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.

How to Pursue Healthy Communication

This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching in our church’s main services on the topic of “sharing our story,” which was focused on how we can communicate the Gospel story in healthy and proactive ways. So often our communication styles are not helpful because we allow for a “me-centric” approach to conversations, and I was able to share how I believe Jesus desires us to have healthy conversations both within and outside of the church.

As ministry leaders, we must model healthy communication at all levels in order to help facilitate the discipleship process. Today, I want to share with you some ways we can engage in healthy conversations from an interaction between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3. These tips are not all-inclusive, but are simply a starting point for how we can begin to navigate the conversations and interactions we have with one another.

Be someone who is willing to have conversations.

As ministry leaders we must be willing to engage in conversations, whether they are with people with whom we disagree, or people who share similar views. We must be willing to engage with people where they are at in a loving, Christ-centered way. Maintaining an open door policy in regard to conversations, questions, and direction will set the precedent that you are someone who is willing to walk with others.

Ask good questions.

Part of healthy communication is the ability to both ask and respond to questions in a proactive manner. Questions are a sign that someone is seeking knowledge, clarity, and understanding in regard to the topic at hand. Questions should not be feared, but welcomed, and the manner in which we respond to them will continue to establish rapport and trust with others.

In a conversation it is also beneficial for you to ask clarifying questions as you seek to provide wisdom and insight. Rather than simply providing answers, seek to understand before you respond. Asking good questions can help you uncover the heart behind the questions you are being asked, which will then allow for you to better minister to and care for your people. Asking questions will also help you avoid assumptions, which can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and ultimately a breakdown in communication.

Use encouraging language.

Throughout Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, Jesus challenges him to think critically about his questions. Jesus doesn’t respond harshly or negatively toward Nicodemus, even though the answers to his questions may seem obvious to us. As we engage in conversations with others, we must be mindful of the language that we use. Negative language will push people away and give them a sour taste, not only toward the church, but also toward the Gospel. This is not to say that we do not speak truth, nor engage in difficult conversations. However, the manner and conduct with which we approach these conversations can allow for a healthier, fuller, and more honest dialogue to unfold.

Practice active listening.

We are a society and a church that as a whole struggles to listen well to others. Often we say that we listen, but the manner in which we do is passive listening. Passive listening entails looking for flaws in the person’s conversation or argument, listening to win, and finishing sentences before a thought is completed. This type of listening is neither productive or proactive. This type of listening is harmful and will not establish trust or continued opportunities to dialogue, as people do not feel heard and instead feel devalued in the moment.

What we need pursue as ministry leaders is active listening. Active listening entails paying attention to the other person’s statement(s) and asking clarifying questions in order to deduce the heart issue. The clarifying questions will allow for you to gain a better understanding of the issues at hand, as well as value the other person as you engage with their thought process and value their input. Active listening involves hearing the other person with a goal to understand them, before being understood.

Establish relational equity and trust.

It is important even prior to a conversation to be a person that others know they can trust because they have seen you model a trustworthy life. People should know they can trust you because you are not prone to gossiping or talking poorly about others, and they know that when they come to you they can expect the same treatment. This also involves following up with individuals, not in a nosy way, but in a way that demonstrates you care and value them enough to continue walking with them. This allows you to set the precedent that it is not a singular conversation, but a relationship that you value and respect.

Share your story.

It is important in healthy conversations to be transparent and vulnerable as you dialog. This requires tact and timing because we should not simply rush to share our story and in so doing, not allow others to share theirs. We should always defer to the other person and allow for them to share their story as they have come to us as a ministry leader. When it is appropriate, we can share our story of how God has worked in our life, or share other personal examples, to help others grow. It is important to remember the person came to you seeking clarity and understanding, not necessarily personal anecdotes, so be mindful of how much you share, and how long you share. You never want to dominate the conversation, but look instead to utilize your story to showcase the Gospel and its power.

The Importance of Sabbath

This past week I was asked a question that I’ve been asked often during this season: how are you really doing? As I was preparing to answer with my usual, “I am just taking it one day at a time” response, I was hit with just how spent I had been feeling. I was busier than ever and with more and more being placed on my plate, I was just feeling overwhelmed.

Later on, I began to process the reasons why I was feeling this way. Sure, I have been putting in more hours. Yes, ministry looks different and I am doing things I never expected to make sure it’s a success. Of course I am pouring out more than I ever have to care for the people I shepherd. And there will always be difficult moments and conversations that leave you feeling inadequate and deflated. But was that it? Were these the reasons I was feeling so tired, overwhelmed, and weary?

This past Wednesday I found myself listening to a podcast by my friend Walt Mueller from CPYU. It was podcast about Sabbath with his guest A.J. Swoboda. The conversation hit my heart in a way it hadn’t before. Of course, as a ministry worker I am familiar with the concept of a Sabbath and have worked to make one of my days off a Sabbath each week. But hearing them share about how during this pandemic ministry personnel are not adhering to this commandment from God just broke me.

Walt shared a comment from A.J.’s book on how the Sabbath is the only commandment ministry leaders are encouraged to break, when breaking any of the others are grounds for being fully dismissed from ministry. I realized that during this season I haven’t been resting well. I haven’t honored this commandment.

Instead, I have poured out everything to make ministry work during this season. I’ve put in more hours than I care to admit. My phone is always on. Email is going constantly. I have been available all the time without fail. While these all sound good to an extent, without the constant filling from a Sabbath, we will inevitably find ourselves drained and weary.

I want to encourage you to rest and to incorporate a Sabbath into your regular rhythm. Turn off your phone or put it on “do not disturb.” Do not do ministry work on your Sabbath. Bring your spouse and family into this with you. Let your co-workers and ministry leaders know what you are doing and lead out as you encourage them to do likewise. We are called to honor God not just through our work ethics and hours, but also through how we honor the Sabbath and apply it to our lives.

My prayer is that this post doesn’t add guilt, but challenges us all to apply the Sabbath to our lives and to allow the deepness and richness of it to overwhelm us in positive ways. I want to encourage you to listen to CPYU’s podcast and to allow God’s truth to speak to your heart.

How do you apply the Sabbath to your life? What does your Sabbath look like?

Incorporating Creativity into Student Ministry

As a creative, one of my favorite lesser-known passages of Scripture is Exodus 35:30-35. It says,

 Moses then said to the Israelites: “Look, the Lord has appointed by name Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every kind of craft to design artistic works in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut gemstones for mounting, and to carve wood for work in every kind of artistic craft. He has also given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all the work of a gem cutter; a designer; an embroiderer in blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen; and a weaver. They can do every kind of craft and design artistic designs.”

What I love about this passage is how clearly it states that creativity is a gift from God. He is the one who gives creative ability, and it is something that can and should be used to worship Him.

As church leaders, we have the responsibility to enable those in our care to use their gifts, and to help lead others in worshiping God. One way we can do this is by leveraging the creative abilities of others, and intentionally incorporating creative elements into our services, resources, and activities. Whether it is our gifting or someone else’s, creativity can help draw our attention to God, and cause us to connect with Him in ways we couldn’t otherwise.

Student ministry is a perfect place to pursue creativity–young people have great ideas, and often think creatively about the world around them. Plus many are creatively gifted, and want to see how their passions and abilities are part of their faith. This fall is a great time to intentionally implement new creative elements in your ministry. Depending on your church’s plans and requirements in light of COVID-19, some ideas may be easier to incorporate than others, but we have included a “COVID alternative” for each suggestion.

Incorporate music.

Music is often the most creative interactive aspect of church services; it is also the thing most people think of when they hear the word “worship.” The artistry and creativity of music draws the mind toward God, through the arrangement of notes and selection of lyrics. And while it is something many are used to, it is still a creative element that can be incorporated into youth ministry.

Whether you have a playlist going during hang-outs and games, or you have a student-led worship band, or you host concerts and gigs, there are numerous ways to incorporate music. It can be used to instantly set the tone for a space or event, utilize the talents of your students, and help to direct attention to the appropriate focus or activity.

COVID alternative: Consider filming a socially-distanced worship set list, or creating one via Spotify or YouTube. Students can watch or listen and sing along alone or in small groups. You can also create playlists for them to listen to during the week, or during their devotional time. If your students are musically gifted, encourage them to share their covers or write original songs reflecting their relationship with God and the things He has been teaching them.

Embrace poetry and spoken word.

Poetry may seem like an art form from ancient times, but if you read Psalms, you know it can stand the test of the ages. Its modern-day equivalent, spoken word, can be equally as beautiful and powerful.

Spoken word can be used to melodically and artistically present a story or concept in a new way, which can help students to think deeply about the intersection of their life and faith. It can be featured before a talk, incorporated into your lesson, or showcased on an open mic night. Consider bringing in a guest artist or student to present their original pieces, or ask them to create one around a featured topic.

Both poetry and spoken word are elements of story telling, another creative medium that can be incorporated into student ministry. (For more on storytelling, check out this post.) Story telling can be personal, or it can also be presented in other forms, like video clips. Stories grab listeners’ attention and illustrate abstract concepts, which can lead to deeper understanding and retention.

COVID alternative: Share spoken word with your students via video or audio, whether you record it yourself, or find something online. If you have students who are interested in poetry or spoken word, encourage them to work on an original piece. If it’s something that can be shared with the group, ask them if they would be willing to record it, or if you can share it for them. If you have enough interest, consider hosting an open mic night via video chat, where students can share their piece and listen to what others have written.

Include arts and crafts.

There really is no limit to how you can incorporate arts and crafts into student ministry, the options are endless. Sensory activities can help students connect to spiritual concepts and engage other parts of their brains. However, there are some good starting points and things to consider before choosing an artsy activity. Some big questions to ask: is it childish, does it have a purpose, and does it allow for creative expression?

Students, especially high schoolers, want to be treated like adults. If the activity you have planned is something they do in the preschool class, your students will probably check out, and possibly feel insulted. Make sure a craft or art activity is something on their level and not overly juvenile. Also, the activity should tie into your lesson and have a purpose behind it, especially for the students who may want to participate, but aren’t artistically inclined. If they can’t draw a sheep, can they still accomplish something? For the student who is artistically inclined, can they use the activity to creatively express themselves, even if they think outside the box?

If you aren’t sure where to start, begin by talking with your students who are artistically-inclined. They may have some awesome ideas for creative projects you can implement in hang outs, or as part of your lessons. If you can’t think of a specific craft or project, start by providing blank paper and art supplies like markers, colored pencils, or gel pens. Another option is to invest in some adult coloring books, journals for your students, or scrapbooking supplies. If you have interest, you can plan a creative night where students can paint a canvas or complete a craft, enjoy a snack, and socialize.

COVID alternative: If you’re gathering digitally, plan a creative project students can do with things they have at home. Give them a heads-up beforehand so they can gather supplies. You can also encourage your students to make creative projects part of their personal devotional time. They can draw or write a response to what they read, or creatively letter a verse that stands out to them.

Don’t neglect aesthetics.

Decorating can be challenging if you’re utilizing a shared space, working with a limited budget, or restricted in what you’re allowed to do. But regardless, there are things you can do to make your space more aesthetically pleasing, which will help make your meetings inviting and appealing while encouraging creativity. Again, an important thing to keep in mind is that students want to be treated and feel like adults, so avoid things that feel overtly childish or juvenile.

A few things you can incorporate include:

  • Lighting. If you’re in a space with overhead florescent lighting, it can feel sterile and office-like. Switch things up with lamps, string lights, or up-lighting. You don’t need a laser light show to make the space feel more interesting or comfortable.
  • Seating. Switching up your seating options can help keep students’ attention, and make them more comfortable. Try sitting around round tables, providing cushions if you’re using the floor, or adding some comfy couches and chairs.
  • Decor. If you’re in a shared space, removable decor might be the easiest way to transform your space. Think about using wall art, lightweight furniture, faux plants and flowers, lights, and pop-up backdrops.
  • Paint. If you’re in your own space, a fresh coat of paint in an appealing, neutral tone can help make your space feel new and inviting. Try adding an accent wall in a bright color, chalkboard paint, modern design, or mural.
  • Graphics. Don’t forget that you can carry aesthetics through to your materials and display graphics. Choose artful photos, modern fonts, and colors that coordinate with your space. You can also create or refresh the logo for your ministry and feature it prominently in your meeting space.

Don’t be afraid to try new things; start small, and if they don’t work, you can change them. If you’re not sure what your students will like, form a decorating team to brainstorm ideas and contribute to setting up each week. Your students can help you keep things interesting and relevant while also providing manpower.

Also, set a budget for yourself or your students. You can shop yard sales and thrift stores, and keep an eye out for curbside finds. Some things can get an easy face lift with a coat of spray paint, or become a work of art with a simple DIY project.

COVID alternative: If you’re not meeting in person, you can still create an aesthetic wherever you film lessons and promos. Make your own back drop, frame the scene, or switch up filming locations. Also, you can use graphics and artistic imagery on social media, creating an aesthetic even if you’re not meeting together.

What have you done to encourage or incorporate creativity into student ministry?

Small Group Game Ideas

Last week we looked at socially distanced games for groups that can gather in larger numbers. These games can work for some ministries, but other youth groups have made the switch to meeting in smaller groups to accommodate state and federal guidelines.

With that being said, I would like to share some game ideas for smaller groups. Some of these are the same as last week because they can also be played in small groups with minor tweaking. This isn’t an all encompassing list, but merely an attempt to share some resources that we have found to be helpful and beneficial.

Zoom Games

The reality for many of our groups is that we will be meeting virtually at some point this coming semester. We don’t like to think that way, but it is better to be prepared for it than not. So I would encourage you to think through different Zoom Games that you can play. An easy option is utilizing PowerPoint style games that you can screen-share with a group. Another option is doing trivia over Zoom or a “Would You Rather” style game. The cool thing with all of these ideas is you don’t necessarily need to come up with them. Download Youth Ministry has an entire section on their website where you can purchase these games and many more. I would encourage you to start building up your resources now to prepare for the fall. And if you don’t end up meeting online, these games can transition easily to in-person gatherings as well.

Charades

Who doesn’t love a classic game of charades? The general idea is that you will have someone acting out an action, character, or activity that they have pulled from a hat. These can be pre-made by you and your volunteers or you can have students submit suggestions. There are lots of different ways to play Charades like as small groups guessing, or as a large group guessing, or even reverse charades where one person guesses while the whole group acts it out. Whichever one you choose, make sure to remind the people acting out that they can not make noise or they forfeit that round.

Apples to Apples

This is a classic party game and is fantastic for small groups. It does require you to purchase the card game, but it will provide lasting fun for your group. There are also many different editions that you can choose from depending on what your group will enjoy more.

The premise of the game is this: The judge picks a green apple card from the top of the stack, reads the word aloud, and places it face up on the table. Players (except the judge) quickly choose the red apple card from their hand that is best described by the word on the green apple card played by the judge. Players place these red apple cards face down on the table. The judge mixes the red apple cards so no one knows who played which card. The judge turns over each red apple card, reads it aloud, and then selects the one he or she thinks is best described by the word on the green apple card. The player of the selected red apple card is awarded the green apple card played by the judge.

Yard Games

Being able to gather outdoors while the weather is nice is a huge blessing in many ways. Games outdoors are a huge win and don’t need to be planned out in great detail because many of them can run themselves. Some great yard games include cornhole/bags, ladder ball, giant Jenga, badminton, socially distanced volleyball or basketball, Kan Jam, Frisbee, horseshoes, or Spikeball. All of these options allow for social distancing and a ton of fun.

Heads Up

If you are not familiar with Heads Up, you need to download it now and play it. It is a ton of fun and guaranteed to get your group laughing. Heads Up is an app that you can download, but it does cost money. However, there are multiple free versions that you can download as well including the Charades App, Guess Word! Fun Group Games, Charades – Heads Up, and Charades! Kids. I would just encourage you to try them out prior to the night-of.

The way this game works is someone holds the phone up to their head while the app is running and a random word or words will pop up on the screen. The guesser will need to guess the word(s) by the clues that the audience gives. Most apps will let you know how many you get right, and you can have a friendly competition among your group.

Costume Challenge

This is an activity that can be done both in-person and online. I have had many of my leaders host online costume parties, and they change the theme each week to make them more fun and engaging. You can also do this in person, and if you have to wear masks you could even see about having students tie the masks into their costumes.

Scavenger Hunts

Doing scavenger hunts is a really easy and fun way to get students involved and moving, and they can be done in person or digitally. If you are meeting at a home, you could give a list of objects and tasks to your small group to find or complete around the home and/or neighborhood. If you are doing it digitally, you could have them find different items around their house and the first to show it on screen wins the round. Last week we shared about a great website/app called Scavr that allows you to create scavenger hunts that utilize the app and all that data and points are accumulated through an online leader board.

Users must download the app and sign up in order to participate. They then create a team name and will be able to see the challenges that you have put into the game. The beauty of this app is that it tallies the results and shows a leader board throughout the event. It removes the headache of trying to create and tally everything on your own, and makes it really easy.

Trivia

Who doesn’t love a good trivia night? You can set this up for small groups or for individuals to compete. If you Google trivia questions, there are countless websites for you to choose from or you can pop on over to DYM and find a ton of games that you can plug and play for your group.

Message Bingo

This has recently been making the rounds in various online groups, but the overall gist is that you create a Bingo board with different things that will pop up throughout the message or the night. You can add squares like “the pastor said ‘umm'” or “everyone wore a mask” or “pop culture reference” or “bad joke by pastor.” You can have as much fun with this as possible, and you could even offer prizes as well. There are lots of online generators for Bingo cards, but this website offers up to 30 free printable cards that you can change the layout and design on.

The Hat Game

This is a really fun game to play with any size group, but in smaller groups you can play multiple rounds. The premise is fairly simple: there are three rounds of game-play and two teams. In the first round one player will draw pieces of paper out the hat and try to get their team members to guess what is written on them by only using Charades. The next round is the player tries to have their team guess using Pictionary, and the final round they can speak but not say the word or what it sounds like. Each round is timed and then you rotate teams.

The fun part about this game is you can switch up the categories, the method for sharing clues, the timing, and much more. It is a game you could continue to use no matter the circumstance, and each time it will be an entirely different game for your group. For more ideas and a more complete set of instructions, check out this website.

Xbox/Wii/Switch Games

I am not normally one to encourage playing video games, especially during youth group time. But there are games on Kinect, Wii and Wii U, and Nintendo Switch that are great group games to play because they are somewhat active and allow for four or more people to play. I will say this though: be cautious with what games you choose and make sure that they are games parents and your ministry approve of. You never want an activity to become a stumbling block.

Would You Rather

These are great conversation starters and allow for you to actively engage your students with both fun and serious questions. I would suggest setting ground rules for your group that include no making fun of someone’s answer, no course or crude joking, and always answer honestly. A couple of websites that I enjoy using include Conversation Starters World and Icebreaker Ideas. Both of them have solid ideas for questions with a broad range of topics and age ranges.

Highs and Lows

If you aren’t familiar with this idea, it is a great way to begin conversations within a small group. Many of my leaders use this each week because it gets students talking and engaging with the group. It can look different depending on your group and its dynamic, but the basic functionality is this: each student and leader will share anywhere from 1-3 high moments from the week and 1-3 low moments from the week. They can be funny or serious and they can lead to some fantastic laughs and amazing deep conversations.

House Party

House Party is an app that allows you to video chat and play games with your group. I would recommend utilizing the privacy settings and make your room locked so only certain participants are allowed in. But with this app you can play different games together as a group and video chat at the same time. It is very similar to Zoom but doesn’t require screen sharing for games. Everyone will need to create an account and have the app downloaded in order for this to work for your group. So make sure your students know to do that ahead of time.

House Party gives you different game options like Heads Up, Uno, Trivia, Quick Draw, and much more. It is worth downloading and giving it a test run before you implement this with your group so you know its inner workings and limitations.

What are some of your favorite small group games?

Socially Distanced Game Ideas

As many of us are looking at returning to some sort of programming soon, it is important to critically think through what activities and games we will be hosting. Because let’s face it, most of our games are not about social distancing. In order to provide a safe place for students and volunteers, it is important to think about what games will provide the most fun while still being safe.

The games below can be shaped to fit any style or size of youth ministry, but they are primarily for whole youth groups that are regathering. Next week, I will share some game and activity ideas for small groups as many youth ministries are moving toward that direction of ministry going forward. Before we get into the actual games, I wanted to share a few quick tips to make these games successful and safe.

  • Smile and have fun. The more excitement and fun you have, the more engaged your group will be.
  • Encourage social distancing. You don’t have to be an enforcer, but helpful and kind reminders will go a long way.
  • Provide hand sanitizer stations. If kids are touching one another or communal objects, have these areas for immediately after.
  • Encourage hand washing. Even with hand sanitizer, it is beneficial to wash often after activities and before eating.
  • Remind everyone about the rules. Whatever rules your state and church are following, make sure to encourage adherence to them for everyone’s safety.

Scavr

Scavr is a great new resource for creating scavenger hunts that are hosted through an online platform. Users must download the app and sign up in order to participate. They then create a team name and will be able to see the challenges that you have put into the game. The beauty of this app is that it tallies the results and shows a leader board throughout the event. It removes the headache of trying to create and tally everything on your own, and makes it really easy.

A scavenger hunt is also a great activity to socially distance in because you can send out small groups and ask them to maintain the six foot rule, which will be easier to follow in small groups. Just keep that in mind as you create the challenges (i.e. no human pyramids, which equals less people getting hurt).

The Floor is Lava

This is an old school game that has been having a recent resurgence. If you aren’t familiar with the rules the game is fairly simple: do not touch the ground or you are out. The object of the game can vary from completing tasks like collecting objects or moving a team to a safe zone, to completing an obstacle course, to a last person standing challenge. The game can be as creative as you can imagine and will allow for various people to play but also socially distance.

Up Front Games

Depending on the size of your group and the rules you need to follow these may have to be your go-to activity for the time being. These types of games could be trivia style, rap battles, PowerPoint games, or any of a number of Jimmy Fallon-inspired games. These can be done with as few or as many people as you would like, and they can be done in a safe manner as well.

Seated Basketball/Soccer/Football

This is a personal favorite of mine. These games take the traditional sports we love and turn them on their heads. You do not have to be super athletic to play these games because you are seated the entire time. Before you start the game, set up your playing area whether it is indoors or outdoors. Simply place chairs where players will sit the entire game or period and label which team they are for. Then have your students pick a chair and get ready to laugh.

The rules are the same for whatever the game is with one addition: students cannot move from their chair. Have leaders roaming to place the balls back in play when needed. You can also change up the rules and objectives to add another layer to the games as well.

Trivia Games

Who doesn’t love a good trivia night? You can set this up for small groups or for individuals to compete. If you Google trivia questions there are countless websites for you to choose from or you can pop on over to DYM and find a ton of games that you can plug and play for your group.

Hula Hoop Volleyball

This is an easy game to set up and run with. Simply set up a volleyball net, or something in place of it like a sheet on clothesline, and then place hula hoops on each side that are six feet apart. The rules for volleyball don’t change, except that students may not leave their hula hoop during the game unless it is to rotate spots during a change in servers.

Scattergories

This is a great game to play as a small or large group. If you are playing as a small group give everyone a score sheet and have them all compete against one another. You or a leader will assign a letter and have the students write words beginning with it.

If you have a larger group, consider setting this up tournament style. Have students all compete with same letter and then when time is up they will compete only against the other person at their table. The winner will advance to the next table, while the loser stays at the table. If there is a tie have them play Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide the victor. The person with the most wins at the end is the champion.

Cornhole/Bags Tournament

If you do not have a couple sets of these for your youth ministry, let me highly encourage you to get some. I have purchased these before and they have held up very nicely. The very nature of the game allows for socially distanced fun, and you can turn it into a tournament to decide who is the best cornhole player. You can also set up varying degrees of game play (i.e. closer or farther away) to make it more of a challenge for your students.

Charades

Who doesn’t love a classic game of charades? The general idea is that you will have someone acting out an action, character, or activity that they have pulled from a hat. These can be pre-made by you and your volunteers or you can have students submit them. There are lots of different ways to play Charades like as small groups guessing, or as a large group guessing, or even reverse charades where one person guesses while the whole group acts it out. Whichever one you choose, make sure to remind the people acting out that they can not make noise or they forfeit that round.

Pool Noodle Tag

This is a game that will require a little more prep but can be a lot of fun. The premise is you are playing tag, but the only way you can tag someone is with a pool noodle. Make sure you have ones that are close to six feet long and explain to your group that they must hold it at the back end and reach out the pool noodle to tag the other players. It may be helpful to demonstrate proper tagging, especially if you have some overly zealous young men like I do who like to swing the noodles as weapons.

Nerf Battle

I don’t know if your students are like mine, but mine love a good old fashioned Nerf Battle. Having it now will look different, but it is still a viable option. You can set rules to include being six feet apart and if you get too close, you are out or need to re-spawn. I would encourage not swapping weapons unless they are wiped down, and always have eye protection. This would actually be a great game to encourage using face shields in because there will be minimal push back (and eye protection).

What games are you doing as your youth group regathers?

How to Connect with Difficult Students

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

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

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

Build relationships.

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

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

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

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

Get to know the family.

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

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

Be willing to listen.

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

Go to where they are.

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

Meet them where they are at.

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

Know their history.

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

Stand up for them.

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

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

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

How have you reached difficult students in your ministry?

What Will Your Youth Ministry Look Like?

Let’s face it: youth ministry as we knew it back in January and February is no more… at least for the time being. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic our programming, scheduling, and events will look radically different going forward.

Perhaps you have already been thinking through this or maybe your superiors have asked you to begin building a plan. Some of you may even have begun meeting again. But the question we need ask ourselves is this: is how we did ministry before going to continue? If the answer to that is no, we must creatively think through what we are going to do once fall arrives.

Families are looking to the church to make informed and timely decisions that put the physical and spiritual health of their people at the forefront of whatever happens. We bear the responsibility to keep our students, families, and volunteers safe going forward. I would like to share some key things to consider going forward in this new season of ministry.

Know what families desire.

An easy way to do this would be to send out a brief survey to gather insight and viewpoints about decisions going forward. Ask questions like:

  • Would you prefer to have youth group meet online, in person, or in small groups?
  • Will your students attend if they have to wear masks?
  • What would make you feel safe and confident about your student returning?
  • What requirements and safeguards would you like to see in place?
  • What suggestions do you have for our ministry?

Know how your leaders will respond.

This is something we must take into consideration. Our leaders may be immunocompromised, they may work in a high risk area like nursing homes or hospitals, or they may live with people who are more at risk. Talking to your leaders and finding out how they feel about programming going forward will help you to plan effectively and care well for your leaders.

In doing this, you may even gain some insight on how to proactively move forward. Your leaders serve in a variety of capacities outside of your program, and they bring knowledge and creative thought that perhaps hasn’t yet been considered in your circles. So come to listen, share, and gain insight into how your leaders will engage going forward.

Make informed decisions.

If you are like me, you cannot wait to be back with your students. I have not met with my students in person since March, and we have only now begun to see them in smaller gatherings, such as grad parties, since our state allowed smaller groups to meet. Going forward though, we are most likely not having any programming until the fall. That is really difficult news for my team, my volunteers, and our students and families. But we have rooted our decisions in multiple facets.

Our church has health professionals advising us, we are looking to utilize sound science, we have held all of our decisions in the context of Scriptural truth, and we are approaching everything we do with a humble heart. I am not saying that our church and leadership has made every decision perfectly. We have tried hard, but like everyone else, we are only human.

What I am encouraging leaders to do is this: make timely, informed, and well thought-out decisions. Don’t simply launch into programming like before just because you can. Don’t dismiss other views because you don’t agree. Don’t make quick decisions in the moment. And don’t allow for what we consider to be our rights to keep us from caring for others as Jesus would want us to. Make decisions that reflect Jesus and put the health, well-being, and spiritual care of your people first. This may mean things will look different, but ultimately our goal is to point people to Christ, and even in these decisions we should be doing just that.

Consider your ministry’s priorities.

This last point is probably the hardest. In recent months, my team and I have evaluated what we believe to be the priorities in our ministry. These haven’t been easy conversations because we had to ask questions like these:

  • Are games important?
  • What if we can’t serve food?
  • Will people come if they have to wear masks?
  • Do we need to have large group teaching?
  • Can we switch to a full-on small group model for ministry?
  • Are we committed to meeting only on a certain night at a certain time each week?

These questions have forced us to wrestle deep within our own hearts. If I am honest, I do not want to stop large group teaching. I love it. I love being in front of my students and expositing God’s Word. But if I am being honest, I must admit that there is quite a bit of pride in that too. Pride in being the up-front person, and having that be a focal point of the program. So we have begun to take a hard look at the ministry and we have plans in place if we need to make changes.

Be willing to step back and take an honest assessment of your priorities and why they are priorities. Consider bringing in some trusted leaders to help in this process and to begin planning the future with them. This will not only help you, but will bring strength and buy-in to your ministry as well.

How are you planning for the fall in your ministry context? What changes are you making?