Fall and Winter Programming During COVID-19

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

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

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

Prayer, lots of prayer.

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

Over communication.

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

Team and parent buy-in.

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

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

Leadership approval.

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

Consistency and stability.

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

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

Allow for flexibility.

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

Incorporating Creativity into Student Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

Incorporate music.

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

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

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

Embrace poetry and spoken word.

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

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

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

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

Include arts and crafts.

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

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

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

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

Don’t neglect aesthetics.

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

A few things you can incorporate include:

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

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

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

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

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

What Will Your Youth Ministry Look Like?

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

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

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

Know what families desire.

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

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

Know how your leaders will respond.

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

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

Make informed decisions.

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

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

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

Consider your ministry’s priorities.

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for New Youth Pastors [Part 2]

Last week we took a look at some general tips for anyone starting a new youth pastor position. However, given that we are currently trying to do ministry during a pandemic this can look very different depending on where you serve. With safe guards in place and new requirements coming up frequently, it is important to address different ways of engaging with your students, families, and leaders in this new normal.

This week I want to share some helpful tips for those starting during this season that apply to a more socially-distanced style of ministry.

Coordinate digital meetups.

I know that many people hate video calls at this point and that Zoom-fatigue is setting in. But try hosting meetups online where people can come and get to know you. If you are doing it for students, try to engage with them outside of the normal meet and greet flow. Have some online games, utilize prizes (digital gift cards are awesome, especially if you can get them to local stores/restaurants), set up a digital scavenger hunt, or have people come in costume. All of these will help engage students who may not be super willing to jump into another Zoom session.

Increase your online presence.

Most youth workers have social media, but if you are like me… your personal feeds may be lacking. I don’t post often, and my students let me know. Even students who I don’t know personally have told me I need to up my Insta game.

My point? Students see us in all capacities, whether in person or online, and they are watching us. A great way to help students get to know is by posting about yourself. Not in some egotistical way, but in a way that shows who you are. Post pictures of your spouse and family doing things together, post where you are going or what you are doing especially if it is in town, host AMAs (Ask Me Anything) and polls in your stories, ask for advice on what to do and where to go. These are just a few ways to help you engage with others.

Utilize your youth group’s social media.

Depending on the size of your church and youth group, you may have social media accounts set up for your youth group. If so, leverage that to help people get to know you. Post about who you are and share some fun facts. Host a “get to know the youth pastor session” on your youth group’s pages. Post fun and funny videos of you getting acclimated to your new work environment. Post “Trivia Thursdays” and whoever answers the most questions correctly wins a digital gift card. Ask questions through a poll on your social media page or story.

Here are some easy questions to utilize in a post or story:

  • What would you like to see this coming year?
  • What series or topics would you like to have covered?
  • What is one thing you would like to see changed?
  • What is your favorite memory from youth group?
  • Why do you come to youth group?
  • What worship songs would you like us to play?
  • What would encourage your friends to come?
  • What games would you like to play online or in-person?

Send a note or postcard.

This will depend on the size of your youth group, but consider sending students a little hand written note introducing yourself, sharing about a digital meetup, and saying how excited you are to meet them. Receiving an actual letter or postcard is a sure way to connect with a student and their family as they will see you taking an interest in their student’s life.

If you serve in a large youth group and this isn’t a feasible option, consider sending a handwritten note to all your leaders. Your students will be looking to their leaders to get a feel for the new youth pastor, and if they have a good feeling for you it will be replicated to their students. It is also a sure fire way to value and elevate your leaders.

How have you seen ministry succeed during this time? What have been “wins” for your ministry?

Tips for New Youth Pastors [Part 1]

Even in the present state of things–with COVID-19 and certain states being under “stay at home” orders–churches are still hiring. Some are even hiring “online pastors” because of the current realities affecting ministries. That means that there are many people who are applying and being hired at churches.

Being hired at a new church is challenging on its own, but then you add in this new mix of social distancing and trying to connect electronically, and it is increasingly difficult. So what do we do?

Today, I would like to provide some tips and suggestions for new youth pastors in any season and then next week my desire will be to share tips for new youth pastors in our current circumstances. I would love to dialogue with anyone on this topic, especially those of you who are starting fresh in this new season.

Ask questions.

This is huge because it will give you insight you may not have had before. Often when you candidate you don’t get to meet everyone and you don’t get to have all the conversations that you may need. So ask questions. Talk to your students and ask them what they would want to see at youth group. Ask them what they value and desire. Ask what would encourage their friends to come. Engage with parents and ask them what resources would be helpful. Ask how you could better partner with and support them. Ask how you can better care for their students. Talk to your volunteers and ask them how you could better equip them. Ask them how they have been trained in the past and what would help them going forward. Ask them how you could best support, advocate for, and walk with them.

These questions and answers will give you insight into how to best care for your people and ultimately make you a better pastor. Asking questions, investing in people’s lives, and being willing to be challenged will help you to develop as a leader and value those you serve.

Listen.

I think it is easy at times to come in and think we know what to do and how to do it. I don’t think this is out of pride or arrogance but out of a desire to show that we know what we are doing and prove to the church who hired us that they made the right choice. But often times that means we don’t listen well or heed advice. Let me encourage you to take time and listen to what others are saying and to value it.

This will also allow for you to learn about any so-called “sacred cows” that exist. These are things that are immensely important to the church, that are difficult or impossible to change. While you candidate, most churches will tell you that they don’t have one. All churches do, but sometimes leaders don’t even know they exist. By listening to people you will hear what they value and why they value it, which will help you to learn what is the “sacred cow” within the ministry and the church at large.

Engage with students, leaders, families, and church members.

This seems obvious because of what we do. We are pastors after all and part of our job is to engage with our people. But the truth is that sometimes it can be overwhelming in the beginning. Everyone wants to talk to the new pastor, everyone wants to know your plans for the ministry, everyone has their own ideas and agendas.

It can be taxing and draining, and there will be moments you may find yourself mentally disconnecting from conversations. Don’t allow that to happen. Engage with people and hear what they have to say. Be willing to value people and their thoughts. By doing this, it will allow for you to become more attune with what people are seeking from you, your ministry, and the church. This can allow for you to become a better minister to them.

Go out into the community.

I think this is one that we all know and value, but if we are honest when we move to a new place sometimes we focus on settling in. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about our new community and the people in it, but sometimes we just hunker down as we settle into our role. But let me encourage you to engage with the community as much as you can. Go to the local supermarket, check out the local middle school or high school football game, visit local restaurants, hit up local parks. By doing this you are not only gaining the lay of the land, you are also showing that you are a part of the community and value it. You may even have church members stop and greet you which will help you build relationships.

Network.

This is a huge asset to anyone in any position, but if I am being honest it doesn’t happen enough in ministry. Youth workers are beginning to change that, and I want to encourage you to be a part of a local network as best you can. As you start in a new position, reach out to other youth pastors in the area and seek to grab coffee or lunch with them. Talk to them about what has worked for them, ask questions about the community and the area, be willing to partner with them for the sake of the Gospel. In doing all of this you are building friendships, confidantes, and support networks to help you succeed in your ministry.

Share your purpose and vision.

This is huge for any new youth pastor. In a new ministry it is easy to assume that everyone knows what you are about and the direction you want to take the ministry. But the reality is that there will be those who don’t, and those who need to continue to hear it over and over. While you have had the time to think through and plan because of the hiring process, other people need time to hear, process, and jump on board. So make sure to drip this into all of your communications and to share it with families, students, leaders, and church staff.

Over communicate.

Communication is key. That is something everyone should remember, and in a new position it is important to make sure you communicate often and clearly. Make sure to engage with your leaders, students, and families and use that time to communicate what you want them to hear. Do not assume that if you say it once or twice everyone will remember what you said. Over communicate not because people don’t get it, but because it helps them to be on the same page with you.

Empower your volunteers.

Your volunteers are key to your ministry growing and being sustained. Without them your ministry will not function. So make sure to encourage and empower them. Let leaders utilize their gifts and strengths. Encourage them when you see them doing what God has gifted them to do. Be free with your role and allow leaders to step up and serve. One of the things I love to do is be open with the stage. I don’t have to speak each week, in fact my students listen more when their leaders share. This is huge because it allows for multiple voices to be heard and valued, and it affirms and builds up leaders who are using their gifts. Find out your leaders’ strengths and passions and put them into practical use.

Set boundaries.

This is hugely important for all pastors and youth workers. Often we jump into a new position and we go as hard and as fast as we can. We go to all the events, attend all the meetings, work long hours, throw awesome outreaches, and begin to burn through all the reserves that we have.

This type of approach may work in the beginning, but ultimately it will leave you exhausted and burned out. It will also frustrate your volunteers and hurt your relationship with your family. You need to make sure that you are taking care of yourself and putting your priorities in order. Often we think the ministry comes first, but the reality is the order should be our relationship with God, our relationship with our family, and then our relationship with the ministry. Setting and enforcing boundaries allows us to focus on priorities, take care of ourselves, and be present for others. 

If you are starting at a new church, what questions do you have? If you are helping a church look for a new candidate, what do you look for?

Life After Lock-Down: Tips for Regathering

When it comes to reopening in the wake of Coronavirus, churches in many states have been afforded special rights and privileges as non-profits and houses of worship. We may be permitted to gather and congregate, but there are still recommendations and requirements that should be followed.

We must remember that in all things we need to represent Christ and look to reflect Him and His heart for people to our congregants, communities, and the world. We bear the responsibility to make timely and informed decisions in a reality we were unprepared for but called to lead in nonetheless.

In light of that truth, I wanted to offer some suggestions to help us as we are regathering or preparing to do so. Please know that these are not a foolproof method for reopening, but simply suggestions to help us do this in a proactive and Christ-honoring way. It is not reflective of any one church or methodology, but simply suggestions for how we can think through this as leaders and shepherds.

Don’t rush to get together.

It is easy to push to gather sooner than we should because we so desire community. But we must make sure it is safe to do so. Do not simply gather because you can, gather when you should. Put safe guards in place, communicate well, and honor the guidelines set forth by the church and governing authorities.

Be a force for unity not division.

It seems that for many churches, our ability or right to gather has forced us to take a stand that has lead to much division and fracturing. We cannot be leaders who cause strife and undue division, but instead seek to be voices of the Gospel that honor those in authority as we seek to reflect Christ to this world. I am not advocating for capitulation, but I am saying be mindful of your speech and actions and look to unite people together as Christ did. May we put aside biases, personal agendas, and political parties, and simply be a force for the Gospel of Christ.

Root your decisions in the Gospel.

It seems that for many churches the guiding principle to gauge reopening has been if their rights have been infringed upon. But that isn’t how we should measure if and when we gather again. We must remember that we are not due any rights because of our inherent sinfulness. I know we could go back and forth about our rights here in the USA, but why do we find our identity in our country and assumed freedoms? Shouldn’t we find it in Christ, and Christ alone? If we understand that in all things we must reflect the full Gospel, then we should know that reopening must be rooted in representing Jesus by caring for our churches and our communities.

So we must ask ourselves if what we are doing is a proper reflection of the Gospel, or a manifestation of rights we believe we are owed. We must remember that first and foremost we are to be a voice for the Gospel. Everything we do should reflect Jesus to our world. How we go about reopening, the safeguards we put in place, and the ways in which we minister to our people should all be outlets for the Gospel. Our care, love, and motives should all be to reflect Jesus.

Guard your speech.

It is so easy in today’s context to use our speech in non-constructive ways. We can hastily fire off a Facebook post, share something on our social media to push an agenda, or have a flippant conversation that is overheard and could bring about difficulties for the church at large. We as shepherds of our people must guard what we say and make sure we are not contributing toward tension, frustration, or dissension. All of those will only further fracture and divide our churches. Instead, seek to listen and engage in healthy and constructive dialogue that looks to encourage and build up the body of Christ.

Be proactive not reactive.

As you prepare to open back up, think about ways to keep everyone safe and healthy. This may mean you start with multiple layers of safety procedures and changes which are okay. It is easier to remove safety procedures than it is to add them. We want to be shepherds who do all we can to protect and care for our people, and as new information and data are made available, you can always scale back to adapt. If our people just see us adding more restrictions because we didn’t do it in the beginning, it may cause their trust in us to wane.

Don’t do things just because you can.

Lots of churches are meeting and lots of churches are doing things differently. But before you do things, let me ask you a question: why are you doing them? Is it because you can? Is it because it makes a statement? Is it because of external or internal pressure? Let me encourage you to think through the “why” before you do anything.

I know many churches that have relaunched and have gone back to “normal,” but we have to ask ourselves if this the best thing to do. When restaurants, malls, communities, and countries still have measures in place to protect people, should we as the church buck the system just because we can? Instead, I would encourage us to do things in a thoughtful and measured approach to show how we love and care for our people.

Hear and respond to criticism.

Criticism happens. In fact you have probably seen or heard a lot of it since this pandemic began. But here is what we as leaders and shepherds must do: listen to our people, hear what they are saying, and respond well. When people criticize it is often a representation of a deeper heart issue or concern. We must listen to them and truly hear what they are saying. One of the last times I preached I received an email that heartily disagreed with what I said and how I said it. I am not going to lie, it hurt and I wanted to respond in kind. But I knew that wasn’t right.

Instead, I sought council from those over me and on my team, and I ended up personally connecting with the individual who sent the email. I heard their concerns, I asked questions, and ultimately we agreed to disagree. But then I took the conversation in a different direction and thanked the person for sharing, and told them how much our church loved them. The change was staggering. The person was so thankful and moved, and they emphatically stated that even though we may disagree they will always call our church home.

My point here is this: no matter what decision you make in regard to reopening, no matter what safe guards you follow, and no matter how much you communicate, there will always be criticism. But it is essential to respond with love and understanding and seek to emulate Christ in all things.

Caring for High School and College Seniors During COVID-19

While we are all attempting to navigate this new phase of life in which we find ourselves, for high school and college seniors it is especially difficult. All students are missing out on the same things, but for seniors, many rites of passage and coming-of-age events have been torn from their grasp.

Seniors are dealing with proms being cancelled, musicals being postponed, graduations being suspended or moved online, not seeing their friends, and missing out on all the things we took for granted just over a month ago. NBC shared an article that highlights how seniors are feeling and attempting to navigate this period of loss. They feel they are losing their friends, their education, and part of their identity as they cannot engage in the normal social protocols that surround senior year.

Our seniors are hurting and grieving as they experience loss at an entirely new level. During this time we can dial in and look to love, care for, and encourage our seniors. But how do we go about doing that? I want to share with you five ways that we can practically engage our seniors while we are home together. These ideas can be implemented through your ministry or passed along to parents to implement with their senior.

1. Pray for them.

This is huge and cannot be overstated. Praying for our students as a whole is essential, but praying for our seniors who are struggling in unique ways is extremely important. Seniors are walking through loss, questioning why things happen, asking if anyone cares, and wondering if God is in control. To be able to pray for our seniors is a privilege and allows us to go before God on their behalf. Pray for their hurts and loss, pray for them to be encouraged, pray for their identity, and pray for their future. May this time lead them into even deeper relationships with Jesus that will shape their lives going forward.

2. Allow them be heard and grieve.

There is a huge sense of loss right now for seniors and they are grieving. They are looking for an outlet for their emotions and feelings, but sometimes bottle them up because they don’t know how their response will be received. Be willing to let them share without judgement. Let their pain, anger, frustration, and sadness be vocalized. Here are a few ways to help students grieve:

  • Give them a safe space to share their emotions at their pace.
  • Listen carefully and respond appropriately – you are not meant to be the fixer but instead a supporter during this time.
  • Don’t hold too tightly to responses that are out of character.
  • Don’t minimize their feelings.
  • Love and champion them during this time.

3. Encourage connectivity.

This may seem a bit odd at first. How do we do this in a world of social distancing? But what we must remember is students are not just grieving loss of graduation and prom, but friendships and community as well. It is important that we help our students connect with their friends during this time, and we must understand that community will look different.

Most, if not all, of community is taking place digitally as a result of Covid-19. Encourage your senior to connect with friends through calls, FaceTime, group chats, and whatever other forums they use. Another huge aspect would be to make sure they are connecting with their youth group leaders and small groups. Youth leaders can set up various ways to communicate and even short conversations help a student to know they are loved and valued.

4. Pour into their lives.

Isolation is a big deal for all of us, but especially for seniors. They need people encouraging and loving them. Encourage parents especially to make the most of this time to grow closer to their seniors and be present with them. Parents can focus on helping them to grow as an adult, teach them practical skill sets, spend time hanging out together, and help them grow spiritually. We have been given an opportunity to engage with our students in new ways; let’s make the most of the time we have. Two questions to give to parents to help them think through how to do this are:

  • What would I want to share with my senior before they leave for college?
  • What is something that if my senior were in college now, I would have wanted to share with them before they left?

5. Celebrate milestones.

Just because things may have gotten cancelled or postponed, doesn’t mean that seniors cannot be celebrated or make memories. What if you took the moments they were going to have and made them happen in a creative and unique way? It will not be the same, but it will show your senior that they are not forgotten and that they are loved deeply. Here are a few ideas that you and parents could implement or use as a creative jump-start:

  • If commencement gets cancelled, consider hosting an online one for your senior and their friends. Connect with other families and decorate your homes for the commencement. Give each senior an opportunity to share from the “podium” and allow for a parent or two to share advice. Then call each name and have the student receive their diploma from their families. Another added sentimental touch could be having each family member write letters to their senior.
  • If prom gets cancelled consider hosting a mobile prom. Have your senior and their friend group all get ready for prom in what they would have worn. Girls could even get ready together over virtual platforms. Then have everyone get in decorated vehicles and drive around the neighborhood together playing some of their favorite songs. A cool way to have everyone listen to the same song is create a Spotify playlist and start it at the same time in each car. See if you can get your neighbors to come out and cheer for them as they go by. Consider having flowers for all the girls at the end of the parade and boutonnieres for the guys, and have them paired with cards from family and friends.  
  • Have a card shower for your seniors. Put out a call to all your friends, family members, church family, and neighbors asking them to write cards of encouragement to your senior. These can have fun memories, encouraging Scriptures, tips for the future, or whatever else you think will brighten their day. Give a deadline for the cards, and then host a graduation celebration for your senior where there is cake, balloons, gifts, and the cards.

How have you been caring for your seniors?

Ministry Planning in Uncertain Times

Our world is ever changing. A little over a month ago, and few of us had ever heard of the Coronavirus. Now, most of us have moved our offices and ministries into our homes and are hosting youth group gatherings through Zoom and YouTube.

With a changing world comes a change in the method and manner in which we do ministry. But the question is, “how do we do effective ministry and planning in times such as these?” Well, today I hope to give you some advice and tips for how to do this well going forward. This is not a catchall, but rather some tips that I hope help you to think creatively through where your ministry is at and where it is going.

Plan ahead

This is hard to do when life is uncertain and events, outings, and gatherings are being cancelled farther out than we would have hoped. That means that for some of us, summer trips have already been cancelled or we are preparing for that to happen. Let me encourage you to at least begin to brainstorm about what this summer will look like if trips fall through.

Begin to come up with contingencies: think through what it would like for you to host a mission trip in your community, consider if there is a local camp you could host a retreat at, think about hosting a multi-church retreat in your town.

But planning ahead is more than just about trips, it is also about normal programming. Many of us have already changed how we do programming, but have you thought about the long term? Do you have a plan for if your group cannot gather through the summer? Planning ahead can add more to your plate and yes, in many ways it is hypothetical, but it is also prudent and necessary. Think through what programming could look like if our present state continues. Thinking through engagement, leader training, and ministering to families in light of our current circumstances is beneficial now and will help you build a stronger ministry going forward.

Set yourself and your ministry up well

Many ministries are trying to do all the things right now. They have started using all types of social media, they have started live streaming, they are hosting Zoom calls every day, they are constantly trying to be relevant, and honestly it is leading to exhaustion and burnout.

The reality is that right now you should scale your ministry carefully. You need to put together a plan that is sustainable and usable after you get back into “normal” programming. To scale up to a large level that isn’t something you can continue for the long haul is not productive. You can always scale up, but if you start big and have to reduce, people will lose trust in what you are doing. Start at a good rate and build off of that.

Remember your people

During this period and other times of uncertainty, just because our rhythms have changed or because our schedule allows for us to do more doesn’t mean everyone else can. Your volunteers are feeling overwhelmed and scared, some are working extra hours, others have lost jobs. Because of this, we cannot expect our people to do all the things. We cannot mandate that they do more than they were before or even the same amount as their lives and rhythms are drastically changing.

But this also means we should be intentional about connecting and communicating with our people. This will look different than it did when we all could gather together, but it could be as simple as calling someone instead of texting. Sending someone a personal card in the mail. Clearly explaining the plan and how you will get there. Remember to care well for them as they care well for your students.

Set boundaries

Feeling more tired than normal? Working extra hours? Don’t have a safe place to call home because home is now your work space? That is the case for many of us. With our ministries going remote, we have seen an uptick in how much we have to do. For many of us, we are still trying to manage a normal schedule on top of learning new things, teaching in new ways, and equipping our volunteers and families.

All that means we are feeling tired and overwhelmed, and we need to make sure that we are not being set up to fail. In order to do that you must set appropriate boundaries. Some of these boundaries could include continuing to have normal working hours, hosting meetings and gatherings when you normally would have, taking time off when you normally would have, making sure to still invest in your family, and continuing to care for your own soul and health. You need to be holistically healthy to run a ministry and care for others; make sure you are doing that and setting healthy rhythms in our new normal.

Be willing to adapt

Have things changed for you? Are you doing ministry in a way you never thought you would? Are you challenging students to be more digitally connected when before you were calling for them to disconnect from media? Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it?

We must be willing to adapt, change, and overcome. Life has changed for us, which means our rhythm of doing ministry has changed as well. We are not changing our mission but simply the way we go about fulfilling it. We must be willing to adapt in order to further the mission. You may need to move to an online structure, you may not be able to meet together, you may need to care for your people in new ways. That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel, but instead find new ways to continue in the mission God has called us to.

Don’t take things personally

Have you had a conversation with an exhausted volunteer who is stepping back because you want too much? Has a parent emailed you demanding to know your plan for the future? Have you had a store clerk yell at you or a delivery driver give you a dirty look?

Welcome to where our world is at. People are fearful, tired, anxious, and isolated. That means that people will respond poorly and at times lash out, especially at those they are looking to for answers. It isn’t right or deserved, but we must remember the fragile state of so many in our world. Don’t take these moments as a personal assault, but be willing to still love and care for people in the midst of everything that is happening.

Care for your people

As was stated above, people are scared, alone, and unsure. It is in times like these that we must make every effort to care well for our people. Send texts, make calls, offer services like dropping off a meal or dessert, be willing to pick up items for others when you go shopping, write a letter, or simply let people know you are praying for them.

We are great at caring for people when we are physically with them, now we need to do it when we are apart. This is where our people will see that we love and care for them, and it provides us a real opportunity to show Jesus and His love during a difficult time.

8 Tips for Generating Early Sign-Ups

Have you ever tried to get students to sign up for a trip? Have you ever received that last minute phone call, text, email, or DM asking for a student to be allowed to go? Have you been in that situation where its the week of the trip and only one student has signed up for a trip and you may have to cancel?

I get it. We have all been there. Getting students to sign up early, let alone on time, is extremely difficult. For many years I just assumed this was the norm in student ministry, but it doesn’t have to be. There is a way to make it work. I want to share some tips on how to achieve earlier sign-ups and increase them overall.

I should note that you won’t see changes overnight. In fact it may take a couple of semesters, trips, or years for changes to be seen. But don’t get discouraged. Stick to your values, keep the rules you set, and see what happens. Actual change will take time and if you begin to implement these tips it may just help move that change forward in the right direction.

1. Cast vision early.

This is something I learned early on in my tenure in student ministry. It is important to share the what, the how, and the why. If you are asking for students and families to have buy-in to what you are doing, talk about it as early as possible. Communicate why you are going on this trip. What will be the result? What will happen in students’ lives? How will this trip be paid for? Why should a student go? Why is this important in their spiritual journey? Answering these questions early on will allow for families to better plan and prepare for what you are doing, and it will generate buy-in.

2. Be excited about the trip.

Have you ever started at a new church where you had to take students on a trip to a place you had never been? I have, and I will be honest: it was hard generating excitement about going somewhere I had never been. So instead of talking about just the logistics, I shared about what I was looking forward to. I shared pictures and videos of where we were going. I tried to make travelling overnight sound like an amazing adventure (and it was an adventure). My point is this: if you aren’t excited, or you talk about the trip begrudgingly or with no emotion, why would you expect students to go? Get excited and let your excitement bleed into your students as you prepare to go.

3. Know what you are talking about.

This is a big thing to remember. Make sure the information you are sharing is accurate and clear. I will admit that sometimes I have shared inaccurate information and it has kept students and families from signing up. I have been actively looking to better communicate and share what I know to be correct information. In fact, if I don’t know the answer I let them know I will find out and share it with them as soon as I do. This actually helps me be more intentional with communicating with the host site or camp. I ask better questions and get their vision for our trip and that allows me to share more accurate information with my people.

4. Communicate with parents.

Have you ever felt like parents don’t know what is happening? Or have you ever received the email that claims they knew nothing about your upcoming trip or retreat? The reality is that there will always be communication that is missed, but what we should be looking to do is over-communicate.

Think about it: parents have hundreds of emails coming to them all the time. They are seeing all the stuff you are on social media and probably even more. They are trying to balance school activities, sports, social lives and so much more. Be willing to give grace when appropriate but also seek to communicate ahead of time through multiple outlets, and continue to send out communications. Consider hosting a plenary parents only meeting to share about what is coming up. No, you won’t get every parent on your first go-around, but the number will steadily increase as they see your passion and desire to share. The more parents know, the more your students will know, and the more sign-ups you will get because you are all on the same page.

5. Have an early bird sign-up.

Want to guarantee more sign-ups? Work within your budget to have an early bird deadline. Most camps and retreat centers already have that, which is why we preregister so we can save money. But what if you offered the early bird price that you paid for a certain period, and then the price went up to the actual cost (the cost it would be if you hadn’t preregistered)? Now you are generating a desire for students and parents alike to save money. This almost guarantees sign-ups because no one wants to pay extra if they don’t have to. And you are not simply upping the price for the sake of doing so, but from an ethical and moral standard you are keeping it in line.

We do this for all of our big trips. We figure out the lowest possible cost and offer that as the early bird. Then we adjust the rate going forward in accordance with the up-charge in the conference fee. We offer four different payment times: early bird, regular, late, and last minute. At most we have three to five late sign-ups and maybe one last minute because of the price differential. Not only does this generate sign-ups, it also alleviates a lot of stress. Planning appropriate deadlines affords you the ability to collect registrations in a timely manner.

6. Offer a payment plan.

Let’s be real: for some families, paying for longer trips is taxing financially. We get that. If you are asking a family to drop a thousand dollars right away for a trip, you won’t get many sign-ups. If you present a payment plan instead, and give them a means to an end, you will allow families to participate with less financial burden up front. If you have different sign up times you will need to have a plan for each one, but again, it allows families to see how much they owe and when, which can ease the burden.

7. Don’t allow late sign-ups.

This is a big thing for me. I used to always allow people to sign up late. I would hear their reasons why they hadn’t, I would see the change this trip could bring about in a student’s life, and I understood being busy. But what I didn’t see was that I was cultivating a culture where rules, guidelines, and timing didn’t matter. It added stress and tension to planning a trip and going on it. That student didn’t have buy-in like everyone else. Recently we made the decision to not allow late sign-ups unless extenuating circumstances applied. This is a tough stance to hold and there were parents who pushed back. But we shared our reasoning and heart behind it, and when communicated effectively beforehand, parents will see that the were ample opportunities to sign up earlier.

8. Host a scholarship program. 

Regardless of whether there are payment plans or not, you will always have families who cannot afford to pay for trips. Please consider offering scholarships for those families. It may not be a full ride, but even a little may allow for a student to go who originally couldn’t. This may mean getting creative and reworking your budget to put money aside for scholarships, or hosting a sponsorship event at your church, or even seeing if the church would consider taking a special offering. Any time you can help a student go to a camp, trip, or retreat could be life changing with eternal results. So think about how you can help get students to camp who need the financial help.

5 Ways to Improve Volunteer Communication

Let’s face it: without a team of volunteers it is exceptionally hard to run a student ministry. It gets harder still if that team doesn’t know the plan.

I have often found that a team functions best when there is a clear plan and goal because of clear communication. If I am being honest I am not always the best communicator when it comes to planning and sharing what is happening.

This is a place I am constantly looking to grow in, and as such I wanted to share with you a few ways to enhance communication with your team. I have had to learn to do these things and honestly have learned a lot through mistakes. Most of these are digital, but some are face-to-face as well because both are extremely important.

Ask your team how they communicate.

I have a questionnaire I ask my leaders to fill out (both new and returning leaders) and I ask for their preferred means of communication. This allows me to see how they communicate and be able to utilize the best forum. It also highlights any issues that may develop if someone doesn’t use a certain method. Some of my leaders only use WhatsApp and because it is only a couple of people, I make the effort to communicate with them there if I text the rest of the team.

Choose your medium and use it.

As youth workers we are forever surrounded by new and different ways of communicating. But if we continue to switch it up on our teams, they will never know where look. I had a volunteer during my first year at church who would respond to my emails via text. It wasn’t ideal because when I would be looking for information from them, I wouldn’t know where to go. I finally sat down and made it clear that the main way I communicate is email for standard youth group stuff. If it is an emergency or a day-of change it would be via text or phone.

My teams know this is the standard case, and as such they are expecting my communications via these platforms. It has helped to streamline our communication and works well for sharing information. Choose whichever way is best for you, and stick with it. If you do change it, communicate that to your team.

Be consistent.

A big thing I have learned is that when we say we are going to do something, we need to do it. Don’t promise to communicate via email and then switch to text. Doing this not only confuses leaders and doesn’t communicate well, it also creates a lack of trust in what you are doing. Be consistent, and if change needs to happen, bring your team in before you make the change.

Communicate early.

We plan out our schedule a year at a time. Typically this is during late spring and we are able to get that information out to leaders before the start of the new school year. They see when we have events, trips, retreats, and we also note when we do not have youth group. This allows our leaders to prepare for the year and know what is coming; there are no surprises.

I also make an effort to get our small group resources and plans out to leaders at least 24 hours ahead of youth group so they can prepare for the evening. I send the schedule, notes, and the questions for small groups so leaders know what is happening, what is expected, and they have the ability to mentally and spiritually prepare for the next day.

Communicate in person.

Much of what has been shared has been about digital communication, but we cannot overstate the value of face-to-face communication. Those are the moments when you get to truly shepherd and care for your people, and you get to cast vision and passion for the ministry as well. Take time to communicate clearly, answer questions, and receive feedback. We should never undervalue our leaders and must always seek to be with and for them.