Fact or Fiction: Student Ministry is a Stepping Stone

I am so excited to start this new series. Elise and I have talked at length about misconceptions, myths, and untruths when it comes to ministry as a whole. As we looked deeper into some of these thoughts, it was clear that in youth ministry especially, there are old myths that continue to exist.

As we processed these myths we began to see just how harmful they can be if believed. Like any myth or untruth, these will lead people away from student ministry and in fact do more damage to the students we are shepherding, the volunteers we are leading, and ultimately hamper us from following the calling God has placed on our lives.

Whenever we post for this series (and honestly this applies for any of our posts) we would love to dialogue with you about it. We want to hear your experiences, to tackle your questions, and wrestle with Scriptural truth together.

Today’s myth: Student ministry is a stepping stone to other ministry positions.

I remember the first time someone asked me when I was going to be a real pastor. I was serving as a youth pastor and I regularly taught and preached to our student group. I had officiated weddings and funerals. I had counseled students and adults. I had built a volunteer team and continued to pour into them. I was confused when I heard the question. So I responded with one of my own: what makes someone a real pastor?

The conversation that followed showed the biases that exist within church culture. Many people hold the belief that student ministry is simply childcare for students, and that youth pastors are “in training” to become real pastors a few years down the line.

The facts are completely different. As youth pastors we are real pastors. To assume otherwise calls into question the calling that God has placed on our lives, which in essence is calling God into question. God doesn’t call the perfect, the disciples are clear evidence of this, but He does call the ones who He needs at the right moment and at the right time.

As student pastors and youth workers we shouldn’t be constantly looking toward the next opportunity to advance. This is truly a heart issue because it shows that we ourselves are not content with the calling God has placed on our lives. Instead we should be focused on serving where God has placed us. If we are constantly thinking ahead to the next job or opportunity, we are devaluing the ministry we serve in and those within the ministry. We are basically saying it isn’t worth our full time and attention because there are bigger and better things elsewhere we are focused on.

We have all been gifted to serve in different areas. That’s the beauty of the body of Christ. No one area of ministry is greater than another. Adult ministry is not superior to children’s ministry. Care ministry isn’t greater than student ministry. Sunday mornings aren’t better than midweek programming. Ministry isn’t a competition, nor is it about personal advancement. It is all about the advancement of the Gospel and the Gospel alone.

Yes, this may not be the case where you serve. The structure of your church may highlight the view that not all ministries are equal. You may be underpaid or not paid at all. Students may be treated as less-than by other pastors or members. But you cannot allow for those things to define who you are and where you are going. Instead, focus on the calling God has placed on your life and trust Him to guide you to what comes next. Be content with where He has placed you, and don’t use it to simply move up the ranks.

There are countless studies (Barna is a great resource) that highlight the need for consistency in students’ lives and how students flourish off of continued investment by the same people. Inter-generational ministry will greatly help students grow in their faith and see that they are an integral part of the church. By staying and focusing on the ministry and students God has entrusted to you, you are valuing students and the church as a whole. Be willing to give more than just a few years, and consider giving your life for the calling God has placed upon you.

Is there a ministry myth you think we should tackle? Share it in the comments and you may see it in an upcoming post.

Our Picks: Study Bibles for Message Prep and Personal Use

When it comes to preparing messages and personally studying God’s Word, there vast amounts of resources at hand. There are commentaries, various theological resources, countless articles, websites, and more. One of our favorite resources to utilize is the study Bible. The ability to read God’s Word and have helpful and insightful information all together is a huge win.

Today we want to share with you some of our favorite study Bibles that have helped us in our own relationships with Jesus and have allowed for us to become better communicators as we seek to know God’s Word at a deeper level.

The CSB Apologetics Study Bible

This is a great resource for personal study and message prep. The CSB has quickly become one of our favorite translations of the Bible because it relies upon the best manuscripts we have on hand, and is translated in a way that is easy to understand without sacrificing truth for ease.

The Apologetics Study Bible offers more than 100 commentaries and articles on various questions, thoughts, and difficult topics. The reason this is helpful for teaching is that these articles contain many of the questions that students (and arguably all Christians) have but may not voice. It also helps us to keep our minds sharp and ready to answer questions that are voiced, and it provides resources we can share with others.

CSB Worldview Study Bible

I really like this Bible when it comes to preparing messages for our students and for our church. The purpose of this study Bible is to showcase how the truths of Scripture impact our worldview. This approach provides many practical and tangible applications for when we are teaching.

As we think about our students who are part of Gen-Z, they are always looking for ways to engage and be involved, and this resource provides just that. There are extensive notes and articles that will provide you with insight into how to apply the Bible to our lives and make our faith real and active.

ESV Study Bible

This is a must-have resource for anyone in the church, regardless of whether you are paid staff, a volunteer, or an attendee. The ESV Study Bible has an amazing set of notes and information that allow you to glean additional information that you may not have seen by simply reading the text. This is a Bible that has been put together by 95 Bible scholars from around the world with a variety of denominations contributing to it.

It also has more than 20,000 study notes, over 80,000 cross-references, more than 200 maps, helpful articles, and a concordance. This Bible will help you in so many ways as you seek to grow in your personal relationship with Jesus and as you lead others in your ministries.

NIV Zondervan Study Bible

This study Bible is a great resource that was overseen by the guidance and insight of Dr. D. A. Carson and more than 60 other contributors. Its purpose is to help readers see God’s special revelation in the Scriptures and to help readers grow in their faith.

Some of the resources in this Bible include full-color maps, charts, photos, and diagrams, study notes in the margins, introductory material for each book of the Bible, cross-references, and a concordance.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

This is not a Bible that I have in my personal library but one I have borrowed often from friends and colleagues. This provides so much context and insight into what was happening during the time period of the text and why it was happening in that way. When we are thinking about critically reading and analyzing Scripture it is vital that we know the context to what is taking place so we can make informed and accurate assessments and applications.

This Bible provides you with much-needed context along with verse-by-verse study notes, introductions to each book, defined terms from both Testaments, more than 300 articles discussing contextual topics, over 300 full-color photos, illustrations, and images, and various maps, charts, and diagrams. This is a great Bible to help us grow in our knowledge and understanding of what was happening in context, which will then help us shape how we apply this text to our lives and the lives of those we lead.

What Study Bibles or other resources have you found that have been helpful in your individual studies and to make you a better teacher?

Helping Students Build Lasting Friendships

Friendships and relationships. What do those words mean to you? Recently these words have taken on such new meaning considering our present context. Before COVID-19 students could engage in friendships simply by going through their daily rhythms. They saw friends at school, hung out at Starbucks, went to youth group, and could go over to one another’s homes.

Today that isn’t the case: we are being told to stay home and distance ourselves from one another. Because of this, many relationships are struggling and students are feeling it. But this begs the question, why? Why are students hurting so badly in isolation? Why are relationships struggling?

The answer lies within the context of Scripture: We were created for community. Going all the way back to the beginning in Genesis, we see that God designed humanity in His image and likeness. God is a triune God which means He desires community. But even more than being crafted in His image, God designed humankind to desire community with one another. That is why Adam and Eve were put in the garden and told to share in its duties together.

Community and relationships are things that are rooted deep within us. The desire to be with and connected to others is part of who we are. But how do we do that in our present circumstance? How can we continue to maintain friendships and relationships? And how can we help our students not simply maintain but strengthen their friendships during this time? I want to offer some helpful tips for how to do this so our students not only survive but thrive during this period of their lives.

1. Pray for your students and their friends.

Prayer is and always will be essential. But in these days, we realize the need for it so much more. Students’ lives are being challenged and up-heaved, and they are asking deep and profound questions about the nature of everything that is happening.

Let me challenge you to pray all the more for your students. Pray for their spiritual walks, for their relationships, for their witness to their peers, for their friends and their families. Be in prayer for them as the attempt to adjust to what is happening. Pray that God gives them deep and meaningful friendships. Pray for your students to have friends that reflect Jesus to them, but also that they can share Jesus with friends who don’t know Jesus. Prayer is a powerful tool, and we must be on our knees daily for our students as they navigate our ever-changing world.

2. Encourage students and parents to structure screen engagement.

Screens are more a part of our lives then they have ever been. Students are being pushed to online learning, they are connecting over social media, Zoom calls abound, and sadly this is just to manage school. What I would encourage is this: balance the time spent on screens. Don’t let it simply be one-sided. Challenge your students to have positive intake coming into their lives through the screen. Whether that is through watching sermons or youth group lessons, engaging in conversations with friends and family members, or through listening to worship music. Encourage positive inflow.

But even more than just having positive inflow, encourage students and families to create time away from screens. Have them set up intentional time to engage as a family, to play games, watch a church service together, go on walks, plant some flowers, cook dinner together, throw around a football. Building relationships within the family helps to model what this looks like in other relationships.

I would also encourage you to have your students think about calling or writing their friends. Send handwritten notes, have an actual phone call away from the screen. Moments like these may seem simple, but are actually refreshing in a screen saturated world.

3. Help students understand relationships aren’t one sided.

Friendships these days tend to be one-sided. We enter into them expecting to be filled and encouraged but we don’t often think about what we can give. Our culture dictates that we should expect to receive more than give, and unfortunately this has bled into our relationships. So help your students understand that they have to be willing to give to the relationship and not just receive. A few easy ways to challenge your students with this include:

  • Have them ask how the other person is doing, and then follow up on it at a later time.
  • Challenge them to be willing to call or reach out to the other person and not just expect to be called.
  • Push your students to keep reaching out, even if to them it doesn’t seem worth it.
  • Encourage your students to be kind and thoughtful toward their friends, and to think about the words or style of words that they use (sarcasm is no one’s friend).
  • Have students think of a tangible way they could bless one friend a week during this time and follow through on it.

4. Encourage students to be intentional.

Having good friendships and relationships take work, which means we have to be willing to engage with them. And that means we must be intentional. Friendships don’t just continue to exist if we aren’t actively engaged with them. We must be willing to be intentional and, at times, sacrifice for our friendships. Students must be challenged to be intentional in their friendships especially during this time. Simply shooting off a text, or not responding for a week, or not reaching out to people you were connected to will cause hurt and tension in relationships for both parties.

We are designed for community but we cannot simply hope that everything will be the same if we do not intentionally engage. Intentionality shows others that they have value and meaning, and it allows for the person showing it to grow as well. Challenge your students to take the first step, and the second, and third. It may not always be reciprocated, but showing intentionality will encourage and help others, and your students will see when others are doing that for them.

5. Encourage students to be transparent.

Our culture demands that we appear to have it all together, to make it appear as if our lives are perfect and nothing is wrong. Many people, our students included, struggle with this reality. But we must realize that part of friendship is a willingness to be authentic and transparent. To be willing to share how you really are doing. We must challenge our students to be who they really are in their friendships, to let them know it is okay to show vulnerability around their peers.

Transparency and authenticity are large parts of any friendship and relationship. In order for relationships to grow and trust to be formed, people must be vulnerable by being transparent. This allows others to see and know you for who you are, and to value and love you regardless of faults. Being transparent allows for trust, friendship, and growth to happen in a relationship, and if we can challenge our students to do this, we will begin to see them thrive in their friendships.

How do you encourage students to build lasting friendships?

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Volunteering in Student Ministry

In several months the school year will be over, summer ministry activities will be starting, and youth leaders will be gearing up for a new school year–which always includes the search for new volunteers. If you’ve considered jumping in as a student ministry volunteer, now is the perfect time to evaluate if this is the role for you.

It can be hard to discern where we should serve, whether we’re “called” to a particular role, or how to prioritize our ministry involvement. But these are important things to work through before stepping into student ministry. There will always be things you can learn only through involvement, but there are also essential things to ask before you get there.

Today I’m outlining a few top questions that I would encourage potential volunteers to ask themselves before jumping into student ministry. These can also be helpful questions to use as a personal evaluation for anyone already serving. If you want to use this post for evaluation purposes, I recommend answering the questions and reading only the first paragraph under each heading before you read the remaining paragraphs. This will help you evaluate your honest answers.

Ask: Why do I want to serve in student ministry?

Let’s start simple: why do you think you want to serve? Be brutally honest as you answer this question because often your motives will reveal your heart. List as many reasons for serving as you can think of.

If most of your reasons start with you–like what you want to get out of it, or what you think you can offer to students–it might be good to press pause and take a step back. In as much as you will get something out of volunteering and you might bring a lot to the table, these should be secondary, not primary motivations. Student ministry is about sacrificially serving Jesus and the students, about being there for them, showing up consistently, and having the fortitude to dig in when the going gets tough.

If you step in with self-centered motives, you will end up disappointed, and you will most likely struggle in your role. You may find yourself comparing and competing with other leaders, looking for student affirmation, and feeling rapid burn-out when you don’t get it. On the flip side, if your motives are oriented toward serving the Lord first, you will look to Him to define your success and give you strength in the hard times. And if you put the students and their needs ahead of your own, you will have a better perspective on your purpose in student ministry.

Remember: It’s not wrong to feel like God has gifted you in this area, and that you have special gifts you would like to use to serve students. Just because it may feel like a motive is selfish doesn’t mean God can’t and won’t use it. Actively seek to give your gifts and desires back to Him.

Ask: How do I honestly feel about and view students?

If you were to be completely honest on how you feel about middle school and/or high school students, what would you say? When you see them at church or out in your community, how do you view them and what do you think about them?

How you feel about students deep down will manifest itself as you serve in student ministry. If you find them annoying, obnoxious, entitled, or a lost cause, those views will eventually manifest themselves. You can’t fake it with students.

If students frustrate you, ask God to change your heart and help you see them the way He does. Allow time for God to break your heart for students before you jump in and serve. Keep in mind that if you find one age group challenging (i.e.

Remember: Even if you view students with love and respect, your heart toward them will still be tested. Student ministry can be very challenging, and there will be times you don’t want to love students. In the moments when you feel incapable of love, look to God for strength and direction. Only He can sustain you through difficult seasons.

Ask: What priority level can I give student ministry?

Some additional questions to answer include: How many ministries/extra activities am I involved in and how much time do they take? How much time am I able to commit to student ministry? On a scale of 1-10, how important is student ministry verses the other activities I’m involved in? To help you answer some of these, you might need to first talk to whoever is over the student ministry to get an idea of how much time you will need to commit each week.

The bottom line is that student ministry often requires being a top-tier priority. You will discover that it doesn’t just require a couple of hours each week. To truly invest in the lives of students, you will need to interact and spend consistent, regular time with them. This is not to say that you can’t have a life or other involvement outside of student ministry, but at times other things may need to take a back seat to your role as a youth leader.

If you commit to numerous ministries and activities, eventually one area will suffer. If you’re already serving in several large roles, it may not be a good time to get involved in student ministry. It’s important to know that more isn’t always better. Sometimes keeping your commitments minimal will help you have time, energy, and space for those who desperately need you.

Remember: Over-commitment in life is not sustainable long-term. This also includes over-commitment in student ministry. Make sure to create space in your life for spiritual in-flow outside of student ministry. This can include time with family and friends, a Bible study with peers, and regular time in prayer and the Word.

Ask: What am I hoping to get out of serving in student ministry?

In a way we touched on this in the first question, but let’s dig a little deeper. What are you hoping will be the end result of your time volunteering in student ministry? Do you have a certain vision or goal for your involvement? What are you hoping will come out of your time investing in students?

This is a way to assess your true motives, to ask the tough questions, and seek God for the answers. It’s hard to always have pure motives all of the time, but if your motives are rooted in things like affirmation, recognition, or building a brand, it may be time to do some heart work outside of student ministry.

The truth is that student ministry isn’t about any of us; it is about God, His mission, and being a willing part of what He is doing. If your hope is to see and join in what He is doing in the lives of students, then you are on a good track. Remember that at the end of it all, it won’t be about you or what you did or didn’t do (so in that, don’t worry about perceived failure), it will be about God and what He did.

Remember: If you step into student ministry and see change and growth in your own life, it doesn’t mean that you’ve made it all about you. God will use the crucible of service to refine and shape you, especially in the moments that feel like failure. If He has called you to student ministry, He will use you and He will equip you for the work. Continue seeking Him, in the triumphs and the setbacks.

Ask: What do I have to offer?

Ask this question genuinely, not pridefully. What are things unique to you that you can bring to the table? What are things you can offer to the ministry? What passions can you share with younger generations?

The truth is that God has gifted all of us for service in His kingdom, and I think we can miss what we have been given if we don’t identify it and seek to use it. It may feel awkward to list these things, but they can help you determine if student ministry is the place for you.

If you do decide to step into student ministry, look for specific areas where you can implement your skills and passions. If you love to teach or speak, look into opportunities to share with the group. If you are a musician, look into leading and teaching students. If you enjoy baking, bring sweets and treats to share with the group. If you have a passion for social justice, look for ways to empower and equip students with the same passion.

Remember: Don’t disqualify yourself for trivial reasons. If you think you’re too old, know that inter-generational relationships are crucial to the life and growth of the church. If you think you’re too out of touch, ask genuine questions and let the students teach you. If you think you’re ill-equipped, ask God to empower and embolden you. And if you feel scared, remember that students are people too, and they desperately need the love of Jesus.

If you’re still uncertain…

It may be time to set up an appointment with the pastor or student ministry leader. Be open about your desires and concerns, and let them ask you questions. They can help you discern if student ministries is the place for you. You may also be able to sit in on one or two nights of youth group to get a feel for the ministry and what you would be doing. Sometimes it takes jumping in fully and committing to a year to see if student ministry is where you feel called to serve. Remember to be honest and to be open to where God might lead you.

Help! My Students Don’t Like Me

“How do you make students like you?”

“I am a new youth pastor and I am not connecting with my kids…what am I doing wrong?”

“I have been in youth ministry for years, but I can’t seem to find common ground with my teens in my new position.”

These are just a few quotes I have heard over the past couple of weeks from youth pastors who are struggling to connect with their students.

The real question before us is this: how can I connect with, relate to, and push my students to the Gospel? Throughout various ministries, and lots of trial and error, I have seen many ways work and lots of ways fail. I want to share a few ways to help you connect with your students regardless of where you are and how long you have been there.

Don’t put your worth in students liking you.

If you find your success, identity, and validity in students liking you, then you went into the wrong field with the wrong intentions. You aren’t here to be liked–don’t get me wrong, that’s a huge plus–you are here to disciple students and point them to Jesus. Don’t go looking to be liked but go seeking to show them Jesus and love them the way He does.

Don’t expect them to come to you.

Go to where they are. I think sometimes we believe that if we keep office hours, have an “open door policy,” and invite them over then they will come. That isn’t the case. Students in fact have been told to not go hang out with strange people. If you are in a new position, you are a strange person. They don’t know you yet. They don’t know your passions and heart. So go to them. Go support them at their games and activities. Get involved in the community. Bring donuts to their school in the morning.

Know your students.

This seems like an easy one but depending on the size of your program (and if your memory, like mine, isn’t great) you may not be able to know every student. But try to get to know the ones you can and remember them. There is so much power in being called by your name instead of “hey you” or “buddy” or “dude.” Remember their names, but also seek to know more about them. What school do they go to? What activities are they engaged in? Who is in their friend group? Where’s their favorite place to go hang out? What’s the best coffee shop? What’s their favorite thing about youth group? When you know these things and bring them up in conversations you are showing intentionality and a desire to be a part of their lives.

Be real.

I cannot stress this enough. All you have to do is look at all the memes out there about youth pastors being one way around students and another in front of church members or parents to know that the common perception of youth pastors is they aren’t authentic. Maybe it is just a meme and I am trying to be too insightful, but I think the underlying truth is there: be authentic.

Students can tell when you aren’t being genuine or you’re trying to “just relate” but don’t truly care. They have plenty of people who pretend to care or invest in their lives, they don’t need another one. Be yourself! Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. If you are dorky, own it. If you are an athlete, play basketball with them. If you are quiet, don’t try to be an extrovert. And don’t pretend to know someone when you don’t. Love them as Jesus does and show them who you are.

Have fun.

Don’t be a stick in the mud. Sometimes engaging with students means having fun with them and with what they are doing. Think about it: what adult other than a youth worker do you see playing Gagaball or challenging students to an eating competition? I’ll wait while you come up with names… But seriously, have fun with your students. If they like board games, play with them. If they are into video games, brush up on your gaming skills. You don’t have to crush it or them, and when they beat you, laugh about it.

I love playing 9 Square with my students. Some of them are super athletic and can dominate the game. I can go toe-to-toe with them, but I often choose not to and allow myself to get spiked on. Why? Not because I like losing, but I love to laugh at it and also I get to connect with the students who did get spiked on. Have fun and let your hair down.

Tell personal stories.

Elise wrote an awesome post about the power of a story and she couldn’t be more correct. Stories convey truth and emotion, and they connect with people in a very real way. I love telling stories when I teach and they are almost always personal. I do this for two reasons: people see I am real and just like them, and it allows for my students to know me on a deeper level. My students know about my childhood, college years, my day-to-day activities, and all the times I messed up. In fact, I have students come up and say “remember when you did…” But the funny thing is they weren’t there for that moment, but they were there for my story. They connect with you as you allow them into your space.

Be consistent.

Don’t give up. The reality is all of this takes time and effort, and there will be moments you want to check out or walk away. Don’t! Stay invested. Keep showing up. Go to the plays and sports and coffee shops. When no one comes on a youth group night still show up. Students see you. They see your heart. Be someone who is there for and with them. Be the person they need and the person God called you to be. When you say you will be someone where, be there. When you say there is youth group, show up and be excited. Be consistent and watch what God does.

 

5 Ways to Improve Volunteer Communication

Let’s face it: without a team of volunteers it is exceptionally hard to run a student ministry. It gets harder still if that team doesn’t know the plan.

I have often found that a team functions best when there is a clear plan and goal because of clear communication. If I am being honest I am not always the best communicator when it comes to planning and sharing what is happening.

This is a place I am constantly looking to grow in, and as such I wanted to share with you a few ways to enhance communication with your team. I have had to learn to do these things and honestly have learned a lot through mistakes. Most of these are digital, but some are face-to-face as well because both are extremely important.

Ask your team how they communicate.

I have a questionnaire I ask my leaders to fill out (both new and returning leaders) and I ask for their preferred means of communication. This allows me to see how they communicate and be able to utilize the best forum. It also highlights any issues that may develop if someone doesn’t use a certain method. Some of my leaders only use WhatsApp and because it is only a couple of people, I make the effort to communicate with them there if I text the rest of the team.

Choose your medium and use it.

As youth workers we are forever surrounded by new and different ways of communicating. But if we continue to switch it up on our teams, they will never know where look. I had a volunteer during my first year at church who would respond to my emails via text. It wasn’t ideal because when I would be looking for information from them, I wouldn’t know where to go. I finally sat down and made it clear that the main way I communicate is email for standard youth group stuff. If it is an emergency or a day-of change it would be via text or phone.

My teams know this is the standard case, and as such they are expecting my communications via these platforms. It has helped to streamline our communication and works well for sharing information. Choose whichever way is best for you, and stick with it. If you do change it, communicate that to your team.

Be consistent.

A big thing I have learned is that when we say we are going to do something, we need to do it. Don’t promise to communicate via email and then switch to text. Doing this not only confuses leaders and doesn’t communicate well, it also creates a lack of trust in what you are doing. Be consistent, and if change needs to happen, bring your team in before you make the change.

Communicate early.

We plan out our schedule a year at a time. Typically this is during late spring and we are able to get that information out to leaders before the start of the new school year. They see when we have events, trips, retreats, and we also note when we do not have youth group. This allows our leaders to prepare for the year and know what is coming; there are no surprises.

I also make an effort to get our small group resources and plans out to leaders at least 24 hours ahead of youth group so they can prepare for the evening. I send the schedule, notes, and the questions for small groups so leaders know what is happening, what is expected, and they have the ability to mentally and spiritually prepare for the next day.

Communicate in person.

Much of what has been shared has been about digital communication, but we cannot overstate the value of face-to-face communication. Those are the moments when you get to truly shepherd and care for your people, and you get to cast vision and passion for the ministry as well. Take time to communicate clearly, answer questions, and receive feedback. We should never undervalue our leaders and must always seek to be with and for them.

Leading Small Groups: Self-Guided Discussion

There may be times as a small group leader that you don’t have pre-scripted questions, or your students aren’t vibing with the questions you have. While it may not always flow seamlessly, those are times when I like to move to what I call “self-guided discussions.” These are discussions facilitated by a small group leader, but essentially led by the needs, responses, and thoughts of the small group. Here is a basic look at how to lead your group using a self-guided discussion.

If you can, do a little pre-discussion prep.

The longer you spend with your particular small group, the more you will learn about them. You will be able to identify key areas that impact their lives individually and collectively. As you learn these things, you will be able to identify key topics or themes from weekly lessons that will be most relevant to them.

If you know the lesson topic prior to youth group, you can prep beforehand. Otherwise, you can take notes and write questions during the teaching time. Look for ways to connect the topic or key points of the lesson to the lives of your students. Come up with some questions that will lead students to make these connections on their own, rather than simply spoon-feeding them the answers.

Ask, “What stood out to you?”

If I can tell my students are engaged and thinking through to the topic, I want to hear what is standing out to them. Often I like to ask this question first to see what spoke to them, what they are thinking about, and what they might need to spend extra time talking through. Sometimes this will dictate the entire direction of our discussion time, especially if it is a topic I know will benefit the entire group.

When asking this question, you may get answers (or comments) that don’t exactly relate to the lesson topic. Sometimes your students might go entirely off topic. If it’s something worth talking about, I would encourage you not to completely shut down the discussion. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my small group originated from what seemed like a tangent. It’s okay to deviate from the intended topic and let conversation grow organically as long as it’s beneficial and not an attempt to distract the group. This can be one of the best aspects of self-guided discussion.

Ask follow-up questions based on students’ answers.

After asking the students what stood out to them, use their answers to guide your questions. Pick a key word or topic from their answers to hone in on. Ask follow-up questions that will steer the conversation in a helpful direction. This is a great way to help students connect broad topics to real-life application. It also allows you to spend more time on things that are important to your students, rather than glossing over them to move on to the next question.

Apply questions and answers to specific life circumstances or issues.

As I mentioned before, it’s important for us to assist students in connecting the truths of Scripture to their lives. They need to be able to see the relevance of lesson topics for their lives. These connections may be easy for them to make, but other times they may struggle. This is where you as a leader can guide them into making these connections with the questions you ask. The more you know about your students, the more you will be able to connect topics to their specific life circumstances.

Within this, it is important not to disclose things you have been told in confidence by students. Use discretion in how you address topics, keeping student privacy in mind. If a student has shared an issue previously with the group at large, I recommend speaking to them privately before bringing it up again in the group. This can be as simple as pulling them aside and asking for their permission to bring up the topic, or asking them if they would be willing to share about it.

Encourage your students to ask questions.

Self-guided discussion truly becomes self-guided when your students start asking questions. This may start with them asking you things, but eventually they will hopefully begin to ask each other follow-up questions. Even if you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, encourage them by affirming their question, and if needed, doing some research so you can follow-up with an answer. Be honest and open with your students. You don’t have to share everything, but you will be able to connect with them on a deeper level if you let them into your life. This will help to build rapport between you and your students.

Caring for Volunteers

Being on paid staff at a church is an amazing job. You are paid to study the Bible, walk with people, see growth happen, participate in wonderful moments, and you get to fulfill your calling. But often times we forget that the reason we get to do what we do is due, in large part, to our volunteers.

They are the people who show up after a long day of work. They are the ones who take vacation time or unpaid time to go on youth trips. They are the ones fielding late night calls and interrupting family time to care for “their students.” They are the ones who grieve and hurt even though it isn’t their job to do so. They are the ones who take time away from their loved ones to pour into the lives of students who others would write off.

I think our propensity as paid youth workers is to assume that our volunteers can give the way we do. We believe they can sacrifice time and money the way that we do. We forget that this isn’t what they are paid to do.

But we cannot forget our volunteers. They are the glue that keeps our ministry together.  They are the self-sacrificing, servant-hearted, all-in people who make student ministry a reality. So how can we care for them well?

Get to know your people. 

One of the things I have found to be beneficial in caring for leaders is getting to know what they like and don’t like, what encourages them, what discourages them, where they like to go out to eat, what they do for a date night, how you can be praying for them, and what snacks they enjoy. I get all this information at our fall leader training when I ask my volunteers to fill out a quick two-minute survey. In that survey I get to know a lot about them in a simple format, and I find new ways to bless them.

Bless leaders throughout the year.

This can look different depending on the size of your ministry, your budget, and your space. But we shouldn’t let those things keep us from acting or put us in a box. Instead we should leverage what we have to bless our leaders. We use our Leader Christmas Party as our big gift time of year and a bunch of our parents cater the event for our leaders. They cook dinner, serve the meal, prepare desserts, and pray over them. I also love to meet up with leaders throughout the year and see how they are doing. I take them out for lunch or breakfast and do my best to pay for the meal and say thank you. I also pay attention to big days (Facebook helps with this a lot) and reach out to celebrate and honor them.

Get parents involved.

I shared this briefly in the above tip, but the more you can rally parents to support and bless your leaders, the more dedicated your leaders will be. At Christmastime and the end of the academic year, we send out a letter to parents asking them and their students to consider blessing our leaders. Consistently our parents go above and beyond and our leaders are blessed with cards and notes, gift cards, snacks, candy, and so much more. Our leaders and families love this and it is an awesome opportunity to see Body of Christ care for one another. We also ask our parents to jump in and serve at big events to allow  our leaders to be with their students. This helps parents see what is happening and has driven them to have more buy-in and care for our leaders.

Make a big deal out of trips.

When our leaders come on ministry trips we do leader gift bags. Based upon the trip length, style of trip, and funds on hand we offer a variety of gifts and blessings in the bags. For overnight trips we do paper gift bags and for trips of a week or longer we have done backpacks or drawstring bags. We fill these with some of the essentials like lip balm, sleep masks, ear plugs, hand sanitizer, gum, candy, salty snacks, protein bars, swag from our youth group, ibuprofen, pens, or a small notebook. Depending on the length of the trip and expectations for our leaders, we have gotten some nicer gifts as well like Yetis with our logo, full-size notebooks, or mugs.

Use your space.

We all have different spaces for programming and offices (if you’re blessed to have one). A great way to bless leaders is have a spot exclusively for them. I am not in my office much during youth nights so I have turned it into a relaxing area for my leaders. I have a seating area with a tea and coffee bar, along with bottled water and a few snacks. I get good coffee, a variety of teas, nice creamers, all types of sweeteners, and my leaders love it. They arrive after long days and to have something to get a little boost is a big deal. I also keep my office as a leaders-only space so they can have a place to collect themselves and breathe if they need to.

Utilize your leaders’ gifts.

One way to really value your leaders is to see their talents and allow them to utilize their gifts. If you have a leader who is a gifted communicator, get them in front of your group. Have a leader who loves to lead at their workplace? Ask them to help develop your leaders. Is there a leader who is can get anyone to do anything? There is your next game leader. If a leader is passionate about worship, allow them to develop your students into a worship team. Encouraging your leaders to utilize their gifts and strengths not only allows them to continue to grow, but it generates buy-in, creates a team mentality, and shows your leaders you see them as more than bodies.

Recognize and honor your leaders. 

The corporate world does this well. When someone succeeds they get a raise, a bonus, employee of the month, or recognized in a staff newsletter. We should be doing this as well. If a leader does something well, recognize it. It doesn’t need to always be in front of the church or youth group, but maybe at a leader meeting. Consider implementing a “volunteer of the month” where you send them a handwritten note and a small gift card to their favorite restaurant. Or when you get that chance to preach, highlight your volunteer core. Let them know how awesome they are!

Be present in all moments. 

As the shepherd of your ministry you must be present for your team in all moments. That means thinking past your program nights, and being present elsewhere. Take your leaders out. Celebrate their successes. Get to know their passions and their families. Also be there during the really hard moments. This is the part where your leaders see you actually care. I have sat in hospital rooms with leaders, I have held leaders after a loved one passed away, I have walked with leaders who have lost a student, and I have wept with leaders as they wept over their students walking away from what they believed. These moments weren’t the easiest or ones I was prepped for in “ministry school” but these are the moments we are called to as shepherds and ministers. To weep with those who weep and comfort those who mourn. Walk with your leaders in all moments; good, bad, and everything in between.

Commission well.

Part of what we should be doing as ministry leaders is generating high quality leaders who prayerfully will begin stepping up, which may lead to them pursuing ministry elsewhere as God calls them. This isn’t something to fear or be anxious about but something we should be excited for. That means our leaders are growing, being equipped, and following God’s leading. When this happens encourage your leaders, pray with them, and help them achieve the calling God has placed on their lives. But also celebrate and encourage your leaders both publicly and in private. Let them know you are here for them, honor them in front of the youth group, help them to grieve well as they leave, and celebrate them in front of the church.

 

Feel Like You’re Failing? Encouragement for Youth Leaders

Regardless of where you serve in ministry, you will likely encounter discouragement at some point. It may come from things others will say or do, or things you simply believe about yourself but have never actually been told. Discouragement in ministry is a reality we all face.

I think youth leaders easily and sometimes frequently feel discouraged. We can feel like we aren’t making a difference. We can question whether or not we’re cut out to be a small group leader. We may feel like students don’t like us. The list goes on…

Today I want to take some time to offer you encouragement and truth. Maybe you don’t feel like you need it right now. Maybe you’re seeing growth in your ministry and you know your students love you. But perhaps down the road, when times get tough and ministry is hard, you might need to be reminded of why your presence matters.

Your presence is meaningful and needed.

I think the great lie Satan tries to feed to youth leaders is that they aren’t making a difference, that they aren’t important or needed. If we can become convinced of that, we will inevitably give up on the ministry.

I want to encourage you: do not believe that lie. It may take different forms: I’m too old, students don’t listen to me, each week is just too hard, God isn’t working, I’m not making a difference. The important thing is to identify the lie that you’re believing and fight it with the truth.

The truth is: your presence is important and students need you. Students need adults who will consistently show up in their lives and represent Jesus Christ to them. Just by consistently being there for the students, you send a message that they have value and that you have bought into the truth of the Gospel. And by being there, you are investing in the work God is already doing.

Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. 

Last month I listened to a sermon where the pastor spoke on Christian community. He said, “We have to remember that the Gospel brings different people together. Sometimes what we view as failure is actually God bringing people together.”

This made me think about youth group, because it’s definitely true for my experience working with students. So many different types of people are brought together during youth group activities. And sometimes those people don’t get along–adults and students included. It can feel like each week is a struggle, trying to end cliques within your small group, trying to get the quiet people to talk, trying to encourage unity between different schools, trying to help students navigate life.

The list of things we try to do can become exhaustive, and when only some or none of them actually come to pass, we may feel like we’re failing. We may question what we’re doing, or if it’s even making a difference. Let me encourage you: just because each week is a struggle, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing something wrong. Which leads me to my next point…

Present difficulties can lead to future rewards.

I think if a lot of youth leaders were honest, we would have numerous stories of how we were not the “easy kids” in youth group. In fact, some of us might have been the student the youth leader secretly wished wouldn’t show up each week. We might have been the back-talkers, the disrupters, the “problem” students. In my own experience, the struggles I experienced in high school fueled my desire to be a youth leader.

The reality is we have no idea what kind of work God is doing through our perceived weaknesses or failures, or through the things our students are experiencing. In the moment, and even in the immediate future, we may not see how God is working. We may never know. But He is working. Each week, in each student, through every struggle, God is working.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 Paul writes, “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

As we invest in the lives of students, God will use us. One day, maybe on this earth or in eternity, we will see the rewards. We will see students coming to Christ, serving Him with their lives, and changing the world for Him. And we will praise God because He allowed us to be a part of it.

Your value does not lie in the actions of your students.

Yes, we hope to see students’ lives changed for Christ, but we don’t always see it. We long to hear stories of how we made a difference in the lives of our students, but we won’t always hear them. There may be whole seasons when it seems like nothing good comes of our efforts in student ministry.

We cannot root our identity in the people we serve, and we cannot base our success or failure on their lives or actions. This can be hard because the alternative–choosing to place our value in Christ and the kingdom work He calls us to–is unseen. It takes concerted effort to shift our eyes from what we can perceive to what we cannot, and to place our value there. But that is what will carry us when student ministry is hard.

I love the reminder Colossians 3:23-24 provides: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

At the end of it all, we are serving the Lord, being available for the work He has, and displaying His love to each person we meet. He will bring about success, He will produce the fruit, and He will change hearts and lives. May you rest in that truth today.

Preparing as a Volunteer Leader

Fall is almost upon us and so is the start of another school year. Whether you’re a veteran leader, or this will be your first year serving in student ministry, it’s a great time to prepare for the upcoming year. It’s easy to simply roll into student ministry without giving it too much fore-thought, but I believe taking some time to prepare can be beneficial. Here are a few ways to help be better prepared for the start of this ministry year.

Get in the know

Our ministry hosts a leader training session before each school year starts. This helps us to get on the same page, go over any rules and requirements, talk about the plan for the year ahead, and bond as leaders. If your church doesn’t host leader training or if you’ll miss it, I recommend scheduling a meeting with your student pastor. Use the time to hear his/her vision for the year, learn important rules, find out who is in your small group, and grow in your understanding of the program and its leadership. The more you can learn about the students, the ministry, and the leadership, the more effective you will be as a member of the team.

Meet with key individuals

If you have one or more co-leaders, I recommend getting together before the school year starts. In addition to getting to know each other and how to work together well, you can take time to pray over and cast a vision for your group. This may sound like a lot of work, but if you have a direction and goal you are all working toward, it will help to build intentionality within your small group time. You can also think about how you want to lead discussion, how you can work together to challenge your small group, and how you want to divide any tasks or responsibilities. If you come in with a plan and vision, or if you simply show up with zero fore-thought, it will ultimately reveal itself in how you lead. As the old phrase goes, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and students deserve the best we can offer.

In addition to meeting with leaders, you may want to meet up with your students as well, if possible. Any time spent with students is a great opportunity to bond–they get to know you and you get to know them. You will become an even more effective leader the more you know your group, the issues they are dealing with, and the things they are passionate about. You can also use this time to encourage and challenge students you have identified as leaders within the group. Help them get ready for the year ahead by identifying areas where they can serve and have an impact.

Invest in your spiritual growth

This is something we should be doing year-round, not just before the school year starts. As leaders we need to have spiritual inflow in order to produce an outflow. But now is a great time to re-focus and make sure you are getting adequate inflow. And to be totally honest, youth group should not count toward your inflow. You are there as a leader, to guide and help students to grow, not to find growth yourself. That is not to say that you won’t grow, or be challenged by the teaching, but your time with students should not be a primary source of your spiritual growth.

Personally, I find growth and inflow in a few key areas: personal devotional and quiet time, and corporate worship and Bible study. In addition to the Sunday morning worship service, I also participate in a women’s Bible study where I experience deep personal relationships and community. I also value quiet time alone when I can study the Word, pray, and listen to the Holy Spirit without distractions. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have steady, healthy spiritual inflow.