How to Care Well for Students [Part 1]

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

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

Establish trust.

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

Listen.

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

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

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

Ask clarifying questions.

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

Utilize leaders.

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

Follow up.

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

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

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

Motives + Ministry: Asking the Hard Questions

In the realm of ministry, if you’re a leader, you have a following. If you have a following, you have a platform. And if you have a platform, you have power. This can be easily noticed in the era of technology, social media, and constant connection. But if you look back over time, it’s always worked this way. People who are followed, listened to, and emulated always have power.

How we as ministry leaders use the power we possess ultimately comes down to the motives of our hearts. And if we aren’t careful to check our motives, we can easily be swept away in the allure of having a platform, building a following, and achieving our version of success.

None of us is perfect, which is why at times it’s important to ask some difficult questions of ourselves. It’s vital that we check our motives, and realign our desires and priorities with God and his directives. Failure to keep ourselves in check can lead us to a place that might look alluring, but ultimately takes us where we don’t want to go.

Today I want to suggest a few questions to ask yourself, and things to think through as you consider your leadership, your goals and aspirations, and of course, your motives.

Ask: What is my short-term goal, what is my long-term goal, and do they align?

It’s not wrong to set goals for yourself and your life, but I would encourage you to fight to make sure they align with God, his word, and his calling for your life. In whatever you hope to achieve, remember that he is the one who will open doors, provide for you, and lead you to where you should go. Don’t bypass what he has for you or overlook it in pursuit of something you believe to be better. Sometimes the best things he has for us are in the most unlikely places. I encourage you to be present where he has you, and to give your best and your all.

In different seasons of life, you may have different short-term goals. But when you step back and look at your life, what is your over-all, long-term goal? What do you feel God calling you to do with your existence? What do you hope to accomplish with your life? At the end of your days, what would indicate a life well lived? Keep the answer to these questions in mind as you set short-term goals. In the day-to-day it can be easy to be distracted by momentary things, whether fame, financial stability, or experiences. Don’t let short-term goals cloud your vision for your life and calling. Fight to keep the short-term in line with the long-term.

Ask: How am I going about getting to where I want to be?

In a day when it is so easy to build a widespread platform thanks to the connectivity of social networks and the internet, it can almost be an expectation that to be successful in any field you must be an “influencer,” and have an online following. You may have a goal of gaining a certain number of followers on Instagram, or readers on your blog, or subscribers to your YouTube channel. You may feel like this will open doors for you in the future, giving you more notoriety, validity or importance.

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing about God, what he’s teaching you, or what you’re doing in ministry online, I think unchecked it can lead to more. A social media platform can easily go from a way to reach people to a way to use people, leveraging them to get what you want. Things can quickly become less about sharing a message and more about you, the messenger. And in this, your focus can shift from God to yourself.

Whatever your goal, and whatever you’re pursing, be wise in how you get there. Don’t lose yourself, or your pursuit of Christ and his calling, in the process. This brings to mind Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:26 (and if you remember Michael Tait’s stint as a solo artist, the song “Empty), “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Don’t let the things of this world woo you away from your true purpose.

Ask: Who am I trying to emulate?

Is there someone you idolize, whose career you’d like to achieve, or whose leadership style you imitate, who you feel is showing you the way you should go? Is there someone you are trying to be? When it comes to ministry, it can be easy to put other ministry leaders on pedestals, wishing we had their qualities, platforms, possessions, or opportunities. We can even try to become them, imitating what they are doing, how they dress, or their speaking style. While it’s not wrong to appreciate other leaders, left unchecked it can lead to a form of worship.

Besides the obvious issue of idolizing and worshiping a person, pursuing someone else’s life and ministry means ignoring your own. And over time you will miss out on becoming the person God has made you and intended you to be. The best and only person whom you should be trying to emulate is Jesus. He will lead you in the best direction you could ever go, to become the best person and ministry leader you could ever be. Don’t give up the best for a life spent imitating other people.

Ask: Do I have love?

This may sound like an odd question to include with the others, but stick with me. Lots of times when Christians read 1 Corinthians 13, it’s at a wedding, or some other celebration of romantic love. But I think its scope is much more broad, applying also to our lives at leaders and ministers of the Gospel. We can achieve a lot, accomplish important things, do good work, and preach amazing sermons, but absent of love, it all means nothing.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Absent of love, our efforts are futile. 1 Corinthians 13 verses 4 and following go on to spell out what real love looks like lived out. It manifests Christ-likeness in our lives, shaping us into not only effective ministers of the Gospel, but people who look like Jesus. So as you’re thinking about where you want to go, and working to get there, are you cultivating love in your life? Are you keeping the “main thing” the main thing?

Asking yourself these questions ins’t intended to make you feel bad, or so that you can punish yourself if you get off track. The idea is to build in course-correction, which may become necessary with the passing of time. There is a reason why we find repetition so often in the Bible, and it’s because we are prone to forget. Let us not forget or grow weary of fighting the good fight, it is absolutely worth it.

5 Ways to Vacation Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Set up social media posts ahead of time.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Turn on out-of-office responses.

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

5. Leave work at home.

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

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

Caring for Volunteer Leaders on Trips

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

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

Consider covering the cost of the trip for your leaders.

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

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

Acknowledge them before others.

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

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

Keep your leaders in the loop.

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

Provide them with an intentional gift.

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

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

Have a leaders-only space or trip survival bags.

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

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

Check in with each leader during the trip.

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

Thank their family for letting them come.

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

Write them a card.

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

Caring for Students Who are Exploring Their Identity

“Nick, guess what?! I’m asexual!”
“Alright…when did you realize that?”
“This past week while talking to my friend who is too. I don’t like boys or girls.”
“Thanks for telling me this, have you let your parents know?”
“Yeah! Right before we got to church just now.”

This was a conversation I won’t soon forget, and probably represents the way that many of us hear that our students are questioning or exploring their identity. Often it occurs in quick conversations where a student suddenly drops that their identity or sexuality has switched or changed, and we have to know how to engage in those moments. There will be times when the conversations are more intentional and focused, but those are not as frequent. It is also helpful to remember that when these conversations happen, our responses to them are immensely important because students are testing the waters to see if we are trustworthy people.

I want to make it clear that the purpose of this post is neither to be affirming nor non-affirming. Instead, the intent is to give student workers helpful ways to care for students and insight into how to respond when faced with these conversations.

Listen well.

Listening is huge in these moments. Often when a student shares that they are struggling or questioning or changing their identity they are looking to see how you respond. Will you affirm or disapprove? Will you love them or cast them out? Will you listen or seek to challenge? Your response will dictate where the relationship goes from that moment on, so I would encourage you to simply listen. Let the student share their story. Let them talk through how they got to this decision. Help them see that you are for them by giving them space to be themselves and share. This is one of greatest things you could do in these moments.

Include parents.

Often when students come to us as youth workers it is because we are people they trust and know that we love them. They don’t often feel the same when it comes to their parents for a variety of reasons. These may not all be true and may be assumptions on the part of the student, but regardless the fear and anxiety of including parents can be very real for some students.

In these moments it is highly important for you to challenge the student to bring their parents into the conversation. But don’t let them have that conversation alone. Walk with them. Be present during it. Be the mediator and advocate in those moments. And always encourage your students with the truth that no matter the response, you will always be there for them.

Follow up.

Follow-up is really important in these types of conversations. As I stated earlier, students are often searching to see how you will respond and if you will be someone that they can trust. Part of the trust factor is our willingness and ability to follow up with them. Check in and see how they are doing. Thank them for opening up to you. Invite them out for coffee to hear their story. See if they have brought in other believers and the parents. Doing this will not only help your students see that you love them but it will also allow you to have a more holistic understanding as you continue to build and strengthen the relationship.

Seek clarity.

Often when talking with students, I am reminded how confusing these times are for them. They are developing in many ways, they are asking countless questions, and they are being bombarded by different messages from all sides. Because of this they may not even fully understand what they are saying, experiencing, or feeling. I am not trying to discount or discredit any one student, but there have been students who truly don’t know what to say or how to express it, and because of that they may say something they didn’t intend to.

At the same time, seeking clarity on what has been going on, how their home life is, how people have received them, and what the student has perceived is paramount in making sure you love and care for them well. A student may not have had a well received conversation with their parents and you may not know this unless you ask. Or a student may be scared about opening up and as you seek to understand you will gain valuable insight into why. This will in turn help you to better care for your student and guide subsequent interactions and conversations.

Know your stuff.

So often students and parents will come to us seeking understanding and clarity in these moments. Because of that, it is so important to have a working knowledge surrounding these conversations. Dig into resources, understand what people mean when they define themselves, seek to have an understanding of definitions and terms, and know what the Bible says. I know that there will be many perspectives to consider and that you may not be as well versed as people who study this for their career. But we are shepherds to our people and should know how to care for them well and this is an important way to do just that. So seek out information and understanding so you can better relate to, care for, and disciple your students.

Love well and don’t break fellowship.

This is one of the biggest aspects we must follow through on in order to care well for our students. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions being made, the lifestyle choices, or the implications of decisions, you have an obligation to still love students and care for them. Too many individuals and churches alike are willing to break fellowship with someone who is walking through these moments, and that has hurt far too many people. We are simply called to love people and show them Jesus because He loves them and desires a full and whole relationship with them. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, but it does mean you walk with them and love them as you show them Jesus. Your job isn’t to condemn, judge, cut off, or cast out, but instead is to show them Jesus and how the Holy Spirit can work in their lives.

So let your students know you are for them. Show them that they are loved and have a place. Help them experience the love of Jesus. In fact, I would argue that these students need more of our love and focus because they won’t be experiencing it from other places as much as their peers may be. These are students who already feel isolated, anxious, and vulnerable and we have an amazing opportunity to love and care for them. That is a high calling and doing so will allow us to truly invest in their lives, speak truth, and walk with them well as we point them to Jesus.

8 Ideas for Honoring Seniors

As we are moving into graduation season it’s helpful to think about how to honor and celebrate your graduates. Much like 2020, this year may look different in what you can do under various guidelines, but we should still seek to honor our seniors and their achievements. Culture regularly celebrates moments of change or accomplishment, but the church does not always seize these opportunities to pour into people’s lives. I want to encourage you to think through how you could specifically pour into, care for, and honor your seniors as they get ready to step into uncharted waters after graduation.

Today we want to share a few helpful and easy ways to honor your graduates and help them know they are loved and cared for. These tips can serve as a way for us to begin thinking about how we can best care for our seniors within our different ministry contexts.

1. Commission your graduates.

We are sending our students out into a new phase of life, and many of them will be going to secular colleges, universities, and workplaces. Their belief systems will be challenged, they will be pushed to question their faith, and they will have a whole new set of experiences to grapple through. In essence we are sending them out into a mission field, and because of this we should commission them as a church.

Rally your congregation around this mentality and leverage a Sunday morning to intentionally speak truth into the lives of students and pray over them. We take time on Sunday and honor the graduates on stage, and then have our elders and pastors pray over them as the congregation prays along. This is an awesome opportunity to show these students that the church is for them and that they are supported and prayed for.

2. Connect seniors with a college group.

Whether it is one in your church, one near the college they are going to, or both, this is one of the best things you can do for your graduates. Many graduates will fall away from the church if they are not connected to one while at school because they do not have consistent biblical community. Students, like all of us, need to be connected with other believers and to have consistent community where they can be discipled and poured into.

Be willing to challenge your students to seek out churches and groups, but also be willing to help them in this process. Reach out in youth pastor social media groups, use your contacts and networks, and even help with a quick Google search. Another great resource is Every Student Sent. This used to be Campus Ministry Link, but they have recently updated, added many elements, and rebranded. This is a great resource to research churches, campus groups, and more in an easy one-stop place. These things will help your students find solid churches and groups to be a part of, and will help them in continuing in their walk with Jesus.

3. Host a breakfast or luncheon for grads and their families.

This is something we have begun to implement in our youth program over the past few years. On the Sunday we honor our seniors we bring them and their families to a light reception after they are commissioned. We take this time to intentionally pour into them and their parents. We offer some refreshments, speak words of truth, give parents intentional time to speak into their graduate’s life, share helpful resources, give them a gift, and connect them with our college ministry.

The big piece is highlighting intentional community and helping our graduates and their families see that they are of immense value in our church. It is also about creating space for families to intentionally be present with each other and allowing them to speak into their graduate’s life. In many ways these are sacred moments for families and an opportunity for them to grow closer to one another and to Jesus.

4. Acknowledge seniors before their peers.

At our last high school large group gathering, we acknowledge our graduates, pray over them, and usually treat their small group to a dessert or dinner. It is simply a way of acknowledging their achievements before their peers and celebrating our graduates. This shows them they are loved and valued, and that they have an extended family within our program.

5. Pray over them.

This is something we should be very intentional in doing. Whether it is before the church as a whole, in front of your youth group, or at a smaller gathering, we should be praying for our graduates. Pray for their faith, pray for the transitions that are coming, pray for their families, pray for them to do well, and pray that they can be a witness wherever they go. Prayer shows intentionality and the value we place on our graduates. It allows them to know that they are a part of something bigger and that we care about them in deep ways.

6. Get your seniors a gift.

Giving a gift is an awesome way to encourage your graduates and to let them know they are loved and cared for. You could get them a book, a journal, a laundry basket filled with some essentials for college, a branded Yeti, or a Target gift card with a personal letter. Whatever you decide to get them, remember it is more about the intentionality and relationship than the gift. So no matter what you get them include a personal note or card. Speak truth into them and let the gift simply be an extension of the love you have for them.

7. Put together a brochure or slideshow.

I love doing stuff like this. This is an awesome way to highlight your graduates and show them how special they are. Some churches do a slideshow at youth group or during a service, other churches set up individual tables for graduates to showcase pictures and achievements, and others put together a brochure for families. Whatever you do for your graduates, make it about them. Let this be a time of honoring and celebrating them and their achievements.

8. Utilize leaders and small groups.

This is something we have begun doing more and more. We are a small group heavy program and because of that our leaders have an awesome privilege of doing life on life with our students and pouring into them. In fact our students often cite their leaders and small groups as being highly influential in their lives. Because of this we leverage our leaders and small groups and bring them into these moments. We invite leaders to pray for their students, leaders and small groups are given times to celebrate together, and we encourage our leaders to continue reaching out and pouring into their students after graduation.

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.

Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

Culturally and religiously we find ourselves in a complicated and challenging moment, whether brought about by the movement of time, our political climate, or pressure from influences outside the church. Things might feel different, unsettled and uncomfortable. You may have found political or theological disagreements to have fostered deep rifts between your family or friends. Perhaps someone who once walked closely with you on your spiritual journey has now walked away from the faith completely.

However you are feeling in this current moment, and whatever you are dealing with spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, will impact your ministry. It may not be sudden and obvious, but over time, our experiences and thoughts begin to shape how we speak and act. Left ignored, they can lead to places we might think we’d never end up.

I want to encourage you, if you do feel like you’re struggling in this moment, questioning where to go and what to do, there are some active steps you can take. It isn’t a fix-all, easy answer, because the difficult times take perseverance and work. But it is worth it to care for your soul, to dig into the difficult places, and to do the hard work when it comes to your relationship with Jesus and the ministry to which you have been called.

If you missed our encouragement post from September 2020, you may want to start there. Then read on for some practical ways you can deal with doubt and discouragement in this season of life.

Pursue Scripture first.

There are a lot of places to seek help in challenging times. There are also a lot of voices to which we can listen. Some will be truthful and helpful, while others will not. Some will pull us toward Christ, while others may guide us in a different direction. In seasons of struggle, it is imperative to look to Scripture first, and to ensure that the voices you are internalizing are voices of godly truth. If you know God’s word in your heart, you will quickly be able to determine his voice from the others.

In as great as self-help books and videos can be, do not give up reading Scripture on your own and seeking it for help and direction. That is not to say that books and other resources shouldn’t be utilized, but remaining in Scripture will help you to determine if other sources are truthful, helpful, and correct. Part of our daily battle is keeping our mind and heart focused on God and his ways. This can be a struggle, especially in the hard times, which is why fighting to make time in Scripture a priority is so important.

Seek godly counsel.

In difficult seasons it can be easy to draw inward, whether we don’t want to admit how we’re feeling, we don’t trust others to understand, or we feel like we need to deal with it on our own. Add the element of less human interaction due to pandemic-induced lock-downs and restrictions, and it can be doubly easy to keep things to yourself. Now more than ever it is vital to let people in.

Whether you talk with friends or a mentor whom you respect, or you see a counselor or therapist, it is imperative to bring others into your life. Talking through your thoughts and feelings is important, as is getting an outside, godly perspective from someone you trust. Discussion can help bring clarity as well as help you feel understood and heard. Sometimes we can get something in our heads and hearts that may not be accurate or helpful. Talking with someone you trust, and who will bring a Christ-honoring, biblical perspective can help you sort through truth from lies.

Satan likes to make us feel isolated and alone, both from each other and from God. Isolation in these relationships can lead to isolation holistically, which can pull us in a dark direction. Resist the urge to battle alone and instead bring in others who can walk with you, support you, and speak the truth.

Work through it.

I think sometimes in Christianity we can lean on quick, “easy” answers. Things like, “because the Bible say so” or “that’s what God wants” can roll off our tongues and through our minds with little effort. But the truth is that difficult seasons call for more than just easy answers. They call for wrestling with reality, asking tough questions, and seeking answers that can stand up under the hardest of life’s circumstances. We don’t do ourselves, or others, any favors by speaking and internalizing pat, cliche answers that feel good in the easy moments.

Internalizing simplistic ideas about God and faith can leave us feeling empty when times get tough. Things can easily unravel when those simple ideas or pat answers don’t make sense or feel impertinent. The good news is that God and his word can stand up to the worst this world can throw at us, but it may require more work on our part to uncover them. This is why I want to encourage you to work through the difficult seasons and hard questions. You may not arrive at an easy answer, but I know that God has met me in every painful, heart-wrenching moment and the rich truth of Scripture has spoken to my troubled soul time and time again.

This approach doesn’t make things easier. In fact, nothing will make this life and its struggles easier. But it has made me stronger and more resilient to face the darkness. Rooting my life and faith in something eternally substantive gives me hope even when my surroundings and circumstances feel bleak. When I feel like giving up I know I can’t because I believe what he says is real and true.

In this season of life, wherever it finds you, lean into Jesus and your community. Do the hard work to fight the good fight, for yourself and those to whom you minister. May God encourage your heart, mind, and soul, and may he empower you to do the work to which you have been called.

How to Re-Engage Well

With many states reopening, vaccines being widely distributed, and restrictions being rolled back, the opportunity to re-engage with life and the rhythms we previously enjoyed is becoming more of a reality. But with that reality comes a question: how can we help our people re-engage well? We can easily rush into this new reality, but if we don’t think proactively about what we walked through the past year, we can miss opportunities to engage and care well for others.

Today, I want to provide some ideas to help us step into this new season of life. These could be helpful for you as an individual, or perhaps you could take these and use them to encourage your leaders and families within your ministry. If you are going to provide this to families, I suggest thinking through a few practical examples to help them think creatively about how to implement these in their lives. There are some practical ideas below, but it may be helpful to offer additional ways for families to think critically about how to put these ideas into practice.

Re-engage but don’t forget.

This is a big one for all of us. It will be easy to simply jump back into things, dismiss the time of COVID, and forget all that we walked through, but we cannot. To simply dismiss what happened would not allow there to be growth, change, and opportunities to move forward well. There were many beneficial things that happened during this time that were helpful and allowed us to grow and mature. We shouldn’t go back to being chronically busy. We should spend more time together as a family. We should relish the opportunities to be with those we love. We should find joy in the smaller things. We should celebrate the special moments in our lives in unique ways. We must continue to spend quality time with Jesus.

Establish rhythms.

For many of us, our rhythms were disrupted greatly at the beginning of the pandemic. Our schedules changed, our work locations were radically different, our time with Jesus was altered, and schools embraced remote learning. But over time we established new rhythms and built around our current mode of life. The key thing to remember is that this took time to do because the change was so quick and drastic. But now as life changes once again, it would be beneficial to think proactively about what our rhythms will look like going forward. We have been given the opportunity to look ahead and think about how we can establish rhythms as life changes again. Maybe you’ll keep some you have now, perhaps you’ll add new ones, or maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul. But being proactive will allow you to engage well and not have important things fall by the wayside.

Do a heart check.

I think if we are honest with ourselves we would all admit that the pandemic has affected us in a variety of ways. We have had some extreme highs and some drastically low lows. We have gone through an emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual roller-coaster and as we think about re-engaging, it would be helpful to assess how we are doing. We should not dismiss the reality of what we experienced but instead should assess what has happened in our lives and our hearts, and think through how we are actually doing within the midst of all that has happened. We should ask questions like:

  • How am I doing spiritually?
  • How is my attitude toward the church and other believers?
  • How are my emotions?
  • How are my relationships with others?
  • How is my mental health doing?
  • How is my family?
  • How is my relationship with Jesus doing?
  • What is burdening me right now?
  • How have I responded to all the pressures and difficulties that have been happening?
  • What have I rejoiced in?

Asking these questions will help us to see how we are doing, and also help us see our strengths and areas for improvement. Knowing ourselves allows us to be cared for and ministered to, and will also allow us to care for and minister to others. This is all about making sure we are doing well and seeking the help and assistance we need so we can then continue to pour out to those we care for.

Start a faithfulness journal.

It is easy during seasons like we have just experienced to lose sight of God’s faithfulness. But the truth is God never stopped being faithful. Keeping a journal and remembering what God has done will help to put us in the right frame of mind as we re-engage. This may seem a little late as we have already been navigating this for a year, but consider taking time as an individual or family and reflecting back on what God has done this past year. Then consider keeping this journal going forward and see how God continues to show up and care for you.

Be willing to give grace.

As we begin re-engaging we must acknowledge that not everyone will be at the same place. They may not be comfortable stepping out fully, others may have already been engaging without restrictions, some may still be unsure and that’s okay. But as we re-engage we need to be will to give grace and freedom in those moments. Be willing to die to self and seek to care for those around you.

There will be people who had an easier time during this season and people who struggled deeply. And both are okay. We are all unique and have had a different experiences navigating COVID. We need to be willing to listen well and not impose our views and presuppositions upon others.

Be in constant prayer.

This may seem like a no-brainer but we must be proactive in this. We need to be praying for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our leaders. This has been a tough season, and the Enemy has been celebrating as he has seen the church divide over things that should be non-issues. But instead of being frustrated and angry at him or other people, we should be on our knees seeking our Savior and His direction. Let us pray for ourselves and others, and seek to be a tangible representation of Jesus to this world.

Be willing to serve.

As things reopen across the country there are going to be needs that arise. Don’t simply be a consumer, but instead be willing to serve and care for others. It may be within your church, volunteering at local organizations, at the schools in your community, as a coach on your student’s team, or even in helping people do yard work in your neighborhood. Be willing to lead out and care for others as we begin to build a new normal.

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.