6 Tips for Handling Suggestions

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

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

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

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

1. Listen well.

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

2. Think and pray before responding.

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

3. Ask clarifying questions.

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

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

4. Respond with grace and humility.

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

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

5. Clearly explain your reasoning.

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

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

6. Be willing to take guidance and make changes.

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

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

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

7 Ways to Prepare Leaders for Trips

Whenever you go on student ministry trips, you are probably taking leaders with you. Whether it’s one or two or maybe thirty, having leaders on a trip is essential. They help make sure everything goes as it should, they invest in your students, and they are the people who allow the trip to actually happen.

But if we don’t prepare them well for the trip, we will actually be hindering them and ourselves. We are the ones with all the details and knowledge of where we are going because we have been in contact with the host location. What we need to be doing as ministry leaders is preparing our leaders well so they can truly succeed and have the greatest impact in the lives of our students.

Today I want to share with you some ideas and tips on how to best prepare your leaders for upcoming trips.

1. Prepare and communicate in advance.

One of the best things you can do for your leaders is be prepared and communicate to them well in advance. The more they know ahead of time the better suited they will be to fully contribute and care for students. Make sure to communicate dates and times, location of the trips, what they should bring, and what you’re bringing like supplies, games, snacks, Bibles and pens, fidgets, devotionals for students who follow Jesus, and even things like power strips.

2. Have a leader meeting before you go.

One of the best things you can do for your leaders to help prepare them is to have a meeting before the trip. Being able to walk through who is going, room assignments, the schedule, expectations, and allow time for questions will help your leaders feel more at ease about the trip and will give them confidence as they go.

3. Prepare a leader packet.

Preparing a packet for your leaders gives them not just information but helps them to know what is happening and what is expected of them. When you put together a packet, include things like a site map, packing list, sleeping arrangements, small group assignments, schedule, questions for small group time, contact info for the camp, and all the leaders’ contact info so everyone has it.

4. Set up a group text for your leaders.

This is one of my favorite things about going on trips. We always set up a group chat to share information and pictures throughout the trip. There are lots of gifs and jokes between leaders, but also moments where we share prayer requests and praises. It also allows for information to get out quickly and everyone to see what is happening throughout the time at camp.

5. Go over expectations.

Sometimes on trips we just need leaders to hang with their students because the location handles everything else. Other times leaders need to be more hands-on and have various roles. The clearer you can outline those expectations and share them with your team, the better prepared they will be to lead and shepherd your students.

6. Find ways to bless them.

Whether it’s a personalized card, a leader gift bag, or a Starbucks gift card, something to encourage them and let them know they are loved and valued is wonderful thing to do for your leaders. By blessing your leaders you are showing them how much they mean to you, the ministry, and your students. This is a tangible and intentional opportunity for your leaders to know they are seen and valued.

7. Spend time praying together.

When you prepare your leaders ahead of time, spend some time praying for them, your students and families, and the trip. These moments allow you and your team to intentionally pray for all aspects of the trip and to pray specifically for the students who are going. God moves powerfully through prayer and by praying before the trip we are intentionally asking God to do big things in the lives of our students. By praying for God to work in the lives of students, it allows us to see how He intentionally and divinely moves in the lives of our people and the change that comes about.

How do you best prepare your team for trips? What are your best practices for doing this?

The Week Before a Trip

When this post goes live we are t-minus five days until we depart for our winter retreat. Every year we take our students to a camp in our area for a winter weekend filled with solid teaching, worship, small groups and discipleship, lots of fun, community, and hopefully a little bit of snow.

But let’s be honest: the week or two before a trip can usually be pretty stressful and busy. There’s all the trip details, making sure everyone is paid up, communication, packing for yourself, making sure your students bring what they need, regular work commitments, and all the other pieces that we know will pop up at the least opportune time. So the question is, “How do we manage and prepare well during those weeks?”

On today’s post I want to share a few tips for how to not only prepare well but manage your time and details to succeed during the prep week and your time leading up to camp.

Have someone else handle speaking.

The week of and perhaps the week before a trip, I would highly recommend having someone else speak at your gatherings. For most of us, the primary amount of our hours are focused on preparing messages for our students, and by recruiting someone else to speak you are giving yourself flexibility and opportunity to focus your time in other places. Whether it’s a youth leader, another staff member, a student, or a guest speaker, having someone else speak frees you up to focus on the trip. It gives you all the time you’d focus on study, prep, and speaking to now focus on making sure everything is handled before you depart for your trip.

Try to keep your schedule as open as possible.

The week before I go on a trip I try to not schedule any meetings or additional work items if at all possible. I will always have various meetings I have to attend, but I try to not add more to my plate. The more we add to our schedules, the more we will feel overwhelmed and behind. So try to keep your schedule open and make the most of the time you have to prepare for the trip and handle what needs to be done.

Over-communicate to families.

No matter what, you will always have people who miss or don’t pay attention to communications you send out. But trying to get ahead of those moments and doing all you can to clearly and concisely communicate will help immensely. I try to schedule and send all of my communications at least a week before parents would ask for them. For example, if I know parents will want a packing list two weeks before we leave, I try to send it three weeks and again two weeks before we go. That way there is a greater chance for them to not only see it but also to have a reminder sent in case they forget.

Have a planning meeting with leaders.

If you have ever served as a volunteer in student ministries, you probably know what it feels like to not have all your questions answered or what it feels like to be unsure about what to expect. The more we can help to prepare our leaders and give them the information they need, the better prepared they will be to lead and disciple your students. So find time before you go to help prepare your leaders mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Remember that these meetings don’t need to be very long and should also be about spiritually preparing and not just information dissemination. So spend time praying together for one another, the trip, and your students.

Create a personal packing list and a ministry packing list.

We have recently written about what to pack for trips as a leader. This is a really helpful resource for both ministry leaders and their team of volunteers. It may be helpful to have a concisely written packing list for your leaders at your planning meeting. On top of your ministry packing list, also think through what you will need personally. For me I always make sure to have different types of cold medicines and throat drops, braces for my ankles that tend to roll, spare clothes, some protein bars, and some extra games and snacks for my cabin. Think through what you’d like to bring and make sure you have your list ready for when you need to pack.

Schedule time off before and after the trip.

This is something I have been making sure that I do more often. Depending on what needs to be done, I try to take an extra day off the week before a trip to spend with Elise and mentally and spiritually prepare myself for the trip. After I get back I try to take a day off to catch my breath, decompress, and heal (for me that means going to the chiropractor and getting extra rest). These aren’t just meant to be comp days but days to decompress and refresh so I am able to minister and care for my people without leading out of emptiness or depletion.

Make a list of what needs to be done and when.

I love making lists and crossing things off as I complete them. And when it comes to trips, I make lists of what needs to be done leading up to our departure. Typically I make two lists for trips. The first one is focused on the big things that need to be done from the very beginning of scheduling the trip. This includes announcing the trip, payment deadlines and reminders, parent and family communications, departure information, and packing lists. The second list is one that is focused on the week or two before the trip. This has to do with leader meetings, social media reminders, final communications to families, texting groups for leaders, sign in procedures, packing for myself and the ministry, and anything else that needs to be accomplished.

What does the week before a trip look like for you? How do you prepare for your trips?

Tips for Hosting a Scavenger Hunt

We start off each semester at our ministry with a kickoff. Our fall kickoff is usually some type of outdoor event but when we kick off our spring semester in January we are typically indoors. The past couple of years we have started doing scavenger hunts for our students and each year we have seen them grow and evolve. Our students have a ton of fun with these scavenger hunts and whenever we advertise them students come out in droves.

Today I want to share some ideas and tips for how to run a successful scavenger hunt that your students will love to attend and participate in.

Go digital if possible.

If you have been involved in student ministry for a little while you have probably participated in a scavenger hunt, and maybe even had the unlucky job of keeping score with paper and pencils. For many of us who have kept score the old fashioned way, we know the frustration and stress that comes with cataloging scores, keeping track of challenges, and trying to keep everything above board.

A few years back I began searching for a digital resource to help with scavenger hunts. Many ministries utilize social media to track submissions from students but if things aren’t tagged correctly or if internet can’t be accessed then this presents its own problems. In my digging online I found a platform for running a scavenger hunt called Scavr. Scavr is a digital scavenger hunt that you host, build, manage, and track directly from your computer, while your students/teams download the app and utilize its features to engage in the hunt.

Whoever is hosting the game purchases a level of game play–free to $149–that works best for their group (the enhanced option works best for our group and costs $79). Then they can begin creating challenges including passwords–think any type of trivia, riddles, or questions that require an answer–QR codes that you can print out and are scanned by teams, picture and video submissions, and geolocation tags. Once you build the game you send instructions to your groups who login on the app and follow a direct link to your game.

Whenever you start it your teams will be able to compete as long as it is open. You will be able to track and approve submissions as needed and push answers through if they aren’t accepted. Each group will see all the challenges and a live leader board. Then at the end you can stop the game and see the final scores and download all videos and photos. Essentially everything on the front end is done for you so you can have more freedom and flexibility during the hunt.

Utilize a variety of clues.

Whether you are using a digital scavenger hunt or you decide to go old school and use pen and paper, having a variety of clues and challenges will ensure a more complete and fun game for your students. There are trivia clues that span all different types of topics. There could be photos that needed to be taken at specific locations or with specific people or there could be clues that relate to your ministry, Bible trivia, and whatever else you can imagine. We have taken close up photos of items and challenged teams to find that item. We have asked random trivia about our staff team that had students racing to us to find out answers. We had specific locations with specific tasks to be done. And we asked a range of riddles and SAT prep-style questions. The more clues you use the better because the broader the range of challenges, the more involved your whole group will be.

Have a prize worth winning.

Typically we have offered pizza, specialty donuts, or huge bags of candy from Costco. But we noticed that this year the students weren’t as excited about our prizes so we switched things up and began to offer new prizes we never had before. I love to bake and students know that, so we offered free baked goods for small groups made by me. That was a huge success and now I owe three small groups some type of baked item of their choosing this year. We also decided to offer Chickfila for a prize to the winning team this year. We priced out the cost of some nugget trays and large fries and it actually wasn’t that bad. When we announced that prize our group went wild and it was so much fun to see the excitement level go up.

When it comes to offering prizes they don’t need to be huge or monetarily based, but they should be special and unique. So think outside the box and look to offer a prize that is unique and appealing to your ministry. Maybe you have a local creamery your students love so you provide an ice cream party for the winners. Or maybe it’s something special made by leaders or parents. Maybe it’s a percentage off of a camp or retreat. Perhaps you have a wall of fame in your youth room and the winning group is forever enshrined there. Perhaps it’s a unique trophy that is passed between winning teams. Whatever it is, the more you talk it up and the more unique it is, the more your students will love participating.

Consider your environment(s).

When it comes to hosting a scavenger hunt that your students will love, you need to be aware of what you have at your disposal in terms of environment. If you are only able to host the hunt on your church’s property, consider all the different ways your students can interact and engage with it. Utilize clues to things that your students would know and be familiar with. Find creative ways to have them interact with your church like a photo with the senior pastor or in the church library. Consider having them take a photo or complete a task at a specific location at the church like having them all play Gagaball outside or inside a specific classroom or with a certain item on the church property. Things like this will have your students moving all over your campus and also engaging with the church in ways that they may not have before.

If you’re able to do things outside of your campus, make sure that if you utilize private properties or businesses you have permission to do so. Also consider if you’re able to go offsite what ways you can have your students engage with and potentially even serve the community through this activity.

Set up rules and boundaries.

Rules and boundaries are really important for this type of activity because it makes sure everyone can have an equal opportunity to win and participate, and provides safety for the competitors and protection for the site/building. Some rules we always incorporate include areas that are off limits, keeping teams together at all times, not allowing the internet to help solve riddles or questions, being respectful of the property and people on it, how points are scored and recorded, and a time limit for the game. Whenever we have rules for a larger competition, we try to keep the rules short and sweet so they are understood but also not overwhelming or hindering of the game play and fun.

Have you ever run a scavenger hunt before? What are some pointers you’d share?

How to Help Your Students Want to Read the Bible

Throughout my time serving in churches I have seen biblical literacy continue to decrease in student ministry and I have been astounded by how little students actually know about the Bible. Whether it’s attributing sayings and musing to God’s Word that aren’t there, not knowing where books of the Bible fall, or not even knowing Bible speaks into various topics, the state of biblical literacy is not looking good. Maybe this is just my experience, but I think this is indicative of a trend in younger people and is why we are seeing more and more companies focusing on students to help them grow in biblical literacy.

Now it would be easy for me to sit here and bemoan the circumstances and to be dismayed by the lack of comprehension and willingness to engage with the Bible. But that would be neither helpful nor beneficial. Instead, I want to be a part of the solution. In my role that means working with our upcoming generations and helping to train and equip them in how to use and interpret their Bibles in a way that helps them make real world applications.

Today, I want to look at how we can help our students not only read their Bibles but also seek to engage with and apply them. Students need to see that God’s Word is real and necessary, but they also need to understand why it is important and know what it means to them. This will allow them to be thoughtful and proactive in how they apply the Bible in their lives and in how it shapes them as Christ-followers.

Teach students how.

We have written on Bible study methods before but it is easy to assume our students know how to read the Bible when in actuality they have never been taught. So take time to show them how to read the Bible. Point out the different literary styles and help them learn basic hermeneutics so they can read it appropriately and apply it to their lives. Help them understand it is okay to have and ask questions. Teach them to be analytical and critical readers in order to think about the Bible in broader and deeper contexts. Doing this will help them grow not only in their knowledge of God’s Word but it will also affirm them and help them see that they can discern and interpret the Bible on their own.

Make sure they have a Bible they will use.

Maybe I’m just odd but I have a ton of Bibles and they all serve a different purpose. Some are for studies, others for personal devotions, and I have others because they offer unique and significant insights. But most students aren’t like me. In fact, I have found many students don’t actually have a Bible they want to use or enjoy using. So take time to help students find a Bible that they can read and will want to read. This may mean having more Bibles on hand and having a broader knowledge of different types of Bibles, but it will allow you to help your students grow and engage with God’s Word on their own in a way they can understand.

Point them to helpful Bible study resources.

There are lots of great Bible Study tools out there and there are a lot of not so great ones. In fact, you have probably seen a lot of “teen Bible studies” that feel dated, or they talk down to students, or perhaps feel childish in their designs and studies. Finding helpful resources or Bible studies may feel difficult, but when you find ones that work for your students you will see them grow and gravitate toward reading God’s Word even more. We have written on some resources and you can find that information here.

Model it for them.

I think this is something the church needs to be better about as a whole. We should model what we preach and teach to our people, and not always in a way that shows us succeeding or doing the right thing. I think we need to model the very real aspects of what studying Scripture looks like, both the successes and difficulties. When our students see the impact that the Bible has on our lives it motivates them to want that for themselves. But they also need to see the moments this is hard for you. Let them know about times you’ve struggled to be in the Bible. Show them how you overcame that and highlight how you felt and what being out of God’s Word did to your life. When students see the real pieces of what the Bible does for our lives coming from people they trust, they will want to model that as well.

Set up reminders and show them how to do the same.

Reminders may sound trivial at first but they work. I love my Google calendar and my reminders on my phone. In fact, I have reminders set for all sorts of things not because I forget them, but because they are of high value to me and I don’t want to forget they are there if I’m scheduling other things. Students are incredibly busy and they have all sorts of things competing for their time and attention. If you can help them in prioritizing what is important and show them the benefit of reminders and scheduling, it will help them to see the necessity of staying in God’s Word.

Help students to set reminders, show them how to put things in a schedule, and help them carve out time to read God’s Word. But remember that this may look different than your schedule. Students may have to carve out ten minutes on a crowded bus to read the Bible or listen to a devotion. They may have to do it at night before or after homework. It may not be every day but it may be a few times a week. That’s okay because it is all about growth and consistency. And remember that reminders aren’t a fix-all, they are just a tool to help us. This isn’t a “you do this and you’re good” approach, but instead is a resource to help us grow as biblically literate Christ followers.

Show them why this is important and applicable to their lives.

I believe it is easy to take the Bible and its impact in our lives for granted sometimes. As western Christians, we live the good life where we don’t see the hardships and persecution that Christians around the world face. And I believe this is part of the reason we may not see the Bible as being helpful and applicable all the time: we live an easy life and we don’t see hardship that the Bible helps us through. However, for many of us in ministry we can point to moments when the Bible and our faith in God carried us through dark moments and how that was a turning point in our lives. Students need to hear that! They need to understand that the Bible has a place in our mundane lives and in the moments when life is at its lowest point. Our students don’t see the impact the Bible always has because we don’t show them how it impacts their lives at each moment.

We need to teach them how the knowledge of God’s Word helps to form and prepare us for those rocky moments. We need to show them how the truths of the Bible have a life-changing impact on our lives, our culture, and our world. We need to help model how we can be agents of good change in our world through being who God has called us to be. When we model this reality to them, it builds a spiritual framework for their lives from which they can live out their calling of being disciples of Jesus.

6 Tips for the New Year

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

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

Start or continue to…

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

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

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

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

Stop…

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

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

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

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

Ideas for Student Meals

For many youth groups, winter retreats are just around the corner and summer trips are fast approaching, which means planning has begun or will begin shortly. Part of planning for these trips may include meal planning and thinking through how to offer food that is affordable and tasty. Still other youth ministries offer meals weekly to their students as a way of blessing them and their communities.

But have you noticed how we can easily default to the same meals over and over? Perhaps you have run out of ideas about what you can offer to your students. I know I have been there many times. I’ve wondered what to offer for trips that wouldn’t drastically raise the overall price. I’ve defaulted to pizza way too often! And let’s be honest: the easy option can feel like the best option because it’s less work and simpler.

Today, I want to share with you some fun and affordable meal ideas that you can utilize on trips and in your ministry whenever they are needed.

Breakfast options.

  • Cereal bar. This is a fun and easy one. Grab a bunch of cereals from your local store and have them set out for your students. They don’t need to be name brand, there are a ton of store brands that taste just as good, but I’d recommend a broad variety so students have different options. Don’t forget that some students are lactose-free, so consider grabbing a milk alternative or two.
  • Pancakes. This is a really cheap option for breakfast. You can grab a large bag of pancake mix from your Costco or Sam’s that only requires water and mix it up to make a hearty breakfast that is fairly cheap. If you’re looking for your pancakes to have a little more taste and to be a little fluffier, grab a bottle of Sprite or 7up and substitute that for the water. Trust me on this one; these are sure to be winners with your students. Don’t forget some butter and syrup to top off this breakfast (check out Aldi for cheap butter and syrups).
  • Eggs and bacon. These are breakfast staples and honestly, it makes morning a little more bearable when you wake up to fresh bacon. Aldi has great prices on eggs, but you may also be able to purchase eggs in bulk at Sam’s or Costco at a comparable price. The same can be said of bacon, so make sure to compare prices. If you live in a community that harvests their own hogs, try connecting with a local farmer or butcher to check out their prices on bacon. You can also see if there are any local people who raise chickens for eggs who could help you out with a deal. A quick tip on making eggs, always go scrambled and add in milk or water to give your them more body and to help with making them go a little farther.
  • Breakfast sandwiches. This is one of those breakfasts I always look forward to. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Jersey and breakfast sandwiches were a way of life (don’t get me started on pork roll, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel), but these are a great last day breakfast. You get to look at your inventory of leftovers and utilize them in a way that students and leaders will enjoy. Cook up the last of your eggs, heat up or cook all of the leftover meat, grab some American cheese slices, toast up some English muffins or bagels, slather butter on the toast and voila, you have a gooey and delicious breakfast sandwich.
  • Baked oatmeal. I will be honest, I only got into this recently because I was trying to find a healthy breakfast alternative. I realize that most baked oatmeals are anything but healthy, but I did find one that is a little healthier because it substituted all the dairy with applesauce and reduced the sugar drastically. But all that to say, baked oatmeal is a fantastic alternative to regular oatmeal and is something that can be prepped the night before and thrown into the oven in the morning. If you are looking for some recipes, especially some that offer you different flavor options, check out this list at AllRecipies.com.

Lunch and dinner options.

  • Walking tacos. This is something I had not heard of until I moved to the Midwest, and honestly this is an amazing option for meals. Essentially you take a snack sized bag of your favorite chips (Doritos, Fritos, Lays, or really any type of chip will do), add in all of the ingredients that go with tacos (meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, etc.), and grab a fork to dig in. These are totally customizable by each student, quick to prepare, and also an easy cleanup option.
  • Spaghetti and meatballs. This is such an easy option for a meal and it is incredibly filling. Purchase a bunch of spaghetti and sauce, throw some meatballs in for added flavor, and you have a meal that will have your students ready for bed due to all the carbs! I would encourage you to consider making your own sauce if possible, or doctoring the store bought sauce to make it a little more tasty and special for your students. You can also up the ante by purchasing garlic bread or bread sticks, and by offering Parmesan cheese for students who like that on their pasta.
  • Grilled cheese and tomato soup. This is something that is pure nostalgia for most of us, and I would say the same is true for your students. Bring along a couple of griddles or utilize a flattop and get ready to toast up a lot of bread. A couple of ideas for this include having multiple types of cheese and breads, and making sure you have crackers and other toppings for your soup. Keep in mind you may have students with gluten or dairy allergies, so if you are able, try to have some options available, but understand that these items may not cook up in the same fashion.
  • Soup bar. Depending on the time of year, soup is the way to go! It offers not only warmth and a full belly, but is also fairly easy to put together. My recommendation would be to grab a bunch of crock pots and take them with you if you are going on a trip or have them ready to go in your kitchen space. Ask some parents to prepare their favorite soups ahead of time or grab a bunch of different pre-made options from your local supermarket or Costco, and start them in the morning. Periodically stir them and when dinner time arrives put out crackers, salt and pepper, shredded cheese, and other toppings for a night that will leave students feeling full and satisfied.
  • Sandwich bar. This doesn’t just have to be peanut butter and jelly or lunch meats, but could be a whole themed meal time. You could do different types of sandwich options including various nut butters and jellies, lunch meats and cheeses, BLTs, meatballs, Sloppy Joes, and chicken, tuna, or egg salad. Add in all the condiments and various toppings and you have yourself a DIY sandwich bar that offers your students any type of sandwich they could imagine.
  • Pizza. I know, I know. I said pizza is something we default to. But hear me out on this one. If you are doing pizza all the time, then skip this option. But if you don’t do pizza all the time or want to do something different than your normal pizza options, then jump right in to this one. I’d suggest that you get a bunch of take and bake pizzas from Costco, Aldi, or your local supermarket and do a pizza buffet. Having multiple options and types of toppings gives your students variety and a choice of what they’d like to have. This can turn a boring pizza night into a really fun buffet. I’d also encourage you to consider adding in a dessert pizza, which could be cookie pizza, cinnamon sugar pull apart pizzas (think cooked or baked in a skillet), or even a brownie pizza to round out the evening.
  • Hamburgers and hotdogs. Who doesn’t love a grilled hotdog or hamburger? They always make a great meal. And it gives students something to not only look forward to because they can customize them, but the smell of the grill is enough to entice anyone for dinner that night. I would encourage you to make sure to season your burger patties and have all the accompaniments for the hotdogs and hamburgers. If you’re able to and it is cost efficient, consider purchasing some local hotdogs because that will add to the flavor and uniqueness of your gathering.
  • Crock pot meals. This is a fun and easy option. There are so many crock pot recipes out there that the options are almost limitless. I’d encourage you to find some quick and easy crock pot meals that you can set and forget about and to ask your church families if they’d consider providing some meals for you. This can lead to all types of fun and unique meals and can make this mealtime one that students will look forward to.

Snack and dessert options.

When it comes to snacks, there are a ton of ideas to consider. There’s fruit, granola bars, snack bags of chips, snack mix, ice cream, puppy chow, cereal, popcorn, cookies and brownies, and even leftovers. Anything can be a snack or dessert for a hungry student, just make sure they know when and where they will be available.

A few things to consider.

Remember the students and leaders who have dietary restrictions. This is a pretty big deal especially if you’re planning a trip or retreat because there will be multiple meals. Start by including a question on your signup form asking if people have allergies or dietary restrictions. Then connect individually with that family to see how you can help meet that need. This will require extra work on your part but it will mean the world to those students who are often forgotten.

Always over-estimate on food. I learned this early on in my youth ministry career. Students can put away food like it’s going out of style and like they haven’t eaten all week. So always have extra food on hand to make sure your students are well fed. If there are leftovers or extras, you can always freeze them, use them at your next gathering, or even give them away to some of your leaders (especially your college students).

Don’t forget coffee, tea, and hot cocoa. Typically I reserve the coffee for my leaders because they are doing so much on trips already. Having some hot coffee for them each morning goes a long way. Make sure to have good coffee (go beyond Folgers or instant) and some fun creamers. The tea and hot cocoa can be for anyone and can be nice to have during those winter camps where it’s freezing outside. Having these drinks available make your trips and gatherings just a little sweeter and more special.

How to Make Leader Parties Special

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

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

Utilize families.

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

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

Utilize students.

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

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

Have food and drinks.

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

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

Provide a gift.

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

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

Take time to encourage them.

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

Shape the environment.

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

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

When You Can’t Help

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

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

Pray…a lot.

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

Be honest.

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

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

Show emotion.

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

Listen.

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

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

Follow up.

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

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

Connect them with people who can help.

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

What Are You Teaching: All Church Series

Every now and then, our church does an all-church series. More recently, we have been using the spring semester to collectively work through a study built by multiple staff members to help our church journey in the Bible together. It involves all ages and happens in our services and in all the classes and groups that meet. But there are some unique challenges and circumstances to consider when doing these studies to help them succeed and truly be engaging for students and families.

Make sure your message relates to students. Sometimes when moving through a set curriculum for the church, there are applications and insights that are really beneficial but not always relevant and helpful to students. So look to make sure what you are teaching and encouraging students to apply is relatable to their lives and circumstances. Providing them with real and tangible applications will help them see how the Bible is practical and relevant to their lives.

Don’t teach the same thing that is taught in the services. This is a big deal because part of our vision for students should be to help them engage the church holistically and not just student programming. If we are teaching the exact same message with the same points in student programming that is taught in the sermon, students will tend to default to only the student gathering and forgo the Sunday service. This isn’t beneficial and further drives a wedge that doesn’t need to be there to begin with. Instead, even if you are teaching on the same passage from the sermon, look to find different insights and understandings. Highlight how passages can provide various applications and interpretations. Bring in new illustrations and ways to immerse students in Scripture, and help them discuss what they’re learning in both contexts.

Collaborate with others. One of the best things you can do in these types of series is talk to other staff members and leaders to see what they are teaching. This will not only provide you with insight and creativity, but will hopefully afford you new and intentional opportunities to partner with other ministries. If the adult groups are looking at a particular aspect, it may be helpful to both adults and students to know what each group is doing as there is a high potential students’ parents will be in the adult group. This provides overlap and a platform on which to engage ongoing conversations within families.

Remember everyone may not be on the same page. It is important to remember when going through all-church series that some students may not have a full grasp, if any, of the material you are walking through. So make sure to do due diligence and help students fully understand what is being taught. Also, remember that students may not be present at each level of the study due to other commitments and so summarizing what has been taught is important and also helps students continue to remain engaged.

Encourage students to be a part of the broader conversation. Make sure your students know everyone in the church is going through the series, and that they have a voice because they are the church. Encourage them to engage in conversations with family and friends. Challenge them to ask deep and meaningful questions. Provide outlets and opportunities for them to engage with church leadership on these topics and series.