8 Ideas for Honoring Seniors

As we are moving into graduation season it’s helpful to think about how to honor and celebrate your graduates. Much like 2020, this year may look different in what you can do under various guidelines, but we should still seek to honor our seniors and their achievements. Culture regularly celebrates moments of change or accomplishment, but the church does not always seize these opportunities to pour into people’s lives. I want to encourage you to think through how you could specifically pour into, care for, and honor your seniors as they get ready to step into uncharted waters after graduation.

Today we want to share a few helpful and easy ways to honor your graduates and help them know they are loved and cared for. These tips can serve as a way for us to begin thinking about how we can best care for our seniors within our different ministry contexts.

1. Commission your graduates.

We are sending our students out into a new phase of life, and many of them will be going to secular colleges, universities, and workplaces. Their belief systems will be challenged, they will be pushed to question their faith, and they will have a whole new set of experiences to grapple through. In essence we are sending them out into a mission field, and because of this we should commission them as a church.

Rally your congregation around this mentality and leverage a Sunday morning to intentionally speak truth into the lives of students and pray over them. We take time on Sunday and honor the graduates on stage, and then have our elders and pastors pray over them as the congregation prays along. This is an awesome opportunity to show these students that the church is for them and that they are supported and prayed for.

2. Connect seniors with a college group.

Whether it is one in your church, one near the college they are going to, or both, this is one of the best things you can do for your graduates. Many graduates will fall away from the church if they are not connected to one while at school because they do not have consistent biblical community. Students, like all of us, need to be connected with other believers and to have consistent community where they can be discipled and poured into.

Be willing to challenge your students to seek out churches and groups, but also be willing to help them in this process. Reach out in youth pastor social media groups, use your contacts and networks, and even help with a quick Google search. Another great resource is Every Student Sent. This used to be Campus Ministry Link, but they have recently updated, added many elements, and rebranded. This is a great resource to research churches, campus groups, and more in an easy one-stop place. These things will help your students find solid churches and groups to be a part of, and will help them in continuing in their walk with Jesus.

3. Host a breakfast or luncheon for grads and their families.

This is something we have begun to implement in our youth program over the past few years. On the Sunday we honor our seniors we bring them and their families to a light reception after they are commissioned. We take this time to intentionally pour into them and their parents. We offer some refreshments, speak words of truth, give parents intentional time to speak into their graduate’s life, share helpful resources, give them a gift, and connect them with our college ministry.

The big piece is highlighting intentional community and helping our graduates and their families see that they are of immense value in our church. It is also about creating space for families to intentionally be present with each other and allowing them to speak into their graduate’s life. In many ways these are sacred moments for families and an opportunity for them to grow closer to one another and to Jesus.

4. Acknowledge seniors before their peers.

At our last high school large group gathering, we acknowledge our graduates, pray over them, and usually treat their small group to a dessert or dinner. It is simply a way of acknowledging their achievements before their peers and celebrating our graduates. This shows them they are loved and valued, and that they have an extended family within our program.

5. Pray over them.

This is something we should be very intentional in doing. Whether it is before the church as a whole, in front of your youth group, or at a smaller gathering, we should be praying for our graduates. Pray for their faith, pray for the transitions that are coming, pray for their families, pray for them to do well, and pray that they can be a witness wherever they go. Prayer shows intentionality and the value we place on our graduates. It allows them to know that they are a part of something bigger and that we care about them in deep ways.

6. Get your seniors a gift.

Giving a gift is an awesome way to encourage your graduates and to let them know they are loved and cared for. You could get them a book, a journal, a laundry basket filled with some essentials for college, a branded Yeti, or a Target gift card with a personal letter. Whatever you decide to get them, remember it is more about the intentionality and relationship than the gift. So no matter what you get them include a personal note or card. Speak truth into them and let the gift simply be an extension of the love you have for them.

7. Put together a brochure or slideshow.

I love doing stuff like this. This is an awesome way to highlight your graduates and show them how special they are. Some churches do a slideshow at youth group or during a service, other churches set up individual tables for graduates to showcase pictures and achievements, and others put together a brochure for families. Whatever you do for your graduates, make it about them. Let this be a time of honoring and celebrating them and their achievements.

8. Utilize leaders and small groups.

This is something we have begun doing more and more. We are a small group heavy program and because of that our leaders have an awesome privilege of doing life on life with our students and pouring into them. In fact our students often cite their leaders and small groups as being highly influential in their lives. Because of this we leverage our leaders and small groups and bring them into these moments. We invite leaders to pray for their students, leaders and small groups are given times to celebrate together, and we encourage our leaders to continue reaching out and pouring into their students after graduation.

How to Handle Conflict Well

This past year has been a difficult one in many ways. The isolation, political divisiveness, the restrictions, personal issues, and struggles within the church have all seemed to heighten tensions and frustrations. With people more so processing on their own and not bringing others into their thoughts and questions, we are seeing conflict happen more frequently and more intensely.

Many of you have probably felt this within your churches and perhaps within your personal lives as well. Church leaders have taken hit after hit this past year, and it seems pastors and church staff are all weary and feeling the tension at deeper levels than ever before.

The easy response would be to dismiss the tension and conflict or just walk away. But that is neither productive nor uplifting for the body of Christ or individuals. So how do we handle conflict well? I am no expert at this, and arguably this past year has forced me to rethink and evaluate how I could handle it better. But what I’d love to share with you today are some steps that I believe if we implement, we will be able to handle conflict better holistically and prayerfully see the body of Christ encouraged, challenged, and built up.

Pray.

This seems like an obvious choice but it is often one we miss, put on the back burner, or rush through. We all know that prayer is important, but we must be praying before, during, and after conflict as much as we can.

If you know you’re heading to a difficult meeting, pray before you get there. Allow your prayers to not be about your success or proving your point, but about honoring God and the relationship that this meeting represents. Pray during the meeting both in silence and out loud when needed. If the tension is elevating, pause and pray for one another. And pray after the meeting has ended. Pray for each other, for wisdom, humility, and restoration. Only through Christ will there be resolution and through our prayers God moves.

Hear, listen, and respond.

Whenever we are in a meeting, especially one that may be tense or have conflict as a part of it, we may feel pressured to push our responses, agendas, or points. But when we do that we not only make the other person feel unheard but also devalued. And that is not healthy nor representative of godly leadership.

Instead, we need to not only listen to someone but hear them. We should listen to what is said and seek to understand. Ask clarifying questions, repeat back what you heard, and look to know what is shaping their understanding and point of view. As you seek to do these things, your responses should be shaped accordingly. You aren’t seeking to win, but to honor God, understand, protect the relationship, and bring resolution. These can only be accomplished by first hearing and listening, then responding.

Process.

Processing is an important component of moving through conflict, and we cannot relegate the processing piece to only after the conflict. Part of preparing for and moving through conflict means you need to process what has been communicated and shared.

Often we are led into conflict when someone reaches out and shares about tension. So think through what they shared with you. Don’t over-analyze or assume, but process what was said or shared as you seek to understand. This applies to what is shared during the actual conflict or meeting. Seek to understand and not simply respond. Process and look for clarity before you draw conclusions. The same process should be applied to how you respond after the meeting has concluded.

Know your non-negotiables.

This past year has seen a lot of tension arise within the church as everyone has an opinion on what a church should be doing and how it should be responding. This period of time has taught our leadership to think through what our non-negotiables are and to not concede on them.

This same mentality can be apprised to conflict of any kind, but not in an aggressive or dominant way. It isn’t about control or winning, but knowing what cannot be compromised. Many of the conflicts I’ve dealt with recently centered around our church’s guidelines related to COVID. Knowing what we could be flexible on and could not change allowed me to be honest and clear on what and why we were doing what we were doing. So know what you can be flexible on and what you can’t change. This will bring clarity and helpful insight into the conversation.

Seek forgiveness when needed.

We all make mistakes, and many of us have made mistakes during times of conflict or tension. When that happens we need to seek forgiveness. We need to own when we speak out of turn, we must acknowledge if something we did or said contributed to the tension, and we should own our mistakes. Whenever we are contributors to the conflict or tension we must admit our faults and seek forgiveness. Doing this not only demonstrates leadership but also adherence to God’s Word in admitting when we are wrong or have hurt others.

Seek to keep or restore the relationship.

Tension and conflict can cause relationships to struggle or falter. Sometimes it is due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. At other points it may be because there are radically different positions being held. As much as you are able, seek to keep and restore the relationship(s).

I have had to dismiss leaders and volunteers for a variety of circumstances, but I always seek to honor the friendship and relationship that is there. They don’t always look the same as coaching or counseling may be needed, but it is so important to care for others and honor the relationship. There will be times that we cannot restore them because of the other parties involved, but in as much as you are able, seek to honor and restore the relationship.

Acknowledge and validate.

Sometimes we need to admit our wrongs but we also need to acknowledge when others are right and present good points or insight. Often we just think about apologizing and seeking forgiveness when something we stated or did was incorrect, but what about acknowledging and validating the other person?

When people share helpful critiques or insight or if they were right where we were wrong, we need to acknowledge that and validate what they said or did. This will not only help us show humility, but it is also healthy leadership. A good leader knows to acknowledge and validate their people when they share or do something right, and this must carry over into moments of conflict as well.

Follow up.

This is huge and honestly it may be one of the harder ones. If we leave a moment of conflict and it feels unresolved or there is hurt from that moment, we may not want to follow up. Our humanity will pull us from seeking to right the relationship and honor the other person. But as we die to self and seek Christ we should see that as followers of Jesus we need to follow up with our people.

Reach out. Seek clarity. Pursue the relationship. Honor the other person. In doing this you are not only showing humility but strong leadership and a shepherd’s heart. Follow up even if it’s hard. Lean into those moments as you care for your people and lead out. This step is the hardest but one of the most important, and I believe doing this will help to bring people in and strengthen our communities.

5 Tips for Fundraising

This past weekend we hosted our annual fundraiser for our student ministry summer trip. But due to the effects of the pandemic, this fundraiser looked nothing like those that came before.

Prior to my tenure at the church the student ministry department would host something called “Dinner and a Show.” It was exactly what it sounds like: a fancy dinner with a full performance by students that took more than three hours to host. We eventually moved away from that fundraiser and began to host a brunch on a Sunday morning to raise funds. In 2019 we hosted our biggest brunch to date, and we raised the highest amount we had ever raised. It was awesome, and we were so excited for the future success of our fundraisers and what that would mean for getting students to camps and retreats.

But then 2020 hit and we cancelled all trips and our fundraising was put on hold. At the beginning of this year we were given the opportunity to go to a local camp over the summer, and we were told we could seek to raise funds. But, there were some conditions: no food, social distancing must be adhered to, masks must be worn, and we would need to radically change what we had done in the past.

As I understood the rationale and purpose behind the guidelines and promised to adhere to them, there were hundreds of questions in my mind about how we would succeed in fundraising. My heart ached as I thought about the negative ways not having our traditional fundraiser would impact students who were in financial need. I questioned whether people would actually give if there was no food or opportunity for them to engage in the ways they had before. But as I prayed and sought out how to host a fundraiser, I began to see fundraising in a new light. Fundraising isn’t just about bringing in needed funds, but it is also an opportunity to engage the whole church body in inter-generational discipleship, to have our students serve, to bring people together for the Gospel, and to help the body of Christ grow and mature.

Today, I want to share with you five things to remember as you seek to have a successful fundraiser. These may seem completely opposite of what we have always thought fundraising to be, but I want to ask you to hear me out. And to consider these tips and think through the heart, rationale, and purpose of fundraising as it pertains to our students and ministries.

1. Fundraising is not the priority.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. The more I searched my heart on seeking to understand the why behind fundraisers, the more I became convinced the purpose of fundraising shouldn’t solely be about obtaining money necessary for the cost of trips. It is bigger than that! These trips that we are raising funds for should be focused on helping our students grow in their relationship with Jesus, and because of that, these fundraisers should be opportunities to help stretch and grow our students. There should be opportunities for students to step up and step out. They should be ready to share the Gospel if needed. They should be focused on leading and being advocates for the kingdom of Heaven.

I was also faced with the reality that there are some within our church who cannot support these trips financially, but they are more than willing to pray consistently for our students. So we focused our attention not on raising funds, but raising support. We shared with our church that we would cherish their support in whatever way they would be willing to give it, whether financial or spiritual, and the church responded in wonderful ways and provided for our students.

2. Allow students to serve in some capacity.

Part of helping students understand the value, purpose, and meaning of a fundraiser and going on trips is giving them the opportunity to have skin in the game. Gen Z loves to take an active role in helping others and they love to actually put action to the words they believe. So allow them to serve in a variety of ways at your fundraiser. This may include you giving additional time to walk through training with your students, but it will pay off in the end as students actually begin to take the lead on serving. We have had students serve as ushers and greeters, students have helped in set up and tear down, they did announcements in front of the church, they shared their stories, they have served food, had conversations with people, and contributed in a variety of other ways. When they do this they understand that there is so much that goes into planning and leading a trip and because of this, they value the time they have on the trip all the more. So allow them to flourish and grow as they serve.

3. Find ways to involve the body of Christ.

This should be a part of not only our fundraisers but our ministries overall. We should seek to incorporate the church as a whole and not operate in a silo. We should seek to build bridges through inter-generational opportunities and witness the body of Christ truly function as a body. Part of getting our students involved in serving is that it allows them to see that they are an intricate part of the church, and part of getting the church involved is allowing students to understand that the church sees them as a needed part of the body. When the body of Christ is brought into the thought and purpose of what is happening within any ministry, they rally to support it and will become a vital part of your team. Seek to bring parents, volunteers, and others into fundraising opportunities in any way that you can, and encourage your students to walk with them and lead outward together.

4. Highlight the purpose, rationale, and effect of trips in the lives of students.

One of my favorite things to do during fundraising is to have students share with the church. Our student ministry actually interviews students on stage during the services and asks them questions like:

  • Why are you going on this trip?
  • How have trips with our program impacted you?
  • How have trips helped your relationship with Jesus grow?
  • Why are trips like this one important for students?
  • What would you say to students who haven’t gone on trips about why they should?

I am always blown away by the responses I have gotten. This year I had a senior say that trips like this allowed him to grow close to Jesus and showed him the importance of pouring into younger students. I had another student who proclaimed that trips like this allowed him to grow closer to his leaders who had discipled him and helped him become a better man and a better Christian. When the church body hears this, it allows them to see the necessity and effectiveness of these trips, and moves them toward giving.

5. Focus on inter-generational community.

This is a piece that I have grown to more deeply understand and appreciate during my time in ministry. We must help our churches to see that students are not the future of our church, but are a current and vital part of the church now. There is already a growing rift between generations and it is only deepening as people refuse to listen, honor, and walk with one another. The church cannot be a place where this is allowed to happen. Instead we must be a beacon of hope and change for our people.

I would encourage you to help your students see the value of working with other generations. Help them to see that while other generations may not reciprocate, that does not mean they cease trying to work together. Instead it should ignite a fire to push your students to step up and lead differently and lead well. If you think about it, we are already engaging in inter-generational discipleship as we have leaders of all different ages leading our students. What we are seeking to do is replicate that within the body of Christ holistically. Seize the opportunity to cast that vision at your fundraisers and allow your students to help create change within the church of which they are an important part.

Helping Students Encounter Easter

Easter is one of the most important holidays to Christianity, and yet so often it can become about superfluous things, like bunnies and eggs and new pastel clothing, even for those of us in the church. It can be easy for our students to connect more with baskets full of treats and honey-baked hams than the reality of what Easter represents.

If you’re looking for ways to help your students connect with the reality of Easter, we have come up with some simple, yet meaningful ways to build an Easter encounter. The most important thing is to make sure the experience is genuine and relatable for your group, so you may want to tweak some of these suggestions. Don’t be afraid to push your students to think deeper about what Jesus did for them, and what that means for the rest of their lives.

We have broken our encounter into five parts, each highlighting a different aspect of the Easter story and featuring a different activity. Depending on the space you have to work with, you can use a different room for each aspect, or denote a shift from one part to another with a change in lighting, colors, imagery, music, or seating. Again, it’s important to think through what will work for your specific group in the space that you have.

1. The Upper Room + Communion.

We begin by focusing on the Upper Room. You can expand this time with a meal, or keep it shorter with just communion. If you have time and want to try something different, consider hosting a small-scale Seder dinner and connecting the symbolism to what Jesus ultimately does for us. Use the meal or communion to help connect to the Last Supper and what Jesus does with his disciples.

The Upper Room is also a space to prepare for what is to come. Encourage the students to quiet down and reflect on what Jesus is about to do for them. Walk through the purpose of communion and how it connects with what is about to happen at the crucifixion.

2. The Crucifixion + Prayer.

While contemplating the cross, encourage the students to contemplate their connection to it. Consider having a time of silent reflection with soft music playing to help set the tone. This is the perfect time to encourage personal reflection and confession as the students think through their own need for the Savior. Incorporate a time of prayer where students are encourage to directly interact with Jesus based on their personal reflections and what he has done for them. The goal is to help students connect their need for a Savior with what Christ Jesus did for them on the cross.

3. The Tomb + Journaling.

The tomb can symbolize a period of waiting, waiting for both unexpected and expected things. We know now what happened after the three days Jesus spent in the tomb, but at the time, there was much uncertainty surrounding what was going to happen. So it is with our futures–we don’t know what God is going to do, especially as middle and high school students. What will God call us to, how will he use our lives?

Encourage students to think through the things they are waiting for and to spend some time journaling about their hopes, fears, expectations, and uncertainties. Challenge them to think about what God may have for them, and what he may be calling them to, in the years to come. Then encourage them to think through how they can serve and follow him now, as they may feel like they are spending their time waiting for whatever comes next. The goal is to help students look holistically at their life and think through ways God is moving, even if they don’t see it, expect it, or feel it.

4. The Resurrection + Celebration.

The resurrection is the culmination of everything we’ve done up to this point–it is the evidence of Jesus’ power and the fulfillment of his promise. It is joyful and jubilant. This is a perfect moment to celebrate what Jesus has done and worship him. This can be done through a time of celebratory music and singing, sharing corporately, and creating art. Encourage students to respond from their hearts and do what feels worshipful for them, but have available activities they can choose from to help give guidance and direction.

You may also want to incorporate an element of “feasting” with cake or sweet treats. You can tie this into experiencing Jesus by connecting his goodness and sweetness with the sense of taste. This can stand in contrast to some of the previous stations that included an element of deprivation, like silence. In the celebration of the resurrection, we encounter joy and excitement throughout our entire being, so the more senses you can incorporate, the more holistic it will feel.

5. The Great Commission + Commitment.

Finish your Easter encounter with the Great Commission. This can have a twofold purpose: an invitation for the students who don’t know Jesus, and a missional calling for those who do. Invite students to make a decision as you conclude and go out from the experience. Will they choose to give their life to Jesus for the first time? Or is there someone in their life with whom they can share his truth? Is God calling them to serve within the church, their school, or community? Is he asking something specific of them?

Challenge students to commit to an action step before they leave and write it down on a card they take with them. Encourage them to take it a step further by sharing their action step with their leader, parents, and anyone else who is a source of accountability in their life. This can help to highlight the truth that while we each have an individual calling and relationship with Christ, we are also part of a community and we need each other. The question becomes, how can we represent and live out the truth of Easter in each and every day for the rest of our lives? Help your students begin to answer this question.

Bible Studies for Students

You’ve probably had a parent, student, or volunteer stop and ask if you had any Bible studies for students. This is a question we will field often and you may not always have a hard copy handy in your office. What I would like to offer today are some digital options of Bible studies for students (some of which you can purchase hard copies if you’d like) and to share some trusted companies and resources with you. This will provide multiple options for you to choose from and give you helpful resources to equip yourself, your team, and your families.

She Reads Truth

This is a fantastic website that has many options for women. It has free reading plans, a free daily devotional, devotional guides you can purchase, study Bibles, and much more. Their studies are solid and work well for individual studies, small groups, or a mentoring relationship. I would highly recommend using their content and keeping this site book marked.

He Reads Truth

This is the brother website for She Reads Truth. Seeing the need for quality devotionals and resources for men, the creators of She Reads Truth launched this resource. It contains reading plans, Bibles, an app, and many other resources specifically geared toward men. Their resources are highly beneficial and come in a variety of study styles that will allow you to choose a study that is best for the context and student.

LeaderTreks

Our friends at LeaderTreks are constantly putting out quality resources for students, pastors, volunteers, and anyone who is involved with students in any capacity. LeaderTreks has a blog you can pull helpful insight from, D-Now studies, Deep Discipleship materials, and free resources. All of these can be leveraged to your circumstance and student, and will allow you to address specific issues or questions that they may have.

Bible Studies for Life

Bible Studies for Life has a ton of resources for a variety of settings, and their student resources are incredibly helpful. These studies are designed to help students understand and relate to God’s Word and look to practically apply it to their lives. These studies come in a variety of Bible translations, they provide leader guides, and they have middle school options available as well.

99 Thoughts

There are a variety of these books on the market right now. A quick Google search will pull up multiple options, but Group Publishing, CPYU, LeaderTreks have quite a few options to pull from. The purpose of these are to provide short thoughts for daily consumption on a wide range of topics. They have options for middle school, high school, and college-aged students (and other ages as well). These are great options to give as gifts or quick resources to students or to have families or small groups walk through together.

RYM

RYM (Reformed Youth Ministries) has many Bible studies for students that deal with a variety of topics. Most of these are deeper theological studies but they come in an easy to use and understand format. One of the nice things about these studies is you can download them for free after submitting your contact information, or you can purchase books through their website if you’d like a more tangible version.

The Gospel Project

Many of us know The Gospel Project because of their stellar videos, but they have other helpful resources as well. One of these resources includes Christ-centered, chronological Bible studies for students. These are phenomenally put together, offer a deeper look at the story of the Bible, and give practical and thoughtful application for students.

CRU

CRU is a wonderful ministry that has churned out an amazing quantity of resources for people at any level in their walk with Jesus. They have downloadable materials, Bible studies by topic or book of the Bible, Bible studies for groups or individuals, and much more. This is a great resource to have and utilize for your students.

How to Re-Engage Well

With many states reopening, vaccines being widely distributed, and restrictions being rolled back, the opportunity to re-engage with life and the rhythms we previously enjoyed is becoming more of a reality. But with that reality comes a question: how can we help our people re-engage well? We can easily rush into this new reality, but if we don’t think proactively about what we walked through the past year, we can miss opportunities to engage and care well for others.

Today, I want to provide some ideas to help us step into this new season of life. These could be helpful for you as an individual, or perhaps you could take these and use them to encourage your leaders and families within your ministry. If you are going to provide this to families, I suggest thinking through a few practical examples to help them think creatively about how to implement these in their lives. There are some practical ideas below, but it may be helpful to offer additional ways for families to think critically about how to put these ideas into practice.

Re-engage but don’t forget.

This is a big one for all of us. It will be easy to simply jump back into things, dismiss the time of COVID, and forget all that we walked through, but we cannot. To simply dismiss what happened would not allow there to be growth, change, and opportunities to move forward well. There were many beneficial things that happened during this time that were helpful and allowed us to grow and mature. We shouldn’t go back to being chronically busy. We should spend more time together as a family. We should relish the opportunities to be with those we love. We should find joy in the smaller things. We should celebrate the special moments in our lives in unique ways. We must continue to spend quality time with Jesus.

Establish rhythms.

For many of us, our rhythms were disrupted greatly at the beginning of the pandemic. Our schedules changed, our work locations were radically different, our time with Jesus was altered, and schools embraced remote learning. But over time we established new rhythms and built around our current mode of life. The key thing to remember is that this took time to do because the change was so quick and drastic. But now as life changes once again, it would be beneficial to think proactively about what our rhythms will look like going forward. We have been given the opportunity to look ahead and think about how we can establish rhythms as life changes again. Maybe you’ll keep some you have now, perhaps you’ll add new ones, or maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul. But being proactive will allow you to engage well and not have important things fall by the wayside.

Do a heart check.

I think if we are honest with ourselves we would all admit that the pandemic has affected us in a variety of ways. We have had some extreme highs and some drastically low lows. We have gone through an emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual roller-coaster and as we think about re-engaging, it would be helpful to assess how we are doing. We should not dismiss the reality of what we experienced but instead should assess what has happened in our lives and our hearts, and think through how we are actually doing within the midst of all that has happened. We should ask questions like:

  • How am I doing spiritually?
  • How is my attitude toward the church and other believers?
  • How are my emotions?
  • How are my relationships with others?
  • How is my mental health doing?
  • How is my family?
  • How is my relationship with Jesus doing?
  • What is burdening me right now?
  • How have I responded to all the pressures and difficulties that have been happening?
  • What have I rejoiced in?

Asking these questions will help us to see how we are doing, and also help us see our strengths and areas for improvement. Knowing ourselves allows us to be cared for and ministered to, and will also allow us to care for and minister to others. This is all about making sure we are doing well and seeking the help and assistance we need so we can then continue to pour out to those we care for.

Start a faithfulness journal.

It is easy during seasons like we have just experienced to lose sight of God’s faithfulness. But the truth is God never stopped being faithful. Keeping a journal and remembering what God has done will help to put us in the right frame of mind as we re-engage. This may seem a little late as we have already been navigating this for a year, but consider taking time as an individual or family and reflecting back on what God has done this past year. Then consider keeping this journal going forward and see how God continues to show up and care for you.

Be willing to give grace.

As we begin re-engaging we must acknowledge that not everyone will be at the same place. They may not be comfortable stepping out fully, others may have already been engaging without restrictions, some may still be unsure and that’s okay. But as we re-engage we need to be will to give grace and freedom in those moments. Be willing to die to self and seek to care for those around you.

There will be people who had an easier time during this season and people who struggled deeply. And both are okay. We are all unique and have had a different experiences navigating COVID. We need to be willing to listen well and not impose our views and presuppositions upon others.

Be in constant prayer.

This may seem like a no-brainer but we must be proactive in this. We need to be praying for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our leaders. This has been a tough season, and the Enemy has been celebrating as he has seen the church divide over things that should be non-issues. But instead of being frustrated and angry at him or other people, we should be on our knees seeking our Savior and His direction. Let us pray for ourselves and others, and seek to be a tangible representation of Jesus to this world.

Be willing to serve.

As things reopen across the country there are going to be needs that arise. Don’t simply be a consumer, but instead be willing to serve and care for others. It may be within your church, volunteering at local organizations, at the schools in your community, as a coach on your student’s team, or even in helping people do yard work in your neighborhood. Be willing to lead out and care for others as we begin to build a new normal.

7 Ways to Encourage Others

This past month the staff at our church was given a challenge: encourage one another. We drew names from a hat and were told to encourage that person for the whole month, and at the end we would reveal who we were encouraging. It was like Secret Santa but in February.

As I reflected on what we were doing, I thought about the practical application this could have within our personal lives and the ministries we lead and serve. Today, I want to offer some ways to think about encouraging others within your spheres of influence. These people could be your volunteers, staff at your church, your neighbors, your spouse, or whomever you choose. This has been, and continues to be for many, a challenging season, and if we apply some of these to our daily rhythms we will encourage, strengthen, and empower those with whom we do life.

1. Write an encouraging note.

This could be as simple as letting someone know that what they have been doing has been noticed, or it could be more personal. The purpose of this is to actually give the person a tangible message. Handwritten notes or letters contain much more meaning than an email or text, and have a way of encouraging people in powerful ways.

2. Leave them their favorite snack.

One of my favorite things to do with my volunteers is find out what their favorite snack item is and then randomly send them that snack or give it to them at a camp or retreat. It sounds simple, but it holds meaning for that person because it shows intentionality and a relational connection.

3. Share an encouraging Scripture.

Sharing a passage of Scripture with someone is hugely encouraging. It can simply be a verse God gave you for that person, a passage to encourage them during whatever season they are going through, or a passage that reminded you of that person. What I would recommend is provide a little rationale with the passage so the person knows why you are leaving it for them.

4. Get students involved.

Encouraging your volunteers, other youth staff, or parents? Don’t forget to get your students involved. They can do something as simple as sending a text or video message to their leaders, or they can create hand-written notes to drop off or mail. Wanting to do a little more? Edit together videos from multiple students and share them with your leaders and staff. Students will remember special moments with their leaders, which can encourage your entire group. Plus fostering a grateful community is always a good idea.

5. Give them a gift card.

This may sound a bit impersonal at first, but let me say this: give someone a gift card to a place they enjoy. For instance, if you have a leader who loves tea, don’t get them a gift card to Starbucks. Consider getting them one to David’s Tea or a local tea shop. If they love online shopping then grab them a gift card to Amazon or their favorite retailer. You could also consider providing a gift card for them to use as a way to take their spouse or significant other out for a date night. The more intentional you are with the destination of the gift card, the more impactful and meaningful it will be. This will mean that you need to know what the person enjoys but as leaders we should be seeking to know our people and find out more about their lives.

6. Take them out.

This is one of my favorite things to do with my volunteers. I love grabbing a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza with my leaders and encouraging them. I always try to pay for them, listen to how they are doing personally and in ministry, and find ways to pray for them. This is a practical and tangible way to care for and encourage your people.

7. Don’t forget important days.

This may seem obvious, but honoring important days is the perfect way to make others feel special and remembered. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, or other meaningful milestone, recognizing an important day in the life of others shows that you are paying attention and invested. Set a calendar reminder, or keep a planner where you note these days. Then use one of the suggestions above to celebrate the person, their milestone, and why they are a meaningful part of your life.

5 Ways to Develop Volunteers

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

1. Meet with your volunteers.

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

2. Cast vision well.

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

3. Give volunteers responsibility and ownership.

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

4. Recognize and challenge them.

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

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

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

5. Listen to your volunteers.

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

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

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

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

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

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

Be approachable.

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

Create the space for conversations.

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

Listen well.

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

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

Do not be dismissive.

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

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

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

Be willing to hear both sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

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

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

Be willing to change your views.

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

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

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

Practical Tips for Counseling Students

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

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

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

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

Resource yourself.

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

Know your referral network.

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

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

Be a trustworthy person.

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

Be in prayer and grow your spiritual health.

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

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

Listen well.

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

Take notes.

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

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

Be empathetic.

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

Follow up.

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

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

Recommended resources:

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers

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

Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Youth

Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide

The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling