8 Tips for Engaging Difficult Conversations

Tension exists throughout our lives and there will always be moments when we have to navigate difficult conversations. But for some reason it seems that it is easier to avoid or dismiss these conversations when it comes to having them with people in our ministries and churches. It seems that avoidance, passivity, or passive-aggressiveness have become the tools that are more often leveraged rather than actually engaging the tension and being willing to walk with people through difficult moments.

Just because a conversation will be difficult does not mean we shouldn’t have it, nor does it mean that it ultimately won’t be beneficial or helpful. Difficult conversations need to be had from time to time, but we must consider how we prepare for them and how we have them. As we live and worship together there will be difficult moments and times that we need to have conversations that are uncomfortable, but that is a staple of engaging in life and there are healthy ways to do this. Today, I want to share some practical tips with you to help you do this well.

1. Pray about it.

Of course we all know that prayer is important, but how often do you pray about conflict or the people you are in conflict with? Also, how do you pray about those moments and those people? Prayer isn’t meant to be a weapon we leverage only when we need it but instead it is a way to communicate and process with God, and a way to care for others. If you know you are about to enter a difficult conversation, you need to be on your knees in prayer. Pray for clarity. Pray for humility and a listening spirit on your part. Pray for the other person and that you can hear and understand them. Pray for a willingness to understand, process, and ultimately glorify Christ. If you’re aware of a difficult conversation or moment, you need pray about and for it.

2. Don’t assume.

This is a big one. I don’t know about you but when I hear that there is someone with whom I need to have a challenging conversation, it is difficult to not allow my mind to wander, to assume things about the person or conversation, or to think about the worst-case scenario. But in doing all of those things we have immediately discounted and discredited that person. We have made them the issue and we have now started to question and doubt them and their character. Instead, I would challenge you to pause, pray, and seek guidance rather than assuming. Realize that the conversation may actually be a good one and not as problematic as we assume, and see the person instead of the conflict or difficulty.

3. Be honest, direct, and clear.

When you engage in a difficult conversation it is easy to allow for emotions and emotionally-fueled responses to rule the day. Instead I would challenge you to look to be honest, direct, and clear. Don’t allow for emotions or feelings to dictate how you engage but instead come with clarity and facts as you seek to find a favorable outcome. Come to talk about what occurred and present facts with clarity. But it isn’t just about presenting facts and being clear, you also need to listen and respond well to what is said. Being clear, honest, and direct allows for you to respond well because you are not focusing on an emotionally-fueled response but instead on the facts at hand. If you allow for emotional responses to rule in how you engage, you will often misrepresent yourself and potentially hurt the other individuals involved. That isn’t to say you remove all emotion from the conversation but that you present truth in a clear and concise fashion.

4. Have a posture of humility.

This is one of the most important things you can do when engaging these types of conversations. We often approach them from a defensive posture because we feel accused, hurt, put into a corner, or even attacked. And when we are defensive we often can approach these moments aggressively, passive aggressively, or even accusatory. If that is our mindset we will not see the good in the other person nor will we see them as someone created in the image of God. Instead we see them as an antagonist or worse an enemy. Approaching these conversations with humility will not only help us to hear and understand, but it will also allow us to honor the other person and Christ.

5. Acknowledge there may not be full resolution.

This is a hard truth to swallow, but we must acknowledge that this may be the case. There will be moments when a full resolution cannot be achieved for any of a litany of reasons. There may not be agreement, there may hurt feelings, or there may be differences of theology or doctrine. This isn’t a reason for us to not engage with the conversations at hand, but instead to help prepare your heart for this potential reality. It is also important to note that simply because there isn’t a full resolution that doesn’t mean the termination of the relationship. Still seek to love, care, and engage with the other person and honor them.

6. See the situation from the other person’s eyes.

Doing this will allow you to have a better understanding of what the other person is experiencing and to better understand where they are coming from. It is an approach that will allow you to have a softer heart and a fuller understanding of all that is going on, and to be a better listener and leader. It will also allow you to shape your response and better engage with the individual because you are seeing what they see and you are more aware of everything that is happening and being received.

7. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong.

Sometimes we need to admit we were wrong. A difficult conversation may be the result of something that we have done or said, and because of that we have to be willing to be humble and acknowledge when we have messed up. This will not only allow for us to demonstrate a biblical posture of humility, but it will also allow for us to grow as a leader and mature as an individual. When a leader is willing to admit that they are wrong or have messed up, it is an opportunity for growth and for them to model servant leadership to their people.

8. Love the other person well.

It can be easy in these moments to presume or assume the worst about people. To see them in a negative light can become the quick and simple response. But we are not in the business of casting blame or assuming the worst in people. We are in the business of loving and leading others as Jesus does. So in the midst of everything that happens in these difficult moments, I want to challenge you to love the other person well. Follow up with them. Pray for and with them. Don’t pause the relationship. Don’t allow for there to be awkwardness in the relationship from your end. Don’t talk about them or the situation. Honor, love, and respect them and you will see these responses actually helping to diffuse the difficult moments and enhance the relationship.

What is one tip you would give to someone about how they should engage with difficult conversations?

Building Sustainable Summer Programming

Summer is quickly approaching and with guidelines being lessened, it seems more ministries are ramping up for programming. This is such an amazing feeling after what can only be described as a very long and difficult season for all of us. We are excited for the opportunity to gather together. We are eager for nice weather and the ability to fellowship outside. We can sense the newness and anticipation to gather sans masks, to be with those we love and disciple.

But in that same vein there is a propensity to scale our ministries upward quickly and build out massive events and outreaches. Or perhaps you have been told by church leadership that you must have an event per week throughout the entire summer that brings in a certain number of students. These aren’t bad ideas or desires but we need to focus on building a purposeful and intentional ministry that is sustainable. To try and build something bigger and better without the ability to continue it will hinder future growth and the ability to continue to minister to our people. In order to think through how we are structuring and building our summer programming, I want to offer you a few things to consider that will help you in creating a meaningful and purpose-driven ministry.

Make it sustainable.

Whatever you decide to do for the summer, it should be something that you can continue in some manner in the fall or in subsequent summers. You want to have programming that not only can exist in the moment but has longevity as well. It should be something you should be able to reproduce and can continue with in months and years to come. Whatever you plan you need to make sure that you also are able to sustain it personally. My fear is that many youth workers are adding more and more events and gatherings onto their already overflowing plates. Continuing in this style of ministry and work ethic will lead to burnout and bitterness. Instead, I would challenge you to think through if what you are planning is sustainable for your ministry and for yourself. Are these gatherings reproduceable and sustainable within my ministry context? Can I continue with these gatherings or have I reached my capacity? Can I continue to give or am I completely spent? Asking these questions will allow for you to assess how and what you are implementing this summer and if they are sustainable for the long term.

Make it purposeful.

Whenever we think through hosting an event or gathering we should think through the vision and purpose of the event. It shouldn’t be something we have just to have, there should be intentionality and focus to it. Understandably you may be in a position where you have been told to just host events throughout the summer, but think through how you are hosting the event, what it’s purpose is, and how you can use it to empower and grow your ministry as you make disciples. Our ministries should not simply be a place to hang out and have fun, they should be a place where students can come, be loved and challenged, and spurred on in the disciple-making process. So as you plan out your summer, think about how your events and gatherings can embrace your ministry’s focus and vision and utilize these events to further that focus.

Know your demographic.

Now you may already know who attends your church and your ministry, but during the summer there will be times of transition. Some towns lose people during the summer because everyone goes out of town for vacation. Other towns gain people because people come there to vacation. And still others will remain steady in their numbers. When you understand how your community shifts during the summer it affords you a greater opportunity to reach your people. If you know you are a town that draws in tourists, you may want to shift your programming during the summer to be more relational and outreach focused. If you find that your ministry largely retains your students, consider taking advantage of the time together and doing a deep dive on issues they are facing. Or if you have a smaller group and they have expressed a desire for more relational opportunities, host events where community is a highlight. Regardless, you should know who you are trying to reach and how many people to expect. When you know your audience and how many are coming you can build outward and scale your program accordingly.

Less can be more.

Summertime is often when many student ministries ramp up in programming. For some reason we believe that the more opportunities we can host and offer our students, the more likely they are to come. I don’t disagree in hosting events and gatherings, but I don’t think we should try to be all things to all people. If we try to host things all summer long, and offer activity after activity, we will end up feeling burnt out, our leaders will be exhausted, and we will come to see we cannot necessarily compete with everything else summer has to offer. Students will not come because they are working, or at the beach, or at an amusement park, or just relaxing at home.

I would suggest that instead of having a programmatically heavy summer, you approach summer from a less-is-more mentality. Host more focused and intentional gatherings. Lean into your small group leaders and encourage them to gather with their students in intentional and relational ways (getting ice cream together, going to the amusement park, having a movie night, etc.). These types of opportunities will allow you to engage at a deeper level and champion disciple-making because these gatherings are intentionally focused on that vison. Hosting a barbeque will allow for more intentional conversations and for there to be lifelong impact, where a large party style gathering may be fun but will not necessarily have the transformational opportunities we desire.

Take advantage of what you have.

It is so easy to look around and see what everyone else has and is doing. We desire a larger facility, a place with a pool, an outdoor space, all the game equipment, an indoor café, or a space to host worship bands. But if we only look to what we don’t have, we will forget what we do have. God has equipped you and given you all you need in this time and place to reach people for Him. So remember and take advantage of what you have been given.

If you have a smaller setting lean into that. Consider hosting small groups throughout the week and creating space for them to grow in their community and relationship with Jesus. If you have a café, consider opening it up periodically during the summer as a venue for people to come and hang out free of charge. If you have a family with a pool, ask them if they would be up for hosting a pool party. If you only have a field at your church, think about hosting a water wars night or an evening of capture the flag followed by smores. And if you are a larger church, consider sharing resources and inviting other churches in. All of our resources are for the kingdom, so let’s model that in how we share them.

What are your plans for the summer? How are you intentionally investing in your groups during this time?

How to Handle Conflict Well

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

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

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

Pray.

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

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

Hear, listen, and respond.

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

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

Process.

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

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

Know your non-negotiables.

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

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

Seek forgiveness when needed.

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

Seek to keep or restore the relationship.

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

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

Acknowledge and validate.

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

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

Follow up.

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

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

Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

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

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

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

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

Pursue Scripture first.

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

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

Seek godly counsel.

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

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

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

Work through it.

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

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

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

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

How to Re-Engage Well

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

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

Re-engage but don’t forget.

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

Establish rhythms.

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

Do a heart check.

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

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

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

Start a faithfulness journal.

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

Be willing to give grace.

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

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

Be in constant prayer.

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

Be willing to serve.

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

7 Ways to Encourage Others

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

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

1. Write an encouraging note.

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

2. Leave them their favorite snack.

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

3. Share an encouraging Scripture.

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

4. Get students involved.

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

5. Give them a gift card.

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

6. Take them out.

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

7. Don’t forget important days.

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

Helping Families Win: Family Devotions

A new series we will be talking about periodically is called Helping Families Win. Part of our role in leading students includes shepherding families and helping them succeed as they seek to follow Jesus. This series will look at proactive ways we can challenge, encourage, and guide families in helpful ways as they pursue godly living. Today we are going to look at helping families engage in devotions together.

Finding time to be in God’s Word can be difficult for anyone. I think if we were honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that there are seasons when it is difficult for us as adults to spend time investing in our relationship with Jesus. Work, family, stuff at home, yard work, play-dates, being a chauffeur, and trying to get adequate rest seem to overwhelm all hours of our days. Even in this new season of life where many of us are at home and being forced to slow down, we may not have been able to engage as much as we would have liked in our spiritual walk.

It is no secret that our growth as a Christ follower is intrinsically dependent upon how much time we spend in community with Jesus. But what we don’t always realize is that our students see how we engage in our relationship with Jesus and it directly effects how they engage in their relationship with Him. Our students should witness us modeling a relationship with Jesus in how we act and speak, how often we read our Bibles, and by how we allow the truth of the Gospel to permeate our lives.

We also need to model studying God’s Word with our students to help them engage in God’s Word and apply it to their lives. But there is a big question surrounding that: How do we do that, and how do we do it well?

One way to do this would be to actively encourage families to engage in regular family devotions together and leverage it as an opportunity to draw closer together with each other and Jesus. Family devotions do not need to be every day, they don’t have to be boring or childish, and they certainly do not need to be hours long. But they should allow for thoughtful conversation, opportunities for everyone to share and lead, and time of just being loved and supported by those closest to you.

What I would like to do today is offer some helpful tools, resources, and methods for doing devotions as a family that you can apply to your own family and share with families within your ministry.

>> An easy way to encourage families to step into doing devotions is to simply text a devotion out to their family each day. For families who haven’t done devotions together before, this is an easy first step for them to try it out. In fact here are two pre-made texting devotional s you can use: Text Through the Bible and Textable Devotions. As you think through how to apply and use these, I want to offer a couple of suggestions:

  • If you are not currently doing family devotions, start small. Text these out each day and then choose one day a week to talk through them as a family. Try to keep it to a half hour to start, and then see if it develops into something bigger.
  • If you are doing family devotions or have done them, try to incorporate more times that you meet as a family. Try for 2-3 times a week but still keep it roughly half an hour to start and build on it from there.

>> Another great resource is this video by Parent Ministry that gives insight into how to help your students engage in God’s Word and develop healthy spiritual rhythms. It is a quick clip but dripping with truth and helpful ideas.

>> David R. Smith wrote an article on enhancing in-home devotions and he offers some very helpful tools and tips, as well as some resources for you and your family.

>> As families begin to pursue more intentional and engaging opportunities together, it is helpful to give them ways and methods for studying the Bible. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how to do this, so giving resources and ideas on how to study the Bible will be helpful. A few Bible study methods that I find helpful are the O.I.A. Method, the Discovery Bible Study Method, and the SOAP Method. These three methods offer helpful ways to engage with Scripture and help families know how to ask questions as well.

>> Other helpful digital resources include biblegateway.com, www.bible.com, www.openbible.info/topics/, net.bible.org, and www.blueletterbible.org. These websites not only host the Bible in digital formats, but they also have additional resources like commentaries, Bible studies, cross references, maps, and much more. These are helpful in giving parents and families a more in-depth look at God’s Word and helpful insight for answering any questions that develop. It is also important to remember while we may think everyone knows about these websites, that isn’t the case. Families don’t always know about resources or which ones to trust, and by simply recommending them, we are helping share beneficial resources for their family.

Being intentional and pouring into the spiritual growth and development of your family is a priority that we must be running after. My prayer for you is that these resources help you and your family deepen your walk with Jesus, and that we develop families of disciplemakers who are radically changing the world for Jesus.

How to Deal with Discouragement

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

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

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

Get a mentor.

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

Evaluate what was said.

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

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

Think about why this discouraged you.

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

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

Ask yourself what your goal is and who you serve.

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

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

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

Release and forgive.

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

Take a break, breathe, and laugh.

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

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

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

5 Ways to Develop Volunteers

Whether we oversee a small youth group or one that attracts hundreds of students, we can all agree that having volunteers is essential. Spiritually mature, veteran youth leaders are appealing, and I think at times we wish all of our leaders were like that. But rarely will that be the case. We will always have young or new youth leaders step in to serve, which is a good thing. What we need to think through is how to help develop our young leaders into mature, veteran leaders. Some may get there of their own accord, but it is our responsibility as ministry leaders and shepherds to help them grow and develop. So what are some ways we can do this?

1. Meet with your volunteers.

Regardless of the size of your program, I would encourage you to know your leaders personally by meeting with them. Part of helping leaders develop and grow means establishing a relationship that will allow them to know you and your heart for the ministry. These don’t have to be super formal or exceptionally long meetings, but they do need to be personal, intentional, and formational. I love meeting with leaders for coffee or lunch, or having them over for dinner and games at my home. During these times we build our relationship, talk about how they are doing, share prayer requests, ask about their experience with the student ministry, and share life together. Sometimes these meetings involve talking about difficult topics or challenging leaders to grow, but often those conversations are easier than most because we have already built relational equity and established trust. Meeting with your leaders will help them grow, know they are loved, and refresh them as they guide students under your leadership.

2. Cast vision well.

Vision-casting is a big part of developing leaders. There are some volunteers who can come, have fun with the students, and lead small groups amazingly well. But if we are not sharing the “why” and the purpose of what we are doing, it’s easy to lose focus. Volunteers will lead differently, the focus of small groups may not be consistent, and messages and guidance will vary. As the shepherd of your leaders, it is imperative to talk about the purpose and vision for what you are doing, which gives everyone the same perspective and target to pursue. Doing this will bring unity and passion to your leaders who will then impart that to the students they are interacting with, and it will provide consistency on all fronts.

3. Give volunteers responsibility and ownership.

Leaders volunteer because they love what they are doing, and have something they can bring to the table. It’s important to identify where they are gifted and allow them to have more responsibility. If you have a leader who loves to sing and lead worship, consider asking them to form a youth worship team. If you have a leader who is passionate about speaking on a certain topic, build that into your teaching calendar and allow them to speak. Should a leader have an idea for how to improve the ministry, ask them to share their heart and consider implementing it with them. When you release ownership and empower your leaders with responsibility, you will see the ministry grow and flourish, and you will experience exponential buy-in from them. They will know you trust them with ownership and it releases you from having to do everything or be the only face of the ministry.

4. Recognize and challenge them.

This is something that I think we can always work toward doing better. All of us know that without our volunteers we wouldn’t have an effective ministry, but how often do we tell them that? Do you thank them for coming each week? Do you recognize and affirm them when you see them shepherd students well? Are you sending them a note to thank them for loving students even when it’s hard? We must be leaders who value and love our volunteers, and a tangible way of doing that is by recognizing them for both things we may consider great and small. It shows our leaders that they matter and that we see them and what they are doing.

We need to challenge our leaders as well. There will be times we need to gently remind or encourage our volunteers to lead. There are going to be moments when we need to speak direct truth and challenge them to grow. And we may need to speak with them about mistakes they made and help them right what went wrong.

Both encouraging and challenging your volunteers should be born out of love and a desire for them to succeed and grow as they lead in the ministry. That means these conversations are built upon a loving relationship and they know you truly care about and want the best for them. I would also encourage you to follow up on these conversations as well. Don’t simply look for a one-off chat, instead look to use these moments for ongoing leadership development.

5. Listen to your volunteers.

This is one of the biggest things you can do as the leader of your ministry. The reality is everyone has an opinion and not all of them are helpful. I think if we are honest with ourselves, hearing new ideas or critiques can be hard in the context of ministry. We have poured our hearts, souls, lives, and much more into not just a career but a calling. And because of that we take it personally when someone speaks about doing things differently. But if you have been faithfully seeking to meet with and empower your leaders, they will believe in what you are doing and will offer helpful suggestions and ideas.

A good leader listens to their people because they bring ideas and changes with the same passions and desires they see in you. They aren’t coming to cast your ideas to the side but offering new and creative ways to do things. That means they believe in what you are doing, and they are also doing what you brought them in to do: lead. They see ways to not dismantle the program but help it grow and develop. Listen to their insight, challenge them to think about implementation, give affirmation, look to apply what they said, and allow them to be the ones who lead out with their ideas.

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

This past week we saw something unprecedented in modern times: the US Capital was marched upon and breached. It was a moment that as I watched it unfold brought me back to the moment I saw the Twin Towers struck in New York and then collapse on September 11. The pain, hurt, grief, frustration, and brokenness I felt made my soul weary and longing for the return of our true Savior.

But as I sat and pondered the events of this past week and scrolled through social media, I saw how my students were reacting. Their reactions varied and ranged across the political landscape, but what struck me so deeply was the level of engagement and reaction they displayed. The last year has been nothing short of difficult for our students. They have faced a global pandemic, figured out how to engage with online education, struggled with loss of income, wrestled with racial equality, and still attempted to navigate the normal difficulties of teenage life.

Students are struggling right now, and we as their pastors and leaders must give them the space and place to process, engage, and respond. They are asking deep and meaningful questions, they are searching for answers, they want to understand, and are seeking clarity, wisdom, and knowledge. The reality is we are all processing and hurting, but as leaders we have an obligation to lead out and shepherd our people well. We must be a voice for truth, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a reflection of Jesus to our students. Today, I want to offer some steps you can take to engage well with your students as they are working through the realities and difficulties of our world.

Be approachable.

In order for us to have these conversations, students most know that they can approach us about these issues. Students will wrestle with various topics and issues, but they won’t always be willing to share them with you if they do not think you can be trusted. It’s imperative to be someone who shows they can be trusted and someone who will listen and be available.

Create the space for conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with being approachable, but it takes it a step further. Be someone who not only allows conversations to happen, but also engages in them. Don’t shy away from talking about heavy, difficult, or deep topics. Embrace the conversation and engage with your students. In doing so, you are creating a place for students to be real and honest about what they are thinking and processing. Students need to understand that you are willing to talk about things and when they bring their thoughts to you, that you are going to listen and walk through it with them.

Listen well.

Speaking of listening, we need to be leaders who listen well. Often as leaders we tend to want to fix problems as they are presented to us. This means that while students are sharing their problems with us, we are not listening to them fully because we are already figuring out how to fix their problem. This type of listening is often called “Passive Listening” and honestly isn’t really listening. It actually devalues the speaker because you aren’t giving them the forum to truly share and be heard. What I would suggest is something called “Attentive Listening” which you can read about further in this book by Charles Allen Kollar. Kollar’s suggestion of “Attentive Listening” means that you are listening in a careful and alert way and bringing in the beneficial aspects of passive and active listening. You speak back words, phrases, or paraphrases to the speaker and you help them think through solutions after they have finished speaking.

Listening well means you don’t just look at the problem and the solution, but you value the person and you show them they have been fully heard. Students want to be listened to and valued, and allowing them to share and be heard will build mutual trust and respect.

Do not be dismissive.

There are times in many of our lives where we may be dismissive of someone and their ideas, beliefs, or ideologies, whether we meant to or not. It could be because we scoff at the idea that is presented. We respond sarcastically. We try to flaunt our own knowledge. We could say it is a non-issue. We tell people that this is just how it is. When we do this to anyone or when it is done to us, we feel dismissed and diminished. We feel dumb, ignored, and cast to the side.

Students are so aware of when this happens, and when it does they shut down, refuse to engage, and frankly they stop trusting you as a safe person. I am not saying that we need to have an open theology or hedge on our doctrinal convictions. But I do believe we need to allow students to present what they are thinking and why, and then walk through a thoughtful and biblical response with them. Bring them into the process, value their time, hear their heart and thoughts, and challenge them to grow.

I would also encourage you to not allow for lack of time to keep you from engaging with students. Sometimes we can be dismissive because when students ask a question or challenge what is being said, it isn’t an opportune time to respond (i.e. while you are teaching). So instead of just telling them to be quiet, ask them if you could take them out for coffee later and discuss further. And then make sure you follow through.

Be willing to hear both sides.

Throughout 2020, politics and the surrounding topics littered our conversations, and an observation I saw was how divided the lines were. It wasn’t just generational either, although that was a big piece, it was more partisan in its divide. And people on either side were unwilling to hear the other side or even consider what they were saying.

Often this happens within ministries as well. We simply stick to our views and theologies rather than give other views a honest consideration. Let me explain it this way: you may hold to a literal seven day view of creation, but a student holds to an old earth view that includes a non-literal view of the creation account. How do you respond? Do you make a firm stance on your theological hill? Do you tell the student they are wrong? Do you allow them to share their thoughts and ask to grab coffee and study the topic together?

We can tend to hold onto our theologies, dogmas, and personal beliefs so closely that we close off any other views or insight. It is so important to not live in a one-sided bubble but to be listening to other thoughts and viewpoints even if we don’t believe or agree with them. Doing so will not only allow us to grow and have a deeper foundation of our own beliefs, but value students and their insights as well. It will also open doors to build bridges between differing view points or “sides.”

Admit when you are wrong, don’t know, or need to search for info.

I am not the brightest bulb in the socket and I know it. In fact, at our church there are many staff members who are much smarter than I am. And working in student ministry has shown me how important it is to have a grasp on wide variety of topics and what the Bible says about them. But there are a great many topics I don’t know about and questions I don’t have an answer for.

In light of that, it is so important to admit when you don’t know and let students know that. But don’t simply say you don’t know, let them know you will look for answers and get back to them. My line has always been, “I don’t know, but I am going to ask George” (our senior pastor). And I do, and will typically get 3-5 books to read through. But then I bring the student into the study and we look at it together. I also would encourage you that if you are wrong in something you said, admit it. It is incredibly humbling, but man is it a great way to lead from a place of humble servant leadership. Students will see that you aren’t perfect, but in seeing that they will respect you all the more for leading outward and upward.

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

Sometimes students just like to be contrarian and other times they are asking questions or disagreeing because of something that happened in their lives or because of what they have been told. Don’t assume you know why a student disagrees or that you know why they are challenging you. Be willing to dig deeper and find out why a student believes what they do. I asked a student one time why they didn’t believe in hell thinking it was because they thought since God was love everyone would go to heaven. But I found out it was because a grandparent had passed away who wasn’t a believer and they didn’t want to think they would lose them forever.

That understanding changed my whole approach to how I engaged with them and my responses to their questions and thoughts. When we pause and truly listen, when we ask questions, and when we dig deeper, it will allow us to better understand our students and better serve them.

Be willing to change your views.

This is a tough one, and to be honest, I hesitated even putting this in because I know it will ruffle feathers. We tend to have our views and theologies and we hold to them firmly. But if I can take a moment and ask a question: what if our theologies were perhaps incorrect or not fully informed? Should we not think about a new approach? And even if they are correct, shouldn’t we be willing to hear arguments against them and think critically about what we believe and why we believe it?

I share this because I often see students having differing views than their leaders, parents, and older generations and that is a good thing! They should be exploring and asking questions. They should be pushing on the status quo. And they should be asking “why” questions. This allows them to think critically and formulate a deeply personal relationship with Jesus. But if we only respond out of fear or frustration or from a viewpoint of “this is how it always has been,” students will stop engaging with us because they do not see you as a safe person and thereby will not trust you.

So should you hear a viewpoint different from yours, be willing to hear what is said and truly consider it. Be willing to consider you may not have it all figured out and that perhaps. just perhaps, the idea a student shares is accurate and correct. I am not saying capitulate on doctrine, but be willing to think critically about personal convictions, political beliefs, and denominational viewpoints.