6 Tips for Handling Suggestions

Have you ever thought about…? Why don’t we…? Could we or could you…? Would we ever…? If you have been in ministry for more than a day or two you have probably had someone come up to you with a question that started like these. I know I get them all the time. And most of the time, unless they are from students, it is in a passing conversation or in an email.

It’s hard hearing suggestions when you run a ministry because it is easy for us to take it personally. We do this not only because we feel challenged or that our work isn’t up to par, but also because it feels like a targeted response to our calling and our leadership in ministry.

But let me ask you a few questions. How did you respond to it? Did your heart and head handle it well? Did you respond in the moment? How did you make an informed decision?

More often than not, I have found that when people offer suggestions they aren’t doing it to challenge us or to call out our leadership or heart for ministry. It is often rooted in seeking to understand or to truly offer up something they think will be beneficial for others because it was for them. As ministry leaders, we must respond well to these suggestions and lead out as Christ would. But what does that practically look like for us? Today I want to offer you six tips on how to handle suggestions well.

1. Listen well.

It is so easy to jump to conclusions or to make assumptions when some offers a suggestion. We may think we know what they want to say and we may even guess their motives or reasoning. But regardless of whether we are correct in our thinking or not, listening well is essential. Listening to someone values that person and helps them to feel known. Listening also gives you greater clarity, perspective, and understand because it allows you to see the whole picture and gives you more understanding from other viewpoints.

2. Think and pray before responding.

If you’re like me, sometimes you may respond a little too quickly. I’ve had many foot-in-mouth moments that I’ve had to apologize for, so now I make a habit of pausing and praying before responding especially if the suggestion is more critical or personal. I don’t ever want to respond out of frustration or ignorance or defensively because that can erode any credibility I may have in that relationship. Instead, pausing to collect your thoughts and asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit will help to center and calm your thoughts and response which will allow you to best engage in the conversation.

3. Ask clarifying questions.

This will serve you so well when people come to you with a suggestion. By seeking clarity and asking thoughtful questions, you will not only garner a better understanding of what is being suggested, but you will also value that individual because you have heard and responded well to them. Asking questions affirms people, lets them know you care and want to have a well-rounded viewpoint, and truly want to engage with them.

When you ask questions look for information, the motivation, how it works with the mission and vision, and logistics to help provide you and the person who came to you with a greater sense of clarity and relational equity.

4. Respond with grace and humility.

Sometimes it is easy to get flustered, annoyed, or even angry when people offer suggestions because it may feel personal whether it’s directed at you or the ministry you steward. But we need to remember not every suggestion is an attack, and even if it is, our response should be one that mirrors Jesus to them.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating for simply taking unsubstantiated accusations or personal attacks lying down. However, I am advocating for showing grace and love with truth. By responding as Jesus would, we are carrying well the calling that He has bestowed upon us, and also seeking to care well for our flock even if it hurts at times. So lovingly respond to these moments and individuals and highlight the growth and leadership capabilities God has given you.

5. Clearly explain your reasoning.

There will be times when someone shares a suggestion and you will disagree or not act on what they are saying. This could be due to different philosophies of ministry, lack of understanding of student culture, not aligning with the values and vision of the ministry, and many other reasons. While we may know why we disagree or aren’t acting, we need to remember that the person who came to us may not. They may not be aware of all the insight, past experience, or trial and error that you and your team have walked through.

What that means for us is we need to be intentional in communicating our rationale and reasoning to the person who came to us. We don’t need to lecture or point out the flaws in their perspective, but instead we should strive to clearly show them why we are responding the way we are. We should also realize we may never see eye-to-eye on the perspective but that doesn’t mean we cannot be for one another and still be united in reaching students. So seek to be clear but remember that we are all siblings in Christ and let His message be what drives us.

6. Be willing to take guidance and make changes.

There are times when the suggestions people make are valid and should be considered. These moments may not always feel great because they highlight a blind spot or an area in which we need to improve, but we shouldn’t dismiss the advice and guidance. Instead we should hear what is said and look to make changes and improvements based off what is shared.

There are people who care deeply and want to help you and your ministry succeed and they will offer ways to do just that. Even when people offer a critical suggestion, that doesn’t mean you can’t grow and learn from them. Instead seek to understand, analyze, and assess if there is anything you can take away and use to help yourself, the ministry, or both.

How do you handle suggestions? What is a proactive way people could share suggestions with you?

6 Tips for the New Year

January is almost upon us, and if you’re like me this year has probably flown by. And you may also be like me if you can look back on this past year and see areas you excelled in but others in which you need to grow.

Self reflection is not only helpful but I would argue it is necessary as well. As ministry leaders it’s essential to think about what we need to be doing and what we should stop doing. For our post this week I want to share three things we need to be doing (or continuing to do) and three things we need to stop doing.

Start or continue to…

1. Invest in your leaders. This is honestly something I wish I had learned earlier in my career. Our leaders are huge assets to our ministries and students. They allow our ministries to continue and they are the ones pouring into our students. The more you invest in your leaders, the more you will see outflow from that investment and cultivate a community of leaders who generate leaders. So invest in them relationally, spiritually, personally, and professionally. Doing so will allow your ministry to grow and flourish as you have leaders who are developing and cultivating new leaders.

2. Keep and maintain a schedule. This is often easier said than done in ministry. We may set up a schedule but often times we don’t keep it because, well, it’s ministry. We see it as we are doing God’s work and therefore we are always on the clock. But that isn’t what God has called us to. In fact, the very nature of sabbath is meant to keep us from becoming a workaholic and someone who doesn’t have healthy boundaries.

Instead, let me encourage you to keep a schedule and maintain it. Keep a Google calendar, have someone hold you accountable to your schedule, keep your time off as time off, protect your spaces, and make sure to honor the time you are giving. Don’t show up late, don’t forget meetings, don’t sacrifice your spiritual growth, and don’t forget your family. By adhering to a healthy schedule you will see yourself grow and mature as a healthy leader, and your ministry will follow suit.

3. Care for yourself. This isn’t selfish, this is necessary. Self-care is something we need to be more proactive in incorporating into our lives. If we aren’t taking care of our spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, and relational health our ministries and our lives will suffer. In order to lead well we need to be healthy and growing. So make sure to carve out intentional time to pause, have a sabbath rhythm, take time off, stop working when you leave the office, invest in community for yourself, spend time with those you love, and do things that fill your tank. This is something you must be doing in order to lead well and sustain yourself in ministry.

Stop…

1. Trying to please people. If you’re a people-pleaser at heart this is probably really hard for you to hear. But if you work at a church, let’s be honest, we have all fallen into this space before. At some point–or regularly–we try to please bosses, parents, elders, staff, or whomever. Now I am not saying to not do a good job or to approach your ministry with a laissez-faire attitude. We should work hard and seek to do our best, but I am saying that our primary goal shouldn’t be pleasing others. Instead we should seek to please God and to do what He has called us to.

2. Putting work first. Let me be very clear here: you are not defined by your ministry nor are you defined by how much you work. Instead, you are defined by your relationship with Jesus, how you impart that relationship into all moments and relationships, and how you live out your calling. God never calls us to put our jobs first. He tells us our priority is our relationship with Him, then our relationship with our families, then our relationship with the church. If we get that structure out of order we will continue to struggle and get burned out. Having our priorities correctly ordered will allow us to be the leaders that God has called us to be.

3. Comparing yourself and your ministry. This was something I was guilty of early on in my career. I came out of undergrad having been told I’d be making huge changes in the world as a pastor and that alumni like me created lasting legacies. Well, imagine my surprise when I didn’t go directly into ministry. And when I did it was at a tiny church in the middle of nowhere New Jersey. Then in youth ministry I went to all the mainline conferences and heard about other ministries and their budgets and programming. I saw all the gadgets and cool tech toys. I heard from the gurus of youth ministry and the highlights of amazing youth workers around the country. And then realized I didn’t have any of those things nor was I one of those people.

If I’m honest I tried to shape our ministry to match the ones I had seen and tried to adjust my teaching style to match those I heard and idolized. But the truth is that none of that mattered or made a difference. My students and families didn’t want someone else or some glitzy program. They wanted authenticity, relationships, a youth pastor who was himself, and a place they could come and be known. The lights and hazers didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be an amazing speaker. We didn’t have to have all the cool new games and activities. Instead, being myself and working in the context and confines we had allowed us to build an authentic community where our students could come and flourish. Comparison will destroy you and your ministry if you allow it. It is healthy to critique your ministry and look for information and resources. What isn’t healthy is comparing yourself or your ministry, or trying to be someone or something else.

How to Make Leader Parties Special

This is typically the time of year that many of us are hosting parties of various kinds and undoubtedly will host a party for our leaders. Our leaders are amazing, and without them our ministries wouldn’t be able to happen. Regardless of our ministry budget, how many leaders we have, or even what our options may be, showing love and care is vital to help our leaders know that we value them.

Today, I want to share a few ways you can host a party for your leaders that is meaningful and special, even if resources are not ideal. The ideas below are low- to no-cost and meant to hopefully provide a spark of creativity and insight as you seek to encourage your leaders.

Utilize families.

One of the blessings of student ministry is that we get to partner with families. We are able to walk with, encourage, and be for our families in all moments. Families see this and most are aware of how important our leaders are because they see the evidence in the lives of their students. So consider asking families to help with putting on a leader party.

You may have a couple of parents or families who love to host and put together parties who will run the whole thing for you. Or there may be a family who would love to offer their home as a place for you to gather offsite that feels more special and intimate. You can also create a Sign Up Genius form where families could sign up to bring food for either a meal or a dessert buffet. Another fun and really special idea would be asking families to bless their student’s small group leader with a gift, a meal, or card shower to make your leader party even more special. Imagine if you could give each leader a special gift from the families in the church and consider how seen, loved, and known they will feel.

Utilize students.

What if you encouraged your students to bless your leaders whenever you have a party for them? If you have a Christmas party for your leaders, have your students write Christmas cards or bake for them. Maybe even have your students bring a gift for their leaders. Even a small card or gift will do wonderful things in encouraging your leaders. If it’s an “end of the year” party, maybe have your students gather around their leaders and pray over them.

Any time you have a gathering for leaders, you could have students write thank you notes to them. A handwritten note acknowledging what you thought no one saw or understood brings such a sense of joy, peace, and accomplishment. You could also have your students be the hosts and waiters at your parties if applicable. Having students bring out the food and serve leaders or even greet them and say thank you is a really fun way to encourage leaders. These are a few ways you could utilize your students to make your leader parties special and meaningful.

Have food and drinks.

Refreshments don’t need to be extravagant or expensive. You could make a quick and tasty punch from items found at Aldi or Dollar Tree with orange juice, cranberry juice, ginger ale, and sherbet, and you wouldn’t break the bank. Tasty snacks can also be purchased at these stores and by putting them in a bowl or on a platter, you have made the gathering a lot more inviting and intentional.

If purchasing items is off the table (food pun intended), consider making the gathering a potluck and create a theme to make it more fun. Do a baked potato bar and have everyone bring their favorite toppings. Host a brunch and ask everyone to bring their favorite breakfast dish to share.

Provide a gift.

This can be a tough thing to do depending on your budget, but even small gifts mean a lot. You could find things on Etsy or at places like 5 Below that may not cost a lot but can be meaningful or funny or relatable to your team. You may not be able to purchase gifts, but you may be able to make something special for your leaders. I love to make candles as a hobby, and I have a ton of supplies at home where I could make a votive for each leader with minimal cost. Elise is a gifted artist, and loves to create all types of things that leaders would love.

For those type of things to be able to happen, you need to be thinking intentionally before the party because otherwise you will be stressed for time and it may not happen. Even a nice handwritten card encouraging your leaders and speaking about the ways you have seen them step up would be a wonderful gift to receive as everyone loves encouragement and a handwritten card. Often times the smallest gifts are the most meaningful because they show thoughtfulness and intentionality.

Take time to encourage them.

I try to be very intentional about encouragement because our leaders need to know how important they are and how thankful we are for them. Student ministry is hard! And there are times we may want to quit, and we are paid. Think about our volunteers who show up and probably don’t see much return on their investments, and yet they keep coming back and taking more and more upon their shoulders. They are awesome individuals, and taking the time to recognize them and encourage them is not only welcomed but I would assert it is necessary. So at your gatherings carve out time to intentionally speak into their lives, to highlight God moments you have seen, to laugh with them, and to honor them. Don’t throw it at the back end of a meeting but be intentional with where it is placed to show your leaders how important and valuable they are.

Shape the environment.

This is super important and should not be something we push to the side or forget about. I know for many of us, we have less than ideal locations for hosting a party. Perhaps you have a small church where the options are slim-to-none for hosting, except for the gym/Awana Room/fellowship hall/storage area. Maybe you are a church that is all multi-purpose so you don’t have a space to call your own and shape fully to your desire. Or maybe you are a church plant and you don’t even have a space because you rent a building only on Sundays.

I get it, shaping the environment can be hard sometimes, but I don’t think that should cause us to not try. Wherever you end up hosting, whether the Awana Room, your youth room, or at your own home, look to shape the environment to make it warm, welcoming, festive, and fun. Think about playing music for the party. If it’s Christmastime, play Christmas music. If it’s an “end of year” celebration, play throwback tunes for your leaders. Think about decorations. Are there ways you could make the time together feel special? Add tablecloths to the old wooden tables, hang Christmas lights or put up a Christmas tree, or rearrange the furniture to make it feel more welcoming or like a living room space. These things, while they may seem small, show intentionality and communicate that your leaders matter. So don’t think about what you don’t have, consider what you can do to make the setting special for your people.

When You Can’t Help

Have you ever felt like you don’t have the answers? Or perhaps like you are powerless to affect change? Working in ministry, we will often be presented with circumstances we have little to no control over. There are moments when we just want to wrap up our students in bubble wrap and put them in a safe place to protect them from all the hurt and pain in the world. We will be in conversations that break our hearts, our words will fail us, and we’ll see no clear path of direction to offer. We will be broken when we are faced with the reality of sin and the hurt and pain it brings in the lives of our people.

So what do we do in those moments when words, encouragement, guidance, and solutions fail us? How do we still help our people? I wish I had a simple and direct answer for you, but the truth is, I don’t. I have been faced with these moments more often than I care to admit. Moments where words fail and my heart breaks because I can’t fix things. But what I can offer you are some insights for how we can navigate these moments and care well for our people even when we don’t have all the answers.

Pray…a lot.

If you know the conversation is going to occur before you enter into it, pray for the conversation. Pray during the conversation. And pray after the conversation. Prayer is often implied but can be forgotten or treated as an afterthought. These moments–before, during, and after–need to be covered in prayer because without it, we truly are powerless to help. But prayer forces us to rely upon the power that is outside of ourselves, the healing power of God.

Be honest.

Whenever we enter into these conversations our propensity can trend toward trying to hold everything together and not show emotions for fear of exasperating the situation and circumstances. But I would actually encourage you to share your feelings and thoughts. The more honest and transparent we are, the greater the opportunity we have to empathize and sympathize with others. It shows them that we are in those moments with them. It communicates care and love. And it highlights what we are able to do and not do.

Let me encourage you to not offer answers when you aren’t sure or don’t have a solution. I have found that people don’t always come seeking a solution but instead a listening ear and friend or leader who cares. So be honest with your limitations but also continue to seek to help by pointing them toward people or solutions that will help.

Show emotion.

One of the best things you can do is to emote during these moments. I’m not saying that you should always reflect the emotions of the other person (consider if they are displaying anger and violence, it wouldn’t be beneficial for you to reciprocate in kind), but demonstrate appropriate emotions within the context of the conversation. If it’s breaking your heart let those emotions show. If there is righteous anger, share it appropriately. Emotion is a powerful tool and a gift from God. We serve a God who is an emotional Being and created us in His image which is reflected through our emotions and feelings. So let me encourage you to reflect and emote appropriately and in ways that communicate understanding, love, and empathy.

Listen.

This point cannot be overstated. I think often when we “listen,” we listen to solve the problem or offer solutions. I get it, that is part of our job. We are where we are because we are seeking to help people grow and be more like Jesus. But when we only listen to find a solution, we miss the deeper heart issues along with finding out what the other person truly wants and needs.

Think of it in this way: if someone comes to you with problems in a relationship and you already have the solution before they finish sharing, you may jump in and cut them off or may incorrectly diagnose the problem and the solution. Cutting someone off communicates we don’t value them or the relationship but only finding a solution. And if we miss-diagnose the problem and solution, we may actually do more harm than good going forward (i.e. we may find the solution to be reconciliation in the relationship but that may not be possible and we would only know that if we listen fully). In these moments, listen well. Don’t listen to problem solve or offer a solution, listen to show understanding, empathy, and friendship. Care well and embody this by how you listen.

Follow up.

Following up is something I need to be better about. If I don’t make a notation on my calendar or set reminders on my phone, I can forget to do it. But it cannot be something that falls by the wayside. This is one of the most important pieces when it comes to these conversations. Following up shows our people we care and see them as more than just a conversation or problem in need of a solution. It shows them that they matter to us and that we value them and the relationship we have with them.

The goal isn’t for us to follow up and declare that we found an answer or we know what to do (although if that does happen, share it in the right moment in the right way). Instead, you can continue to show them that they matter and that you are invested in them. It can be a text saying you’re praying for them, it could be sending a card to them, it could be buying them a cup of coffee and not having a conversation agenda, or it could be as simple as giving them a hug the next time you see them (if appropriate). Whatever follow up looks like for you, make sure it is always a part of these moments.

Connect them with people who can help.

There are often moments in these conversations when you will realize you are not the best equipped person to be helping in that moment. That is okay! In fact, the more you are able to realize it, the better suited you are to make sure they receive the best care possible. As you listen and engage, think through who you can connect your people with to make sure they have the best care and help possible. This may not be something you address in the moment, but could be something you offer after the conversation. Be aware of the various organizations, resources, counselors, and other connections you can make within your church and community so you can refer and connect people with the appropriate professionals and help that is available.

6 Ways to Encourage Church Staff During the Holidays

During this time of thanksgiving, it has given me pause to reflect on how grateful I am for the amazing coworkers I have been blessed with. I truly have a wonderful staff team that is a joy with which to work. We don’t all have the same personalities or same drives and passions–aside from people following Jesus of course–but we all get along and have fun together.

The truth of the matter is that for church staff members, the holiday season is anything but relaxing. We usually end up getting busier and doing more because of all the planning and prep, parties and celebrations, larger than normal attendance, and the typical stress of the season. In the midst of all of these things it can be easy for church staff to get frustrated and forgotten. So how can we–whether we’re a fellow staff member, volunteer, or church attender–help to encourage and bless our church staff?

1. Remember important dates and moments.

Remembering staff birthdays, anniversaries, loss, and other key moments during this season is critical in encouraging them. You are highlighting that they are important and that they are important outside of what they do in and for the church. You are seeing them as a friend instead of just as a church staff member. You are prioritizing relational equity and showing them that they and their friendship matters to you.

This is especially vital for staff members who may be struggling during the holidays due to loss, stress, and busyness. People with key moments and memories during the holidays already feel passed over and forgotten (just ask someone with a December birthday or anniversary), so your ability to remember important events will help them feel loved, seen, and supported.

2. Meet up with them.

Whether it’s grabbing a cup of coffee together, bringing lunch to their office, or inviting them over for a meal at your home, these moments help church staff members feel valued and appreciated. Sometimes all we need is a friendly face and a heart that understands where we are at during the holidays. Don’t make these moments about work, but instead make it about them. Hear their heart. Ask good questions. Listen well. And speak words of encouragement to them. These aren’t times to talk shop but instead to simply be a good friend to them.

3. Speak highly about them and to them.

One of the things I learned in my cohort last year was the skill of precision praise. It isn’t simply saying “good job” or “nice sermon.” It is specifically highlighting what was done well, what was encouraging, and something you noticed that was important. To be able to encourage your church staff by speaking highly to them and giving them precision praise is huge.

Working in ministry means praise isn’t something we receive often. So taking time to specifically praise and encourage our church leadership is a wonderful way to encourage them. But don’t let it stop with just the face-to-face moments, speak highly about them and praise them publicly. If you’re preaching, make sure to highlight how awesome your team is from the pulpit. If you’re working with students, praise your coworkers in front of them. If you’re a church attender, speak well of staff in your conversations and interactions with others.

4. Write them an encouraging anonymous note.

Many of us have been the beneficiaries of anonymous notes, but usually they aren’t the encouraging type. But imagine showing up one morning with a note in your mailbox, under your door, or on your desk that is heartfelt and encouraging. All of a sudden your day changes. Your countenance is improved. You feel seen and valued. Now flip that thought and imagine being able to bring that to your church staff team. People start to feel encouraged. They are walking a little taller. The day seems to be going better. And all because you took some time to write encouraging notes. The power of a handwritten, encouraging note is massive and meaningful.

5. Get them a gift or organize a secret Santa.

One of the ways that people feel seen, valued, and encouraged is by receiving a gift. These gifts don’t need to be large or extravagant, but instead could be as simple as a small gift card, a bag of candy, or something that the individual will value and appreciate. Taking time to leave a gift for a team member or surprising them with a special item is a wonderful way to encourage them. But don’t stop with just one staff member; consider organizing a secret Santa for the whole staff team and use it as an opportunity to help spread joy and encouragement among the entire staff. Moments like these bring joy and smiles and they help your church staff know that they matter and are appreciated.

6. Bring in baked goods for the staff.

I love to bake. It is a way for me to decompress because I love to be able to control and manipulate recipes, as well as see people enjoy the items I make. I know, I know, my Enneagram type is showing. But stop and think about the last time someone brought baked goods into the office or to you personally. How did you feel? What did that moment do for the rest of your day? How many cookies did you eat? Okay, okay don’t answer that last one. It’s the holidays so calories don’t count.

My point is this: baked goods show people they matter because you put time, effort, and thoughtfulness into creating those items for them. So bake your favorite holiday recipe. Bring in some scratch made cookies. Share some pumpkin bread with the team. Bringing in baked goods and sharing in conversations while people enjoy them will be life giving and special for your church staff.

What are some ways that you have encouraged your staff team?

The Importance of Community

Over the last year, the value of community has become vibrantly apparent to me. Sure I, like most people in ministry, knew about and probably taught on the value of community. But I don’t think I’m alone in the reality that while I espoused this, I didn’t actively have community or seek it out.

Back in September of 2021, I began a cohort through Slingshot that radically changed my life and perspective on ministry and relationships. I was in a bad place spiritually, emotionally, and mentally, and I didn’t even realize it. I attended our first gathering and found community and people in similar stages of life and ministry. I felt like I had found my tribe.

Fast forward to March of 2022 and I went on a mental health leave of absence from my job. I remember telling my cohort friends over Zoom and barely getting the words out to tell them I wasn’t okay. The response and support I received was unlike anything I could have imagined. They called me brave. They prayed for me. They constantly reached out to check in and encourage me. They sent texts, Scripture, prayers, and resources.

When we gathered in person in April, I was just beginning to make some headway in my mental and spiritual health journey. I knew I was making progress but wasn’t where I needed to be. When Elise and I arrived at the cohort, our friends checked in on both of us. They loved us, laughed with us, grabbed meals together, prayed with us, cried with us (okay mostly with me), and most importantly encouraged us in our journey.

Looking back, this group, our people, are one of the reasons I’m still in ministry today. They showed up for us in real and tangible ways. They stuck by us even when I was at my weakest and lowest point. And that is what our cohort continues to do. We have rallied to different individuals over the past year as they have endured difficult moments, celebrated the highs and the wins with each other, and we have built ongoing relationships with each other where we simply check in and hang out with one another.

Outside of my cohort, I have built more intentional friendships with people in my life. I have always been someone who has lots of acquaintances but only a handful of close friends. But the importance of having quality, deep, and intentional friendships has been something I have realized I need. While I was on my leave I had multiple friends reach out to connect and foster our relationship, and now I can honestly say I have closer friends now than I ever have had before.

The reason I share all of these details with you is to highlight that close friendships and relationships are imperative to our own health, growth, and formation. Having people who hold you accountable helps you to grow and mature as an individual and as a Christ follower. When there are people who stand by you and encourage you when you are on the mountaintops or in the valleys, you will feel your heart strengthened and cared for. As you open up to people and they to you, you will see that you come to have a greater understanding of what love and connection look like.

We aren’t meant to do life alone. We are crafted for community, which is why we see God intentionally connect Adam and Eve. Even Jesus had a group of friends He shared life with. We even see this in the early church throughout the New Testament. God doesn’t simply tell us to find people who are like us or to do life alone, but instead paints us a picture of a community of diverse people who share in life together.

If you are like me and you don’t have many close friends or if you are a lone wolf who is content to do life on your own, let me encourage you to rethink your rationale in those decisions. Consider the blessing and the gifts that relationships and friendships bring. I’m not saying this will be easy, nor am I saying that it will come without hurt and pain. There may very well be moments when relationships hurt. But the amount of the good moments and the rewards that come from them strongly outweigh the negatives. Seek out community. Build strong and meaningful friendships. Open your heart to people and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Doing so will provide you with much needed encouragement, community, and relationships that will last a lifetime.

Mission Trip Reflections from Kentucky

I recently was able to take a short term mission trip to Hazard, Kentucky, to help with relief efforts following severe flooding in July. To say that this was an incredibly humbling and impactful trip would be an understatement. The devastation and hurt that I saw was unlike anything I have seen before. The stories I heard and the destruction I saw will remain with me for the long term, and it has shaped my vision for where we will be sending student teams for the foreseeable future.

This area of our country has been largely forgotten due to its location, socioeconomic status, disasters in other places, and more newsworthy media. But there remains much heartache, loss, destruction, and needed rebuilding.

Our team was focused on rebuilding and repairing homes and churches, and on hearing the stories residents of this rural area shared. The emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical needs are vast and everyone has a flood story in this community. Whether they lost something like a home or possessions or for those who lost someone, the hurt and pain in this and surrounding areas is very real and raw.

As I’ve had time to reflect and think about my trip, I have pondered the impact that trips like these have on our students and leaders. Today, I would love to share some of my thoughts and takeaways in the hope they bring you some insight and clarity when it comes to short term mission trips.

Mission trips are necessary.

Mission trips are so important in the lives of all believers but especially students. They are forming their understanding of faith and wrestling with deep and thoughtful questions. Mission trips help students see the Gospel in action and help them form a healthy, biblical worldview. But I think for some of us–myself included–coming out of multiple years where we didn’t do trips due to a pandemic, the necessity may have faded in our minds. We cannot allow that to be the case.

Going to Kentucky solidified the necessity of taking students on trips like these because of the way it helps to shape and mold their hearts for the kingdom of heaven. We cannot loose that vision and we must provide opportunities for students to step into new environments and see the Gospel in real and tangible ways.

Mission trips grab your heart.

It is so hard to put into words all that I experienced in Kentucky. I have taken multiple trips throughout my high school, college, and ministry years, but this one moved me in some powerful ways. Perhaps it was seeing the devastation and destruction firsthand. Or maybe it was the proximity of this disaster in relation to where I live (only nine hours away). Or it may have been hearing the accounts of people who lost everything and loved ones in the spans of moments.

Regardless of the reason, the reality is mission trips have a way of grabbing our hearts in ways youth group and church don’t often replicate. Serving with people who are hurting, experiencing the reality of loss firsthand, hearing stories, and seeing the power of both the Gospel and God’s people moving to action stirs something within our hearts like nothing else. This is why our students need to go on trips like these because it helps capture their heart for the Gospel in action and how it applies to their lives and others.

Mission trips move your students to action.

This past Wednesday and Sunday I was able to share about my trip with our students. I relayed stories, showed them pictures, and explained why help was needed. The response I heard from multiple leaders and students ranged from “we had no idea this happened” to “when are we going” and “what can we do.” When we are able to cast vision and share stories, it moves our communities to action and cultivates a desire to care for and serve those who are hurting.

Proximity breeds empathy.

This became so apparent to me once again as I was serving in Kentucky. When we are around those who are hurting or struggling, it moves our hearts and minds because we are sharing life with those who have experienced loss. The more we can get our students into areas and communities that differ from theirs in all capacities–socioeconomic, diversity, hardship, loss, etc.–the more they will be able to understand the hope and healing the Gospel brings and their calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And the more they will learn about others whose lives look different from theirs.

Mission trips will stretch and grow people.

Coming back home from my trip, something was different in me. The Spirit of God was tugging at my heart and pulling me toward an ongoing partnership with our mission agency in Kentucky. I knew that if I could cast that vision well to our students, they would also be moved to action. What I became acutely aware of was God was using my experience as a catalyst to invite others to action. And the same is true of our students.

As they go on these trips, build relationships and memories, and the Holy Spirit moves in their lives, students will return and help to ignite that passion and desire within others. It will not only stretch and grow the people who go on the trips, but we will see cascading effects on the people our students engage and interact with when they return home. They will help cultivate passion and excitement for Jesus and what He is doing in your youth group. They will tell their friends and families about what God is doing. They will ignite a passion to see the world changed among their peers. Mission trips have a far reaching impact beyond just those who go, and through these moments we will witness the kingdom of heaven grow and expand.

How Student Ministers can Engage Their Community

It can be easy for ministries to focus on what is happening within their environment only, or within the church. But our mission isn’t simply to focus on what is happening within our walls but instead to look outside of them as we seek to reach the world with the Good News.

We may train our students and volunteers to reach others, but unintentionally focus on just the ministry we lead. If we are seeking to lead by example and want to model what we teach, we must step out in faith and engage with our community in proactive ways. But how do we do that? Today I want to share a few ways–some more simplistic and others more encompassing–we can actively engage and reach our communities.

Be a part of the community.

For some leaders this is easier said than done because they live in their community. For others this will be more difficult because they don’t necessarily live in the town where their church is located. That is the case for us. We live about fifteen minutes outside of our church’s community, but that reality shouldn’t stop us from being a part of the community. Instead we have to be more intentional in being a part of it.

Make it a priority to go grocery shopping in your town, go to the local parks, visit the schools, go to National Night Out, go to Christmas tree lightings, visit local corn mazes, and whatever else may happen in your community. The key isn’t to do all of things, but instead to be intentional in engaging with your community at points and venues that matter most. This not only engenders you to the community but allows you to become a part of it. In so doing you have now become a vital and needed part of your community.

Utilize local businesses.

I love to do this because it helps our church reach people, and it also allows us to give back to the community. This can be done in a variety of ways including using a local printer for your bigger projects, having local restaurants or dessert shops cater your events, utilizing local promotional product vendors instead of national agencies, and by engaging with community centers to rent them out. There are other ways you can utilize businesses but the important part is that you are connecting with them and building relational and spiritual bridges that provide opportunities for your church to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Connect with schools.

Schools are a natural place for youth workers to get connected. For some youth workers this is easier to accomplish because they may only have a single school district that is connected to their church. For others, this is pretty difficult because they may draw from multiple school districts. Our church draws from five major districts and that doesn’t include the private schools, Christian schools, and homeschool students. If that is where you find yourself, you may be scratching your head at how to reach out to all of your schools. Let me encourage you to not look at this as something only you can tackle. Work with your team and leaders and share the load.

Regardless of where you find yourself as a youth worker, we all can connect with schools in really simple and meaningful ways. Email the administration to encourage them and let them know you want to be a resource, and drop off donuts for the front office or the teachers. Reach out to the Christian clubs and ask how you can help them out, drop off fresh baked cookies with notes from your church staff team, connect with the athletic director and see if they need a chaplain for their games. Ask your students how you can help them make an impact, and make sure to swing by for See You at the Pole. Even seemingly small things can have a huge impact when it comes to connecting with schools.

Collaborate with parachurch ministries.

If I am being honest, this is not something I am very good at. I often forget to reach out to these ministries in partnership and that is a big misstep. Recently, I was able to connect with our local Young Life chapter, and it was an awesome opportunity to share life with one another and consider how we can work together for the Gospel. As we chatted, I realized just how many of my students were participating in this parachurch ministry and it dawned on me that still other students were probably participating in others. If that is the case, why not come together to have a greater impact and reach?

Many parachurch ministries will reach students we may not have the opportunity or ability to reach, and their desire is to connect students with a local church. It is a perfect discipleship track, and one that churches and ministries can collaborate with and assist. Working with parachurch ministries gives both of the ministries an opportunity to not only reach more students but to have a more profound impact on the community.

Serve in the community.

This is one that probably feels the most burdensome because it adds a lot more onto our shoulders. But the truth of the matter is that it is only burdensome because we view it that way. Service for the kingdom of God is never meant to weigh us down or to feel overwhelming, but instead is a wonderful opportunity to help the Gospel go forth.

Often we may view service as another aspect of our job, and while that may be true to a certain extent, I believe we can leverage it so as to make service outside of our job feel taxing and unfair. But service is a gift and an opportunity. It is a way to put our gifts from God to use and to bless others. It is allowing the Spirit to work in and through us as we seek to love and care for others. So my encouragement first and foremost is to not let service become just another task, but instead let it flow from a heart that has been transformed as you love others. The more that you embody this mentality the more it will be replicated in students as they serve.

With that said, it is important for us to find ways to engage with our community through serving within it. It could be as a coach for one of the sports teams (and it doesn’t need to just be for students). It could be by volunteering in afterschool programs. Perhaps it is by hosting a lunch for the teachers in the school. Maybe you serve at the local foodbank. Or you could do neighborhood cleanups. The key with serving in the community is doing so of your own accord to help people see Jesus. It allows you to engage with people and to begin building relationships with the ultimate goal of helping them know Jesus.

When It’s Time to Say Goodbye to a Volunteer

Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you knew you needed to tell a volunteer they couldn’t serve anymore? How did it make you feel? Do you think you handled it well? How was it received? Do you still have a relationship with that leader?

As ministry leaders we are in a very unique circumstance in that most of the people who “work” for us are volunteers. That means that when it comes to having to let someone go, the matter is infinitely more complex. How do you fire someone who volunteers their time? Can you actually fire a volunteer?

The reality is that these moments are multifaceted and difficult. They involve complex relationships, multiple layers of emotions, and of course the struggle of figuring out what to do and say when that volunteer is no longer a volunteer. Will you find a suitable replacement? What will students think? How will your relationship be with that leader?

Part of being the leader of a ministry means that we need to step into situations that can be difficult and uncomfortable. But just because they aren’t the easiest of situations doesn’t mean we avoid them. Instead we must face them and do our best to honor and love the other person as we lead. In fact, I would assert that a godly leader has an obligation to have these conversations because it models a Christlike attitude and leadership quality to our people. Jesus didn’t shy away from tough conversations but instead leaned into them and used them to help people grow and flourish. But how do we do that? Today, my hope is to offer you some suggestions on how to best enter into these situations and care well for the other person, yourself, and your ministry.

Let nothing be a surprise to the other person.

A good supervisor should always be intentional with guiding and growing their team members. This applies to both encouragement and critiques. When a person who reports to you needs guidance and refining, you should be seeking to help them grow and improve. That means that if you are letting a volunteer go, they shouldn’t be caught off guard by the reasons you present because they should have been previously approached.

Be honest.

These moments are never fun or easy, but they can often be more convoluted as we try to soften the approach by not being fully honest. I am not saying we lie during this times, but I do think we can be not fully honest and transparent because we still want to care for our people. But lack of honesty can often lead to confusion and more hurt. So in these moments look to be honest and transparent with your volunteer, not to be cutting or to hurt them, but to honor them and give them the dignity of being honest with them.

Be clear and concise.

Often in these moments subtlety and ambiguity are not your friends. I am well aware that we try our best to care for our people and to not cause them hurt or pain, but to not be clear or try to soften the moment without being fully honest isn’t going to help anyone. And I would also assert that not being fully honest or clear will actually do more harm in the long run because that leader may feel unjustly wronged because they don’t know what really occurred.

So when you talk to your leader be clear in what you say and concise. Do not go on and on in your conversation with them, but instead be concise and allow them to seek out more information and clarity if they need it. Now, I think it should also be said that being clear and concise is not an excuse to be hurtful or overtly negative toward your leader. When we are concise and clear, we must also remember that the person we are talking to is one of God’s children and we should still seek to be loving and kind with them. Neither option cancels the other out, but rather should be utilized together.

Remind them of what they are called to.

It is helpful to remind your leader of what the expectations are for leaders in your ministry and to show them where they were not meeting those expectations. In these moments it would be helpful for your leaders to know what they are being held to. That means that as leaders we should have some type of stated or printed set of expectations for our leaders that they have had access to. That way everyone knows what they are being asked to do as leaders and it gives you a place to refer to in these moments. But also use this time to challenge them. It isn’t simply a moment to remind them of what they weren’t doing, but instead a challenge to them to grow and meet the requirements and potentially revisit serving with you at a later time.

Follow up as needed.

This is on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes follow up conversations are warranted and sometimes they aren’t. There will be moments where you and your leader can continue with your friendship and other times when you cannot. Be discerning in what needs to happen after the fact and continue to honor them and their wishes as you move forward.

Pray.

I think most of us are aware that prayer is a vital part of our lives and ministries, and it is kind of implied that we will be praying about these types of moments when they happen. But when I say pray for these moments I mean before, during, and after.

When it comes to having these conversations with a leader, it typically shouldn’t take us by surprise. We know it is coming and should be covering the conversation in prayer. Pray for your heart and theirs. Pray for clarity, wisdom, and discernment. Pray for patience and the ability to hear one another. Pray that this conversation doesn’t affect their view of God and the church. And then continue to pray this way during and after the conversation. Do not let your prayer for this leader stop simply because the meeting ended.

The Importance of Discipleship

This past weekend I had the privilege of baptizing a former student who had become a leader in our youth group. This is a young man whose life has been radically transformed by the Gospel and someone I have witnessed grow and mature into the godly young man he is today. As we were walking out into the bay to prepare for his baptism, I asked him how he was feeling. “A little nervous because everyone is here, but excited because I know what this means.” I was, and am, so proud of this guy and how he faithfully and unashamedly follows Jesus.

As I reflected on this momentous occasion in his life, I couldn’t help but think about all the moments that led up to this one. Many people have continually poured into his life and helped guide him through some deep valleys and celebrated with him on the mountain tops. But as I thought about how people poured into his life, I had to ask this question: what would have happened if no one poured into his life? If no one poured into his life, I don’t know if he would be where he is today. It was through constant discipleship that this young man became such a strong follower of Jesus.

You see, this young man was not a bad kid but he could struggle to behave and he could push around other students due to his size when he was younger. It would have been easy to dismiss him as a “bad kid” or to find a “better” student to walk with. But, for myself and his leaders, we saw him as one of God’s children who He loved dearly and as such, someone we should love and care for. Because of that truth, this student was loved and discipled for many years and we saw great fruit come from that. He began to show up early to youth group to help set up, he began to talk about his faith in school, he led Bible studies and small groups, he mentored younger students, and he ended up coming back as a leader in our youth program. Discipleship works and it is a beautiful representation of what Christ did for His people years ago.

Our ministry is fully focused on discipleship. We spend forty-five to sixty minutes in small group each week. Our Sunday mornings are focused on table discussion groups that dig into our Sunday lesson. We encourage our leaders to meet with students throughout the week and to be actively engaged with their students and all that they have going on. Our vision statement is all about making disciples who impact this world by making disciples. Our ministry meets in smaller groups once a month in homes. It is why we are seeing more and more students have their lives changed by the power of the Gospel. Discipleship matters. This is why Jesus intentionally focused on a smaller group within the masses. It is because personal relationships, and intentional life-on-life moments that guide a student to Jesus, bring about change.

But what exactly is discipleship? Discipleship is defined as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another” by Merriam-Webster. When it comes to Christian discipleship, it is more than just having someone live the way we do, or espouse what we want them to. It is about them modeling their lives, hearts, and minds after Jesus. It is helping students see that the way of Christ is the way of life. It involves allowing them to see how Jesus works within our lives in order for them to see the reality of faith in action. Discipleship helps students surrender their lives to Jesus and place their full identity in Him and Him alone.

As we seek to engage in discipleship there are some metrics we can look at in the lives of those we disciple:

  1. They put Jesus first no matter the cost (Mark 8:34-35, Luke 14:25-35).
  2. They follow Jesus’ teachings (John 8:31-32).
  3. They love God and love others (Mark 12:30-31, John 13:34-35).
  4. They honor and seek to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
  5. They commit to building up the body (Ephesians 4:11-17).

It should be noted that it isn’t about doing all the right things or about focusing on works-based righteousness. We will all fall and mess up, and that is why it is about allowing the transformative power of the Gospel to impact the lives of the students we lead. These metrics help to differentiate between making disciples and mentoring. While both are good things, discipleship helps to create followers of Jesus who are passionate about His mission. As disciple-makers we should be highlighting these characteristics to our students and helping them to grow in them and reflect them outward. Discipleship is all about inward transformation that is reflected outwardly. Our inward transformation is reflected in how we act, speak, and engage with others because of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts.

When we allow for discipleship to be the heart of what we do in student ministry we will see a radical change begin to take hold of our students. They will grow and make their faith their own, which will result in them beginning to disciple others in their faith. Discipleship is a replicating model that will allow your students to grow and mature as followers of Jesus, and we will bear witness to them growing as leaders of our faith.