Caring for Volunteer Leaders on Trips

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

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

Consider covering the cost of the trip for your leaders.

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

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

Acknowledge them before others.

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

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

Keep your leaders in the loop.

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

Provide them with an intentional gift.

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

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

Have a leaders-only space or trip survival bags.

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

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

Check in with each leader during the trip.

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

Thank their family for letting them come.

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

Write them a card.

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

Crafting a Ministry Vision and Purpose

No matter the ministry or setting we are in, it is important for us all to implement a vision and purpose. A vision and purpose will provide clarity, direction, and longevity to a ministry, as well as provide those within it something to buy into and hold onto. It helps ministries to have a focus which will drive everything they do, and it also helps people jump on board and become a part of what’s happening. A vision gives ministries an identity and focus as they pursue a common purpose.

The question before us is how do we do this, and how do we do it well? Today, my desire is to give you insight and direction on how to begin building a vision for your ministry, and also to help you think critically about what your ministry is and how to help make that the focus going forward.

Know the vision of your church.

As you begin to think through the vision and purpose for your ministry, know your church’s vision. Knowing this will allow for your focus to be in alignment with the church overall and to bring consistency and clarity rather than adding another layer of complexity that could lead to confusion. This will also help you to work better with the church leadership overall and make sure that there is continuity within the church.

Center your vision on the Gospel.

Whenever you are developing a vision and gauging input from multiple sources, it is easy to simply see a plan and a desire and run after them. But we cannot forget the central piece to our vision: the Gospel. Without it, we are simply formulating a plan for another program or service, not a ministry. So as you begin to think through what your vision will look like for your ministry let me encourage you to do two things:

  1. Be in constant prayer about what you are doing. It is easy to simply allow prayer to take a back seat in many areas of our lives. But as we seek to clarify, discern, and ultimately implement a vision for a ministry, we must make sure we are seeking out God’s will and direction which is what truly guides and directs us.
  2. Make the Gospel the reason for and center of what you are doing. Remember that out of the Gospel comes everything we do, say, and think, and as such it should guide our visions, purposes, and programs.

Identify the priorities of the ministry.

This is one aspect that can present unique challenges, especially depending on how many avenues of input you have. Often you will hear people champion priorities they desire or that they believe will make or break a ministry. One of the churches I worked at had multiple leaders who were adamant about going back to a summer camp they had gone to when they were in the program. But the camp’s programming didn’t fit with the overall goal of seeking a discipleship-oriented approach to help our students grow. This didn’t mean it was a bad idea, but it needed to be measured and discerned as to whether it fit with the vision of our ministry.

So as you listen, as you seek to identify the priorities, make sure to hold them against the ultimate goal. If you are looking to curate a discipleship-focused ministry, will all aspects meet that goal? If you are looking to cultivate an environment of invitation, will hosting sword drills bring people in? As you think through these priorities make sure you discern what is best for the goal you are running after.

But, just as a quick aside, remember that what may not seem like a good idea to you now, was once someone’s great idea. So don’t simply dismiss away an approach, idea, or philosophy. Instead approach it with love and grace and be willing to listen and walk through those conversations with others.

Don’t rush or allow the process to slow.

This point sounds like it is in conflict with itself, but the main idea I want to get across is this: the process of establishing and implementing a vision and purpose can and will take time. So do not try to rush through the process. If you try to rush the process people will not feel heard. If you rush the process you will miss key components. If you rush the process you may not allow for God to wholly speak into it and simply frame it based on humanistic desires.

But the opposite is also true: do not intentionally slow down the process. Don’t delay out of fear. Don’t pause because you don’t feel like moving ahead. Don’t slow down because it is hard. This process can be difficult because it will force you to wrestle with key thoughts or patterns that you held that may not align with the vision. Or it could be difficult trying to hear and work with everyone. But that is evidence of the necessity of a consistent vision. Without a vision to unite a team, there will always be disunity. But with a clear and worked through vision you will see people rally to it, and all of the hard work will be worth it.

Bring others in.

It is important to bring your staff team, key volunteers, and key students and families into this process. This can look different depending on your ministry context, and that’s okay. Perhaps you want students involved throughout, or maybe just at key points. Or you could want your staff team to engage with key volunteers to gain insight into the planning process.

Regardless of how you bring others in, make sure to listen and hear what they say. They will bring perspectives and insight you may not have considered, but these perspectives could help in shaping a vision and purpose that is Christ-focused and understanding of your ministry context.

Ask key questions.

By asking key questions of yourself and your team, you will be able to begin to see patterns, themes, and consistent values emerge. They may not all be phrased the exact same way, but you will hear and see them as you engage in these conversations. Not only will asking these questions help you to frame the insight you will receive, it will also allow for individuals to speak into the process and be heard. These questions are not the only ones you should ask, but they are ones that will help you begin to identify and frame out a vision for your program.

  • Why does our program meet?
  • What are we offering to our students?
  • What is unique about our program and what we offer?
  • What do we desire our program to be?
  • Who are we trying to reach through our program?
  • What are the key values of our program?
  • What is different between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • What is the same between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • If you were to write out a vision statement for our program, what would it be?
  • If you were to craft purpose statements for each of the times we meet, what would they be?

What is the vision statement for your ministry? What are some ways that you worked to craft it and hone your ministry’s purpose?

How to Handle Conflict Well

This past year has been a difficult one in many ways. The isolation, political divisiveness, the restrictions, personal issues, and struggles within the church have all seemed to heighten tensions and frustrations. With people more so processing on their own and not bringing others into their thoughts and questions, we are seeing conflict happen more frequently and more intensely.

Many of you have probably felt this within your churches and perhaps within your personal lives as well. Church leaders have taken hit after hit this past year, and it seems pastors and church staff are all weary and feeling the tension at deeper levels than ever before.

The easy response would be to dismiss the tension and conflict or just walk away. But that is neither productive nor uplifting for the body of Christ or individuals. So how do we handle conflict well? I am no expert at this, and arguably this past year has forced me to rethink and evaluate how I could handle it better. But what I’d love to share with you today are some steps that I believe if we implement, we will be able to handle conflict better holistically and prayerfully see the body of Christ encouraged, challenged, and built up.

Pray.

This seems like an obvious choice but it is often one we miss, put on the back burner, or rush through. We all know that prayer is important, but we must be praying before, during, and after conflict as much as we can.

If you know you’re heading to a difficult meeting, pray before you get there. Allow your prayers to not be about your success or proving your point, but about honoring God and the relationship that this meeting represents. Pray during the meeting both in silence and out loud when needed. If the tension is elevating, pause and pray for one another. And pray after the meeting has ended. Pray for each other, for wisdom, humility, and restoration. Only through Christ will there be resolution and through our prayers God moves.

Hear, listen, and respond.

Whenever we are in a meeting, especially one that may be tense or have conflict as a part of it, we may feel pressured to push our responses, agendas, or points. But when we do that we not only make the other person feel unheard but also devalued. And that is not healthy nor representative of godly leadership.

Instead, we need to not only listen to someone but hear them. We should listen to what is said and seek to understand. Ask clarifying questions, repeat back what you heard, and look to know what is shaping their understanding and point of view. As you seek to do these things, your responses should be shaped accordingly. You aren’t seeking to win, but to honor God, understand, protect the relationship, and bring resolution. These can only be accomplished by first hearing and listening, then responding.

Process.

Processing is an important component of moving through conflict, and we cannot relegate the processing piece to only after the conflict. Part of preparing for and moving through conflict means you need to process what has been communicated and shared.

Often we are led into conflict when someone reaches out and shares about tension. So think through what they shared with you. Don’t over-analyze or assume, but process what was said or shared as you seek to understand. This applies to what is shared during the actual conflict or meeting. Seek to understand and not simply respond. Process and look for clarity before you draw conclusions. The same process should be applied to how you respond after the meeting has concluded.

Know your non-negotiables.

This past year has seen a lot of tension arise within the church as everyone has an opinion on what a church should be doing and how it should be responding. This period of time has taught our leadership to think through what our non-negotiables are and to not concede on them.

This same mentality can be apprised to conflict of any kind, but not in an aggressive or dominant way. It isn’t about control or winning, but knowing what cannot be compromised. Many of the conflicts I’ve dealt with recently centered around our church’s guidelines related to COVID. Knowing what we could be flexible on and could not change allowed me to be honest and clear on what and why we were doing what we were doing. So know what you can be flexible on and what you can’t change. This will bring clarity and helpful insight into the conversation.

Seek forgiveness when needed.

We all make mistakes, and many of us have made mistakes during times of conflict or tension. When that happens we need to seek forgiveness. We need to own when we speak out of turn, we must acknowledge if something we did or said contributed to the tension, and we should own our mistakes. Whenever we are contributors to the conflict or tension we must admit our faults and seek forgiveness. Doing this not only demonstrates leadership but also adherence to God’s Word in admitting when we are wrong or have hurt others.

Seek to keep or restore the relationship.

Tension and conflict can cause relationships to struggle or falter. Sometimes it is due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. At other points it may be because there are radically different positions being held. As much as you are able, seek to keep and restore the relationship(s).

I have had to dismiss leaders and volunteers for a variety of circumstances, but I always seek to honor the friendship and relationship that is there. They don’t always look the same as coaching or counseling may be needed, but it is so important to care for others and honor the relationship. There will be times that we cannot restore them because of the other parties involved, but in as much as you are able, seek to honor and restore the relationship.

Acknowledge and validate.

Sometimes we need to admit our wrongs but we also need to acknowledge when others are right and present good points or insight. Often we just think about apologizing and seeking forgiveness when something we stated or did was incorrect, but what about acknowledging and validating the other person?

When people share helpful critiques or insight or if they were right where we were wrong, we need to acknowledge that and validate what they said or did. This will not only help us show humility, but it is also healthy leadership. A good leader knows to acknowledge and validate their people when they share or do something right, and this must carry over into moments of conflict as well.

Follow up.

This is huge and honestly it may be one of the harder ones. If we leave a moment of conflict and it feels unresolved or there is hurt from that moment, we may not want to follow up. Our humanity will pull us from seeking to right the relationship and honor the other person. But as we die to self and seek Christ we should see that as followers of Jesus we need to follow up with our people.

Reach out. Seek clarity. Pursue the relationship. Honor the other person. In doing this you are not only showing humility but strong leadership and a shepherd’s heart. Follow up even if it’s hard. Lean into those moments as you care for your people and lead out. This step is the hardest but one of the most important, and I believe doing this will help to bring people in and strengthen our communities.

7 Ways to Encourage Others

This past month the staff at our church was given a challenge: encourage one another. We drew names from a hat and were told to encourage that person for the whole month, and at the end we would reveal who we were encouraging. It was like Secret Santa but in February.

As I reflected on what we were doing, I thought about the practical application this could have within our personal lives and the ministries we lead and serve. Today, I want to offer some ways to think about encouraging others within your spheres of influence. These people could be your volunteers, staff at your church, your neighbors, your spouse, or whomever you choose. This has been, and continues to be for many, a challenging season, and if we apply some of these to our daily rhythms we will encourage, strengthen, and empower those with whom we do life.

1. Write an encouraging note.

This could be as simple as letting someone know that what they have been doing has been noticed, or it could be more personal. The purpose of this is to actually give the person a tangible message. Handwritten notes or letters contain much more meaning than an email or text, and have a way of encouraging people in powerful ways.

2. Leave them their favorite snack.

One of my favorite things to do with my volunteers is find out what their favorite snack item is and then randomly send them that snack or give it to them at a camp or retreat. It sounds simple, but it holds meaning for that person because it shows intentionality and a relational connection.

3. Share an encouraging Scripture.

Sharing a passage of Scripture with someone is hugely encouraging. It can simply be a verse God gave you for that person, a passage to encourage them during whatever season they are going through, or a passage that reminded you of that person. What I would recommend is provide a little rationale with the passage so the person knows why you are leaving it for them.

4. Get students involved.

Encouraging your volunteers, other youth staff, or parents? Don’t forget to get your students involved. They can do something as simple as sending a text or video message to their leaders, or they can create hand-written notes to drop off or mail. Wanting to do a little more? Edit together videos from multiple students and share them with your leaders and staff. Students will remember special moments with their leaders, which can encourage your entire group. Plus fostering a grateful community is always a good idea.

5. Give them a gift card.

This may sound a bit impersonal at first, but let me say this: give someone a gift card to a place they enjoy. For instance, if you have a leader who loves tea, don’t get them a gift card to Starbucks. Consider getting them one to David’s Tea or a local tea shop. If they love online shopping then grab them a gift card to Amazon or their favorite retailer. You could also consider providing a gift card for them to use as a way to take their spouse or significant other out for a date night. The more intentional you are with the destination of the gift card, the more impactful and meaningful it will be. This will mean that you need to know what the person enjoys but as leaders we should be seeking to know our people and find out more about their lives.

6. Take them out.

This is one of my favorite things to do with my volunteers. I love grabbing a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza with my leaders and encouraging them. I always try to pay for them, listen to how they are doing personally and in ministry, and find ways to pray for them. This is a practical and tangible way to care for and encourage your people.

7. Don’t forget important days.

This may seem obvious, but honoring important days is the perfect way to make others feel special and remembered. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, or other meaningful milestone, recognizing an important day in the life of others shows that you are paying attention and invested. Set a calendar reminder, or keep a planner where you note these days. Then use one of the suggestions above to celebrate the person, their milestone, and why they are a meaningful part of your life.

How to Co-Lead Well

Many of us have more than one leader working in our student ministries. Whether it is you and your spouse or you have dozens of youth leaders at your disposal, learning how to co-lead is highly important. In many of our ministry settings we must have two leaders for accountability and legal purposes. Whatever the reason may be that you have multiple leaders, co-leading (leading with another leader) is something we must learn to do well in order to have a successful ministry.

In order to lead well with another person, there are certain aspects that we need to consider and implement. Today, we want to examine a few of those and hopefully give you relevant and helpful ways to lead well together.

Communication

Part of leading well with others involves communication. Whether you are talking with your co-leader for a small group or the three others who are helping facilitate your gathering, communication will help everyone be on the same page, it will instill value and worth, and it will help everyone lead better. So communicate with one another before the program or group time. Communicate about where you see the discussion going, communicate about arrival times, or even about conversations you have had with the students in your group. The more communication there is, the better off you all will be as leaders because it helps you work as a team.

Game Plan Together

Another aspect of communication is planning with one another. As you lead with others you should work collectively to come up with a plan as to how you see things going. This could involve who will handle what aspects of a small or large group, it could involve who will facilitate discussion, or it could even be who will speak with a student about what they shared or did. Game planning together will bring a cohesiveness to your group and allow for all leaders to have a role in what is happening. Planning together will allow for each leader to feel validated and provide everyone with a clear direction for your group.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Working with others can be challenging at times and I believe part of this is because of our own weaknesses and strengths. Where we have a strength we see other’s weaknesses, and where we have a weakness we become frustrated or bitter because of someone else’s strengths. But that shouldn’t be our focus. Instead of fixating on how great we are or where there are missteps, we should look at what each person brings to the table and use them to collectively help our students grow. A weakness is only a weakness if we allow it to be. If you struggle with asking open ended questions but your co-leader excels at it, don’t get upset they are asking the questions. Maybe lean into your strength which could be one-on-one discipleship. Both are valid and beneficial, and when used together by a team it brings greatness to what you are doing. So communicate about your strengths and weaknesses with your co-leader(s) and look for ways to excel together.

Be for One Another

This is something that we all need to be mindful of, especially as we lead together. Leaders may not always agree, but it is important to show unity. It is important to not chop someone at the knees if they misspeak about a passage of Scripture and it is equally important to not bad mouth your co-leader if they are late to group. Speaking positively about other leaders not only instills confidence in your students for their leaders, it also allows you and your co-leader to grow closer together. This isn’t dismissing behavior that is problematic but instead allowing for you two to be for one another and supportive of each other. If a problem does arise, the best way to handle it is away from the students.

Be Honest with Each Other

Being honest is hugely important when it comes to leading with others. In both good and difficult times, honesty will help your relationship with your fellow leaders. If you are frustrated by something that happened, share it in love and look to be honest about the situation. If you need help or are running late, be honest about it. Be honest if you weren’t able to prepare as much as you would have liked. This allows for transparency and opportunities for growth and for truth to be spoken. It will also allow for frustrations to be alleviated and for you relationship to be built upon trust.

How to Deal with Discouragement

An email critiquing your program or teaching. A parent or group of parents talking about you behind your back. A supervisor criticizing what you do during your review. An event you have prayed over and poured hours into bombs. You get told that due to budget cuts you no longer have a job. You are asked, “when do you think you will grow up and be a real pastor?” A student you love and poured into walks away from their faith.

Discouragement looks different for all of us, but all of us have experienced discouragement. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, discouragement in ministry hurts more than discouragement elsewhere. The reason it hurts more is because it isn’t simply a job; it’s our calling, our passion, a reflection of our faith, and an act of service to our Lord. To experience discouragement in ministry rocks us to our core because ministry is such a part of our identity. In some ways it perhaps could have become an idol in our lives and that crushes us more so (more on that below).

So do we simply acknowledge the discouragement and say to ourselves, “roll with the punches” or “brush it off, and keep pressing on?” I don’t think those mentalities are wrong but they are ultimately not sustainable or helpful because they’re simply dismissive of the root issue or allow for us to attempt to bury our feelings. Instead, we need to proactively respond and think through how we handle our discouragement.

Get a mentor.

You shouldn’t have a mentor just for times you are discouraged or hurt, but having a mentor during those times is essential. A mentor is someone who loves you, knows you, understands your passion and calling, and will also speak truth to you. A good mentor will help you to assess what was said and help you to think about it critically. They can discern if there is truth, help you to grow and be challenged, and also encourage and uplift you during those tough moments. A mentor is someone who is fully for you: they want you to be the best you can be, as God designed you to be. They will give you a place to process, be heard, learn, and grow as they push you to be more like Jesus.

Evaluate what was said.

This can be a tough thing to do because we (like everyone else) come with our own biases. We may think that what we do for our program, students, and leaders is top notch. And it may be, but the idea or critique given to you may also be a valid way to do ministry. As a leader we need to be practicing the arts of discernment and evaluation throughout our lives and ministries. If someone shares something that discourages you or upsets you, lean into it and ask some questions.

  • Why did this upset or discourage me?
  • What did I take offense to?
  • Is there anything helpful I can take from this?
  • What was the intention of what was said or what happened?
  • Do I need to have a follow up conversation?
  • Is there any truth or validity to what was said or what happened?
  • How can I grow through this?
  • What do I need to release to God?

Think about why this discouraged you.

This is similar in some ways to evaluating what was said, but this is more intentionally focused on looking inward at our own hearts. Often we get discouraged because what was said or done hits us in our hearts. This may be because we are so committed to and passionate about our calling, but it can also be because we have held our calling at a higher value than our personal relationship with God. Our calling is not our priority; our priority is our own relationship with God. And our calling is an outworking of our personal relationship with our Savior.

I share both of these reasons because it is important to look at the heart of the matter. If we only assume it is one and not the other, we will not properly assess and discern why we are upset, which then hinders the treatment needed. As you begin to process and think through why you are feeling discouraged, an accurate diagnosis will allow for you to better think through how you respond, move forward, and achieve a healthier understanding and outlook.

Ask yourself what your goal is and who you serve.

This is important for all leaders to do periodically, but especially during moments of discouragement. I know there are times I get discouraged after a negative critique of my preaching or a lesson I spent hours cultivating. And I get discouraged even if the amount of encouragement outweighs the one negative comment. Isn’t funny how that happens to us? But this forces us to consider the bigger question of “why.” Why does that happen? Why can one comment or response throw us into such a period of discouragement, doubt, and self-criticism?

The reason is because we are sinful people who truly value, desire, and covet the love and praise of others. This is a hard to truth to swallow, but take a moment and ask yourself this question: do I feel more affirmed, valued, appreciated, and loved when others complement my message or event, or when I know I preached a sermon that honored God and proclaimed the Gospel? Does that answer change if you just got blasted by someone after preaching that sermon that honored God? What if they question your conclusion and tell you that your sermon actually did more harm than good?

We must remember that our job is never to appease others nor is it about receiving the applause and praise of humankind. Our job is to preach the Gospel. To proclaim that Christ came, Christ died, Christ defeated sin and the grave, Christ glorified, and Christ as our salvation. That is our calling. If you can stand up and do that in your messages and in your leadership, then we should be able to stand strong under any critique knowing we have fulfilled our calling. It doesn’t make the critiques and comments any easier to hear, but it assures us of our value and mission. We know we have served the One who is worthy to be served, and that ultimately God will honor our calling and mission to Him regardless of what anyone else says.

Release and forgive.

Often it is easy to hold onto our feelings and the tension they bring. We can hold thoughts in our minds about what was said and who said them. We can allow for the tension, thoughts, and feelings to actually keep us from engaging fully with those individuals or to have thoughts about them that are not Christ-like. If we allow our hurt to develop into more than hurt in our lives it leads to bitterness, frustration, and anger. And these things will cause further pain and division. Let me encourage you to release the pain and hurt, and forgive those who have hurt you whether it was intentional or not. Allowing yourself the freedom to move through the pain and to forgive will actually bring peace and wholeness back into your life. You are not absolving the person nor are you agreeing with what was said. Instead, you are allowing what happened to not be a wedge in your own life, your relationship with them, or your relationship with God. You are seeking to bring about right standing and to honor God.

Take a break, breathe, and laugh.

Recently I had one of these moments of discouragement. During COVID it seems like more and more tension is rising to the surface in local churches, and because of that it seems to be rare that church leaders can do what their congregation thinks is right. I had heard of some indirect grumblings about how I am leading and it caused such pain and discouragement. I will be honest: it put me into a funk that day. I was already stressed because I was preaching and had a hundred other things going on, and the week before had been filled with some very difficult moments.

I sat down for a meeting with some of our staff team, and by complete happenstance we went down a rabbit trail that ended with all of us laughing until we were crying. It was one of those moments when I looked at the staff I serve with and felt so blessed to call them my family. As we signed off of Zoom, I realized something: I felt better. I had taken my eyes and thoughts off of the tension at hand and simply took a break with friends and laughed. It brought such relief and joy, and I felt the tension evaporate.

As I reflected on the issue that had arisen, I did it with a fresh perspective and a lighter heart. I realized that the issue wasn’t as great as I first gave it the credit for being. I understood who I was and where my identity came from. I paused to actually take it to God. When we allow for the problem or discouragement to not be our focus, we can be aware of how to better approach that issue. Take some time away from what discouraged you. Refocus. Take time to breathe and do something you enjoy. Spend time with those closest to you who can encourage you and make you laugh. Experience joy and encouragement, then after some time of refreshment, think through what happened and come up with a way to move forward.

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.

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.

Ways to Decompress & Rest

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

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

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

Healthy ways to Decompress

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

Tips for Setting Boundaries

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