5 Ways to Develop Volunteers

Whether we oversee a small youth group or one that attracts hundreds of students, we can all agree that having volunteers is essential. Spiritually mature, veteran youth leaders are appealing, and I think at times we wish all of our leaders were like that. But rarely will that be the case. We will always have young or new youth leaders step in to serve, which is a good thing. What we need to think through is how to help develop our young leaders into mature, veteran leaders. Some may get there of their own accord, but it is our responsibility as ministry leaders and shepherds to help them grow and develop. So what are some ways we can do this?

1. Meet with your volunteers.

Regardless of the size of your program, I would encourage you to know your leaders personally by meeting with them. Part of helping leaders develop and grow means establishing a relationship that will allow them to know you and your heart for the ministry. These don’t have to be super formal or exceptionally long meetings, but they do need to be personal, intentional, and formational. I love meeting with leaders for coffee or lunch, or having them over for dinner and games at my home. During these times we build our relationship, talk about how they are doing, share prayer requests, ask about their experience with the student ministry, and share life together. Sometimes these meetings involve talking about difficult topics or challenging leaders to grow, but often those conversations are easier than most because we have already built relational equity and established trust. Meeting with your leaders will help them grow, know they are loved, and refresh them as they guide students under your leadership.

2. Cast vision well.

Vision-casting is a big part of developing leaders. There are some volunteers who can come, have fun with the students, and lead small groups amazingly well. But if we are not sharing the “why” and the purpose of what we are doing, it’s easy to lose focus. Volunteers will lead differently, the focus of small groups may not be consistent, and messages and guidance will vary. As the shepherd of your leaders, it is imperative to talk about the purpose and vision for what you are doing, which gives everyone the same perspective and target to pursue. Doing this will bring unity and passion to your leaders who will then impart that to the students they are interacting with, and it will provide consistency on all fronts.

3. Give volunteers responsibility and ownership.

Leaders volunteer because they love what they are doing, and have something they can bring to the table. It’s important to identify where they are gifted and allow them to have more responsibility. If you have a leader who loves to sing and lead worship, consider asking them to form a youth worship team. If you have a leader who is passionate about speaking on a certain topic, build that into your teaching calendar and allow them to speak. Should a leader have an idea for how to improve the ministry, ask them to share their heart and consider implementing it with them. When you release ownership and empower your leaders with responsibility, you will see the ministry grow and flourish, and you will experience exponential buy-in from them. They will know you trust them with ownership and it releases you from having to do everything or be the only face of the ministry.

4. Recognize and challenge them.

This is something that I think we can always work toward doing better. All of us know that without our volunteers we wouldn’t have an effective ministry, but how often do we tell them that? Do you thank them for coming each week? Do you recognize and affirm them when you see them shepherd students well? Are you sending them a note to thank them for loving students even when it’s hard? We must be leaders who value and love our volunteers, and a tangible way of doing that is by recognizing them for both things we may consider great and small. It shows our leaders that they matter and that we see them and what they are doing.

We need to challenge our leaders as well. There will be times we need to gently remind or encourage our volunteers to lead. There are going to be moments when we need to speak direct truth and challenge them to grow. And we may need to speak with them about mistakes they made and help them right what went wrong.

Both encouraging and challenging your volunteers should be born out of love and a desire for them to succeed and grow as they lead in the ministry. That means these conversations are built upon a loving relationship and they know you truly care about and want the best for them. I would also encourage you to follow up on these conversations as well. Don’t simply look for a one-off chat, instead look to use these moments for ongoing leadership development.

5. Listen to your volunteers.

This is one of the biggest things you can do as the leader of your ministry. The reality is everyone has an opinion and not all of them are helpful. I think if we are honest with ourselves, hearing new ideas or critiques can be hard in the context of ministry. We have poured our hearts, souls, lives, and much more into not just a career but a calling. And because of that we take it personally when someone speaks about doing things differently. But if you have been faithfully seeking to meet with and empower your leaders, they will believe in what you are doing and will offer helpful suggestions and ideas.

A good leader listens to their people because they bring ideas and changes with the same passions and desires they see in you. They aren’t coming to cast your ideas to the side but offering new and creative ways to do things. That means they believe in what you are doing, and they are also doing what you brought them in to do: lead. They see ways to not dismantle the program but help it grow and develop. Listen to their insight, challenge them to think about implementation, give affirmation, look to apply what they said, and allow them to be the ones who lead out with their ideas.

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

This past week we saw something unprecedented in modern times: the US Capital was marched upon and breached. It was a moment that as I watched it unfold brought me back to the moment I saw the Twin Towers struck in New York and then collapse on September 11. The pain, hurt, grief, frustration, and brokenness I felt made my soul weary and longing for the return of our true Savior.

But as I sat and pondered the events of this past week and scrolled through social media, I saw how my students were reacting. Their reactions varied and ranged across the political landscape, but what struck me so deeply was the level of engagement and reaction they displayed. The last year has been nothing short of difficult for our students. They have faced a global pandemic, figured out how to engage with online education, struggled with loss of income, wrestled with racial equality, and still attempted to navigate the normal difficulties of teenage life.

Students are struggling right now, and we as their pastors and leaders must give them the space and place to process, engage, and respond. They are asking deep and meaningful questions, they are searching for answers, they want to understand, and are seeking clarity, wisdom, and knowledge. The reality is we are all processing and hurting, but as leaders we have an obligation to lead out and shepherd our people well. We must be a voice for truth, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a reflection of Jesus to our students. Today, I want to offer some steps you can take to engage well with your students as they are working through the realities and difficulties of our world.

Be approachable.

In order for us to have these conversations, students most know that they can approach us about these issues. Students will wrestle with various topics and issues, but they won’t always be willing to share them with you if they do not think you can be trusted. It’s imperative to be someone who shows they can be trusted and someone who will listen and be available.

Create the space for conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with being approachable, but it takes it a step further. Be someone who not only allows conversations to happen, but also engages in them. Don’t shy away from talking about heavy, difficult, or deep topics. Embrace the conversation and engage with your students. In doing so, you are creating a place for students to be real and honest about what they are thinking and processing. Students need to understand that you are willing to talk about things and when they bring their thoughts to you, that you are going to listen and walk through it with them.

Listen well.

Speaking of listening, we need to be leaders who listen well. Often as leaders we tend to want to fix problems as they are presented to us. This means that while students are sharing their problems with us, we are not listening to them fully because we are already figuring out how to fix their problem. This type of listening is often called “Passive Listening” and honestly isn’t really listening. It actually devalues the speaker because you aren’t giving them the forum to truly share and be heard. What I would suggest is something called “Attentive Listening” which you can read about further in this book by Charles Allen Kollar. Kollar’s suggestion of “Attentive Listening” means that you are listening in a careful and alert way and bringing in the beneficial aspects of passive and active listening. You speak back words, phrases, or paraphrases to the speaker and you help them think through solutions after they have finished speaking.

Listening well means you don’t just look at the problem and the solution, but you value the person and you show them they have been fully heard. Students want to be listened to and valued, and allowing them to share and be heard will build mutual trust and respect.

Do not be dismissive.

There are times in many of our lives where we may be dismissive of someone and their ideas, beliefs, or ideologies, whether we meant to or not. It could be because we scoff at the idea that is presented. We respond sarcastically. We try to flaunt our own knowledge. We could say it is a non-issue. We tell people that this is just how it is. When we do this to anyone or when it is done to us, we feel dismissed and diminished. We feel dumb, ignored, and cast to the side.

Students are so aware of when this happens, and when it does they shut down, refuse to engage, and frankly they stop trusting you as a safe person. I am not saying that we need to have an open theology or hedge on our doctrinal convictions. But I do believe we need to allow students to present what they are thinking and why, and then walk through a thoughtful and biblical response with them. Bring them into the process, value their time, hear their heart and thoughts, and challenge them to grow.

I would also encourage you to not allow for lack of time to keep you from engaging with students. Sometimes we can be dismissive because when students ask a question or challenge what is being said, it isn’t an opportune time to respond (i.e. while you are teaching). So instead of just telling them to be quiet, ask them if you could take them out for coffee later and discuss further. And then make sure you follow through.

Be willing to hear both sides.

Throughout 2020, politics and the surrounding topics littered our conversations, and an observation I saw was how divided the lines were. It wasn’t just generational either, although that was a big piece, it was more partisan in its divide. And people on either side were unwilling to hear the other side or even consider what they were saying.

Often this happens within ministries as well. We simply stick to our views and theologies rather than give other views a honest consideration. Let me explain it this way: you may hold to a literal seven day view of creation, but a student holds to an old earth view that includes a non-literal view of the creation account. How do you respond? Do you make a firm stance on your theological hill? Do you tell the student they are wrong? Do you allow them to share their thoughts and ask to grab coffee and study the topic together?

We can tend to hold onto our theologies, dogmas, and personal beliefs so closely that we close off any other views or insight. It is so important to not live in a one-sided bubble but to be listening to other thoughts and viewpoints even if we don’t believe or agree with them. Doing so will not only allow us to grow and have a deeper foundation of our own beliefs, but value students and their insights as well. It will also open doors to build bridges between differing view points or “sides.”

Admit when you are wrong, don’t know, or need to search for info.

I am not the brightest bulb in the socket and I know it. In fact, at our church there are many staff members who are much smarter than I am. And working in student ministry has shown me how important it is to have a grasp on wide variety of topics and what the Bible says about them. But there are a great many topics I don’t know about and questions I don’t have an answer for.

In light of that, it is so important to admit when you don’t know and let students know that. But don’t simply say you don’t know, let them know you will look for answers and get back to them. My line has always been, “I don’t know, but I am going to ask George” (our senior pastor). And I do, and will typically get 3-5 books to read through. But then I bring the student into the study and we look at it together. I also would encourage you that if you are wrong in something you said, admit it. It is incredibly humbling, but man is it a great way to lead from a place of humble servant leadership. Students will see that you aren’t perfect, but in seeing that they will respect you all the more for leading outward and upward.

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

Sometimes students just like to be contrarian and other times they are asking questions or disagreeing because of something that happened in their lives or because of what they have been told. Don’t assume you know why a student disagrees or that you know why they are challenging you. Be willing to dig deeper and find out why a student believes what they do. I asked a student one time why they didn’t believe in hell thinking it was because they thought since God was love everyone would go to heaven. But I found out it was because a grandparent had passed away who wasn’t a believer and they didn’t want to think they would lose them forever.

That understanding changed my whole approach to how I engaged with them and my responses to their questions and thoughts. When we pause and truly listen, when we ask questions, and when we dig deeper, it will allow us to better understand our students and better serve them.

Be willing to change your views.

This is a tough one, and to be honest, I hesitated even putting this in because I know it will ruffle feathers. We tend to have our views and theologies and we hold to them firmly. But if I can take a moment and ask a question: what if our theologies were perhaps incorrect or not fully informed? Should we not think about a new approach? And even if they are correct, shouldn’t we be willing to hear arguments against them and think critically about what we believe and why we believe it?

I share this because I often see students having differing views than their leaders, parents, and older generations and that is a good thing! They should be exploring and asking questions. They should be pushing on the status quo. And they should be asking “why” questions. This allows them to think critically and formulate a deeply personal relationship with Jesus. But if we only respond out of fear or frustration or from a viewpoint of “this is how it always has been,” students will stop engaging with us because they do not see you as a safe person and thereby will not trust you.

So should you hear a viewpoint different from yours, be willing to hear what is said and truly consider it. Be willing to consider you may not have it all figured out and that perhaps. just perhaps, the idea a student shares is accurate and correct. I am not saying capitulate on doctrine, but be willing to think critically about personal convictions, political beliefs, and denominational viewpoints.

Seven Ways to Help Yourself Grow in 2021

As we enter into a new year it’s an appropriate time to intentionally think through ways we can grow and develop. The only way we can continue to pour out and into others is by making sure we are being poured into and growing. I will be honest with you, this wasn’t always something I was focused on, especially early on in ministry, which led to burnout and bitterness toward the church and others. As I continued to serve in ministry, I realized how essential it is to make sure that I was growing and developing personally so I could lead and care for others. Today I want to share some proactive ways to help yourself grow and become a better leader.

1. Spend intentional time with Jesus.

This one seems pretty obvious, but I think ministry leaders can tend to forsake their time with Jesus because it seems we are constantly spending time with Him as we serve. But those times of study and preparation do not always aid our own individual growth. As followers of Jesus we must be intentional with carving out time to personally spend with Him. As we do this, we will be refreshed, challenged, and stretched in our faith which will give us fresh opportunities to lead out and pour into others. Self-care must start with our relationship with Jesus because that will directly impact every part of our lives.

2. Focus on healthy decompression.

Let’s be real: ministry can suck sometimes. It can be weighty, heart-wrenching, hurtful, challenging, and so much more. For many of us, we can carry this weight even after we leave the office because we empathize and sympathize so deeply with our people. But the problem with that is we often do not know how to release and decompress. I want to encourage you to find healthy ways to decompress and allow yourself to breathe and move forward. You are not dismissing the difficult moments or the pain of those you care for, but instead allowing your heart and soul to heal and refresh.

Decompression can look different from person to person, but we each know what we need and what brings us relief. It may be taking a day away from technology, or a weekend retreat, it could be reading a non-ministry related book, it could be fishing, or it could be binge-watching your favorite shows or movies. Whatever decompression looks like for you, make sure you are utilizing it. Decompression allows you to rest and catch your breath, and it gives you opportunities to relax and heal.

3. Take and honor time off.

Time for full transparency: I suck at this one. I am someone who was a workaholic and I can easily fall back into that model. Over time I have gotten better at actually utilizing my days off during the week but I am not great about using my vacation time. But this is something we all need to do. Jesus even carved out time during His earthly ministry to get away from everything, and in the creation account God set aside an entire day for rest. I wrote recently about Sabbath and honoring it, but we need to take this even further and utilize the time we are blessed with to rest, refresh, and refocus. No one is meant to work every hour of every day. So make sure you set healthy parameters for when you are and are not working, honor your days off, and use your vacation time.

4. Be willing to try something new.

Sometimes we get stuck doing the same things because we have always done them. This can be true in our personal lives and in our ministries. So be willing to try something new this year. Step out and push yourself to engage with life in new and creative ways. Perhaps you could pick up a new hobby or skill, maybe it is being willing to explore or to travel, or it could be as simple as building or growing a relationship with someone in your life.

With everything changing due to COVID-19, now is an amazing time to start something new in your ministry. You could implement a leadership time, you could challenge your students to engage with a daily Bible study, you could find new ways to minister to and engage with parents, or you could completely switch up how you do programming. Doing something new will bring about fresh change and a renewed perspective on how and why you are doing things.

5. Find a mentor.

One of the best things for your personal growth and development is to find someone who can speak into your life and ministry as a mentor. A mentor is more than a friend, they are someone who knows you and is willing to speak truth into your life in an effort to challenge, encourage, and stretch you. I highly recommend finding someone who is older and has a heart for or history in ministry to walk with you. This will give you opportunities to share, decompress, grow, and be encouraged throughout your life. A good mentor will not simply encourage you or tell you what you want to hear, but will directly challenge and push you by speaking truth and helping you to be stretched in all aspects of your life.

6. Be wholly present wherever you are.

One of the greatest ways you could grow this year is by being wholly present in every circumstance in which you find yourself. It is easy for many of us, myself included, to allow our minds to wander during conversations or meetings. But if we were to commit to being wholly present we would see some amazing changes. We would see relationships strengthened, a greater ability to contribute, we would remember more, and we would be able to relate better to and walk with those in our lives. Being wholly present allows you to fully appreciate where God has called and placed you, and it also brings value and authenticity to all your relationships.

7. Find something that is not ministry-related to enjoy.

This is similar to decompression in that it could be a way you decompress, but it doesn’t have to be something you use all the time for decompression. Often we surround ourselves with our ministry and its components, which isn’t a bad thing, but that doesn’t afford us the opportunity to rest and enjoy other aspects of our lives, or look at things from another perspective. Ministry is our calling but it isn’t our identity. Christ is. So everything we do, whether ministry or otherwise, should be Christ-centered.

One of the greatest things you could do for your growth is to find something outside of ministry which affords you the opportunity to live for Jesus in situations you may not have before. This could be as simple as being a coach for your child’s sports team, joining a softball league, grabbing wings with your neighbors, hosting a book club, or playing golf with some friends. Prayerfully these will afford you opportunities to be around those who may not know Jesus and also give you insight into how people are doing outside of the scope of traditional ministry.

Looking Back While Looking Ahead

This past year has been incredibly different than any other year in ministry. It has been one that has had extreme highs and extreme lows. One that has caused us to ask many questions we had never asked before, and one that has forced us to look inward and take time to assess what really matters to us and to the ministries we oversee. Because of that we should be proactive and look back on this semester as we think through what next semester might look like.

Each year it is healthy to pause and reflect on the past year and 2020 should be one that we intentionally carve out time to self-evaluate and evaluate our ministry. As we are getting ready to head into the new year it would be beneficial to look at how you are doing as an individual and at how the ministry is doing over all. This is not meant to be critical, but to be a means of helping us see how we are doing and to meet needs or uncover issues that need to be addressed.

So let’s think through self-evaluation. These questions are meant to help you think through how you are doing and to allow you to see how you can grow and if needed, ask for help. Doing this now will allow you to better prepare for next year and all that it will bring.

How is my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health?

These questions allow you to take an inward look at your heart and overall well-being. I would encourage you to rate them on a numeric scale (1-10) and to perhaps allow your spouse or close friend to speak into how you rated yourself. Taking inventory of how you are doing will allow you to see if you need to take time off, grow spiritually, or are doing well.

What do I need to ask for help with?

This is a great question to ask as this past year many of us have gotten busier and things got more complex. Many of us have taken on more responsibilities over the past year, and our workloads have increased in drastic ways. We do not need to stand by and just continue to become overwhelmed, instead it would be prudent to think through what you need help with. You can ask other staff members or look to have your volunteers step in and assist with things within the ministry.

What can I delegate?

Similar to the previous question, this one will allow you to think through tasks or parts of your job that perhaps can be delegated to those under your leadership. Tasks could include part of the teaching, leading small groups, choosing a study or curriculum, or having someone else do the filming for your online content. Finding areas you can delegate will allow for you to lead and serve better as you are prioritizing what you should be doing.

What should I change?

As we evaluate these areas of our lives, there may be things that surface that we need to change. That is a good thing and shouldn’t be something we should fear. Change is good and moves us to grow and mature.

What did I do well?

This is an important thing to consider. Too often over this last year we have felt beat down and like we had failed in some way. But the truth of the matter is you have succeeded and done things well. It is important to step back and see the high points and to feel encouraged. If you find yourself struggling to see these areas consider asking someone close to you who you know will tell you the truth and encourage you.

Who is speaking truth and support into my life?

I would say this is the greatest thing you could have right now. Many of us are feeling the weight and pressure of ministry during this season along with our own personal pressures. There is such a need for everyone to have people speaking love, truth, and support into each of our lives. I want to encourage you to find at least one or two people who you know and trust who can be that person for you.

It is also important for you to step back and think through your ministry over the past year as this will help you prepare for the coming year. Many of the above questions can be applied to a ministry perspective as well, but the questions below are ministry specific.

What do I need to ask for help with?

This past year there were many things that were added to our plates. Whether you became the impromptu tech person on staff, or if all your ministry went online, or if you had to completely change your programming, we have to admit while things changed we became burdened with more and more throughout 2020. Taking time to assess where you need help will allow you to better serve and prioritize what you need to be doing. If you are feeling overwhelmed in one area, that will bleed into all other aspects of your ministry and personal life. Being able to ask for help will give you opportunities to accomplish what you need to get done, and get the assistance you need.

What was a win?

As you think through this past year look at what was a win. Even though there were many changes, there were also many victories. It doesn’t matter how big or how small, a win is a win. And remembering and celebrating these wins are highly important as they will help direct you in thinking through what you can do next year. It will give you insight as to what to pursue and what you should prioritize.

Start, stop, and continue.

This is a great way to critically think through what your ministry is doing as you pose three questions: what should we start doing, what should we stop doing, and what should we continue doing? These questions will help you to assess and analyze what has been working and what hasn’t, and it will give you the opportunity to think through new things you could implement. This process is also a great time to bring in your key leaders as they will be able to provide valuable and helpful insight. This is a process that will be stretching and challenging but ultimately will lead you to proactively assess the ministry and make the necessary changes.

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Subscription Boxes

At one point or another we have all heard about a subscription box. Whether it was on social media and we saw an add for a coffee subscription or for a candy from around the world box, we all know the general idea. Typically you sign up at a reduced fee and choose how often you would like to receive a box full of goodies from a specific company.

Today I want to talk about how we can incorporate this idea into our student ministry program. With many ministries once again being relegated to an online format, this can serve as a new and exciting way to engage your students outside of the “normal” Zoom meetings. I want to share with you some ideas and considerations as we think through how to implement the idea of a subscription box into our ministries.

Purpose

As you get ready to send these out, consider what your purpose is for these boxes. Is it simply a way to encourage your students and have fun? Or is this a way to encourage your students and challenge them to grow in their faith? I would highly recommend that these boxes don’t just contain fun elements but that there is a way to encourage and challenge students to grow in their faith. An easy way to do this is to send along a Bible study that everyone who receives the box is expected to do. Last week we shared some ideas and resources for easy and ready-to-use studies. You can also let them know that you will have a group time for follow up and discussion on the Bible study.

Frequency

Should you send a box weekly or monthly? This will largely be based upon budget and this will then shape what you include in your boxes. Monthly seems to make more sense due to cost, but weekly gives you more connectivity with your students. This is something you should think through before sending your first box, and I would encourage you regardless of your decision to stick with it. Don’t jump from monthly to weekly or vice versa because it will cause disruption for your students and families. Pick one option and stay with it.

Paid vs. Free

Typically subscription boxes are not free, but as we think about our students this may be an important option. Your budget and intended recipients will dictate how you offer the subscription. I would highly encourage you to consider offering these for free. I know that budgets are being restricted for ministries everywhere, but household budgets are also reducing. This would be an amazing opportunity to offer something to students for free that helps to encourage them in their faith and know they are loved and valued.

If you do not have the budget for sending these out for free, consider trying to offset the cost however possible. Whether it is by doing a lot of the prep in-house or by putting some of your budget toward the cost. These boxes do not need to compete with the scale of the ones we see on Facebook, and truly they are designed to simply encourage and challenge your students. So think about sending handwritten or notes created for free on sites like Canva, instead of getting ones done at Staples. Utilize gifts from within your ministry or the church in each box to offset cost. Things like this will help to minimize the cost and bring a smile to the face of your students. I would also encourage you to make sure that no student is excluded due to cost. If you know there are students who can’t afford to sign up, consider adding a scholarship for them in some way. Whether you ask church members to help, you use part of your budget, or you partially scholarship them, this will be a way to make sure everyone can participate.

True Subscription vs. Automatic Delivery

When it comes to subscription boxes, people need to sign up in order to receive one. You could consider doing this within your ministry but you should probably acknowledge that not everyone will sign up. Whether you offer a paid or free option, consider sending out the first box “on you” to all of your students. If you are asking for students to pay, cover the cost for the first one and include a note asking people to subscribe because you believe it will encourage them and help them grow in their faith. Then you can include a price for them as well and a way to sign up.

If you are going to cover the cost regardless, consider still having a sign up and encouraging students through a note on the box to do so. Give them a few easy steps for signing up and allow them to take the initiative and generate buy-in to this new option.

Mail vs. In-Person Delivery

When thinking about how to deliver these boxes, think through dropping them off in person or mailing them. Everyone loves personalized mail, but it may cost you a significant amount and with the delays happening due to COVID-19, you are not guaranteed that it will arrive on time.

A great option is delivering these boxes to your students in person. Whether you deliver them all, or your leaders jump in to help, this will be an added blessing to your students because they get to see you and have an interaction. It may be with masks and socially distanced, but you still get that time to say hello and tell them about the box and how you hope they will join you in this.

What to Include

This is where it gets fun! These boxes should be focused on encouragement, spiritual growth, personal connection, and fun. When you incorporate these elements, the ideas are endless for what you can include. I would highly recommend being intentional with what you put in each box. Here are some ideas:

  • A personal note. Use the note to encourage the student you are writing to. Let them know you miss them and can’t wait to see them. Also, explain the items in the box and the function for the Bible study should it be included.
  • Snacks. An easy way to a student’s heart is through food. Buy a few twelve packs of soda and put a can in each box. Purchase some individual bags of chips for everyone, or buy larger bags at your local dollar store. Throw in some small pieces of candy or a single full size bar. A granola bar and fruit snacks are also great options. A bottle of water or a reusable water bottle is also a great option.
  • A pen. If you are encouraging students to participate in a Bible study, put a pen in the box to help encourage them to do it. If you have pens that are branded with your student ministry name or logo, throw those in. Or buy some fun ones at the Dollar Store or in the Target bins at the front of the store.
  • A notebook or journal. These are a great way to encourage students to write their notes from the study, journal their prayer requests, or just write about what is happening in their lives. These could easily be ones you have on hand with your logo already on them, or a spiral bound notebook you picked up at Staples. The nicer they are the better, but take cost into consideration.
  • Filler. This may seem kind of simple, but part of the fun of getting a gift is opening it and finding what is inside. So consider shredding a bunch of different color paper and using that as an easy but fun filler within the box that will help it look nice and complete.
  • A schedule. This will serve as a helpful reminder for students about when the boxes will come and when you will do your discussion of the study.

Follow Up

This is the big piece to these boxes. Follow-up includes making sure that students received their boxes, it is encouraging them to do the study, and it is actually hosting a meet-up to talk through the study in the box. Hosting a meeting whether digitally or in person will allow you to connect with your students, help them grow in their faith, and give you insight into how they are doing. I would encourage you to lead the first one or two meetings, but then allow students to step up and lead as well. This will give them ownership and a desire to be more invested in the studies you are sending out, as well as helping them grow as leaders. A fun way to see who will be leading next is by throwing in a special note or item in a student’s box that says they will be leading for this week or month.

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Bible Studies

As many states continue to enforce stricter protocols while COVID-19 cases rise, ministries must continue to adapt and look for ways to care for their people. A huge part of what we do as student ministers and leaders is discipleship and helping our students continue to grow in their knowledge and love of God’s Word. But the question is: how do we do that well? Or perhaps you are asking: should we do this on Zoom or another digital platform? Today I’d like to offer a couple of ways we can continue to help our students grow through Bible studies during this time. At the end of the post I’ll share some of my favorite places to find studies that are both free and paid.

Mailed Bible Studies

This option allows for you as the youth leader to put together a Bible study packet that you can mail, email, or drop off to each of your students. Your method of delivery may vary depending on restrictions in your area, how many students you have, and your optimal communication methods overall. However you get it into their hands, make sure it has a few key items.

  • The Bible study itself. If it doesn’t have questions with the Bible study, consider adding some open ended questions of your own instead of just asking your students to write down their thoughts. This will generate more organic and thought-provoking content.
  • Directions. This is an important part. Sometimes we need to give our students a little extra guidance on how to move through the study. This is especially important to remember because all of your students may not know how to actually study the Bible personally.
  • A pen. This may seem silly at first, but the fact that you are giving them a pen means there is an expectation. You want them to not just read the study but to engage with it. You are challenging them to truly invest in God’s Word and understand it’s truth.

We also need to make sure that we cast vision for our Bible studies. If you just send one out to your students with no premise they are less likely to jump on board than if you had communicated the plan and the heart behind it. Consider texting your students about what you are doing and why you want to do it. Then make sure to invite them into the study with you and ask them if they would like to do it. In doing this you are creating buy-in and helping them to see that you value them and want them to be a part of this journey. Cast the vision and desire for the study in your communication. Let them know why you are doing it, and also clearly communicate the format of the study. Is it daily, weekly, or monthly? Are you doing the study together or is the expectation they do it and then there is a conversation about it? Thinking through these questions will help ensure a successful time of growth and conversation with your students.

The next thing to think through is engagement. You must make sure to engage and encourage your students as you do the study together. Send out texts asking how they are doing with the study or if they have any questions. This will serve as a subtle reminder but also as a way of helping them in the study. Make sure to let them know it is okay if they miss a day or two. It isn’t the end of the world if they fall behind and they shouldn’t be kicked out of the study. Life gets busy for all of us and that shouldn’t count against them.

Lastly, we need to consider the interactive piece. Much of this depends on where you live and what types of gatherings you can have. Below, I go into a little more detail about digital engagement, so here I want to talk about in-person interaction. Consider gathering at your church, a local coffee shop, or at a local community hang out spot and talk through what you have studied. You may need to have multiple meetings depending on the limits on gathering where you live, and this would be a great opportunity to allow your leaders to step up and serve in a new leadership capacity so you aren’t the only one running all the meetings. Whenever I do Bible studies or discipleship in this manner, I don’t work through all the questions but rather pick and choose which I think will drive more engagement and deeper discussion. Doing it in this manner allows for flexibility and freedom when moving through the conversation. Also, make sure your students know that they are expected to engage during this time and a simple “yes, no, or I dunno know” doesn’t count. Everyone doesn’t need deep answers but everyone does need to participate.

Digital Bible Studies

In this method I would recommend following all the steps above except the in-person meetings. Instead, add an interactive online piece in place of in-person time together. A key piece I would highly recommend doing (if you are able in your area) is dropping off the Bible study in person. Even if you cannot meet in-person for the study, consider dropping off the materials and maybe a small “study package” for each student. As a way of encouraging them, include a can of soda, some snacks, a handwritten note, a small notebook, and few other small items to begin the study with you.

If you are like me, you have probably seen a drop off in numbers whenever you switch to an online youth meeting. I believe the reason for that is students (and honestly all of us) are experiencing “Zoom fatigue.” Students are drained from all the online content and having to see themselves and their peers on screens for hours on end with no break. They are constantly analyzing and thinking about how they look, how they are perceived, and how they are being judged. So with all of that at play, how do we make this work?

First, you must make sure that your level of excitement and buy-in is clear. Students know if you want to do something or if you are passionate about it. If you seem down or upset that you can’t meet in person, they will feed off of that. So make sure you let them know you are in this with them and excited to grow together.

You also need to set clear expectations with this. Make sure your students know what you desire of them for this study and what they are committing to, but also clearly communicate what the expectations are when you meet digitally. Do they need to have the camera on? Do they need to share? Will there be group conversation? Are they expected to be at each meeting? Providing this information ahead of time will allow them to know what they are committing to.

It’s also important to send out encouragement to your students. Whether this is through a phone call, a group or individual text, an email, or a handwritten postcard, make sure you are reaching out to them so they know you are invested and care about them. I would say that the more personal you can make the encouragement, the more buy-in you will receive. Digital meetings can feel impersonal, so personal engagement and encouragement will help your meetings succeed.

Make sure that your time together isn’t just the study. Utilize your time to engage with one another. Check in with your students. Ask them how they are doing, how has their week been, what was one good thing and one hard thing that happened. Consider playing a game with them (you can find some easy small group game ideas here). This will help open up communication and allow everyone to relax.

Finally, make time spent in the study engaging. Try to get everyone participating, whether that is by you asking everyone for an answer or if it is by rotating around the “room” for each question. I would also recommend allowing one of your students to run the meeting time each week. This will allow your students to engage and participate more, and ultimately it will help to foster a family type environment where people feel loved and valued.

A few helpful places to gain some easy and ready to use Bible studies include LeaderTreks, Download Youth Ministry (make sure to select small groups on the filter category), and She Reads Truth and He Reads Truth (both sites having reading plans as well that are free for girls and guys).

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Digital Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts are a ton of fun, but typically we default to thinking of these as having to be in-person events. With the technology we have though we can easily leverage these events in a digital format. Today we want to offer some ways you can implement these digital ideas in your ministry and utilize them during the holiday season as well.

Before implementing this, here are a few key things to consider:

  • Do my students have social media?
  • What social media platforms do my students most utilize?
  • What type of involvement do I want from this?
  • What do I want this challenge to do for our program?
  • What level of involvement will this need?
  • Is there a prize involved? An easy prize would be digital gift cards or a socially distanced youth pastor drop off of a gift card or gift box at the winner’s home. If you do drop it off, get a video or photo and share it on your social media to drive more engagement.
  • Make sure to bring the energy and engagement on your end. If you aren’t engaged and having fun, your student won’t either. Your level of involvement will affect theirs.

Scavr

Scavr is a great online resource that allows you to build, manage, and host the scavenger hunt in a live format if you desire. This could be fun if you wanted to host this digital event at a set time where everyone is actively engaged with it. However, the limitation comes where only you are seeing the photos as they come in because they are submitted through the Scavr app. A way you could work around this is either have students and leaders also share them under a hashtag on social media or you try downloading all them and put it into a slideshow for everyone. You can also use an online video chat afterward to talk through the event and award prizes to the winner. For more information on how to utilize this program, check out our earlier post on games for small groups.

Stories

Instagram Stories would be a really easy way for you to incorporate digital challengers to be completed. Reach out to your group ahead of time and let them know the rules (the easier the better: complete the task, post it in your story, and tag the social media account that is hosting the challenge) and then either host the challenge on a single day or do a challenge each day for a week. This is a great idea to utilize over Christmas break because it offers engagement, community from a distance, and opportunities for you to connect with your students.

Youth Pastor/Leader on a Shelf

Most of us are familiar with Elf on the Shelf. But consider a digital scavenger hunt where each day students will need to recreate a photo or video that the leader shares of themselves “on a shelf.” Come up with a bunch of fun places to pose and challenge your students to recreate them to the best of their abilities. Utilize a fun hashtag with this one like “Youth Leader Elfie” and think ahead about how you can create new, exciting, and safe poses that challenge your students each week.

Acts of Service

Consider using your digital scavenger hunt as a way of blessing others in your church or community. Give students a task each day or week, depending on the size and nature of the task, and have them share a photo or video showing they completed it. You can be as specific or general as you like with this challenge. It could be taking out the trash at home, shoveling snow for a neighbor, donating food to a food pantry, baking cookies for frontline workers, or helping get the church ready for Christmas. This is an awesome way to encourage students to embody the life Jesus calls us to live.

This type of scavenger hunt would be a great follow up to a series on serving or living sacrificially as it makes it very practical. You could also host a digital pizza party afterward and debrief what was learned. To host a digital pizza party, buy each student a pizza and a 2 liter of soda (Aldi has great deals on these products) and deliver them to each student who participated. Let them know that they should prepare the pizza for your Zoom meeting so you can all share in a meal together.

Christmas Break Version

If you are looking to give your students something to do over your whole break, consider putting together a list of tasks, challenges, service opportunities, and anything else creative that you can think of. Send this list out to them and let them know the rules and timeline for the event. If you want students to submit photos and/or videos, make sure you have a place that has enough digital space to store them. Also, if they need to do acts of service consider having a parent sign off on it. This could also be an opportunity for you to leverage family engagement by challenging families to do this together and compete against one another.

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Social Justice Advocacy

With the reality that many parts of the country are moving back toward COVID-19 lock-downs and more restrictions are being added, we are again faced with the fact that ministry is going to look different going forward. As we think creatively about what this may look like, we have to acknowledge that we may not find an easy fix. Where you live and serve will dictate the level of engagement you can have on-site with your students and the size of your gathering.

Over the next few weeks, we want to share with you some creative ways to think about doing ministry in our current climate. These ideas are meant to help get the creative juices flowing and to help you think outside the box about how to do ministry in your context. We’d love to hear from you as well and see how you’ve been able to continue pursuing ministry during these times.

Our first creative approach to ministry happens to fall perfectly into this Christmas season. Social justice involvement through the Dressember organization is something Elise has written about before, but it is exceptionally timely given the reality that much of our ministry is now happening in a digital format. This is a campaign that you can utilize to bring your group together as you rally to champion social justice.

Dressember participants commit to wearing a dress or tie throughout the month of December to raise money and awareness for organizations that fight human trafficking, modern day slavery, and other social justice issues domestically and abroad. Students can create their own fundraising page and set a monetary goal through Dressember’s website. Anyone with a fundraising page can also create a team page so that participants can band together to raise money and awareness.

Consider setting up a team for your students with a unified goal and host weekly meetups, either in person if possible, or via video calls. Use these meetings to share fundraising ideas, stories from survivors, and help and encouragement for those who may feel frustrated. Encourage each other to keep posting and sharing content on your individual platforms throughout the month. One of the best parts of Dressember is getting to participate with others, even if you can’t physically be together in person.

As you work toward a common goal, it will help to grow unity and community in a new and different way. This is also something that doesn’t have to be limited to December. That is the key time for Dressember (hence the name), but that isn’t the only time you can utilize this approach. Consider doing something for Spring Break or Easter. Utilize this approach to raise funds for other important causes, like your local food bank or homeless ministry. Or use it as a way to bring your group together by sharing God Stories–ways you have seen God use your platforms to spread the truth and encouragement of the Gospel. Regardless of how or when you incorporate this aspect into you ministry, it can be a helpful tool to increase engagement and help move your group toward a deeper relationship with each other and with God.

Practical Tips for Counseling Students

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

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

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

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

Resource yourself.

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

Know your referral network.

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

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

Be a trustworthy person.

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

Be in prayer and grow your spiritual health.

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

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

Listen well.

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

Take notes.

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

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

Be empathetic.

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

Follow up.

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

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

Recommended resources:

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers

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

Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Youth

Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide

The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling

Our Picks: Reasons for Thankfulness in 2020

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

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

Ministry is still occurring.

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

Students and families are hungry for what you offer.

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

More time at home with families.

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

God is still at work.

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

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

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

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

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