How to Make Small Group Time Intentional and Purposeful

Small group time is incredibly important for our students to grow and mature as young adults and as disciples of Jesus. We should be looking to incorporate this into our programming and making it a part of our normal rhythms. This will look different depending on the size of your program, the number of leaders and students that you have, and even the layout of where you meet. But this is something that regardless of hurdles, is exceptionally important.

Small groups provide a space for students to process and engage at a personal level, and to think through with a smaller peer group about what it means to live with and reflect Jesus in their spheres of influence. These spaces are truly where transformational discipleship happens, therefore we should critically think through how we are utilizing this time to best impact and challenge our students. Today, our hope is to provide some insight into ways to embrace small group time to best impact your students.

Know your material.

This is one of the best things you can do to make small group time intentional, focused, and beneficial for your students. If you know the material and are prepared, it will allow you to curate discussion and insight that will help your students process and apply what was shared. It also keeps you from scrambling or trying to think through things on the fly. Instead you are able to think about what will best relate to and challenge your individual group because you know them, their desires, their strength and weaknesses, and also where they need to be stretched. These moments will only come about if you prepare for the discussion in small group.

Now it is important to understand that your preparation can only go so far, especially as it depends on your leader getting you the content you need to prepare. Pastors, leaders, and speakers let me say this to you: do your best to equip and provide your leaders with the necessary materials for guiding their small groups. The sooner you get information into their hands, the better prepared they will be to pour into and shepherd your students. But if a leader or speaker does not get you all the information ahead of time, that does not discount you from preparing. Listen to the speaker. Take notes. Think about questions that will engage and challenge your group. Utilize the Bible passages that were shared and use them for further and deeper study with your group.

Know your group and be relational.

Part of having an intentional and purposeful small group time comes from knowing the group and being relational. When you carve out time to get to know your students and for them to know one another, it allows for the conversation to become more intentional and personal as they become comfortable with others in the group. You are helping walls to come down and in the same moment, growing authentic relationships within the group. Through these moments your students will grow to trust you and see you not just as a leader but as someone who cares about them and about their relationship with Jesus. As you relate to them personally, you are making yourself real and authentic to them which will help these times together to be even more intentional and focused.

Balance the time well.

The key to a proactive small group session is to know how to balance the time. Small group time shouldn’t be 90% jokes and 10% discussion. This won’t allow for adequate sharing, relational depth, or spiritual growth, and instead it just becomes another place to hang out and not be serious. Now this is not to say that you can never have a small group time like that. We all know that students sometimes just need a place to laugh and decompress. What I am suggesting is that this isn’t the normal flow and function of the group. Look to balance the time between relational, spiritual, and personal growth. Here’s an example of what I mean, and the timing is malleable to your small group schedule:

  • Relational: Time in the beginning spent sharing highs and lows. Think 10 minutes.
  • Spiritual: Talk about the lesson, what challenged the students, and personal application. This should be the bulk of the time at 20+ minutes.
  • Personal: This is where the rubber meets the road. This can contain prayer requests and a time of prayer for each other, it can incorporate a time of deeper application, or perhaps it is more focused on confession and life change. This would be anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

Talk less.

This may seem counterintuitive to some of us. We may ask, “Aren’t leaders supposed to talk? Isn’t that part of leading the group?” And the answer is yes. Yes, you are supposed to talk, but no, you are not to dominate the conversation or answer every question before the students can speak. While many leaders have tons of wisdom and insight to bring to the table and share with students, we need to remember that people (especially students) need the space to process, think, and talk for themselves.

I have often heard leaders say, “My students don’t talk in small group.” To which I often reply, “Are you giving them the opportunity to do so?” In our small groups we must intentionally allow our students to talk for at least 70% of the time, and allow for our times of talking to be focused on guiding and shepherding them to think through application and their personal walk with Jesus.

This isn’t to say that you set up a timer and only talk for an allotted timeframe, nor is it saying that this balance must always stay the same. There will be times you talk more and times you talk much less. But what we must do is find a balance that allows our students to grow, wrestle with, and apply Biblical truths to their lives. They don’t always need another speaker, but instead need someone who will guide them, ask helpful questions, listen to their answers, and give meaningful insight when needed.

Ask open ended questions.

This goes right back to the previous point about thinking through how we engage and direct conversations. And one the best ways to do this is ask open ended questions instead of “yes or no” style questions. Ask questions that will cause students to think through and process what they heard. Ask a bunch of “why and how” questions. Don’t settle for a simple answer; ask a follow-up question that encourages a student to explain how they arrived at that conclusion. Doing this not only allows for students to continue to talk, but it also challenges them to think through why they believe what they believe and how it relates to their present reality. Another way to ask open ended questions comes in the form of application. Asking students how the topic, truths, or certain points relate to their lives and how they can implement them will give you multiple responses and opportunities to challenge and guide them in their walk with Jesus.

Pray with and for one another.

Spending intentional time praying with and for your small group will make the time with them all the more special and unique. This will not only bring your group together but it will strengthen the bonds you are building. It will help your group to grow and pour into one another and it will help to develop their faith and relationship with Jesus. Prayer is an intimate time and creating an intimate, sacred, and safe space for your students will bring a fresh and personal dynamic to your group.

Follow up and additional connection.

If something important or meaningful is brought up in small group time, make sure to follow up with the student or students. For instance, if a student shares about a struggle they are having, text them during the week to see how they are doing and how things went. If your group commits to a daily devotional time, do a group check in during the week to see if they have been able to keep up with their commitment. By following up and checking in with your students you will allow for relationships to deepen and become more than just a youth group connection. It will be something that unites your group and allows you to be a strong voice for truth in their lives.

It is also helpful to realize that these moments of connection don’t have to be only from things we hear about in small group. Intentionally connecting with your students outside of youth group is important. This doesn’t have to be an every day and every moment type of thing, but something where you are intentionally doing life with your students. Consider taking students shopping with you. Frequent places where your students work to connect with them. Pray for them. Reach out to them to go grab a small group dinner or dessert. These types of connections will enable you to continue pouring into them and helping them grow and mature.

How to Host a Successful Fall Kickoff

Schools are starting back up. Fall sports have begun. Homework is already beginning to take up time during the evening. And for youth groups, there are plans for the fall, what programming will look like, and thoughts about how to start the year off well.

As we begin thinking about the fall, many of us will host some type of celebration or kickoff party to commence the beginning of our fall programming. And with thinking through a kickoff there is probably a deep desire to do something bigger and better than ever before because over the past year we have not been able to do what we considered to be “normal programming.” But in thinking critically through a kickoff for the fall, it is helpful not just to think bigger and better, but to think about what is going to be sustainable, missional, and helpful for directing our students toward deeper discipleship-oriented relationships with Jesus. Today, my hope is to provide you with a few helpful ideas for hosting a successful fall kickoff.

Create a welcoming environment.

This is huge when it comes to programming in general, but even more so at the kickoff to your fall semester. We want students to come to our programs and know they are welcomed and loved. So creating an environment that is shaped for them and where they know that they have a place will generate momentum and continuity. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Have volunteers, adults and students alike, who actually seek out and connect with students who attend.
  • Have a welcome table where students sign in but not merely for attendance. Think about doing a raffle or giveaway to generate momentum.
  • Connect students with peers from their schools and small groups. You’re now fostering an environment of community and relationships that will continue each week.
  • Encourage your leaders to connect with their students and reestablish relationships. Nothing says “you matter and are loved” than someone remembering your name and asking, “how are you doing?”

Have activities and games.

You don’t need to go crazy and have inflatables or a “Fear Factor” style event when you kickoff the semester. These may be fun for a few but I want to encourage you to think about activities and games that will appeal to a broader group of students. A few ideas include: 9 Square, GaGaBall, Minute to Win It games, a small group scavenger hunt competition, yard games, and board games. Utilizing some of these ideas together will generate a ton of excitement but also flexibility for your students to enjoy an event that appeals to a broader group.

Have food.

I firmly believe that food is a must at student events, even weekly gatherings. Food helps to build community, it generates conversation, and brings people together. For a kickoff event consider grilling out, having walking tacos, or even an ice cream social. These moments will create the type of environment that brings people together and helps generate the atmosphere you’re looking for.

Utilize parents and church leaders.

One of my favorite things to do at large student events is to bring parents and church leaders in. This does a multitude of things but a few key aspects include:

  • Showing your students that they matter to the church. Having church leadership present displays a heart for students and shows them that they are the church.
  • It communicates your heart for families. When you bring parents into student ministry it shows that your heart and vision are not only for students but for families and the church.
  • It helps parents and church leaders to see what student ministry is all about. It’s an opportunity to show the necessity and vibrancy of student ministry to those who may not see it all the time.
  • This will allow your volunteers to do what they need to: be with their students. You’re empowering your leaders to lead and at the same time allowing parents and church leadership to witness the discipleship process firsthand. This in and of itself is a huge win.

Connect small groups and leaders.

This is a pivotal time in your ministry as you prepare to kickoff the fall semester because it gives you an opportunity to connect your students with their leaders. This is a prime moment to help your leaders and students begin to reconnect or begin to build relationships that will continue throughout the year and potentially longer. It is an opportunity to begin building and strengthening the discipleship process by intentionally putting your students and leaders together and allowing them to grow as a group.

Cast the vision and heart of the ministry.

Take this time to appropriately talk about student ministries. This is a perfect opportunity for you to share your heart and the vision for the ministry. Doing this helps students, leaders, and parents hear your heart and passion, and also the purpose and direction of the ministry. You are helping to shape, create, and direct the ministry which is ideal for your people. Doing this will create a framework and consistent direction for you and your team.

Tips for Hosting Great Leader Meetings

Our fall program is about to start up and that means we are having our annual team training. We bring together our leaders from all aspects of student ministry and gather for four hours of training together. Now you may have started that last sentence saying “that sounds awesome” but as you got to the end you probably thought something like, “four hours…are you nuts?!”

I know it sounds like a long time but today I want to share with you a few tips about why I think it works. These are tips that we don’t only embody at our fall training but incorporate year round, and I believe it’s the thoughtfulness you will read about in these tips that make our training successful. And as an answer to your follow-up question, no, we don’t do four hours of training every time we gather…we aren’t crazy! It is just that one. So, here are some tips that I think will be helpful for your next training session.

Make it inviting.

How do you make a meeting invitational aside from asking people to come? Think about the setting, ambiance, and attraction. When we host training at any point, we try not to have it be at the church but instead in homes. It makes the meeting more inviting and comfortable because of the setting and location.

Another way to make it inviting is by having food. This may seem like a simple touch but food really does add value to any meeting. It helps people open up, it sets a tone, and it shows that you care. But let me offer some advice about food: don’t do typical youth group fare. Look to up the game because these are your leaders and without them you wouldn’t have a program. Even if you can only afford a few bags of candy, spring for the Hershey Nuggets instead of the store brand. It will communicate value, worth, and appreciation to your people.

A final way to make it invitational is to consider having a time of fellowship, activities, and/or a meal together. Our fall training is hosted by an amazing family who affords us their whole home that includes a pool. So for the end of our training we host a lunch for our leaders and families followed by a time for everyone to swim. It’s a blast! We have kids, students, and adults engaging in fellowship and enjoying time together. If you don’t have a pool, bring yard games or different activities to bring people together.

Make it informational.

As you work through meetings there has to be a purpose to why you are there and what you are talking about. Whether it’s programmatic changes, generational training, or other updates you may have, take time to talk through information that is important to your program. This shows your leaders that there are always growth areas and opportunities for everyone to develop.

Some ways to make this more team-oriented and inviting can include:

  • Have volunteers lead training on topics that they are both passionate and knowledgeable about.
  • Talk about topics that are relevant to students and culture.
  • Make the informational time interactive through question and answer sessions, games, small group discussions, or even by bringing in a guest speaker.

Make it relational and have fun.

I love to build in times for fellowship during training. I make sure to keep the beginning time open to talk, eat food, and fellowship. One of the best things to do during training is to incorporate a meal or food to some degree. If it’s breakfast time get some pastries, do a pancake bar, and make sure to have coffee and tea. If it’s lunch or dinner grill out, have a s’mores bar, or a baked potato bar. Whenever you provide food I would encourage you to think of things outside of what you normally do for students (i.e. walking tacos, pizza, etc.). This shows your leaders that you value and appreciate them.

Another great option for fellowship is to include various fun activities like a fire pit, swimming, yard games, a karaoke contest, team competitions, or even a friendly game of 9 Square. These moments not only allow for your leaders to have fun and release stress but also to connect with one another.

Make it creative.

As you think through training and what it can look like, try to make it creative and not the same training you have done year in and year out. Have different types of team building activities, bring in different people to lead, change up the location and ambiance, or make it a themed training. When you get creative it makes training more inviting and intentional, and it will help make your leaders desire to be a part of what you are doing.

Incorporate prayer and worship.

Whenever we are facilitating a training we always need to remember why we are doing what we are doing. We are simply functioning as disciple-makers and shepherds who have been entrusted to care for His people. As such we should be bathing any training or gathering in prayer and worshiping God because of all He has done and will do. Praying over the year, the ministry, students, and families helps us to shift our focus and remember that this only accomplished through Christ. This allows for us to rejoice in, trust, and acknowledge God’s control and know that the year and everything that happens is all a part of His plan.

Tips for Recruiting Volunteers

Summer trips are wrapping up, the final vacations are commencing, and youth ministries are preparing for the fall. And as we prepare for fall programming many of us are working to finalize and recruit volunteers. Each year we are inevitably faced with the need for new volunteers for a host of reasons. Whether you took over a ministry and volunteers left, your ministry has grown, or volunteers have just stepped back, we all know the pain, panic, and difficulty that comes with seeking out volunteers. In this post I want to provide some ideas to help you grow your team and recruit volunteers who are right for your ministry.

Start early.

This is something we should strive to do. The sooner you start recruiting the less you need to scramble as the next semester or school year approaches. It also gives you the opportunity to truly find people who are committed to the ministry and the vision of the ministry. It affords you greater flexibility and opportunity because you have more time to think critically about who becomes a volunteer and where they will fit.

Ask someone else with connections to help.

This is something I’ve learned to rely on greatly in my last few years of ministry. Some people are fantastic at networking and knowing individuals and their gifting. Our senior pastor’s wife is that person for me. She sends me tons of names of people but includes insight as to why they would be valuable for our ministry. Now it is important in utilizing someone who has this insight to help them know your needs, qualifications for leaders, and the vision of the ministry. This will help in the filtering process and give you more quality candidates to choose from.

Lean into parents.

Parents can make really good volunteers. Some student ministries utilize them and others don’t. It all depends on the program, the vision and purpose, and the relationships between parents and students. Parents bring a ton of insight, wisdom, and a desire to see students grow and because of this, they can be incredibly valuable to the ministry. Many of them are also available during youth group time because they have already carved that time slot out of their schedule.

Now I will say this: it probably isn’t prudent to have a student’s parent be their small group leader. For some families this may work, but for a large majority of them, the student may shut down and not feel comfortable sharing all the time. So if you are going to utilize parents, be thoughtful in where and why you place them where you do. Have conversations with parents and their student and consider what would be the best win for your ministry.

Utilize your current volunteers.

This is a great opportunity for you to lean into your team and allow them to provide insight for the ministry. If you have leaders, ask them who would be a good fit as a new leader. Ask them if they know people who would do well in student ministry. Ask them who they would recommend. They know your heart and vision for the program and they are invested in students. Because of that, they can provide wisdom and insight into who you should be asking.

Another great opportunity would be to ask them to do the recruiting. Having that personal connection means a ton and it allows for your leaders to truly lead outward. They become excited about the program and you are elevating their leadership status and giving them the trust they deserve.

Ask former volunteers.

This is something we should consider each year. Volunteers stop serving for a variety of reasons, and we should remember that they were and still are capable leaders. A helpful place to start when it comes to recruiting volunteers is to start with those who have already served. I have had leaders who faithfully served for four years and then took time off, but promised to be back after a time of refreshment. You may also have former volunteers just waiting in the wings to be asked, and I want to encourage you to do so. Even if they cannot volunteer, you are making personal connections and reestablishing relationships which could lead you to someone else through a connection with your former leader.

Engage in personal conversations.

This is one that will require much of your time but it is arguably the most important and beneficial. It is often through a personal ask that you will be able to recruit more volunteers because it establishes a connection, allows you to share your heart, and it highlights a need. These conversations will take time but they will generate results. Whenever you are afforded the opportunity to meet or talk to someone, I suggest that you take it and leverage those opportunities to discuss what it means to volunteer and why it is worth it. These are moments that will greatly benefit you and your team as you engage with people and they are able to get to know you, your vision, and your passion.

Go old school.

This isn’t something I default to because studies prove that personal conversations and connections generate better results, but we cannot deny that sometimes in order for people to fill a need they need to be made aware that there is one. Some of the ways that we can share about a need include bulletin announcements or on your pre-service slides, announcements from the stage or pulpit, and emailing or cold calling people. This may sound like a lot of work that may not generate a lot of results, but they may generate some, and some is better than none.

A final word of advice. So often I see the need for recruiting new volunteers happen when a new pastor or youth leader takes over. The reason for this is volunteers step back when a pastor or beloved staff member leaves. While I totally understand the why behind this, we as youth workers must seek to leave better. We may not intend our volunteers to leave a program because we do, but they can and will unless we do better.

I believe what we must be doing is looking to build a program that isn’t dependent upon any one person, but instead built on Christ. I tell people often that my desire is to have a program that isn’t about me or my staff, but that students come because they have leaders who love them and disciple them, and a place that is safe for them to hear about Christ. By doing this and saying this our leaders will realize the program isn’t about us but about leading students to Jesus and hopefully will incur a better attitude and longevity in their service, and better set up the incoming leader for success. Look to build a program that isn’t built upon ourselves but on Christ, and speak truth into your people before, during, and after your tenure and help them to continue to stay and move forward with their students.

8 Questions Interviewees Should Ask

Many churches are hiring as the start of a new school year approaches, and youth workers are getting ready to candidate. For many youth workers there are always obvious questions heading into these interviews: what should I ask the church? Are there certain questions I should ask? Are there questions I shouldn’t bring up?

Today, my desire is to provide you with some questions that I believe every youth worker should ask as they prepare to take on a new role. Not all of these questions are easy nor will they necessarily be comfortable, but asking them will better prepare you in discerning if this is where God is calling you.

1. Why is the position open?

Sometimes in our excitement of being brought in to interview we forget to consider why there is an opening to begin with. It could be that the former person left under amicable terms or moved into a new role. Or the potential exists that the previous person was let go, left on poor terms, or did something wrong. Knowing this gives you insight into the church, its leadership, and the student program, which will better prepare you to serve and minister to them.

2. What are the expectations for this position?

Sometimes the written versus desired expectations of the church are different. Asking this question will help you to discern what is most important to the church, the position, and to the ministry. When you know the unwritten expectations you are able to step back and assess whether or not you can meet them and if you are the right fit for the position.

3. What are the expectations for my spouse?

This is a big question that should always be asked by married interviewees. Some churches believe that in hiring one spouse, the couple comes as a shared package. That isn’t true unless they are paying both of you for your time. Your spouse should be empowered to engage with the church in the ways they are gifted. If it’s student ministry, fantastic. If it’s leading elsewhere, praise God. Regardless, a church should never expect your spouse to work for free regardless of rationale.

4. Are there any sacred cows I need to be aware of?

Churches all value different things at varying degrees of importance. You may come from a background where methodology of communion wasn’t important, but the church you are interviewing at may only do intinction. Imagine the awkwardness that would come about if you lead communion in the “wrong” manner. This can be avoided by simply asking a question and seeking to understand what the church values. Asking this question doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find out all of the things that are valued, but it will give you an inside look to understand and discern what is important to this church body.

5. What does the salary and benefits package look like?

We aren’t always willing to ask this during an interview because it feels presumptuous and a bit prideful. But it is important for you to know what the church is offering to see if it is actually a livable wage and something that will not only provide for you and your family but also afford you the option to save.

6. Are you willing to negotiate?

We don’t often think in this way when it comes to serving in churches because we allow our calling to say we will give more than we are paid. While having a servant’s heart is a great quality, your time, effort, and work ethic are worthy of a proper salary. So be willing to counter an offer and ask for changes to the package. Don’t be greedy, but know that you have value. A great comparison is to research what local teachers make and compare the package you are offered to ones they receive.

7. How do you and how will you measure success for this position?

This is a great question to ask because it prepares you for how you will lead. One church may measure success by the number of attendees while another measures it by baptism and still another by simply maintaining the status quo. When you have this answer not only will you have clarity on where the ministry is desired to go, you will also be able to discern if this is in line with how you view ministry and success within ministry.

8. How many hours a week am I expected to work?

Many churches will offer a salaried position, to which many people default to understanding as a forty hour work week. But for some churches that isn’t the case. I have worked for churches where you are paid for forty hours but they want upwards of sixty hours a week. Be cautious with this mentality. A church should care about you and your family’s overall health, and if you aren’t spending time with them and having adequate downtime, you cannot be an effective leader in ministry. Our priorities should be our relationship with God, our relationship with our spouse, our relationship with our family, and then our relationship with our church and jobs.

What are some questions that you have found helpful to ask in the interview process?

How to Care Well for Students [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off this conversation by talking about how we need to be prepared and ready to care for our students as we walk with them through life’s moments. In this post, I want to share some insight in how to help students move forward in this process.

These ideas are framed to help students grow and take steps forward by utilizing resources that will set them up for success in the long term. Change isn’t always instantaneous and we want to make sure we are setting our students up for lifelong, healthy changes that will be sustainable. But in order to do this well we must realize there are steps that need to be taken and they don’t always require us as their leaders to carry the bulk of the load.

My hope in sharing these ideas with you is that this sets you up to do what you do best: love and care for your students as you point them to Jesus. But I also hope that in sharing these ideas, you realize it isn’t all on your shoulders. Understand that you can only do what you are able, qualified, and called to do. In those moments outside of your control these ideas will enable you to ensure that your students are loved and cared for well.

Start small.

Often times it is easy to shoot for the end goal. We know where students should be and they want to meet a goal, but we shouldn’t simply start with the end in mind. In order to have a better chance of achieving success, we should start with a step-by-step process. Set up smaller goals that lead to the end goal and in doing so you are giving the student more opportunities to grow and celebrate as they meet these goals. It also affords you the ability to reset and reestablish as needed because if a goal is missed it isn’t the endgame. Often if we simply seek to meet the ultimate goal and fail, there is a strong possibility that we may give up on the goal because of a strong sense of failure. But if it is simple a step toward the goal that isn’t met, it affords an opportunity to reset, adjust, and continue moving forward toward the goal. It also will give you more insight into your student and their strengths and weaknesses which gives you the greater ability to minister to and care for your students.

Normalize asking for and getting help.

This is a big thing to do as you care for your students. This is becoming more and more accepted but there is still a stigma attached to asking for and gaining help on various issues. But by encouraging your students when they ask for help and championing receiving help, you are giving your students permission to do the same and easing the stigma that has been pervasive within our culture.

Another way you can do this is by talking about it in a positive way and doing so often. The more you talk about it, engage it, and highlight the benefits of asking for and receiving help, the more you will help your students get the care they need and deserve.

Bring in qualified help.

We are not experts in everything, and as such we must acknowledge that there are others who have more skill, training, and knowledge in various areas. And that is okay. What we must do though is know who has what skill sets and expertise so we can utilize their areas of wisdom and knowledge to better care for and minister to our students. So build helpful networks, grow your own knowledge, be willing to hand off well, and utilize the resources at your disposal. Doing so will not only guarantee that your students get the help they need, it also allows you to make sure that your students are receiving holistic care and will grow in an appropriate way.

Bring in parents.

This is one area that is extremely important when it comes to caring for students, but also one that requires wisdom, tact, and an understanding of the relationship and dynamic that exists between parents and students. Depending on the reason that a student comes to you, it is extremely important that you bring parents into the conversation and care, but it is also something that could be terrifying and difficult for your student.

For example, if a student wants to be baptized and grow in their faith by being mentored by you, it would be helpful to talk to the parents about their student’s decision. But that could prove difficult if they aren’t believers or it could be a hugely beneficial conversation because perhaps they have been praying for this moment.

Or consider that a student comes to you acknowledging that they are self-harming. It is extremely important to bring parents into the conversation for a litany of reasons, but the student may be terrified of this because perhaps they think their parents won’t love them. Or perhaps the parents are putting pressure on their student that is pushing them to self-harm. Or maybe the parent will show how deeply they love their student and walk with them.

Regardless of the circumstance, bringing in parents will afford you the opportunity to administer better holistic care for your student, their parents, and their relationships. Yes, this may make the situation more difficult and tricky but the benefits far outweigh any of the difficulties or potential stressful moments.

Go with students.

When a student comes to you and opens up about something that is outside of your scope of care and you refer them to someone else, or if they are challenged to talk to their parents, or if they simply have to go to someone for whatever reason, go with them. This not only shows them that you mean it when you say you love and care for them, it also provides them a support network in what can be a terrifying moment for them. You have become a trusted advocate and you are showing them they are not alone. And in many ways your presence in these moments will help to soften them and make them more manageable for the student. So wherever a student goes after they confide in you, go with them, be for them, and love and care for them in those moments.

Stick with them.

This last point is so important in making sure we care well for our students. Change and growth takes time. And let’s be honest, sometimes taking time with students is hard and we want to walk away because it seems like they aren’t growing, don’t want to change, or just give up. But if we turn away from them in the moments when they need us most, we are almost certainly setting them up for failure.

So instead of walking away, dig in and continue to love and care for them even when it is hard. I am not saying that you should give all of yourself and constantly have your face spit in. But I am saying don’t simply cast away a student for lack of change. Love them, pray for and with them, challenge them, and continue to be with and for them. How you care for them may change throughout the process, but the important thing is to continue loving and caring for them regardless. This shows them that you believe in them and are for them, which is arguably what students truly need to incur lifelong change and growth in their lives.

What has worked best for you as you have you loved and cared for your students through long periods of growth and change?

How to Care Well for Students [Part 1]

Many of us are returning from trips this summer and while there you probably had students open up to you about their struggles, sins, hopes, and dreams. These are the moments we have been praying for. The moments when God grabs their hearts in big ways and moves them toward change and seeking direction. And when that happens they often seek out their leaders and pastors for insight, direction, and help in attaining these changes.

These types of moments aren’t limited to camps and trips; it could just be a simple night at youth group when students are sensing the Spirit of God moving in their lives. Regardless of when or how these moments happen, we must be prepared and ready to walk with them and help them move forward in making the needed life changes. Today, I want to provide you with some helpful ways to do just that, and next week I’ll share a few more that have to do with taking steps forward in this process with your students.

Establish trust.

This is paramount to helping your students grow and mature in their relationship with Jesus. In order to care well for students they first need to trust you. If students don’t trust you, they won’t be honest with you. So be a person they can trust. Be someone who not only honors what they share, but also someone who follows up and truly cares for them. Doing this will allow your students to see that your actions and words match, which then allows them to trust you which will give them the opportunity to be honest with you when God moves in their lives.

Listen.

Students are going to come to you with a wide range of topics and if we are honest, some of those topics are not exciting nor do they grab our attention. Students could spend hours talking about video games or the new meme that is going around. And I think for many of us, it is easy to disengage during those moments. But what I have seen and learned is that students will use those discussions to test the waters with their leaders. They want to see if you care about them and they measure our level of care by how we listen.

Are you paying attention? Have you maintained eye contact? Did you ask clarifying questions? Or did your mind wander? Did you look at your watch or phone? Students see all of this and truly want someone who will love them and listen.

What I have also seen is that these types of conversations are also the bridge to a larger, more serious conversations. Students are looking to see if you can be trusted to listen to something seemingly insignificant so they will be able to discern if you can be trusted with heavier, more personal conversations. At camp this summer, I had a student who opened up and shared their heart with me because I spent time getting to know them in middle school. They said “Nick, the reason I came to you is because I knew after our first conversation when I was in middle school that you are a safe person who cares about me.” So seek to listen well and honor your students as you care for them.

Ask clarifying questions.

This is a big one as you seek to listen well. Part of listening well is seeking to understand and you do this by asking questions. But be intentional with those questions. Seek to gain a better and fuller understanding of what is being shared. State back what you heard and ask if that was correct. Ask about how people felt. Seek to understand what brought the student to this moment. Find out who else was or is involved in this moment. These type of clarifying questions will help you in how you minister to and care for your students.

Utilize leaders.

This is huge because it not only gives students a wider support network but also affirms and values your leaders and their gifting. Bringing in small group leaders to walk with students helps them to build a network of people who will walk with and care for them. If a student is open about a struggle they are dealing with on a continual basis, you have afforded them multiple contacts to reach out to should they need help. This can be a very real life-saving opportunity and it will help to ensure that your students are cared for and have people in their corner. By bringing your leaders in you are also giving a wider ability to offer care and affirming your leaders. You are allowing them to take the leadership role you have entrusted them with and care for their students.

Follow up.

After the initial interaction with a student, make sure to follow up with them. Depending on what is shared will necessitate when the follow up should be (i.e. if it is more severe or life-threatening, the follow up should be fairly quick, whereas a less severe scenario may be in a couple of days or longer). The follow up shows a student that you heard them, love them, and are committed to walking with and helping them. This is an opportunity for you to truly care and engage in the discipleship process with them.

Follow up will look different depending on what was shared but should at the very least involve a text or phone call, but in the best circumstances, should be an in-person meeting to talk, process, and come up with a plan to move forward. This is also an opportunity for you to pray with them, share Scripture, and help them to see things from a biblical perspective.

What has been the best method of caring for students that you have used or implemented?

Trip Follow-Up with Students

Following a trip with students, the first thought in our minds is typically not “how can I follow up or debrief my students?” It is usually, “how much stuff do I need to put away until I can head home and sleep in my own bed?”

As we collect ourselves from the last few days and begin to navigate assimilating to our regular work schedule and life, we often focus on the immediate tasks at hand: putting away all of our gear that we took, washing out the water jugs and coolers, returning or attempting to return all the lost and found items, washing and cleaning vehicles, and nursing the sore muscles we didn’t realize we had.

But what about following up and helping our students re-engage with life and culture again? How do we help them not simply have a “camp high” but a truly life changing moment with Jesus that alters everything? Today my desire is not to give you more work, but hopefully give you insight and ways to help your students engage life differently as they apply what they heard and learned from their trip.

Incorporate follow-up with trip training.

One way to build this into what you are doing is by letting students and leaders know that a debrief or follow-up is a part of going on this trip. All of your meetings for a trip should be mandatory and this should be no exception. When you are walking through training and what to expect on the trip, make sure you talk to students about the importance of reengaging with “normal life” when you return home. Our goal on these trips should not be to give students a temporary high but rather help them change their lives for the long-term.

When students are on these trips they will grow in their relationship with Jesus because they are intentionally focusing on Him, serving others, and will be spending extended time in prayer, worship, and Scripture. Helping students understand that these moments don’t need to stop after the trip is over will allow them to better acclimate back to their normal routines. So make sure to highlight that the group will regather at least once when you return to check-in, debrief, and begin crafting plans on how students can continue strongly in their relationship with Jesus.

Utilize available resources.

There are tons of great resources out there that you can use to engage in follow up and post-trip conversations. One of our favorites is a book called Flipping Missions by our friends at LeaderTreks. This book is fantastic for both middle and high school students, and provides helpful guidance on preparing for the trip, devotions for during the trip, and follow-up devotionals for when you return home. Each chapter of the book is short and written intentionally for students, providing deep and meaningful truths coupled with helpful knowledge about what to expect, how to serve, and how to be missionary for Christ.

Another great resource is a book called When Helping Hurts. There are also YouTube videos from Life Church called Helping Without Hurting that can be utilized alongside the book to help make training more impactful. It is helpful to acknowledge that this resource is more suited for older students, but if you take time to discuss the book and material with your team it may be applicable to younger students as well. Taking advantage of resources will ensure that your team is prepared and ready to serve when you head out on your trip. Make sure that whatever resource you choose is suited to your team, and that it will help you ensure the trip is impactful and purposeful.

Leverage your leaders.

Often on trips we will see our students broken up into smaller groups to help the discipleship process take root. When you come back from a trip, encourage your leaders to not let those moments and relationships fall by the wayside. Instead challenge them to continue engaging with and following up with those students, even if they are not students who are in their regular groups. Part of the beauty of trips is that students can connect with different people including leaders, and these moments could be pivotal in the spiritual formation of our students. So challenge your leaders to engage in follow up, set up hangouts, grab coffee, and pray with and for the students they interacted with on the trip.

Engage in large group follow-up.

Many of the ideas above are focused on pre-trip or smaller group engagements (i.e., leaders following up). But there are benefits to bringing your whole group together to engage with each other, remember the trip, and think through how to continue growing as disciples of Jesus. These gatherings can be very unique depending on your context and may be more formal or may be really relaxed. They may also be different depending on the type of trip you’re coming back from (i.e., a weekend trip, a week-long trip, or a mission trip). Here are a few ideas for how to utilize large group gatherings after your trip.

  • Have a meal together. Consider not only bringing your group together to fellowship and rehash the trip, but think about inviting people from the church to join as well. In these moments, you can challenge your students to connect with people in the church and share their experiences from the trip. This will not only allow for intergenerational discipleship, but will also give those who supported your students an opportunity to have direct follow-up from the trip.
  • Choose a follow-up project to get involved in. Coming off of a mission trip, students are often chomping at the bit to continue helping and serving. Think through ways that students can serve and contribute in your community and at church. Gather the group together to actually engage in a service project and challenge your students to step up and consider serving somewhere long-term.
  • Collect stories from students. God works in amazing ways during trips, and we witness transformative moments in the lives of our students. Consider collecting their stories and sharing them with the youth group or the church at large. You can do this in a variety of ways: collect written testimonials and stories, record videos of students to share, or host a panel discussion to talk about what God did in through the students on the trip.
  • Have a post-trip devotional. One of the best things you can do for your students as you go on trips is have a devotional for during and after the trip. If it is possible to tie the two together, that will allow for a stronger connection overall. You can then utilize these devotionals in follow-up conversations at large group gatherings and ask questions of the group from the devotional.

Ask helpful questions.

Regardless of the type of trip or how long the meeting lasts, follow-up is always important. It is important because it helps to connect what students experienced on the trip with what is happening now in their lives. It also helps them think through how they can apply what they learned to their spheres of influence. But what questions should we ask them? Here are handful of questions that will help you and your leaders engage in helpful and meaningful follow up and application with your students.

  • What was your favorite part of the trip?
  • What changed in your relationship with Jesus?
  • What did God teach you?
  • How are you going to live differently as a result of the trip?
  • What do you need to share with others about this trip?
  • What do you hope others will see in you?
  • Why was this trip important?
  • What are you applying from this trip now that you are back to your normal life?
  • How can you serve back home?
  • Who can you share your story with?
  • How can you love and care for others better after this trip?

5 Ways to Vacation Well

For many of us summer is a time for vacation. We anxiously anticipate our time away and the ability to decompress. And we long for time with those closest to us that is uninhibited.

But perhaps you’re like me and you aren’t good at vacationing. Sure, you can get away and make it to your destination. You can post all the amazing photos where you’re smiling and the backgrounds are beautiful. But we know deep down we haven’t truly taken time away; we haven’t truly vacationed. We may have left the physical location of our jobs and ministries, but they have not left us.

What I mean is many of us carry the weight of our ministries, volunteers, students, and more, even as we are on vacation. We check our emails when we think no one is looking. We post on our ministry’s social media. We text and engage with students and church issues throughout our trip.

I don’t think this is born out of any warped theology or perspective, but rather out of a desire to wholly engage with our ministry and calling. We don’t want to disengaging because we feel the weight we carry and we acknowledge that we have a passion and obligation to care for our people. But let me ask you this: at what cost?

If you cannot retreat and refresh you will burn out. If you place the whole weight of your ministry upon yourself, you are arguably forgetting that the ministry doesn’t hinge on you but upon Christ. And if we are not wholly present with our families and those we are called to care for first, we are actually doing more harm than good to ourselves and others. Today, I want to present you with a few tips on how to vacation well and actually step back while you refresh. This may be difficult at first, but trust me when I tell you that it is needed and necessary, especially after this past year.

1. Let people know you’re taking time off.

This is hugely important because communicating that you will be away means you should be receiving less communication. We work in a tech savy ministry, and we are always getting inundated with texts, messages, videos, and memes. None of these are inheritenly wrong or bad, but they are part of our job. If we engage with them, we are missing out on our own time to rest and refresh. So communicate to your students, families, co-workers, supervisors, and the church that you will be away.

This isn’t wrong to do, even though it may feel like it. We may feel like not responding is hurting someone or pushing them further from Jesus. And yes, there will be emergencies when you may need to engage, but it is extremely important to remember that you are not people’s savior. We are simply employees of the Savior. We cannot work ourselves into the mentality that we are the only ones who can help people. But rather we should feel comfortable knowing there are others that God has positioned to help. So breathe easier and release.

2. Set up social media posts ahead of time.

I don’t know if your ministry utilizes social media, but we do a ton. We have a whole social media plan in place for each week. Sundays serve as a day of reminders and updates via video; Mondays are our weekly devotional; Wednesdays serve as a reminder of youth group that night or of events during the summer; and Fridays are our day to engage with our audience. Because there is the pressure to post on social media and continue a rhythm, it is important to schedule these posts ahead of time. That way you do not need to worry about hopping on your laptop or phone for “a few minutes” to post. Instead you can schedule them out so you can be wholly present during your vacation.

There are multiple apps that allow you to cross-post on multiple platforms, and I would encourage you to think through which platforms you need to post on. You truly don’t need to post the same content everywhere, nor do you need to utilize every social media tool that is out there (maybe I’ll write more about how to leverage and choose social media at a later time). What we are doing is simply using Facebook and Instagram and scheduling posts through Facebook’s Business Suite. You can post just to Facebook or Instagram, or you can post to both. And you can also schedule stories as well since that is where students seem to engage the most on Instagram.

3. Turn off notifications to your phone or leave electronics at home.

This is one that may leave you feeling a little anxious, but trust me when I say that this is one of the best things you can do. Turning off notifications for email, social media, calls, and whatever else is work-related will give you a feeling of freedom and rest. It will stop you from thinking about work and all the details and allow you to focus on your time away. This will require a bit of work as you will need to turn off notifications for various apps and functions ahead of time, or another way to work around this is to turn off your phone completely. Doing this will actually be a way of releasing and letting go of an object that arguably has a lot of control and power in our lives. Just as a quick aside, turning on Airplane Mode doesn’t stop notifications because if you connect to Wi-Fi they will still come through.

Another way to engage this is by simply leaving your electronics at home. Leave your laptop, phone, tablet, or whatever else is work-related at home so they are not constantly pinging you with notifications. Now if you can’t leave your phone for various reasons, consider what we said about turning off notifications. And if you need a tablet or laptop, consider doing the same thing as with your phone or having a secondary electronic device that doesn’t have all those apps and functions on it.

4. Turn on out-of-office responses.

This is a pretty easy one, but one we sometimes forget to do. Turn on your “out of the office” response for your email, voicemail, and whatever else is used to contact you. Doing this will allow people to understand why you didn’t respond right away and it will take the pressure off of you so you don’t have to shoot out a quick text, call, or email saying why.

5. Leave work at home.

This is a big one, especially for me. I can turn off notifications and such, but I will often make the excuse that the book or blog or article that I am reading isn’t for work. But I know deep down, it is. If you are going to take time away from work, take time away. Bring books and things to do that will help you refresh in mind, body, and soul. Take items that will rejuvenate you and bring life to you and your relationships. So put down your books on how to be a better communicator, leave behind the blogs on how to engage with students, and instead pick up your Bible or take a book that is nourishing to your soul and engage with them during your vacation.

The whole purpose with this is not to say that work is bad or wrong, but to help us fully get away and rest. If we are not healthy and refreshed we cannot lead well. And it isn’t wrong to engage or respond to a text, but we all know it isn’t a simple response. It is deeper than that because we engage fully with our ministry and our people. A simple text means our minds wander. A response to an email can pull at our hearts and thoughts. A phone call that was to be two minutes can turn into an hour. But it isn’t just those moments; it continues because our minds and hearts will focus on those things and not the rest and refreshment we need. So look to escape and refresh this summer…you deserve it!

Caring for Volunteer Leaders on Trips

Many of us are preparing for summer trips after a year of not having them. You have planned for hours, you’ve prepared your team, hosted trainings, figured out all the details, and now you’re ready to go. But what about your leaders?

Most of us have volunteer leaders who go on trips with us, but how often do you consider blessing and caring for them before, during, and after the trip? Our leaders give up vacation time, finances, time with family, sleep, and much more to engage in these discipleship moments with their students. As the leaders of the ministry we serve in, we have an obligation to care for and bless our people, especially during these moments. So how do we do this well?

Consider covering the cost of the trip for your leaders.

This is something that could be huge in caring for and encouraging your leaders. I know that this may not be an option for all ministries, but I would encourage you to think about implementing this in some capacity. Our leaders already sacrifice so much to come on trips that having them pay for the trip can feel a little insulting. So consider implementing a way to cover some or all of the cost for them.

  • Contact the camp or organization you are partnering with and see if they offer a reduced rate for leaders. Many offer reduced rates and some don’t make leaders pay at all. It never hurts to ask.
  • Consider building the cost of paying for your leaders into your annual budget. If you plan for it ahead of time, you can prepare your budget accordingly. This doesn’t have to be used to cover all of the cost if you aren’t able to, but it could be used to offset the overall cost.
  • Consider breaking down the cost of your leaders into the cost that students pay for the trip. Before doing this, make sure it is okay with your church leadership. Some will not allow this, others may ask you to hold parent forums to explain it, and still others may simply give you the green light.
  • Set up a scholarship fund for your leaders. Do not let this dominate over providing scholarships for your students, but have this as an additional way people in your church could show that they care about pouring into the next generation and the leaders who care for them.

Acknowledge them before others.

I love bragging on my leaders and letting them know how awesome they are. But even more than simply saying it to them, acknowledge them in front of others. Talk about how necessary leaders are to your church body. When a leader does something awesome for their group, recognize that to the group. If they did something to help, acknowledge them before the youth group.

Now I will say be cautious in how you do this. Some leaders do not like to be recognized for various reasons. So do not seek to embarrass them or potentially make them feel put out by doing this. Knowing your people and how to best encourage them will give you clarity in how to proceed in recognizing them.

Keep your leaders in the loop.

This includes before, during, and after the trip. Let them know about key things like schedules, objectives, training, and all other important details to keep them in the loop and not having to rely upon spur of the moment decisions or changes. When you do this, it not only gives them an understanding of what is happening but it also tells them that they are valuable and you see them as equals on this trip. You are elevating them and highlighting how critical they are.

Provide them with an intentional gift.

If I am honest, this is probably one of my favorite things to do for my leaders. I love being able to bless them with a gift before we go on a trip to show them how much they mean to me, our students, and our church. The gifts will largely depend on budget, number of leaders going, and the length and intensity of the trip. Do not feel that the gift must be extravagant or expensive. Instead seek to provide an intentional gift that reflects how much you care about them. If you can tie it into your trip somehow, that’s an added bonus. I also try to find gifts that our leaders can use outside of the trip in everyday life. Here are a few suggestions for gifts to give to your leaders:

  • A backpack or drawstring bag that has your ministry name and/or logo on it. And added plus would be filling it with a handwritten note, snacks, and different “supplies” (see the next point for more info) for the trip.
  • A water bottle or Yeti that features your youth group logo.
  • A nice warm blanket for those winter trips.
  • A nice journal with their name on it and a handwritten note from you on the first page.
  • A hoodie, t-shirt, or zip up jacket. Consider putting a fun saying, your logo, or your leaders’ names on them as well.

Have a leaders-only space or trip survival bags.

Whenever possible, find ways to bless and encourage your leaders throughout the trip. This could be by designating a leader-only space that has comfortable seats and couches, snacks and drinks for leaders only, and has a place for them to just breathe. It could also be by giving them trip survival bags. These are bags with resources to help them get through the trip and can have a mixture of practical, funny, and relational resources. Here is a quick list of some items to put into the bag or have in a leader-only lounge:

  • Chapstick
  • Earplugs
  • Advil, AdvilPM, and Tylenol
  • Candy bars
  • Non-chocolate candies (i.e. Skittles, Starbursts, gummy bears, licorice, etc)
  • Tea and coffee
  • Gatorade or Propel
  • Energy drinks
  • Sleep masks
  • Water bottles
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Airborne
  • Chips and snack mixes
  • Cookies and sandwich crackers

Check in with each leader during the trip.

While you are on the trip, make sure to intentionally connect with each leader and make sure it is more than a 1-2 minute check-in. Carve out time to truly sit and listen to how they are doing, what has gone well, what they need encouragement for, and pray for them. A great way to spend the time is to buy them a cup of coffee and share the time it takes to drink that coffee simply listening to and encouraging them.

Thank their family for letting them come.

This is one you can do before, during, or after the trip or use a combination of these to reach out to families. We don’t often consider the sacrifices our volunteers make so recognizing their families and thanking them for allowing their loved one to come is a big deal. It could be a text or phone call beforehand. It could be a handwritten note. It could be a public thank you before the trip. Maybe it is a text midweek with a photo of their spouse or parent shepherding students and a quick thank-you for letting them care for their students. Or maybe it’s a follow up note after camp talking about how God used them.

Write them a card.

Nothing says “I love you” and “I see you” more than a handwritten card or note. I love to send our leaders to camp with a personalized thank you note because I want them to know how valuable they are. But I would encourage you to consider giving out notes or cards during the trip as well. Highlight how you’ve seen your leaders serve and lead, point out how you have been encouraged by them, and consider giving them a gift card or credit to the snack shop if there is one. I would also suggest writing a follow up card after the trip to each of your leaders thanking them. These types of intentional notes will generate buy-in and commitment to the ministry because your people will see that you are committed to them.