would have done is host a parent forum of some type to articulate our plan and allow for questions. This would have helped to head off all the follow-up conversations I have been having two months into our new programming style. I also would have been clear and direct in explaining our decision(s) for why we chose this model. One of the reasons we moved to Home Groups was to help with mitigation should someone come down with COVID. I didn’t share this in the beginning, but in many follow-up conversations when I do share this, it helps parents understand and feel more at ease. So commit to communicating well with everyone in order to have a more seamless approach to however your ministry will look.

Team and parent buy-in.

This is huge and goes hand-in-hand with my prior point. If you are going to change how things look for your ministry, you need buy-in. When we shared what we were doing with our new fall plan with our leaders, we lost some because of the changes. We also had to answer a lot of questions from our team, which actually helped us shape how we were looking to implement it. By bringing our team into the conversation and listening to them, the majority of our group stayed with us and has excelled at our new model. The team’s buy-in has actually helped our Home Groups to grow and flourish.

With parents, I cannot express enough how important it is to have buy-in from them. I have talked with numerous parents over the past few months and as I explain the “why” behind what we are doing and the results we are seeing, parents begin to get excited and ask how they can help. This is where over-communicating is key, and will allow parents to know and understand, and then jump on board. Having parents who support your program and the changes to it will help it succeed.

Leadership approval.

This is one that sometimes we may forget in the rush to get things changed. Make sure that leadership knows what you are doing and approves of it. That will help with making sure that communication is consistent across the board, and that they support what you are doing. It can be easy to just implement a change, but if it doesn’t align with what church leadership is desiring as a whole, you may have to walk your plan back. And nothing deflates a program like multiple changes or things being undone. So bring leadership in, and make sure they are onboard with what you desire to implement.

Consistency and stability.

Consistency is something that people today are lacking. Students are facing constant change with how school is being done. Colleges are changing protocols and rules left and right. Families are trying to adapt to new ways of working from home and doing school at the same time. States are changing regulations all the time. Change is happening constantly and families are desperate for consistency and stability. So when you implement changes, look to have them be consistent for the long haul. Don’t change things weekly, don’t randomly insert a change of plans. Instead, look to provide a stable and consistent change that will help families and your program.

I would also encourage you to make sure that whatever you are implementing matches what the rest of the church is doing. For example, if you are not requiring masks for youth group but the church is for all other functions, this will simply add to confusion for families and the church. So make sure what you are implementing matches the overall plan and function of the church. We want to provide stability and consistency from all levels of our churches so our people know what to expect. This will also help to strengthen the church rather than add another area for there to be division.

Allow for flexibility.

I know this almost seems to go against what I was just saying about consistency and stability, but hear me out. We switched to a Home Group model of ministry in which our groups play games, fellowship, watch a teaching video, and then discuss it. We have afforded our leaders flexibility in how their group functions and in how they engage with the video. Some groups hate games, so instead they fellowship and share a meal. Some groups never use the study questions we provide because they know their group so well that they use their own questions. Other groups have asked if they could go out for ice cream afterward with parent approval. Allowing for this type of flexibility not only allows for there to be ongoing discipleship, but it also strengthens the group as a whole. This type of flexibility doesn’t change what we are doing but instead allows for groups to grow and for students to witness faith in action.

How to Pursue Healthy Communication

This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching in our church’s main services on the topic of “sharing our story,” which was focused on how we can communicate the Gospel story in healthy and proactive ways. So often our communication styles are not helpful because we allow for a “me-centric” approach to conversations, and I was able to share how I believe Jesus desires us to have healthy conversations both within and outside of the church.

As ministry leaders, we must model healthy communication at all levels in order to help facilitate the discipleship process. Today, I want to share with you some ways we can engage in healthy conversations from an interaction between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3. These tips are not all-inclusive, but are simply a starting point for how we can begin to navigate the conversations and interactions we have with one another.

Be someone who is willing to have conversations.

As ministry leaders we must be willing to engage in conversations, whether they are with people with whom we disagree, or people who share similar views. We must be willing to engage with people where they are at in a loving, Christ-centered way. Maintaining an open door policy in regard to conversations, questions, and direction will set the precedent that you are someone who is willing to walk with others.

Ask good questions.

Part of healthy communication is the ability to both ask and respond to questions in a proactive manner. Questions are a sign that someone is seeking knowledge, clarity, and understanding in regard to the topic at hand. Questions should not be feared, but welcomed, and the manner in which we respond to them will continue to establish rapport and trust with others.

In a conversation it is also beneficial for you to ask clarifying questions as you seek to provide wisdom and insight. Rather than simply providing answers, seek to understand before you respond. Asking good questions can help you uncover the heart behind the questions you are being asked, which will then allow for you to better minister to and care for your people. Asking questions will also help you avoid assumptions, which can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and ultimately a breakdown in communication.

Use encouraging language.

Throughout Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, Jesus challenges him to think critically about his questions. Jesus doesn’t respond harshly or negatively toward Nicodemus, even though the answers to his questions may seem obvious to us. As we engage in conversations with others, we must be mindful of the language that we use. Negative language will push people away and give them a sour taste, not only toward the church, but also toward the Gospel. This is not to say that we do not speak truth, nor engage in difficult conversations. However, the manner and conduct with which we approach these conversations can allow for a healthier, fuller, and more honest dialogue to unfold.

Practice active listening.

We are a society and a church that as a whole struggles to listen well to others. Often we say that we listen, but the manner in which we do is passive listening. Passive listening entails looking for flaws in the person’s conversation or argument, listening to win, and finishing sentences before a thought is completed. This type of listening is neither productive or proactive. This type of listening is harmful and will not establish trust or continued opportunities to dialogue, as people do not feel heard and instead feel devalued in the moment.

What we need pursue as ministry leaders is active listening. Active listening entails paying attention to the other person’s statement(s) and asking clarifying questions in order to deduce the heart issue. The clarifying questions will allow for you to gain a better understanding of the issues at hand, as well as value the other person as you engage with their thought process and value their input. Active listening involves hearing the other person with a goal to understand them, before being understood.

Establish relational equity and trust.

It is important even prior to a conversation to be a person that others know they can trust because they have seen you model a trustworthy life. People should know they can trust you because you are not prone to gossiping or talking poorly about others, and they know that when they come to you they can expect the same treatment. This also involves following up with individuals, not in a nosy way, but in a way that demonstrates you care and value them enough to continue walking with them. This allows you to set the precedent that it is not a singular conversation, but a relationship that you value and respect.

Share your story.

It is important in healthy conversations to be transparent and vulnerable as you dialog. This requires tact and timing because we should not simply rush to share our story and in so doing, not allow others to share theirs. We should always defer to the other person and allow for them to share their story as they have come to us as a ministry leader. When it is appropriate, we can share our story of how God has worked in our life, or share other personal examples, to help others grow. It is important to remember the person came to you seeking clarity and understanding, not necessarily personal anecdotes, so be mindful of how much you share, and how long you share. You never want to dominate the conversation, but look instead to utilize your story to showcase the Gospel and its power.

The Importance of Sabbath

This past week I was asked a question that I’ve been asked often during this season: how are you really doing? As I was preparing to answer with my usual, “I am just taking it one day at a time” response, I was hit with just how spent I had been feeling. I was busier than ever and with more and more being placed on my plate, I was just feeling overwhelmed.

Later on, I began to process the reasons why I was feeling this way. Sure, I have been putting in more hours. Yes, ministry looks different and I am doing things I never expected to make sure it’s a success. Of course I am pouring out more than I ever have to care for the people I shepherd. And there will always be difficult moments and conversations that leave you feeling inadequate and deflated. But was that it? Were these the reasons I was feeling so tired, overwhelmed, and weary?

This past Wednesday I found myself listening to a podcast by my friend Walt Mueller from CPYU. It was podcast about Sabbath with his guest A.J. Swoboda. The conversation hit my heart in a way it hadn’t before. Of course, as a ministry worker I am familiar with the concept of a Sabbath and have worked to make one of my days off a Sabbath each week. But hearing them share about how during this pandemic ministry personnel are not adhering to this commandment from God just broke me.

Walt shared a comment from A.J.’s book on how the Sabbath is the only commandment ministry leaders are encouraged to break, when breaking any of the others are grounds for being fully dismissed from ministry. I realized that during this season I haven’t been resting well. I haven’t honored this commandment.

Instead, I have poured out everything to make ministry work during this season. I’ve put in more hours than I care to admit. My phone is always on. Email is going constantly. I have been available all the time without fail. While these all sound good to an extent, without the constant filling from a Sabbath, we will inevitably find ourselves drained and weary.

I want to encourage you to rest and to incorporate a Sabbath into your regular rhythm. Turn off your phone or put it on “do not disturb.” Do not do ministry work on your Sabbath. Bring your spouse and family into this with you. Let your co-workers and ministry leaders know what you are doing and lead out as you encourage them to do likewise. We are called to honor God not just through our work ethics and hours, but also through how we honor the Sabbath and apply it to our lives.

My prayer is that this post doesn’t add guilt, but challenges us all to apply the Sabbath to our lives and to allow the deepness and richness of it to overwhelm us in positive ways. I want to encourage you to listen to CPYU’s podcast and to allow God’s truth to speak to your heart.

How do you apply the Sabbath to your life? What does your Sabbath look like?

How to Remain Strong in Difficult Times

If you are like me, the past six months or so have been difficult to say the least. You are probably feeling tired, overworked, frustrated, stymied, caught in the middle, confused, and isolated. And that may just be the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps you are feeling worn out, exhausted, burnt out, or maybe you are considering stepping away from ministry.

I get it. The last few months have at times threatened to overwhelm me. Even just normal “work stuff” has become more complex and layered due to the realities of living life and doing ministry during a pandemic. And if we allow for this to go unchecked in our lives, we will find ourselves feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. Today, I just want to encourage you. To let you know you are not alone. To tell you that we are praying for you. But I also want to give you a few tips on how to remain strong during this present season.

Start an encouragement file.

This was something a mentor of mine encouraged me to start. Ministry is hard and can be very lonely. And during those hard moments, the Enemy loves to play with our minds and hearts and convince us that we have failed and are worthless. So instead of letting the critical comments, anonymous letters, or hurtful emails dictate who you are and how you view yourself, start a file of the good things that have happened. Print out and save the encouraging and affirming emails, the letters and notes from your students, the Christmas cards from families, the pictures from trips and baptisms, and write down and store the memories that encourage you. Then during the hard times, pull them out, read them, and remember the good things God is doing in and through you. I love that Paul actually gives us a little glimpse of this in his epistles. In Philippians 1, Paul talks about the good things that fellow believers have done and reflects on how that encourages him even while he is in prison. We too can find joy and encouragement during hardship.

Take a break and be still.

You may read that and scoff, “yeah right…a break…right now?” Yes, a break right now. Whether it is an entire day, a thirty minute break from everything going on, a run, a workout, or a weekend getaway, take a break. Turn off your phone or at least your social media. Leverage the time to fill your tank and refresh your mind, body, and soul. Disconnect, fill up, and refresh even if just for a few moments. Allow yourself to breathe and rest because it is necessary, and more than it being necessary, being still and resting is a command from God. If we are not resting in Him and slowing down, we will burn out. So find time to rest and be still.

Bring others in.

Elise and I have talked often about the necessity for counseling, and this is especially important in the lives of ministry leaders. We need safe people to go to as much as anyone else. It may not be a trained counselor but it may be a trusted friend and confidante. Having someone you can go to and share about your struggles and frustrations is freeing and healing. But I would also encourage you to go to someone who not only hears you, but also offers counsel and practical advice. Go to someone you trust who is wise and understands, and will seek to guide and walk with you during these moments. Simply having someone to talk to will bring about peace and encouragement in your life.

Remember your calling.

God didn’t call you because you are perfect. He didn’t call you because you know everything. He called you because you are the right person for exactly where He has placed you. He knows your shortcomings but also knows your strengths. He knows your heart and passion because He gave it to you. He knows that the negativity has caused you to question if you are good enough. And through His Son, you are. Remember that God has called you to do good works that He prepared beforehand. You are called, chosen, and set apart for the kingdom of heaven. God has given you all that you need to lead others. Do not allow for this season to make you question your calling but instead to see it as an affirmation of it. If you felt fine, and if this life were easy, you wouldn’t be where God needs you. But the fact that life is hard, that your soul weeps for your people, that you are seeking wisdom and direction, are clear indications that the Spirit of God is at work in your heart because you seeing this world as He does.

Start a new hobby or activity.

This may seem odd to suggest adding one more thing to your calendar, but hear me out on this one. In ministry the work seems to never be completed. You can find yourself frustrated and overworked because the work is never done. One of the things I have found helpful is doing something that I can complete. I love cooking and cleaning, which sounds odd, I know. But when I look at it from an outside perspective I realize I enjoy it because not only can I complete something but it brings joy to others. I also found I enjoy candle making for the same reasons: I can see a project completed and watch it bless others. So let me encourage you to start something new and run with it. Maybe it is starting a workout program, maybe it’s going for walks, maybe it is actually taking a Sabbath, or starting a new book that is not related to ministry. Starting a new hobby or activity will not only be refreshing but it will also bring joy and health into your life.

Lastly, I simply want to share with you the words of Jesus to His disciples. Words that He shared to them when they felt like their world was caving in and they didn’t know what to do from John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Always remember that you matter and have value, and that Christ will sustain you. The King of Heaven and Earth has overcome everything, and gives that power to you through Him. My fellow laborers, take heart. This time will pass, refreshment and joy will return, and you will see the fruits of your labors. Be encouraged, my friends, for Christ has overcome this world.

Our Picks: Must-Have Books [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off a new “Our Picks” installment as we looked at books that have been helpful during our time in ministry. These books might not directly relate to student ministry, but they are extremely helpful to ministry overall. Today, I want to share part two of this series, and I hope that these are as helpful for you as they are for me.

Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors

Karen Mason writes a powerful book about suicide, myths about suicide, triggers and causes, and helpful steps to prevent it. I truly believe that this book is necessary for anyone in ministry but especially for those working with students. Students are wrestling with multiple issues including depression, anxiety, image, and identity that all cause them to grapple with “am I enough” and “do I have value.” This book will help to equip you to step into those moments when students need you the most and help them. Another helpful part of this book is that it provides resources for helping survivors of attempted suicide, families, other lay people, and the community of which you are a part.

The Bullying Breakthrough: Real Help for Parents and Teachers of the Bullied, Bystanders, and Bullies

Jonathan McKee just released this book in 2018 and I had the privilege of reading an advance copy, and cannot recommend it enough. The Bullying Breakthrough provides the reader with firsthand accounts of bullying as well as ways to minister to all parties. Jonathan truly approaches this from a holistic scope and offers readers ten tools to help bullied kids and seven tools to help schools. Jonathan writes from the heart as he experienced bullying and he seeks to unearth the root of the issue so it can be treated appropriately. This book provides you with insight into physical bullying, cyber-bullying, helpful practices, and resources and steps that you and your community can take to combat this issue among students.

Understanding Your Teen: Shaping Their Character, Facing Their Realities

This is a helpful resource for you to have on hand for parents. Jim Burns is one of the foremost authors and speakers on youth and families, and this book is a helpful guide for parents. Dr. Burns offers insight into how to help shape behavior and character, how to navigate social media, conflict resolution, and much more. Dr. Burns’ book is vital to parents who are attempting to shepherd and disciple their student(s) well, and it is also applicable for pastors and leaders of students as it provides insight and knowledge that will make you a better shepherd. Burns not only highlights the issues and pressures facing students but also gives practical tools and insight into how to care for and walk with students.

99 Thoughts for Parents of Teenagers: The Truth on Raising Teenagers from Parents Who have Been There

Walt Mueller is more than a friend, he is a noted author, speaker, and trust source on all things related to youth and families. His ministry is one of the best out there, and I would highly recommend any and all of his resources. This book is designed in an easy to read format of 99 thoughts to help parents succeed. Literally, most of these thoughts are no more than a paragraph but they are designed to offer helpful truths in a soundbite sort of way. This book would be an awesome idea to bless parents with at a parents meeting or at a training event.

Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality

Preston Sprinkle is one of the top scholars in this particular area of study, and his book is one of the best out there. It is an easy read and it provides solid insight and Biblical truth. Preston approaches this topic with heart, tact, and a listening ear and is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors and speakers. His insight into this topic and how to minister as a whole to the LGBTQ+ community has helped shape how I have approached these topics in my ministry and the church in which I serve. This is a must-have for any youth worker.

Our Picks: Must-Have Books [Part 1]

One of the things I love about what I do is the opportunity to read, process, and apply books to what I am doing as a student pastor. Today, I want to share with you some must-have books that I have found exceptionally helpful in ministry. They are not all youth ministry focused, but they do have a tangible application to what we do as youth leaders. I will highlight why I believe each book is helpful in the description and provide a link for you to check them all out as well.

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers & The Quick Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling

These are both solid resources written by Christian doctors who are seeking to help pastors and youth workers process the information related to a variety of counseling issues. It provides typical symptoms and patterns, definitions, key thoughts to help you process what the student is feeling, questions to ask, action steps, biblical insights, prayer starters, and much more. These books are not simply focused on a “read your Bible and pray to get better” methodology, but rather they utilize Biblical truth and application with science and medicine. These have been exceptionally helpful in a variety of circumstances.

A Good Commentary Set

I specifically didn’t list one in the topical heading because there are way too many to think through and honestly, we will all find ones we appreciate more than others because of our denominational preference, upbringing, current context, and theological preferences. With that being said, we must acknowledge we will never fully agree with everything a single commentary says. There are a couple of solid commentary sets that I personally have found helpful and would recommend. Walvoord and Zuck’s two volume set is exceptionally helpful and breaks down the text in an easy-to-understand way that anyone can read and use to help shape their messages or to answer questions people may have. Another helpful option is the NIV Application Commentary Set. This is a larger set and significantly more expensive, but it is worth it. The information is very helpful and it is written in an easy-to-understand format. This is a commentary set that will help you in crafting messages and help you grow in your own knowledge and understanding of the Biblical text.

The Pastor’s Handbook (NIV)

As I have progressed in my ministry career I have had the honor and privilege of officiating many different ceremonies. I have led weddings and funerals, handled baptisms, officiated communion, and been a part of anointing ceremonies. Some of these I felt my ministry training had prepared me for, but during others I felt completely ill-equipped. This pocket-sized resource provides you with various outlines and order of services for a variety of settings and is completely malleable to however you want to shape the ceremony you are officiating. It provides everything from Scripture suggestions, to outlines, to helpful tips and timing thoughts. This is a must-have for any minister.

How We Got the Bible

This is an excellent resource by Timothy Paul Jones because it answers many of the questions that students and adults are asking about the Bible. Where did it come from? How do we know we have it all? Are the texts reliable? Why do we have some books included but not others? These questions and more are answered in this easy-to-read and compact book. It includes dates, helpful charts, and exceptional appendices.

How to Solve the People Puzzle: Understanding Personality Patterns

I know there is a lot of excitement surrounding the Enneagram, but I love the DISC Assessment as it relates to personalities and interpersonal relationships. Working with students and volunteers (and churches overall), this is a helpful resource to understand your personality, the personalities of those around you, and how to best work together. Carbonell provides resources for each personality that include how you act in various situations, how you react when you are stressed or emotions are heightened, how you engage with other personalities, and much more. I use this resource whenever I lead mission trips and walk my teams through it to help them understand how to engage with each other during those intense moments. It is a must-have for any youth (and church) worker.

Next week we will share more books that have been helpful to us, but we would love to hear which books you have found helpful in your ministry setting.

Fact or Fiction: Bigger Programs = Better Programs

Have you ever gone to a conference and seen all the cool stage designs and heard about youth groups with hundreds or thousands of students and longed for those things? Have you ever wished your program was as big as the others in your town? Have you ever wished that you’d have more than just the few faithful students come to youth group?

These desires and feelings can lead us down a dangerous path. We can begin to question our calling and effectiveness, we can covet and lust after other programs or churches, and eventually we can lose focus on our mission and forsake our students and church because of our longings and desires.

These feelings aren’t inherently bad or problematic, but prolonged focus and frustration can lead us to a dark place. But we must understand that the size of our program does not reflect the transformative power of the Gospel nor does it translate into how effective you are at serving.

Today’s myth is, “a bigger program equals a better program.” In tackling this myth there are some truths that we must acknowledge. In acknowledging these truths, it allows us to discern our own hearts and the stability and sustainability of our program.

The size of a ministry does not represent spiritual growth.

Too often we can look at neighboring programs or ones in social media groups and wrestle with the notion that our own program is not where it needs to be. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because a program is large in number does not mean that the spiritual growth is equally as great. It may be, but it also may not be. What we must understand is that size does not always indicate success. We are after heart change and development. Be willing to help students develop in their faith and grow in a meaningful relationship with Jesus. In doing so you will help develop students who desire to not only grow in their own faith but are also passionate about seeing their friends follow Jesus.

The size of your budget isn’t a hindrance to growth.

I have been in many circumstances where I have had a very limited budget or none at all, and still been expected to run an amazing student ministry. Here is the thing: often times we focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do. God has called each of us to serve Him by serving students and their families. He called the disciples and told them to go out to towns with only what they had with them. He didn’t tell them to build a budget or raise money, instead He told them to go and do the ministry of the Gospel. As disciple-makers we cannot simply focus on the budget we do or do not have, but instead should focus on meeting students where they are and engaging them with the Gospel. Focus on relationships not finances. Be willing to listen instead of having your own youth center. Love and care for students instead having all the glitz and glam. Students will quickly forget the fancy setups, but they will forever remember the intentional relationships that you forged with them.

People over programs.

I think there are times we can get focused on building a bigger and better program or ministry and forget the people. And often times this happens in my life when I see things we do not have in our ministry but others do. When we simply focus on the program we miss our people. We forget that our students are real people with real life issues who need real adults in their lives who care for them. I am not saying we will dismiss and wholeheartedly forget about our students, but instead they become second to the program. We cannot allow that to happen and instead must focus on them over everything else.

Small numbers do not represent small growth.

Jesus had twelve guys He invested in. Twelve guys that eventually went down to eleven when one walked away and turned on Him. Sure, Jesus at times had thousands come to hear Him speak, but His real “youth group” was only twelve people. Think about that for a moment. Jesus intentionally built a ministry that would change the world and explode in numbers that no one could have imagined and He did it through twelve ordinary guys. In many ways, small youth programs can represent greater growth because you are afforded a greater opportunity to do life-on-life with students and help them become the Gospel centered disciple-makers that they were meant to be.

Be generous with what you do have.

You may read this point and think, “I don’t have anything to be generous with.” But think beyond the physical items you have. Remember what you do have: your time, your heart, and your passion for Jesus. You can be generous with your time by showing up at students’ events and cheering them on. Be generous with your heart and love students, especially the ones other people simply dismiss. Be generous with your passion for Jesus by allowing that to overflow into all your relationships. If you do have physical items like sports equipment, 9 Square, supplies for Minute to Win it, or various other items, be generous with those things. Be willing to share your resources with other ministries, step in and be willing to allow schools and community programs to borrow your supplies. God has gifted you with many ways to be generous, the questions is how will you do this?