How to Connect with Difficult Students

The truth is we have all had a student, or students, that have been difficult in our ministry. There have been students who have tried our patience, they have disrupted teaching time and small groups, they may have broken things, or they never follow the rules.

Sometimes our propensity can be to get upset with or about them. We start to think they don’t care about others or maybe their home lives are bad and that’s why they lash out. Or perhaps we may try to connect but we have gotten tired when there is no response… or at least the response we want.

Students who get classified as difficult or disruptive are often the students who desperately need to be cared for. There are times we may feel like we are not getting through to them, but we must continue to pursue them and love them. Ministry was never meant to be easy, and Jesus came for all people especially those society would rather have forgotten. So let us be people, ministers, who seek to reflect Jesus as we care well for those that others would dismiss.

Build relationships.

In all circumstances, relationships are key. When working with people, we shouldn’t just assume that we can jump into any moment and give profound advice that will be heeded and life changing. We wouldn’t want people doing that to us, so why should we do that with students?

My point is this: you can only speak into someone’s life when you understand what is happening in their life. Meaning, in order to speak truth to someone, you need to know them. And you get to know someone by building relationships with them.

Now, I get it, you may be reading this and saying, “But I have tried… for a long time! I have tried, and it isn’t working.” Well, how do you know it isn’t? How do you know that the moments you showed care and love toward a student it wasn’t received or just outright dismissed? It may have felt and seemed that way in the moment, but you do not know the impact it may have had on their heart.

Continue to pour into your students, seek them out, love on them, take them out for coffee, show up at their games and activities. As you invest in their lives, they will begin to let you in.

Get to know the family.

Family history and knowledge of present family relationships is huge in helping you to know and understand your students. It can be easy to assume that there are issues at home because a student acts out, but that isn’t always the case. It could be home life, or it could be issues stemming from other aspects of the student’s life that the parents were not aware of (i.e. bullying, difficulty in school, failed relationships, etc.).

As you get to know the family, it will allow for you to build connections and relationships that will help you better care for the student. This may not always be the case as there may be problems within the family or they may not be involved in the church and therefore do not want your help. But being able to ascertain and see what is happening will give you greater insight into how to love and care for your students.

Be willing to listen.

This is huge for anyone, but especially for students. Students who often times are classified as difficult really feel they have not been heard. They believe they have been judged, marginalized, and profiled, and in many cases they have been. Let me encourage you to simply stop and listen to their stories. Hear their hearts. Acknowledge their hurt. In doing this you not only validate them, but you can help them to know they belong. As a student begins to know they have a place they begin to trust more and you will see headway happen.

Go to where they are.

We can easily do this for the students who we enjoy being around but when it comes to difficult students we don’t always make the extra effort. But let me encourage you to really lean into this. Go to their jobs, their games, the activities they are involved in. I love showing up at a restaurant or ice cream place where a student works. I get to see them, talk with them, and value them. Students who are struggling will see you making an effort, and though they may not say it or show it, they are glad you are there. These moments are huge in connecting with difficult students.

Meet them where they are at.

Here’s the thing with students who are struggling: they aren’t like everyone else. They may be angry or withdrawn. They will try to push you away. They won’t want to engage. But put yourself in their shoes: how would you want people to respond to you when you are at a low point? Do you want them to meet you there or walk away? Be willing to have hard conversations, be willing to listen, and be willing to love students even when they aren’t the clean cut Christians.

Know their history.

As you get to know your students, you will begin to know their history. They may not offer it up in one fell swoop, but they may drop hints along the way. Be listening for them, and be willing to connect the dots in later conversations. If they keep bringing up a certain event or person, pry into that by acknowledging they have talked about it. By actively listening and engaging with them, you will begin to know more about them. This will then help you in thinking through how to best minister to and care for them.

Stand up for them.

I am not saying to justify their attitudes, disruptions, or flat out misbehavior. But often times these students will be mocked, laughed at, and talked about by others. Shut that stuff down. Don’t allow for that to go on because it tells the one student that they don’t matter and that you don’t care, and it allows for the other students to engage in sinful behavior like gossip and slander.

By advocating for them, you are showing the student that your actions and words match: you truly care about and love them. Be for all students and look to help them grow as you minister to them.

I know in reading this you may still be thinking “this won’t work.” I get that and I hear you. But as someone who was one of those students, let me say this: it does work. It took my youth leaders over four years to break through my hard shell. But when they finally did, they were the people I trusted because I knew they loved and cared for me in ways no one else did. They didn’t give up, they didn’t dismiss me. They loved me and pursued me and are a huge part to why I am in ministry today. So continue to pursue your difficult students. Love them well and point them to Jesus. You never know how God will use you in their lives.

How have you reached difficult students in your ministry?

5 Tips for Navigating Current Conversations

Our current cultural climate has sparked many a heated conversation. If you utilize social media, no doubt you’ve at least witnessed, if not engaged in, an online debate that at one point or another turned ugly.

As representatives of the Gospel to our students and the world, we must frequently ask ourselves: How can I reflect Christ Jesus in all of my interactions?

In this week’s blog post, we want to offer encouragement and some simple suggestions for navigating conversations in a healthy, God-honoring way. Rather than simply disengaging, we want to interact in ways that will show people the heart that Jesus has for the world.

1. Seek to reflect Jesus Christ.

This may be the most simple and obvious suggestion, but it is no doubt the most difficult. It involves challenging ourselves to operate beyond our natural tendencies, personal opinions, and cultural assumptions.

The best way to reflect Jesus is to know Him, so starting each day in the Word and prayer will help to orient your thoughts and attitudes toward Him. Before engaging in conversations, ask God to give you words to say that will bring Him glory, and ask Him to help you treat each person like an image bearer. This simple step can help rein in a heated response or gut reaction and cause us to refocus on what truly matters.

May we remember that the advancement of the Gospel is more important than anything else we may hold dear.

2. Avoid making it political.

Issues within our culture are often assigned a political bent, and based on where we fall politically, we will see these issues differently. But before an issue is a platform, it is something that affects human lives and hearts. As a representative of the Gospel, may we challenge ourselves to care more about other people than about our political leanings.

Instead of looking for ways to spark (or win) a debate or argue a political point, seek to emulate God’s heart for people. Demonstrate His presence, His care, and His ultimate solution for all humanity’s problems–salvation through Jesus Christ.

May we win more hearts to Him than political debates.

3. Meet people where they are.

For the daily issues we encounter, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. People will experience and deal with problems differently. Rather than assigning the same cookie-cutter solution, or writing off someone’s struggles, seek to meet people where they are and help them in that place.

This is especially important when interacting with your students. It can be easy to lump students all together, and therefore think that they should all feel the same way and deal with their issues similarly. However, things like personal experience, home life, and mental health, will cause students to view the world and their problems very differently.

This is why it is extremely important to invest time into understanding others before we seek to help them or offer solutions. Some ways to do this are outlined in the following points.

4. Ask questions, and don’t assume you know the answer.

The only way to get to know someone is to learn about them, and the best way to uncover their needs, hurts, and life experience is to ask questions. Don’t assume anyone has had the same life experiences you’ve had, and don’t assume they respond to problems the same way. We are each complex individuals, and even though we may have similar life experiences or beliefs, we are all different.

In fact, to make assumptions is to cheat yourself out of knowing someone else, and to rob them of the opportunity of being known. Assumptions cheapen relationships, and cause us to miss out on the gift of knowing each other. Even if you think you know the answer, ask. Allow others to open up, to share about themselves, and to get to know you, too.

May we seek to know each other, rather than assign labels and assumptions.

5. Listen to understand before responding.

Many of us have experienced this type of conversation: no matter how many times you try to explain something, the person you’re talking to is more concerned with their response than what you are actually saying. This leaves you feeling frustrated, unheard, and ready to give up on the other person. And unfortunately, these types of interactions frequently happen in a church context.

Let us do whatever we must not to become the person who responds without listening. You may have the Sunday School answer, but to do this is to ignore the person and focus on making a point, which is ultimately dehumanizing. Instead, challenge yourself to pay attention to others, to think about what they are saying as they are saying it, and to ask clarifying follow-up questions. Active listening demonstrates your care and regard for others, and shows that they are more important to you than simply winning a debate. It can also show that you hold them as more important than yourself.

Seeking to understand others is a way of building bridges between us, rather than walls. Bridges are a way to connect not only with each other, but to introduce others to the God whom we serve. May that be our ultimate goal in these days and the days to come.

Ministering to Students Experiencing Depression

Depression can be defined as feelings of dejection and hopelessness that typically last for more than two weeks. A study released in 2019 showed that the rates of teen suicide and depression drastically increased from 2007 to 2017. According to a nationwide poll by the University of Michigan, one third of parents believe that they have at least one child who suffers from depression.

When we think about the implications that this has on our students and families, it should give us pause to step back and assess how our students are doing.

It is clear that depression is a major issue in our communities as doctors are seeing a rise in cases of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts that are at epidemic proportions. Our students are hurting, and we need to know how to love and care for them during this volatile time. So how do we do this well?

Be a safe person.

Students want to have people in their lives they can trust and go to in difficult times. It is helpful to think about how we reflect this value to our students and show them that they can come to us without judgement or criticism.

When we love our students well and show them that we are there for them, they will be more prone to share what is truly going on. This will then allow for us to administer direct and appropriate care quicker because we know the true issue. Create intentional conversations during everyday activities, and take an interest in your students’ lives as you engage with them. This will show them that you are on their side and truly care about them and what they are dealing with.

Be real.

Students want people in their lives who are authentic and transparent with them. When it comes to shepherding our students, we need to empathize and sympathize with them and let them know it is okay to not be okay. It is okay if they feel hurt or are depressed, but it isn’t okay to stay there and let it grow and fester.

Be honest with your students and let them know that you understand. Don’t look to judge or criticize, but listen and seek to understand. Tell them that they are loved and valued, and that you will walk with them through this. Make sure that your actions mirror your words because students are looking for authenticity and relationships.

Know the signs.

It is important to know what we are dealing with, but how do we identify depression? There are numerous resources online about the symptoms of depression but some key identifiers include the following:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Withdrawing from friendships
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of energy or drive
  • Poor performance in school
  • No longer finding pleasure in things they once enjoyed

No one symptom immediately denotes depression, but if the symptoms are prolonged (present for more than two weeks) and noticeable, it may be time to dig in and ask your student how they are really doing.

Seek to understand.

As you talk to your students, listen for key phrases and watch for reactions and emotional responses. A great way to understand your students would be to think through asking questions like these:

  • What feelings are you experiencing?
  • When do find yourself feeling that way?
  • When did you first start feeling this way?
  • When do these feelings seem strongest?
  • How are your friendships going?
  • Has there been a big change in your life recently?
  • Have you lost anything (i.e. friendships, a family death, a pet, grades, etc.)?
  • How often are you on social media?
  • Are you being bullied or picked on? When does this tend to happen?

These questions will allow you to better understand what is happening. They are not the culminating factor to your conversation, but instead allow you to invest, assess, and better respond to your students and their struggles.

Utilize Scripture.

We cannot minimize the power of Scripture when it comes to our daily lives. I am not advocating that we simply tell our struggling students to read their Bible and pray more, but I would always encourage that we use Scripture as our basis for truth and growth. Some great Bible passages about depression and working through it include: Isaiah 41:10, Psalm 30:5, 11-12, Psalm 46:1, Hebrews 4:15-16, 1 Kings 19:4-6, and Psalm 42:5.

Take advantage of resources.

There are resources at your disposal to help in cases of depression or in trying to identify if depression truly is affecting your students. The first is talk to people in their lives like teachers, small group leaders, and parents. They may be able to provide additional information or resources to you.

You should also know trusted counselors in your community. Begin reaching out to various counselors and counseling offices before the need exists, which will allow you to be better prepared and equipped when needed. In building these relationships, you will find others who share your values and/or beliefs and can be sources of professional help for your students.

Make sure to build your own resources and knowledge as well. Utilize online resources, books, medical journals, and ministry tools to help you have a more comprehensive understanding of depression. In doing this you are not only increasing your knowledge but also equipping yourself to be a better care giver for you students.

It is also important to encourage utilizing modern medicine. It is never a bad thing to seek out help and treatment, and for some cases, this is highly encouraged. They are able to diagnose different causes and symptoms we may not see or know about, and can therefore better treat them and help our students live better.

Depression is hard. It is a difficult road for anyone struggling with it, but we have the privilege of standing in the gap for our students. We get to love them, care for them, and point them to Jesus in all things. My prayer is that these thoughts help you to better step into your student’s life and walk with them through the difficult moments.

What resources have you used to help your students who are battling depression?

How to Help Students Dealing with Anxiety

Students today are struggling with more than ever before. The pressures of academic success, making it into college, participating in extracurricular activities, holding down a job, shifting political climates, threats of violence, struggling with their identity, and trying to live for Jesus in a world that is dynamically opposed to Him are just a few of the pressures our students are facing. And that is all before COVID-19 began to cause even more undue anxiety and fear in people’s lives.

Perhaps as you read that relatively short list, you began to feel overwhelmed or exhausted yourself. That is just a taste of what our students are facing, and what we are seeing as a result of all these pressures is an increase in anxiety and fear. Having moments of occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, but chronic and consistent anxiety is on the rise, and students are bearing the brunt of this.

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. The issue we must understand is that this definition is meant to highlight occasional moments of anxiety, and these symptoms for many students are prolonged and debilitating. The National Institute for Mental Health provides many helpful symptoms and identifying traits for those who may be struggling with prolonged anxiety stemming from a variety of disorders. Knowing the signs and symptoms will allow for us to better prepare to speak into the lives of our students and care for them in all circumstances.

Understanding that anxiety exists and is a part our students’ lives is the first step, but simply identifying a problem or issue is not enough. We must proactively engage and dialogue about these issues and look to help our students move through them.

So what can we do? I want to provide you with a few helpful tips to actively engage with your students and help them to live in the freedom the Gospel provides in a corrupt and broken world.

Engage in conversation.

I know at first glance this may seem simplistic because of course we communicate with one another. But students today don’t just want to communicate, they want to be heard and supported. Take time to actively engage with your students by asking questions and listening. When students respond, don’t simply look to generate a result or solution, but instead hear what they are saying, look to the heart issue, and walk with them. Open ended questions, like the ones listed below, are great at generating dialogue and insight.

  • What was the best part of your day?
  • What was difficult for you today?
  • How did you support your friends today?
  • How did you feel loved today?
  • When did you feel the most anxious today?
  • Share with me one high point and one low point from your day.
  • How did you encourage someone today?

Encourage families to create margin.

We are busy people. Life is always going, we are always doing something. It is essential for families to create space to just be and engage in life together. Instead of doing more things together, it is helpful to allow for there to be a time and place to just breathe. Whether it is an unplugged night together playing games, a family dinner, or spending time together after church. Creating margin and a relaxed place will allow for openness and easier communication.

Pray for and with your students.

When you are engaging in conversation with your students you will intrinsically pick up on ways to be praying for them. Students don’t always offer up requests of the heart, but in hearing them and walking with them you will find new ways to pray for them. This is also an awesome opportunity to model discipleship and soul care as you pray with them. Pray for them by name, lift up their requests, and follow up with them on what you prayer for.

Focus on the Gospel and speak truth.

Our world is broken and corrupt. Pain and fear run rampant. Our day to day is unknown. But we don’t serve this world and ultimately it has no power over us. I would encourage you that if and when your students come to you with fear or anxieties, speak openly about where our hope comes from, and how because of it we can live without fear. I would also say do not simply wait for your students to come to you to talk about this, but instead begin the conversations earlier. The sooner we practice and teach on this, the more beneficial it will be for our students. Here are some helpful Scripture passages to share with your students:

Be willing to bring others in.

There will be times when it is necessary to seek assistance in helping our students. When we may not have the answers, or do not know how to help, it is good to reach out for assistance. Having resources and contacts outside of the church is essential. Build a network of counselors, crisis intervention specialists, and emergency personnel you can reach out to in times of need. This is not implying you are ill-equipped, but instead recognizing that the strengths and skills of others will help you best care for your students.

Tips for Maintaining Your Spiritual Health

When life feels up-ended, it can be easy to let our spiritual health decline. Other things crowd in–whether it’s work, the needs of others, or our rapidly changing context–and we shift into a “survival mode” that can cause us to neglect our spiritual well-being. But if we are honest, if we don’t maintain our spiritual in-flow, we won’t survive for long.

We want to encourage and challenge you to make your own spiritual health and relationship with Jesus the top priority during this challenging time, and going forward. Sometimes that can be easier said than done, so today we’re sharing suggestions for prioritizing and enriching your spiritual growth.

Spend time in the Word for your own spiritual enrichment

If you are a ministry leader, you are no doubt already spending time in the Scriptures as you lesson plan. You might be preaching multiple weekly messages, preparing devotional materials, and mentoring individuals. This can result in a lot of time spent in the Bible, but not necessarily concentrated on your own growth.

Before you dive into Scriptural “work-study,” spend time in personal Bible reading, even if it’s only for a short period of time. If you can, find a quiet place where you can rest as you read, looking to hear from God and refresh your spirit. Spend time in prayer, specifically asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you and strengthen you for the work to come.

Establish healthy boundaries between work and personal time

It can be easy to let work bleed into your personal and family time, especially if you’re working from home. Taking calls, responding to texts, jumping on your computer to do something “real quick,” can begin to add up. You may struggle with what to prioritize, especially when it comes to ministry.

There will always be exceptions, but as much as you are able, set boundaries between “work time” and “home/family time.” This may mean keeping up regular office hours, and then setting your phone on “do not disturb” after they have ended. Or it may mean working in blocks of time and setting aside other blocks for personal and family time. Whatever you decide, don’t forget to explain it to your team or those who may be contacting you during “off” hours.

This may feel selfish at first, but it is essential to maintaining your mental health, your spiritual health, and your relational health with family and friends. If you don’t set aside time for these things, ministry work can easily take over your entire life, leaving you feeling burnt out and depleted.

Engage with church services for your own benefit

For ministry workers, church services are often times that are focused on work, and what’s coming next. It may be hard to dial in as your mind is already on what needs to be done as soon as the service is over, or what’s coming up in the week ahead. Whether you participate in your own church’s service, or another one online, give yourself the space to listen, engage, and grow.

Let us encourage you to actually pause and worship with your church community. Eliminate the noise and worship with your family without the worries of what is coming up. Seek to simply be present and worship. Read the Word of God with the church, take notes throughout the sermon, sing loudly without worry of who may hear. Engage with your family before, during, and after the service is done. Respond to what God’s Word is doing in and through your life.

If you find that you have more to do on a Sunday because you have become the “official tech guru,” you can still find meaningful ways to worship. To the best of your ability, seek to engage with and respond to the service as you contribute to it. Or, you may find it helpful to rewatch the service later, or listen to another one online.

Pursue mentorship

Due to our present circumstances, mentoring is something that can easily fall by the way-side. If we can’t meet in person, we may stop meeting altogether. However, mentoring is just as important now as we seek to do ministry in new ways. So we want to encourage you: keep seeking to be mentored and to mentor. In light of social distancing, this will most likely mean meeting via video chat or phone call, but the ability to have real, honest conversations is essential to maintaining spiritual health.

Engage in other spiritual exercises

Our current context calls for creativity, especially when it comes to spiritual growth. We may have to work a little harder to focus on Jesus and building our relationship with Him, but it is so incredibly worth it. Here are a few of our ideas for creatively engaging with God and His Word.

  • Practice journaling. As you read the Bible and pray, journal your thoughts and prayers. This is an excellent way to keep track of what God is teaching you, to respond to His Word, and to see how and when He answers specific prayers. If you’re creatively inclined, you can use different colors, lettering styles, and sketches to add to your writings.
  • Meditate on Scripture. Select a passage that speaks to your current context, whether it is something you are struggling with, something you want to work on, or an area of life where you need encouragement. Write the passage on a card and keep it beside your bed. When you wake up in the morning, before fully getting out of bed, take time to read the Scripture and ask God to bring it to your mind throughout the day. You can also come back and read over it during the day.
  • Listen to podcasts. This is something you can do while you’re cleaning, working out, or doing mundane daily activities. We especially love podcasts that help us think more deeply about what we believe and why. In the fall we shared a few of the podcasts we enjoy listening to. These can also help generate good discussions at home!
  • Engage in spiritual conversations with friends. Ask your friends what they are learning from God’s Word; share what He is teaching you. It is incredibly encouraging to talk through what God has been saying to us, and to hear how He is speaking to others.

How have you been maintaining your spiritual health during this season of life?

Helping Students Build Lasting Friendships

Friendships and relationships. What do those words mean to you? Recently these words have taken on such new meaning considering our present context. Before COVID-19 students could engage in friendships simply by going through their daily rhythms. They saw friends at school, hung out at Starbucks, went to youth group, and could go over to one another’s homes.

Today that isn’t the case: we are being told to stay home and distance ourselves from one another. Because of this, many relationships are struggling and students are feeling it. But this begs the question, why? Why are students hurting so badly in isolation? Why are relationships struggling?

The answer lies within the context of Scripture: We were created for community. Going all the way back to the beginning in Genesis, we see that God designed humanity in His image and likeness. God is a triune God which means He desires community. But even more than being crafted in His image, God designed humankind to desire community with one another. That is why Adam and Eve were put in the garden and told to share in its duties together.

Community and relationships are things that are rooted deep within us. The desire to be with and connected to others is part of who we are. But how do we do that in our present circumstance? How can we continue to maintain friendships and relationships? And how can we help our students not simply maintain but strengthen their friendships during this time? I want to offer some helpful tips for how to do this so our students not only survive but thrive during this period of their lives.

1. Pray for your students and their friends.

Prayer is and always will be essential. But in these days, we realize the need for it so much more. Students’ lives are being challenged and up-heaved, and they are asking deep and profound questions about the nature of everything that is happening.

Let me challenge you to pray all the more for your students. Pray for their spiritual walks, for their relationships, for their witness to their peers, for their friends and their families. Be in prayer for them as the attempt to adjust to what is happening. Pray that God gives them deep and meaningful friendships. Pray for your students to have friends that reflect Jesus to them, but also that they can share Jesus with friends who don’t know Jesus. Prayer is a powerful tool, and we must be on our knees daily for our students as they navigate our ever-changing world.

2. Encourage students and parents to structure screen engagement.

Screens are more a part of our lives then they have ever been. Students are being pushed to online learning, they are connecting over social media, Zoom calls abound, and sadly this is just to manage school. What I would encourage is this: balance the time spent on screens. Don’t let it simply be one-sided. Challenge your students to have positive intake coming into their lives through the screen. Whether that is through watching sermons or youth group lessons, engaging in conversations with friends and family members, or through listening to worship music. Encourage positive inflow.

But even more than just having positive inflow, encourage students and families to create time away from screens. Have them set up intentional time to engage as a family, to play games, watch a church service together, go on walks, plant some flowers, cook dinner together, throw around a football. Building relationships within the family helps to model what this looks like in other relationships.

I would also encourage you to have your students think about calling or writing their friends. Send handwritten notes, have an actual phone call away from the screen. Moments like these may seem simple, but are actually refreshing in a screen saturated world.

3. Help students understand relationships aren’t one sided.

Friendships these days tend to be one-sided. We enter into them expecting to be filled and encouraged but we don’t often think about what we can give. Our culture dictates that we should expect to receive more than give, and unfortunately this has bled into our relationships. So help your students understand that they have to be willing to give to the relationship and not just receive. A few easy ways to challenge your students with this include:

  • Have them ask how the other person is doing, and then follow up on it at a later time.
  • Challenge them to be willing to call or reach out to the other person and not just expect to be called.
  • Push your students to keep reaching out, even if to them it doesn’t seem worth it.
  • Encourage your students to be kind and thoughtful toward their friends, and to think about the words or style of words that they use (sarcasm is no one’s friend).
  • Have students think of a tangible way they could bless one friend a week during this time and follow through on it.

4. Encourage students to be intentional.

Having good friendships and relationships take work, which means we have to be willing to engage with them. And that means we must be intentional. Friendships don’t just continue to exist if we aren’t actively engaged with them. We must be willing to be intentional and, at times, sacrifice for our friendships. Students must be challenged to be intentional in their friendships especially during this time. Simply shooting off a text, or not responding for a week, or not reaching out to people you were connected to will cause hurt and tension in relationships for both parties.

We are designed for community but we cannot simply hope that everything will be the same if we do not intentionally engage. Intentionality shows others that they have value and meaning, and it allows for the person showing it to grow as well. Challenge your students to take the first step, and the second, and third. It may not always be reciprocated, but showing intentionality will encourage and help others, and your students will see when others are doing that for them.

5. Encourage students to be transparent.

Our culture demands that we appear to have it all together, to make it appear as if our lives are perfect and nothing is wrong. Many people, our students included, struggle with this reality. But we must realize that part of friendship is a willingness to be authentic and transparent. To be willing to share how you really are doing. We must challenge our students to be who they really are in their friendships, to let them know it is okay to show vulnerability around their peers.

Transparency and authenticity are large parts of any friendship and relationship. In order for relationships to grow and trust to be formed, people must be vulnerable by being transparent. This allows others to see and know you for who you are, and to value and love you regardless of faults. Being transparent allows for trust, friendship, and growth to happen in a relationship, and if we can challenge our students to do this, we will begin to see them thrive in their friendships.

How do you encourage students to build lasting friendships?

Help! My Students Don’t Like Me

“How do you make students like you?”

“I am a new youth pastor and I am not connecting with my kids…what am I doing wrong?”

“I have been in youth ministry for years, but I can’t seem to find common ground with my teens in my new position.”

These are just a few quotes I have heard over the past couple of weeks from youth pastors who are struggling to connect with their students.

The real question before us is this: how can I connect with, relate to, and push my students to the Gospel? Throughout various ministries, and lots of trial and error, I have seen many ways work and lots of ways fail. I want to share a few ways to help you connect with your students regardless of where you are and how long you have been there.

Don’t put your worth in students liking you.

If you find your success, identity, and validity in students liking you, then you went into the wrong field with the wrong intentions. You aren’t here to be liked–don’t get me wrong, that’s a huge plus–you are here to disciple students and point them to Jesus. Don’t go looking to be liked but go seeking to show them Jesus and love them the way He does.

Don’t expect them to come to you.

Go to where they are. I think sometimes we believe that if we keep office hours, have an “open door policy,” and invite them over then they will come. That isn’t the case. Students in fact have been told to not go hang out with strange people. If you are in a new position, you are a strange person. They don’t know you yet. They don’t know your passions and heart. So go to them. Go support them at their games and activities. Get involved in the community. Bring donuts to their school in the morning.

Know your students.

This seems like an easy one but depending on the size of your program (and if your memory, like mine, isn’t great) you may not be able to know every student. But try to get to know the ones you can and remember them. There is so much power in being called by your name instead of “hey you” or “buddy” or “dude.” Remember their names, but also seek to know more about them. What school do they go to? What activities are they engaged in? Who is in their friend group? Where’s their favorite place to go hang out? What’s the best coffee shop? What’s their favorite thing about youth group? When you know these things and bring them up in conversations you are showing intentionality and a desire to be a part of their lives.

Be real.

I cannot stress this enough. All you have to do is look at all the memes out there about youth pastors being one way around students and another in front of church members or parents to know that the common perception of youth pastors is they aren’t authentic. Maybe it is just a meme and I am trying to be too insightful, but I think the underlying truth is there: be authentic.

Students can tell when you aren’t being genuine or you’re trying to “just relate” but don’t truly care. They have plenty of people who pretend to care or invest in their lives, they don’t need another one. Be yourself! Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. If you are dorky, own it. If you are an athlete, play basketball with them. If you are quiet, don’t try to be an extrovert. And don’t pretend to know someone when you don’t. Love them as Jesus does and show them who you are.

Have fun.

Don’t be a stick in the mud. Sometimes engaging with students means having fun with them and with what they are doing. Think about it: what adult other than a youth worker do you see playing Gagaball or challenging students to an eating competition? I’ll wait while you come up with names… But seriously, have fun with your students. If they like board games, play with them. If they are into video games, brush up on your gaming skills. You don’t have to crush it or them, and when they beat you, laugh about it.

I love playing 9 Square with my students. Some of them are super athletic and can dominate the game. I can go toe-to-toe with them, but I often choose not to and allow myself to get spiked on. Why? Not because I like losing, but I love to laugh at it and also I get to connect with the students who did get spiked on. Have fun and let your hair down.

Tell personal stories.

Elise wrote an awesome post about the power of a story and she couldn’t be more correct. Stories convey truth and emotion, and they connect with people in a very real way. I love telling stories when I teach and they are almost always personal. I do this for two reasons: people see I am real and just like them, and it allows for my students to know me on a deeper level. My students know about my childhood, college years, my day-to-day activities, and all the times I messed up. In fact, I have students come up and say “remember when you did…” But the funny thing is they weren’t there for that moment, but they were there for my story. They connect with you as you allow them into your space.

Be consistent.

Don’t give up. The reality is all of this takes time and effort, and there will be moments you want to check out or walk away. Don’t! Stay invested. Keep showing up. Go to the plays and sports and coffee shops. When no one comes on a youth group night still show up. Students see you. They see your heart. Be someone who is there for and with them. Be the person they need and the person God called you to be. When you say you will be someone where, be there. When you say there is youth group, show up and be excited. Be consistent and watch what God does.

 

How to Value + Incorporate Story Telling in Student Ministry

Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s true. Historically our world has relied on stories to tell us where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how to live in the here-and-now. Christianity especially is grounded on a book full of stories about God and His people.

Story telling is nothing new, in the world or in student ministry. But at times we may forget just how powerful and important the telling of true stories can be. For followers of Jesus, they can be a compelling marker for the ways in which our lives have been changed and can be changed by the Gospel.

Valuing Story Telling

One of the best ways to truly value the telling of stories within a church context is also one of the most simple: keep them true. Whether it’s a quirky illustration or a heartfelt recounting, make sure it’s a true story. Nothing turns listeners off more than realizing a great story is fake. Conversely, nothing connects a listener to a speaker more than an honest retelling of their life experiences.

True stories are especially important when it comes to connecting “real life” to our faith. For many students, faith can feel like an abstract concept, resulting in a separation of their faith journey from their everyday life. The telling of true, personal stories can model a bringing together of our everyday lives and our faith, showing how the two are woven together at all times. True stories from our lives connect the abstract to reality.

True stories also help to illustrate the life change that the Gospel brings about, showing that Jesus Christ isn’t just a historical figure but a living being who interacts with us now. Stories can demonstrate the power and applicability of the Gospel to the struggles our students may be facing. They can move a message from a broad theme of “the Gospel can change your life” to a specific example of “how the Gospel changed my life.”

In a way, the valuing of true, personal story telling is also a way for us to value the Gospel. If the truth of Jesus Christ has changed your life, you will have stories to back it up. And even more than that, you will want to share these stories so that others may know about the Jesus you have encountered.

Incorporating Story Telling

An obvious and easy way to incorporate story telling into your youth ministry is to include it in weekly messages. Again, using true and personal stories to illustrate your main points is much more powerful than a generic story about “a friend” or “a girl named Sarah.” Even if the story about your friend is true, unless your friend is telling it, there will be less of a connection between the story and your students. Aim to keep all your stories to personal and factual accounts.

Another way to incorporate story telling while also building community and connection is to invite leaders and students into the process. Some of the most powerful student ministry nights have featured a leader or student sharing their personal story of how Jesus changed their life. Consider structuring a series around the sharing of leader and/or student testimonies. Planning in advance will allow you to meet with each story teller to help them prepare and practice telling their story. In addition to giving them a platform to share the Gospel, you will also build community between story tellers and those who listen, resulting in the strengthening and building up of relationships within your ministry.

Look for ways to empower your students to tell their stories. Some may not feel comfortable sharing in front of the entire group, but that shouldn’t make their story any less valuable. All followers of Christ should be encouraged to write and track the story of how He has changed and is changing their life.

Consider hosting an event to help students write and tell their story, providing tips, personal assistance, creative options, and tools like a journal and pens. Some students might write their story like an essay, while others may want to write it like poetry or spoken word. Leave time at the end of the event for an “open mic” session for any who would like to share. Secure a few leaders and/or students ahead of time to share and help get things started.

When you incorporate story telling into your ministry, your goal should be to not only share your story or your leaders’ stories. It should be to champion and equip your students in the telling of their stories as well. Each follower of Jesus is part of God’s overarching story, and to value the telling of individual stories is to value our place in it.

5 Ways to Improve Volunteer Communication

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

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

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

Ask your team how they communicate.

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

Choose your medium and use it.

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

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

Be consistent.

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

Communicate early.

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

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

Communicate in person.

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

Becoming a Better Leader

Being an effective leader means we must continue to grow and learn so we can better minister to those under our care. Leading isn’t just about being the face of a ministry or the main teacher, it is also about caring for those under your leadership.

Looking back at my ministry career I have seen areas that I have grown in and I want to share some of them with you. Now please hear me on this: I didn’t learn all of these things right away. Most of them were through difficult moments, some of which were my fault. But in all of these moments I hope that you can hear some advice and avoid the missteps I had.

None of these in and of themselves will make you a better leader, but put them together with a desire to be used by God and for God, and you will see Him use you in mighty ways.

Listen.

A big part of growing in leadership is growing in listening. Listen to your leaders, your team, your students, your superiors, and families. I am not saying that everything everyone says is going to be beneficial or helpful, but if people truly care about you and the ministry, they will seek to help you. So listen and be willing to let go of pride in order to grow and become who God is shaping you into.

Learn.

As a leader you should never stop learning. Our mission and foundation never changes: make disciples by communicating the Gospel. However, new ways of ministering, cultural shifts, advancements in technology, and many other areas are always adapting and evolving. We must be willing to learn and become better. If we ever stop learning as a leader, or believe we know it all, we will become ineffective and arrogant.

Shepherd.

If I am honest with you, this is a place where I have fallen short. At times I have allowed myself to focus on growth, establishing the program, and running everything, but I have forgotten to actually care for and guide my leaders. If we are not caring for our people, if we are not intentionally sharing life with them, we have missed the mark. Our ministry is to shepherd others as Christ shepherds. We need to love and care for our people in the valleys and the mountains. This has to be a priority in order to establish longevity in ministries and churches.

Grow.

This is similar to continual learning, but it takes it a step further. Be willing to challenge and push yourself. Try new things. Experiment. Step out in faith. Take risks. Part of growing is seeking to discern where God is calling you and the ministry you lead. How are you growing as a leader? Who is challenging you? How are you challenging yourself? Model growth and watch it replicate itself in your ministry.

Lead.

Be the leader God has called you to be. Sometimes it is easy to get in our own heads, to hear the attacks of the enemy, or to allow a critique to break us down. Do not stop leading. God didn’t empower you with His Spirit so you could sit on the sidelines. He established you as His child, called you into His service, and has put you where you are for such a time as this. Lead and lead well. Never out of pride or arrogance, but lead as Christ led. Lovingly disciple and guide the flock and empower others to lead with you. Remember that being a leader doesn’t mean doing everything. So be willing to grow and enable others to lead and shepherd them in those roles.

Retreat.

I have written about this before, but make sure that you are retreating and taking time away. Taking a break is healthy and necessary. Jesus retreated often to pray and reflect. God rested after creation. If God models this, shouldn’t we follow His example? Take advantage of your vacation time. Retreat and refresh. Shut off your laptop and phone. Spend time with Jesus. Be present with your family. Doing this not only will refresh you, but will also model an example to others of a healthy lifestyle, ministry, and relationship with Jesus.

Step back.

Assessing your ministry and your role is not a bad thing. In fact it is extremely healthy to do an assessment periodically. See what is working and what isn’t. Think creatively. Bring in new voices. Listen to people who are invested. Doing this allows you to have a fuller view of your ministry and to make the necessary changes.