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.

Practical Tips for Counseling Students

Students today are dealing with a variety of issues. There is stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, disordered eating, eating disorders, body image, bullying, crises of faith, peer pressures, identity, gender and sexuality, and much, much more. Whether you have had a student approach you with one of these issues (or something else entirely) or not, we as ministers and leaders must be prepared for handling the conversations that come our way.

I felt so ill-equipped the first time I counseled someone. I felt like the rudimentary training I had received did not prepare me for what I was experiencing. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, or how to help. But somehow the Spirit of God worked through me to help that person, and they began to move toward healing. However, that cannot be our M.O. for each session. We must be prepared and equipped to enter into these very important conversations. Today, I want to offer some practical tips on how to prepare for counseling students and families, and to offer guidance in how to move through some of these conversations. At the end of this post I will also share some extremely helpful resources I think everyone in student ministry should have.

One should note that these tips and resources are not all-inclusive. Nor are they the only qualities that make for an effective counselor. These are simply tips to help prepare you as you step into these counseling scenarios and to prayerfully resource you as you lead and guide the students God has placed under your care.

Before entering into any type of counseling relationship, here are a few tips on how to be better prepared for them:

Resource yourself.

This is something we should all be doing. Get to know counselors who can provide you with insight and understanding. Talk to your local health professionals about trends they are seeing in students and what they are dealing with. Purchase books on counseling, listen to podcasts, and talk to other youth workers. Gaining this wisdom and utilizing these resources will help prepare you to step into counseling situations.

Know your referral network.

There will be many times where a student or parent comes to you with an issue you cannot help with because it is outside the scope of your skill set. Never try to help someone in an area for which you are not equipped because you could actually cause more issues or offer flawed advice. This tends to go against what we feel within our hearts because we are shepherds and want to care for our people well. But the reality is that even well-intended and well-meaning people could offer advice that is good in intention but flawed in practice.

This is why knowing your referral network is huge. Become acquainted with the counselors in your community and build a relationship where you can refer students to them when necessary. Know your first responders and how to get in touch with them when needed. Meet with mental health professionals and find out how you can work together. Connect with schools and the counselors there so you can both be resources for one another. Having this type of network and community allows you to know who you can refer to and allows for there to be trust and rapport that will help when transitioning a student to a new contact.

Be a trustworthy person.

In order for students to come to us as a counselor, we must be someone they trust. This is showcased by our actions, reactions, speech, and care that we provide on a daily basis to students. Who we are must be the same both inside and outside of church. When students see our hearts on display and our authenticity it helps them to know that we are people they can trust with the issues and hurt they carry.

Be in prayer and grow your spiritual health.

To be effective counselors (and ministers) we must be in constant prayer and growing in our relationship with God. Our tank needs to be filled so we can pour into others. If our tank is running dry or isn’t filled appropriately we will not be able to care effectively for those under our guidance. So make sure to spend regular and consistent time on your own spiritual growth and make sure you are spiritually prepared to step into the role of counselor.

Here are some tips on what to say or do doing a counseling session:

Listen well.

This is huge! Students are coming to you because they see you as someone who can be trusted and someone who loves them. Nothing can fracture that relationship more than for a student to have an experience with a youth worker who doesn’t listen or doesn’t listen well. Sometimes we need to be silent and just give students space to share. It may not always be pretty. They may swear, they might cry, there may be intimate details shared, and there may be some moments you need to involve the authorities. But in listening well you are validating the student and what they are going through. You are hearing them fully and continuing to create a space and trustworthy place for them to be. A simple rule of thumb is if you find yourself doing most of the talking, stop and listen more.

Take notes.

This can be both during and after a meeting. Sometimes taking notes during a meeting may feel very clinical and disconnected, so if it suits the scenario better make your notes immediately after the session is over. Much of this can depend on how you process and hear information. If you do need to take notes during the session, make sure the student knows what you are doing and why. A simple explanation can be, “I want to make sure I hear everything you say, and this will help me to also follow up with you because I care about you.”

These notes will not only allow for you to better recall what was said, but they will help you in moving forward with the student. Take notes about their body language, how they answer, the emotions they are presenting, the language they use to describe things. All of these notes will help you better understand how to love and care for them.

Be empathetic.

Empathy is the ability to “feel with” the counseled individual and understand what they are seeing and feeling. This is something that connects you with the student and helps you to relate and interact with them. This is not you taking on what the student is experiencing or forcing tears to relate, but is a heart reaction to the pain and reality facing you. Show this through your response. Even if you do not emphasize well, your physical response will help to show this. Make sure your facial expressions show engagement and understanding. Allow for your tone to indicate how your heart is responding. Let your body language show understanding and engagement. These reactions help the student to see that you feel with them and are engaged with their world.

Follow up.

Follow-up is hugely important and necessary regardless of what was shared. Even if it was a single counseling session and all that was needed was for the student to be able to share what was on their heart. The follow-up of “I love you and I am praying for you” or “how are you doing and how is your heart” will go a long way because it shows the student they matter to you and have value. If the session warrants more in-depth follow-up, be willing to do that as well. Ask about the circumstances, ask how they are doing, if they have dealt with those thoughts or desires anymore, and how you can continue to pray for them.

Follow-up may also include continued meeting or referring them to a trained counselor. Part of counseling students means there may be more sessions to continue to process and work through what was talked about. But in some cases this may not be something you can do because of limited training in this field. If that is the case, be willing to refer out to a trusted counselor. If the situation allows for it, I would personally recommend walking physically with the student in this transition. Meaning, introduce them to the counselor in person. Vouch for the counselor and do all you can to help with a good transition to the new counselor. This will allow the student to see that you trust the counselor and will open them up to sharing more with the counselor.

Recommended resources:

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers

Helping the Struggling Adolescent: A Guide to Thirty-Six Common Problems for Counselors, Pastors, and Youth Workers

Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Youth

Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide

The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling

How to Connect with Difficult Students

The truth is we have all had a student, or students, that have been difficult in our ministry. There have been students who have tried our patience, they have disrupted teaching time and small groups, they may have broken things, or they never follow the rules.

Sometimes our propensity can be to get upset with or about them. We start to think they don’t care about others or maybe their home lives are bad and that’s why they lash out. Or perhaps we may try to connect but we have gotten tired when there is no response… or at least the response we want.

Students who get classified as difficult or disruptive are often the students who desperately need to be cared for. There are times we may feel like we are not getting through to them, but we must continue to pursue them and love them. Ministry was never meant to be easy, and Jesus came for all people especially those society would rather have forgotten. So let us be people, ministers, who seek to reflect Jesus as we care well for those that others would dismiss.

Build relationships.

In all circumstances, relationships are key. When working with people, we shouldn’t just assume that we can jump into any moment and give profound advice that will be heeded and life changing. We wouldn’t want people doing that to us, so why should we do that with students?

My point is this: you can only speak into someone’s life when you understand what is happening in their life. Meaning, in order to speak truth to someone, you need to know them. And you get to know someone by building relationships with them.

Now, I get it, you may be reading this and saying, “But I have tried… for a long time! I have tried, and it isn’t working.” Well, how do you know it isn’t? How do you know that the moments you showed care and love toward a student it wasn’t received or just outright dismissed? It may have felt and seemed that way in the moment, but you do not know the impact it may have had on their heart.

Continue to pour into your students, seek them out, love on them, take them out for coffee, show up at their games and activities. As you invest in their lives, they will begin to let you in.

Get to know the family.

Family history and knowledge of present family relationships is huge in helping you to know and understand your students. It can be easy to assume that there are issues at home because a student acts out, but that isn’t always the case. It could be home life, or it could be issues stemming from other aspects of the student’s life that the parents were not aware of (i.e. bullying, difficulty in school, failed relationships, etc.).

As you get to know the family, it will allow for you to build connections and relationships that will help you better care for the student. This may not always be the case as there may be problems within the family or they may not be involved in the church and therefore do not want your help. But being able to ascertain and see what is happening will give you greater insight into how to love and care for your students.

Be willing to listen.

This is huge for anyone, but especially for students. Students who often times are classified as difficult really feel they have not been heard. They believe they have been judged, marginalized, and profiled, and in many cases they have been. Let me encourage you to simply stop and listen to their stories. Hear their hearts. Acknowledge their hurt. In doing this you not only validate them, but you can help them to know they belong. As a student begins to know they have a place they begin to trust more and you will see headway happen.

Go to where they are.

We can easily do this for the students who we enjoy being around but when it comes to difficult students we don’t always make the extra effort. But let me encourage you to really lean into this. Go to their jobs, their games, the activities they are involved in. I love showing up at a restaurant or ice cream place where a student works. I get to see them, talk with them, and value them. Students who are struggling will see you making an effort, and though they may not say it or show it, they are glad you are there. These moments are huge in connecting with difficult students.

Meet them where they are at.

Here’s the thing with students who are struggling: they aren’t like everyone else. They may be angry or withdrawn. They will try to push you away. They won’t want to engage. But put yourself in their shoes: how would you want people to respond to you when you are at a low point? Do you want them to meet you there or walk away? Be willing to have hard conversations, be willing to listen, and be willing to love students even when they aren’t the clean cut Christians.

Know their history.

As you get to know your students, you will begin to know their history. They may not offer it up in one fell swoop, but they may drop hints along the way. Be listening for them, and be willing to connect the dots in later conversations. If they keep bringing up a certain event or person, pry into that by acknowledging they have talked about it. By actively listening and engaging with them, you will begin to know more about them. This will then help you in thinking through how to best minister to and care for them.

Stand up for them.

I am not saying to justify their attitudes, disruptions, or flat out misbehavior. But often times these students will be mocked, laughed at, and talked about by others. Shut that stuff down. Don’t allow for that to go on because it tells the one student that they don’t matter and that you don’t care, and it allows for the other students to engage in sinful behavior like gossip and slander.

By advocating for them, you are showing the student that your actions and words match: you truly care about and love them. Be for all students and look to help them grow as you minister to them.

I know in reading this you may still be thinking “this won’t work.” I get that and I hear you. But as someone who was one of those students, let me say this: it does work. It took my youth leaders over four years to break through my hard shell. But when they finally did, they were the people I trusted because I knew they loved and cared for me in ways no one else did. They didn’t give up, they didn’t dismiss me. They loved me and pursued me and are a huge part to why I am in ministry today. So continue to pursue your difficult students. Love them well and point them to Jesus. You never know how God will use you in their lives.

How have you reached difficult students in your ministry?

Ministering to Students Experiencing Depression

Depression can be defined as feelings of dejection and hopelessness that typically last for more than two weeks. A study released in 2019 showed that the rates of teen suicide and depression drastically increased from 2007 to 2017. According to a nationwide poll by the University of Michigan, one third of parents believe that they have at least one child who suffers from depression.

When we think about the implications that this has on our students and families, it should give us pause to step back and assess how our students are doing.

It is clear that depression is a major issue in our communities as doctors are seeing a rise in cases of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts that are at epidemic proportions. Our students are hurting, and we need to know how to love and care for them during this volatile time. So how do we do this well?

Be a safe person.

Students want to have people in their lives they can trust and go to in difficult times. It is helpful to think about how we reflect this value to our students and show them that they can come to us without judgement or criticism.

When we love our students well and show them that we are there for them, they will be more prone to share what is truly going on. This will then allow for us to administer direct and appropriate care quicker because we know the true issue. Create intentional conversations during everyday activities, and take an interest in your students’ lives as you engage with them. This will show them that you are on their side and truly care about them and what they are dealing with.

Be real.

Students want people in their lives who are authentic and transparent with them. When it comes to shepherding our students, we need to empathize and sympathize with them and let them know it is okay to not be okay. It is okay if they feel hurt or are depressed, but it isn’t okay to stay there and let it grow and fester.

Be honest with your students and let them know that you understand. Don’t look to judge or criticize, but listen and seek to understand. Tell them that they are loved and valued, and that you will walk with them through this. Make sure that your actions mirror your words because students are looking for authenticity and relationships.

Know the signs.

It is important to know what we are dealing with, but how do we identify depression? There are numerous resources online about the symptoms of depression but some key identifiers include the following:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Withdrawing from friendships
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of energy or drive
  • Poor performance in school
  • No longer finding pleasure in things they once enjoyed

No one symptom immediately denotes depression, but if the symptoms are prolonged (present for more than two weeks) and noticeable, it may be time to dig in and ask your student how they are really doing.

Seek to understand.

As you talk to your students, listen for key phrases and watch for reactions and emotional responses. A great way to understand your students would be to think through asking questions like these:

  • What feelings are you experiencing?
  • When do find yourself feeling that way?
  • When did you first start feeling this way?
  • When do these feelings seem strongest?
  • How are your friendships going?
  • Has there been a big change in your life recently?
  • Have you lost anything (i.e. friendships, a family death, a pet, grades, etc.)?
  • How often are you on social media?
  • Are you being bullied or picked on? When does this tend to happen?

These questions will allow you to better understand what is happening. They are not the culminating factor to your conversation, but instead allow you to invest, assess, and better respond to your students and their struggles.

Utilize Scripture.

We cannot minimize the power of Scripture when it comes to our daily lives. I am not advocating that we simply tell our struggling students to read their Bible and pray more, but I would always encourage that we use Scripture as our basis for truth and growth. Some great Bible passages about depression and working through it include: Isaiah 41:10, Psalm 30:5, 11-12, Psalm 46:1, Hebrews 4:15-16, 1 Kings 19:4-6, and Psalm 42:5.

Take advantage of resources.

There are resources at your disposal to help in cases of depression or in trying to identify if depression truly is affecting your students. The first is talk to people in their lives like teachers, small group leaders, and parents. They may be able to provide additional information or resources to you.

You should also know trusted counselors in your community. Begin reaching out to various counselors and counseling offices before the need exists, which will allow you to be better prepared and equipped when needed. In building these relationships, you will find others who share your values and/or beliefs and can be sources of professional help for your students.

Make sure to build your own resources and knowledge as well. Utilize online resources, books, medical journals, and ministry tools to help you have a more comprehensive understanding of depression. In doing this you are not only increasing your knowledge but also equipping yourself to be a better care giver for you students.

It is also important to encourage utilizing modern medicine. It is never a bad thing to seek out help and treatment, and for some cases, this is highly encouraged. They are able to diagnose different causes and symptoms we may not see or know about, and can therefore better treat them and help our students live better.

Depression is hard. It is a difficult road for anyone struggling with it, but we have the privilege of standing in the gap for our students. We get to love them, care for them, and point them to Jesus in all things. My prayer is that these thoughts help you to better step into your student’s life and walk with them through the difficult moments.

What resources have you used to help your students who are battling depression?

Students and Identity: Helpful Tips to Begin the Conversation

I am an athlete. I’m in orchestra. I am a straight-A student. I am the middle child. I’m gay. I am a hard worker. I am kind. I’m straight. I live in the nice part of town. I have 1,598 Instagram followers.

These are just a few of the phrases that students use to identify who they are. They can range from physical characteristics, to gender and sexuality, to academic performance, to social media influence, and beyond. Students–and arguably our entire society–are basing their identity in things, characteristics, and formulas that are ever changing and do not actually define who they are.

As ministry leaders we have an obligation to help shape, prepare, and guide our students in a biblical worldview and understanding of identity. If you find yourself asking when should we start, or is this child old enough, the answers are “now” and “yes.” Our students are being presented with radical identity issues even before kindergarten and we must train them from the youngest of ages on who they are in Christ so it can shape their worldview and allow for them to reach an ever changing culture for Jesus.

But the questions are what do we do and how do we do it? I want to provide a few quick notes, and then address these questions below. These notes and points can easily be reproduced to send to parents to help them have these conversations with their students. With families being at home more now then ever before, the opportunity is perfect for families to have these transformative conversations.

A few of quick notes:

  1. Know this isn’t a one-off conversation. Don’t think this can be relegated to a single talk with students at youth group or over text. This is an ongoing conversation.
  2. Understand that older students can still have these conversations. It is better to start late than not at all.
  3. Be authentic and honest with your students, and be willing to listen. We must understand that we are to be the voice of truth, peace, and calm in their lives as we represent Jesus. Listen to their push-back and questions, don’t respond with “Because I said so,” point them to the truth, and affirm them for wanting to make their faith their own.

So what do we do? How do we actually engage with this conversation?

Present and represent the biblical model of identity to our families.

We must start by understanding that we are broken and sinful people. Look back at the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, and look at how humankind messed up, lied to God, tried to get out of the situation, and God offered forgiveness. In doing this, it sets the tone for our foundational relationship with Jesus. In Genesis 3, God set forgiveness, grace, and redemption in motion to help us better understand the need for a Savior and a relationship with Him. This is a great starting point to highlight where our identity lies.

Show students that their identity is rooted in Christ and not in any other identifying characteristic or trait the world gives to us.

This is not an attempt to alienate ourselves from the world, rather it allows for there to be freedom for us to live as new creations identified by Christ and Christ alone. 1 Peter 2:9 describes who we are in Christ and it has nothing to do with academic performance, athletic prowess, social status, the amount of social media followers we have, or the beauty standards of society. Instead, it radically alters how we view ourselves.

This passage, and many others, allow for you to speak truth into your students and point them toward the understanding that all the burdens society places on them are not their’s to carry. Instead, when they find their identity in Christ it brings wholeness, freedom, and peace.  

We do this by engaging in loving and grace-filled conversations, by pointing our students to truth, by continuing to invest in their lives, and by modeling Jesus to them.

This isn’t a foolproof model. There isn’t one. There will be hard conversations, tears shed, and hurt feelings. But in all things we model Christ, and just as God asked hard questions, pointed out truth, forgave and restored in Genesis 3, that is our model.              

Below are some helpful resources for you to utilize in your ministry. You could share these with your leaders, email them to families, use them to host a Zoom conversation with parents, or simply have them as resource to call on when needed.

How have you talked about identity with your students? What has worked for you?