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.

How to Co-Lead Well

Many of us have more than one leader working in our student ministries. Whether it is you and your spouse or you have dozens of youth leaders at your disposal, learning how to co-lead is highly important. In many of our ministry settings we must have two leaders for accountability and legal purposes. Whatever the reason may be that you have multiple leaders, co-leading (leading with another leader) is something we must learn to do well in order to have a successful ministry.

In order to lead well with another person, there are certain aspects that we need to consider and implement. Today, we want to examine a few of those and hopefully give you relevant and helpful ways to lead well together.

Communication

Part of leading well with others involves communication. Whether you are talking with your co-leader for a small group or the three others who are helping facilitate your gathering, communication will help everyone be on the same page, it will instill value and worth, and it will help everyone lead better. So communicate with one another before the program or group time. Communicate about where you see the discussion going, communicate about arrival times, or even about conversations you have had with the students in your group. The more communication there is, the better off you all will be as leaders because it helps you work as a team.

Game Plan Together

Another aspect of communication is planning with one another. As you lead with others you should work collectively to come up with a plan as to how you see things going. This could involve who will handle what aspects of a small or large group, it could involve who will facilitate discussion, or it could even be who will speak with a student about what they shared or did. Game planning together will bring a cohesiveness to your group and allow for all leaders to have a role in what is happening. Planning together will allow for each leader to feel validated and provide everyone with a clear direction for your group.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Working with others can be challenging at times and I believe part of this is because of our own weaknesses and strengths. Where we have a strength we see other’s weaknesses, and where we have a weakness we become frustrated or bitter because of someone else’s strengths. But that shouldn’t be our focus. Instead of fixating on how great we are or where there are missteps, we should look at what each person brings to the table and use them to collectively help our students grow. A weakness is only a weakness if we allow it to be. If you struggle with asking open ended questions but your co-leader excels at it, don’t get upset they are asking the questions. Maybe lean into your strength which could be one-on-one discipleship. Both are valid and beneficial, and when used together by a team it brings greatness to what you are doing. So communicate about your strengths and weaknesses with your co-leader(s) and look for ways to excel together.

Be for One Another

This is something that we all need to be mindful of, especially as we lead together. Leaders may not always agree, but it is important to show unity. It is important to not chop someone at the knees if they misspeak about a passage of Scripture and it is equally important to not bad mouth your co-leader if they are late to group. Speaking positively about other leaders not only instills confidence in your students for their leaders, it also allows you and your co-leader to grow closer together. This isn’t dismissing behavior that is problematic but instead allowing for you two to be for one another and supportive of each other. If a problem does arise, the best way to handle it is away from the students.

Be Honest with Each Other

Being honest is hugely important when it comes to leading with others. In both good and difficult times, honesty will help your relationship with your fellow leaders. If you are frustrated by something that happened, share it in love and look to be honest about the situation. If you need help or are running late, be honest about it. Be honest if you weren’t able to prepare as much as you would have liked. This allows for transparency and opportunities for growth and for truth to be spoken. It will also allow for frustrations to be alleviated and for you relationship to be built upon trust.

How to Deal with Discouragement

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

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

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

Get a mentor.

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

Evaluate what was said.

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

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

Think about why this discouraged you.

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

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

Ask yourself what your goal is and who you serve.

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

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

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

Release and forgive.

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

Take a break, breathe, and laugh.

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

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

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

5 Ways to Develop Volunteers

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

1. Meet with your volunteers.

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

2. Cast vision well.

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

3. Give volunteers responsibility and ownership.

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

4. Recognize and challenge them.

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

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

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

5. Listen to your volunteers.

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

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

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

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

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

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

Be approachable.

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

Create the space for conversations.

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

Listen well.

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

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

Do not be dismissive.

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

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

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

Be willing to hear both sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

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

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

Be willing to change your views.

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

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

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

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.

Practical Tips for Counseling Students

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

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

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

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

Resource yourself.

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

Know your referral network.

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

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

Be a trustworthy person.

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

Be in prayer and grow your spiritual health.

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

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

Listen well.

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

Take notes.

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

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

Be empathetic.

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

Follow up.

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

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

Recommended resources:

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers

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

Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Youth

Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide

The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling