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.

Setting Healthy Boundaries: Home and Church Life

When you work for a church or ministry you may have office hours, but you are also aware that you are never fully “off the clock.” Whether it’s answering an urgent text from a student who is in crisis, dealing with a “when was the camp signup” question from a parent, or attempting to finish something at home, we all know the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.

However, it isn’t healthy to go at top speed at all points in our lives. If this is how we continue to go we will experience burnout, bitterness, and hurt from all that we continue to do. I say this not to make you feel badly over all you have been doing, but as someone who has been there and experienced this in my own life. We must have healthy boundaries in place to protect ourselves, our families, and the ministries we serve. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how I’ve managed to set and protect certain boundaries in order to preserve myself, my family, and my ministry.

Make sure time off is time off.

So often we see our work as necessary and kingdom focused (which it is) but so is our ministry to our spouse and family, and to ourselves. Let me encourage you to allow your time off to be time off. Try to not do work during those moments, fully engage with your family, and rely on God when the doubts and fears creep in that tell you that you are failing because you aren’t going 100 miles per hour. Having healthy time off will allow for you to be a better minister because you will be filled and whole rather than tired and fractured.

Be on the same page with superiors.

When I started at my new job I told my superiors that date night was on Fridays and I wanted to honor that with Elise. I also asked about hours and weekend commitments because I’ve been in positions before that required more hours than what I was paid for. My superiors explained that days off were for just that and my work hours over forty were extra hours that could be applied to time off. There are special circumstances of course, but the church and I were on the same page, so when I share with people I am off the clock I know I have a team who has my back.

I am also aware that I am blessed with church leadership who care and honor the right priorities in the right order, but others of you may not have that same experience. I would encourage you to first talk to those in leadership over you and see if perhaps the priorities align but simply haven’t been stated. Regardless of how that conversation goes, you can begin to set the tone within your own ministry setting and lead out to your people and students. Use the options you have and look to protect your time as best you can. You may not always have the support you would like, but you can still lead out and set healthy boundaries and parameters within your context while still honoring your superiors.

Don’t let work take the place of family.

When was the last time you took a work call or text, or answered an email at home or during family time? When was the last time you did the reverse? We are prone to allow work to become the number one priority in our lives, but the order of our priorities should be our relationship with God, our relationship with our family, and then our ministry. God called you first to Himself, then to your spouse and family, and finally as a shepherd to His flock.

That means we must not allow work to displace our family time, and our families must be given the attention and love they deserve. This is hard to do and yes there are always extenuating circumstances, but our families should never be second tier to the church. And honestly, if your church doesn’t affirm this, I would consider going to your superiors and asking hard questions about this topic in a Christ-honoring way. You have to make sure you are caring for your health and the health of your family.

Be transparent about time off.

I love to talk about date night in front of students and our church when I preach. Why you may ask? Because I want everyone to know I love my wife and time with her, but also to set the precedent that we want and deserve time together just like everyone else. It has been refreshing to hear church members who we bump into on Fridays want to honor our date night time, but also I’ve had countless people say they have learned they need to be better about dating and protecting their spouse. When you are open about who you are and where your priorities are, people are welcomed in and more apt to respect them.

Make sure your actions and words match.

This should be true in the church and the home. If you say date night is a priority to the church, make sure you honor that at home. If you ever wonder if your words and deeds match, consider asking your spouse and kids. They will be honest with you and allow for you to grow and become even better by working as a team. We can’t say family time is a priority but postpone it for “work stuff.” What our church and our families see should match. Our spouse and children should hear what we say and see it acted upon at home and in our relationships with them.

And the same should be true for our work. If we tell people we want to prioritize our families but continue to come to work while sacrificing family time, it shows that our word and deeds don’t match. If that is how we are governing our lives, it points toward a heart issue: “who/what are you working for.” Too often a workaholic mentality tends to point toward a pride issue or a desire to please man over God, and we need to look at our heart to make sure our actions and words match as we seek to honor God in all aspects.

Utilize your “do not disturb” option.

I’ll be honest: I struggle with not using my phone for work when I’m at home with Elise. I’ve been practicing something new this week and have been putting my phone on do not disturb. I began to realize how I was worrying about texts, calls, or emails and with “do not disturb” turned on, it has helped me so much in not worrying and making Elise more of a priority. Try it out and see how it works. We preach freedom from technology now it’s time to put it into play in our lives.

Empower your team.

For each of us the word “team” may look different. It could be a student ministry staff team, your volunteer core, or just you and a couple of regular leaders. Whatever the context is for you, empower your team to lead in your place. We cannot allow ourselves to be the only person for our students and leaders. If that is what we do we will always be the on-call person. But if you encourage others to lead, direct students to small group leaders, and allow your team to fulfill their roles, you are then empowering others while allowing space for yourself to breathe and experience balance in your life.

5 Ideas for Volunteer Appreciation

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I couldn’t help but reflect on how thankful I am for my team of volunteers. Truth be told, this has been a hard year for a multitude of reasons, and I have seen my volunteer team persevere and love on our students all the more. Even when tragedy hit our ministry and our leaders were grieving, they stepped in the gap and cared well for our students.

Our leaders are the boots-on-the-ground people, who love and care for our students. They sacrifice so much throughout the year to point students to Jesus, and we must make sure to honor and appreciate them. A verbal thank you or affirmation is always a plus–especially in front of your students, parents, and the church–but there are other ways to encourage and bless your leaders as well.

Today I want to share with you five ways you can bless your leaders throughout the year. Some require finances but others are simple ways to say “thank you” and love your leaders. My hope is that anyone could look at these ways to appreciate volunteers and find one that works within their context.

1. Write thank you notes.

This may sound easy or a bit old school, but getting a handwritten note in the mail that recognizes you for what you did is a huge blessing. Consider saying thank you when a leader goes above and beyond, or when a leader does exactly what you have asked of them, or when they have had a hard week or night at youth group. Snail mail is a great way to empower, bless, and care for your leaders. Let me encourage you to go beyond just a generic thank you and put heart and passion into your note and let that be an encouragement to your people.

2. Honor special days.

Whenever a leader has an anniversary, has served for long periods, has a birthday, graduates from school, gets married, or whatever else is a celebration, make sure to honor that. Whether it is a text, call, taking them out to coffee, sending a gift or flowers, or recognizing them at youth group, you are taking an interest in their life and showing you care. Knowing special moments and making them even more special shows love on your end, and helps your leaders know you are for them.

As a quick aside, I would also say to make sure you honor your leaders during days that are significant for a different reason. When a leader experiences loss, gets fired, or is going through a tough season, reach out and love on them. Let them know you are there for them, listen as they process and grieve, and seek to bless them in whatever way is meaningful to them (bring them a meal, take them for coffee, bring them coffee, send flowers, write a card, etc.). How you honor these days will speak even louder than how you honor the really good ones.

3. Allow for time off for your leaders.

In the workforce, at school, and even in the home, we observe holidays and are offered time off, but often in ministry circumstances we for some reason forgo that. I cannot tell you how many ministries I have been a part of that don’t give time off for their leaders. They run programming during the holidays, they require commitment through the entire summer, and leaders have been made to feel guilty about not going on retreats and trips.

We must allow our leaders time off to refresh and recharge in whatever manner they need. Their family time and time to rest is huge, and we must honor that. Let me encourage you to consider taking a week or two off from programming around holidays, and consider scaling back your ministry during the summer to allow for your leaders to breathe easier and come back ready for fall programming.

4. Host leader-only gatherings.

One of my favorite times of the year is when we host our leader Christmas party. The past two years the parents in our ministry have taken ownership of the party and now provide a full meal, decorate, and pray over our leaders. Our ministry staff then has the ability to put our finances toward gifts and prizes for our leaders and we get to spend time blessing and encouraging them. Leader-only gatherings aren’t just for holidays, but also random outings for food, concerts, amusement parks, or even time spent watching football games at your home. These moments are super special. They show your leaders you value more than just a warm body at youth group and that you truly care about the relational component and their well-being.

5. Never make your leaders pay for trips/retreats.

This is one that based upon your budget may not be something you can do, but I would highly encourage you to consider this option if you can. One of the biggest pieces of my budget is a line solely for paying for leaders to go on trips free of charge. They already give so much, so we look to take care of the monetary costs whenever possible. We also try to pick up travel meals if possible, and put together leader gift bags for all of our retreats.

Even if you are not able to cover the cost of the trip, consider putting together gift bags for your leaders. Ours contain things like a handwritten thank you note, a regular size candy bar, granola bar, Chapstick, earplugs, a sleep mask, a coffee drink, Airborne, Advil, a salty snack, and whatever other gifts we can fit in there.

The reality is you don’t need to spend much or anything at all to bless your leaders and let them know you are thankful for them. Sure finances help, but you can always do or say something to let them know you love them and are so thankful for them. May we be shepherds who love our flock and love to bless them throughout the year.

Caring for Volunteers

Being on paid staff at a church is an amazing job. You are paid to study the Bible, walk with people, see growth happen, participate in wonderful moments, and you get to fulfill your calling. But often times we forget that the reason we get to do what we do is due, in large part, to our volunteers.

They are the people who show up after a long day of work. They are the ones who take vacation time or unpaid time to go on youth trips. They are the ones fielding late night calls and interrupting family time to care for “their students.” They are the ones who grieve and hurt even though it isn’t their job to do so. They are the ones who take time away from their loved ones to pour into the lives of students who others would write off.

I think our propensity as paid youth workers is to assume that our volunteers can give the way we do. We believe they can sacrifice time and money the way that we do. We forget that this isn’t what they are paid to do.

But we cannot forget our volunteers. They are the glue that keeps our ministry together.  They are the self-sacrificing, servant-hearted, all-in people who make student ministry a reality. So how can we care for them well?

Get to know your people. 

One of the things I have found to be beneficial in caring for leaders is getting to know what they like and don’t like, what encourages them, what discourages them, where they like to go out to eat, what they do for a date night, how you can be praying for them, and what snacks they enjoy. I get all this information at our fall leader training when I ask my volunteers to fill out a quick two-minute survey. In that survey I get to know a lot about them in a simple format, and I find new ways to bless them.

Bless leaders throughout the year.

This can look different depending on the size of your ministry, your budget, and your space. But we shouldn’t let those things keep us from acting or put us in a box. Instead we should leverage what we have to bless our leaders. We use our Leader Christmas Party as our big gift time of year and a bunch of our parents cater the event for our leaders. They cook dinner, serve the meal, prepare desserts, and pray over them. I also love to meet up with leaders throughout the year and see how they are doing. I take them out for lunch or breakfast and do my best to pay for the meal and say thank you. I also pay attention to big days (Facebook helps with this a lot) and reach out to celebrate and honor them.

Get parents involved.

I shared this briefly in the above tip, but the more you can rally parents to support and bless your leaders, the more dedicated your leaders will be. At Christmastime and the end of the academic year, we send out a letter to parents asking them and their students to consider blessing our leaders. Consistently our parents go above and beyond and our leaders are blessed with cards and notes, gift cards, snacks, candy, and so much more. Our leaders and families love this and it is an awesome opportunity to see Body of Christ care for one another. We also ask our parents to jump in and serve at big events to allow  our leaders to be with their students. This helps parents see what is happening and has driven them to have more buy-in and care for our leaders.

Make a big deal out of trips.

When our leaders come on ministry trips we do leader gift bags. Based upon the trip length, style of trip, and funds on hand we offer a variety of gifts and blessings in the bags. For overnight trips we do paper gift bags and for trips of a week or longer we have done backpacks or drawstring bags. We fill these with some of the essentials like lip balm, sleep masks, ear plugs, hand sanitizer, gum, candy, salty snacks, protein bars, swag from our youth group, ibuprofen, pens, or a small notebook. Depending on the length of the trip and expectations for our leaders, we have gotten some nicer gifts as well like Yetis with our logo, full-size notebooks, or mugs.

Use your space.

We all have different spaces for programming and offices (if you’re blessed to have one). A great way to bless leaders is have a spot exclusively for them. I am not in my office much during youth nights so I have turned it into a relaxing area for my leaders. I have a seating area with a tea and coffee bar, along with bottled water and a few snacks. I get good coffee, a variety of teas, nice creamers, all types of sweeteners, and my leaders love it. They arrive after long days and to have something to get a little boost is a big deal. I also keep my office as a leaders-only space so they can have a place to collect themselves and breathe if they need to.

Utilize your leaders’ gifts.

One way to really value your leaders is to see their talents and allow them to utilize their gifts. If you have a leader who is a gifted communicator, get them in front of your group. Have a leader who loves to lead at their workplace? Ask them to help develop your leaders. Is there a leader who is can get anyone to do anything? There is your next game leader. If a leader is passionate about worship, allow them to develop your students into a worship team. Encouraging your leaders to utilize their gifts and strengths not only allows them to continue to grow, but it generates buy-in, creates a team mentality, and shows your leaders you see them as more than bodies.

Recognize and honor your leaders. 

The corporate world does this well. When someone succeeds they get a raise, a bonus, employee of the month, or recognized in a staff newsletter. We should be doing this as well. If a leader does something well, recognize it. It doesn’t need to always be in front of the church or youth group, but maybe at a leader meeting. Consider implementing a “volunteer of the month” where you send them a handwritten note and a small gift card to their favorite restaurant. Or when you get that chance to preach, highlight your volunteer core. Let them know how awesome they are!

Be present in all moments. 

As the shepherd of your ministry you must be present for your team in all moments. That means thinking past your program nights, and being present elsewhere. Take your leaders out. Celebrate their successes. Get to know their passions and their families. Also be there during the really hard moments. This is the part where your leaders see you actually care. I have sat in hospital rooms with leaders, I have held leaders after a loved one passed away, I have walked with leaders who have lost a student, and I have wept with leaders as they wept over their students walking away from what they believed. These moments weren’t the easiest or ones I was prepped for in “ministry school” but these are the moments we are called to as shepherds and ministers. To weep with those who weep and comfort those who mourn. Walk with your leaders in all moments; good, bad, and everything in between.

Commission well.

Part of what we should be doing as ministry leaders is generating high quality leaders who prayerfully will begin stepping up, which may lead to them pursuing ministry elsewhere as God calls them. This isn’t something to fear or be anxious about but something we should be excited for. That means our leaders are growing, being equipped, and following God’s leading. When this happens encourage your leaders, pray with them, and help them achieve the calling God has placed on their lives. But also celebrate and encourage your leaders both publicly and in private. Let them know you are here for them, honor them in front of the youth group, help them to grieve well as they leave, and celebrate them in front of the church.

 

Helping Students Deal with Tragedy

Tragedy can be defined as an event that causes great sadness, hurt, destruction, and distress, but the reality we must understand is that tragedy looks different in each of our lives. What might be a tragedy or crisis for one person will look different for another.

However, what we do know about tragedy is that our students are facing it more and more each day, and are emotionally connected to tragedy even if it does not directly affect them. Students today feel more empathetic and sympathetic to what is happening both within their own sphere and from a global perspective. Students understand more, they feel deeper, and they live in a heightened state of fear due to all the horrific events happening in our world.

Because of the emotions and connections, tragedies can be felt even when they aren’t experienced. Students can feel the effects of a school shooting in California or the tsunami that hit in Japan or a suicide in their school in very similar ways. What this means then is that we as their youth leaders, parents, pastors, and adults in their lives must be having very frank conversations about tragedy before, during, and after it happens.

I know this may sound overwhelming because there are moments when we will ask, “How are we equipped to talk about these tragedies, when we don’t even fully understand how to process them ourselves?” I want to offer a few helpful conversation tips, and then to give you some resources to utilize as well.

So how do we engage our students in the conversations surrounding tragedy? Here are couple of tips to help with those conversations:

Begin the conversation sooner than later. It is always better to be proactive than reactive. We live in a very fallen and broken world where we will hear about tragedies constantly on the news, social media, at school, or in a number of other capacities. Talk to your students as they grow and help them to see that our world isn’t perfect, that bad things will happen, but that God is still sovereign and in control.

Point your students back to God and Scripture. Whenever tragedy occurs, typically our response goes to either blaming God or asking God why. Having a good grasp on who God is, His plan for our lives, His vision of this world and our lives with Him, will allow for you to better love, care for, and walk with your students during tragedy.

I do want to say that in the midst of tragedy, do not simply toss out Scripture to gloss over the difficult moments. That tends to be a knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Many of our students know those Scriptures and understand them, but they still are processing and grieving. We need to give them that space, to empathize and sympathize with them, to listen, to love them, and to walk with them as you both look for answers and understanding.

Be available. Students want to be known and heard. Be willing to engage with them, and to go past the surface questions. Don’t settle for “fine” or “okay” as a response. Ask questions that generate meaning and depth of conversation. Instead of “how was your day” or “what is bothering you” ask something like, “what was hard for you today” or “what emotion was strongest for you today?” These types of open ended questions not only allow you to be available physically but show that you are emotionally and mentally present as well. Having someone they can talk to, just be with, and process with is a big part of caring for your students, so make sure to be available.

Look to grow in your own knowledge and understanding. Educate, educate, educate. In order to understand how to care best for your students, seek out resources and equipping to help you better care for them. Utilize some of the resources below, talk to your mentors or other youth pastors, read books, listen to podcasts. The more you know, the better equipped you are to care for your students.

Never minimize how your students are feeling or say that what they experienced isn’t a tragedy. We all feel and process differently, so don’t minimize the situation. This is a form of escapism because we feel ill prepared. Instead validate their feelings, help them to process, walk with them, and being willing to just listen and love them. The greatest gift you can give to someone who has experienced a tragedy is love and time. Be with them. Be wholly present and love them well. A great way to think about this is to ask yourself, “What would I want someone to do for me in a time like this?” Use that as the framework for how you engage with your students.

Build your resources. This is more than just your own knowledge and library. I would encourage you to network, know who the counselors are in your area, talk to the church about their resources, and consider what you can contribute as well. As you build your resources, you become better equipped to handle trauma and tragedy, and you will know when to refer out and seek additional help that may be needed.

Tragedy is a difficult conversation, but one that we must lean into in order to better care for our students. Don’t believe the lies that you are ill-equipped to speak into their lives. Your voice, presence, and love means more than you could ever know, and simply being willing to engage will help them grow and mature in their relationship with you, their peers, and Jesus.

Below are some articles and websites that provide a lot of insight and additional resources to help in your conversations going forward.  Thank you for walking these roads with your students.

5 Quick Tips to Elevate Your Environment

Have you ever been a part of a student ministry where there environment just feels…bleh? Whether it is because you can’t renovate due to lack of funds, or the functionality is limited because the room is multipurpose, or you feel like you have tried everything and the students still don’t enjoy coming, making student ministry welcoming and fun can be difficult.

In my time in youth ministry I have tried many different tactics, gimmicks, and cool options to get students into the doors and excited about what we are doing. And if I were being honest these can look different depending on context, church style, budget, and a host of other items. But putting all of those differences aside, I believe there are 5 quick things that any youth worker can do to help elevate their environment.

Know your students

As you are serving in your ministry, whether you are new or years into your position, it can become easy to see the program and miss the relationships. More than ever our students desire authentic relationships and honest communication. So get to know your students’ names, find out where they go to school, meet up for coffee or ice cream, host random get-togethers. If you have a group of 5 or 1,000 you can still do this. It may look different but as you get to know students they get to know you and become excited to come and be a part of what is happening.

Be authentic

I think it is easy for us as youth workers to try to imitate others because we see their success, or their model, or their style of teaching and think we should do it. Simply put: just because someone else has a successful ministry doesn’t mean that yours isn’t nor does it mean you should model your ministry after theirs. We aren’t called to follow men or women, but God. God has placed you in your church to be a shepherd to your students, so be that. Be the you God created you to be. Show them your family, let them know your passions, show them your walk with Jesus, show them when you hurt and struggle. As you are authentic with your students, they in turn will become authentic and real with you. In this way you will begin to cultivate a culture of disciple-making in your ministry by leading out.

Use music to your advantage

Music is a huge deal for environment in any setting, but specifically in student ministry. When you walk into a quiet room with your friends, no one wants to talk because they feel like they are breaking some sort of social protocol. By using music you can bring excitement and energy into the space, and students are drawn to that. What you choose for music is up to you but in our ministry, I like to use a mixture of Christian and secular that has been screened and doesn’t contain profanity or references to drugs, alcohol, or sex. I actually have created multiple playlists in Spotify that allow for me to use different types of music depending on the setting, which all goes back to knowing your students and the culture you are looking to curate.

Use food

Food is such a simple resource when you think about it because what student is ever full? I know my students could eat every hour of every day, and never be satisfied. When I first started at my current position we had no food on Sunday mornings because the church had donuts in the lobby. But our students believed they couldn’t have them (probably due to the fact they tried to take a half dozen instead of one) and would always be late to the program because they were waiting for the adults to go to service so they could grab the remaining donuts. So we looked for a simple fix: we added donuts, hot chocolate, and water to our program and all of sudden we have students showing up on time or early, eating, and enjoying fellowship. Our community grew through one simple act: getting donuts. Now this may look different for you. Maybe you don’t have the funds or maybe your kids are health conscious and want water and broccoli. The point is this: try it and see what happens. If you need funds ask your senior pastor if they have any to contribute, or ask parents to give, or ask the local donut shop if they would cut you a deal. Try it and see.

Have fun

Sounds simple right? That’s because it is, but it is also really difficult because sometimes we get caught up in running the program and miss having fun. When was the last time you participated in the group game? When did you last sit down and play spoons with a small group? When did you last laugh with your students? When was the last time you engaged in a snowball fight or sledding activity? I am not talking about running the event but sharing life and having fun with your students. If you as the leader aren’t having fun and leading a joy-filled life, why should they? If you aren’t setting the example, they won’t follow. Be the leader you wanted, be the leader they need, and be willing to let your hair down a little. Have fun, don’t be immature or get yourself fired, but enjoy your job and your students.

I hope these tips encourage you and help you in thinking of ways to engage your students more. They aren’t foolproof, but they aren’t meant to be. They are meant to help you think through new, creative, and in many ways simple ideas on how to get your students engaged regardless of environment, church denomination, cultural area, or place you live. Love your students well, be willing to adapt, and always trust in Christ to lead and guide you as you lead and guide your students.

Navigating Marriage and Ministry: An Interview

One of the things Nick and I love about student ministry is that we individually have a passion for it, and get to do it together. It was something we both felt called to before we met, and it is something we have pursued throughout our marriage. It’s special to share a similar calling, something that we both believe in and value.

But we know it isn’t like that for everyone. We all have varying degrees of involvement in our churches and ministries–both as church-employed spouses, and not. In this interview-style post, we will approach the topic of spouses doing ministry together. Nick and I hope that our experience can offer some encouragement and insight to other married couples who may be navigating (or preparing to navigate) this whole marriage + ministry world. For the sake of clarity, Nick is employed full time by the church, while I volunteer as a small group leader and work outside the church.

Question: As the spouse employed by the church, how has support and participation from your spouse helped you in your ministry role?

Nick: I honestly don’t know where I would be without Elise. Having someone by your side who shares your passions, champions you, and bears the weight of what you are doing has been so encouraging and life giving. It has helped me to know that I have someone I can talk to who understands what I am feeling. I have been able to bounce ideas off of Elise. I can get a girl’s opinion on topics, conversations, and the ministry which is so needed. Without Elise I wouldn’t be where I am today, and honestly she has made me a better pastor by challenging and pushing me in what I am doing. She has been my biggest and most vocal supporter, especially as we have candidated together.

Q: What advice would you give a couple considering jumping into full-time ministry?

Nick: Make sure you are both on the same page with what you are doing. I am not saying you both need to have the same level of passion, but communicating about what you desire, where God is leading you, and what you want out of this are huge conversations. I have seen many friends struggle because they didn’t share their heart with their spouse and they have had to stop pursuing ministry to heal their marriage. So be open and transparent is the first part.

The second is protect your spouse who isn’t on staff. Often times churches look to hire two people for the price of one. Unless your spouse is getting a paycheck, they aren’t an employee and shouldn’t function as such. Talk through expectations as a couple, and then with the church staff.

Third, protect your time together. Don’t let ministry keep you from spending time with each other or your family. Don’t let ministry become a mistress.

Elise: Communication is key, both before you jump in and while you’re in the midst of ministry. Talk through what your ideal level of involvement looks like, and what areas you want to pursue. I would also recommend coming up with a mission statement of sorts, something that will help keep you centered on your ministry goals as a couple, and something you can revisit over the years when your goals might change.

It is also essential to set your priorities. My first priority is my relationship with Christ and my spiritual well-being. This means I often have to say no to things so that I make sure I’m being filled. I can’t give out of a dry well, which for me means I can’t be a leader or volunteer every time I’m asked. My second priority is to my marriage, and to support my spouse in his ministry role. Personally, I love being involved in student ministry, but I have to make sure I’m pouring into my husband even more than I am the students I serve.

Q: What has been one of the hardest aspects of pursuing ministry as a married couple?

Nick: Honestly, the hurt that comes with doing ministry. I am fiercely protective of Elise, and it has been so hard watching her get hurt by the church. Because we do ministry together, she knows when I am hurting and I know when she is. Ministry has extreme highs but really low lows too, and those cut deep. Let me encourage you to always protect and stand for one another. To always be each other’s champion and greatest advocate, but to also bring in people you trust. Have people you can go to who can speak into your lives and help care and guide you.

Elise: One of the hardest things for me has been sacrificing personal desires for the sake of God’s calling. And honestly, you will experience this whether you’re the one hired by the church or not. But for me personally, it’s meant letting go of some of my career goals and past jobs. It’s meant re-ordering my personal priorities in order to run wholeheartedly after what God is calling us to. It’s meant re-learning what it looks like to live a valuable, fulfilling life, as defined by Christ and not society. I’ve had to learn to identify the lies I tell myself, and speak truth into my heart and life.

Q: What advice would you give spouses not employed by the church, especially if they are struggling with being in a ministry context or knowing where to serve?

Elise: Again, communication is key. You need to communicate with God and with your spouse. If you’re struggling, tell God about it. Yes, He already knows, but the act of dialoging with Him about how you feel will help. It’s also important to make sure your spouse knows how you’re feeling, not in a way to guilt them but so that they can support and help you. Don’t blindside your spouse with your struggles when they become too big to suppress and inevitably blow up.

My other recommendation is to take action. If you’ve been serving somewhere and feel burned out, take a break. If you haven’t been serving and aren’t sure what to do, try getting involved in a ministry that interests you or could utilize your gifting. Sometimes the best thing to do is make a change–step back or step in and evaluate. I do encourage spouses of youth pastors to give student ministry a fair chance if they haven’t already. It doesn’t hurt to check it out and see if God is calling you to that area.

Nick: This is tough for me because personally I haven’t been on that side of ministry. But what I can tell you is this: if you are serving in ministry and your spouse isn’t, make sure to communicate often and clearly. Make sure to talk about schedules for work and for home. Make sure to set aside time for you as a couple, and also be willing to not just talk about “work.” Ministry is exciting and challenging and we want to share that. But that can be hard for your spouse if they aren’t involved with your area of ministry.

Let me also encourage you to help your spouse find where they need to be. I am thrilled that Elise serves in student ministry with me, but if she didn’t I would be okay with that. In fact if she served somewhere else, was using her gifts, and pointing people to Jesus, I would be beyond thrilled. Encourage your spouse to serve where they are passionate and their gifts line up.

When we were searching for jobs this last time, I had a huge prayer request: God help us to find the church we are called to and one that has a place for Elise to find deep friendships and affirmation of her gifts. I didn’t mind if Elise would want to serve elsewhere, I just wanted her to be affirmed and valued in her relationship with Jesus. That is what we should be desiring for our spouses.

Q: What if I don’t want to serve in student ministry? How can I still support my spouse who is working in that area?

Nick: I just want to say, it is okay that you don’t serve in student ministry. You don’t have to and you shouldn’t feel pressured to. What I would say is rejoice when your spouse shares good news and God stories. Get excited with them. Let them know how proud of them you are. Also, be understanding of the differences in schedules and time commitments, but make sure you talk through those as a couple. If you are finding time together isn’t a priority share that rather than harbor it.

Elise: I think one of the best things spouses can do is create a safe place for their church-employed spouse to come home to. I like to think of our home as an oasis, a calm in what can sometimes feel like a storm. No it isn’t always clean, and it is a rental, but I try to make it feel like home. I want it to have a calming effect so that when Nick gets home, he feels like he can rest, unwind, and recharge.

Q: Whether one or both spouses serve in student ministry, how do you set healthy boundaries? How do you make sure your marriage is a priority and that ministry issues do not bleed into your family time?

Elise: I think it’s essential to have “us” time built into our week. For us, this looks like regular weekly date nights and intentional time together on days off or over dinner. It doesn’t have to involve a ton of planning or a big production. It can just be take-out and a movie, or board games and snacks. Whatever it looks like, it’s time for just us to be together as a family, and to intentionally take a break from talking about ministry. Depending on the context, it also means not allowing phone calls or texts to interrupt our time. I strongly recommend having at least one “no-interruptions” time each week so that it is clear that your family is a priority.

Nick: I have worked in a variety of ministry settings with the workloads and hours being different in all of them. Having served in ministry for fifteen years now, I finally feel like we are beginning to have better boundaries.

The first thing I do is set hours for myself at work based upon a forty hour a week cycle. Now I know there are times we have to put in more hours, but we shouldn’t die to serve our ministry, we should die to self so Christ is glorified. And in order to die to self that means our priorities need to be correct: God, family, ministry. So for me, that means in order to have a healthy family life, I need to make sure I balance my work life.

I also try to limit work at home. When I am home I want to be fully present with Elise, and I would challenge you to be wholly present with your family as well. Sure I get the random texts and calls, the work emails, the Facebook messages, the Instagram tags, but my priority is my family and I am honest with people about that. If people don’t call me, I don’t hold it as a priority unless I see something that says otherwise. I try to create healthy boundaries between work and home.

I would also say making sure to have time with your spouse is huge. Elise and I have regular date nights on Fridays, and we talk about it. Not just to each other, but our students know, parents know, the church staff knows. In fact every Friday as I walk out, one of the receptionists asks what are our date night plans! It is awesome because people see the value that family holds in our lives and frankly, as a champion of family and student ministry it should. People should see it, and they should value and respect it. One of my favorite things is when our students see us out on a Friday and come say hello, but also ask how date night is going. They love it! And it helps to show young women what they deserve and how they should be treated, and it shows young men how to respect, honor, and uphold their sisters in Christ. Let people see you love your spouse and family, and they will intrinsically see how you love Christ.

Q: As the spouse not employed by the church, what are some ways your church-employed spouse can support you?

Elise: I think a big thing ministry-employed spouses can do is simply encourage their spouse, regardless of the context. Call out their gifting, support their passions, speak truth into their life. Sometimes it can be easy to feel discouraged, like we could be doing more, like we’re living in the shadows, or like we’re not contributing. Take time to uplift your spouse, and to encourage them to pursue their talents, hobbies, or interests.

Also, make sure time with your spouse is a top priority. I don’t want to fight against the ministry in order to have time with my husband. That’s a battle that can be difficult to win. Rather than make your spouse fight that battle, create intentional, quality time together. Take a break from whatever you’re working on and don’t bring it with you.

Q: I serve in student ministry full time and my spouse serves in a different ministry. How can I actively ensure I don’t leave them out of important decisions?

Nick: Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is huge! I can not say this enough. Make sure you talk through your schedules and calendar dates, and I would encourage you to plan six months out. Most ministry calendars are done by month or semester, so you know what is coming down the pipe. Take a day or evening and compare your calendars and make sure to show each other what you are doing. But even more than show, share the heart behind the events and planning. Let them hear and understand why things are happening when they are.

A few tips:

  • Create a shared Google Calendar of ministry events, work days/hours, and key meetings.
  • Periodically go to each other’s events to support one another and show unity in your marriage and the Body of Christ.
  • Share your heart and passions with each other.
  • Never value your ministry and calling over your spouses – God has uniquely called and gifted each of you and neither ministry should detract from the other.
  • Never use a ministry as weapon or assault. Don’t say “my ministry wouldn’t do that or schedule this way.”
  • Be transparent about what you are doing and with whom.
  • Be willing to admit when you mess up or don’t communicate.
  • Always be transparent and honest about how you are feeling – never harbor hurt, frustration, or anger. Those are seeds that the enemy would love to cultivate.
  • And once again: COMMUNICATE.

Q: I feel like we have a good marriage/ministry balance. Now what?

Nick: Praise God! That isn’t always the case, but if that is where you are keep pursuing it. Never get complacent in that, because when you do satan will love to throw a wrench into your marriage. This could be a time issue, a communication issue, or the issue of your work becoming your mistress. Keep protecting your time, relationship, and ministry balance.

I would also say that you should find ways to share this with others. Are there other couples you could pour into and mentor? Are you demonstrating this to your students? Have you shared about balance and healthy living? Find ways to not just keep a good balance but to equip and help others find theirs.

Elise: Keep up the great work! Because ministry and life are always changing, I don’t think we can get too comfortable. Keep pursuing your spouse, keep setting healthy boundaries, keep pursuing Jesus. And while you are doing that, find others who you can come alongside and encourage. Look for a younger couple to mentor. Share what you’ve found helpful with other ministry couples. Encourage those who are struggling. We must remember that none of us can do this alone, we all need each other.

We’d love to hear from you! Share your insights into maintaining a good marriage/ministry balance, how you set healthy boundaries, and the ways you prioritize your spouse.

The Art of Rest

Recently I shared with our student ministry that rest is vital and necessary in our lives, and in fact is commanded by God throughout Scripture. Rest is something I have never been good at. I am a high capacity person: I wake up early, can run on little sleep, and just go. Rest has been something I have struggled with for so long, and after walking through the message I shared with my high school students, I knew I needed to share this with others and keep preaching this to myself.

Rest is holistic; it isn’t just sleeping or napping or tuning out, but a state of refreshment by pausing and being with God, allowing Him to take your burdens, and stopping to enjoy what He has given to you. I find that I can be with God but I don’t always give my burdens to Him or pause to enjoy life. Even on vacation I catch myself counting the days we have left, and thinking about what will happen when I return, rather than enjoying the time away.

As I was self-assessing, I came to this realization: there are others in ministry who function in the same manner. We understand our calling and mission and will sacrifice our own time, energy, bodies, and whatever else it calls for to see that mission fulfilled. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how un-biblical that actually is. God doesn’t call us to kill ourselves, but instead to find our rest and strength in Him. He sustains and empowers us.

From this understanding and some evaluation of past ministries and ways of living, let me encourage you to think about implementing these tips into your life to help you in resting and staying in ministry longer.

Spend regular time with Jesus.

This is one of those that we teach and espouse often, but it is also true that in our lives this can be the first area to suffer when we don’t rest well. We may still read our Bibles and pray, but when was the last time you spent quality time with Jesus? When was the last time you truly worshiped and just rested in Him? This is a challenge for anyone, but we as ministers of the Gospel must make this a priority. Truly our rest only comes when we are with Christ and giving Him everything.

Spend time with your spouse and family.

We are called by God to first be in relationship with Him and then to be ministering to, loving, and sharing life with our families. Often the priorities get misplaced in ministry with family being the number three priority (or less in some cases) because ministry becomes an idol. In fact, in the Epistles you see Paul talk about having your marriage in order before serving in ministry, because a marriage reflects into the ministry regardless of health status. But in order to rest well, and to be refreshed, we must pour into and care for our families. If we aren’t sharing where we are at with them, the stress will continue to grow, and potentially we may view the family as a contributing factor. Bring them in, share life, love them well, and watch as family changes into a refuge for you.

Have regular date nights and honor them.

Man, I wish I had done this sooner in my marriage. When Elise and I were first married, our schedules did not work well together. Hers was fluid and changed each week, and included working weekends. Mine was Sunday through Thursday, and there were some weeks we saw each other only as we went to bed. Date nights weren’t a thing because nights together didn’t happen often. Because of that we ended up not growing as a couple, and we knew something had to change. We picked a day (Friday nights) and have become very protective of that. We tell everyone about it, and now even our students ask what we are doing on date night. In essence we are setting an example for the families we serve by leading out. Let me also encourage you that when, not if, you are out and a church member or student stops you to not cut off the conversation in a rude way, but be honest and let them know you are on date night. It may feel awkward, but you have to protect your time together.

Honor your days off.

Let me say this: you get days off, treat them as days off! Don’t do work on your days off, don’t just “pop into the office for a few minutes.” Don’t be checking your email, or responding to a work-based text. We, you, deserve days off and rest like anyone else. This may mean you have to set up or reestablish boundaries at your job and within the context of your ministry, but it is healthy to do so. Yes, in ministry you can feel like you have to always be “on” but don’t let that detract from your time away and with those you love.

Find a hobby and do it.

Often when it comes to rest, people still need to be doing something. Rest doesn’t mean idleness or laziness, but resting in God and who He designed you to be. For me I have gotten into various hobbies over the years: cooking (let me know if you want my truffle, oatmeal cookie, or burger recipe), candle making, reading, biking, and much more. It hasn’t always stayed the same, but it allows for me to decompress and commune with God. Often during these moments I find myself talking to God, humming worship songs, thinking about Scripture, and finding ways to just be silent and rest in Christ.

Use your vacation time.

I will be honest: I am horrible at this. I always have extra time at the end of the year, and I am so bad at looking to use that time. In a way I feel guilty because I am taking time from where God has called me. But the reality we must face is threefold:

  1. Your vacation is part of your employment package so use it – letting it go to waste is like wasting your paycheck. One of my bosses made it clear to me that you were given this time because you deserve it and are worth it, so use it.
  2. By not taking your vacation time, you are essentially telling your family they aren’t worth your time, and the church is more important than they are. You must set an example for them that God has called you first to them, and then the church. And one of the ways you show this is by being with them, not just on days off, but on vacations and special moments.
  3. You aren’t the cornerstone of your ministry, Christ is. I think sometimes we worry about taking time off because we don’t have anyone to run the program. I get it, I have been there. But one of the worst feelings I have ever felt is when I had students and parents look me in the eye and say “this ministry will die because you are leaving.” If that is the way we run our ministries my friends, then we have failed. Our ministry should be rooted in Christ, and as such we should be building teams of people like He did who can do what we are doing. We should be training others to do what we do, which will allow for them to grow and bring freedom and peace into your own life.

Keep track of your hours, responsibilities, and other duties as an employee of the church.

Many times we just give of our time and it is easy to overextend yourself, especially if you are salaried. However, that isn’t healthy or needed. If you find you are always working, always doing, always on-call, start tracking what you are doing and bring others in. If needed, go to your supervisor and let them know what is happening and be honest with them. Let them know if you are struggling. Let them know if you need help or are drowning. I know this can be terrifying because the “what ifs” begin to abound. But if our leaders are truly following Jesus and being sensitive to His heart and leading, they should be good shepherds who care about their staff. This starts by being open and honest with them about where you are at.

Take time away from social media.

Social media can be defeating and debilitating. The sin of comparison can often make youth workers feel inadequate, envious, and lesser because of what they see others doing. If you are feeling exhausted or burned out, don’t just take time off, take time away from social media. It can be a fast for a day, a week, or month, or it can be by having regular unplugged days for you and your family. Elise and I have done this periodically in our marriage where we noticed we weren’t always communicating because we we using technology to fill that need. Eventually we took Monday nights and said no technology. It was awesome! We talked, played games, went on walks, and bonded as a couple. Let me encourage you to consider doing this as well.

Rest is hard, especially when you are in ministry. But we must rest. In order to be effective disciples of Jesus, spouses, parents, and ministers, we have to be resting in Christ. Let me encourage you to build healthy habits of rest and refreshment in your life, and to make sure your priorities are in order. Now go take a nap, spend time with those you love, and lean deep into Christ for sustainment.