6 Tips for the New Year

January is almost upon us, and if you’re like me this year has probably flown by. And you may also be like me if you can look back on this past year and see areas you excelled in but others in which you need to grow.

Self reflection is not only helpful but I would argue it is necessary as well. As ministry leaders it’s essential to think about what we need to be doing and what we should stop doing. For our post this week I want to share three things we need to be doing (or continuing to do) and three things we need to stop doing.

Start or continue to…

1. Invest in your leaders. This is honestly something I wish I had learned earlier in my career. Our leaders are huge assets to our ministries and students. They allow our ministries to continue and they are the ones pouring into our students. The more you invest in your leaders, the more you will see outflow from that investment and cultivate a community of leaders who generate leaders. So invest in them relationally, spiritually, personally, and professionally. Doing so will allow your ministry to grow and flourish as you have leaders who are developing and cultivating new leaders.

2. Keep and maintain a schedule. This is often easier said than done in ministry. We may set up a schedule but often times we don’t keep it because, well, it’s ministry. We see it as we are doing God’s work and therefore we are always on the clock. But that isn’t what God has called us to. In fact, the very nature of sabbath is meant to keep us from becoming a workaholic and someone who doesn’t have healthy boundaries.

Instead, let me encourage you to keep a schedule and maintain it. Keep a Google calendar, have someone hold you accountable to your schedule, keep your time off as time off, protect your spaces, and make sure to honor the time you are giving. Don’t show up late, don’t forget meetings, don’t sacrifice your spiritual growth, and don’t forget your family. By adhering to a healthy schedule you will see yourself grow and mature as a healthy leader, and your ministry will follow suit.

3. Care for yourself. This isn’t selfish, this is necessary. Self-care is something we need to be more proactive in incorporating into our lives. If we aren’t taking care of our spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, and relational health our ministries and our lives will suffer. In order to lead well we need to be healthy and growing. So make sure to carve out intentional time to pause, have a sabbath rhythm, take time off, stop working when you leave the office, invest in community for yourself, spend time with those you love, and do things that fill your tank. This is something you must be doing in order to lead well and sustain yourself in ministry.

Stop…

1. Trying to please people. If you’re a people-pleaser at heart this is probably really hard for you to hear. But if you work at a church, let’s be honest, we have all fallen into this space before. At some point–or regularly–we try to please bosses, parents, elders, staff, or whomever. Now I am not saying to not do a good job or to approach your ministry with a laissez-faire attitude. We should work hard and seek to do our best, but I am saying that our primary goal shouldn’t be pleasing others. Instead we should seek to please God and to do what He has called us to.

2. Putting work first. Let me be very clear here: you are not defined by your ministry nor are you defined by how much you work. Instead, you are defined by your relationship with Jesus, how you impart that relationship into all moments and relationships, and how you live out your calling. God never calls us to put our jobs first. He tells us our priority is our relationship with Him, then our relationship with our families, then our relationship with the church. If we get that structure out of order we will continue to struggle and get burned out. Having our priorities correctly ordered will allow us to be the leaders that God has called us to be.

3. Comparing yourself and your ministry. This was something I was guilty of early on in my career. I came out of undergrad having been told I’d be making huge changes in the world as a pastor and that alumni like me created lasting legacies. Well, imagine my surprise when I didn’t go directly into ministry. And when I did it was at a tiny church in the middle of nowhere New Jersey. Then in youth ministry I went to all the mainline conferences and heard about other ministries and their budgets and programming. I saw all the gadgets and cool tech toys. I heard from the gurus of youth ministry and the highlights of amazing youth workers around the country. And then realized I didn’t have any of those things nor was I one of those people.

If I’m honest I tried to shape our ministry to match the ones I had seen and tried to adjust my teaching style to match those I heard and idolized. But the truth is that none of that mattered or made a difference. My students and families didn’t want someone else or some glitzy program. They wanted authenticity, relationships, a youth pastor who was himself, and a place they could come and be known. The lights and hazers didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be an amazing speaker. We didn’t have to have all the cool new games and activities. Instead, being myself and working in the context and confines we had allowed us to build an authentic community where our students could come and flourish. Comparison will destroy you and your ministry if you allow it. It is healthy to critique your ministry and look for information and resources. What isn’t healthy is comparing yourself or your ministry, or trying to be someone or something else.

What Are You Teaching: All Church Series

Every now and then, our church does an all-church series. More recently, we have been using the spring semester to collectively work through a study built by multiple staff members to help our church journey in the Bible together. It involves all ages and happens in our services and in all the classes and groups that meet. But there are some unique challenges and circumstances to consider when doing these studies to help them succeed and truly be engaging for students and families.

Make sure your message relates to students. Sometimes when moving through a set curriculum for the church, there are applications and insights that are really beneficial but not always relevant and helpful to students. So look to make sure what you are teaching and encouraging students to apply is relatable to their lives and circumstances. Providing them with real and tangible applications will help them see how the Bible is practical and relevant to their lives.

Don’t teach the same thing that is taught in the services. This is a big deal because part of our vision for students should be to help them engage the church holistically and not just student programming. If we are teaching the exact same message with the same points in student programming that is taught in the sermon, students will tend to default to only the student gathering and forgo the Sunday service. This isn’t beneficial and further drives a wedge that doesn’t need to be there to begin with. Instead, even if you are teaching on the same passage from the sermon, look to find different insights and understandings. Highlight how passages can provide various applications and interpretations. Bring in new illustrations and ways to immerse students in Scripture, and help them discuss what they’re learning in both contexts.

Collaborate with others. One of the best things you can do in these types of series is talk to other staff members and leaders to see what they are teaching. This will not only provide you with insight and creativity, but will hopefully afford you new and intentional opportunities to partner with other ministries. If the adult groups are looking at a particular aspect, it may be helpful to both adults and students to know what each group is doing as there is a high potential students’ parents will be in the adult group. This provides overlap and a platform on which to engage ongoing conversations within families.

Remember everyone may not be on the same page. It is important to remember when going through all-church series that some students may not have a full grasp, if any, of the material you are walking through. So make sure to do due diligence and help students fully understand what is being taught. Also, remember that students may not be present at each level of the study due to other commitments and so summarizing what has been taught is important and also helps students continue to remain engaged.

Encourage students to be a part of the broader conversation. Make sure your students know everyone in the church is going through the series, and that they have a voice because they are the church. Encourage them to engage in conversations with family and friends. Challenge them to ask deep and meaningful questions. Provide outlets and opportunities for them to engage with church leadership on these topics and series.

What are You Teaching: Reading & Studying the Bible

“Only eight percent of global teens believe the Bible is the word of God and read the Bible several times a week.”

This is a stat the Barna Group posted on their Instagram account last week which caught my attention. It didn’t really surprise me, but it did cause me to reflect on how we can better equip and encourage students to read and study Scripture on their own.

If your students are anything like me, I wasn’t taught Bible study methods growing up. I was given a series of Bibles over the years, and found myself navigating through them on my own. Teen study Bibles helped to some degree, but I wasn’t taught what to do when I had personal devotional time. So I just read passages and tried to make sense of them, often failing to do so.

I can’t help but wonder if the students in our programs have had similar experiences. If they have, it’s no wonder they don’t want to read the Bible. If you don’t know how to understand it or where to start, it can feel like a daunting, confusing, and sometimes boring task. Students should be equipped to read, study, ask questions, and understand, so that they can uncover the beauty, depth, and purpose of God’s word.

In this third installment of the What are You Teaching series, I’d like to offer some ways we can help encourage, train, and engage students in their personal Bible study.

Translations: A simple place to start is by making sure your students not only have their own Bible, but one in a version or translation that is easy for them to understand. If the language/wording used is difficult to follow, chances are students won’t stick with it for very long. So look for a solid version that is written in a way that is clear and easy-to-read. Check out this past post for some suggestions.

Audio Bibles: Some students hate reading, or struggle with it. Others find themselves so busy with school, activities, and other commitments, that it is genuinely difficult for them to carve out time to read. Whatever the case may be, don’t forget that an audio Bible is an option. It may help your students to read and listen at the same time, or they can listen while driving or riding in the car between activities. For others, it may help them to calm their mind before going to sleep or while getting ready for school in the morning. If they’re interested in listening, they can download the YouVersion Bible app for free and listen to audio recordings of multiple versions.

Bible study methods: So your students have a Bible, now what? Make sure they are equipped to study it on their own. Some basic study methods include O.I.A. (Observation, Interpretation, and Application), Discovery Method, or S.O.A.P. (Study, Observe, Apply, Pray). These will help your students as they encounter Scripture on their own. You may also want to supply them with pre-scripted studies, that either you or a trusted source have created. Check out this post for some suggestions.

Recommended reading: As you get to know your students, you will learn their passions, interests, and struggles. Rather than have them start reading anywhere, guide them to passages that will appeal to and capture their interest, speak to their season of life, or help them get to know Jesus better. Sometimes students struggle to read the Bible because they arbitrarily open it and read wherever the pages fall. Or they may try to read through a book and get bogged down in a confusing story. Help them connect to the Bible by making personalized reading recommendations.

Start a study: Consider helping students grow further by hosting an in-depth Bible study for those who are interested. You can use this time to equip them further, challenge and encourage them, and address topics with which they may be wrestling. This is another opportunity to personalize it to your group, helping them see how the Bible connects to their real life situations.

Questions: For a while it seems in some churches, asking questions about the Bible was almost taboo. Help continue to break that stereotype for your students by encouraging them to ask questions about the Bible. Host a “stump the pastor” night or an “ask me anything” about the Bible. Even if you don’t know all the answers, take time to do the research and come back with information. Students are naturally curious. Encourage them to bring their questions to God, He can handle them all.

Creativity: Tap into creative ways to read, study, and process the Scriptures. Help your students see that it isn’t just about opening the Bible in a quiet room. God is creative, and we can interact creatively with Him and His word. This may look like artistic representation of Scripture through drawing, painting, or Bible journaling. Students may want to write their own music, spoken word, or poetry in response to what they’ve read. They don’t have to share their creative response with anyone but God, but if they want to, consider hosting an event for them to share their creations and the story behind them.

Make it personal: Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? Has it changed your life? Have you wrestled through difficult passages? Share this with your students and bring them into your story of encountering Scripture. Students need to see adults who believe in God’s word and how it has been a part of their lives. They need to see that it can be a real and important aspect of the Christian life, and not a boring part of their to-do list to check off. Students connect with personal stories and will benefit from hearing yours.

Packing for Trips: Leaders

Last week we took some time to think through helping students pack for trips. But what about packing information for leaders? Are there things we should tell our volunteer leaders to bring? Are there specific items the ministry or trip leader should be bringing? What are some essentials that we should always pack?

Today, I want to explore some of these questions by sharing essential items I think every leader should have with them. Having taken a variety of trips with students, both domestic and international, I have learned there are items we should always have in order to be prepared. There are some items that only the trip leader and/or a small group of leaders should have for a litany of reasons and I will mark those with an asterisk.

A first aid kit.

First aid kits are extremely important no matter the kind of trip. I recommend purchasing a small first aid kit for each of your leaders that could fit in their backpacks and making sure it has all the essentials (bandages, alcohol wipes, Advil, antihistamines, etc.), and to also take a least one larger kit. I would actually recommend taking two larger kits that have more items in them to treat a large variety of injuries and needs.

It may be helpful to build your own kit or ask a healthcare worker or first responder to help you build one. Think about items like splints, triangular bandages, gauze, medical tape, Advil and Tylenol, electrolyte tabs, antacids, feminine products, smelling salts, blood pressure cuffs, alcohol wipes, Neosporin, braces, a tourniquet, a flashlight, tweezers, cough drops, laxatives, and whatever else would be helpful.

Bright flashlights.

If you’ve been on a trip with students you know there will inevitably be times when you will be out at night and a flashlight is necessary. However, an inexpensive store brand flashlight might not be helpful. Look to find flashlights that utilize LEDs and have a higher level of lumens. These will ensure that you have longer lasting lights with brighter beams that will help you navigate evening games, uneven terrain, finding students, or even working to repair a vehicle.

A power strip.

Have you ever gotten to your shared cabin or room and realized there are only one or two power outlets? If you have ever done a trip during the summer in a room without air conditioning and brought your own fans, you know how important outlets are. Or if you need to charge multiple devices, having enough plugs is paramount. So pack enough power strips that each room can have their own if needed.

A multi-tool.*

A multi-tool is something I would only encourage the group leader to take. Whenever we take trips, including mission trips, we don’t allow students to bring knives of any type for safety reasons. However, it’s a great resource for the team leader to have a tool for emergencies and day-to-day activities on trips. Having a multi-tool has helped my teams splice wires connecting our trailer to our van, fix broken items in cabins, and pull staples out of carpets on mission trips. Having one of these is absolutely necessary on trips.

Advil and Advil PM.

As I have gotten older I have realized the necessity of both of these medications. Advil for the aches and pains of a long busy day, and Advil PM to help you fall asleep at night on uncomfortable bedding.

Earplugs and a sleep mask.

Sharing a room with someone isn’t usually a bad thing, unless they snore. And what about noisy students? Or perhaps the AC unit that is anything but silent? Or there is light streaming in from the window. These things plus being in a different environment can make sleep elusive. That’s where earplugs and an eye mask can help immensely. They help you to remove some of the external stimuli and hopefully find much-needed sleep to be ready to continue leading your group.

Extra pens.

Whether it’s for students, leaders, or both, I’ve found having extra pens is important because someone or multiple people will need one. So bring along an extra handful in your backpack and be ready to hand them out as needed.

Instant coffee.

I tend to be a coffee snob, so recommending instant coffee is hard. But I’ve been to multiple camps and retreat centers that make coffee for leaders that just isn’t good. In fact I would argue some of the camps served us muddy water instead of coffee. That’s when having something that is passable is better than nothing. So grab some Starbucks Via or other instant coffee packets and bring enough for your leaders too so they can have some joy in their early mornings.

Propel or Gatorade packets.

During summer trips especially, these instant packets are key. But even during trips in the fall or winter time, they’ll go a long way especially if you have someone who gets dehydrated. It’s a quick way to get fluids and electrolytes into the body and allows people to recover faster.

Battery packs.

Have you ever found your phone to be dying midway through a day at camp but you don’t have an outlet nearby? For me it happens often because I’m using my phone to document what is happening throughout the day. So having spare battery packs is a must when you go on trips. Consider purchasing a couple really good ones that have multiple ports and can charge multiple devices on a single charge because your leaders will also most likely need to recharge their devices as well.

A good pillow.

Even if the place you are going to provides bedding, make sure to bring a comfortable pillow. Nothing ruins a good night’s rest like a waking up with a sore neck or shoulders as a result of a bad pillow. Having a good pillow will help you sleep well.

A water bottle.

Having a water bottle is a must. It allows you to stay hydrated and can help remind your students to do so as well. Make sure to have one that is double lined to help keep your cold drinks cold and your hot drinks hot.

Games or special items for small group time.

If it ends up being rainy one day on your trip, having games to use with your small group or cabin is a must. It helps to occupy the time and give your students something fun to do. Or you could bring fun snacks or special little gifts for your small group like glow sticks or personalized snacks you know they love. Also think about games you can play on the trip out, especially if it is a long drive.

Extra personal care items.*

This is something that as the main leader you should think about bringing. There are always moments when students and/or leaders forget some kind of personal care item, so take a few moments and hit up the travel item section in Target or your local dollar store for toiletries. They don’t need to be full sized items but having a handful of things like toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant for guys and girls, body soap, shampoo, and lotion are great items to have on hand.

What are some non-negotiable items you take on trips?

Packing for Trips: Students

Last week we talked about how to pick a location for student retreats and trips. But have you struggled with what you should tell students to pack for these trips? Have you received a frantic text or email the day of departure from a student or parent asking what they should bring?

As we continue the conversation, this week I want to share some ideas for helping students pack appropriately for trips. Next week I’ll share some insight as to what youth leaders should be packing for trips. Over my time in student ministry, I have come to realize a simplified packing list is much better to share than an overly detailed one. It ensures that students pack the essentials and helps them seek clarity when they have questions.

Before you even start to think about what students need to pack, you should be thinking about how you will communicate it to them. There are three main avenues of communication that typically can work with students: verbal communication, physical mediums, and electronic mediums.

Verbal communication.

Many ministries still utilize verbal announcements during their services and programs. These moments are critical for communicating important information in small, sound byte-style clips that peak your students’ interest. Two important things to remember with these moments is there needs to be simplicity, and direction toward a medium they can use for follow up (i.e. social media, emails, handouts, etc.).

Physical mediums.

One of the best ways to get things into the hands of students is to do just that. Get them physical sign ups, postcard reminders, or flyers. This will give them something to physically take, but the reality is these items don’t always make it home or to their parents. So be thoughtful about how much time and effort you put into these mediums as the reward may be minimal.

Electronic mediums.

Over the last decade, the importance of electronic communication has become undeniable. Students have phones and other devices in their hands constantly, and the more you can leverage these mediums the better your results. Use social media platforms, create QR Codes that can be scanned during gatherings, send emails, utilize story features on social media, and send out group texts with information. When it comes to creating online content, you may find yourself in the same predicament I often find myself: I’m not creative in this area. That’s where Canva comes in handy. It has graphics, images, and pre-made designs you can edit and utilize to best reach your audience. So lean into Canva or another design app to not simply list information but make it visually appealing as well.

So what should students actually take on trips? If you use a venue that supplies a leader packet, you may find a packing list there, but you may need to edit it to match your program’s guidelines. When I think about what students should pack, I think in categories: clothing, accessories, toiletries, camp-specific gear, and what not to bring.

Each of these are extremely focused and allow our team to highlight the essentials needed, and what is not allowed at camp. The camp-specific category helps highlight relevant items like winter gear, bathing suits, work clothes, or whatever else is needed. The accessories category allows you to remind students about things like bedding and pillows, a notebook, money, bug spray, and medicine. The “what not to bring” category lets you focus on things that aren’t allowed at the camp and what you ask students to leave at home. We always highlight leaving electronics at home, and things like energy drinks and illegal substances.

Whatever your trip looks like, remember to communicate clearly, consistently, and frequently through multiple mediums in concise ways. When you focus on those aspects you are setting yourself and your students up for success on your trips. Below is a graphic that we built in Canva for our student ministry’s last winter camp. This can serve as a springboard for your creativity, or we are happy to share how we created this to help you further. Feel free to reach out if you need help with creating your own graphic.

Making Leader Training More than Just Informational [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off this two-part series by thinking through a few ways to make leader training more than just informative. Information is helpful and beneficial but it’s important to do more than simply focus on giving information. If all people do is receive information there can’t really be any transformation because there’s no care, practical application, or really any reason for your people to keep coming.

My hope with these two posts is to encourage you to think about how and why you do leader training. The ideas we are presenting are meant to help you think outside the box. And perhaps incorporate new aspects that will not only generate better leaders, but will help develop leaders who develop leaders, all while valuing and caring for them holistically.

Pray together.

Prayer is something I cannot overemphasize enough. I think every ministry has this intention and every ministry leader, hopefully, prays often for their ministry. But when was the last time you prayed together with your volunteers? Is it consistent? Is it allowing the Spirit to guide and direct you, your team, and ministry?

When you gather for training this presents the perfect opportunity to pray with and for your team. This is an exciting opportunity to engage in prayer in new and different ways. You can pray all together for the ministry, or you can pray in smaller groups for one another. You can go on a prayer walk around the building praying for where your students gather and for the entire church, or you can even spend some time in silence praying. Trust me when I tell you that if you consistently pray with your team, be prepared to see God move in powerful and bold ways.

Practice spiritual rhythms and formation.

This runs hand-in-hand with prayer while moving past just one rhythm, and seeks to engage your team holistically from a spiritual perspective. Often training sessions can focus on how to lead small groups, caring for students, safety requirements, and other areas that are very important. But when was the last time you stopped and intentionally trained on spiritual rhythms?

Training your leaders on prayer, spiritual gifts, fasting, journaling, time with Jesus, and various other aspects is hugely important. I think it is easy to assume our leaders know all of these things and further still we may assume they are practicing them. But if they were never taught them, how can we expect them to teach and lead our students through these rhythms? Let me encourage you to take time to actually walk through spiritual rhythms and help your leaders grow in formational ways so they can lead your students deeper in their walk with Jesus.

Change locations.

This is an easy idea but not often one we think about. It is easy to default to trainings at church or in the youth room. But what if you moved it to someone’s home? Better yet, a home with a pool, or a fire pit, or a backyard where you could play games together. Being able to take training offsite or outside of where you meet normally allows you to be creative in your training, it gives your leaders freedom to think and process in a new environment, and it provides a change of scenery which can often lead to new thought processes and perspectives.

If you can’t meet offsite, consider changing the environment you train in. Move things around, bring in comfortable seating, change the lighting, make it comfortable and inviting with decorations. These little touches help you to show intentionality and change a space that perhaps we have become used to.

Provide resources.

Resourcing our leaders is a great way to both help them grow personally and get something into their hands that will be beneficial going forward. This could be handouts and studies from Barna Group, devotional guides for them to use with their small groups, a podcast, helpful tools and resources from Fuller Youth Institute, various assessments like DISC or spiritual gifts, books to read as a team, or even resources specific to your own ministry. These resources aren’t meant to just be things you get into their hands but resources that will help them grow and continue to excel as the leaders God has designed them to be.

What aspects do you make sure to include in your leader trainings?

Making Leader Training More than Just Informational [Part 1]

We just finished hosting annual fall training for all our student leaders and it made me reflect on how our structure of leader training has changed throughout the years. We have gotten into the rhythm of hosting quarterly trainings and while they all differ in focus, the heart and vision remains the same. Each session will focus on some sort of training or equipping, but will also incorporate other elements to make them more engaging, fun, relational, and formational.

Today I want to share a few easy ways to make your leader training more than just informational. I am not arguing for the elimination of information and equipping, but instead would argue that we need to make our training more holistic in its approach. We should think about the information but also the relationships, the spiritual formation of our leaders, and the element of fun.

Provide food.

One of the best ways to make leader training inviting, relational, and community-focused is to have food. Food is attractive to people and also helps to break down barriers. There is reason that Jesus taught around a meal or used imagery of food to help people understand what he was talking about. Food just makes gatherings warmer and more inviting.

So have snacks, share a meal, provide coffee and donuts. Be intentional with the food, don’t just throw out leftovers from youth group, but show your leaders you care in a very tangible way. You don’t need to blow your entire budget on the food, but be thoughtful with what you get.

Have fun.

I think fun is drastically underrated when training happens. Often when we are training we focus on information, policies, and making sure everyone is on the same page. Perhaps you have noticed like I have, how those types of meetings cause people’s eyes to glaze over or they start nodding off. But what if you threw in some fun activities as well?

Try incorporating some type of group game like charades or Scattegories. Set up a volleyball net or 9 Square and just play together at different points. Or set up a church-wide scavenger hunt for your leaders with prizes. These moments help take a mundane, typical training and make it more inviting and fun, which encourages your leaders to continue to come and participate.

Incorporate team building.

Team building can get a bad rap at times. I know I have definitely been at trainings, conferences, and gatherings where the team building was actually more traumatizing than informative and unifying. If you have ever done team building with mouse traps, you know what I am talking about. But there are so many more options to make team building actually focused on building a healthy team.

There are classics like the human knot. There are some newer options like doing a Shark Tank-themed game. You could present challenges to the team that they need to accomplish with certain limitations placed on them. There is the activity that has a teammate leading another teammate who has a blindfold on. A quick Google search lists many different options including ones that focus more on unity, ones designed to make you think and problem solve, and even ones that require little preparation and are easy to run. These are all great ideas and can lead to healthy interactions, debriefs, and unification of your team.

Bring in someone new.

Sometimes a change of the speaker or leader helps in great ways. We have a cool opportunity to work with a local school that is focused on providing education free of charge to families in financial need. We have many students from that school attend our program, so we brought someone in from the staff to share about how we can best minister to and care for those students. It was awesome and so much fun, and frankly better than anything I would have said about what we could do.

So who could you bring in? Maybe it is a volunteer to talk about how to lead small groups, perhaps it is a parent or another youth pastor, or maybe you could bring in a school employee or a local counselor. These new faces will allow your leaders to see the benefit of hearing from others and hopefully help them grow and become better leaders.

What sets your trainings apart? How can you encourage your leaders to attend them?

How Student Ministers can Engage Their Community

It can be easy for ministries to focus on what is happening within their environment only, or within the church. But our mission isn’t simply to focus on what is happening within our walls but instead to look outside of them as we seek to reach the world with the Good News.

We may train our students and volunteers to reach others, but unintentionally focus on just the ministry we lead. If we are seeking to lead by example and want to model what we teach, we must step out in faith and engage with our community in proactive ways. But how do we do that? Today I want to share a few ways–some more simplistic and others more encompassing–we can actively engage and reach our communities.

Be a part of the community.

For some leaders this is easier said than done because they live in their community. For others this will be more difficult because they don’t necessarily live in the town where their church is located. That is the case for us. We live about fifteen minutes outside of our church’s community, but that reality shouldn’t stop us from being a part of the community. Instead we have to be more intentional in being a part of it.

Make it a priority to go grocery shopping in your town, go to the local parks, visit the schools, go to National Night Out, go to Christmas tree lightings, visit local corn mazes, and whatever else may happen in your community. The key isn’t to do all of things, but instead to be intentional in engaging with your community at points and venues that matter most. This not only engenders you to the community but allows you to become a part of it. In so doing you have now become a vital and needed part of your community.

Utilize local businesses.

I love to do this because it helps our church reach people, and it also allows us to give back to the community. This can be done in a variety of ways including using a local printer for your bigger projects, having local restaurants or dessert shops cater your events, utilizing local promotional product vendors instead of national agencies, and by engaging with community centers to rent them out. There are other ways you can utilize businesses but the important part is that you are connecting with them and building relational and spiritual bridges that provide opportunities for your church to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Connect with schools.

Schools are a natural place for youth workers to get connected. For some youth workers this is easier to accomplish because they may only have a single school district that is connected to their church. For others, this is pretty difficult because they may draw from multiple school districts. Our church draws from five major districts and that doesn’t include the private schools, Christian schools, and homeschool students. If that is where you find yourself, you may be scratching your head at how to reach out to all of your schools. Let me encourage you to not look at this as something only you can tackle. Work with your team and leaders and share the load.

Regardless of where you find yourself as a youth worker, we all can connect with schools in really simple and meaningful ways. Email the administration to encourage them and let them know you want to be a resource, and drop off donuts for the front office or the teachers. Reach out to the Christian clubs and ask how you can help them out, drop off fresh baked cookies with notes from your church staff team, connect with the athletic director and see if they need a chaplain for their games. Ask your students how you can help them make an impact, and make sure to swing by for See You at the Pole. Even seemingly small things can have a huge impact when it comes to connecting with schools.

Collaborate with parachurch ministries.

If I am being honest, this is not something I am very good at. I often forget to reach out to these ministries in partnership and that is a big misstep. Recently, I was able to connect with our local Young Life chapter, and it was an awesome opportunity to share life with one another and consider how we can work together for the Gospel. As we chatted, I realized just how many of my students were participating in this parachurch ministry and it dawned on me that still other students were probably participating in others. If that is the case, why not come together to have a greater impact and reach?

Many parachurch ministries will reach students we may not have the opportunity or ability to reach, and their desire is to connect students with a local church. It is a perfect discipleship track, and one that churches and ministries can collaborate with and assist. Working with parachurch ministries gives both of the ministries an opportunity to not only reach more students but to have a more profound impact on the community.

Serve in the community.

This is one that probably feels the most burdensome because it adds a lot more onto our shoulders. But the truth of the matter is that it is only burdensome because we view it that way. Service for the kingdom of God is never meant to weigh us down or to feel overwhelming, but instead is a wonderful opportunity to help the Gospel go forth.

Often we may view service as another aspect of our job, and while that may be true to a certain extent, I believe we can leverage it so as to make service outside of our job feel taxing and unfair. But service is a gift and an opportunity. It is a way to put our gifts from God to use and to bless others. It is allowing the Spirit to work in and through us as we seek to love and care for others. So my encouragement first and foremost is to not let service become just another task, but instead let it flow from a heart that has been transformed as you love others. The more that you embody this mentality the more it will be replicated in students as they serve.

With that said, it is important for us to find ways to engage with our community through serving within it. It could be as a coach for one of the sports teams (and it doesn’t need to just be for students). It could be by volunteering in afterschool programs. Perhaps it is by hosting a lunch for the teachers in the school. Maybe you serve at the local foodbank. Or you could do neighborhood cleanups. The key with serving in the community is doing so of your own accord to help people see Jesus. It allows you to engage with people and to begin building relationships with the ultimate goal of helping them know Jesus.

Book Review: Attacking Anxiety

Would you say that your students struggle with anxiety, depression, or panic attacks? Have you witnessed the weight that your students are carrying? Have students shared how overwhelmed or burdened they are? What about you? How are you doing? Would you say your mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all doing well?

Recently I had shared about being on a mental health break from my job, and during my time away I read a recommended book by Shawn Johnson called Attacking Anxiety. This is a book I would highly recommend for anyone regardless of whether you are struggling personally or have people under your care who are.

The truth is that we will always come in contact with someone who may be struggling and this book provides insight, wisdom, tools, and resources we can use to help ourselves and others. This is a very personal book for me because it truly put into words the feelings, emotions, and thoughts I didn’t know how to express during my recent bout with mental health. I can say with extreme confidence that this is a book everyone leading in ministry (especially with students) should be reading.

Attacking Anxiety isn’t another self-help book, but instead is a very personal and reflective account from Shawn about his own struggle with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Shawn draws from his own story and struggles to help the reader fully understand the realities of mental health. But as he tells his story, he also highlights the ways in which we can have victory over the struggles we face.

Shawn acknowledges that this isn’t a “one-size fits all” approach, but the tools and resources that he shares are simply that: ways for us to helpfully and hopefully engage with our own mental health or those with whom we do life. It is a refreshing read that helps us understand that mental health is a complex issue and that the ways to address it are multifaceted and include God and our relationship with Him, counseling, medication, self-awareness, and much more. Shawn doesn’t dismiss one aspect or treatment for another but instead helps the reader to understand how unique and complex this issue is, and provides the reader with much-needed insight and resources.

The book is broken down into four sections: Know, Start, Stop, and Remember. The Know section is designed to help the reader understand that what they are going through isn’t something that only they have ever struggled with and that they aren’t alone. This section is truly meant to help the reader have hope even when life seems hopeless. The Start portion is all about the reader taking steps to fight back. Shawn highlights how mental health can be crippling but this was never God’s design or intent for humanity. Struggling with mental health is a direct result of the Fall, and because of that Satan loves to corrupt our minds and make us believe it is our fault, that we are the problem, and we are alone. Shawn challenges the reader to fight back against these lies and he outlines way we can do just that. This section alone is worth purchasing the book for as it helped me think through how I was responding to my own circumstances, and when I put these tools to work it helped immensely. My anxiety and depression didn’t magically disappear, but it became manageable and allowed for me to see how many supporters and advocates I truly have.

Section three, Stop, is helpful for anyone and everyone regardless of whether you are struggling with mental health. Shawn highlights things we need to Stop doing because they are actually keeping us from becoming fully healthy. Some of the areas he talks about include pretending that everything is okay, admitting if we are holding onto past hurt and unforgiveness, a desire to perform for critics, and comparison. Even as I reread this list, I am struck by how important and insightful each of these areas are for everyone regardless of their mental health. Holding onto these aspects and responses doesn’t mean we struggle with mental health, but prolonged engagement with them will undoubtedly affect your mental health in one way or another.

In the final section of his book, Shawn challenges us to remember that God is with us, God is working, and God has a plan. So often in mental health struggles we forget these truths. We forget that God hasn’t left us alone and that He is working all things out. In the thickness of the struggle we often miss that God is at work and sustaining us, and it is in this last section that Shawn reminds us of who our God is and the love He has for us. We are not alone, we are not forgotten. Instead we are deeply known, loved, and sustained. The section focuses on the hope we have and the reminder to rely upon God even in our darkest moments.

If you need one more reason to love this book, then don’t stop at the last section but continue on to the appendix. Here Shawn provides a very practical resource entitled “Panic Attack Survival Guide.” In the appendix we are given practical ways to move through a panic attack but Shawn also provides an additional guide for those who have loved ones going through a panic attack and how to love and care for them in the midst of it. This resource is invaluable and totally worth the cost of the book just to obtain this piece.

So if you’re wondering whether or not you should read this book, the answer is a resounding yes! The resources alone make the book worth purchasing and reading, but the additional information and insight into mental health are just as worthwhile. So let me encourage you to go out and purchase your copy today and use it to help yourself and others on their mental health journey.

Speaking Tips for New Youth Pastors

Is this your first ministry position? Are you feeling your pulse quicken and heart beat faster as you stand before your students? Is this your first time speaking to a group that is now yours to shepherd and lead?

We have all been, or will be, in that position at some point. Whether it’s your very first ministry position or your first time speaking in front of a new youth group or audience, speaking can be difficult. We can all feel rushed, overwhelmed, ill-equipped, terrified, and more. But when you are stepping in front of your group for the first time (or first few), it can be terrifying and that can lead us into some patterns that aren’t beneficial.

We can tend to speak too long our first few times and if left unchecked it becomes a habit we don’t know how to break. When we feel uncomfortable we can make jokes or poke fun at people we shouldn’t. When we think students are disengaging or being disruptive we can snap and get upset. Not having a plan in place and thinking through how communicate and speak well will lead us into a place that is very difficult out of which to rise. Today I want to offer you some tips on how to speak well to your group, especially if you’re a new youth pastor or in a new role.

Keep it short.

Sometimes when we start off with a new group we can tend to be a little too talkative. This doesn’t come from a bad place but from a desire to be clear, to make sure everything is communicated, and to build relational equity. But talking for too long actually detracts from all of those points.

Instead, look to keep your lessons to 15 minutes or less. You can always build them up to longer lessons as you build rapport and relationships within your ministry. A good metric to assess the timing of your lesson is to ask yourself if it could be broken into two shorter lessons. If it can be, it is most likely best to do so.

Know your group.

The more you know your group, the better prepared you will be to communicate with them. You may be wondering how to do this, especially if you are in week one of your new position. A few easy ways to build relationships early include getting to church and youth group early to meet people, initiating conversations rather than waiting for them to happen, playing games with your students, and connecting with your leaders before gatherings. If you put these aspects into place, you will begin to know more about your group, which will allow you to connect and engage with them at a deeper level.

Know your material.

This is something that is hugely important. I know most, if not all, of us would say we strive to know our material and what we are sharing. But how comfortable are you when something or someone throws you off your game? In a new setting you never know what could happen: a student could interrupt, your setting could be unusual and distracting, or someone could try to distract you. In those moments do you feel comfortable enough to disengage from teaching to engage the moment and then reengage with the teaching? Knowing your material means you are comfortable and able to audible when needed, and that you can handle whatever comes your way.

Slow down.

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in the northeast or if it just comes natural, but regardless of the reason I tend to be a fast talker. But when I talk fast, things can get lost or misunderstood. When people start in a new pastoral position the propensity can be to talk faster in an attempt to cram as much material as possible into each lesson. But this is not an ideal way to communicate. Instead slow down, be purposeful and intentional, and make sure to clearly articulate your points. Doing this will not only ensure that what is shared is heard but also retained and prayerfully applied.

Engage with your group.

This is a key point and one that I think many of us can struggle with. Whenever we stand before a group we have our expectations about how the group should function and how they should engage, respond, and focus on what we are saying. But have you noticed how our expectations and realities don’t always go hand-in-hand? You may want the group to be quiet and hyper-focused on what you are saying, but they may want to ask questions and interrupt. How do you handle that? Do you allow your frustration or unmet expectations to show?

Let me encourage you to engage with your group during your speaking time. Don’t get frustrated but instead respond well. When they make a joke, laugh if appropriate. If they ask a question, engage it. If they don’t seem like they are paying attention, consider alternatives to calling it out (pause and highlight the lesson’s importance, pause and pray to center hearts, consider that it may be best to dialogue in smaller groups, etc.). Engaging with your group shows them that you see and value them, and that this isn’t meant to be a top down, authoritative lecture but instead a discipleship pathway.

Control your emotions.

This is a good thing to do in any setting, but especially in front of students. Students are highly intelligent and they can easily assess how people are feeling based upon body language, interactions and conversations, ticks you may have (eye rolls, sighs, facial expressions, looking at the clock, etc.), or a failure to look at them as you speak. All of these highlight our internal emotions and students are acutely aware of them.

So as you engage with and speak to your students, make sure you are controlling your emotions. Don’t allow your frustrations to boil over into an outburst. Don’t get angry at your students for not paying attention. Don’t become passive aggressive in your comments. Instead pray before, during, and after you speak for a gracious heart and a joyful spirit. Be vigilant in practicing the Fruit of the Spirit. Practice smiling before you speak. Studies actually show that smiling releases endorphins that help you feel happy and relaxed. So take five to ten seconds before you speak to pray and smile.

Have fun.

This is one aspect I always try to remember. Yes, this is a career. Yes, we are expositing God’s Word. Yes, we are seeking to disciple students and help them on the path of living for Jesus. But as we do that, I believe we can also have fun. I truly believe that Jesus had fun and enjoyed life with His followers, and that we are to do the same. So when you are speaking, smile, tell a joke or funny story, be personal, and laugh when things don’t always go according to plan. The more fun you have while you are speaking the more value and passion you will have for the calling God has given you.