Words of Advice for Couples Starting Out in Ministry

This month we celebrated our ninth anniversary of being married. As we have reflected on the last nine years of marriage and fifteen of knowing one another, we have become acutely aware of things we wished we had known starting out in ministry together.

Within the last month of our engagement Nick lost his job. During our first month of marriage, we moved into our first home together, Nick got his first full time ministry position, and began commuting an hour and a half to his new job. About a month later we moved to our second place in a brand new town, Elise went from working in an office to working remotely, and Nick began working fifty to sixty hours a week.

The rest of that first year was filled with so many other unique challenges and blessings, and each of them forced us to grow and mature together. Looking back on that time there are so many realities and truths we wish we had known then that we have learned along the way, and we wanted to share with you a few tips to help you succeed not just in your marriage but also in your ministry as a couple.

Prioritize your relationship.

If I (Nick) am being honest, this was a struggle during our first couple of years of marriage because of my job and all of its commitments. I had my first full-time ministry position and it demanded a lot of my time. I was working sixty hours or more a week, my days off were not matched with Elise’s, and there way too many moments when we would simply see each other before we went to bed.

Looking back I truly wish I had prioritized our relationship over the ministry I was serving. Ultimately those first couple of years added much more weight and difficulty than we should have had, but I did not stand up and start making changes until a couple of years in.

Ministry is a calling from God but our relationship with our spouse should be our first priority after our relationship with God. Ministry then is a tertiary priority in the grand scheme of our lives. Let me encourage you to learn from my missteps and put your relationship with your spouse first. Prioritize time together. Make date nights a non-negotiable. Continue to go out on dates and vacations. Stop doing work at home. Spend time together and find ways to retreat and be with one another.

Listen well.

I don’t know if you are like me (Nick) or not, but there have been times when I would come home from work and just feel done. After being around people all day I don’t talk much and sometimes I am guilty of switching off. But there are also days that I would come home and I was/am a fire hose of words. I just dump everything on Elise and go a mile a minute when I am talking.

Neither of those options are beneficial to our relationship. I either am not listening or halfheartedly listening to Elise in the first scenario or I am doing all the talking and none of the listening in the second. What I have learned throughout our years of being together is that focusing on our relationship and truly listening to Elise is so important. When you allow your spouse to share about their day, you are prioritizing them and your relationship. You are highlighting that they and their day are just as important as yours. My advice would be to always seek to find balance in listening which means considering what and how much you say.

Over-communicate.

In light of what I just shared above, this may seem counterproductive. But hear me out: I am not saying that you need to talk all the time and that your relationship is simply both of you competing for time to talk. I am saying that a priority in your relationship should be communicating often and clearly about what is going on. Early on, I didn’t communicate all of the things that I needed to do for my job. In fact it would often be last minute where I would say things like “well, it’s time for me to go to work” without having shared my working hours previously. And honestly, that is the quickest way to devalue your spouse and make them feel like they aren’t a valid member of the relationship.

Instead, let me encourage you to over-communicate. Make sure your spouse knows your schedule. Communicate about what you have going on, who you are meeting with, ministry events, and your commitments. This is even more important if your spouse isn’t serving with you. One of the best ways to do this is through a shared calendar. We use Google Calendar and it is awesome! It has truly helped us be on the same page and to know what is going on. But at the same time, this cannot be your catch all. While a calendar is helpful, it is not a replacement for a true conversation that values the other person by sharing life and happenings with them.

Be honest.

Sometimes in relationships it is easy to just pretend that everything is okay. This doesn’t come from a malicious place or out of a desire to be deceitful, but more out of protection for our spouse. We think that by not sharing and avoiding the realities that we are facing, we are somehow sparing them further pain and struggle. But the truth is that the more we do that, the more distance and tension we are adding to the relationship.

I have struggled for years sharing how I am feeling with Elise. Not because I am trying to hide anything but that is just not how I was raised and with extensive trauma (ministry and personal) in my past, I don’t always know how to share. But as I have walked through this most recent season of struggling with mental health, I have come away with a renewed passion for how important honesty and transparency is in marriage.

As you are honest with one another it allows you to have not only a place of refuge and encouragement, but also someone who loves and supports you. Being honest strengthens the bond you and your spouse have and enables you to engage with anything because you know that you are always for one another.

Encourage and challenge one another.

Another key aspect to remember is that you and your spouse are a team and as such, you should be for one another. One of the ways Elise always is for me is by encouraging me and challenging me to utilize my gifts fully. I can often talk down about myself or the skills God has given to me, but Elise constantly encourages me and challenges me to reach my full potential. It is easy when you are first married to do this, but often as time goes on this can fade because we assume our spouse knows how we feel about them.

One of the best ways you can truly care for and support your spouse is by being in their corner. Help them to see the good. Encourage them and speak highly of them. Challenge them to grow and see their gifting from God. As you continue to be more supportive and encouraging to your spouse you will see the greater opportunity for growth and depth within your relationship with one another and with God.

Surrender your expectations.

Before setting off on a journey of marriage–and ministry–it’s normal to have expectations of how you think things should or will go. If you’re like us and you went to Bible college, you may think you have a pretty good understanding of ministry, theology, and how to “be a good Christian.” The reality is that college or seminary can only give you so much information. A lot of life, marriage, and ministry involves learning along the way. You will discover things and have experiences you never could’ve prepared for, and things will be both beautifully amazing and crushingly difficult.

Our encouragement is to let go of expectations, and the need to control. Instead, hold everything in an open hand to God and seek to learn and grow from what He is doing. He will give you the skills and abilities you need and His strength will carry you through both the difficult and the amazing. And let this apply to your spouse as well. Don’t look for ways to control them, instead strive to love them for who they are, celebrating their unique complexities as designed by God. We all long to be loved for who we are, and that is something we can seek to offer each other. As we do that, we create a safe space for each other to be shaped by a loving God as we individually and collectively seek to become more like Christ.

How to Handle Conflict

What is your go-to response when it comes to conflict? Are you an avoider or more direct in your confrontations? Does it weigh on you or do you just push it deep down to a place where it doesn’t seem to matter anymore? Does conflict terrify you or excite you?

No matter how you may have answered those questions, the truth of the matter is that conflict is unavoidable. I am not saying that we should seek out conflict, but we must recognize that conflict is part of the tension of living in a post-fall world. When broken people share life together, there will be conflict. The question we must wrestle with is this: how do we handle conflict?

Before we go any further, I want to make a few–what I would say are obvious but often forgotten–statements about conflict:

  1. You can only handle your approach and response. You are not responsible for the other person, but you are responsible for how you engage and interact.
  2. Prayer and going to the throne of God before any conflict that you know is going to happen is paramount. Just as going to God every day is paramount. We often run to God when there is going to be a conflict, but our response should be to run to God regardless. We must ask Him to work in our lives and relationships in an ongoing way to help us mediate and handle circumstances in order to prevent unhealthy conflict.
  3. Consider what part you play in the conflict. Self-reflection is always beneficial, but even more so when it comes to conflict. It is important to think about what we are contributing, both helpful and detrimental, to a conflict. So pause, reflect, and prayerfully think about how your words, attitudes, and actions are helping to resolve or hindering the conflict.

So how do we handle conflict well? Here are a few ways that I have learned (often the hard way) on how we can handle conflict and move forward well.

Be honest and clear.

Often in conflicts we tend to speak in absolutes, minimize what is going on, and don’t often say what needs to be said. What we should be doing instead is sharing what is true and the way it is effecting us. We must be honest about how we feel and how things have been received. But we must also be clear and concise and not allow for absolutes or our emotions to drive us toward negative responses or engagements. Instead, speak honestly and clearly.

Handle your emotions.

If you are like me and can feel the passion and pressure manifest in your core in conversations and conflicts, then you know how easy it can be to not handle your emotions. But allowing your emotions rather than clarity and wisdom to drive your engagements with others can be problematic. It can lead you to be rash, critical, and at times hurtful. So instead look to address your emotions and be honest about them in conversation, but also be aware enough not allow your emotions to dictate all that you do and say.

Be humble.

Conflict can be incredibly humbling especially if it makes you aware of your own shortcomings or errors. So as you engage in conflict do so with a spirit of humility. Do not presume this to mean that you just need to take your licks and continue to do so. But do understand that being humble means approaching the conflict with a willingness to hear the other person, grow personally, and be willing to admit wrongs.

Always see the other party as someone created in the image of God.

Sometimes in conflict it is easy to see the other person(s) as the problem or even as our enemy. But that is not what a biblical approach to conflict should look like. Imagine for a moment what would have happened if Cain had seen Able as his brother created in God’s image rather than someone who showed him up and became an obstacle to remove. We would be reading a very different narrative in Genesis 4, and honestly our method for conflict resolution would have a much better example to follow. So instead of seeing someone as an obstacle, see them as a child of God made in His image and allow for that to help curate your approach to conflict resolution.

Realize that your resolution may not be the right one.

Have you ever entered a meeting convinced that your way was the right and only way to do something? I know I have. I come in with an idea and a belief that it is the best solution, and when it hasn’t been taken as such it is defeating and deflating. I believe that’s also how we approach conflict at times. We come in believing we have the right solution and when it doesn’t go our way we see it as a defeat. But the problem is that we are approaching these moments as a battle to win not a conversation to be walked through. That means we need to approach them with open hands understanding our resolution may not be the best or right right one, and that is okay. Instead be willing to accept another route and engage with the conflict holistically.

Watch your language.

This is key both within the conflict and outside of it. Words are extremely powerful and can either be helpful or harmful. How are you speaking to and about that person? We can be prone to gossip, both intentionally and unintentionally, therefore, we can severely harm relationships. But we can be even more prone to say hurtful things in the midst of the confrontation because our emotions get the better of us. Instead of allowing your language to be harmful, seek to edify, challenge, build up, and encourage one another. Doing so in all moments will actually help your heart be in the right space when you have those difficult conversations.

Mind your spheres.

This is something that I think many of us (myself included) struggle with. Living in community with others means that often times our relationships and engagements overlap. And because of that reality, we often share things with people outside of the appropriate spheres. Perhaps you have a conflict with your boss; it would be inappropriate for you to share with all your volunteers why he is a horrible boss because that will cause dissension and frustration within the church. Remember that your priority is unity within the body, so seek to handle conflict in a way that builds, rather than tears down that unity.

When it comes to conflict, what manner of resolution has been most helpful for you?

Book Review: Attacking Anxiety

Would you say that your students struggle with anxiety, depression, or panic attacks? Have you witnessed the weight that your students are carrying? Have students shared how overwhelmed or burdened they are? What about you? How are you doing? Would you say your mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all doing well?

Recently I had shared about being on a mental health break from my job, and during my time away I read a recommended book by Shawn Johnson called Attacking Anxiety. This is a book I would highly recommend for anyone regardless of whether you are struggling personally or have people under your care who are.

The truth is that we will always come in contact with someone who may be struggling and this book provides insight, wisdom, tools, and resources we can use to help ourselves and others. This is a very personal book for me because it truly put into words the feelings, emotions, and thoughts I didn’t know how to express during my recent bout with mental health. I can say with extreme confidence that this is a book everyone leading in ministry (especially with students) should be reading.

Attacking Anxiety isn’t another self-help book, but instead is a very personal and reflective account from Shawn about his own struggle with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Shawn draws from his own story and struggles to help the reader fully understand the realities of mental health. But as he tells his story, he also highlights the ways in which we can have victory over the struggles we face.

Shawn acknowledges that this isn’t a “one-size fits all” approach, but the tools and resources that he shares are simply that: ways for us to helpfully and hopefully engage with our own mental health or those with whom we do life. It is a refreshing read that helps us understand that mental health is a complex issue and that the ways to address it are multifaceted and include God and our relationship with Him, counseling, medication, self-awareness, and much more. Shawn doesn’t dismiss one aspect or treatment for another but instead helps the reader to understand how unique and complex this issue is, and provides the reader with much-needed insight and resources.

The book is broken down into four sections: Know, Start, Stop, and Remember. The Know section is designed to help the reader understand that what they are going through isn’t something that only they have ever struggled with and that they aren’t alone. This section is truly meant to help the reader have hope even when life seems hopeless. The Start portion is all about the reader taking steps to fight back. Shawn highlights how mental health can be crippling but this was never God’s design or intent for humanity. Struggling with mental health is a direct result of the Fall, and because of that Satan loves to corrupt our minds and make us believe it is our fault, that we are the problem, and we are alone. Shawn challenges the reader to fight back against these lies and he outlines way we can do just that. This section alone is worth purchasing the book for as it helped me think through how I was responding to my own circumstances, and when I put these tools to work it helped immensely. My anxiety and depression didn’t magically disappear, but it became manageable and allowed for me to see how many supporters and advocates I truly have.

Section three, Stop, is helpful for anyone and everyone regardless of whether you are struggling with mental health. Shawn highlights things we need to Stop doing because they are actually keeping us from becoming fully healthy. Some of the areas he talks about include pretending that everything is okay, admitting if we are holding onto past hurt and unforgiveness, a desire to perform for critics, and comparison. Even as I reread this list, I am struck by how important and insightful each of these areas are for everyone regardless of their mental health. Holding onto these aspects and responses doesn’t mean we struggle with mental health, but prolonged engagement with them will undoubtedly affect your mental health in one way or another.

In the final section of his book, Shawn challenges us to remember that God is with us, God is working, and God has a plan. So often in mental health struggles we forget these truths. We forget that God hasn’t left us alone and that He is working all things out. In the thickness of the struggle we often miss that God is at work and sustaining us, and it is in this last section that Shawn reminds us of who our God is and the love He has for us. We are not alone, we are not forgotten. Instead we are deeply known, loved, and sustained. The section focuses on the hope we have and the reminder to rely upon God even in our darkest moments.

If you need one more reason to love this book, then don’t stop at the last section but continue on to the appendix. Here Shawn provides a very practical resource entitled “Panic Attack Survival Guide.” In the appendix we are given practical ways to move through a panic attack but Shawn also provides an additional guide for those who have loved ones going through a panic attack and how to love and care for them in the midst of it. This resource is invaluable and totally worth the cost of the book just to obtain this piece.

So if you’re wondering whether or not you should read this book, the answer is a resounding yes! The resources alone make the book worth purchasing and reading, but the additional information and insight into mental health are just as worthwhile. So let me encourage you to go out and purchase your copy today and use it to help yourself and others on their mental health journey.

Speaking Tips for New Youth Pastors

Is this your first ministry position? Are you feeling your pulse quicken and heart beat faster as you stand before your students? Is this your first time speaking to a group that is now yours to shepherd and lead?

We have all been, or will be, in that position at some point. Whether it’s your very first ministry position or your first time speaking in front of a new youth group or audience, speaking can be difficult. We can all feel rushed, overwhelmed, ill-equipped, terrified, and more. But when you are stepping in front of your group for the first time (or first few), it can be terrifying and that can lead us into some patterns that aren’t beneficial.

We can tend to speak too long our first few times and if left unchecked it becomes a habit we don’t know how to break. When we feel uncomfortable we can make jokes or poke fun at people we shouldn’t. When we think students are disengaging or being disruptive we can snap and get upset. Not having a plan in place and thinking through how communicate and speak well will lead us into a place that is very difficult out of which to rise. Today I want to offer you some tips on how to speak well to your group, especially if you’re a new youth pastor or in a new role.

Keep it short.

Sometimes when we start off with a new group we can tend to be a little too talkative. This doesn’t come from a bad place but from a desire to be clear, to make sure everything is communicated, and to build relational equity. But talking for too long actually detracts from all of those points.

Instead, look to keep your lessons to 15 minutes or less. You can always build them up to longer lessons as you build rapport and relationships within your ministry. A good metric to assess the timing of your lesson is to ask yourself if it could be broken into two shorter lessons. If it can be, it is most likely best to do so.

Know your group.

The more you know your group, the better prepared you will be to communicate with them. You may be wondering how to do this, especially if you are in week one of your new position. A few easy ways to build relationships early include getting to church and youth group early to meet people, initiating conversations rather than waiting for them to happen, playing games with your students, and connecting with your leaders before gatherings. If you put these aspects into place, you will begin to know more about your group, which will allow you to connect and engage with them at a deeper level.

Know your material.

This is something that is hugely important. I know most, if not all, of us would say we strive to know our material and what we are sharing. But how comfortable are you when something or someone throws you off your game? In a new setting you never know what could happen: a student could interrupt, your setting could be unusual and distracting, or someone could try to distract you. In those moments do you feel comfortable enough to disengage from teaching to engage the moment and then reengage with the teaching? Knowing your material means you are comfortable and able to audible when needed, and that you can handle whatever comes your way.

Slow down.

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in the northeast or if it just comes natural, but regardless of the reason I tend to be a fast talker. But when I talk fast, things can get lost or misunderstood. When people start in a new pastoral position the propensity can be to talk faster in an attempt to cram as much material as possible into each lesson. But this is not an ideal way to communicate. Instead slow down, be purposeful and intentional, and make sure to clearly articulate your points. Doing this will not only ensure that what is shared is heard but also retained and prayerfully applied.

Engage with your group.

This is a key point and one that I think many of us can struggle with. Whenever we stand before a group we have our expectations about how the group should function and how they should engage, respond, and focus on what we are saying. But have you noticed how our expectations and realities don’t always go hand-in-hand? You may want the group to be quiet and hyper-focused on what you are saying, but they may want to ask questions and interrupt. How do you handle that? Do you allow your frustration or unmet expectations to show?

Let me encourage you to engage with your group during your speaking time. Don’t get frustrated but instead respond well. When they make a joke, laugh if appropriate. If they ask a question, engage it. If they don’t seem like they are paying attention, consider alternatives to calling it out (pause and highlight the lesson’s importance, pause and pray to center hearts, consider that it may be best to dialogue in smaller groups, etc.). Engaging with your group shows them that you see and value them, and that this isn’t meant to be a top down, authoritative lecture but instead a discipleship pathway.

Control your emotions.

This is a good thing to do in any setting, but especially in front of students. Students are highly intelligent and they can easily assess how people are feeling based upon body language, interactions and conversations, ticks you may have (eye rolls, sighs, facial expressions, looking at the clock, etc.), or a failure to look at them as you speak. All of these highlight our internal emotions and students are acutely aware of them.

So as you engage with and speak to your students, make sure you are controlling your emotions. Don’t allow your frustrations to boil over into an outburst. Don’t get angry at your students for not paying attention. Don’t become passive aggressive in your comments. Instead pray before, during, and after you speak for a gracious heart and a joyful spirit. Be vigilant in practicing the Fruit of the Spirit. Practice smiling before you speak. Studies actually show that smiling releases endorphins that help you feel happy and relaxed. So take five to ten seconds before you speak to pray and smile.

Have fun.

This is one aspect I always try to remember. Yes, this is a career. Yes, we are expositing God’s Word. Yes, we are seeking to disciple students and help them on the path of living for Jesus. But as we do that, I believe we can also have fun. I truly believe that Jesus had fun and enjoyed life with His followers, and that we are to do the same. So when you are speaking, smile, tell a joke or funny story, be personal, and laugh when things don’t always go according to plan. The more fun you have while you are speaking the more value and passion you will have for the calling God has given you.

3 Quick Tips for Volunteer Recruitment

As we enter into summer programming you may not be actively thinking about recruiting new leaders for the fall. Perhaps this seems early for some of you. I know that isn’t how I have typically operated, which usually leads to a mad dash and panicked few weeks in August as we try to find quality volunteers right before we start programming. This isn’t a healthy way to start programming for us or our volunteers as we both end up feeling rushed and not fully prepared for the school year.

As I have begun to take some hard looks at volunteer recruitment, I have realized that things need to change in order to better equip our leaders and ministries to serve our students. If recruiting sounds difficult or exasperating, I get it. I have often felt the same way. But if we approach recruitment differently, we can help alleviate the tension. So here are three easy ways to save yourself a lot of stress and hardship, and help yourself find quality leaders.

1. Start early.

For the first time ever, our team started recruiting this past week. We began to reach out to potential leaders, we added volunteer opportunities to our monthly newsletter, and we asked our leaders to identify potential additional leaders. Perhaps this is something you always do, but for our team it isn’t. The earliest that we have started would be the end of July, and it often led to a rushed and angst-filled month before programming kicked off.

Planning ahead and building up your volunteer group early allows you to make sure your leaders are equipped and prepared for the school year. And as you begin to plan ahead, you can scale it each year and begin to recruit even earlier. Next year we are already planning to begin recruiting as the current school year ends. So think about when you will start recruiting and how you can begin to do so earlier to help best prepare your ministry for the fall.

2. Think outside the box.

When it comes to who you recruit, how you recruit, and where you recruit from, try to think creatively and in ways you haven’t before. I have found that when I recruit I can fall into doing the same thing over and over again. Bulletin announcements, cold calls, asking leaders to talk to their friends, and asking people who used to volunteer. But this year I decided to try something different: I reached out directly to parents.

This may be something you already do, but for me it was my first time doing it in a new way. We send a newsletter out once a month and this month’s almost solely focused on volunteer needs with the hope that parents will see it and consider jumping in. My point with this is to encourage you to try something new and different. Shake up how you have done recruiting in the past. Ask other youth workers what they do. Try something new and see if it provides you with a new recruit or multiple volunteers.

3. Consider changing things up.

I think for many people it is easy to get stuck in habits and rhythms. These aren’t necessarily bad things but they can hamper us, especially if they aren’t providing the necessary volunteers that we need. What we need to do is the be creative as we think about recruitment. If we think of this as an opportunity to creatively try something new, it all of a sudden opens up brand new perspectives on how to recruit.

One of the things we have done out of necessity is think through whether our staff team needs to do all the things we have traditionally done, or if we can empower volunteers to take over those roles. That means creating new positions and leadership opportunities, offering additional training, and identifying new leaders. But the benefit of having leaders take ownership and allowing our staff team to flourish far outweighs those additional needs.

What are your best tips for recruiting new volunteers?

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.