Tips for Self-Care: Pursue Meaningful Friendships

I don’t know if you’re like me, but most of my relationships and friendships revolve around the church and the ministry I lead in particular. It’s only been in recent years that I have begun to build friendships outside of the immediate church community of which I am a part.

That isn’t to say that relationships from within the church are bad, problematic, or wrong, but they do present various challenges. If those are the only relationships that you have it will lead to feeling the tension of always functioning as a ministry leader or pastor. It will be hard to disengage from “doing” ministry even when hanging out with friends. It will often feel like you cannot turn off. And it may even feel like the relationships lack depth because you can’t share everything as some information is only for staff or people removed from the overall conversation.

My recommendation would be that you do one of three things:

  1. Build relationships outside of the immediate church community where you can be fully open and authentic.
  2. Build relationships within the church, but for the closer ones be willing to have relationships where you don’t have to be church staff and your friends will honor that.
  3. Put together a hybrid model of options one and two where you can have authentic and transparent relationships.

Meaningful friendships can develop within the church you work at but I would encourage you to truly make sure it can be fully authentic. I have a few really close friends at my church and each of them have let me know I can be 100 percent real and honest with them. In fact, a couple of them have students in our program and they have said if they need me to be a pastor, they will ask me to put on the “pastor cap.” That is so freeing because I know don’t need to be “on” or looking to be a certain way and can just be myself with my buddies. So if you have meaningful friendships within the church, make sure you have the freedom and ability to fully be you without the pressure of being a staff member of the church.

Building friendships outside of the church isn’t the easiest but they can be very fulfilling. Consider becoming a part of a church softball or ultimate Frisbee league. Go to a small group outside of your church. Get involved in a coaching program or a cohort. Connect with other youth pastors in your community. Pursue friendships from college or seminary. In these places you will find people who understand and can relate, but also have no context for what you have going on at work so you are free to authentically share. Let me strongly encourage you to put value and effort into these relationships as they will be very meaningful and impactful.

Having a meaningful friendship allows you to have the community that you are designed for. It creates a safe place for you to share how you are feeling, what is happening at work, and highs and lows without fear of judgement or having to be guarded in what you share. It allows you to feel valued, needed, and loved. And most importantly it fills your tank and helps you to recharge so you can continue to serve.

What encourages you most in your authentic relationships? What is challenging about finding and maintaining those relationships?

Caring for Students with Special Needs

Over the past five years or so, I have become much more aware of how many people struggle with connecting with a “regular student ministry program” due to some type of disability or having special needs. Our church is actually the first church that I have worked at that has an entire program for children and students with disabilities or special needs, and it’s one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Now that is not to say that I am an expert in this area at all. In fact, part of the reason I chose to write about this is because if you are like me, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle this type of program. I know I am not trained well in this area, but I have been striving to learn and grow.

My desire today is simply to provide you with some ideas and advice, as well as point you to some resources to help you grow personally and minister to people in your church and community who are often forgotten about and marginalized. The more we work at making our ministries and churches accessible to everyone, the more likelihood there is of reaching people for the kingdom of heaven.

Get to know your people.

This is the best place to start. If you notice that there are students with special needs or families who have students with special needs, go and talk to them. Reach out and connect. Get to know them. Encourage them and let them know that they are welcomed, valued, and loved. People and families with special needs individuals often feel forgotten and ostracized because of the differences that exist. By reaching out to them and caring for them, you are creating a place of refuge and love. So ask questions. Listen well. Get to know them. Hear their stories and tensions they have. Then use what you learn to help create a place where their student(s) can come, participate, be loved, and know more about Jesus.

Equip and keep your team in the know.

If you have volunteers it is key to help them know and understand that there are students who have special needs. You don’t need to go into all the personal details for each student, but allowing your team to know that you do have students with special needs better prepares them to engage in different ways. It also helpful to share with your team different methods for calming students down, helping them engage, and how to communicate with them. Much of this information can be gleaned from parents and that goes back to our first point about getting to know the individuals and their families. This better equips you and your team to care for and minister to them. Also consider bringing in people to help train your team or giving them additional resources. Reaching out to local schools and organizations will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and allow you to consider bringing someone in to train your team.

No two people are ever the same.

This is a really key thing to remember. When you meet a student who has special needs, you have only met one student with special needs. No two people are exactly alike. No two situations (even with the same individual) will be exactly the same. No response will ever work the same for two different people. Each of these individuals is just that: an individual. Someone crafted in the image of God who longs to be loved and to belong. And our role is to care for them as an individual, to see them as God does, and to not assume things about them.

Make your place safe and welcoming.

Over the past few years I have come to realize how important space, lighting, sound, and programming is to people who have special needs. If you have students with autism, find out how lights, sounds, games, scheduling or lack thereof affect them. I found out that to many harsh lights or loud noises cause over-stimulation and that in turn makes the students and their families not want to participate. Another thing that people don’t always realize is that scheduling is huge for some people who have special needs. Having a system, a flow, structure, or a schedule helps them and their families prepare. So even if you could simply send a note to families a day or so ahead of time explaining the event and its schedule, you will make your program all the more inviting.

Another great thing to evaluate is this: is your venue handicap accessible? A great way of discerning this is by asking if people in a wheel chair can access and participate in all aspects of your program. If they cannot, it isn’t hard to believe that people with other special needs can most likely not participate as well. You are measuring whether or not your program is open and welcoming to all.

Purchase some sensory equipment.

This was one of the best things I have done for our ministry in a long time. You can literally find hundreds of options on Amazon simply by searching “fidget toys box,” and you can find ones that fit your ministry context best. This is a really good option that can be used in a variety of contexts. Putting sensory items out in your rooms or area of ministry affords students a new way to engage. It gives them something to play with which in turn allows them to focus. It helps students with anxiety to relieve some of their anxiousness. It gives people something to engage with. I would highly recommend getting some of these for everyone in student ministry.

Utilize resources and seek to grow your own knowledge.

There are some really good resources out there and some really not good resources when it comes to this topic and ministering to people with special needs. During my time in ministry I have found two really helpful resources that I want to share with you. Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a phenomenal resource I just recently came upon after hearing him speak on a podcast. His book is a great resource that I would highly recommend as he offers great insight and perspective as he himself falls into the category of special needs.

Another fantastic resource is Ability Ministry. They have helpful articles, resources, and curriculum designed for ministering to people with special needs. This has been revolutionary in helping our team minister to our students with special needs and we have seen amazing results. Our students who struggled to connect to the Bible our now memorizing it, they are serving as greeters on Sunday mornings, and actively participating in the program. I would highly suggest utilizing both of these resources and reading up on how you can better minister to, serve, and love your people who have special needs.

Healing from Hurt: 8 Steps You can Take

Have you ever been fired from a job? Have you ever experienced church hurt? Perhaps someone talked about you and spread rumors. Your senior pastor was arrogant and critical. You were treated like a lesser person.

Have you been there? For many people, myself included, we have felt and experienced these moments and they hurt us deeply. But my question for you today is this: have you healed from and processed that hurt? This isn’t meant to be a critical question but a reflective one.

Many of us have experienced these moments and the pain and hurt that come with them, but healing from them is a whole different ball game. Healing takes time. Healing takes effort. Healing takes heartache, wrestling, engaging in tough conversations, and self reflection. I want to share a few ways that we can begin moving toward healing. These are not all-encompassing but I am looking to simply offer some advice and ways that we can personally move toward healing. My encouragement would be to also talk with a licensed counselor who can help you through that hurt and the process of moving forward.

Be honest with yourself.

Sometimes when wrestling with hurt we aren’t honest with ourselves because the honesty only causes more pain. Perhaps because we realize the depth of betrayal someone engaged in or maybe because we realize that we had a role in what occurred. But being honest with ourselves is the first step toward authentically dealing with the hurt in our lives. Hurt can only properly be dealt with when it is handled honestly, so seek to be honest with yourself in assessing, addressing, and moving through the hurt so as to grow and heal.

Be honest with God.

This goes hand in hand with the first point. Often in times of hurt we can unfairly ascribe pain to God and blame Him for bringing about the hurt and hardship in our lives. It isn’t wrong to share our pain or to cry out to God. It isn’t even wrong to yell at or question what is happening. But it is wrong to ascribe pain and hurt to God because God isn’t one who bestows pain or hurt but rather seeks to heal us from it.

In the same vein it is important for us to be wholly honest with God and to share our hurt and pain with Him. In fact we are told to cast our anxieties and hurt onto God because He cares for us. So be honest with God, tell Him how you are hurting, bare your soul, cry out to Him, and remember that He hears you and offers you hope and healing.

Journal your thoughts.

This is a huge part of self-care because it allows you to put your thoughts, hurts, and feelings to paper. While this may not sound like a big deal, actually be able to put what you are feeling into words is healing and freeing. It helps you acknowledge what you are feeling in your heart and mind, and it allows you to actually begin to process what has or is happening and how you are handling it. Being able to simply put your thoughts and hurt into words is huge and will ultimately help you to process and move toward healing.

Spend time in God’s Word.

I’ll be honest: this is hard for me in certain seasons of hurt and exhaustion. I don’t want to read God’s Word because I want to believe that my responses are okay and valid. I know that when I read God’s Word I will be convicted and challenged. And so I avoid it, but that is so problematic.

We are called to a relationship with God in all seasons regardless of how we are feeling. And in seasons of hurt it is vital that we spend time walking through God’s Word as we seek understanding and comfort. Spend time in the Psalms, read through the prophets, lament with Lamentations. The time you spend in these books will be good for your mind and soul, and help you to move toward healing and restoration.

Talk with someone.

I mentioned this earlier, but it is worth stating again. Talking with a trusted mentor, counselor, or mental health professional is something that cannot be understated. Having someone who you can share with and not have to worry about condemnation from is huge. A trusted person is necessary to be able to be authentic and to share what you are feeling and processing through. This should also be someone who can give you feedback and helpful guidance to make sure you are continuing to take steps toward healing and restoration.

Seek out a doctor’s opinion.

Sometimes the hurt and pain we experience can cause us to struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a host of other struggles and ailments. In order to properly diagnose and prescribe treatment it is necessary to reach out to your doctor and see if there is something that needs to be treated. Taking this step requires a willingness to acknowledge there is a problem but also an understanding that only by being transparent can the problem be treated appropriately. So consider reaching out to your doctor if you are walking through hurt that is affecting you more than other hurts in order to properly care for yourself.

Be willing to apologize and extend forgiveness.

I’ll be honest, this is one of the harder parts of moving through hurt. Often as you take time to self-reflect, to heal, and to become whole again, you will most likely see that there are people who need to seek your forgiveness and perhaps people you need to apologize to. Many times in processing hurt we can see the relationships and people who hurt us, but often they may not. In those moments we must extend grace and forgiveness to them even if it is seemingly undeserved. We must reflect Christ in those moments as we move toward healing. But we must also acknowledge that we may have had a hand in part of the pain and hurt that exists, and as such it is equally important that we apologize and seek the forgiveness of others.

Trust God to handle what you cannot.

Sometimes dealing with hurt means being willing to let go of what you cannot control or correct and allowing God to take care of those moments, experiences, and relationships. In moments of hurt and pain we try to control and manage everything and everyone in an effort to spare more pain and alleviate the pain we already have.

But I believe a better and healthier alternative is to allow God to handle all of those moments as He is God and knows how to fully care for you and everyone else. By allowing God to be God and releasing control, you are allowing Him to fully care for you as His child, to handle what you can’t, and to lovingly carry you in your pain and vulnerability. In these moments, as difficult and scary as they may sound, you will come to know and appreciate the love, care, and protection that the Good Shepherd affords you.

5 Quick Tips to Help You Lead Your Team Well

When it comes to leading a team, knowing how to lead well is hugely important. Whether you oversee a staff team, a group of volunteers, or a team of parents, how you lead will direct the outflow of your team and the effectiveness of your ministry. With that being said, I want to share with you five quick tips that you can use to lead well and ensure the long term success of your team and ministry.

It should be stated that these tips are not all encompassing nor are they the only tips to help you be a great leader. There are many leadership gurus and books that will provide more insight and guidance. These are just tips and ideas that I have witnessed and implemented that have helped me develop and grow as a leader of teams.

Be honest.

This is something I have had to learn to implement within my team. Not that I am dishonest or that I lie, but I am an avoider. In order to keep the peace or not cause tension, I will avoid conflict or direct conversations. But as I have progressed and grown in my time as a leader I have seen the necessity of having honest and direct conversations. These don’t need to be heavy or overtly critical, but it is so important to be honest about what is happening and how you are feeling.

Avoiding or dismissing what may be a minor issue will only allow for it to become a much larger and more difficult issue farther down the road because it wasn’t dealt with. So make sure to create a culture of honest and authentic communication that helps to instill value and community among your team. Authenticity is always better than avoidance.

Have fun.

This is kind of a no-brainer for people in student ministry, right? Our events always have games and fun or creative elements. We have fun at youth group and with our students. But do you do that with your team?

I love when my team and I can go out and grab lunch and not talk about work. It is so encouraging to take a team of volunteers out for a trivia night at a local pub. It is a lot of fun when you can have your team over to watch March Madness and grill out together. These moments are huge in not only strengthening your team through community but also valuing them outside of their skill set in a ministry setting. Having fun creates a culture of value and it allows you to enjoy life with each other. A team that has fun together will grow together.

Communicate clearly and often.

This is something I had to learn in the beginning of working on a ministry team. It’s easy to assume everyone is in sync and knows what is happening and why, but that isn’t always the case. Instead what we should be doing is taking the time to communicate with one another often and as clearly as possible. This should never be used to speak down to anyone but instead to make sure your teammates are all on the same page. It also helps you to make sure that what is communicated is consistent and understood.

Communication should be a high value and it should be something that helps to strengthen and empower your team. Eventually the communication will ensure that your team works better and smoother as you become a stronger organism that is united in its goal(s).

Set clear metrics and expectations.

There have definitely been moments in my career that I haven’t clearly let my teams know of my expectations. I have also held myself to higher expectations, which I then subconsciously impose on my team. It took a few times of stumbling and causing unnecessary hurt and struggles before I began to realize this point.

Being able to articulate the expectations you have for the team, for them as individuals, and for your department, is huge as it puts everyone on an even playing field. By setting clear metrics it also helps your team to know the goals you have for them and what their reviews will be based upon. You are cultivating a fair foundation to help shape, grow, and pour into your team.

Challenge and celebrate one another.

This is something that will not only help your team to excel and use their gifts, but it will also allow for there to be room for growth. We don’t often like to be challenged because it may mean we need to reflect and understand that we might have missed a mark we strove to achieve. But if we can can challenge one another in love and dignity we will see our teams rise to the occasion and excel.

However, it has to be about more than just challenging one another. We must also celebrate one another. When a teammate excels or meets or exceeds a goal, celebrate that victory. When a teammate steps up, recognize them. When someone goes above and beyond, be the first person to encourage them and celebrate them both in private and in public. These moments will show your team and those they minister to that they are valuable and needed on the team.

5 Ways to Make Students Feel Known

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

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

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

Know their names.

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

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

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

Show hospitality.

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

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

Listen well.

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

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

Have authentic conversations.

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

Be for students.

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

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

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

Helping Seniors Move Beyond Youth Group

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

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

Connect them with college-aged peers.

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

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

Connect them with college ministry and leaders.

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

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

Find ways to connect them with broader church life.

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

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

Help them see what community looks like.

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

Challenge your students to make their faith their own.

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

Help! I Feel Ill-Equipped!

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

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

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

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

Know your resources.

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

Study areas you are weak in.

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

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

Talk to experts.

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

Be willing to just listen.

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

Manage your time.

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

Find a way to decompress and refresh.

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

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

Tips for Pre-Marital and Pre-Engagement Counseling

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

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

Listen well and observe.

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

Speak truth in love.

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

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

Address problem areas.

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

Provide resources.

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

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

Refer out when needed.

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

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

Don’t avoid the hard or awkward conversations.

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

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

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

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

Responding Well to a Crisis

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

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

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

Pre-crisis.

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

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

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

During the crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

5 Quick Tips on How to Connect With Your Audience

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

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

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

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

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

1. Make eye contact.

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

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

2. Tell stories.

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

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

3. Be authentic.

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

4. Utilize inflection.

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

5. Know your material and practice.

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

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

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