5 Ways to Make Students Feel Known

Our students are craving authentic relationships with adults who love and care for them, and we have the privilege of stepping into that space. Students are longing for people to support them and be with them, but how do we do that well?

There are literally hundreds of ways you can love and care for students, and honestly within your own ministry you will have ways that work for your group alone. But if you find yourself scratching your head and asking, “How do I do this well?” I want to offer five quick and easy ways you can make students feel known, loved, and valued each week.

These shouldn’t be the only ways you do this, but if you put these five into action they will serve as a catalyst for continued growth and opportunities to speak into the lives of your students.

Know their names.

There is such power in knowing someone’s name and being able to call them by it. I love the passage in John 20:11-18 after Jesus’ resurrection when He calls Mary by her name. It changes everything.

Mary is completely distraught after finding that Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb. Unbeknownst to her, Jesus shows up and has a conversation with her. For whatever reason, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus until He says her name. And in that moment, everything changed for Mary. She had hope. There was no more fear. There was a future where before she lived in the past. Love overwhelmed her where fear used to reign. She had purpose, an identity, and a Savior.

When we know the names of students it changes everything and lets them know that they have a place where they are loved, known, and desired.

Show hospitality.

When students come to your program, do they know they are loved, valued, and wanted? Does it feel welcoming and safe? One of the best things you can do is have people love and welcome your students and families as they arrive. Have people greeting who can simply say hi and direct people. Equip and empower your snack team to love and engage with your students. These moments can change lives and make students feel like part of the family.

We have an amazing older couple who come in and bake chocolate chip cookies and pretzels for our café. But recently we have asked them to actually work the café, and they have accepted the challenged and excelled at it. They recently approached me and said, “Nick, we get to sit and talk with students and they tell us about their day and all the weight they are carrying. And you know what? We just sit and listen and tell them we love them. Then we pray with them. And guess what? They keep coming back to talk to us!” Those types of moments, when we show students hospitality by showing them Jesus, change lives.

Listen well.

One of the best ways you can value students, and honestly everyone else too, is by listening well. When a student is talking to you, listen fully to what they are saying. Don’t listen to offer answers. Don’t listen to give advice. Don’t listen only when it’s interesting. Listen to all of what they are saying.

Students can tell right away if you are engaged by how you listen and respond to them. So show them you care by listening well and being wholly present. Look to listen to learn and understand. Listen to know more about them. And listen with love, grace, and truth. When you listen well, students know that they matter and it affords you great opportunities and privilege to speak truth into their lives.

Have authentic conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with listening but takes it a step further. Listening is incredibly helpful and necessary but actually engaging in authentic conversations will further help students feel know and cared for. When you listen well it enables you to respond well. As you engage with students ask good questions, show them you care by how you respond, validate them and their feelings, challenge them, care for them, and share life with them. When you allow for those aspects to highlight your conversations with them, you are giving them inherent worth and value through your authenticity and transparency.

Be for students.

This final thought is one we would all agree on. Of course we are for students because we are in student ministry. We host events, train leaders, teach the Bible, come up with crazy fun games, study for hours, go to students’ games and events, and eat way too much junk food. We would say that these things and more highlight that we are for students.

But let me ask you a question: would your students say or know that you are for them? I am not casting doubt that you are for them, but simply asking if they know you are. Often we can assume that our actions and conversations highlight one thing but how others perceive or receive them, they might say another.

It would be beneficial to ask some of your leaders and key students if they would say you are for students. To ask them how you can do that better. It may not be a response you want or are looking for but it will give you insight into how you are presenting and engaging, and perhaps what could be done differently. Be for your students. Love well, engage with them, step in the gap, and be willing to change things if necessary.

Helping Seniors Move Beyond Youth Group

Have you noticed a decline in students attending church after they graduate from high school? Have you observed a lack of interest in your graduates when it comes to being a part of the church? Have your seniors or graduates disconnected or walked away from the church?

I don’t think this is a phenomena that is central to only my students or even to this day and age. Studies consistently show that students will walk away from the church post graduation if they are not connected well and don’t have consistent spiritual mentors walking with them. So what are we doing to help students remain in the church post-graduation? Today my desire is to hopefully share some insight and tips that may help retain your students beyond high school. I am not perfect at this and I am still working through all of this in my own ministry. But perhaps these thoughts will help all of us critically think through and develop ways and opportunities to retain our seniors and graduates.

Connect them with college-aged peers.

In talking with current seniors it became apparent how difficult the transition to college can be. They don’t have the same friend group, some of their peers won’t be around as they go to different schools, and they are trying to break into social circles. All of these paired with the normal tensions that come from trying to be part of a new dynamic and social group make this a difficult time of transition for students.

By connecting them with college-aged students you are helping to break some of the barriers that exist. Set up social gatherings to connect students with one another. Encourage your college student leaders to reach out to the seniors. Host seniors at the college ministry throughout the year. These moments will help students connect with one another and ease the transition.

Connect them with college ministry and leaders.

This is something you can do regardless of whether seniors are staying in your community or going away for school or work. If students are staying in the area, look to connect them with the college ministry and leaders in your church. Find ways to connect them and facilitate fellowship to grow community and relationships. The more you can connect them and build intentional moments for relational community the better connected they will be and the greater the potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

Should your student(s) go away for college, talk to them about the importance of connecting to a college ministry and to a local church. Connect with people to the best of your ability whether via networks or social media connections to find options for your students. Also consider setting up an account on Every Student Sent to find options for your students regardless of where they decide to go. If you are able, help build the connection by reaching out to the ministries and churches for your student and helping them know and connect with the student that is going to be heading to the new community.

Find ways to connect them with broader church life.

Often when students graduate from youth group they take one of their first real steps into church life. Many students don’t or won’t attend church services for a litany of reasons (it’s boring, it doesn’t relate to them, their friends don’t go, etc.). But if you go above and beyond to help them see church as more than a singular program or ministry you will be doing them a huge service.

Set up times for your whole youth program to be a part of the church services. Encourage your worship leaders and preachers to connect and relate to your students throughout each service. Have small groups attend various church events including social and serving opportunities. Challenge your students to serve and be a part of body life. Individually these aren’t fix-alls, but together they afford opportunities for your students, and your seniors especially, to connect and grow in the broader church life.

Help them see what community looks like.

Students love community but often struggle to identify healthy Christian community outside of youth group circles. Look to challenge them to engage in various aspects of community outside of youth group. Encourage them to jump into a small group outside of your program. Encourage their youth group leaders to connect them in larger circles that they are involved in. Help them to go to and participate in church services and to begin serving. When students serve they take ownership and when they have ownership they are more prone to be involved for the long term. Finally, connect them with church staff and leadership outside of yourself. Doing this helps them to connect, grow, and see the bigger picture. This generates buy-in and understanding which will help them know they belong and are loved.

Challenge your students to make their faith their own.

This should be something we are encouraging our students to do throughout their time in youth group, but this is pivotal for student who are graduating. One of the greatest gifts you can give to your seniors is the ability for them to test the waters, ask questions, and apply their faith to their lives. So seek to teach them how faith is lived out. Show them the ways that their faith transforms them. Walk with them as they ask questions and challenge the status quo. Doing this well will help your students take tangible steps toward living as an authentic disciple of Jesus and will allow for their faith to become real for them.

Effectively Using Social Media

Most of us recognize that social media is an effective tool and means of communication in student ministry. But we should also critically think through how and why we use it. Social media is a powerful tool that we can leverage but if we don’t have a plan or target for the intent and purpose of it, we are simply using an effective tool in an ineffective way. Today, I want to share a few things that you should think through as you utilize social media to equip, empower, and disciple your students.

Know your purpose for using social media.

It is easy to simply jump on the social media bandwagon because everyone else is using it in student ministry. But how and why each ministry uses social media is different. Some use it to simply put out content that is engaging. Others use it to communicate information. Some will use it to evangelize or disciple people. Still others use it to highlight their ministry, students, leaders, or families. What is your purpose, or your ministry’s purpose, in using social media? Once you answer that question you can begin building effective social media content for your audience.

Think through which apps you will use.

As you begin thinking about how to utilize social media effectively, you must think about which apps or social media channels you will use and why. Think through which age demographics are using which social media platforms. Consider who your primary audience is on each platform. Think about whether the social media you are using is going to be effective for your purpose. Also, read through the background and user agreement for the apps or platforms you are using. Some social media platforms were built for nefarious purposes and their desire is actually completely anti-student ministry. As you dig into these factors and engage with them, it will help you choose which apps to utilize and think about how and why you are using them.

Have a social media posting schedule.

Having consistent times to post and share content is hugely important. It affords you a timetable of when you post, it allows you to shape what is posted and when, and it allows your people to know and follow your schedule. It could be as simple as choosing a day or two to share posts that encourage engagement, it could be a day set aside for a weekly devotion, it could be reminders for programming, or it could be a weekly post highlighting leaders or students. Once you have a schedule figured out, make sure to communicate that with your teams, your students, and with families. This then affords you an opportunity to share what and why you are posting and to help curate buy-in to the ministry.

Post at appropriate times.

As you begin thinking about what you are posting, it is important to think about when you are posting. As simple as it seems, knowing what time of day and what days to post various content is highly important. Posting content for your audience means knowing when your audience is most inclined to view that content. If you’re posting on a school day for students it wouldn’t be prudent to post at 10 a.m. when they are in class. The same could be said for knowing when and what to post for parents; posting during a work day may not be prudent but posting once they are home would be.

Leverage your content to reflect your vision.

This is a big piece of utilizing social media well: use your platform to share your vision and the heart of your ministry. Whenever you post to social media make sure the vision and heart of your ministry is clear. This is true not just in the words you share but your photos and videos should communicate that as well. If your vision is focused discipleship communities and not large events, it would be prudent for your images to reflect that. So think through what your are sharing how it can best represent and reflect your vision well.

Incorporate photos and stories of your people.

One of the best ways to utilize social media well is using photos of your people. When you take photos of your students, leaders, or families and share them, it brings attention to your ministry and drives engagements up. People want to see what is happening and be invested in the important parts of your ministry; and your people are just that. So include photos and stories that share what God is doing and allow that to drive engagement on your social media platforms.

Help! I Feel Ill-Equipped!

Have you ever had a hard day? Was it ever compounded by the reality of a lack of training or knowledge? Has there ever been a conversation or question where you had no idea how to respond or engage?

Perhaps it was when a mom came into your office and shared that her husband was abusive. Maybe it was a student who shared they are thinking of transitioning. Perhaps a student shared about the propensity to self-harm and that they’ve thought about taking their own life. Maybe there was a suicide in your community or your group and people have come to you for help and guidance all while you are grieving.

If you haven’t been in a situation or context where you weren’t prepared for what unfolded, I can tell you there will be moments in your life that this will happen. I don’t say that to instill fear, doubt, or worry, but to be a realist and help us understand there will be times we are unprepared or ill-equipped. The goal is to be better prepared so we can respond well when they do happen.

These types of issues should give us pause to think through our training and knowledge, and also force us to acknowledge where we are lacking in our training and skill set. The reality is we cannot master all areas and we cannot be all things to all people. So what are we to do in moments like these? Let me offer a few helpful thoughts.

Know your resources.

One of the best things you can do to help yourself be more prepared and equipped to handle various circumstances is to know and utilize your resources. Get to know the various agencies in your community including but not limited to emergency services, counselors, other pastors, crisis agencies, various hotline numbers, doctors and nurses, and therapists. When you are networked in this way, you have more resources and referrals at your disposal that will help you offer better and more holistic care for your people.

Study areas you are weak in.

This is a big one for anyone in ministry. We should always seek to be lifelong learners and in doing so, we should seek to grow in areas we are lacking. Many ministers are referred to as counselors, but most of us are not trained counselors and our experience in that area is lacking. So I would encourage you that should you be lacking in an area, seek to grow in it.

Whether it is counseling, homiletical practice, developing leaders, formulating small groups, or any other area that is a part of your purview, seek out resources and opportunities to help you grow. Read books, meet with mentors, take classes, listen to podcasts, meet with people who are skilled and trained in those areas, and never stop learning. In doing this you will become not only more trained in those areas but you will also become a better minister as you better understand your craft and how to care for others.

Talk to experts.

This is something that is incredibly helpful and goes hand in hand with studying and seeking to be a learner, but it is a little more tangible. Seek to gain insight from experts in various fields. Talk to counselors about how they would approach various topics. Ask for advice and guidance in how to care for people. Talk to crisis intervention specialists and ask how you can help students and families in a time of crisis and what you should and should not do or say. Talk to health experts about how to care well for students who are struggling with different health issues. If these experts are not readily available in your community, consider reaching out to different networks and finding ways to connect and engage with experts elsewhere.

Be willing to just listen.

Often when people come to us to talk about what is going on in their lives they aren’t coming to look for all the answers right away. People come because they need someone to just listen and be present with them. So practice listening well and seeking to be fully present when someone comes to you. Whether it is by turning off distractions like your phone, taking notes, making eye contact, or all of the above, listening and being present in those moments will allow you to better care for and understand how to afford more holistic care.

Manage your time.

Handling these types of situations can be difficult and time consuming. There really isn’t a way to set aside your time in advance for these moments because they are often organic situations that happen as things manifest. But as these situations occur you will find that you want to be all-in and that is a good thing, but when we do that we may find ourselves being overwhelmed and depleted because of how much we give. So let me encourage you to think through how and when you can give of yourself. Know your time limitations and what you can give. It won’t always be convenient when these conversations happen, but if you structure your schedule well, you will be able to identify how much time you can give and when you can give it.

Find a way to decompress and refresh.

The truth is that these moments are heavy and difficult to carry. I would love to tell you that the more equipped, resourced, and prepared that you are, the easier these moments will become. But that isn’t true. Walking with and shepherding people involves all of who you are. Your heart will break, you will empathize and sympathize in a variety of ways, you will weep and rejoice, you will ask questions, and watch poor choices being made. We may be able to compartmentalize one circumstance or moment, but added ones compound our own hurt and emotions.

So in order to handle this well and to continue leading and caring for your people, you must find ways to decompress and refresh. Find what encourages and renews you and engage with those areas and make them a priority. Talk to someone about what is going on. Meet with a counselor regularly. Take breaks. Set boundaries. Putting these aspects into place will enable you to better care for yourself as you care for others.

Tips for Pre-Marital and Pre-Engagement Counseling

Recently Elise and I have had the honor and privilege to walk with former students and volunteers through pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. While it is an honor, it is also humbling to think that I have reached that stage in student ministry where I am now seeing former students get married and start families. Nothing says you are getting up there like those moments (haha). But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

As we have walked through these counseling sessions, it is apparent that to handle them well, we need to know how to proceed, what to cover, and most importantly, we need to know the couple. As I step back and look at what we have done well and where we could improve, I want to provide a few tips on how to help you be the best counselor to those who come to you for pre-engagement or pre-marital advice, guidance, and support.

Listen well and observe.

This is one of the best things you can do if you are walking with a couple. Often you can pick up on nuances or subtleties by simply observing and listening to the couple. You can see how they treat one another, listen to how they speak to and about one another, sense when there is tension, and also notice strengths. This is not meant for you to curate a list of problem areas or to critique them, but instead it helps you notice areas that need to be talked through and processed so they can become a healthier couple going forward.

Speak truth in love.

When it comes to former students, don’t be afraid to speak truth to them. When you work with students long enough you see areas that they need to improve upon, but we can often soften the approach to help protect them and the relationship we have with them. However, when it comes to entering into a marriage relationship that student isn’t only working on themselves, there is another person who is intimately involved as well. I am not saying to be mean and critical, but to speak truth directly in love.

Let me provide an example. If we are at camp and the guys’ dorm is disgusting we may say something like, “Gentlemen, this isn’t okay. Clean up your crap or no free time.” In a marriage saying something like that doesn’t work, but in pre-marital counseling you can bring up the conversation of cleanliness, who is responsible for what, how does the couple handle tension, personality types, laziness, and even how our actions communicate love.

Address problem areas.

This tip is probably one of the harder ones, especially depending on the depth of your relationship with the couple or individual. If a former student comes to you seeking relationship or pre-marital counseling, there is a good possibility you know a lot about them including where they struggle. I would encourage you to be open and honest with the couple from the beginning and let them know that if they choose to continue in this counseling relationship, you will not shy away from difficult conversations. This is not because you take joy in pointing out sins or struggles, but because you are encouraging authenticity, transparency, and seeking to strengthen their relationship through holistic intimacy.

Provide resources.

Resources are huge! Don’t simply rely upon your conversations with the couple, but give them outside resources whether books, articles, research, or a podcast. Elise and I are always on the lookout for things we can provide to the couples we are counseling. In fact, keep an eye out as Elise is going to do a book review on a book we just read that in our opinion is a must for couples thinking about marriage.

When you provide resources it allows people to go home, engage with a topic or conversation, gives them time to process, and then opens up an opportunity for ongoing conversation with their significant other. Resources also afford you follow up conversations and the opportunity to see what the couple has learned and talked through together. Some things we send couples home with are questions from our session with them, DISC Personality Assessments, episodes from Theology in the Raw or The Bare Marriage Podcast, websites like To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, or the Feelings Wheel with a directive to utilize these resources in all of their conversations together over the next couple of weeks.

Refer out when needed.

This is one the best things you could do as the person(s) counseling a couple. There are so many areas we are not equipped to handle as ministers and leaders because we have not had the training. It is important to remember that most of us are not licensed counselors or trained to help people in certain areas because if we try to do so and offer bad or wrong insight, it could lead to horrible consequences. So should the conversation lean toward an area or reveal a situation you are not comfortable with or equipped and trained to handle, you need to refer out right away. This is not removing you from caring for and working with the couple, but instead helping them get the help and care they need.

My recommendation would be for you to begin building a network before you even begin counseling couples. Know who is a licensed and trained counselor in your area who is trained in helping couples. Bonus points if they also are Christian counselors as that will ensure consistency with what God says about marriage and relationships. Know who your mental health professionals and addiction specialists are as well. You never know when past trauma, harmful behavior, abuse, or addictive behavior may manifest in your sessions with couples, and being able to refer out is paramount in those moments. Also, know your state’s laws on various topics and think through when you need to get different first responders involved.

Don’t avoid the hard or awkward conversations.

I feel like this is something I have heard all too often when it comes to pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. Couples prepared for conversations about sex and intimacy, couples came ready to talk about their past, topics of abuse and trauma were said to be discussed, but then those conversations are barely approached or dismissed altogether. I know for Elise and I this happened to us, and honestly left us feeling frustrated and disappointed.

These aren’t always easy conversations and frankly they could lead to awkward or difficult interactions, but these are needed moments. I have always wondered if we avoid addressing something before a couple gets married, how will it be addressed when they are married? The reality is those topics won’t just go away and a lack of engagement will lead to prolonged tension, frustration, disappointment, or worse.

So dial into those conversations and strive to do well. Approach them with love, grace, and truth. Be mature as you talk through them. Be willing to engage them and be honest about what is and isn’t helpful. Also be willing to help eliminate or minimize stigmas surrounding those topics and give them the prominence they deserve. In these moments you are valuing the couple and helping them work on communication and holistic intimacy.

What have you found works best for you in counseling couples?

Responding Well to a Crisis

Working in both security and various ministries, I have witnessed or been involved in a variety of crises. Whether it was treating a compound fracture, being pastor-on-call when a deacon and father passed from a sudden heart attack, caring for a family who’s loved one took their life, administering first aid to a twisted knee, handling a mental health crisis, or ensuring a leader suffering a heart attack stayed conscious while EMTs arrived, there are moments in all of our lives that will be crisis moments. We must be prepared to step into them well.

Not all of us will have the same skillset or training, but God has uniquely and divinely equipped and positioned each of us to be present in those moments for an express purpose. I believe that in order to truly handle those moments and situations well, we must be prepared and knowledgeable so we can care well for our people.

Today I want to provide you with some ways to prepare (as best we can) for crisis moments by helping us think through steps before, during, and after the crisis that will help us best respond and minister to the people under our care. I will say this though: these steps do not make you a crisis negotiator nor afford you any special training or ability to be something we are not. In many crisis moments referral is necessary as we are not equipped to handle various things. This is simply meant to help you think through how you respond and are equipped as we know that we will experience these moments in our lives.

Pre-crisis.

Know your team. This is so important because knowing who is on your team and their skillset allows you to be prepared for various circumstances. Perhaps you have a mental health counselor, or an EMT, or a nurse on your team. Knowing these people allows you to gain knowledge and insight from them, to empower them to take the lead in crisis situations, and helps your leaders take more ownership because they are seen and empowered to lead.

Know your networks. This is one of the most important things you can do before a crisis. If you know the people, agencies, and services that are provided in your community, you will be better suited to know how to respond and who to respond to. Knowing the counselors in your community and building a relationship with them allow you to help people better. Knowing the crisis hotline and helpful, caring, knowledgeable health professionals means you can bring a trusted resource and needed care to your people. Knowing the police officers, EMTs, and firefighters means that you not only can advocate for and care for first responders, but can also help them know and love your people and vice versa. When you build a network you are building a trusting and caring community and you can be a bridge to the person who is experiencing the crisis by connecting them to someone you know and trust.

Be educated. Whether it is by taking a CPR and first aid course, reading or listening to trusted resources, furthering your academic education, or talking with a professional, make sure to continue to grow in your knowledge and expertise. The more you know the better suited you will be to care for people and respond to a crisis.

During the crisis.

Stay calm. This is huge. As a leader, your level of intensity, panic, or calm will reflect outward to your people and the person experiencing the crisis. Think about this: if a fire alarm goes off and you start freaking out and yelling “we are all going to die,” your people may not respond well. But if you keep a cool head and direct people out, making sure they are safe, then your people will reflect your resolve and peace. This is true in any crisis situation, so always seek to remain calm. Now I will say this: it is okay to feel the intensity and adrenalin within yourself, but don’t let that be reflected outward. Should a student call you and say they have a plan to take their life, it is okay to feel all the things and begin to make a plan of intervention. But don’t let the intensity or panic reflect in your voice or in your actions.

Remember and rely on your training. This goes hand-in-hand with staying calm. The more training you have the calmer you will be in a situation. Sometimes when a crisis develops it is helpful to simply pause and breathe for 3-5 seconds and calm your heart as you assess what is happening. As you assess remember your training and step in and respond to the best of your ability.

Bring in necessary people. This goes back to knowing your team. You may have some training or equipping, but there may be others who are better suited to respond. I’ve had various types of training when it comes to handling first aid and crises, but if someone is hurt I am defaulting to the nurses and doctors in my program. Their training and education is much greater than mine and they can handle the situation in better ways.

Contact the necessary people and/or agencies. This is paramount. If there is a fire we all know to call 911, but do you know who to call in a mental health crisis? What about in the event of a power outage? What if there is a tornado or hurricane? Knowing who to call and when is key in a crisis, and honestly something that all leaders of a ministry should know and equip their volunteers with as well.

Pray. This is something that you as the primary responder should be doing throughout the crisis, but I would also encourage you to call your leaders and people in your ministry to pray as well. You may not always have that luxury as some crisis moments are between you and just the individual, but if a crisis happens in a public setting like your youth group, encourage your leaders to pull people away from the crisis (nothing elevates stress and embarrassment like a crowd hovering) and have them pray for what is happening.

Care for your people. Let the person(s) involved in the crisis know that you love them and are there for them. Be a calming presence and allow the peace that God affords us to be reflected through you to them. Also, if you aren’t the primary responder, make sure to care for the other people at the crisis. If a nurse steps in, care for the friends of the individual. Pray, read scripture, cry together, and walk with them.

Post-crisis.

Continue to care for your people. Sometimes after a crisis has been handled and the appropriate people and agencies contacted, it may seem easier to assume our job is done. But honestly your job is only just beginning. Continuing to care for your people, those who had the crisis and those affected by it, is paramount. As you continue to follow up, speak love and truth, and minister to people, you will be showing them the power, peace, and love of God.

Stay involved to the appropriate degree. As you continue to care for people, it is also important to know your role. It is easy to for us to want to care and be involved, but there are only so many degrees to which we can do so. Trying to get involved in the counseling sessions after a mental health crisis could muddy the waters. But continuing to care for and minister to that person is key. Trying to get into an operating room isn’t allowed, but sitting with the family and being present is hugely important. Seek to find a balance to the level of involvement that enables you to care well for others.

Know your limitations. While care and involvement are good things, it is also helpful to know our place and our limitations. Sometimes we can be prone to inserting ourselves into situations that don’t warrant our involvement, or exhausting ourselves through our efforts to stay involved. So know your skillset, know how you can be of the best help, and know when to step back and let others handle the situation. This will help you make sure that your people receive the best possible care and allow you to breathe and find peace in the midst of the aftermath of the crisis.

Pray. Prayer is something that should continue to be a part of this journey. Pray for your people. Pray for everyone involved. Pray for continued treatment and helpful results. Pray for healing and resolution. Pray for peace and for people to see and trust Jesus. As you pray continue to trust God and rely on Him to bring healing and restoration to this moment.

Talk to a counselor or a trusted person for decompression. This is more about self-care. As someone who has been in too many traumatic situations to count, I know the weight they can put on you. The emotional, physical, psychological, and even spiritual weight that can come from these events can feel overwhelming and crippling. So make sure to talk to someone and process through what has happened. Release the emotions, talk through what happened, and process your thoughts. Doing this will help you heal and be a better minister to those in your care.

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

Perhaps you are like me and you’re preparing for winter camp in a few short weeks. Or maybe you’re really proactive, ahead of the curve, and you’re already planning for your summer trip. Before camp, youth leaders typically have things ready like student waivers, transportation, food, essentials for games, and teaching, and it feels like everything is ready to go. But have you ever arrived at your destination and wished you had brought something you hadn’t? We’ve all been there.

Today I want to provide you with a list of easily-missed items that will help you be better prepared and equipped for whatever trip you go on.

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

Have you ever forgotten one of these before? No, just me? It’s the worst feeling because you are limited on what you’re able to do. When we take students on a trip, we don’t allow them to bring electronics. So our staff becomes the default communication for families and leaders. We share photos, information, and texts to stay up to date and it drains your phone so fast. Couple that with posting to our social media accounts for families to get updates and my phone is practically dead by lunch time. So always bring a wall charger for your room and a couple back-up battery packs or remote chargers for when you’re on the go. And of course, don’t forget the cord!

A good first aid kit.

A basic first aid kit is fine but it is often not what we need. I have found that creating your own first aid bag is the way to go. Due to the size of our program, we actually have three first aid bags that we take on trips. Our first aid kits have come in handy so many times, and I have found it’s better to be prepared and not need the kits than unprepared and need something you don’t have.

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

  • bandages of different sizes
  • gauze
  • sutures
  • Neosporin
  • splints
  • triangle bandages
  • tweezers
  • feminine products
  • bee sting kits
  • electrolyte tablets
  • candy (should someone need a sugar boost)
  • cough drops
  • a multitool
  • a sling
  • butterfly bandages
  • antiseptics
  • Tums
  • dry mix packages of Gatorade or Propel
  • mosquito repellent
  • aloe
  • sunscreen
  • ice packs
  • various medicines like Advil, Tylenol, and Benadryl

These are just some of the items I’ve been thankful to have at various camps. Some camps provide nurses and first aid, but others require you to be that person for your group. So whatever you can pack in your first aid kit will help you be prepared for whatever comes your way.

A flashlight.

If you have ever had a student not be in their bunk at lights-out or had to walk outside to the restroom during a winter camp at night, you know that a flashlight is your best friend. I would highly encourage you to have at least two LED flashlights you can utilize for whatever situation in which you may find yourself. A quick tip if you’re taking a long trip: turn one of the batteries around (i.e. flip the positive and negative ends) and this will stop your batteries from getting drained.

An alarm clock.

Some camps and retreat centers don’t always have outlets by your bed so you can plug in a phone charger which would allow you to use it as an alarm. So pick up a small battery-powered alarm clock which will help you and your students wake up on time. You can usually find these at a dollar store, Five Below, Walmart, or Target.

Instant coffee packs.

If you are like me and love a good cup of coffee, you have probably cried a few tears for what passes for coffee at camps. So do yourself a favor and seek out a good coffee brand that has instant coffee packets you can take along. Many stores and coffee companies have options available and trying them out ahead of time will help you survive the trip.

Personal snacks.

We often think about food for meals and perhaps special snacks for our leaders. But we don’t always think about ourselves. It is okay to treat yourself and I would encourage you to bring along some treats for yourself. There are moments on every trip when you just need a pick me up. So grab your favorite snacks and stuff them in your bag for when you need them.

A power strip.

Many times, the dorms you are in will have a limited number of power outlets. So bringing a power strip will allow multiple people to utilize one outlet and will hopefully keep more people happy throughout the trip as their devices will be charged.

Tea and throat drops.

Often times at camp you will find you are loosing your voice. Having some herbal teas and honey if you can bring it along, coupled with throat drops can be a life saver (pun intended). Make sure to pack enough for however long the trip is and perhaps some extra for your leaders.

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

Music is such a key part of our lives. Think about how often you hear or listen to music. Sundays at church services. In your car while you drive. In a store as you shop. On a tv commercial. At a football game. At a friend’s home. Or at a social gathering. But I think we often forget to have music at our youth gatherings and various other church settings.

Music is so beneficial because it sets the tone of the venue, offers background noise, encourages engagement, and makes occasions more invitational. I didn’t always embrace this, especially early on in ministry, but I have found myself utilizing music all the time now and it has helped so much in student ministry. In this post, I hope to encourage you in how you choose and implement music, and to also offer tips and resources to do this successfully.

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

Whenever you choose music, think about what you are trying to accomplish in the environment and what tone you want to have. For instance, if you have a gym night and you play folk music, you probably won’t have a ton of energy. Or if you want a coffee shop vibe and you decide to blast For King and Country, it probably won’t embody the setting you are seeking to cultivate. Thinking about the setting, tone, and desired outcome will help you cultivate the ambiance and environment you desire.

2. Energy for the venue.

I referenced in the previous point that setting the tone is key, and that is true in multiple ways. The music you play sets the tone of the energy for the venue. If you want people to be loud and engage in active games, you will want to have more upbeat music that will energize your audience. If you are going for a relaxing vibe, you want to have softer or acoustic music which will allow for more conversation and thoughtful engagement. The music you choose will convey the energy you are looking to achieve, so make sure to think through this piece as you choose what to play.

3. Target audience.

One of the big things we should be considering is our audience. I can sometimes get lost in creating a playlist for my students and throw in songs I grew up with in youth group. But if I am being honest, my students don’t care about those songs. They may resonate with a few of them but not all of them. This is a reminder to know who you are trying to reach and directing all elements of what you are doing toward them. As you think about what music or playlist to utilize, remember to think about who you are reaching. Include songs they know, artists they are familiar with, and tunes they can sing along or engage with.

4. The message you want to send.

Think through who your audience is and what message you want communicated to them through the music you are playing. For instance, on Sunday mornings I tend to utilize worship music because our programming is oriented toward students who are already following Jesus and who we are seeking to equip to be disciple-makers. But on youth group nights, our music is a blend of current and past upbeat Christian and clean secular music. Since we are seeking to pull in people who don’t know Jesus, our music could go from Lecrae, to Ok Go, to Crowder, to Justin Timberlake, to Hillsong, or to The Greatest Showman. This way everyone has something they may be familiar with, and it allows us to introduce people to various Christian artists. All of the music is filtered so there is no profanity, drug or alcohol references, references to vulgarity, violence, or derogatory language.

As you considered these key aspects, let me offer you few tips and resources to help you truly utilize music to the best possible outcome. These tips are meant to help your group grow, succeed, and meet the mission of reaching students for Jesus.

Invest in a good sound system.

I am not talking about built-in house speakers and a switcher with a great bass. If you have that, fantastic, make sure to use it. But if you don’t have that at your disposal, consider investing in a good quality Bluetooth speaker or computer speakers so you play music for the entire space you are in.

Utilize students to help with music.

If you have students who are musically inclined, consider utilizing them in various ways. They can lead worship, you could have a house band playing at youth group, they could pick your playlists, and they can help with the audio/visual elements. When students are involved and excited to be on the team, it generates an excitement and interest among their peers to also be involved. These opportunities for students to lead outward will not only generate excitement but it will also give them ownership of the ministry which will help it succeed.

Utilize apps and the internet.

There are many free music resources that you can use depending on your level of comfortability and time that you can afford to it. You could use YouTube and just look for playlists. You could utilize Pandora’s free option, but you will have to deal with ads and those can sometimes be uncomfortable or inappropriate for the setting. You could also utilize Spotify, which is my personal favorite. You could create your own playlists, or simply put on various albums, artists, or playlists that you find on it. Spotify also doesn’t use ads like Pandora, and they have various levels of subscription that are worth looking into if you have the budget for it.

A quick tip if you don’t have the budget to get a paid Spotify subscription: You can utilize the non-paid option on multiple computers as long as you keep the offline feature turned on. Simply download the playlist ahead of time, then switch to offline and voilà you can use the playlist in a few different locations.

Here are a few playlists that I utilize and the settings I use them in:

New Year, New You

Happy new year! For many of us the start of the new year involves changes of some kind as we seek to be healthier. I know for Elise and I, we have started the new year by engaging with the Whole30 program. This is a program we have done in the past and after the last few years we knew we needed a reset and an opportunity to get healthy again.

But dietary or healthy eating is only a singular approach to our holistic lives. And I would assert that as we approach this new year we need to be thinking about our entire health and well-being. Being purveyors of the Gospel can be a heavy weight at times. Trying to balance the teaching and expediting of God’s Word, caring for and ministering to the people under our care, trying to balance commitments and priorities, dealing with criticism, and simply seeking to accomplish daily tasks at work and home can feel overwhelming and at times unbearable. The reality is that these things and many others can be weighty and hard to deal with which will lead to unhealthy habits and our willingness to let healthy habits fall to the side.

So how can we as ministers of the Gospel make sure we are holistically healthy? I think it begins by looking at five key areas in our lives that should be healthy and allowing for those areas to be worked out in other areas of our lives. I hope to look at these areas and prayerfully help you think through what a healthy life looks like for you.

Mental.

Mental health is important, and with the way the last couple of years have been, your mental health is probably feeling pretty taxed and depleted. I know for me there have been times this last year where I’ve felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and mentally done. But it is highly important for us to take care of our mental health. If we allow our thoughts to wander or to increase doubt or frustrations, we will find ourselves ready to throw in the towel.

So what should our response be? I think we should find someone to talk with. Whether a trusted friend, a ministry partner, a mentor, or your spouse, having someone to talk to and process with will do wonders for your mental health. I would also encourage everyone to find a counselor to talk with. Counselors have a way of getting us to open up, think critically, identify issues that should be dealt with, and come up with action steps. The stigma attached to mental health needs to be rolled back, because without a healthy frame of mind, we will be frustrated and unable to fully give to the ministry God has called us to.

Physical.

Let’s be honest: serving in ministry isn’t exactly the best career path for our physical health, especially if you serve in student ministry. The candy, pizza, soda, energy drinks, constant snacking, and eating like a student will eventually catch up to you. I will be thirty-six this year, and I can attest to that reality. I don’t lose weight how I used to, and the snacks just seem to hang around…the midsection that is. That is part of the reason I am doing the Whole30 because I want to rebuild a healthy relationship with food and to cleanse from all the garbage I have been eating.

But here is the thing: just doing that for a month isn’t enough. In order to stay physically healthy and to maintain a lifestyle that will help you be in ministry for the long haul, you need to adjust how you take care of yourself physically and make the necessary changes. Consider starting small and just trying to eat better. Stop the late night snacking, stop eating all the snacks students eat when they eat them, and start trying to eat more foods that are around the outside aisles of the supermarket.

Going beyond that, it’s also beneficial to start trying to exercise or just be more active in your everyday life. Making these types of changes will help you to feel better overall. You will find your body being more rested, you will have more energy, you will sleep better, and you will ultimately find yourself being more apt and ready to engage in ministry because of how you are feeling and the way your body is strengthening.

Spiritual.

As ministers of the Gospel the sad reality is our spiritual health can often suffer as we seek to love and care for others as we point them to Jesus. But that cannot be the case for us. If we continue to pour out without being poured into, then we will eventually be giving from nothing which will lead to burn out, bitterness, and potentially walking away from our faith. Instead I would challenge you to think through your spiritual rhythms and how your relationship with Jesus is doing. Are you spending time just being present with Him? Are you reading your Bible on a consistent basis outside of what would be considered work? Is your prayer life something you are actively engaged with? Are you finding your passion for Jesus growing and being something you look forward to?

If you answered no to any or all of these questions let me encourage you to take a break. I don’t mean walk away from ministry but perhaps consider taking time (a weekend, a week, a sabbatical, or whatever works in your environment) to just breathe, commune with God, and reset your spiritual relationship with Jesus. If you are growing in your relationship with Jesus, the better suited and prepared you will be to lead, disciple, and point people to Jesus. So make sure to protect, engage with, and strengthen your relationship with Jesus to be the affective minister God has called you to be.

Emotional.

Emotional health isn’t something we always think about. In fact, I would assert that our emotional, relational, and mental health are the ones we are willing to let slide more than perhaps our physical and spiritual health. And I believe the reason for that is because our physical and spiritual health afford us a bit more control over situations and circumstances. We can see the results of physical health and we can set rhythms to help ourselves grow in spiritual health. But when it comes to our emotional health, we don’t always see how we are doing, whether positive or negative.

Let me encourage you to talk to someone you trust and ask their honest opinion about how you handle your emotions. Consider doing a self-evaluation on how you engage various circumstances, relationships, and tensions.

  • Ask yourself if your responses are healthy and beneficial.
  • Ask yourself if you know how to communicate how you are feeling (consider utilizing a feelings wheel in this case).
  • Ask yourself how you respond in moments of stress, tension, or moments when your emotions are running high.
  • Ask yourself how you are feeling about yourself, your job, your relationships, and your personal life.

These questions aren’t meant to give you a clinical diagnosis of your emotional health, but instead are intended to help you think about how you are doing emotionally. If you find your responses to these questions being unhelpful or potentially problematic, I would encourage you to reach out to someone to talk to (both a friend or mentor, and a professional). When your emotional health suffers, you suffer, your relationships suffer, and your ability to effectively minister suffers. So seek to assess how you are doing emotionally and to grow in your emotional health.

Relational.

Relational health is hugely important and I would say there are two key aspects to consider in this area. One, think about how you engage and care for others (the outflow) and two, think about the relationships you have and whether they need to be tweaked (the inflow). When it comes to our relational health it is highly important to think about how you are treating and engaging others. For many youth workers, they do this part well. In fact probably too well to their own detriment. They give and give and give, and even when they are on empty they give even more. Focusing on and caring for others is a huge part of our role, but we also need to think about our own relational health. If you just continue to give until you are on empty that isn’t helpful to anyone.

This brings us to the second part of relational health: the relationships you have and their affect on you. Often we are outwardly focused, but it is important to think inwardly as well since this is how you fill up your tank. You may have relationships that are life-giving for you, but you may also have relationships that are life-draining. So think through the relationships that you have and consider if some of them need to be improved, restricted, or removed for your health and well-being. There may be relationships in your life that are draining you and potentially toxic. Seeking to improve or change them by releasing certain relationships will be difficult in the immediate moment, but potentially life changing going forward.

What life or ministry changes are you making this year?

5 Quick Tips on How to Connect With Your Audience

Let’s face it: speaking can be challenging and connecting with your audience can be equally challenging if not more so. Add in students, and then the challenge at times can feel overwhelming. I have gotten to know many amazing pastors and speakers serving in a variety of capacities around the country who are doing amazing jobs at sharing the Gospel but also connecting with their audience. These two aspects don’t always work together seamlessly, but when they do there is immense opportunity to reach people. The question before us today is this: how do I actually connect with my audience while I am sharing Biblical truth?

I don’t know if you have ever had one of these experiences before:

  • Someone falls asleep while you are teaching or preaching.
  • A student says, “Hey, I know you try, but you’re just boring.”
  • People seem to tune out while you are talking and start playing on their phones.
  • Someone says, “Your messages are great but I don’t understand how they relate to my life.”

I know I have had very similar conversations with people throughout my time in ministry. I’ll be honest with you and tell you I was not a great speaker before I went to school for ministry, and my first few years in ministry my sermons and teachings were largely informative and expository and did little to connect with my people. Personal connection and the ability to relate to your people is highly important because it makes what you are teaching real and applicable to their lives.

I would assert that being a great orator and expositor isn’t the only thing that makes you a great minister. What truly makes a great minister is one who knows their people, can shepherd well, points people to Jesus, and helps them draw practical application to their own lives from Scripture. But how do you do this well as you are speaking? Much of this sounds like things you would do in a smaller setting or one-on-one moments. I think these opportunities present themselves as we speak, but in order to embrace them we must apply various tools at our disposal. Today, I want to provide you with five quick tools that will help you better connect with your people.

1. Make eye contact.

Depending on the size of the group you are speaking to this may sound easy or it may sound really difficult. It also may be really challenging for you personally if this is something you don’t find yourself doing in personal conversations. But when you look someone in the eyes during a conversation you are literally helping them to understand that you see them. You have made what you are talking about personal and you are allowing your people to know that you care about them and that what you are sharing has meaning and value for their lives.

If you still struggle with this or if you are in a larger church or youth group setting, allow me to offer you a quick tip on how to do this. Look at peoples’ foreheads or slightly above them. When I preach in our sanctuary, it is very hard for me to look at people in their eyes because there are more people present than in our youth group and the stage lights can be blinding. But by looking slightly over their foreheads, it allows for me to connect with more people and helps them to know they are seen. There have been countless moments when I have utilized this trick and people have come up and said, “Nick, it was like you were looking right at me!” Using this tip will help you better connect and know you people in ways you may never have before.

2. Tell stories.

I love to tell stories. In fact, if you were to ask anyone who knows me they would tell you that even to simple questions I use a story to answer. Now sometimes that isn’t helpful, but when you are speaking, stories bring the audience in and they also humanize the speaker. Often people will look at a pastor or speaker in a revered type of way, but what people truly want is someone who understands and can relate to them.

So when you are speaking use stories but also make sure to utilize personal stories. This resource will allow for you to connect in deeper ways with your audience and it also will help them to focus and listen more because they want to know what you will say next. I think this is a resource that Jesus used often (i.e. parables) but in some ways this resource has fallen by the wayside in some church cultures. When Jesus used parables it brought people in and helped to explain the point(s) He was making, and when you use stories you do the same thing. So leverage stories, both personal and general, to bring people in and emphasize your points.

3. Be authentic.

Authenticity is something people crave because it means they can understand, relate, and be a part of your life and vision. When you are real, vulnerable, and authentic people will gravitate toward you and want to share in what you are teaching. So utilize personal stories, be honest about what you are learning, talk about personal applications, show emotion, and be transparent. These traits will help people see that what you are teaching is real and applicable because they see you implementing and wrestling with it. Authenticity breeds relatability and creates a culture where people desire to journey with you.

4. Utilize inflection.

It is often easy to speak in a monotone style or to simply speak in one manner. But good speakers who want to reach their people will utilize inflection when they speak. It isn’t about raising your voice or yelling, but about utilizing the gift that God has given you to draw people in and understand the Word of God. There is much power in how we utilize our voices because a whisper or softly spoken word communicates differently than a loud or passionate voice. So consider where and how to use inflection in your speaking, and practice how to use your voice and understand the skillset God has given you.

5. Know your material and practice.

I personally think one of the best things you can do to connect with your audience is know your material well enough that you do not need to read off of a manuscript. I was trained very classically and taught to memorize and internalize my message, and while I know this isn’t easy for many people, I do believe that at least knowing your main points and application will allow you to connect better with your audience. The reason it allows you to connect is because your attention, vision, and focus is on the audience rather than focusing on reading the manuscript and making sure you get it exactly as it is written.

The only way to achieve this is by constant practice. Whether I am speaking to students, sharing as a speaker at a retreat, or preaching at a church, I make sure to practice multiple times beforehand because it helps me to be comfortable with the message, the text, and when possible, the stage or environment. The more you practice and attempt to memorize key points, application, or the entirety of your message, the better you will become at not having to rely upon notes, and be able to connect at a deeper level with your audience.

What have you found to be the most effective way to connect with your audience?