How to Work Well on a Team [Part 1]

When it comes to working on a team, whether a student ministry team or an all church team or even as a volunteer, there are unique challenges and opportunities that come with that role. Often these challenges and opportunities will manifest in different ways with each individual and that can make the team dynamic feel stretched or challenging. The question we must be thinking through as members and leaders of these teams is how can we set them up for and contribute to their success so the Gospel ultimately succeeds. Today I hope to share with you some insight that I have learned from working on teams that will prayerfully help you and the teams you lead or are a part of be successful on your mission to reach people for Jesus.

Communicate clearly and consistently.

When it comes to being on a team one of the biggest things to focus on is clear and consistent communication. What you say, what you don’t say, what your body and facial expressions communicate is highly important. As you work with a team think about how what you say, how you say it, why you say it, and when you say it is received by those on your team. This will help you to be self-reflective and to think through motive and purpose behind what you are communicating. Clear and consistent communication also removes ambiguity and allows for clarity amongst the team so everyone is on the same page and knows if there are differing emotions, expectations, or alignments within the team.

Listen well.

This is something that we can all work on. Listening well in life is important but as you are working with a team it is even more so because poor listening leads to poor communication and no clarity or direction. So as you come together as a team be willing to listen to and hear from other people well. Don’t come with presuppositions and do not presume that you know what they will say or motives behind what they do. Instead seek to understand by listening well and look at the heart of what is being communicated.

Be willing to help even if it isn’t your job.

Often times we can get hyper focused in our roles and only see what we need to do. Or we can make excuses about how we can’t help due to busyness, time, or it isn’t part of our job focus. But that is born out of selfishness, and instead we should die to ourselves and seek to help one another. When you see your facilities team setting up or cleaning up from an event (even if it isn’t one of your’s), seek to honor them by helping them out.

Now I will say this: being willing to help others does not mean you sacrifice everything in every moment. You need to make sure you are setting and honoring healthy boundaries to make sure you are staying healthy holistically. It is okay to say “no,” but we need to make sure it is for appropriate reasons and not out of selfishness.

Bring your ideas to the table.

Part of being on a team means that someone has seen your skills and value, otherwise you wouldn’t be on the team. So share your thoughts and ideas. An idea not shared won’t ever come to fruition. But it is also important to remember to value and encourage the ideas of others. It isn’t only about getting your ideas across to the team, but it also includes valuing and affirming other ideas that are presented. Ideas and thoughts from a team provide meaningful insight, creativity, and opportunities for growth and they should be valued.

Be honest with your thoughts and feelings.

This point goes hand in hand with the previous one. When it comes to working on a team, open and honest conversations are hugely important to the health and well-being of the team. So if you’re feeling a certain way about the team, a teammate, or even how you are viewed or utilized, make sure to share that. It isn’t easy in the moment, it will feel uncomfortable, and the tension may be palpable. But actually engaging with one another and being honest is hugely important and will make the team stronger.

I would like to offer a few suggestions on how to do this that will be helpful in having these conversations:

  • Be honest, but be full of grace and humility in doing so.
  • Do not assume or presume about others. Don’t walk into a conversation assuming the worst. Go in knowing God is at work and working all things out for His glory.
  • Be willing to receive. Sometimes you will need to be talked to about how you have been engaging others, and you need to be willing to receive that well.
  • Be willing to hear out your teammates. Hear what they have to say because at the end of the day they may not know how things were received or heard, and by doing this you can help shape future conversations and interactions.
  • Pray for your teammates. In these moments prayer is hugely important as it helps us focus on God and it centers our hearts in how we engage with others as a result.

Next week we will conclude this conversation and look at our final points on how to work well on a team. In the in-between time, what have you done or seen that helped teams work well together?

Tips for Hosting Great Leader Meetings

Our fall program is about to start up and that means we are having our annual team training. We bring together our leaders from all aspects of student ministry and gather for four hours of training together. Now you may have started that last sentence saying “that sounds awesome” but as you got to the end you probably thought something like, “four hours…are you nuts?!”

I know it sounds like a long time but today I want to share with you a few tips about why I think it works. These are tips that we don’t only embody at our fall training but incorporate year round, and I believe it’s the thoughtfulness you will read about in these tips that make our training successful. And as an answer to your follow-up question, no, we don’t do four hours of training every time we gather…we aren’t crazy! It is just that one. So, here are some tips that I think will be helpful for your next training session.

Make it inviting.

How do you make a meeting invitational aside from asking people to come? Think about the setting, ambiance, and attraction. When we host training at any point, we try not to have it be at the church but instead in homes. It makes the meeting more inviting and comfortable because of the setting and location.

Another way to make it inviting is by having food. This may seem like a simple touch but food really does add value to any meeting. It helps people open up, it sets a tone, and it shows that you care. But let me offer some advice about food: don’t do typical youth group fare. Look to up the game because these are your leaders and without them you wouldn’t have a program. Even if you can only afford a few bags of candy, spring for the Hershey Nuggets instead of the store brand. It will communicate value, worth, and appreciation to your people.

A final way to make it invitational is to consider having a time of fellowship, activities, and/or a meal together. Our fall training is hosted by an amazing family who affords us their whole home that includes a pool. So for the end of our training we host a lunch for our leaders and families followed by a time for everyone to swim. It’s a blast! We have kids, students, and adults engaging in fellowship and enjoying time together. If you don’t have a pool, bring yard games or different activities to bring people together.

Make it informational.

As you work through meetings there has to be a purpose to why you are there and what you are talking about. Whether it’s programmatic changes, generational training, or other updates you may have, take time to talk through information that is important to your program. This shows your leaders that there are always growth areas and opportunities for everyone to develop.

Some ways to make this more team-oriented and inviting can include:

  • Have volunteers lead training on topics that they are both passionate and knowledgeable about.
  • Talk about topics that are relevant to students and culture.
  • Make the informational time interactive through question and answer sessions, games, small group discussions, or even by bringing in a guest speaker.

Make it relational and have fun.

I love to build in times for fellowship during training. I make sure to keep the beginning time open to talk, eat food, and fellowship. One of the best things to do during training is to incorporate a meal or food to some degree. If it’s breakfast time get some pastries, do a pancake bar, and make sure to have coffee and tea. If it’s lunch or dinner grill out, have a s’mores bar, or a baked potato bar. Whenever you provide food I would encourage you to think of things outside of what you normally do for students (i.e. walking tacos, pizza, etc.). This shows your leaders that you value and appreciate them.

Another great option for fellowship is to include various fun activities like a fire pit, swimming, yard games, a karaoke contest, team competitions, or even a friendly game of 9 Square. These moments not only allow for your leaders to have fun and release stress but also to connect with one another.

Make it creative.

As you think through training and what it can look like, try to make it creative and not the same training you have done year in and year out. Have different types of team building activities, bring in different people to lead, change up the location and ambiance, or make it a themed training. When you get creative it makes training more inviting and intentional, and it will help make your leaders desire to be a part of what you are doing.

Incorporate prayer and worship.

Whenever we are facilitating a training we always need to remember why we are doing what we are doing. We are simply functioning as disciple-makers and shepherds who have been entrusted to care for His people. As such we should be bathing any training or gathering in prayer and worshiping God because of all He has done and will do. Praying over the year, the ministry, students, and families helps us to shift our focus and remember that this only accomplished through Christ. This allows for us to rejoice in, trust, and acknowledge God’s control and know that the year and everything that happens is all a part of His plan.

Tips for Recruiting Volunteers

Summer trips are wrapping up, the final vacations are commencing, and youth ministries are preparing for the fall. And as we prepare for fall programming many of us are working to finalize and recruit volunteers. Each year we are inevitably faced with the need for new volunteers for a host of reasons. Whether you took over a ministry and volunteers left, your ministry has grown, or volunteers have just stepped back, we all know the pain, panic, and difficulty that comes with seeking out volunteers. In this post I want to provide some ideas to help you grow your team and recruit volunteers who are right for your ministry.

Start early.

This is something we should strive to do. The sooner you start recruiting the less you need to scramble as the next semester or school year approaches. It also gives you the opportunity to truly find people who are committed to the ministry and the vision of the ministry. It affords you greater flexibility and opportunity because you have more time to think critically about who becomes a volunteer and where they will fit.

Ask someone else with connections to help.

This is something I’ve learned to rely on greatly in my last few years of ministry. Some people are fantastic at networking and knowing individuals and their gifting. Our senior pastor’s wife is that person for me. She sends me tons of names of people but includes insight as to why they would be valuable for our ministry. Now it is important in utilizing someone who has this insight to help them know your needs, qualifications for leaders, and the vision of the ministry. This will help in the filtering process and give you more quality candidates to choose from.

Lean into parents.

Parents can make really good volunteers. Some student ministries utilize them and others don’t. It all depends on the program, the vision and purpose, and the relationships between parents and students. Parents bring a ton of insight, wisdom, and a desire to see students grow and because of this, they can be incredibly valuable to the ministry. Many of them are also available during youth group time because they have already carved that time slot out of their schedule.

Now I will say this: it probably isn’t prudent to have a student’s parent be their small group leader. For some families this may work, but for a large majority of them, the student may shut down and not feel comfortable sharing all the time. So if you are going to utilize parents, be thoughtful in where and why you place them where you do. Have conversations with parents and their student and consider what would be the best win for your ministry.

Utilize your current volunteers.

This is a great opportunity for you to lean into your team and allow them to provide insight for the ministry. If you have leaders, ask them who would be a good fit as a new leader. Ask them if they know people who would do well in student ministry. Ask them who they would recommend. They know your heart and vision for the program and they are invested in students. Because of that, they can provide wisdom and insight into who you should be asking.

Another great opportunity would be to ask them to do the recruiting. Having that personal connection means a ton and it allows for your leaders to truly lead outward. They become excited about the program and you are elevating their leadership status and giving them the trust they deserve.

Ask former volunteers.

This is something we should consider each year. Volunteers stop serving for a variety of reasons, and we should remember that they were and still are capable leaders. A helpful place to start when it comes to recruiting volunteers is to start with those who have already served. I have had leaders who faithfully served for four years and then took time off, but promised to be back after a time of refreshment. You may also have former volunteers just waiting in the wings to be asked, and I want to encourage you to do so. Even if they cannot volunteer, you are making personal connections and reestablishing relationships which could lead you to someone else through a connection with your former leader.

Engage in personal conversations.

This is one that will require much of your time but it is arguably the most important and beneficial. It is often through a personal ask that you will be able to recruit more volunteers because it establishes a connection, allows you to share your heart, and it highlights a need. These conversations will take time but they will generate results. Whenever you are afforded the opportunity to meet or talk to someone, I suggest that you take it and leverage those opportunities to discuss what it means to volunteer and why it is worth it. These are moments that will greatly benefit you and your team as you engage with people and they are able to get to know you, your vision, and your passion.

Go old school.

This isn’t something I default to because studies prove that personal conversations and connections generate better results, but we cannot deny that sometimes in order for people to fill a need they need to be made aware that there is one. Some of the ways that we can share about a need include bulletin announcements or on your pre-service slides, announcements from the stage or pulpit, and emailing or cold calling people. This may sound like a lot of work that may not generate a lot of results, but they may generate some, and some is better than none.

A final word of advice. So often I see the need for recruiting new volunteers happen when a new pastor or youth leader takes over. The reason for this is volunteers step back when a pastor or beloved staff member leaves. While I totally understand the why behind this, we as youth workers must seek to leave better. We may not intend our volunteers to leave a program because we do, but they can and will unless we do better.

I believe what we must be doing is looking to build a program that isn’t dependent upon any one person, but instead built on Christ. I tell people often that my desire is to have a program that isn’t about me or my staff, but that students come because they have leaders who love them and disciple them, and a place that is safe for them to hear about Christ. By doing this and saying this our leaders will realize the program isn’t about us but about leading students to Jesus and hopefully will incur a better attitude and longevity in their service, and better set up the incoming leader for success. Look to build a program that isn’t built upon ourselves but on Christ, and speak truth into your people before, during, and after your tenure and help them to continue to stay and move forward with their students.

How to Care Well for Students [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off this conversation by talking about how we need to be prepared and ready to care for our students as we walk with them through life’s moments. In this post, I want to share some insight in how to help students move forward in this process.

These ideas are framed to help students grow and take steps forward by utilizing resources that will set them up for success in the long term. Change isn’t always instantaneous and we want to make sure we are setting our students up for lifelong, healthy changes that will be sustainable. But in order to do this well we must realize there are steps that need to be taken and they don’t always require us as their leaders to carry the bulk of the load.

My hope in sharing these ideas with you is that this sets you up to do what you do best: love and care for your students as you point them to Jesus. But I also hope that in sharing these ideas, you realize it isn’t all on your shoulders. Understand that you can only do what you are able, qualified, and called to do. In those moments outside of your control these ideas will enable you to ensure that your students are loved and cared for well.

Start small.

Often times it is easy to shoot for the end goal. We know where students should be and they want to meet a goal, but we shouldn’t simply start with the end in mind. In order to have a better chance of achieving success, we should start with a step-by-step process. Set up smaller goals that lead to the end goal and in doing so you are giving the student more opportunities to grow and celebrate as they meet these goals. It also affords you the ability to reset and reestablish as needed because if a goal is missed it isn’t the endgame. Often if we simply seek to meet the ultimate goal and fail, there is a strong possibility that we may give up on the goal because of a strong sense of failure. But if it is simple a step toward the goal that isn’t met, it affords an opportunity to reset, adjust, and continue moving forward toward the goal. It also will give you more insight into your student and their strengths and weaknesses which gives you the greater ability to minister to and care for your students.

Normalize asking for and getting help.

This is a big thing to do as you care for your students. This is becoming more and more accepted but there is still a stigma attached to asking for and gaining help on various issues. But by encouraging your students when they ask for help and championing receiving help, you are giving your students permission to do the same and easing the stigma that has been pervasive within our culture.

Another way you can do this is by talking about it in a positive way and doing so often. The more you talk about it, engage it, and highlight the benefits of asking for and receiving help, the more you will help your students get the care they need and deserve.

Bring in qualified help.

We are not experts in everything, and as such we must acknowledge that there are others who have more skill, training, and knowledge in various areas. And that is okay. What we must do though is know who has what skill sets and expertise so we can utilize their areas of wisdom and knowledge to better care for and minister to our students. So build helpful networks, grow your own knowledge, be willing to hand off well, and utilize the resources at your disposal. Doing so will not only guarantee that your students get the help they need, it also allows you to make sure that your students are receiving holistic care and will grow in an appropriate way.

Bring in parents.

This is one area that is extremely important when it comes to caring for students, but also one that requires wisdom, tact, and an understanding of the relationship and dynamic that exists between parents and students. Depending on the reason that a student comes to you, it is extremely important that you bring parents into the conversation and care, but it is also something that could be terrifying and difficult for your student.

For example, if a student wants to be baptized and grow in their faith by being mentored by you, it would be helpful to talk to the parents about their student’s decision. But that could prove difficult if they aren’t believers or it could be a hugely beneficial conversation because perhaps they have been praying for this moment.

Or consider that a student comes to you acknowledging that they are self-harming. It is extremely important to bring parents into the conversation for a litany of reasons, but the student may be terrified of this because perhaps they think their parents won’t love them. Or perhaps the parents are putting pressure on their student that is pushing them to self-harm. Or maybe the parent will show how deeply they love their student and walk with them.

Regardless of the circumstance, bringing in parents will afford you the opportunity to administer better holistic care for your student, their parents, and their relationships. Yes, this may make the situation more difficult and tricky but the benefits far outweigh any of the difficulties or potential stressful moments.

Go with students.

When a student comes to you and opens up about something that is outside of your scope of care and you refer them to someone else, or if they are challenged to talk to their parents, or if they simply have to go to someone for whatever reason, go with them. This not only shows them that you mean it when you say you love and care for them, it also provides them a support network in what can be a terrifying moment for them. You have become a trusted advocate and you are showing them they are not alone. And in many ways your presence in these moments will help to soften them and make them more manageable for the student. So wherever a student goes after they confide in you, go with them, be for them, and love and care for them in those moments.

Stick with them.

This last point is so important in making sure we care well for our students. Change and growth takes time. And let’s be honest, sometimes taking time with students is hard and we want to walk away because it seems like they aren’t growing, don’t want to change, or just give up. But if we turn away from them in the moments when they need us most, we are almost certainly setting them up for failure.

So instead of walking away, dig in and continue to love and care for them even when it is hard. I am not saying that you should give all of yourself and constantly have your face spit in. But I am saying don’t simply cast away a student for lack of change. Love them, pray for and with them, challenge them, and continue to be with and for them. How you care for them may change throughout the process, but the important thing is to continue loving and caring for them regardless. This shows them that you believe in them and are for them, which is arguably what students truly need to incur lifelong change and growth in their lives.

What has worked best for you as you have you loved and cared for your students through long periods of growth and change?

How to Care Well for Students [Part 1]

Many of us are returning from trips this summer and while there you probably had students open up to you about their struggles, sins, hopes, and dreams. These are the moments we have been praying for. The moments when God grabs their hearts in big ways and moves them toward change and seeking direction. And when that happens they often seek out their leaders and pastors for insight, direction, and help in attaining these changes.

These types of moments aren’t limited to camps and trips; it could just be a simple night at youth group when students are sensing the Spirit of God moving in their lives. Regardless of when or how these moments happen, we must be prepared and ready to walk with them and help them move forward in making the needed life changes. Today, I want to provide you with some helpful ways to do just that, and next week I’ll share a few more that have to do with taking steps forward in this process with your students.

Establish trust.

This is paramount to helping your students grow and mature in their relationship with Jesus. In order to care well for students they first need to trust you. If students don’t trust you, they won’t be honest with you. So be a person they can trust. Be someone who not only honors what they share, but also someone who follows up and truly cares for them. Doing this will allow your students to see that your actions and words match, which then allows them to trust you which will give them the opportunity to be honest with you when God moves in their lives.

Listen.

Students are going to come to you with a wide range of topics and if we are honest, some of those topics are not exciting nor do they grab our attention. Students could spend hours talking about video games or the new meme that is going around. And I think for many of us, it is easy to disengage during those moments. But what I have seen and learned is that students will use those discussions to test the waters with their leaders. They want to see if you care about them and they measure our level of care by how we listen.

Are you paying attention? Have you maintained eye contact? Did you ask clarifying questions? Or did your mind wander? Did you look at your watch or phone? Students see all of this and truly want someone who will love them and listen.

What I have also seen is that these types of conversations are also the bridge to a larger, more serious conversations. Students are looking to see if you can be trusted to listen to something seemingly insignificant so they will be able to discern if you can be trusted with heavier, more personal conversations. At camp this summer, I had a student who opened up and shared their heart with me because I spent time getting to know them in middle school. They said “Nick, the reason I came to you is because I knew after our first conversation when I was in middle school that you are a safe person who cares about me.” So seek to listen well and honor your students as you care for them.

Ask clarifying questions.

This is a big one as you seek to listen well. Part of listening well is seeking to understand and you do this by asking questions. But be intentional with those questions. Seek to gain a better and fuller understanding of what is being shared. State back what you heard and ask if that was correct. Ask about how people felt. Seek to understand what brought the student to this moment. Find out who else was or is involved in this moment. These type of clarifying questions will help you in how you minister to and care for your students.

Utilize leaders.

This is huge because it not only gives students a wider support network but also affirms and values your leaders and their gifting. Bringing in small group leaders to walk with students helps them to build a network of people who will walk with and care for them. If a student is open about a struggle they are dealing with on a continual basis, you have afforded them multiple contacts to reach out to should they need help. This can be a very real life-saving opportunity and it will help to ensure that your students are cared for and have people in their corner. By bringing your leaders in you are also giving a wider ability to offer care and affirming your leaders. You are allowing them to take the leadership role you have entrusted them with and care for their students.

Follow up.

After the initial interaction with a student, make sure to follow up with them. Depending on what is shared will necessitate when the follow up should be (i.e. if it is more severe or life-threatening, the follow up should be fairly quick, whereas a less severe scenario may be in a couple of days or longer). The follow up shows a student that you heard them, love them, and are committed to walking with and helping them. This is an opportunity for you to truly care and engage in the discipleship process with them.

Follow up will look different depending on what was shared but should at the very least involve a text or phone call, but in the best circumstances, should be an in-person meeting to talk, process, and come up with a plan to move forward. This is also an opportunity for you to pray with them, share Scripture, and help them to see things from a biblical perspective.

What has been the best method of caring for students that you have used or implemented?

Caring for Students Who are Exploring Their Identity

“Nick, guess what?! I’m asexual!”
“Alright…when did you realize that?”
“This past week while talking to my friend who is too. I don’t like boys or girls.”
“Thanks for telling me this, have you let your parents know?”
“Yeah! Right before we got to church just now.”

This was a conversation I won’t soon forget, and probably represents the way that many of us hear that our students are questioning or exploring their identity. Often it occurs in quick conversations where a student suddenly drops that their identity or sexuality has switched or changed, and we have to know how to engage in those moments. There will be times when the conversations are more intentional and focused, but those are not as frequent. It is also helpful to remember that when these conversations happen, our responses to them are immensely important because students are testing the waters to see if we are trustworthy people.

I want to make it clear that the purpose of this post is neither to be affirming nor non-affirming. Instead, the intent is to give student workers helpful ways to care for students and insight into how to respond when faced with these conversations.

Listen well.

Listening is huge in these moments. Often when a student shares that they are struggling or questioning or changing their identity they are looking to see how you respond. Will you affirm or disapprove? Will you love them or cast them out? Will you listen or seek to challenge? Your response will dictate where the relationship goes from that moment on, so I would encourage you to simply listen. Let the student share their story. Let them talk through how they got to this decision. Help them see that you are for them by giving them space to be themselves and share. This is one of greatest things you could do in these moments.

Include parents.

Often when students come to us as youth workers it is because we are people they trust and know that we love them. They don’t often feel the same when it comes to their parents for a variety of reasons. These may not all be true and may be assumptions on the part of the student, but regardless the fear and anxiety of including parents can be very real for some students.

In these moments it is highly important for you to challenge the student to bring their parents into the conversation. But don’t let them have that conversation alone. Walk with them. Be present during it. Be the mediator and advocate in those moments. And always encourage your students with the truth that no matter the response, you will always be there for them.

Follow up.

Follow-up is really important in these types of conversations. As I stated earlier, students are often searching to see how you will respond and if you will be someone that they can trust. Part of the trust factor is our willingness and ability to follow up with them. Check in and see how they are doing. Thank them for opening up to you. Invite them out for coffee to hear their story. See if they have brought in other believers and the parents. Doing this will not only help your students see that you love them but it will also allow you to have a more holistic understanding as you continue to build and strengthen the relationship.

Seek clarity.

Often when talking with students, I am reminded how confusing these times are for them. They are developing in many ways, they are asking countless questions, and they are being bombarded by different messages from all sides. Because of this they may not even fully understand what they are saying, experiencing, or feeling. I am not trying to discount or discredit any one student, but there have been students who truly don’t know what to say or how to express it, and because of that they may say something they didn’t intend to.

At the same time, seeking clarity on what has been going on, how their home life is, how people have received them, and what the student has perceived is paramount in making sure you love and care for them well. A student may not have had a well received conversation with their parents and you may not know this unless you ask. Or a student may be scared about opening up and as you seek to understand you will gain valuable insight into why. This will in turn help you to better care for your student and guide subsequent interactions and conversations.

Know your stuff.

So often students and parents will come to us seeking understanding and clarity in these moments. Because of that, it is so important to have a working knowledge surrounding these conversations. Dig into resources, understand what people mean when they define themselves, seek to have an understanding of definitions and terms, and know what the Bible says. I know that there will be many perspectives to consider and that you may not be as well versed as people who study this for their career. But we are shepherds to our people and should know how to care for them well and this is an important way to do just that. So seek out information and understanding so you can better relate to, care for, and disciple your students.

Love well and don’t break fellowship.

This is one of the biggest aspects we must follow through on in order to care well for our students. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions being made, the lifestyle choices, or the implications of decisions, you have an obligation to still love students and care for them. Too many individuals and churches alike are willing to break fellowship with someone who is walking through these moments, and that has hurt far too many people. We are simply called to love people and show them Jesus because He loves them and desires a full and whole relationship with them. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, but it does mean you walk with them and love them as you show them Jesus. Your job isn’t to condemn, judge, cut off, or cast out, but instead is to show them Jesus and how the Holy Spirit can work in their lives.

So let your students know you are for them. Show them that they are loved and have a place. Help them experience the love of Jesus. In fact, I would argue that these students need more of our love and focus because they won’t be experiencing it from other places as much as their peers may be. These are students who already feel isolated, anxious, and vulnerable and we have an amazing opportunity to love and care for them. That is a high calling and doing so will allow us to truly invest in their lives, speak truth, and walk with them well as we point them to Jesus.

8 Tips for Engaging Difficult Conversations

Tension exists throughout our lives and there will always be moments when we have to navigate difficult conversations. But for some reason it seems that it is easier to avoid or dismiss these conversations when it comes to having them with people in our ministries and churches. It seems that avoidance, passivity, or passive-aggressiveness have become the tools that are more often leveraged rather than actually engaging the tension and being willing to walk with people through difficult moments.

Just because a conversation will be difficult does not mean we shouldn’t have it, nor does it mean that it ultimately won’t be beneficial or helpful. Difficult conversations need to be had from time to time, but we must consider how we prepare for them and how we have them. As we live and worship together there will be difficult moments and times that we need to have conversations that are uncomfortable, but that is a staple of engaging in life and there are healthy ways to do this. Today, I want to share some practical tips with you to help you do this well.

1. Pray about it.

Of course we all know that prayer is important, but how often do you pray about conflict or the people you are in conflict with? Also, how do you pray about those moments and those people? Prayer isn’t meant to be a weapon we leverage only when we need it but instead it is a way to communicate and process with God, and a way to care for others. If you know you are about to enter a difficult conversation, you need to be on your knees in prayer. Pray for clarity. Pray for humility and a listening spirit on your part. Pray for the other person and that you can hear and understand them. Pray for a willingness to understand, process, and ultimately glorify Christ. If you’re aware of a difficult conversation or moment, you need pray about and for it.

2. Don’t assume.

This is a big one. I don’t know about you but when I hear that there is someone with whom I need to have a challenging conversation, it is difficult to not allow my mind to wander, to assume things about the person or conversation, or to think about the worst-case scenario. But in doing all of those things we have immediately discounted and discredited that person. We have made them the issue and we have now started to question and doubt them and their character. Instead, I would challenge you to pause, pray, and seek guidance rather than assuming. Realize that the conversation may actually be a good one and not as problematic as we assume, and see the person instead of the conflict or difficulty.

3. Be honest, direct, and clear.

When you engage in a difficult conversation it is easy to allow for emotions and emotionally-fueled responses to rule the day. Instead I would challenge you to look to be honest, direct, and clear. Don’t allow for emotions or feelings to dictate how you engage but instead come with clarity and facts as you seek to find a favorable outcome. Come to talk about what occurred and present facts with clarity. But it isn’t just about presenting facts and being clear, you also need to listen and respond well to what is said. Being clear, honest, and direct allows for you to respond well because you are not focusing on an emotionally-fueled response but instead on the facts at hand. If you allow for emotional responses to rule in how you engage, you will often misrepresent yourself and potentially hurt the other individuals involved. That isn’t to say you remove all emotion from the conversation but that you present truth in a clear and concise fashion.

4. Have a posture of humility.

This is one of the most important things you can do when engaging these types of conversations. We often approach them from a defensive posture because we feel accused, hurt, put into a corner, or even attacked. And when we are defensive we often can approach these moments aggressively, passive aggressively, or even accusatory. If that is our mindset we will not see the good in the other person nor will we see them as someone created in the image of God. Instead we see them as an antagonist or worse an enemy. Approaching these conversations with humility will not only help us to hear and understand, but it will also allow us to honor the other person and Christ.

5. Acknowledge there may not be full resolution.

This is a hard truth to swallow, but we must acknowledge that this may be the case. There will be moments when a full resolution cannot be achieved for any of a litany of reasons. There may not be agreement, there may hurt feelings, or there may be differences of theology or doctrine. This isn’t a reason for us to not engage with the conversations at hand, but instead to help prepare your heart for this potential reality. It is also important to note that simply because there isn’t a full resolution that doesn’t mean the termination of the relationship. Still seek to love, care, and engage with the other person and honor them.

6. See the situation from the other person’s eyes.

Doing this will allow you to have a better understanding of what the other person is experiencing and to better understand where they are coming from. It is an approach that will allow you to have a softer heart and a fuller understanding of all that is going on, and to be a better listener and leader. It will also allow you to shape your response and better engage with the individual because you are seeing what they see and you are more aware of everything that is happening and being received.

7. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong.

Sometimes we need to admit we were wrong. A difficult conversation may be the result of something that we have done or said, and because of that we have to be willing to be humble and acknowledge when we have messed up. This will not only allow for us to demonstrate a biblical posture of humility, but it will also allow for us to grow as a leader and mature as an individual. When a leader is willing to admit that they are wrong or have messed up, it is an opportunity for growth and for them to model servant leadership to their people.

8. Love the other person well.

It can be easy in these moments to presume or assume the worst about people. To see them in a negative light can become the quick and simple response. But we are not in the business of casting blame or assuming the worst in people. We are in the business of loving and leading others as Jesus does. So in the midst of everything that happens in these difficult moments, I want to challenge you to love the other person well. Follow up with them. Pray for and with them. Don’t pause the relationship. Don’t allow for there to be awkwardness in the relationship from your end. Don’t talk about them or the situation. Honor, love, and respect them and you will see these responses actually helping to diffuse the difficult moments and enhance the relationship.

What is one tip you would give to someone about how they should engage with difficult conversations?

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 3]

Over the past two weeks we have been talking about sex and relationships and how to have godly conversations about these topics with your students. We have looked at some plenary processes and conversations that need to happen and at how to approach the actual conversations with your students.

This week our desire is to provide some passages of Scripture to utilize in your teachings. Not all of these passages have to do with sex per se. Some will focus on relationships, others on intimacy, and others on how to actually care for one another.

Genesis 2:4-25

It is important when talking about relationships and intimacy to start at the beginning of God’s Word to help us understand why we desire these things. This passage of Scripture highlights how humankind is created in God’s image and because of that we desire relationships and intimacy. God is a relational God who truly desires intimacy with His people. God created Adam and Eve to have an intentional and personal relationship with them, and for their relationship with one another to reflect God’s relationship with them. This passage helps us to understand that from the beginning we were designed to be in relationships with one another and that these relationships should represent the intimate relationship we have with God.

Hebrews 13:4

In this passage the author of Hebrews is giving concluding exhortations to their readers, and it is within these challenges that they briefly speak about marriage and sex. But what they say is exceptionally important as we engage this conversation with our students. The author states, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” We may simply read this and give a rousing amen to the passage, but let’s pause and reflect on what is being said.

First, we are to honor marriage. Why? Because marriage is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. When we enter into marriage we are engaging in a union that God uses to define His relationship with the church. Our marriages are to be a reflection of God’s love to the world.

We are then challenged to keep the marriage bed pure. I don’t think the author simply placed that phrase here because it sounded good or seemed logical. Instead, I believe the author knew that humankind’s propensity would be to do anything but honor the marriage bed. The author knows we are broken and prone to wander even from the one that God has designed us for. So marriage and sex are to be held in honor both toward God and our partner. We are not to stray or wander from it because to do so would be to dishonor and harm our spouse and God. We are sinning and grieving not only a person but our Creator who has designed us for these relationships.

1 Corinthians 13

This is a passage that often gets a lot of criticism and critique in Christian circles. Not necessarily because of what it says, but because of how it has been taught and used as leverage in relationships. I have heard people say that this passage teaches us to be quiet and simply take what comes our way, I have witnessed people use this passage to advocate staying in abusive relationships, and still others I have heard use this passage to rationalize away their sins and promiscuity. But a true reflection on this passage highlights that love is not about dismissing sin or condoning abuse, but instead is about honoring and reflecting Christ in our relationships.

We are told in 1 John 4:16 that God is love. Therefore, when we read Paul’s challenge to love in 1 Corinthians 13, we understand that we are being called to model Christ in our relationships. God doesn’t call us to a passive relationship with others but instead into a passionate and vibrant relationship that mirrors Christ to one another. Love isn’t something that is fleeting or something we fall into and out of like a pothole on a highway, but instead is a lifelong commitment to honor and pursue one another as Christ does for each of us. It is about edifying, exhorting, challenging, correcting, celebrating, and honoring one another as God does the same for us.

This is also a great passage to talk about how our relationships should look not only with our spouse but with other people in our lives. It should help us understand how we should speak to and about one another. It should cause us to think through and talk about consent and honoring one another. It gives us time and space to think about how we are treating others and if we are reflecting Christ in our actions, thoughts, and words.

Matthew 5:27-30

When it comes to lust and purity, we must understand that we are not simply talking about behavior modification. We can try to change habits and behaviors all day long, but if we don’t focus on the heart then we will always stumble and falter. Instead of simply telling people to dress modestly, bounce their eyes, install pornography blockers on devices, or to not lust after one another, we should be looking at our hearts and helping others to grow and mature in Christ. This will then work itself out into our actions and thoughts.

None of those ideas are necessarily wrong or bad, but they are only about behavior and we should focus on the heart first then the behaviors. In this passage, Jesus talks about how simply looking at someone with lust is adultery. It isn’t the physical action of sleeping with someone but the action and thoughts of the heart that lead us to adultery. He is telling us to handle the internal issue and then work on the external. So as you teach this with your students, focus more on the heart than the “external fixers.” Working on what is wrong with the heart will allow for greater success in correcting the behavior than simply focusing on the behavior alone.

Song of Solomon 7:6-12

Sex is not a bad thing. In fact, throughout Scripture we see that sex is actually meant to be enjoyed and that it is a good thing. We have an entire portion of the Bible in Song of Solomon that is literally a book on relationships and sex. But so often churches present sex as something that isn’t enjoyable or that is taboo. What we need to help our students understand is that sex is to be enjoyed and that it is something we should look forward to. That doesn’t mean we should simply rush out and have sex with whomever we please whenever we want. But we should know that God has designed us as sexual beings who can enjoy sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage.

These passages are not all-encompassing nor are they the only passages we should use. These passages represent a way to begin the conversation and walk with our students through a biblical understanding of relationships and sex. Our prayer for you and your students is that you don’t shy away from the hard conversations, but rather meet them head on and present a biblical response and understanding to help navigate them. Know that these past three posts are intended to help you prepare and engage these conversations, and we are here to walk with you and process through how to start or continue the conversations. Thank you for stepping into the hard moments and being willing to talk to your students about how the Gospel both informs and guides us in understanding sex and relationships.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off a multipart series designed to help youth workers with talking about sex and relationships. Our goal with this series is to help us all think about what we are communicating, how we are communicating, and how we can best minister to our students.

Much of this conversation was brought about by a recent article by Pew Research on the number of Christians who are having sex outside of marriage, but also because our students need to hear a godly approach to relationships, intimacy, and sex. Students are curious (and rightly so since we are designed for relationships and intimacy) about relationships, sex, and intimacy but the world only offers a corrupt view that isn’t healthy nor helpful. Our hope is that as we think deeply and biblically about this topic, we will not only help our students develop a healthy understanding but also see the beauty of God’s design in relationships.

The focus of our points last week were largely centered around how we should begin to engage the this conversation. Much of it was plenary in the planning process and was all about making sure that the communication was clear and that our hearts understood and were prepared for the conversations that we would be having. Today, I want to give insight into how to actually have the conversation and to provide you with tips and ways to talk about this topic.

Next week we will be sharing a few different Scripture passages that are helpful not only in talking about sex, but also highlighting what intimacy truly is and how God has designed us for true intimacy.

Use correct terminology.

This is a big one that we often don’t even think about. We ascribe nicknames or slang to body parts or sexual actions but in doing so we make it seem childish or unimportant. Many people, like Dr. Jim Burns, advocate for using correct terminology during discussions about the body and sex because it helps in not only understanding but also in cognitive, emotional, and physical development.

It is important to communicate with people about what we are doing because for some families, this could be difficult and awkward. Help others understand by explaining the reasoning and the heart behind this. If you need additional information for families, Burns has two books geared toward families of young children, but which are still incredibly helpful and valuable for those with children of all ages: God Made Your Body and How God Makes Babies. Burns also has helpful material to talk through sexuality and sex with students including Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality.

Identify the awkwardness.

This is a tough topic, and if we are honest it is awkward to talk about. It is hard to talk to our peers about it let alone to students. But as you approach this conversation, just call it as it is. Identify to your group this can be awkward but it is also necessary. Let them know they may hear things that make them want to giggle or may make them look around awkwardly. The purpose isn’t to elevate awkwardness but instead to understand how God created us and why sex is important to talk about as Christians.

Also, if certain words or descriptions make you giggle, laugh, or even smirk your students will see it and you need to check that. If you make it awkward or uncomfortable you are only adding to the distraction. It may be awkward but you shouldn’t contribute to the awkwardness through your responses, teachings, or actions.

Do not make light of this topic or surrounding ones.

For some reason, church leaders love to make light of this conversation. Whether it is because it is awkward for them, they don’t know what to say, or perhaps are ill-equipped to have this conversation, this should not be an excuse to make light of the topic. Recently a pastor was recorded making horrible comments about how women should dress, conduct themselves, and sexually please their husbands and it has attracted much critique and backlash as it should. Sadly this isn’t a rare occurrence, and I have seen this happen often in student ministry.

Often you will hear youth leaders talk about things like grooming habits, cleanliness and how if you want to attract a mate you better use D.O. so you don’t have B.O., dressing to impress, modest is hottest, be a Proverbs 31 girl, and so much more. What we don’t often see or pause to understand is that these comments actually cause hurt, body image issues, a false understanding what sex is and why we have it, and ultimately destroy our witness for Christ. Don’t mock or make light of this conversation but instead treat it with the dignity and respect it deserves.

Don’t be graphic about sex.

This is similar to not being crass or joking about sex or related components, but different enough that we felt we should state it separately. Just because we communicated that we are talking about sex and the components that make it up does not afford us an opportunity to be overly graphic. We don’t need to over-glorify nor vilify sex when we talk about it. We don’t need to put up images, or explain graphic actions, or go into detail about our own sex lives. Doing so may actually cause more harm than good, and what we should be doing instead is giving students the opportunity to approach men and women they trust to ask these questions should they have them. A student may have been raped and to graphically talk about rape or intercourse could lead to them feeling unwelcome or less than. So be mindful of what you say and how you say it.

Focus on the heart, not behavior modification.

So often we have looked at behavior modification when it comes to this topic: dress modestly, bounce your eyes, install porn blockers on your devices, follow these clothing guidelines for youth group, wear a rubber band on your wrist. While these aren’t bad ideas, they do not get to the heart of the matter: the heart.

If we simply modify our behavior but don’t look to correct the corrupt nature of our hearts, how can we ever truly change, mature, and honor one another? Instead of looking to change a behavior, use this as an opportunity to help your students change their hearts. Help them to understand how they can honor one another as God designed them. Help them to see that physical beauty isn’t a bad thing. Help them to see that their actions and language mirror what is in their hearts. When we approach this topic in this manner, then we can begin to help them with changes to their behavior because we have intentionally focused on the starting point.

Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Have you ever heard a sex talk that said something along the lines of, “if you wait to have sex, your wedding night will be amazing“? If you have, you perhaps fell victim to some of the incorrect teachings that came from the purity movement–that is not to say everything about it was wrong, but to acknowledge that harm did come from it. Just because you wait doesn’t mean that sex and intimacy will be amazing. It could be, but it isn’t a guarantee. And these are things that the church has taught on for many, many years. But in saying things like this, we are setting people up for failure.

Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that waiting to have sex or avoiding lust or wearing a purity ring will lead to great sex in our marriages. What the Bible does promise is that if we seek to put God first and have an intimate relationship with Him, and allow for that to flow outward in our lives and relationships, then we will find healthy and holistic relationships. We shouldn’t set our people up for failure, but instead be honest and transparent.

Marriage and relationships take work, and even when you wait, sex and intimacy don’t always come naturally or have the Hollywood appeal. So we should stop trying to sell that image and instead look to teach students the beauty, purpose, and spiritual aspects of sex and marriage.

Join us next week as we talk through different passages of Scripture to use when talking about sex and relationships with your students.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 1]

An article and study published by the Pew Research Center titled “Half of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consenting adults is sometimes or always acceptable” has once again been making the rounds in Christian circles. In some of these circles there is alarm and shock as people assumed Christians have been holding to a higher moral code. In others, people lament and are resigned to the fact it is true. Others include people who place blame upon the church, its teachings, and its leaders for projecting and proclaiming a distorted view of sex and relationships. None of these are necessarily helpful, but all of them carry a measure of truth.

We should be shocked if we have not heard, seen, or known of these statistics. We should lament this statistic and pray for others. We should call out false, corrupted, or distorted teachings and agendas. But the question before us is this: how do we respond? Do we simply proclaim the evils of this world? Do we sound the alarm bells and run to our bunkers? Do we begin a new movement similar to what was taught in the 90s and 2000s as a radical counter approach?

I don’t think any of those options work nor would they be beneficial in the immediate or long term. Instead, I would like to offer a different approach: lovingly teach godly principles as they pertain to relationships, identity, and sex. We should be teaching this in church as a whole, but let’s be honest, if it’s hard for a youth pastor to speak on sex to young people, imagine how hard it is for a senior pastor to do that from the pulpit. I am not saying that is an excuse, but it is a reality, and as such churches shy away from this conversation. But we as student workers have an immense privilege and obligation to share, guide, and love our students as we talk with them about tough topics, including sex and relationships. Over the next couple of weeks I want to share with you some ways to engage this conversation well.

Communicate what you are doing.

As you prepare to share and teach on this, it is highly important to communicate what, how, and why you are doing this. Creating and casting vision for a series on subject matter that is sensitive, has often been mishandled, and will have different value systems between families is one of the most important things you can do. But don’t simply communicate this to families, communicate with your superiors, your volunteers, and your students. Bringing others in will allow you to receive feedback and support as well as guidance. It will also help people to be prepared and ready to talk through sensitive topics.

Approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth.

This is not an easy conversation to initiate nor is it an easy conversation to be a part of. Many of us work with students who have been hurt or abused, students who have seen sex used in wrong ways, students who only know about sex through Hollywood or porn, or students who struggle with relationships because their attraction may not be what the Bible says it should be. Acknowledging these truths, we should approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth. We need to be sensitive to what people are dealing with or what they know in relation to this topic. Don’t laugh at “dumb questions,” and don’t roll your eyes when someone doesn’t understand a term. Seek to offer clarity and help your students understand why this conversation matters.

Be willing to acknowledge the difficulty with this topic.

As pastors and leaders we often try to have all the knowledge and understanding of a topic on which we are teaching. But with this topic there are so many levels, changes in terms, cultural understanding, and evolving education and understanding that we have to acknowledge we aren’t experts. Instead we must lean into the truth of God’s Word as we approach a sensitive topic with grace, love, and truth. We need to be willing to study, listen, and learn as we dig into and prepare for this conversation. This may also mean bringing in others who are experts and who are willing to help us share on the topic. Don’t be afraid to seek help so that you can better speak to your students and address their needs.

Understand this could be a trigger for certain people

We are in a time culturally and spiritually where we are acutely aware of sexual assault and the abuses of power and leadership. Culture and churches alike have experienced a rash of incidents over recent years, and the reality is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. In understanding this, we must acknowledge that there are students, leaders, and parents that have or currently are experiencing abuse or assault. Most studies would actually say that within every student ministry there is at least one victim of sexual assault or worse.

Because of this reality we must be sensitive and understanding in how we approach this conversation. Understand that some people may be working through horrible things and as such, consider having counselors available to talk with students or leaders. Also, whenever possible make both men and women available to talk as it is typically easier for people to talk with someone of the same gender.

Talk about the why.

So often “sex talks” focus on “do this, don’t do that.” But I would encourage us to focus more on the identity piece than the “rules.” When Jesus came to earth it wasn’t about meeting all the rules (in fact His responses to the rich young ruler and the Pharisees declare the exact opposite), it was about finding our identity in Him and allowing the transformation in our hearts to work outward, changing our actions and behaviors.

Students today want to know the “why” behind everything, including our stances on sex, relationships, and marriage. Don’t neglect this important piece in a sea of rules. Why does your church hold the view of sex that it does? Why does it hold the stance on marriage that it does? Where do we find clarity in Scripture and the life of Christ. Make it a point to delve into not just the “what” surrounding sex, but also the “why.”

Highlight that sex isn’t just about the physical action.

This is something I wish I had heard in youth group and, honestly, in our pre-marital counseling. Sex isn’t just about the physical action. It isn’t just about climax. It is about two people coming together in a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual way that is meant to help us understand our intimate relationship with God. Intimacy is more than just a physical action, it is about wholly knowing someone in a way no one else can. It is about understanding and loving someone so deeply that you experience something incredibly special together. As we understand the truth about sex, it helps us to understand the depth and meaning of it, and will allow for our hearts to truly be transformed.

Stop by next week as we continue looking at helpful tips for engaging this conversation.