7 Ways to Prepare Leaders for Trips

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

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

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

1. Prepare and communicate in advance.

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

2. Have a leader meeting before you go.

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

3. Prepare a leader packet.

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

4. Set up a group text for your leaders.

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

5. Go over expectations.

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

6. Find ways to bless them.

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

7. Spend time praying together.

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

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

The Week Before a Trip

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

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

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

Have someone else handle speaking.

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

Try to keep your schedule as open as possible.

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

Over-communicate to families.

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

Have a planning meeting with leaders.

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

Create a personal packing list and a ministry packing list.

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

Schedule time off before and after the trip.

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

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

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

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

Tips for Hosting a Scavenger Hunt

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

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

Go digital if possible.

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

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

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

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

Utilize a variety of clues.

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

Have a prize worth winning.

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

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

Consider your environment(s).

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

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

Set up rules and boundaries.

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

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

6 Tips for the New Year

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

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

Start or continue to…

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

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

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

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

Stop…

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

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

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

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

Ideas for Student Meals

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

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

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

Breakfast options.

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

Lunch and dinner options.

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

Snack and dessert options.

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

A few things to consider.

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

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

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

The Value of Home Groups

Back in 2020 when COVID first reared its ugly head, our ministry did what everyone else did: we went virtual. We shared teaching videos for small groups to watch and engage with via Zoom, we supplied online group games, and tried to host large group gatherings digitally. Like many of you, we saw our numbers gradually wane, and as we hit summertime our students were begging us to not meet online as they and our leaders (like all of us) were struggling with Zoom Fatigue.

Summer 2020 was spent searching for meeting alternatives, connecting with other youth workers to pick their brains and find new strategies, and browsing the internet for ideas on how to structure a youth group during a pandemic. Most of these searches yielded very few results. Everyone was struggling with the same questions as we never had to figure this out before, and our ministry education didn’t offer “YouthMin in a Pandemic 101.” Although I wouldn’t be surprised to see that course being offered now.

So I began to think through multiple strategies that would allow our ministry to continue, while still aligning with our vision, and meeting the need our students had for fellowship and community. Enter Home Groups. We came up with an idea that would allow our students to meet together in smaller groups around the community within the comfort of homes while all engaging the same material. We placed individual small groups in homes with leaders and provided them with a pre-recorded video lesson, games and activities, snacks, and discussion questions.

If you had asked me in the fall of 2020 if we would continue to have Home Groups after moving through the pandemic, I’m not sure how I would have responded. It was such a different style of student ministry that I wasn’t used to and it placed a lot of additional weight and responsibility upon my leaders to facilitate and lead their groups.

But enter summer of 2021. We took our students on a mission trip and for the first time we combined our middle school and high school students, and it was a rousing success. I saw my students love and care for one another in new ways. I watched my students step up and lead in a manner I hadn’t previously seen. I saw spiritual maturity in my students that was at least two years beyond where they should have been. What I was able to witness in my students was a depth, vibrancy, and spiritual maturity that had come out of taking a large group and going small.

Our students had actually grown and flourished spiritually in our Home Groups to a degree I had not seen previously because we inadvertently modeled what Jesus did with His disciples. Jesus always had large groups following after Him, but He often went deeper with smaller numbers, and from those smaller groups great fruit would be produced. What Jesus did intentionally, we had to wait for a pandemic to move us in that direction. And I am so thankful it did!

Today, now over two years since COVID entered our vocabulary, we have kept Home Groups as a part of our DNA. We have incorporated Home Groups into our programming once a month. We have also lengthened our small group time during large gatherings because we are seeing that’s where students grow and engage with the Gospel.

Home Groups take a lot of planning and organization, and at times can be a lot to handle. But the reward far outweighs the struggles. Sure, they look different now–no more video message, it’s all inductive Bible studies–but the growth and maturity still exists. We are seeing more students turn out to Home Groups than our normal midweek programming. Students engage with Scripture at deep and tangible levels. They desire the community and intimacy that homes afford. And honestly, I haven’t looked back and probably will not return to “normal” midweek programming ever again. Home Groups were a step of faith, but the reward has been amazing.

If you are looking to deepen the faith of your students, challenge them to think biblically about their lives, provide them with a place to fellowship and build community, and an opportunity to see discipleship happen in their lives, I would encourage you to consider Home Groups as an option. The reward goes beyond students and also impacts your leaders who are given the permission and opportunity to use their gifts and talents to help your students grow and flourish.

In what ways have the past two years reshaped how you do ministry?

Tips for Picking a Mission Trip

Serving in student ministry often includes leading a mission trip at some point during your tenure. And if you are like me your education probably didn’t prepare you for it. I never took a class on preparing a budget for a mission trip nor did I receive any help in building a student fundraiser (check out a previous post on fundraising for some ideas). I also was never given any thoughts on how to pick a destination and what to look for.

Today’s post is designed to help you critically think through how to pick a destination that will have the desired impact and outcome with your group of students. These ideas aren’t meant to be all encompassing, but to give you a springboard from which you can build out a trip that meets the desired aspects you have for your team.

Scout the location.

This is honestly one of the best things you can do as a trip leader. Wherever you are going–whether domestic or international–the ability to scout where you will be and what you are doing will allow you to be a better leader for your group. It will also help establish confidence and insight for students, parents, and leaders. You can answer questions, help quell fears or doubts, share stories, and bring a personal touch to the trip, which will help build the team and shape the heart of the trip.

Look for ongoing partnerships.

Ongoing partnerships can help aid buy-in from your students. If you choose a place you can continue to engage with, it affords your students opportunities to build connections and relationships with that community. This then generates a desire to continuing being a part of what is happening, as well as excitement to continue serving in that area. This mentality also helps to align your students with the understanding that mission trips aren’t designed to be a one-and-done experience, but instead are about building relationships, serving others, and growing the kingdom of heaven. It builds an intentional relationship and partnership that will ultimately benefit that community and your ministry.

Find a trip that can connect with your students.

This is something I always try to think critically about as I look for a missions partner, but it doesn’t ultimately drive where we go. I do believe it’s important to consider the connection between students and where they serve as it will help shape their hearts and challenge them to think outside of their normal spheres. If students connect with a location, they will create momentum and desire that will overflow to other students and hopefully generate a stronger response and desire to be part of the mission. With that said, a connection isn’t the ultimate driver of where we go because students may see greater change and spiritual impact at a location with which they don’t initially connect. If they do connect with a location it’s an added bonus.

Consider local and global options.

Sometimes our propensity can be to look for more exotic locations or ones that are outside of the continental US. But that isn’t always an option for every group and there are amazing domestic opportunities in which groups can participate. I encourage every youth leader to consider looking at both local and domestic options, as well as global opportunities, and try to find a balance between them.

Look for discipleship pathways.

Discipleship is the foundation of our ministry, so we always look for mission trips which further that focus. We don’t want to just take our students to a location to work hard, we want them to be formed and stretched as followers of Jesus. We value discussions and small group time, engagement with the people we’re serving, challenging students to think about how they can grow and change, and thinking long term about what changes they will implement in their lives.

Understand how students will serve and contribute.

Mission trips are fantastic opportunities for students to serve in real and tangible ways. However, some mission sites require skilled laborers or people trained in skill sets that students may not have. If you are going to a location that has been struck by a tragedy, they may desire contractors or counselors and often students do not fit these needs. However, they may be able to general maintenance, VBS programs, certain aspects of construction, outreach programs, and a variety of other tasks. If students can fully contribute and be a part of the mission, they will continue to serve and have a desire to be a part of future mission expeditions.

Have training options and resources planned ahead of time.

This is a big part of choosing a location. Make sure that you can equip and prepare you team for wherever they are going and for whatever tasks they will be doing. Whether it’s walking through When Helping Hurts, doing evangelism training, having mission reps share, bringing in someone from the site, engaging in skills training, or just team building, these aspects will all help to not only strengthen your team but inform and equip them as well.

Build out what you want students to come away with.

If you build out a plan for your students prior to choosing where you will go, you can make sure that each location will match your desired outcome. By building a plan and making sure the mission matches the plan you will have higher success when it comes to providing your students with what you desire.

What aspects dictate how you choose a mission trip location?

Packing for Trips: Leaders

Last week we took some time to think through helping students pack for trips. But what about packing information for leaders? Are there things we should tell our volunteer leaders to bring? Are there specific items the ministry or trip leader should be bringing? What are some essentials that we should always pack?

Today, I want to explore some of these questions by sharing essential items I think every leader should have with them. Having taken a variety of trips with students, both domestic and international, I have learned there are items we should always have in order to be prepared. There are some items that only the trip leader and/or a small group of leaders should have for a litany of reasons and I will mark those with an asterisk.

A first aid kit.

First aid kits are extremely important no matter the kind of trip. I recommend purchasing a small first aid kit for each of your leaders that could fit in their backpacks and making sure it has all the essentials (bandages, alcohol wipes, Advil, antihistamines, etc.), and to also take a least one larger kit. I would actually recommend taking two larger kits that have more items in them to treat a large variety of injuries and needs.

It may be helpful to build your own kit or ask a healthcare worker or first responder to help you build one. Think about items like splints, triangular bandages, gauze, medical tape, Advil and Tylenol, electrolyte tabs, antacids, feminine products, smelling salts, blood pressure cuffs, alcohol wipes, Neosporin, braces, a tourniquet, a flashlight, tweezers, cough drops, laxatives, and whatever else would be helpful.

Bright flashlights.

If you’ve been on a trip with students you know there will inevitably be times when you will be out at night and a flashlight is necessary. However, an inexpensive store brand flashlight might not be helpful. Look to find flashlights that utilize LEDs and have a higher level of lumens. These will ensure that you have longer lasting lights with brighter beams that will help you navigate evening games, uneven terrain, finding students, or even working to repair a vehicle.

A power strip.

Have you ever gotten to your shared cabin or room and realized there are only one or two power outlets? If you have ever done a trip during the summer in a room without air conditioning and brought your own fans, you know how important outlets are. Or if you need to charge multiple devices, having enough plugs is paramount. So pack enough power strips that each room can have their own if needed.

A multi-tool.*

A multi-tool is something I would only encourage the group leader to take. Whenever we take trips, including mission trips, we don’t allow students to bring knives of any type for safety reasons. However, it’s a great resource for the team leader to have a tool for emergencies and day-to-day activities on trips. Having a multi-tool has helped my teams splice wires connecting our trailer to our van, fix broken items in cabins, and pull staples out of carpets on mission trips. Having one of these is absolutely necessary on trips.

Advil and Advil PM.

As I have gotten older I have realized the necessity of both of these medications. Advil for the aches and pains of a long busy day, and Advil PM to help you fall asleep at night on uncomfortable bedding.

Earplugs and a sleep mask.

Sharing a room with someone isn’t usually a bad thing, unless they snore. And what about noisy students? Or perhaps the AC unit that is anything but silent? Or there is light streaming in from the window. These things plus being in a different environment can make sleep elusive. That’s where earplugs and an eye mask can help immensely. They help you to remove some of the external stimuli and hopefully find much-needed sleep to be ready to continue leading your group.

Extra pens.

Whether it’s for students, leaders, or both, I’ve found having extra pens is important because someone or multiple people will need one. So bring along an extra handful in your backpack and be ready to hand them out as needed.

Instant coffee.

I tend to be a coffee snob, so recommending instant coffee is hard. But I’ve been to multiple camps and retreat centers that make coffee for leaders that just isn’t good. In fact I would argue some of the camps served us muddy water instead of coffee. That’s when having something that is passable is better than nothing. So grab some Starbucks Via or other instant coffee packets and bring enough for your leaders too so they can have some joy in their early mornings.

Propel or Gatorade packets.

During summer trips especially, these instant packets are key. But even during trips in the fall or winter time, they’ll go a long way especially if you have someone who gets dehydrated. It’s a quick way to get fluids and electrolytes into the body and allows people to recover faster.

Battery packs.

Have you ever found your phone to be dying midway through a day at camp but you don’t have an outlet nearby? For me it happens often because I’m using my phone to document what is happening throughout the day. So having spare battery packs is a must when you go on trips. Consider purchasing a couple really good ones that have multiple ports and can charge multiple devices on a single charge because your leaders will also most likely need to recharge their devices as well.

A good pillow.

Even if the place you are going to provides bedding, make sure to bring a comfortable pillow. Nothing ruins a good night’s rest like a waking up with a sore neck or shoulders as a result of a bad pillow. Having a good pillow will help you sleep well.

A water bottle.

Having a water bottle is a must. It allows you to stay hydrated and can help remind your students to do so as well. Make sure to have one that is double lined to help keep your cold drinks cold and your hot drinks hot.

Games or special items for small group time.

If it ends up being rainy one day on your trip, having games to use with your small group or cabin is a must. It helps to occupy the time and give your students something fun to do. Or you could bring fun snacks or special little gifts for your small group like glow sticks or personalized snacks you know they love. Also think about games you can play on the trip out, especially if it is a long drive.

Extra personal care items.*

This is something that as the main leader you should think about bringing. There are always moments when students and/or leaders forget some kind of personal care item, so take a few moments and hit up the travel item section in Target or your local dollar store for toiletries. They don’t need to be full sized items but having a handful of things like toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant for guys and girls, body soap, shampoo, and lotion are great items to have on hand.

What are some non-negotiable items you take on trips?

Packing for Trips: Students

Last week we talked about how to pick a location for student retreats and trips. But have you struggled with what you should tell students to pack for these trips? Have you received a frantic text or email the day of departure from a student or parent asking what they should bring?

As we continue the conversation, this week I want to share some ideas for helping students pack appropriately for trips. Next week I’ll share some insight as to what youth leaders should be packing for trips. Over my time in student ministry, I have come to realize a simplified packing list is much better to share than an overly detailed one. It ensures that students pack the essentials and helps them seek clarity when they have questions.

Before you even start to think about what students need to pack, you should be thinking about how you will communicate it to them. There are three main avenues of communication that typically can work with students: verbal communication, physical mediums, and electronic mediums.

Verbal communication.

Many ministries still utilize verbal announcements during their services and programs. These moments are critical for communicating important information in small, sound byte-style clips that peak your students’ interest. Two important things to remember with these moments is there needs to be simplicity, and direction toward a medium they can use for follow up (i.e. social media, emails, handouts, etc.).

Physical mediums.

One of the best ways to get things into the hands of students is to do just that. Get them physical sign ups, postcard reminders, or flyers. This will give them something to physically take, but the reality is these items don’t always make it home or to their parents. So be thoughtful about how much time and effort you put into these mediums as the reward may be minimal.

Electronic mediums.

Over the last decade, the importance of electronic communication has become undeniable. Students have phones and other devices in their hands constantly, and the more you can leverage these mediums the better your results. Use social media platforms, create QR Codes that can be scanned during gatherings, send emails, utilize story features on social media, and send out group texts with information. When it comes to creating online content, you may find yourself in the same predicament I often find myself: I’m not creative in this area. That’s where Canva comes in handy. It has graphics, images, and pre-made designs you can edit and utilize to best reach your audience. So lean into Canva or another design app to not simply list information but make it visually appealing as well.

So what should students actually take on trips? If you use a venue that supplies a leader packet, you may find a packing list there, but you may need to edit it to match your program’s guidelines. When I think about what students should pack, I think in categories: clothing, accessories, toiletries, camp-specific gear, and what not to bring.

Each of these are extremely focused and allow our team to highlight the essentials needed, and what is not allowed at camp. The camp-specific category helps highlight relevant items like winter gear, bathing suits, work clothes, or whatever else is needed. The accessories category allows you to remind students about things like bedding and pillows, a notebook, money, bug spray, and medicine. The “what not to bring” category lets you focus on things that aren’t allowed at the camp and what you ask students to leave at home. We always highlight leaving electronics at home, and things like energy drinks and illegal substances.

Whatever your trip looks like, remember to communicate clearly, consistently, and frequently through multiple mediums in concise ways. When you focus on those aspects you are setting yourself and your students up for success on your trips. Below is a graphic that we built in Canva for our student ministry’s last winter camp. This can serve as a springboard for your creativity, or we are happy to share how we created this to help you further. Feel free to reach out if you need help with creating your own graphic.

How to Pick a Retreat Destination

With the fall semester just beginning for many of us, you may not be thinking about trips just yet. Or perhaps you have a fall retreat coming up and you’re starting to prepare all the information and building out schedules and details. Regardless of where you are in the planning stages, it is important to think critically about where you are going and why you are going there.

Those of us who serve in student ministry know how important trips and retreats are in the lives of students. These moments help our students grow and mature in their faith as they are able to hyper-focus on spiritual disciplines, rhythms, formation, and transformation in a condensed but intentional time. Because of that reality, we must be intentional in choosing the locations for these trips so as to best care for and minister to our students. Today I’m sharing some practical things to look for in the places you plan to take your students so they can have the best possible experience.

Find a place that matches and supports your vision.

Whenever our ministry is assessing where we will be taking our students we look to see if it supports our vision of disciple-making. That means we want a place that has longer small group times, opportunities for service, challenging and deep messages, as well as fun and engaging activities. What you want for your group may not be what we look for, but what matters is that your values and vision are complimented and supported through the elements offered by the camp or retreat center.

Choose a location that is cost-effective.

We all serve in areas that can vary widely from a socioeconomic perspective. This means what some students can afford in one area is not necessarily the same in another. That doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice on the quality or benefits of the retreat site, but instead look for one that is affordable and cost-effective.

The truth is students don’t need all the bells and whistles to make camp enjoyable and memorable. They instead need one they can attend, where they can build meaningful relationships, have fun doing a variety of things, and make lasting memories. So think about where you are going, if it is financially accessible for your students, and how you may be able to assist those who cannot afford to go.

Pick a place that has good activities.

Activities perhaps aren’t always the focus when we choose a retreat destination, but should receive more attention. I am not saying they should be the determining factor in where you take your group, but they should play a role in your decision.

I have been to many beautiful and cost-effective camps that had very few on-site activities. This was always a little disappointing to our groups; they hoped camps would offer different aspects than normal youth group gatherings. It is also important to make sure that the activities are age appropriate. It is possible to have an amazing camp and facilities but the activities may be designed more for elementary day camps and not youth groups. So consider where you are going, and what activities they offer in which your group will enjoy participating.

Find an experience your students will remember.

What makes camps and retreats memorable? The camp we take our students to in the winter isn’t the most beautiful or top of the line. But for our group, it doesn’t need to be. They offer all the things we are looking for: quality speakers, intentional small group times, fantastic activities, and really good meals. What makes this retreat so memorable for our students are the sessions, small group time, the activities like tubing runs (including one onto a lake and nighttime), the camp director who engages with each student, and the team-building competitions.

Whatever makes a trip memorable for your students, find a place that will compliment those things. But always use discernment with this as well. Just because a student remembers a joke the speaker told, or the pranks they pulled, or a random camp romance, doesn’t mean you should choose that location again. Find memories that are valuable, meaningful, formational, and contribute ultimately toward your vision for your students.

Choose a place that will best help your students grow.

What is the purpose of going to a retreat or camp for your group? Whenever I take students on a trip, I don’t want them to just go on a vacation. I truly want it to be spiritually formational for them and to see them wrestle and grow in their relationships with Jesus. I know there are many camps that host amazing experiences students love but ultimately are summer hangouts with Jesus sprinkled in. I have nothing against those camps, but when I think about what my position entails and what I am called to do, I need to make sure these trips are helping me meet my goal and objectives.

My position states I am to help students grow and mature in their relationship with Jesus and anything we do in our ministry should be focused on that purpose. So when I am considering where to take students, I must be thinking in that way in order to achieve what I was hired to do. Whenever I look at camps or retreat centers, I look for places that will help students grow in their relationship with Jesus, and still have fun and creative aspects they will enjoy.

Find a site that enables you and your leaders to engage with students.

Sometimes you may find a retreat center that requires you and your team to handle all the details. You need to be the speaker or you need to book one. Your team has to handle the worship leading, meal prep, activity coordination, and all the other details. While that isn’t inherently a bad thing–especially if you are equipped to do it–it may not be the most ideal situation for you and your team to engage with the students.

So consider the requirements that extend to you and your team, and ask if they are the best way for you to minister to and care for your students. If not, you may want to look for a camp that takes care of the details and enables you to spend the trip simply being present with your students.