7 Ways to Encourage Others

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

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

1. Write an encouraging note.

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

2. Leave them their favorite snack.

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

3. Share an encouraging Scripture.

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

4. Get students involved.

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

5. Give them a gift card.

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

6. Take them out.

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

7. Don’t forget important days.

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

5 Ways to Develop Volunteers

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

1. Meet with your volunteers.

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

2. Cast vision well.

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

3. Give volunteers responsibility and ownership.

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

4. Recognize and challenge them.

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

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

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

5. Listen to your volunteers.

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

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

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

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

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

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

Be approachable.

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

Create the space for conversations.

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

Listen well.

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

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

Do not be dismissive.

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

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

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

Be willing to hear both sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

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

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

Be willing to change your views.

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

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

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

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Subscription Boxes

At one point or another we have all heard about a subscription box. Whether it was on social media and we saw an add for a coffee subscription or for a candy from around the world box, we all know the general idea. Typically you sign up at a reduced fee and choose how often you would like to receive a box full of goodies from a specific company.

Today I want to talk about how we can incorporate this idea into our student ministry program. With many ministries once again being relegated to an online format, this can serve as a new and exciting way to engage your students outside of the “normal” Zoom meetings. I want to share with you some ideas and considerations as we think through how to implement the idea of a subscription box into our ministries.

Purpose

As you get ready to send these out, consider what your purpose is for these boxes. Is it simply a way to encourage your students and have fun? Or is this a way to encourage your students and challenge them to grow in their faith? I would highly recommend that these boxes don’t just contain fun elements but that there is a way to encourage and challenge students to grow in their faith. An easy way to do this is to send along a Bible study that everyone who receives the box is expected to do. Last week we shared some ideas and resources for easy and ready-to-use studies. You can also let them know that you will have a group time for follow up and discussion on the Bible study.

Frequency

Should you send a box weekly or monthly? This will largely be based upon budget and this will then shape what you include in your boxes. Monthly seems to make more sense due to cost, but weekly gives you more connectivity with your students. This is something you should think through before sending your first box, and I would encourage you regardless of your decision to stick with it. Don’t jump from monthly to weekly or vice versa because it will cause disruption for your students and families. Pick one option and stay with it.

Paid vs. Free

Typically subscription boxes are not free, but as we think about our students this may be an important option. Your budget and intended recipients will dictate how you offer the subscription. I would highly encourage you to consider offering these for free. I know that budgets are being restricted for ministries everywhere, but household budgets are also reducing. This would be an amazing opportunity to offer something to students for free that helps to encourage them in their faith and know they are loved and valued.

If you do not have the budget for sending these out for free, consider trying to offset the cost however possible. Whether it is by doing a lot of the prep in-house or by putting some of your budget toward the cost. These boxes do not need to compete with the scale of the ones we see on Facebook, and truly they are designed to simply encourage and challenge your students. So think about sending handwritten or notes created for free on sites like Canva, instead of getting ones done at Staples. Utilize gifts from within your ministry or the church in each box to offset cost. Things like this will help to minimize the cost and bring a smile to the face of your students. I would also encourage you to make sure that no student is excluded due to cost. If you know there are students who can’t afford to sign up, consider adding a scholarship for them in some way. Whether you ask church members to help, you use part of your budget, or you partially scholarship them, this will be a way to make sure everyone can participate.

True Subscription vs. Automatic Delivery

When it comes to subscription boxes, people need to sign up in order to receive one. You could consider doing this within your ministry but you should probably acknowledge that not everyone will sign up. Whether you offer a paid or free option, consider sending out the first box “on you” to all of your students. If you are asking for students to pay, cover the cost for the first one and include a note asking people to subscribe because you believe it will encourage them and help them grow in their faith. Then you can include a price for them as well and a way to sign up.

If you are going to cover the cost regardless, consider still having a sign up and encouraging students through a note on the box to do so. Give them a few easy steps for signing up and allow them to take the initiative and generate buy-in to this new option.

Mail vs. In-Person Delivery

When thinking about how to deliver these boxes, think through dropping them off in person or mailing them. Everyone loves personalized mail, but it may cost you a significant amount and with the delays happening due to COVID-19, you are not guaranteed that it will arrive on time.

A great option is delivering these boxes to your students in person. Whether you deliver them all, or your leaders jump in to help, this will be an added blessing to your students because they get to see you and have an interaction. It may be with masks and socially distanced, but you still get that time to say hello and tell them about the box and how you hope they will join you in this.

What to Include

This is where it gets fun! These boxes should be focused on encouragement, spiritual growth, personal connection, and fun. When you incorporate these elements, the ideas are endless for what you can include. I would highly recommend being intentional with what you put in each box. Here are some ideas:

  • A personal note. Use the note to encourage the student you are writing to. Let them know you miss them and can’t wait to see them. Also, explain the items in the box and the function for the Bible study should it be included.
  • Snacks. An easy way to a student’s heart is through food. Buy a few twelve packs of soda and put a can in each box. Purchase some individual bags of chips for everyone, or buy larger bags at your local dollar store. Throw in some small pieces of candy or a single full size bar. A granola bar and fruit snacks are also great options. A bottle of water or a reusable water bottle is also a great option.
  • A pen. If you are encouraging students to participate in a Bible study, put a pen in the box to help encourage them to do it. If you have pens that are branded with your student ministry name or logo, throw those in. Or buy some fun ones at the Dollar Store or in the Target bins at the front of the store.
  • A notebook or journal. These are a great way to encourage students to write their notes from the study, journal their prayer requests, or just write about what is happening in their lives. These could easily be ones you have on hand with your logo already on them, or a spiral bound notebook you picked up at Staples. The nicer they are the better, but take cost into consideration.
  • Filler. This may seem kind of simple, but part of the fun of getting a gift is opening it and finding what is inside. So consider shredding a bunch of different color paper and using that as an easy but fun filler within the box that will help it look nice and complete.
  • A schedule. This will serve as a helpful reminder for students about when the boxes will come and when you will do your discussion of the study.

Follow Up

This is the big piece to these boxes. Follow-up includes making sure that students received their boxes, it is encouraging them to do the study, and it is actually hosting a meet-up to talk through the study in the box. Hosting a meeting whether digitally or in person will allow you to connect with your students, help them grow in their faith, and give you insight into how they are doing. I would encourage you to lead the first one or two meetings, but then allow students to step up and lead as well. This will give them ownership and a desire to be more invested in the studies you are sending out, as well as helping them grow as leaders. A fun way to see who will be leading next is by throwing in a special note or item in a student’s box that says they will be leading for this week or month.

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Bible Studies

As many states continue to enforce stricter protocols while COVID-19 cases rise, ministries must continue to adapt and look for ways to care for their people. A huge part of what we do as student ministers and leaders is discipleship and helping our students continue to grow in their knowledge and love of God’s Word. But the question is: how do we do that well? Or perhaps you are asking: should we do this on Zoom or another digital platform? Today I’d like to offer a couple of ways we can continue to help our students grow through Bible studies during this time. At the end of the post I’ll share some of my favorite places to find studies that are both free and paid.

Mailed Bible Studies

This option allows for you as the youth leader to put together a Bible study packet that you can mail, email, or drop off to each of your students. Your method of delivery may vary depending on restrictions in your area, how many students you have, and your optimal communication methods overall. However you get it into their hands, make sure it has a few key items.

  • The Bible study itself. If it doesn’t have questions with the Bible study, consider adding some open ended questions of your own instead of just asking your students to write down their thoughts. This will generate more organic and thought-provoking content.
  • Directions. This is an important part. Sometimes we need to give our students a little extra guidance on how to move through the study. This is especially important to remember because all of your students may not know how to actually study the Bible personally.
  • A pen. This may seem silly at first, but the fact that you are giving them a pen means there is an expectation. You want them to not just read the study but to engage with it. You are challenging them to truly invest in God’s Word and understand it’s truth.

We also need to make sure that we cast vision for our Bible studies. If you just send one out to your students with no premise they are less likely to jump on board than if you had communicated the plan and the heart behind it. Consider texting your students about what you are doing and why you want to do it. Then make sure to invite them into the study with you and ask them if they would like to do it. In doing this you are creating buy-in and helping them to see that you value them and want them to be a part of this journey. Cast the vision and desire for the study in your communication. Let them know why you are doing it, and also clearly communicate the format of the study. Is it daily, weekly, or monthly? Are you doing the study together or is the expectation they do it and then there is a conversation about it? Thinking through these questions will help ensure a successful time of growth and conversation with your students.

The next thing to think through is engagement. You must make sure to engage and encourage your students as you do the study together. Send out texts asking how they are doing with the study or if they have any questions. This will serve as a subtle reminder but also as a way of helping them in the study. Make sure to let them know it is okay if they miss a day or two. It isn’t the end of the world if they fall behind and they shouldn’t be kicked out of the study. Life gets busy for all of us and that shouldn’t count against them.

Lastly, we need to consider the interactive piece. Much of this depends on where you live and what types of gatherings you can have. Below, I go into a little more detail about digital engagement, so here I want to talk about in-person interaction. Consider gathering at your church, a local coffee shop, or at a local community hang out spot and talk through what you have studied. You may need to have multiple meetings depending on the limits on gathering where you live, and this would be a great opportunity to allow your leaders to step up and serve in a new leadership capacity so you aren’t the only one running all the meetings. Whenever I do Bible studies or discipleship in this manner, I don’t work through all the questions but rather pick and choose which I think will drive more engagement and deeper discussion. Doing it in this manner allows for flexibility and freedom when moving through the conversation. Also, make sure your students know that they are expected to engage during this time and a simple “yes, no, or I dunno know” doesn’t count. Everyone doesn’t need deep answers but everyone does need to participate.

Digital Bible Studies

In this method I would recommend following all the steps above except the in-person meetings. Instead, add an interactive online piece in place of in-person time together. A key piece I would highly recommend doing (if you are able in your area) is dropping off the Bible study in person. Even if you cannot meet in-person for the study, consider dropping off the materials and maybe a small “study package” for each student. As a way of encouraging them, include a can of soda, some snacks, a handwritten note, a small notebook, and few other small items to begin the study with you.

If you are like me, you have probably seen a drop off in numbers whenever you switch to an online youth meeting. I believe the reason for that is students (and honestly all of us) are experiencing “Zoom fatigue.” Students are drained from all the online content and having to see themselves and their peers on screens for hours on end with no break. They are constantly analyzing and thinking about how they look, how they are perceived, and how they are being judged. So with all of that at play, how do we make this work?

First, you must make sure that your level of excitement and buy-in is clear. Students know if you want to do something or if you are passionate about it. If you seem down or upset that you can’t meet in person, they will feed off of that. So make sure you let them know you are in this with them and excited to grow together.

You also need to set clear expectations with this. Make sure your students know what you desire of them for this study and what they are committing to, but also clearly communicate what the expectations are when you meet digitally. Do they need to have the camera on? Do they need to share? Will there be group conversation? Are they expected to be at each meeting? Providing this information ahead of time will allow them to know what they are committing to.

It’s also important to send out encouragement to your students. Whether this is through a phone call, a group or individual text, an email, or a handwritten postcard, make sure you are reaching out to them so they know you are invested and care about them. I would say that the more personal you can make the encouragement, the more buy-in you will receive. Digital meetings can feel impersonal, so personal engagement and encouragement will help your meetings succeed.

Make sure that your time together isn’t just the study. Utilize your time to engage with one another. Check in with your students. Ask them how they are doing, how has their week been, what was one good thing and one hard thing that happened. Consider playing a game with them (you can find some easy small group game ideas here). This will help open up communication and allow everyone to relax.

Finally, make time spent in the study engaging. Try to get everyone participating, whether that is by you asking everyone for an answer or if it is by rotating around the “room” for each question. I would also recommend allowing one of your students to run the meeting time each week. This will allow your students to engage and participate more, and ultimately it will help to foster a family type environment where people feel loved and valued.

A few helpful places to gain some easy and ready to use Bible studies include LeaderTreks, Download Youth Ministry (make sure to select small groups on the filter category), and She Reads Truth and He Reads Truth (both sites having reading plans as well that are free for girls and guys).

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Digital Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts are a ton of fun, but typically we default to thinking of these as having to be in-person events. With the technology we have though we can easily leverage these events in a digital format. Today we want to offer some ways you can implement these digital ideas in your ministry and utilize them during the holiday season as well.

Before implementing this, here are a few key things to consider:

  • Do my students have social media?
  • What social media platforms do my students most utilize?
  • What type of involvement do I want from this?
  • What do I want this challenge to do for our program?
  • What level of involvement will this need?
  • Is there a prize involved? An easy prize would be digital gift cards or a socially distanced youth pastor drop off of a gift card or gift box at the winner’s home. If you do drop it off, get a video or photo and share it on your social media to drive more engagement.
  • Make sure to bring the energy and engagement on your end. If you aren’t engaged and having fun, your student won’t either. Your level of involvement will affect theirs.

Scavr

Scavr is a great online resource that allows you to build, manage, and host the scavenger hunt in a live format if you desire. This could be fun if you wanted to host this digital event at a set time where everyone is actively engaged with it. However, the limitation comes where only you are seeing the photos as they come in because they are submitted through the Scavr app. A way you could work around this is either have students and leaders also share them under a hashtag on social media or you try downloading all them and put it into a slideshow for everyone. You can also use an online video chat afterward to talk through the event and award prizes to the winner. For more information on how to utilize this program, check out our earlier post on games for small groups.

Stories

Instagram Stories would be a really easy way for you to incorporate digital challengers to be completed. Reach out to your group ahead of time and let them know the rules (the easier the better: complete the task, post it in your story, and tag the social media account that is hosting the challenge) and then either host the challenge on a single day or do a challenge each day for a week. This is a great idea to utilize over Christmas break because it offers engagement, community from a distance, and opportunities for you to connect with your students.

Youth Pastor/Leader on a Shelf

Most of us are familiar with Elf on the Shelf. But consider a digital scavenger hunt where each day students will need to recreate a photo or video that the leader shares of themselves “on a shelf.” Come up with a bunch of fun places to pose and challenge your students to recreate them to the best of their abilities. Utilize a fun hashtag with this one like “Youth Leader Elfie” and think ahead about how you can create new, exciting, and safe poses that challenge your students each week.

Acts of Service

Consider using your digital scavenger hunt as a way of blessing others in your church or community. Give students a task each day or week, depending on the size and nature of the task, and have them share a photo or video showing they completed it. You can be as specific or general as you like with this challenge. It could be taking out the trash at home, shoveling snow for a neighbor, donating food to a food pantry, baking cookies for frontline workers, or helping get the church ready for Christmas. This is an awesome way to encourage students to embody the life Jesus calls us to live.

This type of scavenger hunt would be a great follow up to a series on serving or living sacrificially as it makes it very practical. You could also host a digital pizza party afterward and debrief what was learned. To host a digital pizza party, buy each student a pizza and a 2 liter of soda (Aldi has great deals on these products) and deliver them to each student who participated. Let them know that they should prepare the pizza for your Zoom meeting so you can all share in a meal together.

Christmas Break Version

If you are looking to give your students something to do over your whole break, consider putting together a list of tasks, challenges, service opportunities, and anything else creative that you can think of. Send this list out to them and let them know the rules and timeline for the event. If you want students to submit photos and/or videos, make sure you have a place that has enough digital space to store them. Also, if they need to do acts of service consider having a parent sign off on it. This could also be an opportunity for you to leverage family engagement by challenging families to do this together and compete against one another.

Ministry Ideas During Lockdown: Social Justice Advocacy

With the reality that many parts of the country are moving back toward COVID-19 lock-downs and more restrictions are being added, we are again faced with the fact that ministry is going to look different going forward. As we think creatively about what this may look like, we have to acknowledge that we may not find an easy fix. Where you live and serve will dictate the level of engagement you can have on-site with your students and the size of your gathering.

Over the next few weeks, we want to share with you some creative ways to think about doing ministry in our current climate. These ideas are meant to help get the creative juices flowing and to help you think outside the box about how to do ministry in your context. We’d love to hear from you as well and see how you’ve been able to continue pursuing ministry during these times.

Our first creative approach to ministry happens to fall perfectly into this Christmas season. Social justice involvement through the Dressember organization is something Elise has written about before, but it is exceptionally timely given the reality that much of our ministry is now happening in a digital format. This is a campaign that you can utilize to bring your group together as you rally to champion social justice.

Dressember participants commit to wearing a dress or tie throughout the month of December to raise money and awareness for organizations that fight human trafficking, modern day slavery, and other social justice issues domestically and abroad. Students can create their own fundraising page and set a monetary goal through Dressember’s website. Anyone with a fundraising page can also create a team page so that participants can band together to raise money and awareness.

Consider setting up a team for your students with a unified goal and host weekly meetups, either in person if possible, or via video calls. Use these meetings to share fundraising ideas, stories from survivors, and help and encouragement for those who may feel frustrated. Encourage each other to keep posting and sharing content on your individual platforms throughout the month. One of the best parts of Dressember is getting to participate with others, even if you can’t physically be together in person.

As you work toward a common goal, it will help to grow unity and community in a new and different way. This is also something that doesn’t have to be limited to December. That is the key time for Dressember (hence the name), but that isn’t the only time you can utilize this approach. Consider doing something for Spring Break or Easter. Utilize this approach to raise funds for other important causes, like your local food bank or homeless ministry. Or use it as a way to bring your group together by sharing God Stories–ways you have seen God use your platforms to spread the truth and encouragement of the Gospel. Regardless of how or when you incorporate this aspect into you ministry, it can be a helpful tool to increase engagement and help move your group toward a deeper relationship with each other and with God.

Ways to Decompress & Rest

Feeling tired from the past nine months? Are the pressures of doing ministry becoming overwhelming? Has your home become more work place than refuge? For many of us in ministry, the reality of doing kingdom work in the middle of a pandemic has been taxing and overwhelming. The constant push-back, disappointment, discouragement, and cancellation of events and trips has been difficult to say the least.

These things compounded by our own emotions, personal struggles, and realities we are facing can be felt deep within our souls. The more I have reflected on this time in our lives the more I am convinced that we as ministers of the Gospel must be decompressing and modeling healthy rhythms for those we serve. But the great question before us is, how? How do we do this well? How do we do this when time is at a minimum? How do we do this when our sacred spaces have all but been removed?

Today, I want to share with you some ways to decompress and some tips for building healthy boundaries to protect your own spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Healthy ways to Decompress

  • Take a Sabbath. I wrote on this about a month ago, but the more I think about it and study Sabbath rest, the more I realize ministry leaders are not good at this. Let me encourage you to build this into your rhythms and find time to incorporate the Sabbath into your life.
  • Find a counselor. I could not be a bigger advocate for counseling. This is something that I firmly believe everyone in ministry should be doing. Having someone you can talk to who can help you think through difficult circumstances, help you see through the fog, and allow for you to have a place to freely express how you are feeling and where you are at is not only healthy, it is life giving as well.
  • Turn off your phone. This is a big one for me that I have talked about before. But so often our phones are tools that actually bring about more anxiety, worry, and doubt. Our phone buzzes with an email or text, and our hearts jump a bit. We see a message from a parent and we instantly wonder if everything is okay or if we messed up. While phones are great resources, they are also a direct avenue to our hearts and cause problematic emotions and thoughts to creep in. So consider turning your phone off or putting it on “do not disturb” on your days off. If this is something you believe you cannot do, then consider sharing that you will be doing this with your superiors, volunteers, and students so they know your rhythm. Or consider turning it off for a portion of your day off so you can focus on what’s important.
  • Find a new hobby that can be completed. This is something I have found helpful among ministry leaders. Our jobs are never done. Unlike many other careers where there is a metric to tell you when you have completed your goal or target, we don’t necessarily have that. What that means is we are constantly working to accomplish a task that is never fully accomplished. And that can be exceptionally frustrating. So consider taking up a hobby like lawn care, reading non-ministry related books, creating something, cooking, visiting all the new restaurants in your area, or trying to find all the ice cream places in your state and try them. Yes, some of these are crazy but who doesn’t like ice cream? But the point behind them is they all have a completion point. Doing something new that has an end goal will help you feel at piece completing something.
  • Write things down. This is huge, and I will be honest, I am not great at this. I don’t do well with journaling or putting my feelings to paper. But Elise is. She has journaled for as long as I have known her, and has done it for most of her life. Being able to write down how you feel, the tensions that are in your life, the victories, the low points, and just to put your thoughts to paper will help you to process and think through what is happening. It also gives you a resource to look back on and reflect on how God has answered your prayers throughout your life.
  • Pray. I am not throwing this in because we are Christians but because this is true. And I think often times we can be just as guilty as others when it comes to forgetting to go to God. We tend to do this in difficult times, but we must remember that we need to be praying constantly to build spiritual protection, awareness, and depth in our lives to help us weather the difficult moments. So let me encourage you to build healthy prayer rhythms into your life to help you decompress and process what is happening. Carve out time each day or throughout the day to take your requests, praises, and deepest longings of the heart to God.

Tips for Setting Boundaries

  • Be honest. Often times as leaders in ministry we aren’t honest with ourselves or our superiors about how we are doing. In order to actually be able to rest and decompress we need to be honest with ourselves that we need it. And we must bring in others to avoid getting to the place of exhaustion and burnout.
  • Take a spiritual checkup. This is so important for us as leaders. How is your spiritual walk with Jesus doing? And I am not asking if you are reading your Bible and going to church. I am asking if you are feeling nourished and refreshed by God’s Word and by His Spirit. Do you still find joy in your walk with Jesus? Is it something that is feeding your soul? These types of questions will help us to see where we are at in our relationship with Jesus and how we answer will be reflected into our physical lives as well (i.e., no time with Jesus leads to frustration and exhaustion, time with Jesus helps to remove the stress and weariness).
  • Bring in your spouse or close friends. Our spouses are wonderful people. Without them we wouldn’t know what to do. And our spouses know when we aren’t doing okay. But for some reason, we try to shield them from how we are doing and in doing so, alienate them and cause them to worry. Our spouses love us and we are a team. So be honest with them. Let them walk with you. Allow for them to be a sounding board of wisdom, discernment, and encouragement. If you are unmarried, find a close friend or group of friends you trust who will walk with you and you can bring in. Don’t try to go through this journey alone.
  • Ask for help. It is okay to admit when you need help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or like there is too much to accomplish, bring others in. Ask your volunteers to help with things. Consider bringing in some of your students to help run different aspects of your program or to organize that one closet that is always a mess. Go to your supervisor and be honest with them that you need help. Allow for others to step in and help you when it is needed.

Fall and Winter Programming During COVID-19

This fall we had to implement a whole new style of programming for our student ministry. In years past we had gone the traditional route of meeting on Sundays and midweek. But as our state, like the rest of the world, grappled with how to handle the pandemic, it quickly became clear that our traditional methods would not be able to continue.

So we took a risk. After sifting through no less than 10 different plans, we finally settled on one we believed would work. We switched from meeting on-site to meeting as small groups in houses throughout our community, calling them Home Groups. We believed this would be something that would continue to champion our values and mission, and after much prayer we initiated this new phase. And honestly, it’s worked. We have seen steady numbers, consistent attendance, and a deepening of discipleship-oriented relationships.

In order to do this and do it well, we had multiple steps to consider. These steps weren’t all handled the best, and in hindsight some of these are things I wish I had done. The reason I want to share this now is because as we are entering cold and flu season, there is an increased chance of programming changing for many of us. So here are some steps to help you think through program changes.

Prayer, lots of prayer.

This may seem pretty obvious, but the truth is sometimes we can get stuck in planning mode. We run ahead when we believe we have found the perfect plan without seeking God’s wisdom and direction. And perhaps you did find the perfect plan, but did you stop to thank God? The reason I want to remind us to pray is because so often during this new stage of ministry in a pandemic, we can get hyper-focused on just getting ideas and content out as quickly as possible, and we don’t stop to consult with our God. Prayer is needed (perhaps even more so now than ever before), and without prayer even our greatest plans will not succeed. So remember to go before the throne often.

Over communication.

This is one I wish I had done better at. Looking back we communicated well with most of our church staff and with our volunteers, but I really wish we had done better at communicating with parents. I can make all the excuses I want like “we put up videos on social media,” or “we sent out emails,” and “it was in the newsletter.” But the reality is our people are so inundated with communication right now, we need to be able to find ways to clearly communicate with them. In looking back, one thing I would have done is host a parent forum of some type to articulate our plan and allow for questions. This would have helped to head off all the follow-up conversations I have been having two months into our new programming style. I also would have been clear and direct in explaining our decision(s) for why we chose this model. One of the reasons we moved to Home Groups was to help with mitigation should someone come down with COVID. I didn’t share this in the beginning, but in many follow-up conversations when I do share this, it helps parents understand and feel more at ease. So commit to communicating well with everyone in order to have a more seamless approach to however your ministry will look.

Team and parent buy-in.

This is huge and goes hand-in-hand with my prior point. If you are going to change how things look for your ministry, you need buy-in. When we shared what we were doing with our new fall plan with our leaders, we lost some because of the changes. We also had to answer a lot of questions from our team, which actually helped us shape how we were looking to implement it. By bringing our team into the conversation and listening to them, the majority of our group stayed with us and has excelled at our new model. The team’s buy-in has actually helped our Home Groups to grow and flourish.

With parents, I cannot express enough how important it is to have buy-in from them. I have talked with numerous parents over the past few months and as I explain the “why” behind what we are doing and the results we are seeing, parents begin to get excited and ask how they can help. This is where over-communicating is key, and will allow parents to know and understand, and then jump on board. Having parents who support your program and the changes to it will help it succeed.

Leadership approval.

This is one that sometimes we may forget in the rush to get things changed. Make sure that leadership knows what you are doing and approves of it. That will help with making sure that communication is consistent across the board, and that they support what you are doing. It can be easy to just implement a change, but if it doesn’t align with what church leadership is desiring as a whole, you may have to walk your plan back. And nothing deflates a program like multiple changes or things being undone. So bring leadership in, and make sure they are onboard with what you desire to implement.

Consistency and stability.

Consistency is something that people today are lacking. Students are facing constant change with how school is being done. Colleges are changing protocols and rules left and right. Families are trying to adapt to new ways of working from home and doing school at the same time. States are changing regulations all the time. Change is happening constantly and families are desperate for consistency and stability. So when you implement changes, look to have them be consistent for the long haul. Don’t change things weekly, don’t randomly insert a change of plans. Instead, look to provide a stable and consistent change that will help families and your program.

I would also encourage you to make sure that whatever you are implementing matches what the rest of the church is doing. For example, if you are not requiring masks for youth group but the church is for all other functions, this will simply add to confusion for families and the church. So make sure what you are implementing matches the overall plan and function of the church. We want to provide stability and consistency from all levels of our churches so our people know what to expect. This will also help to strengthen the church rather than add another area for there to be division.

Allow for flexibility.

I know this almost seems to go against what I was just saying about consistency and stability, but hear me out. We switched to a Home Group model of ministry in which our groups play games, fellowship, watch a teaching video, and then discuss it. We have afforded our leaders flexibility in how their group functions and in how they engage with the video. Some groups hate games, so instead they fellowship and share a meal. Some groups never use the study questions we provide because they know their group so well that they use their own questions. Other groups have asked if they could go out for ice cream afterward with parent approval. Allowing for this type of flexibility not only allows for there to be ongoing discipleship, but it also strengthens the group as a whole. This type of flexibility doesn’t change what we are doing but instead allows for groups to grow and for students to witness faith in action.

The Elimination of Worry

Have you ever caught yourself fearing that an imagined worst-case scenario would become a reality? Has your mind wandered down a dark rabbit hole spurred on by one worry after another only to leave you feeling panicked and anxious? Maybe this doesn’t happen often, only once in a while, or perhaps this is a daily occurrence for you. Whatever the case, what do you do when you’re gripped in the throes of fear and worry?

I’ve had a front-row seat to the effects of rampant fear and worry in the lives of others. I’ve watched as it has dictated daily choices, job decisions, mental processes, and life perspectives. And I’ve had to choose to wage war against it myself because in seeing it lived out through others, I have seen its ability to control and consume. But even in seeing that, and choosing to battle it, I find worry still trying to creep into my heart and mind.

When I find myself beginning to fear, I’ve noticed that whatever I worry about becomes my singular focus. I can’t stop obsessing over it, trying to solve the problem on my own strength, or pleading with God to do what I think will help most. It’s a sad attempt to involve Him only as far as I think He would be helpful. But ultimately, the worry and fear are still ruling my heart and mind.

So what can I do, what can we do, to fight to ruthlessly eliminate worry, and why does it matter? I recently spent some time studying Matthew 6, specifically verses 19-34. I was struck with some new concepts and ideas surrounding worry, and I would like to share them with you.

Ask, who is on the throne?

In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus talks about earthly treasure versus heavenly treasure, and that what we treasure most will command our hearts. Then in verse 24 He tells us that we cannot serve the two masters of God and money, we can only love one. These verses come before Jesus addresses worry in verses 25-34. So what’s the connection between money, treasures, and worry?

If our true love is an earthly treasure, won’t that command our lives? Won’t we obsess over the money, the job, the house, the power, whatever it may be? And won’t maintaining, possessing, or increasing that treasure become our sole focus? We might try to lie to ourselves, but I think ultimately we’ll keep coming back to whatever it is that our hearts desire most. Whatever that is will command the throne of our lives.

My study connected 1 Peter 5:6-7 to the anxieties we experience and I was struck by its simple, yet profound truth. It says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you.” Friends, the antidote to worry is to surrender to God His rightful place in our lives. If we choose to put Him on the throne of our hearts, before all the things we fear or desire, we can rest in the peaceful knowledge that He is not indifferent. He cares for us. The God who feeds the sparrow and clothes the lily in glorious array, “won’t He do much more for you”? (Matthew 6:30)

Memorize Scripture.

I think if we’re honest, the reality is that behind every fear and worry is a lie we have chosen to believe: I cannot trust God. That may sound extreme, but think about it. If you fear the loss of something, do you not believe that God will provide? If you feel like you have to solve a problem on your own, do you not trust that He has already solved it? If you fear what people will say about you or do to you, do you not believe that God has more control over your eternal soul than they? If you crave power and control, do you not know that you are subject to the power of an Almighty God?

If we examine our hearts, fear and worry have serious ramifications for how we view and relate to God. They can lead us away from submitting, trusting, and resting in Him. So what can we do? I think we begin by identifying the lies that we have allowed ourselves to believe. This may involve painful and ruthless honesty, but it is well worth it to weed out the lies that have crept into our hearts. After rooting them out, it is imperative to replace them with truth from the Lord. Identify a verse or verses that speak directly to the lies, worries, and fears you carry. Commit that verse or verses to memory, and recall them whenever you feel the temptation to worry tugging at you.

“Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” 1 John 2:15-17

Create a mental picture.

Along with memorizing Scripture, you may find it helpful to use visualization to draw your attention away from worry and toward the truth about God. For example, when I feel tempted to worry about something in life, I want to close my eyes and picture Christ seated above all the things I want or fear. This visualization reminds me that Christ rules in my life, and He is more important to me than anything else. Another image I have used when I feel anxious at night and cannot sleep is to imagine God’s hand in place of my bed. I can lay down in His palm and know that I am held safe. This picture gives me a sense of peace and helps me release any worry or fear I may be holding onto. Mental pictures can help us take the focus off our worries and place it where it belongs.

Make a list.

If you find yourself struggling to trust that God is active in your life, or that He will provide, I encourage you to make a list. Write down all the times you have witnessed something you know only God could have done. Write down instances where God has answered a prayer, provided for a need, encouraged you, or helped you to grow. Continue adding to your list over time and you will craft modern-day remembrance stones (Joshua 4) that you can use to not only encourage yourself, but others when they are struggling. Any time you feel a tug toward worry or doubt, get out your list and read to help yourself remember all the ways you have seen God working in your life.

For many of us, the fight against worry will be a lifelong battle. It is not easily conquered or dispelled in a day. But with consistent perseverance, God will help us to overcome it. And the fight will be well worth it as we place our hope and treasure in the one true King.