6 Tips for Handling Suggestions

Have you ever thought about…? Why don’t we…? Could we or could you…? Would we ever…? If you have been in ministry for more than a day or two you have probably had someone come up to you with a question that started like these. I know I get them all the time. And most of the time, unless they are from students, it is in a passing conversation or in an email.

It’s hard hearing suggestions when you run a ministry because it is easy for us to take it personally. We do this not only because we feel challenged or that our work isn’t up to par, but also because it feels like a targeted response to our calling and our leadership in ministry.

But let me ask you a few questions. How did you respond to it? Did your heart and head handle it well? Did you respond in the moment? How did you make an informed decision?

More often than not, I have found that when people offer suggestions they aren’t doing it to challenge us or to call out our leadership or heart for ministry. It is often rooted in seeking to understand or to truly offer up something they think will be beneficial for others because it was for them. As ministry leaders, we must respond well to these suggestions and lead out as Christ would. But what does that practically look like for us? Today I want to offer you six tips on how to handle suggestions well.

1. Listen well.

It is so easy to jump to conclusions or to make assumptions when some offers a suggestion. We may think we know what they want to say and we may even guess their motives or reasoning. But regardless of whether we are correct in our thinking or not, listening well is essential. Listening to someone values that person and helps them to feel known. Listening also gives you greater clarity, perspective, and understand because it allows you to see the whole picture and gives you more understanding from other viewpoints.

2. Think and pray before responding.

If you’re like me, sometimes you may respond a little too quickly. I’ve had many foot-in-mouth moments that I’ve had to apologize for, so now I make a habit of pausing and praying before responding especially if the suggestion is more critical or personal. I don’t ever want to respond out of frustration or ignorance or defensively because that can erode any credibility I may have in that relationship. Instead, pausing to collect your thoughts and asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit will help to center and calm your thoughts and response which will allow you to best engage in the conversation.

3. Ask clarifying questions.

This will serve you so well when people come to you with a suggestion. By seeking clarity and asking thoughtful questions, you will not only garner a better understanding of what is being suggested, but you will also value that individual because you have heard and responded well to them. Asking questions affirms people, lets them know you care and want to have a well-rounded viewpoint, and truly want to engage with them.

When you ask questions look for information, the motivation, how it works with the mission and vision, and logistics to help provide you and the person who came to you with a greater sense of clarity and relational equity.

4. Respond with grace and humility.

Sometimes it is easy to get flustered, annoyed, or even angry when people offer suggestions because it may feel personal whether it’s directed at you or the ministry you steward. But we need to remember not every suggestion is an attack, and even if it is, our response should be one that mirrors Jesus to them.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating for simply taking unsubstantiated accusations or personal attacks lying down. However, I am advocating for showing grace and love with truth. By responding as Jesus would, we are carrying well the calling that He has bestowed upon us, and also seeking to care well for our flock even if it hurts at times. So lovingly respond to these moments and individuals and highlight the growth and leadership capabilities God has given you.

5. Clearly explain your reasoning.

There will be times when someone shares a suggestion and you will disagree or not act on what they are saying. This could be due to different philosophies of ministry, lack of understanding of student culture, not aligning with the values and vision of the ministry, and many other reasons. While we may know why we disagree or aren’t acting, we need to remember that the person who came to us may not. They may not be aware of all the insight, past experience, or trial and error that you and your team have walked through.

What that means for us is we need to be intentional in communicating our rationale and reasoning to the person who came to us. We don’t need to lecture or point out the flaws in their perspective, but instead we should strive to clearly show them why we are responding the way we are. We should also realize we may never see eye-to-eye on the perspective but that doesn’t mean we cannot be for one another and still be united in reaching students. So seek to be clear but remember that we are all siblings in Christ and let His message be what drives us.

6. Be willing to take guidance and make changes.

There are times when the suggestions people make are valid and should be considered. These moments may not always feel great because they highlight a blind spot or an area in which we need to improve, but we shouldn’t dismiss the advice and guidance. Instead we should hear what is said and look to make changes and improvements based off what is shared.

There are people who care deeply and want to help you and your ministry succeed and they will offer ways to do just that. Even when people offer a critical suggestion, that doesn’t mean you can’t grow and learn from them. Instead seek to understand, analyze, and assess if there is anything you can take away and use to help yourself, the ministry, or both.

How do you handle suggestions? What is a proactive way people could share suggestions with you?

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?

How to Help Your Students Want to Read the Bible

Throughout my time serving in churches I have seen biblical literacy continue to decrease in student ministry and I have been astounded by how little students actually know about the Bible. Whether it’s attributing sayings and musing to God’s Word that aren’t there, not knowing where books of the Bible fall, or not even knowing Bible speaks into various topics, the state of biblical literacy is not looking good. Maybe this is just my experience, but I think this is indicative of a trend in younger people and is why we are seeing more and more companies focusing on students to help them grow in biblical literacy.

Now it would be easy for me to sit here and bemoan the circumstances and to be dismayed by the lack of comprehension and willingness to engage with the Bible. But that would be neither helpful nor beneficial. Instead, I want to be a part of the solution. In my role that means working with our upcoming generations and helping to train and equip them in how to use and interpret their Bibles in a way that helps them make real world applications.

Today, I want to look at how we can help our students not only read their Bibles but also seek to engage with and apply them. Students need to see that God’s Word is real and necessary, but they also need to understand why it is important and know what it means to them. This will allow them to be thoughtful and proactive in how they apply the Bible in their lives and in how it shapes them as Christ-followers.

Teach students how.

We have written on Bible study methods before but it is easy to assume our students know how to read the Bible when in actuality they have never been taught. So take time to show them how to read the Bible. Point out the different literary styles and help them learn basic hermeneutics so they can read it appropriately and apply it to their lives. Help them understand it is okay to have and ask questions. Teach them to be analytical and critical readers in order to think about the Bible in broader and deeper contexts. Doing this will help them grow not only in their knowledge of God’s Word but it will also affirm them and help them see that they can discern and interpret the Bible on their own.

Make sure they have a Bible they will use.

Maybe I’m just odd but I have a ton of Bibles and they all serve a different purpose. Some are for studies, others for personal devotions, and I have others because they offer unique and significant insights. But most students aren’t like me. In fact, I have found many students don’t actually have a Bible they want to use or enjoy using. So take time to help students find a Bible that they can read and will want to read. This may mean having more Bibles on hand and having a broader knowledge of different types of Bibles, but it will allow you to help your students grow and engage with God’s Word on their own in a way they can understand.

Point them to helpful Bible study resources.

There are lots of great Bible Study tools out there and there are a lot of not so great ones. In fact, you have probably seen a lot of “teen Bible studies” that feel dated, or they talk down to students, or perhaps feel childish in their designs and studies. Finding helpful resources or Bible studies may feel difficult, but when you find ones that work for your students you will see them grow and gravitate toward reading God’s Word even more. We have written on some resources and you can find that information here.

Model it for them.

I think this is something the church needs to be better about as a whole. We should model what we preach and teach to our people, and not always in a way that shows us succeeding or doing the right thing. I think we need to model the very real aspects of what studying Scripture looks like, both the successes and difficulties. When our students see the impact that the Bible has on our lives it motivates them to want that for themselves. But they also need to see the moments this is hard for you. Let them know about times you’ve struggled to be in the Bible. Show them how you overcame that and highlight how you felt and what being out of God’s Word did to your life. When students see the real pieces of what the Bible does for our lives coming from people they trust, they will want to model that as well.

Set up reminders and show them how to do the same.

Reminders may sound trivial at first but they work. I love my Google calendar and my reminders on my phone. In fact, I have reminders set for all sorts of things not because I forget them, but because they are of high value to me and I don’t want to forget they are there if I’m scheduling other things. Students are incredibly busy and they have all sorts of things competing for their time and attention. If you can help them in prioritizing what is important and show them the benefit of reminders and scheduling, it will help them to see the necessity of staying in God’s Word.

Help students to set reminders, show them how to put things in a schedule, and help them carve out time to read God’s Word. But remember that this may look different than your schedule. Students may have to carve out ten minutes on a crowded bus to read the Bible or listen to a devotion. They may have to do it at night before or after homework. It may not be every day but it may be a few times a week. That’s okay because it is all about growth and consistency. And remember that reminders aren’t a fix-all, they are just a tool to help us. This isn’t a “you do this and you’re good” approach, but instead is a resource to help us grow as biblically literate Christ followers.

Show them why this is important and applicable to their lives.

I believe it is easy to take the Bible and its impact in our lives for granted sometimes. As western Christians, we live the good life where we don’t see the hardships and persecution that Christians around the world face. And I believe this is part of the reason we may not see the Bible as being helpful and applicable all the time: we live an easy life and we don’t see hardship that the Bible helps us through. However, for many of us in ministry we can point to moments when the Bible and our faith in God carried us through dark moments and how that was a turning point in our lives. Students need to hear that! They need to understand that the Bible has a place in our mundane lives and in the moments when life is at its lowest point. Our students don’t see the impact the Bible always has because we don’t show them how it impacts their lives at each moment.

We need to teach them how the knowledge of God’s Word helps to form and prepare us for those rocky moments. We need to show them how the truths of the Bible have a life-changing impact on our lives, our culture, and our world. We need to help model how we can be agents of good change in our world through being who God has called us to be. When we model this reality to them, it builds a spiritual framework for their lives from which they can live out their calling of being disciples of Jesus.

How to Make Leader Parties Special

This is typically the time of year that many of us are hosting parties of various kinds and undoubtedly will host a party for our leaders. Our leaders are amazing, and without them our ministries wouldn’t be able to happen. Regardless of our ministry budget, how many leaders we have, or even what our options may be, showing love and care is vital to help our leaders know that we value them.

Today, I want to share a few ways you can host a party for your leaders that is meaningful and special, even if resources are not ideal. The ideas below are low- to no-cost and meant to hopefully provide a spark of creativity and insight as you seek to encourage your leaders.

Utilize families.

One of the blessings of student ministry is that we get to partner with families. We are able to walk with, encourage, and be for our families in all moments. Families see this and most are aware of how important our leaders are because they see the evidence in the lives of their students. So consider asking families to help with putting on a leader party.

You may have a couple of parents or families who love to host and put together parties who will run the whole thing for you. Or there may be a family who would love to offer their home as a place for you to gather offsite that feels more special and intimate. You can also create a Sign Up Genius form where families could sign up to bring food for either a meal or a dessert buffet. Another fun and really special idea would be asking families to bless their student’s small group leader with a gift, a meal, or card shower to make your leader party even more special. Imagine if you could give each leader a special gift from the families in the church and consider how seen, loved, and known they will feel.

Utilize students.

What if you encouraged your students to bless your leaders whenever you have a party for them? If you have a Christmas party for your leaders, have your students write Christmas cards or bake for them. Maybe even have your students bring a gift for their leaders. Even a small card or gift will do wonderful things in encouraging your leaders. If it’s an “end of the year” party, maybe have your students gather around their leaders and pray over them.

Any time you have a gathering for leaders, you could have students write thank you notes to them. A handwritten note acknowledging what you thought no one saw or understood brings such a sense of joy, peace, and accomplishment. You could also have your students be the hosts and waiters at your parties if applicable. Having students bring out the food and serve leaders or even greet them and say thank you is a really fun way to encourage leaders. These are a few ways you could utilize your students to make your leader parties special and meaningful.

Have food and drinks.

Refreshments don’t need to be extravagant or expensive. You could make a quick and tasty punch from items found at Aldi or Dollar Tree with orange juice, cranberry juice, ginger ale, and sherbet, and you wouldn’t break the bank. Tasty snacks can also be purchased at these stores and by putting them in a bowl or on a platter, you have made the gathering a lot more inviting and intentional.

If purchasing items is off the table (food pun intended), consider making the gathering a potluck and create a theme to make it more fun. Do a baked potato bar and have everyone bring their favorite toppings. Host a brunch and ask everyone to bring their favorite breakfast dish to share.

Provide a gift.

This can be a tough thing to do depending on your budget, but even small gifts mean a lot. You could find things on Etsy or at places like 5 Below that may not cost a lot but can be meaningful or funny or relatable to your team. You may not be able to purchase gifts, but you may be able to make something special for your leaders. I love to make candles as a hobby, and I have a ton of supplies at home where I could make a votive for each leader with minimal cost. Elise is a gifted artist, and loves to create all types of things that leaders would love.

For those type of things to be able to happen, you need to be thinking intentionally before the party because otherwise you will be stressed for time and it may not happen. Even a nice handwritten card encouraging your leaders and speaking about the ways you have seen them step up would be a wonderful gift to receive as everyone loves encouragement and a handwritten card. Often times the smallest gifts are the most meaningful because they show thoughtfulness and intentionality.

Take time to encourage them.

I try to be very intentional about encouragement because our leaders need to know how important they are and how thankful we are for them. Student ministry is hard! And there are times we may want to quit, and we are paid. Think about our volunteers who show up and probably don’t see much return on their investments, and yet they keep coming back and taking more and more upon their shoulders. They are awesome individuals, and taking the time to recognize them and encourage them is not only welcomed but I would assert it is necessary. So at your gatherings carve out time to intentionally speak into their lives, to highlight God moments you have seen, to laugh with them, and to honor them. Don’t throw it at the back end of a meeting but be intentional with where it is placed to show your leaders how important and valuable they are.

Shape the environment.

This is super important and should not be something we push to the side or forget about. I know for many of us, we have less than ideal locations for hosting a party. Perhaps you have a small church where the options are slim-to-none for hosting, except for the gym/Awana Room/fellowship hall/storage area. Maybe you are a church that is all multi-purpose so you don’t have a space to call your own and shape fully to your desire. Or maybe you are a church plant and you don’t even have a space because you rent a building only on Sundays.

I get it, shaping the environment can be hard sometimes, but I don’t think that should cause us to not try. Wherever you end up hosting, whether the Awana Room, your youth room, or at your own home, look to shape the environment to make it warm, welcoming, festive, and fun. Think about playing music for the party. If it’s Christmastime, play Christmas music. If it’s an “end of year” celebration, play throwback tunes for your leaders. Think about decorations. Are there ways you could make the time together feel special? Add tablecloths to the old wooden tables, hang Christmas lights or put up a Christmas tree, or rearrange the furniture to make it feel more welcoming or like a living room space. These things, while they may seem small, show intentionality and communicate that your leaders matter. So don’t think about what you don’t have, consider what you can do to make the setting special for your people.

6 Ways to Encourage Church Staff During the Holidays

During this time of thanksgiving, it has given me pause to reflect on how grateful I am for the amazing coworkers I have been blessed with. I truly have a wonderful staff team that is a joy with which to work. We don’t all have the same personalities or same drives and passions–aside from people following Jesus of course–but we all get along and have fun together.

The truth of the matter is that for church staff members, the holiday season is anything but relaxing. We usually end up getting busier and doing more because of all the planning and prep, parties and celebrations, larger than normal attendance, and the typical stress of the season. In the midst of all of these things it can be easy for church staff to get frustrated and forgotten. So how can we–whether we’re a fellow staff member, volunteer, or church attender–help to encourage and bless our church staff?

1. Remember important dates and moments.

Remembering staff birthdays, anniversaries, loss, and other key moments during this season is critical in encouraging them. You are highlighting that they are important and that they are important outside of what they do in and for the church. You are seeing them as a friend instead of just as a church staff member. You are prioritizing relational equity and showing them that they and their friendship matters to you.

This is especially vital for staff members who may be struggling during the holidays due to loss, stress, and busyness. People with key moments and memories during the holidays already feel passed over and forgotten (just ask someone with a December birthday or anniversary), so your ability to remember important events will help them feel loved, seen, and supported.

2. Meet up with them.

Whether it’s grabbing a cup of coffee together, bringing lunch to their office, or inviting them over for a meal at your home, these moments help church staff members feel valued and appreciated. Sometimes all we need is a friendly face and a heart that understands where we are at during the holidays. Don’t make these moments about work, but instead make it about them. Hear their heart. Ask good questions. Listen well. And speak words of encouragement to them. These aren’t times to talk shop but instead to simply be a good friend to them.

3. Speak highly about them and to them.

One of the things I learned in my cohort last year was the skill of precision praise. It isn’t simply saying “good job” or “nice sermon.” It is specifically highlighting what was done well, what was encouraging, and something you noticed that was important. To be able to encourage your church staff by speaking highly to them and giving them precision praise is huge.

Working in ministry means praise isn’t something we receive often. So taking time to specifically praise and encourage our church leadership is a wonderful way to encourage them. But don’t let it stop with just the face-to-face moments, speak highly about them and praise them publicly. If you’re preaching, make sure to highlight how awesome your team is from the pulpit. If you’re working with students, praise your coworkers in front of them. If you’re a church attender, speak well of staff in your conversations and interactions with others.

4. Write them an encouraging anonymous note.

Many of us have been the beneficiaries of anonymous notes, but usually they aren’t the encouraging type. But imagine showing up one morning with a note in your mailbox, under your door, or on your desk that is heartfelt and encouraging. All of a sudden your day changes. Your countenance is improved. You feel seen and valued. Now flip that thought and imagine being able to bring that to your church staff team. People start to feel encouraged. They are walking a little taller. The day seems to be going better. And all because you took some time to write encouraging notes. The power of a handwritten, encouraging note is massive and meaningful.

5. Get them a gift or organize a secret Santa.

One of the ways that people feel seen, valued, and encouraged is by receiving a gift. These gifts don’t need to be large or extravagant, but instead could be as simple as a small gift card, a bag of candy, or something that the individual will value and appreciate. Taking time to leave a gift for a team member or surprising them with a special item is a wonderful way to encourage them. But don’t stop with just one staff member; consider organizing a secret Santa for the whole staff team and use it as an opportunity to help spread joy and encouragement among the entire staff. Moments like these bring joy and smiles and they help your church staff know that they matter and are appreciated.

6. Bring in baked goods for the staff.

I love to bake. It is a way for me to decompress because I love to be able to control and manipulate recipes, as well as see people enjoy the items I make. I know, I know, my Enneagram type is showing. But stop and think about the last time someone brought baked goods into the office or to you personally. How did you feel? What did that moment do for the rest of your day? How many cookies did you eat? Okay, okay don’t answer that last one. It’s the holidays so calories don’t count.

My point is this: baked goods show people they matter because you put time, effort, and thoughtfulness into creating those items for them. So bake your favorite holiday recipe. Bring in some scratch made cookies. Share some pumpkin bread with the team. Bringing in baked goods and sharing in conversations while people enjoy them will be life giving and special for your church staff.

What are some ways that you have encouraged your staff team?

What Are You Teaching: All Church Series

Every now and then, our church does an all-church series. More recently, we have been using the spring semester to collectively work through a study built by multiple staff members to help our church journey in the Bible together. It involves all ages and happens in our services and in all the classes and groups that meet. But there are some unique challenges and circumstances to consider when doing these studies to help them succeed and truly be engaging for students and families.

Make sure your message relates to students. Sometimes when moving through a set curriculum for the church, there are applications and insights that are really beneficial but not always relevant and helpful to students. So look to make sure what you are teaching and encouraging students to apply is relatable to their lives and circumstances. Providing them with real and tangible applications will help them see how the Bible is practical and relevant to their lives.

Don’t teach the same thing that is taught in the services. This is a big deal because part of our vision for students should be to help them engage the church holistically and not just student programming. If we are teaching the exact same message with the same points in student programming that is taught in the sermon, students will tend to default to only the student gathering and forgo the Sunday service. This isn’t beneficial and further drives a wedge that doesn’t need to be there to begin with. Instead, even if you are teaching on the same passage from the sermon, look to find different insights and understandings. Highlight how passages can provide various applications and interpretations. Bring in new illustrations and ways to immerse students in Scripture, and help them discuss what they’re learning in both contexts.

Collaborate with others. One of the best things you can do in these types of series is talk to other staff members and leaders to see what they are teaching. This will not only provide you with insight and creativity, but will hopefully afford you new and intentional opportunities to partner with other ministries. If the adult groups are looking at a particular aspect, it may be helpful to both adults and students to know what each group is doing as there is a high potential students’ parents will be in the adult group. This provides overlap and a platform on which to engage ongoing conversations within families.

Remember everyone may not be on the same page. It is important to remember when going through all-church series that some students may not have a full grasp, if any, of the material you are walking through. So make sure to do due diligence and help students fully understand what is being taught. Also, remember that students may not be present at each level of the study due to other commitments and so summarizing what has been taught is important and also helps students continue to remain engaged.

Encourage students to be a part of the broader conversation. Make sure your students know everyone in the church is going through the series, and that they have a voice because they are the church. Encourage them to engage in conversations with family and friends. Challenge them to ask deep and meaningful questions. Provide outlets and opportunities for them to engage with church leadership on these topics and series.

What are You Teaching: Reading & Studying the Bible

“Only eight percent of global teens believe the Bible is the word of God and read the Bible several times a week.”

This is a stat the Barna Group posted on their Instagram account last week which caught my attention. It didn’t really surprise me, but it did cause me to reflect on how we can better equip and encourage students to read and study Scripture on their own.

If your students are anything like me, I wasn’t taught Bible study methods growing up. I was given a series of Bibles over the years, and found myself navigating through them on my own. Teen study Bibles helped to some degree, but I wasn’t taught what to do when I had personal devotional time. So I just read passages and tried to make sense of them, often failing to do so.

I can’t help but wonder if the students in our programs have had similar experiences. If they have, it’s no wonder they don’t want to read the Bible. If you don’t know how to understand it or where to start, it can feel like a daunting, confusing, and sometimes boring task. Students should be equipped to read, study, ask questions, and understand, so that they can uncover the beauty, depth, and purpose of God’s word.

In this third installment of the What are You Teaching series, I’d like to offer some ways we can help encourage, train, and engage students in their personal Bible study.

Translations: A simple place to start is by making sure your students not only have their own Bible, but one in a version or translation that is easy for them to understand. If the language/wording used is difficult to follow, chances are students won’t stick with it for very long. So look for a solid version that is written in a way that is clear and easy-to-read. Check out this past post for some suggestions.

Audio Bibles: Some students hate reading, or struggle with it. Others find themselves so busy with school, activities, and other commitments, that it is genuinely difficult for them to carve out time to read. Whatever the case may be, don’t forget that an audio Bible is an option. It may help your students to read and listen at the same time, or they can listen while driving or riding in the car between activities. For others, it may help them to calm their mind before going to sleep or while getting ready for school in the morning. If they’re interested in listening, they can download the YouVersion Bible app for free and listen to audio recordings of multiple versions.

Bible study methods: So your students have a Bible, now what? Make sure they are equipped to study it on their own. Some basic study methods include O.I.A. (Observation, Interpretation, and Application), Discovery Method, or S.O.A.P. (Study, Observe, Apply, Pray). These will help your students as they encounter Scripture on their own. You may also want to supply them with pre-scripted studies, that either you or a trusted source have created. Check out this post for some suggestions.

Recommended reading: As you get to know your students, you will learn their passions, interests, and struggles. Rather than have them start reading anywhere, guide them to passages that will appeal to and capture their interest, speak to their season of life, or help them get to know Jesus better. Sometimes students struggle to read the Bible because they arbitrarily open it and read wherever the pages fall. Or they may try to read through a book and get bogged down in a confusing story. Help them connect to the Bible by making personalized reading recommendations.

Start a study: Consider helping students grow further by hosting an in-depth Bible study for those who are interested. You can use this time to equip them further, challenge and encourage them, and address topics with which they may be wrestling. This is another opportunity to personalize it to your group, helping them see how the Bible connects to their real life situations.

Questions: For a while it seems in some churches, asking questions about the Bible was almost taboo. Help continue to break that stereotype for your students by encouraging them to ask questions about the Bible. Host a “stump the pastor” night or an “ask me anything” about the Bible. Even if you don’t know all the answers, take time to do the research and come back with information. Students are naturally curious. Encourage them to bring their questions to God, He can handle them all.

Creativity: Tap into creative ways to read, study, and process the Scriptures. Help your students see that it isn’t just about opening the Bible in a quiet room. God is creative, and we can interact creatively with Him and His word. This may look like artistic representation of Scripture through drawing, painting, or Bible journaling. Students may want to write their own music, spoken word, or poetry in response to what they’ve read. They don’t have to share their creative response with anyone but God, but if they want to, consider hosting an event for them to share their creations and the story behind them.

Make it personal: Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? Has it changed your life? Have you wrestled through difficult passages? Share this with your students and bring them into your story of encountering Scripture. Students need to see adults who believe in God’s word and how it has been a part of their lives. They need to see that it can be a real and important aspect of the Christian life, and not a boring part of their to-do list to check off. Students connect with personal stories and will benefit from hearing yours.

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?

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?

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.