Words of Advice for Couples Starting Out in Ministry

This month we celebrated our ninth anniversary of being married. As we have reflected on the last nine years of marriage and fifteen of knowing one another, we have become acutely aware of things we wished we had known starting out in ministry together.

Within the last month of our engagement Nick lost his job. During our first month of marriage, we moved into our first home together, Nick got his first full time ministry position, and began commuting an hour and a half to his new job. About a month later we moved to our second place in a brand new town, Elise went from working in an office to working remotely, and Nick began working fifty to sixty hours a week.

The rest of that first year was filled with so many other unique challenges and blessings, and each of them forced us to grow and mature together. Looking back on that time there are so many realities and truths we wish we had known then that we have learned along the way, and we wanted to share with you a few tips to help you succeed not just in your marriage but also in your ministry as a couple.

Prioritize your relationship.

If I (Nick) am being honest, this was a struggle during our first couple of years of marriage because of my job and all of its commitments. I had my first full-time ministry position and it demanded a lot of my time. I was working sixty hours or more a week, my days off were not matched with Elise’s, and there way too many moments when we would simply see each other before we went to bed.

Looking back I truly wish I had prioritized our relationship over the ministry I was serving. Ultimately those first couple of years added much more weight and difficulty than we should have had, but I did not stand up and start making changes until a couple of years in.

Ministry is a calling from God but our relationship with our spouse should be our first priority after our relationship with God. Ministry then is a tertiary priority in the grand scheme of our lives. Let me encourage you to learn from my missteps and put your relationship with your spouse first. Prioritize time together. Make date nights a non-negotiable. Continue to go out on dates and vacations. Stop doing work at home. Spend time together and find ways to retreat and be with one another.

Listen well.

I don’t know if you are like me (Nick) or not, but there have been times when I would come home from work and just feel done. After being around people all day I don’t talk much and sometimes I am guilty of switching off. But there are also days that I would come home and I was/am a fire hose of words. I just dump everything on Elise and go a mile a minute when I am talking.

Neither of those options are beneficial to our relationship. I either am not listening or halfheartedly listening to Elise in the first scenario or I am doing all the talking and none of the listening in the second. What I have learned throughout our years of being together is that focusing on our relationship and truly listening to Elise is so important. When you allow your spouse to share about their day, you are prioritizing them and your relationship. You are highlighting that they and their day are just as important as yours. My advice would be to always seek to find balance in listening which means considering what and how much you say.

Over-communicate.

In light of what I just shared above, this may seem counterproductive. But hear me out: I am not saying that you need to talk all the time and that your relationship is simply both of you competing for time to talk. I am saying that a priority in your relationship should be communicating often and clearly about what is going on. Early on, I didn’t communicate all of the things that I needed to do for my job. In fact it would often be last minute where I would say things like “well, it’s time for me to go to work” without having shared my working hours previously. And honestly, that is the quickest way to devalue your spouse and make them feel like they aren’t a valid member of the relationship.

Instead, let me encourage you to over-communicate. Make sure your spouse knows your schedule. Communicate about what you have going on, who you are meeting with, ministry events, and your commitments. This is even more important if your spouse isn’t serving with you. One of the best ways to do this is through a shared calendar. We use Google Calendar and it is awesome! It has truly helped us be on the same page and to know what is going on. But at the same time, this cannot be your catch all. While a calendar is helpful, it is not a replacement for a true conversation that values the other person by sharing life and happenings with them.

Be honest.

Sometimes in relationships it is easy to just pretend that everything is okay. This doesn’t come from a malicious place or out of a desire to be deceitful, but more out of protection for our spouse. We think that by not sharing and avoiding the realities that we are facing, we are somehow sparing them further pain and struggle. But the truth is that the more we do that, the more distance and tension we are adding to the relationship.

I have struggled for years sharing how I am feeling with Elise. Not because I am trying to hide anything but that is just not how I was raised and with extensive trauma (ministry and personal) in my past, I don’t always know how to share. But as I have walked through this most recent season of struggling with mental health, I have come away with a renewed passion for how important honesty and transparency is in marriage.

As you are honest with one another it allows you to have not only a place of refuge and encouragement, but also someone who loves and supports you. Being honest strengthens the bond you and your spouse have and enables you to engage with anything because you know that you are always for one another.

Encourage and challenge one another.

Another key aspect to remember is that you and your spouse are a team and as such, you should be for one another. One of the ways Elise always is for me is by encouraging me and challenging me to utilize my gifts fully. I can often talk down about myself or the skills God has given to me, but Elise constantly encourages me and challenges me to reach my full potential. It is easy when you are first married to do this, but often as time goes on this can fade because we assume our spouse knows how we feel about them.

One of the best ways you can truly care for and support your spouse is by being in their corner. Help them to see the good. Encourage them and speak highly of them. Challenge them to grow and see their gifting from God. As you continue to be more supportive and encouraging to your spouse you will see the greater opportunity for growth and depth within your relationship with one another and with God.

Surrender your expectations.

Before setting off on a journey of marriage–and ministry–it’s normal to have expectations of how you think things should or will go. If you’re like us and you went to Bible college, you may think you have a pretty good understanding of ministry, theology, and how to “be a good Christian.” The reality is that college or seminary can only give you so much information. A lot of life, marriage, and ministry involves learning along the way. You will discover things and have experiences you never could’ve prepared for, and things will be both beautifully amazing and crushingly difficult.

Our encouragement is to let go of expectations, and the need to control. Instead, hold everything in an open hand to God and seek to learn and grow from what He is doing. He will give you the skills and abilities you need and His strength will carry you through both the difficult and the amazing. And let this apply to your spouse as well. Don’t look for ways to control them, instead strive to love them for who they are, celebrating their unique complexities as designed by God. We all long to be loved for who we are, and that is something we can seek to offer each other. As we do that, we create a safe space for each other to be shaped by a loving God as we individually and collectively seek to become more like Christ.

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.

Tips for Self-Care: Ask for Help

When do you ask for help? Is it when there’s a problem? Do you ask for help when you need it? What does asking for help look like for you?

These are important questions to consider because often asking for help isn’t something that is easy to do. Reflecting on when, how, and why we ask for help allows us to identify areas where we may need to grow. Asking for help may be seen as weakness, whether or not that is the truth. Our cultural, societal, and communal norms and expectations have championed the “do it on your own mentality,” and the subsequent feelings of failure if you don’t.

Because of this we often don’t ask for help and when we do, we typically only allow people to help in minor ways or give them something to do while still exercising direct control (i.e. micromanaging). This isn’t the help we need nor the help we should be seeking. Not asking for and obtaining the help we need will lead to burnout and tension because we will feel overwhelmed, overworked, and alone. So what should we do and how do we implement healthy strategies?

Simply put: let go of control and ask for the help you truly need. Putting it simply and simply executing this strategy are two very different realities, but if you can implement and execute this you will find yourself and your ministry in a much better place. When you ask for help it will be better for you overall, so here are some ways to look at what asking for help will afford.

Asking for help allows you to grow as a leader.

When a leader exercises humility, honesty, and transparency it helps them to truly lead with an open hand and total dependence upon God. Leaders who lead in this way demonstrate that they are not an island and need people which then facilitates growth, commitment, and ownership among those they empower and trust with helping them.

Asking for help allows your supervisors to care for and minister to you.

We don’t always think this way, especially when we are feeling burdened with finding solutions and fixing everything on our own. Often we will look at our supervisors and assume they don’t want to help or don’t care. But the reality is that they may not know how to help, especially if they haven’t served in your capacity and if you don’t tell them. Give your supervisors a fair chance to help by being honest and sharing about where you need help.

Asking for help means understanding it may not be done your way.

Are you like me, and enjoy seeing things done the right way…I mean my way? That’s the hard part with being in charge isn’t it? We do things certain ways because they work. We’ve gone through the trial and error and have made everything a well-tuned machine.

Releasing control and asking for help means that you need to trust other people to do things in a manner that may be different from how you have done it. Truthfully, that is really hard to do but in the same breath it is also really healthy and you may find new and better ways to do things. This also empowers other leaders to grow and flourish in their own leadership capacities and it creates ownership for the ministry.

Asking for help means releasing and not micromanaging.

It can be easy to ask for help but instead of releasing aspects and responsibilities freely, we dictate and micromanage our people. This approach does not actually lighten or ease your workload. Instead, it makes you work harder and faster because you’re constantly looking after others and correcting what they do to fit your desires. But doing this actually hurts you and the people who were tasked with responsibilities. You make yourself work harder and longer and you are communicating to your people that they aren’t trustworthy nor are they good enough. These options do not allow you to care well for yourself or for others. So seek to let go and allow others to flourish and grow as they take on more responsibility.

Asking for help means being willing to admit your weaknesses and dependency upon God.

In my experience it is easy to take total ownership of what you are doing and to place all the weight on yourself. That isn’t because we don’t want to have God involved in our ministry, but because we have such a strong responsibility for the calling God placed on our lives. Inevitably that leads us to a place where we don’t see, trust, or rely upon God in our ministry and that is problematic.

Let me encourage you to take some time and pause. Pause and identify weaknesses. Pause and take those before God. Pause and ask God to help guide and direct you as you lead the ministry He entrusted to you. As you seek to release control back to God by acknowledging your weaknesses, you are allowing for your strength and focus to become clear as you rely upon Him, the Author and Sustainer.

Tips for Self-Care: Advocate for Yourself

One of the main reasons we have started this series on self care is because we often don’t care of or advocate for ourselves. It is so easy when serving in ministry to put everything else first and relegate ourselves to a secondary or even tertiary place. This isn’t done out of some sort of self-deprecation but happens because we care deeply for the those we serve and the calling God has placed on our lives.

Often this can and will lead to a willingness and/or acceptance of deprecation in our lives, worth, and value. We will sacrifice time and energy, work over our allotted hours and many times end up working for free, take time away from family and friends, and live in an “if I can just make it through today” mentality. None of these aspects are healthy or helpful, nor do they endear you to remain in your current position or within ministry.

So what should we do? We need to advocated for ourselves. But how do we do this and do this without sounding arrogant or prideful? Here are five quick tips on how to advocate for yourself well:

1. Believe in what you are doing.

I say this not because we don’t believe in what we are doing, but because we can become weary when we are doing something that is overworking us or because we aren’t being cared for. And when that happens we will often just keep pushing ourselves hoping it will get better. What happens then is we stop advocating for ourselves because we don’t see the value in doing so. Remind yourself of what you do, why you do it, and why God called you specifically to do it! Then as you set this ground work, you will feel and believe that what you are doing is truly worth it!

2. Acknowledge your worth and value.

In talking with many people in ministry it is evident that they don’t always know how much they are worth. One of the additional pieces of beginning to advocate for yourself is acknowledging your worth. Your knowledge, expertise, skill set, education, and experience all help to showcase your worth and you should know that. As you see your worth and value, it allows you to highlight that as you advocate for yourself. Whether it’s for a pay raise or for more hours or for time off, these factors will help you weigh what is being offered and what should be offered.

3. Speak up and speak with clarity.

When it comes to actually advocating for yourself be mindful of what you want to say and actually say it. It isn’t always easy but it is necessary. It may feel uncomfortable doing so, but a couple of practical ways to do this include writing down what you want to say, explaining what you are and aren’t saying, and being clear in your desired outcome.

4. Be honest with where you are at.

Sometimes when we try to advocate we will continue to move forward even when the circumstances aren’t ideal. But that can lead to heartache, burnout, and more. So make sure to clearly share where you are at, what you are feeling, and what the result of continuing would mean for you.

5. Have someone advocate for or with you.

Sometimes even if we put the above points into practice we still struggle with advocating for ourselves. Or you may feel that no matter what you say or do that you aren’t being heard or valued. A great thing to do in those moments is to bring someone along who is a trusted friend and advocate for you so they can support you in the process. It is key when bringing an advocate that they are aware of the circumstances, what you desire of them, and how they should engage. It is also helpful to clear having an advocate with the person you originally were engaging with so as to not further complicate the situation or to seem as if you are stacking the deck.

How do you advocate for yourself? When do you struggle to advocate for yourself?

Tips for Self-Care: Reflective Journaling Prompts

When it comes to caring for ourselves, we need to engage with self-reflection and self-awareness. One way to do this is through reflective journaling. But if you’re like me (Nick), sometimes figuring out what to write about is difficult. We may not know what questions to ask, our thoughts seem to be all muddled together, and clarity isn’t manifesting.

In our post today we want to help you with that by providing journaling prompts. These are intended to help you respond and engage with what is happening in your life and career, and help you reflect on and interpret your emotions, responses, and ability to proactively move forward. These are prompts from both of us and questions that have been helpful to each of us at various points in our lives, careers, and marriage. Our hope is to offer direction in the practice of self-reflection which will guide you to the answers you need or provide you with the clarity you are seeking.

What am I feeling and why am I feeling this way?

  • Perhaps you’re like me (Nick) and identifying feelings is difficult for you. Let me challenge you to list out 3-5 words about how you felt that day or week and identify what made you feel that way. Doing this will help you navigate what is happening in your own heart and understand more about yourself.

What brings me joy each day?

  • Sometimes we can get in a rut and feel like everything is going wrong. But the truth is we can still find and experience joy in each day and moment. So identify what brings you joy and make sure to pursue that as often as you can so your soul can be renewed and refreshed.

What depletes me each day whether at home or at work?

  • Identifying these areas may not be the most fun or encouraging thing to do but it is necessary. When you identify these areas you are acknowledging that these are not the things that fill or renew you. You can also identify areas that can or need to be removed from your life so you can enjoy it and not be depleted.
  • While you may still have to focus on these areas or relationships, identifying them allows you to know that they shouldn’t get your all. In order to still accomplish them you need to fill your life with activities, people, and things that do bring you life so you can continue on.

How are you feeling about your current life circumstances? Work? Relationships?

  • There are times when we just need to be honest about how we are feeling in various circumstances or relationships. Journaling about this is a safe place to be honest and it also allows us to process through how and when we need to make changes or have conversations with others. It’s a place to collect, organize, and work out our thoughts and feelings before moving in any one direction.

What areas can I improve on? Are there areas I need to challenge others on?

  • There are always things we can improve on or grow in. That’s healthy self-reflection, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Use this time to think through growth areas in your life. But also think through the various relationships you have and if there are areas you can challenge and encourage others in. This is especially helpful if there is unresolved tension or hurt in a relationship.

What are some memories from this week that encouraged me and brought me joy?

  • Journaling is an opportunity to reflect on the goodness from the past day or week and to see how God has given you encouraging moments and relationships. So celebrate what is going well and use your journaling as an opportunity to celebrate and remember the good moments.

What questions do I have for God about where I am in life? What from His Word gives me hope and purpose?

  • Journaling helps us to put words and thoughts to our feelings and relationships. This is highly important when it comes to our relationship with God, and it affords us the opportunity to ask questions and seek out His purpose for our lives. So ask questions, seek clarity, and find your hope in Christ and His plan and purpose for your life.

What do I need to share with God?

  • Sometimes it’s easy to forget about sharing how we are feeling or what we are experiencing with God. We know He knows all and so we may not go into detail with Him. Let me encourage you to take it all to Him. Be raw and transparent with God. Share you emotions and feelings with Him. Express what you are thinking and experiencing. Doing so allows your relationship with God to become more authentic, transparent, and truly relational because you are actively doing life with Him.

Tips for Self-Care: Pursue Meaningful Friendships

I don’t know if you’re like me, but most of my relationships and friendships revolve around the church and the ministry I lead in particular. It’s only been in recent years that I have begun to build friendships outside of the immediate church community of which I am a part.

That isn’t to say that relationships from within the church are bad, problematic, or wrong, but they do present various challenges. If those are the only relationships that you have it will lead to feeling the tension of always functioning as a ministry leader or pastor. It will be hard to disengage from “doing” ministry even when hanging out with friends. It will often feel like you cannot turn off. And it may even feel like the relationships lack depth because you can’t share everything as some information is only for staff or people removed from the overall conversation.

My recommendation would be that you do one of three things:

  1. Build relationships outside of the immediate church community where you can be fully open and authentic.
  2. Build relationships within the church, but for the closer ones be willing to have relationships where you don’t have to be church staff and your friends will honor that.
  3. Put together a hybrid model of options one and two where you can have authentic and transparent relationships.

Meaningful friendships can develop within the church you work at but I would encourage you to truly make sure it can be fully authentic. I have a few really close friends at my church and each of them have let me know I can be 100 percent real and honest with them. In fact, a couple of them have students in our program and they have said if they need me to be a pastor, they will ask me to put on the “pastor cap.” That is so freeing because I know don’t need to be “on” or looking to be a certain way and can just be myself with my buddies. So if you have meaningful friendships within the church, make sure you have the freedom and ability to fully be you without the pressure of being a staff member of the church.

Building friendships outside of the church isn’t the easiest but they can be very fulfilling. Consider becoming a part of a church softball or ultimate Frisbee league. Go to a small group outside of your church. Get involved in a coaching program or a cohort. Connect with other youth pastors in your community. Pursue friendships from college or seminary. In these places you will find people who understand and can relate, but also have no context for what you have going on at work so you are free to authentically share. Let me strongly encourage you to put value and effort into these relationships as they will be very meaningful and impactful.

Having a meaningful friendship allows you to have the community that you are designed for. It creates a safe place for you to share how you are feeling, what is happening at work, and highs and lows without fear of judgement or having to be guarded in what you share. It allows you to feel valued, needed, and loved. And most importantly it fills your tank and helps you to recharge so you can continue to serve.

What encourages you most in your authentic relationships? What is challenging about finding and maintaining those relationships?

Tips for Self Care: Bringing Things to Completion

This week we are starting a brand new series called “Tips for Self-Care.” Installments will pop up periodically with the goal of encouraging you and sharing ways to care for yourself. Often in ministry we are so focused on caring for others that we forget or forsake taking care of ourselves. But the problem with that is this: not caring for yourself leads to depletion which leads to burnout which leads to bitterness and resentment which leads to leaving ministries and churches. The sad reality is that when we are leading from a place of depletion we aren’t only hurting ourselves but also those we are to minister to.

These posts will be shorter in length as they are meant to give practical and tangible ways to care for yourself so you can fully be the minister God has called you to be. These “snack sized” posts are designed to be encouraging and life-giving, and they come from a place of learning and experience that we have had to walk through ourselves. This week we want to talk about “accomplishing and completing things.”

Have you ever noticed how in ministry the work is never done? For every one student who’s tracking with Jesus, ten more a struggling with their faith. For every senior who graduates a new sixth grader or freshman starts. For every milestone you achieve another two or three new goals manifest. There is always another message, event, or activity to prepare for or attend. It just feels like there is always more to do and the work is never accomplished.

That weight can be overwhelming and debilitating because it bogs you down and continues to make you feel like you haven’t succeeded or accomplished anything. We are designed in God’s image and because of that we are designed to do good works and to help them come to completion. As ministers and children of God our heart yearns to do good works and to see them finalized because we are longing for the completion that we will see in heaven. But when we don’t see that happen it can just cause pain, sadness, and feelings of anxiety and depression. So how can we actually work toward accomplishing things when it seems the work is ever growing?

I think one of the easiest ways to combat those negative feelings and our desire for completion is to actually do tasks that you can accomplish. These don’t need to be ministry focused, although they can be, but they should be tasks that you can do and see through to completion. Here are some suggestions for things or activities to do:

  • Organize and clean your office.
  • Organize, clean, and/or spruce up your youth areas.
  • Read a book all the way through.
  • Cut your grass or plant flowers.
  • Fold your laundry.
  • Complete a puzzle.
  • Pick up a new hobby where you can see things accomplished (art, candle making, wood working, lettering, working on cars, landscaping, etc.).
  • Travel to destinations you have always wanted to go to but haven’t.
  • Save up for something you wanted to buy for yourself but haven’t yet.

All of these may sound like minor things but as you actually see them come to fruition, they allow you to release and decompress all while knowing that you have accomplished something. My suggestion would be to start small with what you are hoping to complete because that gives you more potential to actually see it through. If you seek to complete larger, more grandiose tasks, you may find yourself not meeting them as often and that will lead to more feelings of inadequacy and frustration. So seek to find ways to accomplish tasks in your own life and celebrate those moments! Be proud of what you have completed and be willing to share about it.

What are some ways you seek to accomplish and complete tasks in your life?

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.

Help! I Feel Ill-Equipped!

Have you ever had a hard day? Was it ever compounded by the reality of a lack of training or knowledge? Has there ever been a conversation or question where you had no idea how to respond or engage?

Perhaps it was when a mom came into your office and shared that her husband was abusive. Maybe it was a student who shared they are thinking of transitioning. Perhaps a student shared about the propensity to self-harm and that they’ve thought about taking their own life. Maybe there was a suicide in your community or your group and people have come to you for help and guidance all while you are grieving.

If you haven’t been in a situation or context where you weren’t prepared for what unfolded, I can tell you there will be moments in your life that this will happen. I don’t say that to instill fear, doubt, or worry, but to be a realist and help us understand there will be times we are unprepared or ill-equipped. The goal is to be better prepared so we can respond well when they do happen.

These types of issues should give us pause to think through our training and knowledge, and also force us to acknowledge where we are lacking in our training and skill set. The reality is we cannot master all areas and we cannot be all things to all people. So what are we to do in moments like these? Let me offer a few helpful thoughts.

Know your resources.

One of the best things you can do to help yourself be more prepared and equipped to handle various circumstances is to know and utilize your resources. Get to know the various agencies in your community including but not limited to emergency services, counselors, other pastors, crisis agencies, various hotline numbers, doctors and nurses, and therapists. When you are networked in this way, you have more resources and referrals at your disposal that will help you offer better and more holistic care for your people.

Study areas you are weak in.

This is a big one for anyone in ministry. We should always seek to be lifelong learners and in doing so, we should seek to grow in areas we are lacking. Many ministers are referred to as counselors, but most of us are not trained counselors and our experience in that area is lacking. So I would encourage you that should you be lacking in an area, seek to grow in it.

Whether it is counseling, homiletical practice, developing leaders, formulating small groups, or any other area that is a part of your purview, seek out resources and opportunities to help you grow. Read books, meet with mentors, take classes, listen to podcasts, meet with people who are skilled and trained in those areas, and never stop learning. In doing this you will become not only more trained in those areas but you will also become a better minister as you better understand your craft and how to care for others.

Talk to experts.

This is something that is incredibly helpful and goes hand in hand with studying and seeking to be a learner, but it is a little more tangible. Seek to gain insight from experts in various fields. Talk to counselors about how they would approach various topics. Ask for advice and guidance in how to care for people. Talk to crisis intervention specialists and ask how you can help students and families in a time of crisis and what you should and should not do or say. Talk to health experts about how to care well for students who are struggling with different health issues. If these experts are not readily available in your community, consider reaching out to different networks and finding ways to connect and engage with experts elsewhere.

Be willing to just listen.

Often when people come to us to talk about what is going on in their lives they aren’t coming to look for all the answers right away. People come because they need someone to just listen and be present with them. So practice listening well and seeking to be fully present when someone comes to you. Whether it is by turning off distractions like your phone, taking notes, making eye contact, or all of the above, listening and being present in those moments will allow you to better care for and understand how to afford more holistic care.

Manage your time.

Handling these types of situations can be difficult and time consuming. There really isn’t a way to set aside your time in advance for these moments because they are often organic situations that happen as things manifest. But as these situations occur you will find that you want to be all-in and that is a good thing, but when we do that we may find ourselves being overwhelmed and depleted because of how much we give. So let me encourage you to think through how and when you can give of yourself. Know your time limitations and what you can give. It won’t always be convenient when these conversations happen, but if you structure your schedule well, you will be able to identify how much time you can give and when you can give it.

Find a way to decompress and refresh.

The truth is that these moments are heavy and difficult to carry. I would love to tell you that the more equipped, resourced, and prepared that you are, the easier these moments will become. But that isn’t true. Walking with and shepherding people involves all of who you are. Your heart will break, you will empathize and sympathize in a variety of ways, you will weep and rejoice, you will ask questions, and watch poor choices being made. We may be able to compartmentalize one circumstance or moment, but added ones compound our own hurt and emotions.

So in order to handle this well and to continue leading and caring for your people, you must find ways to decompress and refresh. Find what encourages and renews you and engage with those areas and make them a priority. Talk to someone about what is going on. Meet with a counselor regularly. Take breaks. Set boundaries. Putting these aspects into place will enable you to better care for yourself as you care for others.