Caring for Students with Special Needs

Over the past five years or so, I have become much more aware of how many people struggle with connecting with a “regular student ministry program” due to some type of disability or having special needs. Our church is actually the first church that I have worked at that has an entire program for children and students with disabilities or special needs, and it’s one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Now that is not to say that I am an expert in this area at all. In fact, part of the reason I chose to write about this is because if you are like me, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle this type of program. I know I am not trained well in this area, but I have been striving to learn and grow.

My desire today is simply to provide you with some ideas and advice, as well as point you to some resources to help you grow personally and minister to people in your church and community who are often forgotten about and marginalized. The more we work at making our ministries and churches accessible to everyone, the more likelihood there is of reaching people for the kingdom of heaven.

Get to know your people.

This is the best place to start. If you notice that there are students with special needs or families who have students with special needs, go and talk to them. Reach out and connect. Get to know them. Encourage them and let them know that they are welcomed, valued, and loved. People and families with special needs individuals often feel forgotten and ostracized because of the differences that exist. By reaching out to them and caring for them, you are creating a place of refuge and love. So ask questions. Listen well. Get to know them. Hear their stories and tensions they have. Then use what you learn to help create a place where their student(s) can come, participate, be loved, and know more about Jesus.

Equip and keep your team in the know.

If you have volunteers it is key to help them know and understand that there are students who have special needs. You don’t need to go into all the personal details for each student, but allowing your team to know that you do have students with special needs better prepares them to engage in different ways. It also helpful to share with your team different methods for calming students down, helping them engage, and how to communicate with them. Much of this information can be gleaned from parents and that goes back to our first point about getting to know the individuals and their families. This better equips you and your team to care for and minister to them. Also consider bringing in people to help train your team or giving them additional resources. Reaching out to local schools and organizations will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and allow you to consider bringing someone in to train your team.

No two people are ever the same.

This is a really key thing to remember. When you meet a student who has special needs, you have only met one student with special needs. No two people are exactly alike. No two situations (even with the same individual) will be exactly the same. No response will ever work the same for two different people. Each of these individuals is just that: an individual. Someone crafted in the image of God who longs to be loved and to belong. And our role is to care for them as an individual, to see them as God does, and to not assume things about them.

Make your place safe and welcoming.

Over the past few years I have come to realize how important space, lighting, sound, and programming is to people who have special needs. If you have students with autism, find out how lights, sounds, games, scheduling or lack thereof affect them. I found out that to many harsh lights or loud noises cause over-stimulation and that in turn makes the students and their families not want to participate. Another thing that people don’t always realize is that scheduling is huge for some people who have special needs. Having a system, a flow, structure, or a schedule helps them and their families prepare. So even if you could simply send a note to families a day or so ahead of time explaining the event and its schedule, you will make your program all the more inviting.

Another great thing to evaluate is this: is your venue handicap accessible? A great way of discerning this is by asking if people in a wheel chair can access and participate in all aspects of your program. If they cannot, it isn’t hard to believe that people with other special needs can most likely not participate as well. You are measuring whether or not your program is open and welcoming to all.

Purchase some sensory equipment.

This was one of the best things I have done for our ministry in a long time. You can literally find hundreds of options on Amazon simply by searching “fidget toys box,” and you can find ones that fit your ministry context best. This is a really good option that can be used in a variety of contexts. Putting sensory items out in your rooms or area of ministry affords students a new way to engage. It gives them something to play with which in turn allows them to focus. It helps students with anxiety to relieve some of their anxiousness. It gives people something to engage with. I would highly recommend getting some of these for everyone in student ministry.

Utilize resources and seek to grow your own knowledge.

There are some really good resources out there and some really not good resources when it comes to this topic and ministering to people with special needs. During my time in ministry I have found two really helpful resources that I want to share with you. Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a phenomenal resource I just recently came upon after hearing him speak on a podcast. His book is a great resource that I would highly recommend as he offers great insight and perspective as he himself falls into the category of special needs.

Another fantastic resource is Ability Ministry. They have helpful articles, resources, and curriculum designed for ministering to people with special needs. This has been revolutionary in helping our team minister to our students with special needs and we have seen amazing results. Our students who struggled to connect to the Bible our now memorizing it, they are serving as greeters on Sunday mornings, and actively participating in the program. I would highly suggest utilizing both of these resources and reading up on how you can better minister to, serve, and love your people who have special needs.

How to Teach Students about Intentional Fasting

Fasting. What comes to your mind when you reflect on that word? Perhaps you think of giving something up for a period of time like food. Maybe your mind goes to the struggle of being deprived of something you enjoy or desire. Or perhaps you default to times in Scripture where Jesus and others fasted.

Fasting is designed to help us reflect on our relationship with and need for God as we deprive ourselves of various elements in our lives. Over the past few years, Elise has intentionally engaged this topic by digging deeper into Lent and its purpose in our faith journey. Her passion and insight has challenged me to reflect on this rhythm of fasting and to incorporate it into my life at various levels.

Recently I decided to take a fast from social media for 2-3 months as I am on a mental health leave of absence from our church. During my leave of absence I have decided to make a conscious effort to fast from various things and activities that have pulled me away from God and added to the weight I’ve been feeling. Social media compounds the stress and anxiety because I see what others are going through and take that weight and responsibility to help them onto myself. I feel and grieve with them. I carry their hurt and pain. Social media in essence helped me feel valued and needed in a really corrupt sort of way.

As I have reflected on this reality, it has helped me to understand how detrimental social media and the effects of it can be in our lives, especially the lives of our students. Social media compounds their relationships, induces anxiety and depression, and conditions them to find their value in what others think and say about them behind a perceived veil of anonymity. Imagine what their lives would be like if they gave up social media for a set time. What would change? What would be different? What could happen to their relationship with God?

I know it seems that I am harping on social media, but my desire is to point out that if we fast or release an element from our lives, we could see and embrace vast benefits from that decision. Fasting isn’t something I often find mainline Protestant churches talking about, but it is something we should be embracing and challenging our students to put into action. So what are some ways to help students engage with fasting?

Help them see the “why.”

Often fasting can be seen from a negative viewpoint. Not that it is a bad thing but it requires us to sacrifice something. Sacrifice is often what we focus on, rather than the benefit of the result(s). It is important to help students know why fasting is good and what it is designed to do. So focus on helping them understand fasting and the benefits of it. Help them see that in releasing something, they open up space for God to work in and through them in new ways. These types of conversations will help to not only set the tone and rationale for fasting but encourage your students to pursue it wholeheartedly.

Challenge them to begin in small and attainable ways.

Sometimes we tend to bite off bigger chunks than we can handle. I see this with students during summer break when they make bold predictions for how they will spend all summer working on their relationship with God only to get to September and have rarely cracked open their Bible. The same is true with fasting. We will often take big and bold steps but eventually we will struggle to consistently keep them which leads to frustration that then leads to stopping the fast because it appears we have failed.

Instead, encourage your students to start small. Ask them to consider taking a small thing out of their lives instead of a large thing. Have them consider fasting for a day each week rather than the entire time. Then challenge them to scale upward as they continue to see success. This method will allow them to see change and be able to obtain it and also to grow.

Help them to think about what they “can’t live without.”

Often with fasting we can give up the “easy things,” and I think the same is true for students. But fasting should be more than just giving up something easy or something that doesn’t truly matter to us. It should be about giving up something that is important or impactful in our lives so it forces us to focus on Jesus even more. Encourage your students to think about giving up something they feel like they can’t live without. Challenge them to give up something like their phones or sugar or shopping.

Challenge them to keep a reflective journal.

I am horrible at keeping a journal. In as much as I enjoy writing and sharing, I do not enjoy keeping a journal. This probably due in large part to actually not enjoying writing because my hand cramps, but also because it is hard to see what I am experiencing written on paper. In that moment it just feels real! But that is exactly why we should be keeping a reflective journal, especially in a time of fasting. It helps us see the authenticity, the emotion, and the growth. It challenges us, pushes us, and helps us to see our desperate need for a Savior. So challenge your students to keep a journal and to see how they grow through this time.

Help them spend intentional time with Jesus.

As you talk about fasting and the why, help students to spend intentional time with Jesus. When we fast it isn’t meant to just be difficult but to point us back to Jesus. When we desire something we don’t have, we should be reflecting on what God has given to us and using the time to grow in our relationship with Him. Help students to take those moments of longing or desire and show them how to be motivated through them to spend time with Jesus.

Create a space for students to come and fast.

This is a bit outside of the box, but imagine if you had the space in your building to set aside a room or rooms where students can come and spend time with Jesus uninterrupted. You are creating a sacred space for them without distractions that is designed for them to focus on Jesus as they release items or rhythms they have been holding onto. Let me encourage you to design the space with intentionality. Have comfortable seating. Think about the space and the smells (maybe don’t have the room right by the kitchen). Have water bottles out and soft worship music playing. Put out guided prayers or meditations. Have Bibles and Scripture passages set out and leaders available to talk with and pray for students. These types of thoughtful gestures and application will help your students create worshipful rhythms and highlight the necessity of spending time on their relationship with Jesus.

Healing from Hurt: 8 Steps You can Take

Have you ever been fired from a job? Have you ever experienced church hurt? Perhaps someone talked about you and spread rumors. Your senior pastor was arrogant and critical. You were treated like a lesser person.

Have you been there? For many people, myself included, we have felt and experienced these moments and they hurt us deeply. But my question for you today is this: have you healed from and processed that hurt? This isn’t meant to be a critical question but a reflective one.

Many of us have experienced these moments and the pain and hurt that come with them, but healing from them is a whole different ball game. Healing takes time. Healing takes effort. Healing takes heartache, wrestling, engaging in tough conversations, and self reflection. I want to share a few ways that we can begin moving toward healing. These are not all-encompassing but I am looking to simply offer some advice and ways that we can personally move toward healing. My encouragement would be to also talk with a licensed counselor who can help you through that hurt and the process of moving forward.

Be honest with yourself.

Sometimes when wrestling with hurt we aren’t honest with ourselves because the honesty only causes more pain. Perhaps because we realize the depth of betrayal someone engaged in or maybe because we realize that we had a role in what occurred. But being honest with ourselves is the first step toward authentically dealing with the hurt in our lives. Hurt can only properly be dealt with when it is handled honestly, so seek to be honest with yourself in assessing, addressing, and moving through the hurt so as to grow and heal.

Be honest with God.

This goes hand in hand with the first point. Often in times of hurt we can unfairly ascribe pain to God and blame Him for bringing about the hurt and hardship in our lives. It isn’t wrong to share our pain or to cry out to God. It isn’t even wrong to yell at or question what is happening. But it is wrong to ascribe pain and hurt to God because God isn’t one who bestows pain or hurt but rather seeks to heal us from it.

In the same vein it is important for us to be wholly honest with God and to share our hurt and pain with Him. In fact we are told to cast our anxieties and hurt onto God because He cares for us. So be honest with God, tell Him how you are hurting, bare your soul, cry out to Him, and remember that He hears you and offers you hope and healing.

Journal your thoughts.

This is a huge part of self-care because it allows you to put your thoughts, hurts, and feelings to paper. While this may not sound like a big deal, actually be able to put what you are feeling into words is healing and freeing. It helps you acknowledge what you are feeling in your heart and mind, and it allows you to actually begin to process what has or is happening and how you are handling it. Being able to simply put your thoughts and hurt into words is huge and will ultimately help you to process and move toward healing.

Spend time in God’s Word.

I’ll be honest: this is hard for me in certain seasons of hurt and exhaustion. I don’t want to read God’s Word because I want to believe that my responses are okay and valid. I know that when I read God’s Word I will be convicted and challenged. And so I avoid it, but that is so problematic.

We are called to a relationship with God in all seasons regardless of how we are feeling. And in seasons of hurt it is vital that we spend time walking through God’s Word as we seek understanding and comfort. Spend time in the Psalms, read through the prophets, lament with Lamentations. The time you spend in these books will be good for your mind and soul, and help you to move toward healing and restoration.

Talk with someone.

I mentioned this earlier, but it is worth stating again. Talking with a trusted mentor, counselor, or mental health professional is something that cannot be understated. Having someone who you can share with and not have to worry about condemnation from is huge. A trusted person is necessary to be able to be authentic and to share what you are feeling and processing through. This should also be someone who can give you feedback and helpful guidance to make sure you are continuing to take steps toward healing and restoration.

Seek out a doctor’s opinion.

Sometimes the hurt and pain we experience can cause us to struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a host of other struggles and ailments. In order to properly diagnose and prescribe treatment it is necessary to reach out to your doctor and see if there is something that needs to be treated. Taking this step requires a willingness to acknowledge there is a problem but also an understanding that only by being transparent can the problem be treated appropriately. So consider reaching out to your doctor if you are walking through hurt that is affecting you more than other hurts in order to properly care for yourself.

Be willing to apologize and extend forgiveness.

I’ll be honest, this is one of the harder parts of moving through hurt. Often as you take time to self-reflect, to heal, and to become whole again, you will most likely see that there are people who need to seek your forgiveness and perhaps people you need to apologize to. Many times in processing hurt we can see the relationships and people who hurt us, but often they may not. In those moments we must extend grace and forgiveness to them even if it is seemingly undeserved. We must reflect Christ in those moments as we move toward healing. But we must also acknowledge that we may have had a hand in part of the pain and hurt that exists, and as such it is equally important that we apologize and seek the forgiveness of others.

Trust God to handle what you cannot.

Sometimes dealing with hurt means being willing to let go of what you cannot control or correct and allowing God to take care of those moments, experiences, and relationships. In moments of hurt and pain we try to control and manage everything and everyone in an effort to spare more pain and alleviate the pain we already have.

But I believe a better and healthier alternative is to allow God to handle all of those moments as He is God and knows how to fully care for you and everyone else. By allowing God to be God and releasing control, you are allowing Him to fully care for you as His child, to handle what you can’t, and to lovingly carry you in your pain and vulnerability. In these moments, as difficult and scary as they may sound, you will come to know and appreciate the love, care, and protection that the Good Shepherd affords you.

Book Review: The Great Sex Rescue

I had heard a few podcast interviews with Sheila Wray Gregoire, but after listening to one last month on Theology in the Raw with her and her daughter Rebecca Lindenbach, I knew it was time to read their book (also co-written by Joanna Sawatsky). The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended is an important, insightful book that I highly recommend everyone read, regardless of your marital status.

We started talking more about counseling last week here on the blog and over on our Instagram account, and The Great Sex Rescue is a must-have for anyone doing pre-marital or marital counseling. Not only that, any youth or church leader who is speaking on sex and marriage to their students or congregants regardless of the setting will benefit from the concepts, facts, and perspectives in this book. And if you are married, the book includes discussion questions and other things to work through as a couple that will help strengthen and grow intimacy in your relationship.

One of the things I most appreciated was how the authors seek to reframe unhealthy messages about sex and intimacy that have been prevalent in the evangelical church for decades. Each chapter ends with a segment called “rescuing and reframing” which helps the reader to shift from inaccurate and harmful beliefs and statements to healthy, biblical, and factual statements. And while much of the book’s content is geared toward married couples, we would be remiss not to begin the process of reframing for our young people now. They deserve the best possible narrative and information when it comes to topics of sex and intimacy and the church should be a safe, healthy place for them to receive that information, especially if they are not hearing it at home.

The Great Sex Rescue also features research from a survey conducted with 20,000+ women, which provides data points and educational information particularly relating to married couples in the church. The information they gathered sheds light on what has been happening in marriages as a result of the messages, books, and stigmas that have been taught in the Christian community. While I found much of this information sad and disheartening, I also felt challenged to help influence the Christian community to do better. As followers of the Author of marriage, intimacy, and sex, we should be giving the best possible information we can to those we teach and lead. It is our responsibility to filter out harmful messages whenever we are made aware of them, and this book does exactly that. We can also begin to paint a better, more beautiful picture of what intimacy should look like within marriage, and why it matters.

Do yourself, your students, and fellow church-goers a favor and read this book. Then share it with other leaders, pastors, and couples. We can begin to re-write the broken messages of the past, forging a better, healthier future for our churches, and stronger, more intimate marriages. Thank you to Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna for putting in the work to share this book with the world.

Tips for Pre-Marital and Pre-Engagement Counseling

Recently Elise and I have had the honor and privilege to walk with former students and volunteers through pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. While it is an honor, it is also humbling to think that I have reached that stage in student ministry where I am now seeing former students get married and start families. Nothing says you are getting up there like those moments (haha). But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

As we have walked through these counseling sessions, it is apparent that to handle them well, we need to know how to proceed, what to cover, and most importantly, we need to know the couple. As I step back and look at what we have done well and where we could improve, I want to provide a few tips on how to help you be the best counselor to those who come to you for pre-engagement or pre-marital advice, guidance, and support.

Listen well and observe.

This is one of the best things you can do if you are walking with a couple. Often you can pick up on nuances or subtleties by simply observing and listening to the couple. You can see how they treat one another, listen to how they speak to and about one another, sense when there is tension, and also notice strengths. This is not meant for you to curate a list of problem areas or to critique them, but instead it helps you notice areas that need to be talked through and processed so they can become a healthier couple going forward.

Speak truth in love.

When it comes to former students, don’t be afraid to speak truth to them. When you work with students long enough you see areas that they need to improve upon, but we can often soften the approach to help protect them and the relationship we have with them. However, when it comes to entering into a marriage relationship that student isn’t only working on themselves, there is another person who is intimately involved as well. I am not saying to be mean and critical, but to speak truth directly in love.

Let me provide an example. If we are at camp and the guys’ dorm is disgusting we may say something like, “Gentlemen, this isn’t okay. Clean up your crap or no free time.” In a marriage saying something like that doesn’t work, but in pre-marital counseling you can bring up the conversation of cleanliness, who is responsible for what, how does the couple handle tension, personality types, laziness, and even how our actions communicate love.

Address problem areas.

This tip is probably one of the harder ones, especially depending on the depth of your relationship with the couple or individual. If a former student comes to you seeking relationship or pre-marital counseling, there is a good possibility you know a lot about them including where they struggle. I would encourage you to be open and honest with the couple from the beginning and let them know that if they choose to continue in this counseling relationship, you will not shy away from difficult conversations. This is not because you take joy in pointing out sins or struggles, but because you are encouraging authenticity, transparency, and seeking to strengthen their relationship through holistic intimacy.

Provide resources.

Resources are huge! Don’t simply rely upon your conversations with the couple, but give them outside resources whether books, articles, research, or a podcast. Elise and I are always on the lookout for things we can provide to the couples we are counseling. In fact, keep an eye out as Elise is going to do a book review on a book we just read that in our opinion is a must for couples thinking about marriage.

When you provide resources it allows people to go home, engage with a topic or conversation, gives them time to process, and then opens up an opportunity for ongoing conversation with their significant other. Resources also afford you follow up conversations and the opportunity to see what the couple has learned and talked through together. Some things we send couples home with are questions from our session with them, DISC Personality Assessments, episodes from Theology in the Raw or The Bare Marriage Podcast, websites like To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, or the Feelings Wheel with a directive to utilize these resources in all of their conversations together over the next couple of weeks.

Refer out when needed.

This is one the best things you could do as the person(s) counseling a couple. There are so many areas we are not equipped to handle as ministers and leaders because we have not had the training. It is important to remember that most of us are not licensed counselors or trained to help people in certain areas because if we try to do so and offer bad or wrong insight, it could lead to horrible consequences. So should the conversation lean toward an area or reveal a situation you are not comfortable with or equipped and trained to handle, you need to refer out right away. This is not removing you from caring for and working with the couple, but instead helping them get the help and care they need.

My recommendation would be for you to begin building a network before you even begin counseling couples. Know who is a licensed and trained counselor in your area who is trained in helping couples. Bonus points if they also are Christian counselors as that will ensure consistency with what God says about marriage and relationships. Know who your mental health professionals and addiction specialists are as well. You never know when past trauma, harmful behavior, abuse, or addictive behavior may manifest in your sessions with couples, and being able to refer out is paramount in those moments. Also, know your state’s laws on various topics and think through when you need to get different first responders involved.

Don’t avoid the hard or awkward conversations.

I feel like this is something I have heard all too often when it comes to pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. Couples prepared for conversations about sex and intimacy, couples came ready to talk about their past, topics of abuse and trauma were said to be discussed, but then those conversations are barely approached or dismissed altogether. I know for Elise and I this happened to us, and honestly left us feeling frustrated and disappointed.

These aren’t always easy conversations and frankly they could lead to awkward or difficult interactions, but these are needed moments. I have always wondered if we avoid addressing something before a couple gets married, how will it be addressed when they are married? The reality is those topics won’t just go away and a lack of engagement will lead to prolonged tension, frustration, disappointment, or worse.

So dial into those conversations and strive to do well. Approach them with love, grace, and truth. Be mature as you talk through them. Be willing to engage them and be honest about what is and isn’t helpful. Also be willing to help eliminate or minimize stigmas surrounding those topics and give them the prominence they deserve. In these moments you are valuing the couple and helping them work on communication and holistic intimacy.

What have you found works best for you in counseling couples?

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

In my first job after college I was a staff writer at a small newspaper. I had to be more aggressive than was normal for me, which at times was extremely uncomfortable. I had to ask a lot of questions and in the beginning it was a struggle to know what to ask, and to get people to answer. Many interactions felt like nails on a chalkboard.

Over time and through the struggle, I began to enjoy asking questions, being inquisitive, and investigating different situations. It began to spill unintentionally into my personal life, and even now, Nick says I’m good at figuring things out, which makes it hard to surprise me. And that is usually due to asking a multitude of questions.

Asking questions has also turned me into a better listener than I ever was before. It’s helped me train my ears to lead my mind in digging deeper, paying attention to subtleties, and at times picking up on things that could be easily overlooked. I’ve learned firsthand what asking good, thoughtful questions, and listening carefully to answers can accomplish. It’s something that isn’t essential only to journalism, but student ministry as well.

Asking the right questions will help you be a better leader for your students as it will allow you to uncover things that otherwise remain hidden. It will also help your students feel cared for, heard, and understood. But how do you ask the right questions? Keep reading for some of my suggestions born out of over a decade of question-asking.

DON’T ask questions that require only a “yes” or “no” answer.

Unless you have a great follow-up question, that is. But even then, I recommend avoiding yes/no questions all together, especially if your intent is to uncover more about how your students are thinking and feeling. They still may give you a one-word answer, but nothing serves up a conversation-ender better than asking something that only requires a shake of the head or “yeah.” What you want is to get students talking.

Think through other ways to ask the question that will require students to respond with a sentence or two at the least, but could open the door for more. For example, instead of asking a student if they like going to school, ask how they feel about their classes and extracurricular activities. Or instead of making a statement and asking students if they agree, ask them what they think about the statement, or if they would change it. It may be a bit of an adjustment at first, but the more time you spend on it, the easier it will become to ask questions that lead your students to share more.

DO ask follow-up questions that show you are listening.

This is a big one for uncovering more information, getting to know your students, or leading them into self-guided discussion. (More on self-guided discussion here.) In order to keep the conversation going and encourage your students to share more, you must listen actively, purposefully, and intently. Personally, nothing makes me want to stop talking more than the realization that someone isn’t listening. Unfortunately, in my experience this happens more with pastors and church leaders than any other group. It also happens when people are distracted by their phones, too busy worrying about something else, or listening only enough to know when it’s their turn to take over the conversation.

If you struggle with listening, start intentionally practicing it with a friend, co-worker, or spouse. Ask them to tell you a story from their childhood or their day. Watch their face for different expressions, their hand gestures, envision the story as though you are there with them, and pay attention to the details. Don’t allow your mind to wander, maintain eye contact, don’t interrupt, and actively think about what you are hearing. When they have finished speaking, choose a few things that stood out to you and ask follow-up questions about them. You may want to focus on the speaker’s feelings about the event, how it impacted their life, or what they wish had happened differently.

If you want to make others in your life feel valued, intentional listening is a great place to start. It will also help you get to know your students on a level that moves beyond short, surface-y conversations. You have the power to do these things in how you listen and the questions you ask as a result.

DON’T feel the need to answer every question.

It drives me crazy when a youth leader asks a question during small group time and immediately begins answering it themselves. You may have the right answer, and it might be really great, but don’t be afraid of a little silence from your group. Sometimes people need time to think through a coherent answer before speaking. If students aren’t answering, rephrase the question before answering it yourself.

During discussions, students may ask questions of you as well. Don’t be afraid to use a question as a response in these situations, especially with the intent of guiding students to uncovering answers or conclusions for themselves. We have a unique opportunity to help our students think deeply about their faith, and many times that involves personal wrestling with Scripture, our beliefs, and our culture. Rather than simply providing answers, help students build the skills they need to think carefully and critically, and arrive at their own conclusions.

Depending on the type of question a student asks, the best response may be a question in order for you to uncover their motives or heart behind what they are asking. Jesus did this frequently, and as He already knew people’s hearts, I think His question-responses were to help them think about their motives. Whether your students are trying to test you, be antagonistic, or are genuinely curious, you can use questions to help guide the discussion and uncover intent. And if you don’t know an answer, be honest and tell them, but then work on discovering the answer to share later.

DO ask questions that uncover feelings and emotions.

If you want to understand your students, get to the heart of the matter, and help them feel known, look to discover their feelings and emotions. Asking students how they feel about the things going on in their life will help you connect with the heart behind their behavior. This can help you begin to uncover why your students may be acting or speaking in a particular manner. Things may look a certain way at first glance, but as you learn more, you may begin to see the whole picture. Don’t assume that you know who a student is or is not; give them the benefit of the doubt, and make space for them to open up.

Every human being is amazingly complex, and each of us struggle with different things. Students may be dealing with internal struggles like anxiety or a poor self image, or they may be experiencing hurt and abuse from family or friends. Until you take the time to ask questions and carefully listen to answers, you will never get beyond the surface. Dig into how your students are feeling, what is happening in their lives, and be a safe space for them to share and be loved. Help them see that they are unique, interesting, and needed.

DON’T force it.

As with anything, use moderation when asking questions. If students aren’t responding, or if they refuse to share much, don’t keep asking more questions. Give them space and time. They may need to get used to you and determine whether you are a safe person or not. Pestering them with a barrage of questions may cause them to retreat further. So work to be perceptive as you ask questions, and start slow.

If you have a student who isn’t particularly communicative, start by asking them one basic question each time you see them, like “how was your day?” Show them that you are consistently interested and available. If their answers begin to get longer and more personal, try asking a few more to see if they are willing to share. Build trust by remembering the things they share, keeping confidences, and honoring their autonomy. Don’t be afraid to say, “Can I ask this?” before sharing your question. If they say no, respect their decision and don’t pry.

DO remain fully present.

This is part of listening well, but in our distracted day and age, it deserves a second mention. When you are interacting with your students, remain fully present with them. This is especially important if you are the “main man/woman” (i.e., the lead youth pastor, church pastor, etc.). It can be easy as the up-front leader to be in a hurry the whole time you’re at youth group, or to act like whoever you are is more important than who they are. Take a step back and remember that you are there for the students, not yourself, not your platform, and not your schedule, as important as it may be to stay on time.

To build equity into your interactions with your students, you must be dialed into them. This doesn’t mean you neglect everything or everyone else, but you give them an allotment of undistracted time in which you stop, make eye contact, listen intently, and ask a question or two. If you need to move on, don’t look at your phone or watch. Instead, explain why/what you have to do, and if possible, invite them to join you so you can continue talking. Remember that your students are important and valuable, and they need to perceive that from you. There are enough people in the world who blow off our students, let’s not be those people.

A few questions you can use:

  • What’s one good thing that happened this week and what’s one bad thing that happened?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • Why do you think that is/why do you think that’s true?
  • How would you change that?
  • What do you want to do when you feel that way?
  • Who do you listen to the most/who influences you?
  • How can I help?

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

Perhaps you are like me and you’re preparing for winter camp in a few short weeks. Or maybe you’re really proactive, ahead of the curve, and you’re already planning for your summer trip. Before camp, youth leaders typically have things ready like student waivers, transportation, food, essentials for games, and teaching, and it feels like everything is ready to go. But have you ever arrived at your destination and wished you had brought something you hadn’t? We’ve all been there.

Today I want to provide you with a list of easily-missed items that will help you be better prepared and equipped for whatever trip you go on.

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

Have you ever forgotten one of these before? No, just me? It’s the worst feeling because you are limited on what you’re able to do. When we take students on a trip, we don’t allow them to bring electronics. So our staff becomes the default communication for families and leaders. We share photos, information, and texts to stay up to date and it drains your phone so fast. Couple that with posting to our social media accounts for families to get updates and my phone is practically dead by lunch time. So always bring a wall charger for your room and a couple back-up battery packs or remote chargers for when you’re on the go. And of course, don’t forget the cord!

A good first aid kit.

A basic first aid kit is fine but it is often not what we need. I have found that creating your own first aid bag is the way to go. Due to the size of our program, we actually have three first aid bags that we take on trips. Our first aid kits have come in handy so many times, and I have found it’s better to be prepared and not need the kits than unprepared and need something you don’t have.

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

  • bandages of different sizes
  • gauze
  • sutures
  • Neosporin
  • splints
  • triangle bandages
  • tweezers
  • feminine products
  • bee sting kits
  • electrolyte tablets
  • candy (should someone need a sugar boost)
  • cough drops
  • a multitool
  • a sling
  • butterfly bandages
  • antiseptics
  • Tums
  • dry mix packages of Gatorade or Propel
  • mosquito repellent
  • aloe
  • sunscreen
  • ice packs
  • various medicines like Advil, Tylenol, and Benadryl

These are just some of the items I’ve been thankful to have at various camps. Some camps provide nurses and first aid, but others require you to be that person for your group. So whatever you can pack in your first aid kit will help you be prepared for whatever comes your way.

A flashlight.

If you have ever had a student not be in their bunk at lights-out or had to walk outside to the restroom during a winter camp at night, you know that a flashlight is your best friend. I would highly encourage you to have at least two LED flashlights you can utilize for whatever situation in which you may find yourself. A quick tip if you’re taking a long trip: turn one of the batteries around (i.e. flip the positive and negative ends) and this will stop your batteries from getting drained.

An alarm clock.

Some camps and retreat centers don’t always have outlets by your bed so you can plug in a phone charger which would allow you to use it as an alarm. So pick up a small battery-powered alarm clock which will help you and your students wake up on time. You can usually find these at a dollar store, Five Below, Walmart, or Target.

Instant coffee packs.

If you are like me and love a good cup of coffee, you have probably cried a few tears for what passes for coffee at camps. So do yourself a favor and seek out a good coffee brand that has instant coffee packets you can take along. Many stores and coffee companies have options available and trying them out ahead of time will help you survive the trip.

Personal snacks.

We often think about food for meals and perhaps special snacks for our leaders. But we don’t always think about ourselves. It is okay to treat yourself and I would encourage you to bring along some treats for yourself. There are moments on every trip when you just need a pick me up. So grab your favorite snacks and stuff them in your bag for when you need them.

A power strip.

Many times, the dorms you are in will have a limited number of power outlets. So bringing a power strip will allow multiple people to utilize one outlet and will hopefully keep more people happy throughout the trip as their devices will be charged.

Tea and throat drops.

Often times at camp you will find you are loosing your voice. Having some herbal teas and honey if you can bring it along, coupled with throat drops can be a life saver (pun intended). Make sure to pack enough for however long the trip is and perhaps some extra for your leaders.

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

Music is such a key part of our lives. Think about how often you hear or listen to music. Sundays at church services. In your car while you drive. In a store as you shop. On a tv commercial. At a football game. At a friend’s home. Or at a social gathering. But I think we often forget to have music at our youth gatherings and various other church settings.

Music is so beneficial because it sets the tone of the venue, offers background noise, encourages engagement, and makes occasions more invitational. I didn’t always embrace this, especially early on in ministry, but I have found myself utilizing music all the time now and it has helped so much in student ministry. In this post, I hope to encourage you in how you choose and implement music, and to also offer tips and resources to do this successfully.

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

Whenever you choose music, think about what you are trying to accomplish in the environment and what tone you want to have. For instance, if you have a gym night and you play folk music, you probably won’t have a ton of energy. Or if you want a coffee shop vibe and you decide to blast For King and Country, it probably won’t embody the setting you are seeking to cultivate. Thinking about the setting, tone, and desired outcome will help you cultivate the ambiance and environment you desire.

2. Energy for the venue.

I referenced in the previous point that setting the tone is key, and that is true in multiple ways. The music you play sets the tone of the energy for the venue. If you want people to be loud and engage in active games, you will want to have more upbeat music that will energize your audience. If you are going for a relaxing vibe, you want to have softer or acoustic music which will allow for more conversation and thoughtful engagement. The music you choose will convey the energy you are looking to achieve, so make sure to think through this piece as you choose what to play.

3. Target audience.

One of the big things we should be considering is our audience. I can sometimes get lost in creating a playlist for my students and throw in songs I grew up with in youth group. But if I am being honest, my students don’t care about those songs. They may resonate with a few of them but not all of them. This is a reminder to know who you are trying to reach and directing all elements of what you are doing toward them. As you think about what music or playlist to utilize, remember to think about who you are reaching. Include songs they know, artists they are familiar with, and tunes they can sing along or engage with.

4. The message you want to send.

Think through who your audience is and what message you want communicated to them through the music you are playing. For instance, on Sunday mornings I tend to utilize worship music because our programming is oriented toward students who are already following Jesus and who we are seeking to equip to be disciple-makers. But on youth group nights, our music is a blend of current and past upbeat Christian and clean secular music. Since we are seeking to pull in people who don’t know Jesus, our music could go from Lecrae, to Ok Go, to Crowder, to Justin Timberlake, to Hillsong, or to The Greatest Showman. This way everyone has something they may be familiar with, and it allows us to introduce people to various Christian artists. All of the music is filtered so there is no profanity, drug or alcohol references, references to vulgarity, violence, or derogatory language.

As you considered these key aspects, let me offer you few tips and resources to help you truly utilize music to the best possible outcome. These tips are meant to help your group grow, succeed, and meet the mission of reaching students for Jesus.

Invest in a good sound system.

I am not talking about built-in house speakers and a switcher with a great bass. If you have that, fantastic, make sure to use it. But if you don’t have that at your disposal, consider investing in a good quality Bluetooth speaker or computer speakers so you play music for the entire space you are in.

Utilize students to help with music.

If you have students who are musically inclined, consider utilizing them in various ways. They can lead worship, you could have a house band playing at youth group, they could pick your playlists, and they can help with the audio/visual elements. When students are involved and excited to be on the team, it generates an excitement and interest among their peers to also be involved. These opportunities for students to lead outward will not only generate excitement but it will also give them ownership of the ministry which will help it succeed.

Utilize apps and the internet.

There are many free music resources that you can use depending on your level of comfortability and time that you can afford to it. You could use YouTube and just look for playlists. You could utilize Pandora’s free option, but you will have to deal with ads and those can sometimes be uncomfortable or inappropriate for the setting. You could also utilize Spotify, which is my personal favorite. You could create your own playlists, or simply put on various albums, artists, or playlists that you find on it. Spotify also doesn’t use ads like Pandora, and they have various levels of subscription that are worth looking into if you have the budget for it.

A quick tip if you don’t have the budget to get a paid Spotify subscription: You can utilize the non-paid option on multiple computers as long as you keep the offline feature turned on. Simply download the playlist ahead of time, then switch to offline and voilà you can use the playlist in a few different locations.

Here are a few playlists that I utilize and the settings I use them in:

New Year, New You

Happy new year! For many of us the start of the new year involves changes of some kind as we seek to be healthier. I know for Elise and I, we have started the new year by engaging with the Whole30 program. This is a program we have done in the past and after the last few years we knew we needed a reset and an opportunity to get healthy again.

But dietary or healthy eating is only a singular approach to our holistic lives. And I would assert that as we approach this new year we need to be thinking about our entire health and well-being. Being purveyors of the Gospel can be a heavy weight at times. Trying to balance the teaching and expediting of God’s Word, caring for and ministering to the people under our care, trying to balance commitments and priorities, dealing with criticism, and simply seeking to accomplish daily tasks at work and home can feel overwhelming and at times unbearable. The reality is that these things and many others can be weighty and hard to deal with which will lead to unhealthy habits and our willingness to let healthy habits fall to the side.

So how can we as ministers of the Gospel make sure we are holistically healthy? I think it begins by looking at five key areas in our lives that should be healthy and allowing for those areas to be worked out in other areas of our lives. I hope to look at these areas and prayerfully help you think through what a healthy life looks like for you.

Mental.

Mental health is important, and with the way the last couple of years have been, your mental health is probably feeling pretty taxed and depleted. I know for me there have been times this last year where I’ve felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and mentally done. But it is highly important for us to take care of our mental health. If we allow our thoughts to wander or to increase doubt or frustrations, we will find ourselves ready to throw in the towel.

So what should our response be? I think we should find someone to talk with. Whether a trusted friend, a ministry partner, a mentor, or your spouse, having someone to talk to and process with will do wonders for your mental health. I would also encourage everyone to find a counselor to talk with. Counselors have a way of getting us to open up, think critically, identify issues that should be dealt with, and come up with action steps. The stigma attached to mental health needs to be rolled back, because without a healthy frame of mind, we will be frustrated and unable to fully give to the ministry God has called us to.

Physical.

Let’s be honest: serving in ministry isn’t exactly the best career path for our physical health, especially if you serve in student ministry. The candy, pizza, soda, energy drinks, constant snacking, and eating like a student will eventually catch up to you. I will be thirty-six this year, and I can attest to that reality. I don’t lose weight how I used to, and the snacks just seem to hang around…the midsection that is. That is part of the reason I am doing the Whole30 because I want to rebuild a healthy relationship with food and to cleanse from all the garbage I have been eating.

But here is the thing: just doing that for a month isn’t enough. In order to stay physically healthy and to maintain a lifestyle that will help you be in ministry for the long haul, you need to adjust how you take care of yourself physically and make the necessary changes. Consider starting small and just trying to eat better. Stop the late night snacking, stop eating all the snacks students eat when they eat them, and start trying to eat more foods that are around the outside aisles of the supermarket.

Going beyond that, it’s also beneficial to start trying to exercise or just be more active in your everyday life. Making these types of changes will help you to feel better overall. You will find your body being more rested, you will have more energy, you will sleep better, and you will ultimately find yourself being more apt and ready to engage in ministry because of how you are feeling and the way your body is strengthening.

Spiritual.

As ministers of the Gospel the sad reality is our spiritual health can often suffer as we seek to love and care for others as we point them to Jesus. But that cannot be the case for us. If we continue to pour out without being poured into, then we will eventually be giving from nothing which will lead to burn out, bitterness, and potentially walking away from our faith. Instead I would challenge you to think through your spiritual rhythms and how your relationship with Jesus is doing. Are you spending time just being present with Him? Are you reading your Bible on a consistent basis outside of what would be considered work? Is your prayer life something you are actively engaged with? Are you finding your passion for Jesus growing and being something you look forward to?

If you answered no to any or all of these questions let me encourage you to take a break. I don’t mean walk away from ministry but perhaps consider taking time (a weekend, a week, a sabbatical, or whatever works in your environment) to just breathe, commune with God, and reset your spiritual relationship with Jesus. If you are growing in your relationship with Jesus, the better suited and prepared you will be to lead, disciple, and point people to Jesus. So make sure to protect, engage with, and strengthen your relationship with Jesus to be the affective minister God has called you to be.

Emotional.

Emotional health isn’t something we always think about. In fact, I would assert that our emotional, relational, and mental health are the ones we are willing to let slide more than perhaps our physical and spiritual health. And I believe the reason for that is because our physical and spiritual health afford us a bit more control over situations and circumstances. We can see the results of physical health and we can set rhythms to help ourselves grow in spiritual health. But when it comes to our emotional health, we don’t always see how we are doing, whether positive or negative.

Let me encourage you to talk to someone you trust and ask their honest opinion about how you handle your emotions. Consider doing a self-evaluation on how you engage various circumstances, relationships, and tensions.

  • Ask yourself if your responses are healthy and beneficial.
  • Ask yourself if you know how to communicate how you are feeling (consider utilizing a feelings wheel in this case).
  • Ask yourself how you respond in moments of stress, tension, or moments when your emotions are running high.
  • Ask yourself how you are feeling about yourself, your job, your relationships, and your personal life.

These questions aren’t meant to give you a clinical diagnosis of your emotional health, but instead are intended to help you think about how you are doing emotionally. If you find your responses to these questions being unhelpful or potentially problematic, I would encourage you to reach out to someone to talk to (both a friend or mentor, and a professional). When your emotional health suffers, you suffer, your relationships suffer, and your ability to effectively minister suffers. So seek to assess how you are doing emotionally and to grow in your emotional health.

Relational.

Relational health is hugely important and I would say there are two key aspects to consider in this area. One, think about how you engage and care for others (the outflow) and two, think about the relationships you have and whether they need to be tweaked (the inflow). When it comes to our relational health it is highly important to think about how you are treating and engaging others. For many youth workers, they do this part well. In fact probably too well to their own detriment. They give and give and give, and even when they are on empty they give even more. Focusing on and caring for others is a huge part of our role, but we also need to think about our own relational health. If you just continue to give until you are on empty that isn’t helpful to anyone.

This brings us to the second part of relational health: the relationships you have and their affect on you. Often we are outwardly focused, but it is important to think inwardly as well since this is how you fill up your tank. You may have relationships that are life-giving for you, but you may also have relationships that are life-draining. So think through the relationships that you have and consider if some of them need to be improved, restricted, or removed for your health and well-being. There may be relationships in your life that are draining you and potentially toxic. Seeking to improve or change them by releasing certain relationships will be difficult in the immediate moment, but potentially life changing going forward.

What life or ministry changes are you making this year?

5 Tips for Hosting a Great Christmas Party

With the holiday season officially beginning, many of us are probably preparing to host at least one Christmas party this year. Whether you’re hosting your own, a leader party, or a student Christmas party, we all know the pressure to have a good one that people enjoy.

Over my many years in ministry I have hosted multiple Christmas parties, some were better than others, and today I want to give you five quick tips to host a great Christmas party for students. These aren’t the only things that will make your party great, but incorporating them will help you in that direction.

Before I get to those points, I do want to highlight one extra tip that will definitively make this a great party: make it highly relational. This is a huge thing whenever you host gatherings like this. Find ways to leverage the time together to pour into and care for your students. This is a great opportunity to connect with students on the fringe, have conversations with students you haven’t connected with yet, to encourage and speak truth into students’ lives, and to laugh and fellowship together. Take the opportunity presented to you and use it to build into and care for your students.

1. Pick a theme.

It is easy to just say “we are having a Christmas party,” and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you choose a theme and announce and champion it to your students, it will generate momentum and a desire to be a part of the gathering. It makes it more fun, engaging, and invitational to your students and their friends. Here are a few ideas to consider for your theme:

  • Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Challenge everyone to wear an ugly Christmas sweater and hand out prizes for various categories (most likely made by a grandmother, most itchy, most unique, most likely grabbed last minute). When choosing who wins, involve students to either choose or judge who wins to make it more engaging.
  • Christmas Costumes. This one you can take in any variety of directions. You could do Christmas movie costumes, Christmas decades costumes ( i.e. 1920s or 1700s), retro Christmas costumes, or even Christmas character costumes.
  • Christmas PJs. Have everyone come to the party in their favorite Christmas pajamas. You can market this as wearing your favorite jammies, fuzzy slippers, and cozy blankets, and then have the evening be more relaxed and centered on fellowship and community.

2. Set the ambiance.

Ambiance enhances any gathering, but especially when it comes to parties and outreach opportunities. A quick, easy and no-cost way of setting the ambiance comes from simply playing Christmas music. Create a Spotify account and make a Christmas playlist for your gathering. I love to throw in some old school songs just to see how my students respond.

Also consider utilizing Christmas decorations and lights to make the setting feel more Christmasy. Simple decorations and lights add so much to a gathering and it shows intentionality to your students. It communicates that you care and value them, and that will make them want to invite their friends.

3. Have a gift exchange.

Gift exchanges are a huge hit for Christmas parties because it gives students an opportunity to receive a present. To help keep this cost effective, challenge each student to bring their own wrapped gift to the party. However, always make sure to have some wrapped extra gifts just in case a student doesn’t bring a gift. We never know why a student can’t bring a gift, and you never want a student to feel singled out or left out because they didn’t have a gift. This ensures everyone gets a present and feels valued and loved.

For the gift exchange itself you could choose from any number of different options, but here are a few fun ones:

  • A white elephant gift exchange. You can add in rules for trading gifts or just allow everyone to pass a gift to their right a few times.
  • Randomly choosing grades to go and pick a gift.
  • Playing rock, paper, scissors among the group and allowing the winners to go and get a gift. If you don’t win, you keep playing with different people until you do.
  • In small groups, have students sit in a circle and one at a time roll a pair of dice. Once someone gets doubles they can go and choose a gift. The group keeps playing until everyone gets a gift.

4. Provide some sort of food.

Food makes events much more personal and welcoming. A few fun food ideas for your party can include:

  • A hot cocoa bar with all the toppings.
  • A fresh-baked cookie bar with different Christmas cookies to choose from.
  • A Christmas dinner.
  • A Christmas dessert bar.
  • A decorate your own Christmas cookie bar.

This may feel like an expensive option for many youth groups, but if you don’t have a budget for this consider some alternatives. You can ask parents to provide different items. You could utilize the older generations and ask them to provide the items needed and even invite them to the party to increase inter-generational ministry opportunities. You could utilize announcements in church or in your bulletin asking for donations for the party. These ways of gathering supplies and resources will help offset the cost, afford you opportunities to champion student ministries, and allow you to engage with members of your extended community.

5. Focus on what is important.

Sometimes we can allow these parties to just be parties. A place of fun and games and food, but we don’t focus on what we should be focusing on. Students can and will attend Christmas parties outside of yours that will be a place for just those things. But your party should focus on the important things. That is not to say that you don’t have fun, eats lots of food, and play silly games. Do those things, but don’t forget why you are gathering.

You are gathering to celebrate the birth of the Savior and to help your students grow as disciples of Jesus. So highlight those areas during your party. Have small group time. Talk about Jesus. Have a Christmas message. Encourage and challenge your students in their faith. Don’t let this become just another party, rather be intentional with its focus and purpose and leverage those opportunities to enrich the lives of students with the Gospel message.