Caring for Students with Special Needs

Over the past five years or so, I have become much more aware of how many people struggle with connecting with a “regular student ministry program” due to some type of disability or having special needs. Our church is actually the first church that I have worked at that has an entire program for children and students with disabilities or special needs, and it’s one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Now that is not to say that I am an expert in this area at all. In fact, part of the reason I chose to write about this is because if you are like me, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle this type of program. I know I am not trained well in this area, but I have been striving to learn and grow.

My desire today is simply to provide you with some ideas and advice, as well as point you to some resources to help you grow personally and minister to people in your church and community who are often forgotten about and marginalized. The more we work at making our ministries and churches accessible to everyone, the more likelihood there is of reaching people for the kingdom of heaven.

Get to know your people.

This is the best place to start. If you notice that there are students with special needs or families who have students with special needs, go and talk to them. Reach out and connect. Get to know them. Encourage them and let them know that they are welcomed, valued, and loved. People and families with special needs individuals often feel forgotten and ostracized because of the differences that exist. By reaching out to them and caring for them, you are creating a place of refuge and love. So ask questions. Listen well. Get to know them. Hear their stories and tensions they have. Then use what you learn to help create a place where their student(s) can come, participate, be loved, and know more about Jesus.

Equip and keep your team in the know.

If you have volunteers it is key to help them know and understand that there are students who have special needs. You don’t need to go into all the personal details for each student, but allowing your team to know that you do have students with special needs better prepares them to engage in different ways. It also helpful to share with your team different methods for calming students down, helping them engage, and how to communicate with them. Much of this information can be gleaned from parents and that goes back to our first point about getting to know the individuals and their families. This better equips you and your team to care for and minister to them. Also consider bringing in people to help train your team or giving them additional resources. Reaching out to local schools and organizations will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and allow you to consider bringing someone in to train your team.

No two people are ever the same.

This is a really key thing to remember. When you meet a student who has special needs, you have only met one student with special needs. No two people are exactly alike. No two situations (even with the same individual) will be exactly the same. No response will ever work the same for two different people. Each of these individuals is just that: an individual. Someone crafted in the image of God who longs to be loved and to belong. And our role is to care for them as an individual, to see them as God does, and to not assume things about them.

Make your place safe and welcoming.

Over the past few years I have come to realize how important space, lighting, sound, and programming is to people who have special needs. If you have students with autism, find out how lights, sounds, games, scheduling or lack thereof affect them. I found out that to many harsh lights or loud noises cause over-stimulation and that in turn makes the students and their families not want to participate. Another thing that people don’t always realize is that scheduling is huge for some people who have special needs. Having a system, a flow, structure, or a schedule helps them and their families prepare. So even if you could simply send a note to families a day or so ahead of time explaining the event and its schedule, you will make your program all the more inviting.

Another great thing to evaluate is this: is your venue handicap accessible? A great way of discerning this is by asking if people in a wheel chair can access and participate in all aspects of your program. If they cannot, it isn’t hard to believe that people with other special needs can most likely not participate as well. You are measuring whether or not your program is open and welcoming to all.

Purchase some sensory equipment.

This was one of the best things I have done for our ministry in a long time. You can literally find hundreds of options on Amazon simply by searching “fidget toys box,” and you can find ones that fit your ministry context best. This is a really good option that can be used in a variety of contexts. Putting sensory items out in your rooms or area of ministry affords students a new way to engage. It gives them something to play with which in turn allows them to focus. It helps students with anxiety to relieve some of their anxiousness. It gives people something to engage with. I would highly recommend getting some of these for everyone in student ministry.

Utilize resources and seek to grow your own knowledge.

There are some really good resources out there and some really not good resources when it comes to this topic and ministering to people with special needs. During my time in ministry I have found two really helpful resources that I want to share with you. Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a phenomenal resource I just recently came upon after hearing him speak on a podcast. His book is a great resource that I would highly recommend as he offers great insight and perspective as he himself falls into the category of special needs.

Another fantastic resource is Ability Ministry. They have helpful articles, resources, and curriculum designed for ministering to people with special needs. This has been revolutionary in helping our team minister to our students with special needs and we have seen amazing results. Our students who struggled to connect to the Bible our now memorizing it, they are serving as greeters on Sunday mornings, and actively participating in the program. I would highly suggest utilizing both of these resources and reading up on how you can better minister to, serve, and love your people who have special needs.

Responding Well to a Crisis

Working in both security and various ministries, I have witnessed or been involved in a variety of crises. Whether it was treating a compound fracture, being pastor-on-call when a deacon and father passed from a sudden heart attack, caring for a family who’s loved one took their life, administering first aid to a twisted knee, handling a mental health crisis, or ensuring a leader suffering a heart attack stayed conscious while EMTs arrived, there are moments in all of our lives that will be crisis moments. We must be prepared to step into them well.

Not all of us will have the same skillset or training, but God has uniquely and divinely equipped and positioned each of us to be present in those moments for an express purpose. I believe that in order to truly handle those moments and situations well, we must be prepared and knowledgeable so we can care well for our people.

Today I want to provide you with some ways to prepare (as best we can) for crisis moments by helping us think through steps before, during, and after the crisis that will help us best respond and minister to the people under our care. I will say this though: these steps do not make you a crisis negotiator nor afford you any special training or ability to be something we are not. In many crisis moments referral is necessary as we are not equipped to handle various things. This is simply meant to help you think through how you respond and are equipped as we know that we will experience these moments in our lives.

Pre-crisis.

Know your team. This is so important because knowing who is on your team and their skillset allows you to be prepared for various circumstances. Perhaps you have a mental health counselor, or an EMT, or a nurse on your team. Knowing these people allows you to gain knowledge and insight from them, to empower them to take the lead in crisis situations, and helps your leaders take more ownership because they are seen and empowered to lead.

Know your networks. This is one of the most important things you can do before a crisis. If you know the people, agencies, and services that are provided in your community, you will be better suited to know how to respond and who to respond to. Knowing the counselors in your community and building a relationship with them allow you to help people better. Knowing the crisis hotline and helpful, caring, knowledgeable health professionals means you can bring a trusted resource and needed care to your people. Knowing the police officers, EMTs, and firefighters means that you not only can advocate for and care for first responders, but can also help them know and love your people and vice versa. When you build a network you are building a trusting and caring community and you can be a bridge to the person who is experiencing the crisis by connecting them to someone you know and trust.

Be educated. Whether it is by taking a CPR and first aid course, reading or listening to trusted resources, furthering your academic education, or talking with a professional, make sure to continue to grow in your knowledge and expertise. The more you know the better suited you will be to care for people and respond to a crisis.

During the crisis.

Stay calm. This is huge. As a leader, your level of intensity, panic, or calm will reflect outward to your people and the person experiencing the crisis. Think about this: if a fire alarm goes off and you start freaking out and yelling “we are all going to die,” your people may not respond well. But if you keep a cool head and direct people out, making sure they are safe, then your people will reflect your resolve and peace. This is true in any crisis situation, so always seek to remain calm. Now I will say this: it is okay to feel the intensity and adrenalin within yourself, but don’t let that be reflected outward. Should a student call you and say they have a plan to take their life, it is okay to feel all the things and begin to make a plan of intervention. But don’t let the intensity or panic reflect in your voice or in your actions.

Remember and rely on your training. This goes hand-in-hand with staying calm. The more training you have the calmer you will be in a situation. Sometimes when a crisis develops it is helpful to simply pause and breathe for 3-5 seconds and calm your heart as you assess what is happening. As you assess remember your training and step in and respond to the best of your ability.

Bring in necessary people. This goes back to knowing your team. You may have some training or equipping, but there may be others who are better suited to respond. I’ve had various types of training when it comes to handling first aid and crises, but if someone is hurt I am defaulting to the nurses and doctors in my program. Their training and education is much greater than mine and they can handle the situation in better ways.

Contact the necessary people and/or agencies. This is paramount. If there is a fire we all know to call 911, but do you know who to call in a mental health crisis? What about in the event of a power outage? What if there is a tornado or hurricane? Knowing who to call and when is key in a crisis, and honestly something that all leaders of a ministry should know and equip their volunteers with as well.

Pray. This is something that you as the primary responder should be doing throughout the crisis, but I would also encourage you to call your leaders and people in your ministry to pray as well. You may not always have that luxury as some crisis moments are between you and just the individual, but if a crisis happens in a public setting like your youth group, encourage your leaders to pull people away from the crisis (nothing elevates stress and embarrassment like a crowd hovering) and have them pray for what is happening.

Care for your people. Let the person(s) involved in the crisis know that you love them and are there for them. Be a calming presence and allow the peace that God affords us to be reflected through you to them. Also, if you aren’t the primary responder, make sure to care for the other people at the crisis. If a nurse steps in, care for the friends of the individual. Pray, read scripture, cry together, and walk with them.

Post-crisis.

Continue to care for your people. Sometimes after a crisis has been handled and the appropriate people and agencies contacted, it may seem easier to assume our job is done. But honestly your job is only just beginning. Continuing to care for your people, those who had the crisis and those affected by it, is paramount. As you continue to follow up, speak love and truth, and minister to people, you will be showing them the power, peace, and love of God.

Stay involved to the appropriate degree. As you continue to care for people, it is also important to know your role. It is easy to for us to want to care and be involved, but there are only so many degrees to which we can do so. Trying to get involved in the counseling sessions after a mental health crisis could muddy the waters. But continuing to care for and minister to that person is key. Trying to get into an operating room isn’t allowed, but sitting with the family and being present is hugely important. Seek to find a balance to the level of involvement that enables you to care well for others.

Know your limitations. While care and involvement are good things, it is also helpful to know our place and our limitations. Sometimes we can be prone to inserting ourselves into situations that don’t warrant our involvement, or exhausting ourselves through our efforts to stay involved. So know your skillset, know how you can be of the best help, and know when to step back and let others handle the situation. This will help you make sure that your people receive the best possible care and allow you to breathe and find peace in the midst of the aftermath of the crisis.

Pray. Prayer is something that should continue to be a part of this journey. Pray for your people. Pray for everyone involved. Pray for continued treatment and helpful results. Pray for healing and resolution. Pray for peace and for people to see and trust Jesus. As you pray continue to trust God and rely on Him to bring healing and restoration to this moment.

Talk to a counselor or a trusted person for decompression. This is more about self-care. As someone who has been in too many traumatic situations to count, I know the weight they can put on you. The emotional, physical, psychological, and even spiritual weight that can come from these events can feel overwhelming and crippling. So make sure to talk to someone and process through what has happened. Release the emotions, talk through what happened, and process your thoughts. Doing this will help you heal and be a better minister to those in your care.

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

Perhaps you are like me and you’re preparing for winter camp in a few short weeks. Or maybe you’re really proactive, ahead of the curve, and you’re already planning for your summer trip. Before camp, youth leaders typically have things ready like student waivers, transportation, food, essentials for games, and teaching, and it feels like everything is ready to go. But have you ever arrived at your destination and wished you had brought something you hadn’t? We’ve all been there.

Today I want to provide you with a list of easily-missed items that will help you be better prepared and equipped for whatever trip you go on.

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

Have you ever forgotten one of these before? No, just me? It’s the worst feeling because you are limited on what you’re able to do. When we take students on a trip, we don’t allow them to bring electronics. So our staff becomes the default communication for families and leaders. We share photos, information, and texts to stay up to date and it drains your phone so fast. Couple that with posting to our social media accounts for families to get updates and my phone is practically dead by lunch time. So always bring a wall charger for your room and a couple back-up battery packs or remote chargers for when you’re on the go. And of course, don’t forget the cord!

A good first aid kit.

A basic first aid kit is fine but it is often not what we need. I have found that creating your own first aid bag is the way to go. Due to the size of our program, we actually have three first aid bags that we take on trips. Our first aid kits have come in handy so many times, and I have found it’s better to be prepared and not need the kits than unprepared and need something you don’t have.

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

  • bandages of different sizes
  • gauze
  • sutures
  • Neosporin
  • splints
  • triangle bandages
  • tweezers
  • feminine products
  • bee sting kits
  • electrolyte tablets
  • candy (should someone need a sugar boost)
  • cough drops
  • a multitool
  • a sling
  • butterfly bandages
  • antiseptics
  • Tums
  • dry mix packages of Gatorade or Propel
  • mosquito repellent
  • aloe
  • sunscreen
  • ice packs
  • various medicines like Advil, Tylenol, and Benadryl

These are just some of the items I’ve been thankful to have at various camps. Some camps provide nurses and first aid, but others require you to be that person for your group. So whatever you can pack in your first aid kit will help you be prepared for whatever comes your way.

A flashlight.

If you have ever had a student not be in their bunk at lights-out or had to walk outside to the restroom during a winter camp at night, you know that a flashlight is your best friend. I would highly encourage you to have at least two LED flashlights you can utilize for whatever situation in which you may find yourself. A quick tip if you’re taking a long trip: turn one of the batteries around (i.e. flip the positive and negative ends) and this will stop your batteries from getting drained.

An alarm clock.

Some camps and retreat centers don’t always have outlets by your bed so you can plug in a phone charger which would allow you to use it as an alarm. So pick up a small battery-powered alarm clock which will help you and your students wake up on time. You can usually find these at a dollar store, Five Below, Walmart, or Target.

Instant coffee packs.

If you are like me and love a good cup of coffee, you have probably cried a few tears for what passes for coffee at camps. So do yourself a favor and seek out a good coffee brand that has instant coffee packets you can take along. Many stores and coffee companies have options available and trying them out ahead of time will help you survive the trip.

Personal snacks.

We often think about food for meals and perhaps special snacks for our leaders. But we don’t always think about ourselves. It is okay to treat yourself and I would encourage you to bring along some treats for yourself. There are moments on every trip when you just need a pick me up. So grab your favorite snacks and stuff them in your bag for when you need them.

A power strip.

Many times, the dorms you are in will have a limited number of power outlets. So bringing a power strip will allow multiple people to utilize one outlet and will hopefully keep more people happy throughout the trip as their devices will be charged.

Tea and throat drops.

Often times at camp you will find you are loosing your voice. Having some herbal teas and honey if you can bring it along, coupled with throat drops can be a life saver (pun intended). Make sure to pack enough for however long the trip is and perhaps some extra for your leaders.

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

Music is such a key part of our lives. Think about how often you hear or listen to music. Sundays at church services. In your car while you drive. In a store as you shop. On a tv commercial. At a football game. At a friend’s home. Or at a social gathering. But I think we often forget to have music at our youth gatherings and various other church settings.

Music is so beneficial because it sets the tone of the venue, offers background noise, encourages engagement, and makes occasions more invitational. I didn’t always embrace this, especially early on in ministry, but I have found myself utilizing music all the time now and it has helped so much in student ministry. In this post, I hope to encourage you in how you choose and implement music, and to also offer tips and resources to do this successfully.

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

Whenever you choose music, think about what you are trying to accomplish in the environment and what tone you want to have. For instance, if you have a gym night and you play folk music, you probably won’t have a ton of energy. Or if you want a coffee shop vibe and you decide to blast For King and Country, it probably won’t embody the setting you are seeking to cultivate. Thinking about the setting, tone, and desired outcome will help you cultivate the ambiance and environment you desire.

2. Energy for the venue.

I referenced in the previous point that setting the tone is key, and that is true in multiple ways. The music you play sets the tone of the energy for the venue. If you want people to be loud and engage in active games, you will want to have more upbeat music that will energize your audience. If you are going for a relaxing vibe, you want to have softer or acoustic music which will allow for more conversation and thoughtful engagement. The music you choose will convey the energy you are looking to achieve, so make sure to think through this piece as you choose what to play.

3. Target audience.

One of the big things we should be considering is our audience. I can sometimes get lost in creating a playlist for my students and throw in songs I grew up with in youth group. But if I am being honest, my students don’t care about those songs. They may resonate with a few of them but not all of them. This is a reminder to know who you are trying to reach and directing all elements of what you are doing toward them. As you think about what music or playlist to utilize, remember to think about who you are reaching. Include songs they know, artists they are familiar with, and tunes they can sing along or engage with.

4. The message you want to send.

Think through who your audience is and what message you want communicated to them through the music you are playing. For instance, on Sunday mornings I tend to utilize worship music because our programming is oriented toward students who are already following Jesus and who we are seeking to equip to be disciple-makers. But on youth group nights, our music is a blend of current and past upbeat Christian and clean secular music. Since we are seeking to pull in people who don’t know Jesus, our music could go from Lecrae, to Ok Go, to Crowder, to Justin Timberlake, to Hillsong, or to The Greatest Showman. This way everyone has something they may be familiar with, and it allows us to introduce people to various Christian artists. All of the music is filtered so there is no profanity, drug or alcohol references, references to vulgarity, violence, or derogatory language.

As you considered these key aspects, let me offer you few tips and resources to help you truly utilize music to the best possible outcome. These tips are meant to help your group grow, succeed, and meet the mission of reaching students for Jesus.

Invest in a good sound system.

I am not talking about built-in house speakers and a switcher with a great bass. If you have that, fantastic, make sure to use it. But if you don’t have that at your disposal, consider investing in a good quality Bluetooth speaker or computer speakers so you play music for the entire space you are in.

Utilize students to help with music.

If you have students who are musically inclined, consider utilizing them in various ways. They can lead worship, you could have a house band playing at youth group, they could pick your playlists, and they can help with the audio/visual elements. When students are involved and excited to be on the team, it generates an excitement and interest among their peers to also be involved. These opportunities for students to lead outward will not only generate excitement but it will also give them ownership of the ministry which will help it succeed.

Utilize apps and the internet.

There are many free music resources that you can use depending on your level of comfortability and time that you can afford to it. You could use YouTube and just look for playlists. You could utilize Pandora’s free option, but you will have to deal with ads and those can sometimes be uncomfortable or inappropriate for the setting. You could also utilize Spotify, which is my personal favorite. You could create your own playlists, or simply put on various albums, artists, or playlists that you find on it. Spotify also doesn’t use ads like Pandora, and they have various levels of subscription that are worth looking into if you have the budget for it.

A quick tip if you don’t have the budget to get a paid Spotify subscription: You can utilize the non-paid option on multiple computers as long as you keep the offline feature turned on. Simply download the playlist ahead of time, then switch to offline and voilà you can use the playlist in a few different locations.

Here are a few playlists that I utilize and the settings I use them in:

3 Parties You Can Host with Little to No Budget

It is around this time of year that many of us are hosting Christmas parties. They may be for students, your volunteers, or just a personal one at home. But if you are like many churches, your budget probably has taken a hit over the last couple of years and your parties are probably looking or going to look a little different as a result. Now it could be easy to lament and throw out all the reasons this affords us problems and more difficulties, but that would be neither helpful nor encouraging. I would like to suggest a different option: be creative with what you do have and focus on making the party meaningful and intentional.

This may sound like a pass when it comes this time of year because we think about all that we have done in the past and what we could do with a proper budget. But it benefits no one to bemoan what cannot be changed. Instead, seeking to do what you can with what you have and focusing on the people you are blessing will help make these moments a success.

Today, I want to offer you three party ideas that you can host on little to no budget, but before I do, I want to highlight a few areas where we as leaders must lead out in these moments.

  • Have a positive attitude. Your attitude will set the tone of the party. If you are upset, frustrated, or bitter going into it, others will pick up on it and respond in kind. So be positive and excited about what you have planned.
  • Utilize décor where you can. Even on a minimal or empty budget, there are ways to get creative with decoration and ambiance. You could utilize someone’s fake Christmas tree, you could bring in flowers or greenery from outdoors, you could put out tablecloths, you could play music, or you could utilize items from your home or homes of other people you know. All of these help to make the atmosphere feel special and intentional.
  • Always have music. Using music to break up the silence is an easy way to make the environment feel intentional. You can leverage any number of free services like Pandora or Spotify to play music, lighten the mood, and encourage fellowship.
  • If possible, have food. This is tough when you don’t have a budget, but think about different options. Maybe a local supermarket would be willing to donate. Perhaps there is a local family who butchers their own animals and could donate some food. Or maybe someone in your church would be willing to donate hotdogs for a grill out. Or maybe you just bake a bunch of the snap-and-bake cookies. Any of these options could work, and will help you generate the atmosphere you are looking for.
  • Be creative and have fun. If you have to come up with new and unique ways to have a party or gathering because the budget has been cut, it is easy to focus on the negatives or what we don’t have. But when we do that, it keeps us from utilizing our talents and creativity to have a unique and different party. So think outside the box, build a fun gathering, cast vision well, laugh a lot, and look to have a unique party that people will enjoy.

1. A breakfast or dessert party.

This is a fun and relatively easy one to host and it can be done in a couple different ways. One way to pull this off is to ask the parents of students to provide the food for the party. We did this for our leader Christmas party and it was fantastic. We did a dessert and hot coffee/cocoa bar, and the amount of desserts that came was overwhelming. Parents went above and beyond in what they provided and were completely behind an opportunity to encourage and bless our leaders.

The second option would be to do a potluck with those who are coming. At first glance, this feels like a tacky way to have food at your party, but it is all in how you cast the vision. If you simply drop this on your people right before the party, then it will feel tacky. But if you cast the vision and the intention of doing so, it will bring people in even more. To say the week of “bring a dish to share” versus telling your people a month before to “bring your favorite Christmas dish and we will share our food, recipes, and stories of how we got them,” will generate very different responses and outcomes. So think about how and why you will cast this vision and party, and then implement it.

2. A White Elephant or Secret Santa party.

This is something we often associate with student Christmas parties, but maybe not so much with our adult volunteers. However, these could be fun parties to have throughout the year and with a multitude of different settings and groups. How fun would a White Elephant Gift Exchange be to celebrate the end of the year or to kick off the start of a new semester? You could even theme the gift exchange to bring another unique element to it. You could do an “upcycled gift exchange,” “a re-gifted exchange,” or one that has a dollar amount attached to the exchange (i.e. $5 or less).

Bringing in Secret Santa throughout the year would also allow for your leaders to bless one another and to help foster the culture and community you desire. It will generate ways to care for and love others in your group while having fun doing so. If you choose to incorporate these ideas throughout the year, I would recommend thinking about changing the names to something that highlights it isn’t just part of the Christmas season (i.e. change Secret Santa to Secret Leader or Anonymous Leader Blessing). As you bring these ideas into your parties, they can help you leverage these moments to greatly encourage, bless, and care for your people in a unique and creative way.

3. A game party.

This is one that should be fairly easy for youth workers to host. Challenge your volunteers to bring their favorite games from home to play with each other, and then utilize other games that you have on hand as well. Our volunteers love to compete, but often tone it back when doing so with students. You are now giving them the opportunity to have fun and go all out while playing together.

I would also encourage you to put out some active games too. I know for our ministry we have leaders who love bag toss/cornhole, GaGaBall, and 9 Square. We have these and it is so much fun watching my leaders play together. They laugh with one another, they have friendly banter, and they ultimately just fellowship with each other. You may not have those activities, but put out a frisbee or play kickball together. Doing these types of activities and just having fun is huge as it helps to foster an environment and culture that you need.

It’s Okay to Say No

Often I think we fall into the cycle of saying “yes” in ministry. Can you make this event work: yes. Can you stay late and do a counseling session: yes. Can you work over 50 hours a week: yes. Can you sacrifice your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health for the sake of your job and calling: yes. Will you forsake your time, time with family and friends, building a healthier or healthy marriage to meet the demands of your job: yes.

What I believe we often fail to realize is that it is okay to say no. No is not a four letter word, even in ministry. It is healthy and needed and we must find ways to utilize it in a proactive and beneficial manner. If we don’t learn to say no now, we could actually become burnt out, bitter, or even turn our backs on the the church. Learning that saying no is healthy and appropriate will help us to sustain not only our time in ministry but be better ministers of the Gospel as a result. But the question remains: how do we do that well?

Don’t say no just to say no.

The first thing we need to understand about saying no is that you don’t say it just because you can. When you say no you should be saying it for a good and rational reason. Don’t say no simply to shut down a situation or person. Instead let there be a purpose and rationale to how and why you say it. Think about your priorities and what you will or need to say yes to. As you build these priorities it allows you to say no to certain things as you focus on what you need to say yes to. What you are doing is building a balanced and intentional focus in your life which allows you to not only care about others but also to care for yourself.

Be intentional and thoughtful when you say no.

It is easy when we say no to simply just state “no” to someone and be dismissive. I think we instead need to be thoughtful and caring as we say no to someone or something. Often those moments allow for us to be a shepherd to our people as we share the heart and intentionality behind our no. Perhaps a student asks you to go to their concert but you cannot due to a previous commitment. Just saying no is dismissive and communicates you don’t care to the student. But if you are able to explain that you can’t due to a prior commitment, you can then talk about perhaps going to another event or even seeing how else you can invest in the student. This gives the person you are saying no to an understanding that you do care and aren’t just casting them to the side. It is about caring for others even as you care for yourself.

Understand the legitimacy of why you are saying no.

Sometimes it is easy to feel bad or guilty when we say no. We feel we are letting people down or not doing our job or questioning who will help if we don’t. The first thing you need to understand is you are not the Savior. Your job isn’t to be all things to all people, but to be the person and minister God has called you to be. That doesn’t mean you dismiss everyone and everything, but instead you realize that since it doesn’t all rely upon you, you understand you can say no.

When you say no, do not feel bad for doing so. In fact, saying no to some things means you can say yes to others. Saying no to working on your day off allows you to say yes to your family and friends. Saying no to working unlimited extra hours is saying yes to longevity in ministry. Saying no to trying to counsel someone in an area you aren’t trained in is saying yes to getting them the help they need from a trained counselor. When you say no it is highlighting the priorities and focuses of your life, and those areas (i.e. family, rest, time with Jesus, etc.) are valid and necessary places for you to focus your time and energy. So be willing to say no when it is needed and understand that it is acceptable to do so.

Set and keep boundaries.

Often in ministry, leaders will continue to say yes which can lead to frustration, tension, or burnout. I think we do this with the best of intentions because we want to shepherd and care for our people, but if we are not balancing our lives, time, and energy, we will not be the leaders we need to be. Instead we need to set and keep healthy boundaries. It may be as simple as saying no to phone calls on your days off or no to texts during hours you aren’t at work.

When you set boundaries it is easy to focus on what you are saying no to, but you are also saying yes to the necessary priorities in your life. But you must also make sure that while setting these boundaries is a good thing, it is entirely different to keep them. We are willing to sacrifice boundaries that protect us and our families to care for our students, but if we don’t keep our boundaries we are hurting ourselves, those we love, and our students. Our lack of boundaries and honoring them teaches our students that they don’t need them and it can hinder them from becoming the disciples they need to be.

Be able to explain why you said no.

You may have people ask you why you said no to them or a circumstance. Instead of being dismissive, look to share the rationale and the why behind what you are saying. People want to know why you have said no or turned down an invitation because they want to know you see them and care about them. Be willing to enter those conversations even though they may not be easy. Telling a student you can’t watch them in their competition will be hard and pull at your heart strings because you love them. But when you can explain the why, it will allow for them to know you still love them and it isn’t personal. These moments help you to not only develop personally but also allow for you to disciple your people and help them grow as well.

How do you say “no” well, and how do you still care for people when you do?

How to Bring About Change Well

Over this past year there have been many changes in student ministry. Maybe coming out of 2020 you were rethinking the rhythms of your program. Perhaps this past year gave you new insight and you have decided to shift various programmatic features. Or maybe you have realized that there are areas that aren’t working and need to be changed or even removed. Regardless of what changes, change happens.

But when we change things, we must be intentional in how and why we are doing so. Change is never easy and can lead to tension or frustration for various reasons. Today I want to offer you some insight to consider before you begin to change things.

Before we get to the insight may I suggest one bit of advice? Cover whatever you are considering changing with purposeful prayer and intentional insight from people you trust. Doing this before you begin to effect change will help you seek God’s insight, vision, and direction for you and the ministry you lead. It will remove the pride or tension we may feel and help us to be the effective tools of Jesus that we are called to be. When we put that premise into action, then we can begin to work out these next aspects in bringing about change.

Overcommunicate.

This is one of the best things you can do when you are working toward change. Communication is key, but we always hear about someone who has missed the communication. Often that is because we communicate in our typical ways through our normal channels. But when we are changing things–plans, vision, or functionality of the program–we must make sure to go above and beyond to communicate what is happening. Communicate through your normal channels, but also look at other ways to communicate what is happening.

Recently we changed the vision for our student ministry program. We sent out our normal newsletter with the update in it, we posted to our social media channels, and we talked with our students about it. But we also decided to put together a video explaining what was changing and the rationale behind our decision. We then sent that to all the parents via email, posted about it again on social media, held meetings to explain what was happening, and continued to use the language in all aspects of our communication going forward. When you want people to know about a change, the more you talk about it, the more they will know it.

It isn’t just about sharing what is changing though. We must make sure to clearly and succinctly communicate the rational, the heart, the vision, and the why behind the change. People will always ask questions, and our communication allows for us to answer some of those questions before they are even asked. So think through how you clearly communicate why things are changing, what you are hoping the change evokes, and how you plan to sustain the change going forward.

Know the why.

I said in the prior point that people will always have questions, and the big question that most people will ask is “why.” Why are you doing this? Why is it important? Why are you changing things? Why are you getting rid of something we love? Why is this the new thing we are doing? Why can’t we just keep doing what we were doing?

“Why” asks really big questions when you think about it, and it shows that people want to understand and know what is happening. So when you are thinking through changing things, consider how you can answer that question. Just changing things to change things isn’t healthy or beneficial. In fact it evokes fear, anxiety, and tension because no one knows what is happening. But when you know why things are changing and are able to clearly and thoughtfully communicate that to your people, you will be able to address the “why questions” well.

Cast vision well.

The next step in evoking change is making sure that you cast the vision well. It is unhealthy to just change things for the sake of doing something different, but when you can explain the rationale and talk about where you are going, it helps your people to generate excitement and anticipation as they jump on board with you. When you know what you are doing and can clearly share that with your people, you will build their desire to be a part of something because they see your passion and excitement for what is changing. When people see your passion and the vision that you have it generates buy-in and it brings people along on the journey with you.

Be intentional and purposeful.

Whenever you are crafting a plan to change things, be intentional with what you are doing. Often, especially when we are starting at a new church or position, we want to change things because we believe we have a better idea or focus or purpose. That may be true, but we have to remember that there were reasons and rationale for how things have been done. We must understand that people have skin in the game when it comes to various aspects that we are looking to change. For others, the things or ideas we are changing means that we are trying to change them because they are so intertwined with how things have been.

So when you seek to change things, be cognizant of other people, their histories, their emotions, and be willing to have important conversations. The more intentional and purposeful you are, the more people will be excited to join you because they see your heart and you allowed for them to be heard and understood.

Stick with it.

There will be times when you want to give up, when you feel frustrated because people don’t seem to want to join the vision. You will feel discouraged because of all the questions and doubts. Students may challenge you because it is going against what they have been used to. But remember that God has called you to be the leader in this moment.

Remember that you sought God’s heart and have listened to Him and trusted mentors to shape and guide what you are changing. It wasn’t something that you approached nonchalantly, but instead intentionally thought through and planned out. Don’t give up or become discouraged, but remember that God is, has, and will continue to use you to evoke change and reach people for the kingdom.

5 Tips for Hosting a Great Christmas Party

With the holiday season officially beginning, many of us are probably preparing to host at least one Christmas party this year. Whether you’re hosting your own, a leader party, or a student Christmas party, we all know the pressure to have a good one that people enjoy.

Over my many years in ministry I have hosted multiple Christmas parties, some were better than others, and today I want to give you five quick tips to host a great Christmas party for students. These aren’t the only things that will make your party great, but incorporating them will help you in that direction.

Before I get to those points, I do want to highlight one extra tip that will definitively make this a great party: make it highly relational. This is a huge thing whenever you host gatherings like this. Find ways to leverage the time together to pour into and care for your students. This is a great opportunity to connect with students on the fringe, have conversations with students you haven’t connected with yet, to encourage and speak truth into students’ lives, and to laugh and fellowship together. Take the opportunity presented to you and use it to build into and care for your students.

1. Pick a theme.

It is easy to just say “we are having a Christmas party,” and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you choose a theme and announce and champion it to your students, it will generate momentum and a desire to be a part of the gathering. It makes it more fun, engaging, and invitational to your students and their friends. Here are a few ideas to consider for your theme:

  • Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Challenge everyone to wear an ugly Christmas sweater and hand out prizes for various categories (most likely made by a grandmother, most itchy, most unique, most likely grabbed last minute). When choosing who wins, involve students to either choose or judge who wins to make it more engaging.
  • Christmas Costumes. This one you can take in any variety of directions. You could do Christmas movie costumes, Christmas decades costumes ( i.e. 1920s or 1700s), retro Christmas costumes, or even Christmas character costumes.
  • Christmas PJs. Have everyone come to the party in their favorite Christmas pajamas. You can market this as wearing your favorite jammies, fuzzy slippers, and cozy blankets, and then have the evening be more relaxed and centered on fellowship and community.

2. Set the ambiance.

Ambiance enhances any gathering, but especially when it comes to parties and outreach opportunities. A quick, easy and no-cost way of setting the ambiance comes from simply playing Christmas music. Create a Spotify account and make a Christmas playlist for your gathering. I love to throw in some old school songs just to see how my students respond.

Also consider utilizing Christmas decorations and lights to make the setting feel more Christmasy. Simple decorations and lights add so much to a gathering and it shows intentionality to your students. It communicates that you care and value them, and that will make them want to invite their friends.

3. Have a gift exchange.

Gift exchanges are a huge hit for Christmas parties because it gives students an opportunity to receive a present. To help keep this cost effective, challenge each student to bring their own wrapped gift to the party. However, always make sure to have some wrapped extra gifts just in case a student doesn’t bring a gift. We never know why a student can’t bring a gift, and you never want a student to feel singled out or left out because they didn’t have a gift. This ensures everyone gets a present and feels valued and loved.

For the gift exchange itself you could choose from any number of different options, but here are a few fun ones:

  • A white elephant gift exchange. You can add in rules for trading gifts or just allow everyone to pass a gift to their right a few times.
  • Randomly choosing grades to go and pick a gift.
  • Playing rock, paper, scissors among the group and allowing the winners to go and get a gift. If you don’t win, you keep playing with different people until you do.
  • In small groups, have students sit in a circle and one at a time roll a pair of dice. Once someone gets doubles they can go and choose a gift. The group keeps playing until everyone gets a gift.

4. Provide some sort of food.

Food makes events much more personal and welcoming. A few fun food ideas for your party can include:

  • A hot cocoa bar with all the toppings.
  • A fresh-baked cookie bar with different Christmas cookies to choose from.
  • A Christmas dinner.
  • A Christmas dessert bar.
  • A decorate your own Christmas cookie bar.

This may feel like an expensive option for many youth groups, but if you don’t have a budget for this consider some alternatives. You can ask parents to provide different items. You could utilize the older generations and ask them to provide the items needed and even invite them to the party to increase inter-generational ministry opportunities. You could utilize announcements in church or in your bulletin asking for donations for the party. These ways of gathering supplies and resources will help offset the cost, afford you opportunities to champion student ministries, and allow you to engage with members of your extended community.

5. Focus on what is important.

Sometimes we can allow these parties to just be parties. A place of fun and games and food, but we don’t focus on what we should be focusing on. Students can and will attend Christmas parties outside of yours that will be a place for just those things. But your party should focus on the important things. That is not to say that you don’t have fun, eats lots of food, and play silly games. Do those things, but don’t forget why you are gathering.

You are gathering to celebrate the birth of the Savior and to help your students grow as disciples of Jesus. So highlight those areas during your party. Have small group time. Talk about Jesus. Have a Christmas message. Encourage and challenge your students in their faith. Don’t let this become just another party, rather be intentional with its focus and purpose and leverage those opportunities to enrich the lives of students with the Gospel message.

Quick Tips for Preaching in “Big Church”

For many youth workers the time to preach in “big church” is fast approaching as the holidays begin. Whether you are asked to preach because your senior pastor is on vacation or because you are part of the regular rotation, preaching is something we should revere and treat with respect. For our post this week, I want to share with you a few quick tips on how to preach well in church (and really anywhere) and how to allow yourself to be most effectively used by God to reach His people.

Be yourself.

Authenticity is key when you are preaching. Don’t try to be something you aren’t or to imitate someone else. Be the person God designed you to be and ask Him to work through you. God has specifically designed and equipped you to communicate His Word, so be yourself and allow God to utilize your gifts. Don’t try to be someone else, be who God made you and allow that to be the person who stands in the pulpit.

Know your material and practice.

This is something we should be doing regardless of where we are preaching or teaching. Before you preach make that you have studied your material so you present it well. Coupled with knowing your material is practicing. We all know how easy it is to lose your place or get distracted. Knowing your material and practicing helps to ensure that happens less and that you are able to recover easier.

Slow down and be intentional.

This is something I have been practicing for a long time. I’m a fast-paced talker, and often I feel pressured to get all of my material out in a set amount of time. Or maybe you just talk fast because that is how you teach students. When you are preaching, slowing down and showing intentionality will connect you more to your audience. This will also help you be more succinct and clear in your communication. Practicing this will help you grow as a preacher and allow you to communicate in a clearer and more direct manner

Treat the pulpit with respect.

This is something I don’t think we always are aware of, but as we stand in the pulpit (and honestly any time we teach), we must be aware of the privilege and weight that comes with teaching and preaching God’s Word. Too often the pulpit and office of authority as a minister of the Gospel is treated cavalierly, and we don’t afford it the respect it is due. The Bible tells us that those who preach God’s Word are held to a higher accountability because they are presenting the Word of God to His people and what they say has eternal ramifications. So when you enter the pulpit to preach, hold it in respect knowing that God has called you to present His Word to His people, and you have the honor and privilege of doing so.

Speak to all generations.

Often when we are afforded the opportunity to preach, people expect the youth pastor to speak like and speak to the young people. But we are in a unique place to speak to all generations because student ministry is truly about reaching multiple generations. There are students, parents, volunteers, and others that cross multiple generations which gives you an opportunity to reach all those generations when you preach. Don’t talk to just one or two generations or groups, but instead try to make your message applicable to all.

Don’t look to be inflammatory just because you can.

I need to remind myself of this. I get to preach fairly regularly at my church and have had the privilege of speaking on quite a few controversial topics and passages. I have often wanted to say things because I have felt passionate or wanted to push people to think critically by challenging their norms and perceptions. But to simply say something to be provocative is not the purpose for those who are preaching. Our purpose in preaching is to exposit God’s Word and help people grow in spiritual formation through God’s transformation. The Gospel is enough to challenge people, so let it do so. Look to communicate the Word of God and to challenge your people, but you do not need to make provocative or inflammatory statements in order to do so.

Remember that the focus should be on God, not you.

I will be the first to say that I know pride is a struggle within my own heart. I love when people say they like my preaching or that they have missed seeing me in the pulpit. But in the same way that positive comments can affirm me, negative ones can break me. The root issue in those moments is the pride within my heart because I have made it about me.

What needs to be the focus is simple: did God’s Word get shared, did you communicate it clearly and accurately, and was God glorified by what you shared? If we can answer yes to all three of those questions, we know that we have done what God has asked of us, and it shifts the focus away from us to where it should be–on God and God alone. When you stand in the pulpit or before a group, remember it isn’t your platform, but God’s. It isn’t about you creating brand recognition, but about pointing people to the King of Kings. It isn’t about the shoes you wear, but about the eternality of peoples’ souls that are at stake.

What are you most excited to be preaching about next? How do you utilize the opportunity to preach to best reach the people you are speaking to?

Shaping Your Youth Group Gatherings

When it comes to our student ministry gatherings we should be intentional with how we shape them. Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a week night, or special event, we should critically think through what makes it something students will want to come to and be a part of, and how can our gatherings can intentionally bring students closer to Jesus. Our times of gathering together are highly important as they are opportune moments to pour into our students and help them mature in the discipleship process.

As we look at our gatherings we should be thoughtful not only in thinking through why we are hosting them, but also in how they are structured and designed. Is the goal of the gathering reflected in its scheduling? Do people understand what the purpose is? Is the gathering intentional and focused so that people can clearly see Jesus throughout it? As we wrestle through these questions, they will ultimately allow us to craft gatherings that are focused, intentional, communal, and oriented toward the priorities and hearts of our students.

Make it intentional.

Whenever we host a gathering, it should never be to just have another event, nor should it be a competitive response to something we have seen. Trying to compete with a bigger church or program, trying to reflect what we see influences do, or trying to be the next “big thing” is not what attracts students over the long term. You may see numbers go up for short periods, but it is not a sustainable approach to ministry, nor are we reaching students with the life-changing power of the Gospel. We should focus on crafting gatherings that have a clear intent and are designed to build community, engage with students, and point them to Jesus. You don’t need to be the biggest and best but being intentional and focused on your students will bring more students out over time because they see you truly care about them and their faith.

Have a focus and purpose.

Whenever you gather your students together there should be a focus and purpose that not only shapes how the event looks, but also has a focused outcome and desired results. If it’s about building disciples then shape the gathering with adequate small group time. If it’s about worship and singing praises, shape the time to give prominence to those moments. If it’s simply to be relational and build community then seek to have opportunities that reach people across the spiritual spectrum and make it easier for newcomers to step in. By knowing your focus and purpose, it will allow you to create programs and elements within the program that will best reach your students with the desired outcome.

Bring in elements that build community.

Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a small group gathering, or outreach event, think critically about how you can make the space more inviting, intentional, and community-focused. By doing this you will help students to lower their walls, build trust, and be willing to continue coming, and prayerfully, invite their friends. There are various ways to do this, but even subtle changes can make huge differences in how students engage and respond. Here are a few quick ideas for what to incorporate to help with this idea:

  • Food. By bringing in food you are automatically creating an opportunity to build community because people naturally want to converse when there is food. Food can look different across ministries as well. It could be a café, it could be a full meal, it could be light snacks or breakfast treats, or it could be a hot chocolate bar. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but that we use it to help amply community.
  • Environment. It is important think about our environment and if the environment reflects and encourages community. Do you have tables set up where students can sit together and converse over their food? How many tables do you have set up? If you set up too many tables it may allow for students to spread out and not engage with each other, but if you have the right amount of chairs, you are leveraging the area that students must use for community. Do you have lighting that is welcoming? Do people know where you gather by the signage you have? Do you have comfortable seating? Is your gathering area reflective of your purpose and vision for community? This is all conditional upon space, budget, and ability, but let me encourage you to think about how you can shape and utilize the spaces you have to encourage community and fellowship.
  • Games. This one area can either drastically help your ministry or drastically hurt it. If we seek to do games that only appeal to a small subset of students, we alienate the others who are attending. Often times youth workers default to games they enjoy, something they saw online, or some crazy idea that they came up with while perusing the supply closet. While those ideas and games may all have a time and place, consider utilizing your games to reach a large swath of students. Put out board and card games. Consider utilizing group games like GaGaball or 9 Square that generate community. Or if you are hosting a themed gathering, think through how all your games and activities could reach the widest range of students. Invest in activities that incorporate more than a couple of students and will allow for conversion and engagement for a larger number.
  • Music. Believe it or not, music can actually enhance community and engagement. Think about this: have you ever walked into a space that was silent? There was no music or even background noise, maybe just a few hushed whispers here and there? Did it feel awkward and uncomfortable? The same is true for our youth spaces. Utilize music to bring people together. Consider crafting playlists in Spotify to build playlists that reflect the atmosphere you are desiring. If you want a chill area, build a coffee house playlist. If you want a more energetic atmosphere for activities and games, build a contemporary playlist with upbeat and engaging music.
  • Conversation. Now you may be asking yourself, why do we need to generate conversations? Doesn’t that naturally happen when people gather? Yes, it does, for most people. Some students struggle with social anxiety or may have difficulties knowing how to engage with others. You could think about posting a couple get-to-know-you style questions on your screens. You could put printed out questions designed to help people interact with one another. Or you could put engagement questions together for your small group leaders that are designed to build community within their groups. These options will help your students and leaders engage better with one another overall.

Think through how the gathering reflects your vision and purpose.

As you craft your gatherings it is extremely important to think about how they are presenting your purpose and vision to your students, leaders, and families. We shouldn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. What we put together should be focused and intentional because that helps us to better minister to our students and it allows us to purposefully communicate our heart and passion to everyone involved. That is not to say you cannot have spontaneous gatherings or that your leaders can’t gather their small group for ice cream. But it should be imperative if spontaneous gatherings happen, that they also reflect the heart and vision of the ministry. That means a trip to get ice cream is more than ice cream, it is a time of care and discipleship. It means a Mario Kart tournament is more than just video games, it is a time of connection and community. When we allow our vision and purpose to be a part of all we do, it shapes our program and our students.

Create a rhythm.

Having a rhythm and flow to your gatherings is highly important as it provides consistency and stability. In a world that is ever-changing, providing stability for families is huge. They can build their schedules accordingly. They can begin to prioritize gatherings and youth events. They can think through what they can and cannot commit to. An established rhythm also allows your leaders to know what to expect, which helps them focus and hone their skills and gifts during gatherings because they are already in the flow of the ministry.

How do you intentionally shape and structure your gatherings to better reach your students?