How to Care Well for Students [Part 1]

Many of us are returning from trips this summer and while there you probably had students open up to you about their struggles, sins, hopes, and dreams. These are the moments we have been praying for. The moments when God grabs their hearts in big ways and moves them toward change and seeking direction. And when that happens they often seek out their leaders and pastors for insight, direction, and help in attaining these changes.

These types of moments aren’t limited to camps and trips; it could just be a simple night at youth group when students are sensing the Spirit of God moving in their lives. Regardless of when or how these moments happen, we must be prepared and ready to walk with them and help them move forward in making the needed life changes. Today, I want to provide you with some helpful ways to do just that, and next week I’ll share a few more that have to do with taking steps forward in this process with your students.

Establish trust.

This is paramount to helping your students grow and mature in their relationship with Jesus. In order to care well for students they first need to trust you. If students don’t trust you, they won’t be honest with you. So be a person they can trust. Be someone who not only honors what they share, but also someone who follows up and truly cares for them. Doing this will allow your students to see that your actions and words match, which then allows them to trust you which will give them the opportunity to be honest with you when God moves in their lives.

Listen.

Students are going to come to you with a wide range of topics and if we are honest, some of those topics are not exciting nor do they grab our attention. Students could spend hours talking about video games or the new meme that is going around. And I think for many of us, it is easy to disengage during those moments. But what I have seen and learned is that students will use those discussions to test the waters with their leaders. They want to see if you care about them and they measure our level of care by how we listen.

Are you paying attention? Have you maintained eye contact? Did you ask clarifying questions? Or did your mind wander? Did you look at your watch or phone? Students see all of this and truly want someone who will love them and listen.

What I have also seen is that these types of conversations are also the bridge to a larger, more serious conversations. Students are looking to see if you can be trusted to listen to something seemingly insignificant so they will be able to discern if you can be trusted with heavier, more personal conversations. At camp this summer, I had a student who opened up and shared their heart with me because I spent time getting to know them in middle school. They said “Nick, the reason I came to you is because I knew after our first conversation when I was in middle school that you are a safe person who cares about me.” So seek to listen well and honor your students as you care for them.

Ask clarifying questions.

This is a big one as you seek to listen well. Part of listening well is seeking to understand and you do this by asking questions. But be intentional with those questions. Seek to gain a better and fuller understanding of what is being shared. State back what you heard and ask if that was correct. Ask about how people felt. Seek to understand what brought the student to this moment. Find out who else was or is involved in this moment. These type of clarifying questions will help you in how you minister to and care for your students.

Utilize leaders.

This is huge because it not only gives students a wider support network but also affirms and values your leaders and their gifting. Bringing in small group leaders to walk with students helps them to build a network of people who will walk with and care for them. If a student is open about a struggle they are dealing with on a continual basis, you have afforded them multiple contacts to reach out to should they need help. This can be a very real life-saving opportunity and it will help to ensure that your students are cared for and have people in their corner. By bringing your leaders in you are also giving a wider ability to offer care and affirming your leaders. You are allowing them to take the leadership role you have entrusted them with and care for their students.

Follow up.

After the initial interaction with a student, make sure to follow up with them. Depending on what is shared will necessitate when the follow up should be (i.e. if it is more severe or life-threatening, the follow up should be fairly quick, whereas a less severe scenario may be in a couple of days or longer). The follow up shows a student that you heard them, love them, and are committed to walking with and helping them. This is an opportunity for you to truly care and engage in the discipleship process with them.

Follow up will look different depending on what was shared but should at the very least involve a text or phone call, but in the best circumstances, should be an in-person meeting to talk, process, and come up with a plan to move forward. This is also an opportunity for you to pray with them, share Scripture, and help them to see things from a biblical perspective.

What has been the best method of caring for students that you have used or implemented?

Motives + Ministry: Asking the Hard Questions

In the realm of ministry, if you’re a leader, you have a following. If you have a following, you have a platform. And if you have a platform, you have power. This can be easily noticed in the era of technology, social media, and constant connection. But if you look back over time, it’s always worked this way. People who are followed, listened to, and emulated always have power.

How we as ministry leaders use the power we possess ultimately comes down to the motives of our hearts. And if we aren’t careful to check our motives, we can easily be swept away in the allure of having a platform, building a following, and achieving our version of success.

None of us is perfect, which is why at times it’s important to ask some difficult questions of ourselves. It’s vital that we check our motives, and realign our desires and priorities with God and his directives. Failure to keep ourselves in check can lead us to a place that might look alluring, but ultimately takes us where we don’t want to go.

Today I want to suggest a few questions to ask yourself, and things to think through as you consider your leadership, your goals and aspirations, and of course, your motives.

Ask: What is my short-term goal, what is my long-term goal, and do they align?

It’s not wrong to set goals for yourself and your life, but I would encourage you to fight to make sure they align with God, his word, and his calling for your life. In whatever you hope to achieve, remember that he is the one who will open doors, provide for you, and lead you to where you should go. Don’t bypass what he has for you or overlook it in pursuit of something you believe to be better. Sometimes the best things he has for us are in the most unlikely places. I encourage you to be present where he has you, and to give your best and your all.

In different seasons of life, you may have different short-term goals. But when you step back and look at your life, what is your over-all, long-term goal? What do you feel God calling you to do with your existence? What do you hope to accomplish with your life? At the end of your days, what would indicate a life well lived? Keep the answer to these questions in mind as you set short-term goals. In the day-to-day it can be easy to be distracted by momentary things, whether fame, financial stability, or experiences. Don’t let short-term goals cloud your vision for your life and calling. Fight to keep the short-term in line with the long-term.

Ask: How am I going about getting to where I want to be?

In a day when it is so easy to build a widespread platform thanks to the connectivity of social networks and the internet, it can almost be an expectation that to be successful in any field you must be an “influencer,” and have an online following. You may have a goal of gaining a certain number of followers on Instagram, or readers on your blog, or subscribers to your YouTube channel. You may feel like this will open doors for you in the future, giving you more notoriety, validity or importance.

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing about God, what he’s teaching you, or what you’re doing in ministry online, I think unchecked it can lead to more. A social media platform can easily go from a way to reach people to a way to use people, leveraging them to get what you want. Things can quickly become less about sharing a message and more about you, the messenger. And in this, your focus can shift from God to yourself.

Whatever your goal, and whatever you’re pursing, be wise in how you get there. Don’t lose yourself, or your pursuit of Christ and his calling, in the process. This brings to mind Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:26 (and if you remember Michael Tait’s stint as a solo artist, the song “Empty), “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Don’t let the things of this world woo you away from your true purpose.

Ask: Who am I trying to emulate?

Is there someone you idolize, whose career you’d like to achieve, or whose leadership style you imitate, who you feel is showing you the way you should go? Is there someone you are trying to be? When it comes to ministry, it can be easy to put other ministry leaders on pedestals, wishing we had their qualities, platforms, possessions, or opportunities. We can even try to become them, imitating what they are doing, how they dress, or their speaking style. While it’s not wrong to appreciate other leaders, left unchecked it can lead to a form of worship.

Besides the obvious issue of idolizing and worshiping a person, pursuing someone else’s life and ministry means ignoring your own. And over time you will miss out on becoming the person God has made you and intended you to be. The best and only person whom you should be trying to emulate is Jesus. He will lead you in the best direction you could ever go, to become the best person and ministry leader you could ever be. Don’t give up the best for a life spent imitating other people.

Ask: Do I have love?

This may sound like an odd question to include with the others, but stick with me. Lots of times when Christians read 1 Corinthians 13, it’s at a wedding, or some other celebration of romantic love. But I think its scope is much more broad, applying also to our lives at leaders and ministers of the Gospel. We can achieve a lot, accomplish important things, do good work, and preach amazing sermons, but absent of love, it all means nothing.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Absent of love, our efforts are futile. 1 Corinthians 13 verses 4 and following go on to spell out what real love looks like lived out. It manifests Christ-likeness in our lives, shaping us into not only effective ministers of the Gospel, but people who look like Jesus. So as you’re thinking about where you want to go, and working to get there, are you cultivating love in your life? Are you keeping the “main thing” the main thing?

Asking yourself these questions ins’t intended to make you feel bad, or so that you can punish yourself if you get off track. The idea is to build in course-correction, which may become necessary with the passing of time. There is a reason why we find repetition so often in the Bible, and it’s because we are prone to forget. Let us not forget or grow weary of fighting the good fight, it is absolutely worth it.

Caring for Volunteer Leaders on Trips

Many of us are preparing for summer trips after a year of not having them. You have planned for hours, you’ve prepared your team, hosted trainings, figured out all the details, and now you’re ready to go. But what about your leaders?

Most of us have volunteer leaders who go on trips with us, but how often do you consider blessing and caring for them before, during, and after the trip? Our leaders give up vacation time, finances, time with family, sleep, and much more to engage in these discipleship moments with their students. As the leaders of the ministry we serve in, we have an obligation to care for and bless our people, especially during these moments. So how do we do this well?

Consider covering the cost of the trip for your leaders.

This is something that could be huge in caring for and encouraging your leaders. I know that this may not be an option for all ministries, but I would encourage you to think about implementing this in some capacity. Our leaders already sacrifice so much to come on trips that having them pay for the trip can feel a little insulting. So consider implementing a way to cover some or all of the cost for them.

  • Contact the camp or organization you are partnering with and see if they offer a reduced rate for leaders. Many offer reduced rates and some don’t make leaders pay at all. It never hurts to ask.
  • Consider building the cost of paying for your leaders into your annual budget. If you plan for it ahead of time, you can prepare your budget accordingly. This doesn’t have to be used to cover all of the cost if you aren’t able to, but it could be used to offset the overall cost.
  • Consider breaking down the cost of your leaders into the cost that students pay for the trip. Before doing this, make sure it is okay with your church leadership. Some will not allow this, others may ask you to hold parent forums to explain it, and still others may simply give you the green light.
  • Set up a scholarship fund for your leaders. Do not let this dominate over providing scholarships for your students, but have this as an additional way people in your church could show that they care about pouring into the next generation and the leaders who care for them.

Acknowledge them before others.

I love bragging on my leaders and letting them know how awesome they are. But even more than simply saying it to them, acknowledge them in front of others. Talk about how necessary leaders are to your church body. When a leader does something awesome for their group, recognize that to the group. If they did something to help, acknowledge them before the youth group.

Now I will say be cautious in how you do this. Some leaders do not like to be recognized for various reasons. So do not seek to embarrass them or potentially make them feel put out by doing this. Knowing your people and how to best encourage them will give you clarity in how to proceed in recognizing them.

Keep your leaders in the loop.

This includes before, during, and after the trip. Let them know about key things like schedules, objectives, training, and all other important details to keep them in the loop and not having to rely upon spur of the moment decisions or changes. When you do this, it not only gives them an understanding of what is happening but it also tells them that they are valuable and you see them as equals on this trip. You are elevating them and highlighting how critical they are.

Provide them with an intentional gift.

If I am honest, this is probably one of my favorite things to do for my leaders. I love being able to bless them with a gift before we go on a trip to show them how much they mean to me, our students, and our church. The gifts will largely depend on budget, number of leaders going, and the length and intensity of the trip. Do not feel that the gift must be extravagant or expensive. Instead seek to provide an intentional gift that reflects how much you care about them. If you can tie it into your trip somehow, that’s an added bonus. I also try to find gifts that our leaders can use outside of the trip in everyday life. Here are a few suggestions for gifts to give to your leaders:

  • A backpack or drawstring bag that has your ministry name and/or logo on it. And added plus would be filling it with a handwritten note, snacks, and different “supplies” (see the next point for more info) for the trip.
  • A water bottle or Yeti that features your youth group logo.
  • A nice warm blanket for those winter trips.
  • A nice journal with their name on it and a handwritten note from you on the first page.
  • A hoodie, t-shirt, or zip up jacket. Consider putting a fun saying, your logo, or your leaders’ names on them as well.

Have a leaders-only space or trip survival bags.

Whenever possible, find ways to bless and encourage your leaders throughout the trip. This could be by designating a leader-only space that has comfortable seats and couches, snacks and drinks for leaders only, and has a place for them to just breathe. It could also be by giving them trip survival bags. These are bags with resources to help them get through the trip and can have a mixture of practical, funny, and relational resources. Here is a quick list of some items to put into the bag or have in a leader-only lounge:

  • Chapstick
  • Earplugs
  • Advil, AdvilPM, and Tylenol
  • Candy bars
  • Non-chocolate candies (i.e. Skittles, Starbursts, gummy bears, licorice, etc)
  • Tea and coffee
  • Gatorade or Propel
  • Energy drinks
  • Sleep masks
  • Water bottles
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Airborne
  • Chips and snack mixes
  • Cookies and sandwich crackers

Check in with each leader during the trip.

While you are on the trip, make sure to intentionally connect with each leader and make sure it is more than a 1-2 minute check-in. Carve out time to truly sit and listen to how they are doing, what has gone well, what they need encouragement for, and pray for them. A great way to spend the time is to buy them a cup of coffee and share the time it takes to drink that coffee simply listening to and encouraging them.

Thank their family for letting them come.

This is one you can do before, during, or after the trip or use a combination of these to reach out to families. We don’t often consider the sacrifices our volunteers make so recognizing their families and thanking them for allowing their loved one to come is a big deal. It could be a text or phone call beforehand. It could be a handwritten note. It could be a public thank you before the trip. Maybe it is a text midweek with a photo of their spouse or parent shepherding students and a quick thank-you for letting them care for their students. Or maybe it’s a follow up note after camp talking about how God used them.

Write them a card.

Nothing says “I love you” and “I see you” more than a handwritten card or note. I love to send our leaders to camp with a personalized thank you note because I want them to know how valuable they are. But I would encourage you to consider giving out notes or cards during the trip as well. Highlight how you’ve seen your leaders serve and lead, point out how you have been encouraged by them, and consider giving them a gift card or credit to the snack shop if there is one. I would also suggest writing a follow up card after the trip to each of your leaders thanking them. These types of intentional notes will generate buy-in and commitment to the ministry because your people will see that you are committed to them.

Crafting a Ministry Vision and Purpose

No matter the ministry or setting we are in, it is important for us all to implement a vision and purpose. A vision and purpose will provide clarity, direction, and longevity to a ministry, as well as provide those within it something to buy into and hold onto. It helps ministries to have a focus which will drive everything they do, and it also helps people jump on board and become a part of what’s happening. A vision gives ministries an identity and focus as they pursue a common purpose.

The question before us is how do we do this, and how do we do it well? Today, my desire is to give you insight and direction on how to begin building a vision for your ministry, and also to help you think critically about what your ministry is and how to help make that the focus going forward.

Know the vision of your church.

As you begin to think through the vision and purpose for your ministry, know your church’s vision. Knowing this will allow for your focus to be in alignment with the church overall and to bring consistency and clarity rather than adding another layer of complexity that could lead to confusion. This will also help you to work better with the church leadership overall and make sure that there is continuity within the church.

Center your vision on the Gospel.

Whenever you are developing a vision and gauging input from multiple sources, it is easy to simply see a plan and a desire and run after them. But we cannot forget the central piece to our vision: the Gospel. Without it, we are simply formulating a plan for another program or service, not a ministry. So as you begin to think through what your vision will look like for your ministry let me encourage you to do two things:

  1. Be in constant prayer about what you are doing. It is easy to simply allow prayer to take a back seat in many areas of our lives. But as we seek to clarify, discern, and ultimately implement a vision for a ministry, we must make sure we are seeking out God’s will and direction which is what truly guides and directs us.
  2. Make the Gospel the reason for and center of what you are doing. Remember that out of the Gospel comes everything we do, say, and think, and as such it should guide our visions, purposes, and programs.

Identify the priorities of the ministry.

This is one aspect that can present unique challenges, especially depending on how many avenues of input you have. Often you will hear people champion priorities they desire or that they believe will make or break a ministry. One of the churches I worked at had multiple leaders who were adamant about going back to a summer camp they had gone to when they were in the program. But the camp’s programming didn’t fit with the overall goal of seeking a discipleship-oriented approach to help our students grow. This didn’t mean it was a bad idea, but it needed to be measured and discerned as to whether it fit with the vision of our ministry.

So as you listen, as you seek to identify the priorities, make sure to hold them against the ultimate goal. If you are looking to curate a discipleship-focused ministry, will all aspects meet that goal? If you are looking to cultivate an environment of invitation, will hosting sword drills bring people in? As you think through these priorities make sure you discern what is best for the goal you are running after.

But, just as a quick aside, remember that what may not seem like a good idea to you now, was once someone’s great idea. So don’t simply dismiss away an approach, idea, or philosophy. Instead approach it with love and grace and be willing to listen and walk through those conversations with others.

Don’t rush or allow the process to slow.

This point sounds like it is in conflict with itself, but the main idea I want to get across is this: the process of establishing and implementing a vision and purpose can and will take time. So do not try to rush through the process. If you try to rush the process people will not feel heard. If you rush the process you will miss key components. If you rush the process you may not allow for God to wholly speak into it and simply frame it based on humanistic desires.

But the opposite is also true: do not intentionally slow down the process. Don’t delay out of fear. Don’t pause because you don’t feel like moving ahead. Don’t slow down because it is hard. This process can be difficult because it will force you to wrestle with key thoughts or patterns that you held that may not align with the vision. Or it could be difficult trying to hear and work with everyone. But that is evidence of the necessity of a consistent vision. Without a vision to unite a team, there will always be disunity. But with a clear and worked through vision you will see people rally to it, and all of the hard work will be worth it.

Bring others in.

It is important to bring your staff team, key volunteers, and key students and families into this process. This can look different depending on your ministry context, and that’s okay. Perhaps you want students involved throughout, or maybe just at key points. Or you could want your staff team to engage with key volunteers to gain insight into the planning process.

Regardless of how you bring others in, make sure to listen and hear what they say. They will bring perspectives and insight you may not have considered, but these perspectives could help in shaping a vision and purpose that is Christ-focused and understanding of your ministry context.

Ask key questions.

By asking key questions of yourself and your team, you will be able to begin to see patterns, themes, and consistent values emerge. They may not all be phrased the exact same way, but you will hear and see them as you engage in these conversations. Not only will asking these questions help you to frame the insight you will receive, it will also allow for individuals to speak into the process and be heard. These questions are not the only ones you should ask, but they are ones that will help you begin to identify and frame out a vision for your program.

  • Why does our program meet?
  • What are we offering to our students?
  • What is unique about our program and what we offer?
  • What do we desire our program to be?
  • Who are we trying to reach through our program?
  • What are the key values of our program?
  • What is different between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • What is the same between the days/evenings that we meet?
  • If you were to write out a vision statement for our program, what would it be?
  • If you were to craft purpose statements for each of the times we meet, what would they be?

What is the vision statement for your ministry? What are some ways that you worked to craft it and hone your ministry’s purpose?

Caring for Students Who are Exploring Their Identity

“Nick, guess what?! I’m asexual!”
“Alright…when did you realize that?”
“This past week while talking to my friend who is too. I don’t like boys or girls.”
“Thanks for telling me this, have you let your parents know?”
“Yeah! Right before we got to church just now.”

This was a conversation I won’t soon forget, and probably represents the way that many of us hear that our students are questioning or exploring their identity. Often it occurs in quick conversations where a student suddenly drops that their identity or sexuality has switched or changed, and we have to know how to engage in those moments. There will be times when the conversations are more intentional and focused, but those are not as frequent. It is also helpful to remember that when these conversations happen, our responses to them are immensely important because students are testing the waters to see if we are trustworthy people.

I want to make it clear that the purpose of this post is neither to be affirming nor non-affirming. Instead, the intent is to give student workers helpful ways to care for students and insight into how to respond when faced with these conversations.

Listen well.

Listening is huge in these moments. Often when a student shares that they are struggling or questioning or changing their identity they are looking to see how you respond. Will you affirm or disapprove? Will you love them or cast them out? Will you listen or seek to challenge? Your response will dictate where the relationship goes from that moment on, so I would encourage you to simply listen. Let the student share their story. Let them talk through how they got to this decision. Help them see that you are for them by giving them space to be themselves and share. This is one of greatest things you could do in these moments.

Include parents.

Often when students come to us as youth workers it is because we are people they trust and know that we love them. They don’t often feel the same when it comes to their parents for a variety of reasons. These may not all be true and may be assumptions on the part of the student, but regardless the fear and anxiety of including parents can be very real for some students.

In these moments it is highly important for you to challenge the student to bring their parents into the conversation. But don’t let them have that conversation alone. Walk with them. Be present during it. Be the mediator and advocate in those moments. And always encourage your students with the truth that no matter the response, you will always be there for them.

Follow up.

Follow-up is really important in these types of conversations. As I stated earlier, students are often searching to see how you will respond and if you will be someone that they can trust. Part of the trust factor is our willingness and ability to follow up with them. Check in and see how they are doing. Thank them for opening up to you. Invite them out for coffee to hear their story. See if they have brought in other believers and the parents. Doing this will not only help your students see that you love them but it will also allow you to have a more holistic understanding as you continue to build and strengthen the relationship.

Seek clarity.

Often when talking with students, I am reminded how confusing these times are for them. They are developing in many ways, they are asking countless questions, and they are being bombarded by different messages from all sides. Because of this they may not even fully understand what they are saying, experiencing, or feeling. I am not trying to discount or discredit any one student, but there have been students who truly don’t know what to say or how to express it, and because of that they may say something they didn’t intend to.

At the same time, seeking clarity on what has been going on, how their home life is, how people have received them, and what the student has perceived is paramount in making sure you love and care for them well. A student may not have had a well received conversation with their parents and you may not know this unless you ask. Or a student may be scared about opening up and as you seek to understand you will gain valuable insight into why. This will in turn help you to better care for your student and guide subsequent interactions and conversations.

Know your stuff.

So often students and parents will come to us seeking understanding and clarity in these moments. Because of that, it is so important to have a working knowledge surrounding these conversations. Dig into resources, understand what people mean when they define themselves, seek to have an understanding of definitions and terms, and know what the Bible says. I know that there will be many perspectives to consider and that you may not be as well versed as people who study this for their career. But we are shepherds to our people and should know how to care for them well and this is an important way to do just that. So seek out information and understanding so you can better relate to, care for, and disciple your students.

Love well and don’t break fellowship.

This is one of the biggest aspects we must follow through on in order to care well for our students. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions being made, the lifestyle choices, or the implications of decisions, you have an obligation to still love students and care for them. Too many individuals and churches alike are willing to break fellowship with someone who is walking through these moments, and that has hurt far too many people. We are simply called to love people and show them Jesus because He loves them and desires a full and whole relationship with them. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, but it does mean you walk with them and love them as you show them Jesus. Your job isn’t to condemn, judge, cut off, or cast out, but instead is to show them Jesus and how the Holy Spirit can work in their lives.

So let your students know you are for them. Show them that they are loved and have a place. Help them experience the love of Jesus. In fact, I would argue that these students need more of our love and focus because they won’t be experiencing it from other places as much as their peers may be. These are students who already feel isolated, anxious, and vulnerable and we have an amazing opportunity to love and care for them. That is a high calling and doing so will allow us to truly invest in their lives, speak truth, and walk with them well as we point them to Jesus.

Building Sustainable Summer Programming

Summer is quickly approaching and with guidelines being lessened, it seems more ministries are ramping up for programming. This is such an amazing feeling after what can only be described as a very long and difficult season for all of us. We are excited for the opportunity to gather together. We are eager for nice weather and the ability to fellowship outside. We can sense the newness and anticipation to gather sans masks, to be with those we love and disciple.

But in that same vein there is a propensity to scale our ministries upward quickly and build out massive events and outreaches. Or perhaps you have been told by church leadership that you must have an event per week throughout the entire summer that brings in a certain number of students. These aren’t bad ideas or desires but we need to focus on building a purposeful and intentional ministry that is sustainable. To try and build something bigger and better without the ability to continue it will hinder future growth and the ability to continue to minister to our people. In order to think through how we are structuring and building our summer programming, I want to offer you a few things to consider that will help you in creating a meaningful and purpose-driven ministry.

Make it sustainable.

Whatever you decide to do for the summer, it should be something that you can continue in some manner in the fall or in subsequent summers. You want to have programming that not only can exist in the moment but has longevity as well. It should be something you should be able to reproduce and can continue with in months and years to come. Whatever you plan you need to make sure that you also are able to sustain it personally. My fear is that many youth workers are adding more and more events and gatherings onto their already overflowing plates. Continuing in this style of ministry and work ethic will lead to burnout and bitterness. Instead, I would challenge you to think through if what you are planning is sustainable for your ministry and for yourself. Are these gatherings reproduceable and sustainable within my ministry context? Can I continue with these gatherings or have I reached my capacity? Can I continue to give or am I completely spent? Asking these questions will allow for you to assess how and what you are implementing this summer and if they are sustainable for the long term.

Make it purposeful.

Whenever we think through hosting an event or gathering we should think through the vision and purpose of the event. It shouldn’t be something we have just to have, there should be intentionality and focus to it. Understandably you may be in a position where you have been told to just host events throughout the summer, but think through how you are hosting the event, what it’s purpose is, and how you can use it to empower and grow your ministry as you make disciples. Our ministries should not simply be a place to hang out and have fun, they should be a place where students can come, be loved and challenged, and spurred on in the disciple-making process. So as you plan out your summer, think about how your events and gatherings can embrace your ministry’s focus and vision and utilize these events to further that focus.

Know your demographic.

Now you may already know who attends your church and your ministry, but during the summer there will be times of transition. Some towns lose people during the summer because everyone goes out of town for vacation. Other towns gain people because people come there to vacation. And still others will remain steady in their numbers. When you understand how your community shifts during the summer it affords you a greater opportunity to reach your people. If you know you are a town that draws in tourists, you may want to shift your programming during the summer to be more relational and outreach focused. If you find that your ministry largely retains your students, consider taking advantage of the time together and doing a deep dive on issues they are facing. Or if you have a smaller group and they have expressed a desire for more relational opportunities, host events where community is a highlight. Regardless, you should know who you are trying to reach and how many people to expect. When you know your audience and how many are coming you can build outward and scale your program accordingly.

Less can be more.

Summertime is often when many student ministries ramp up in programming. For some reason we believe that the more opportunities we can host and offer our students, the more likely they are to come. I don’t disagree in hosting events and gatherings, but I don’t think we should try to be all things to all people. If we try to host things all summer long, and offer activity after activity, we will end up feeling burnt out, our leaders will be exhausted, and we will come to see we cannot necessarily compete with everything else summer has to offer. Students will not come because they are working, or at the beach, or at an amusement park, or just relaxing at home.

I would suggest that instead of having a programmatically heavy summer, you approach summer from a less-is-more mentality. Host more focused and intentional gatherings. Lean into your small group leaders and encourage them to gather with their students in intentional and relational ways (getting ice cream together, going to the amusement park, having a movie night, etc.). These types of opportunities will allow you to engage at a deeper level and champion disciple-making because these gatherings are intentionally focused on that vison. Hosting a barbeque will allow for more intentional conversations and for there to be lifelong impact, where a large party style gathering may be fun but will not necessarily have the transformational opportunities we desire.

Take advantage of what you have.

It is so easy to look around and see what everyone else has and is doing. We desire a larger facility, a place with a pool, an outdoor space, all the game equipment, an indoor café, or a space to host worship bands. But if we only look to what we don’t have, we will forget what we do have. God has equipped you and given you all you need in this time and place to reach people for Him. So remember and take advantage of what you have been given.

If you have a smaller setting lean into that. Consider hosting small groups throughout the week and creating space for them to grow in their community and relationship with Jesus. If you have a café, consider opening it up periodically during the summer as a venue for people to come and hang out free of charge. If you have a family with a pool, ask them if they would be up for hosting a pool party. If you only have a field at your church, think about hosting a water wars night or an evening of capture the flag followed by smores. And if you are a larger church, consider sharing resources and inviting other churches in. All of our resources are for the kingdom, so let’s model that in how we share them.

What are your plans for the summer? How are you intentionally investing in your groups during this time?

8 Ideas for Honoring Seniors

As we are moving into graduation season it’s helpful to think about how to honor and celebrate your graduates. Much like 2020, this year may look different in what you can do under various guidelines, but we should still seek to honor our seniors and their achievements. Culture regularly celebrates moments of change or accomplishment, but the church does not always seize these opportunities to pour into people’s lives. I want to encourage you to think through how you could specifically pour into, care for, and honor your seniors as they get ready to step into uncharted waters after graduation.

Today we want to share a few helpful and easy ways to honor your graduates and help them know they are loved and cared for. These tips can serve as a way for us to begin thinking about how we can best care for our seniors within our different ministry contexts.

1. Commission your graduates.

We are sending our students out into a new phase of life, and many of them will be going to secular colleges, universities, and workplaces. Their belief systems will be challenged, they will be pushed to question their faith, and they will have a whole new set of experiences to grapple through. In essence we are sending them out into a mission field, and because of this we should commission them as a church.

Rally your congregation around this mentality and leverage a Sunday morning to intentionally speak truth into the lives of students and pray over them. We take time on Sunday and honor the graduates on stage, and then have our elders and pastors pray over them as the congregation prays along. This is an awesome opportunity to show these students that the church is for them and that they are supported and prayed for.

2. Connect seniors with a college group.

Whether it is one in your church, one near the college they are going to, or both, this is one of the best things you can do for your graduates. Many graduates will fall away from the church if they are not connected to one while at school because they do not have consistent biblical community. Students, like all of us, need to be connected with other believers and to have consistent community where they can be discipled and poured into.

Be willing to challenge your students to seek out churches and groups, but also be willing to help them in this process. Reach out in youth pastor social media groups, use your contacts and networks, and even help with a quick Google search. Another great resource is Every Student Sent. This used to be Campus Ministry Link, but they have recently updated, added many elements, and rebranded. This is a great resource to research churches, campus groups, and more in an easy one-stop place. These things will help your students find solid churches and groups to be a part of, and will help them in continuing in their walk with Jesus.

3. Host a breakfast or luncheon for grads and their families.

This is something we have begun to implement in our youth program over the past few years. On the Sunday we honor our seniors we bring them and their families to a light reception after they are commissioned. We take this time to intentionally pour into them and their parents. We offer some refreshments, speak words of truth, give parents intentional time to speak into their graduate’s life, share helpful resources, give them a gift, and connect them with our college ministry.

The big piece is highlighting intentional community and helping our graduates and their families see that they are of immense value in our church. It is also about creating space for families to intentionally be present with each other and allowing them to speak into their graduate’s life. In many ways these are sacred moments for families and an opportunity for them to grow closer to one another and to Jesus.

4. Acknowledge seniors before their peers.

At our last high school large group gathering, we acknowledge our graduates, pray over them, and usually treat their small group to a dessert or dinner. It is simply a way of acknowledging their achievements before their peers and celebrating our graduates. This shows them they are loved and valued, and that they have an extended family within our program.

5. Pray over them.

This is something we should be very intentional in doing. Whether it is before the church as a whole, in front of your youth group, or at a smaller gathering, we should be praying for our graduates. Pray for their faith, pray for the transitions that are coming, pray for their families, pray for them to do well, and pray that they can be a witness wherever they go. Prayer shows intentionality and the value we place on our graduates. It allows them to know that they are a part of something bigger and that we care about them in deep ways.

6. Get your seniors a gift.

Giving a gift is an awesome way to encourage your graduates and to let them know they are loved and cared for. You could get them a book, a journal, a laundry basket filled with some essentials for college, a branded Yeti, or a Target gift card with a personal letter. Whatever you decide to get them, remember it is more about the intentionality and relationship than the gift. So no matter what you get them include a personal note or card. Speak truth into them and let the gift simply be an extension of the love you have for them.

7. Put together a brochure or slideshow.

I love doing stuff like this. This is an awesome way to highlight your graduates and show them how special they are. Some churches do a slideshow at youth group or during a service, other churches set up individual tables for graduates to showcase pictures and achievements, and others put together a brochure for families. Whatever you do for your graduates, make it about them. Let this be a time of honoring and celebrating them and their achievements.

8. Utilize leaders and small groups.

This is something we have begun doing more and more. We are a small group heavy program and because of that our leaders have an awesome privilege of doing life on life with our students and pouring into them. In fact our students often cite their leaders and small groups as being highly influential in their lives. Because of this we leverage our leaders and small groups and bring them into these moments. We invite leaders to pray for their students, leaders and small groups are given times to celebrate together, and we encourage our leaders to continue reaching out and pouring into their students after graduation.

How to Handle Conflict Well

This past year has been a difficult one in many ways. The isolation, political divisiveness, the restrictions, personal issues, and struggles within the church have all seemed to heighten tensions and frustrations. With people more so processing on their own and not bringing others into their thoughts and questions, we are seeing conflict happen more frequently and more intensely.

Many of you have probably felt this within your churches and perhaps within your personal lives as well. Church leaders have taken hit after hit this past year, and it seems pastors and church staff are all weary and feeling the tension at deeper levels than ever before.

The easy response would be to dismiss the tension and conflict or just walk away. But that is neither productive nor uplifting for the body of Christ or individuals. So how do we handle conflict well? I am no expert at this, and arguably this past year has forced me to rethink and evaluate how I could handle it better. But what I’d love to share with you today are some steps that I believe if we implement, we will be able to handle conflict better holistically and prayerfully see the body of Christ encouraged, challenged, and built up.

Pray.

This seems like an obvious choice but it is often one we miss, put on the back burner, or rush through. We all know that prayer is important, but we must be praying before, during, and after conflict as much as we can.

If you know you’re heading to a difficult meeting, pray before you get there. Allow your prayers to not be about your success or proving your point, but about honoring God and the relationship that this meeting represents. Pray during the meeting both in silence and out loud when needed. If the tension is elevating, pause and pray for one another. And pray after the meeting has ended. Pray for each other, for wisdom, humility, and restoration. Only through Christ will there be resolution and through our prayers God moves.

Hear, listen, and respond.

Whenever we are in a meeting, especially one that may be tense or have conflict as a part of it, we may feel pressured to push our responses, agendas, or points. But when we do that we not only make the other person feel unheard but also devalued. And that is not healthy nor representative of godly leadership.

Instead, we need to not only listen to someone but hear them. We should listen to what is said and seek to understand. Ask clarifying questions, repeat back what you heard, and look to know what is shaping their understanding and point of view. As you seek to do these things, your responses should be shaped accordingly. You aren’t seeking to win, but to honor God, understand, protect the relationship, and bring resolution. These can only be accomplished by first hearing and listening, then responding.

Process.

Processing is an important component of moving through conflict, and we cannot relegate the processing piece to only after the conflict. Part of preparing for and moving through conflict means you need to process what has been communicated and shared.

Often we are led into conflict when someone reaches out and shares about tension. So think through what they shared with you. Don’t over-analyze or assume, but process what was said or shared as you seek to understand. This applies to what is shared during the actual conflict or meeting. Seek to understand and not simply respond. Process and look for clarity before you draw conclusions. The same process should be applied to how you respond after the meeting has concluded.

Know your non-negotiables.

This past year has seen a lot of tension arise within the church as everyone has an opinion on what a church should be doing and how it should be responding. This period of time has taught our leadership to think through what our non-negotiables are and to not concede on them.

This same mentality can be apprised to conflict of any kind, but not in an aggressive or dominant way. It isn’t about control or winning, but knowing what cannot be compromised. Many of the conflicts I’ve dealt with recently centered around our church’s guidelines related to COVID. Knowing what we could be flexible on and could not change allowed me to be honest and clear on what and why we were doing what we were doing. So know what you can be flexible on and what you can’t change. This will bring clarity and helpful insight into the conversation.

Seek forgiveness when needed.

We all make mistakes, and many of us have made mistakes during times of conflict or tension. When that happens we need to seek forgiveness. We need to own when we speak out of turn, we must acknowledge if something we did or said contributed to the tension, and we should own our mistakes. Whenever we are contributors to the conflict or tension we must admit our faults and seek forgiveness. Doing this not only demonstrates leadership but also adherence to God’s Word in admitting when we are wrong or have hurt others.

Seek to keep or restore the relationship.

Tension and conflict can cause relationships to struggle or falter. Sometimes it is due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. At other points it may be because there are radically different positions being held. As much as you are able, seek to keep and restore the relationship(s).

I have had to dismiss leaders and volunteers for a variety of circumstances, but I always seek to honor the friendship and relationship that is there. They don’t always look the same as coaching or counseling may be needed, but it is so important to care for others and honor the relationship. There will be times that we cannot restore them because of the other parties involved, but in as much as you are able, seek to honor and restore the relationship.

Acknowledge and validate.

Sometimes we need to admit our wrongs but we also need to acknowledge when others are right and present good points or insight. Often we just think about apologizing and seeking forgiveness when something we stated or did was incorrect, but what about acknowledging and validating the other person?

When people share helpful critiques or insight or if they were right where we were wrong, we need to acknowledge that and validate what they said or did. This will not only help us show humility, but it is also healthy leadership. A good leader knows to acknowledge and validate their people when they share or do something right, and this must carry over into moments of conflict as well.

Follow up.

This is huge and honestly it may be one of the harder ones. If we leave a moment of conflict and it feels unresolved or there is hurt from that moment, we may not want to follow up. Our humanity will pull us from seeking to right the relationship and honor the other person. But as we die to self and seek Christ we should see that as followers of Jesus we need to follow up with our people.

Reach out. Seek clarity. Pursue the relationship. Honor the other person. In doing this you are not only showing humility but strong leadership and a shepherd’s heart. Follow up even if it’s hard. Lean into those moments as you care for your people and lead out. This step is the hardest but one of the most important, and I believe doing this will help to bring people in and strengthen our communities.

5 Tips for Fundraising

This past weekend we hosted our annual fundraiser for our student ministry summer trip. But due to the effects of the pandemic, this fundraiser looked nothing like those that came before.

Prior to my tenure at the church the student ministry department would host something called “Dinner and a Show.” It was exactly what it sounds like: a fancy dinner with a full performance by students that took more than three hours to host. We eventually moved away from that fundraiser and began to host a brunch on a Sunday morning to raise funds. In 2019 we hosted our biggest brunch to date, and we raised the highest amount we had ever raised. It was awesome, and we were so excited for the future success of our fundraisers and what that would mean for getting students to camps and retreats.

But then 2020 hit and we cancelled all trips and our fundraising was put on hold. At the beginning of this year we were given the opportunity to go to a local camp over the summer, and we were told we could seek to raise funds. But, there were some conditions: no food, social distancing must be adhered to, masks must be worn, and we would need to radically change what we had done in the past.

As I understood the rationale and purpose behind the guidelines and promised to adhere to them, there were hundreds of questions in my mind about how we would succeed in fundraising. My heart ached as I thought about the negative ways not having our traditional fundraiser would impact students who were in financial need. I questioned whether people would actually give if there was no food or opportunity for them to engage in the ways they had before. But as I prayed and sought out how to host a fundraiser, I began to see fundraising in a new light. Fundraising isn’t just about bringing in needed funds, but it is also an opportunity to engage the whole church body in inter-generational discipleship, to have our students serve, to bring people together for the Gospel, and to help the body of Christ grow and mature.

Today, I want to share with you five things to remember as you seek to have a successful fundraiser. These may seem completely opposite of what we have always thought fundraising to be, but I want to ask you to hear me out. And to consider these tips and think through the heart, rationale, and purpose of fundraising as it pertains to our students and ministries.

1. Fundraising is not the priority.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. The more I searched my heart on seeking to understand the why behind fundraisers, the more I became convinced the purpose of fundraising shouldn’t solely be about obtaining money necessary for the cost of trips. It is bigger than that! These trips that we are raising funds for should be focused on helping our students grow in their relationship with Jesus, and because of that, these fundraisers should be opportunities to help stretch and grow our students. There should be opportunities for students to step up and step out. They should be ready to share the Gospel if needed. They should be focused on leading and being advocates for the kingdom of Heaven.

I was also faced with the reality that there are some within our church who cannot support these trips financially, but they are more than willing to pray consistently for our students. So we focused our attention not on raising funds, but raising support. We shared with our church that we would cherish their support in whatever way they would be willing to give it, whether financial or spiritual, and the church responded in wonderful ways and provided for our students.

2. Allow students to serve in some capacity.

Part of helping students understand the value, purpose, and meaning of a fundraiser and going on trips is giving them the opportunity to have skin in the game. Gen Z loves to take an active role in helping others and they love to actually put action to the words they believe. So allow them to serve in a variety of ways at your fundraiser. This may include you giving additional time to walk through training with your students, but it will pay off in the end as students actually begin to take the lead on serving. We have had students serve as ushers and greeters, students have helped in set up and tear down, they did announcements in front of the church, they shared their stories, they have served food, had conversations with people, and contributed in a variety of other ways. When they do this they understand that there is so much that goes into planning and leading a trip and because of this, they value the time they have on the trip all the more. So allow them to flourish and grow as they serve.

3. Find ways to involve the body of Christ.

This should be a part of not only our fundraisers but our ministries overall. We should seek to incorporate the church as a whole and not operate in a silo. We should seek to build bridges through inter-generational opportunities and witness the body of Christ truly function as a body. Part of getting our students involved in serving is that it allows them to see that they are an intricate part of the church, and part of getting the church involved is allowing students to understand that the church sees them as a needed part of the body. When the body of Christ is brought into the thought and purpose of what is happening within any ministry, they rally to support it and will become a vital part of your team. Seek to bring parents, volunteers, and others into fundraising opportunities in any way that you can, and encourage your students to walk with them and lead outward together.

4. Highlight the purpose, rationale, and effect of trips in the lives of students.

One of my favorite things to do during fundraising is to have students share with the church. Our student ministry actually interviews students on stage during the services and asks them questions like:

  • Why are you going on this trip?
  • How have trips with our program impacted you?
  • How have trips helped your relationship with Jesus grow?
  • Why are trips like this one important for students?
  • What would you say to students who haven’t gone on trips about why they should?

I am always blown away by the responses I have gotten. This year I had a senior say that trips like this allowed him to grow close to Jesus and showed him the importance of pouring into younger students. I had another student who proclaimed that trips like this allowed him to grow closer to his leaders who had discipled him and helped him become a better man and a better Christian. When the church body hears this, it allows them to see the necessity and effectiveness of these trips, and moves them toward giving.

5. Focus on inter-generational community.

This is a piece that I have grown to more deeply understand and appreciate during my time in ministry. We must help our churches to see that students are not the future of our church, but are a current and vital part of the church now. There is already a growing rift between generations and it is only deepening as people refuse to listen, honor, and walk with one another. The church cannot be a place where this is allowed to happen. Instead we must be a beacon of hope and change for our people.

I would encourage you to help your students see the value of working with other generations. Help them to see that while other generations may not reciprocate, that does not mean they cease trying to work together. Instead it should ignite a fire to push your students to step up and lead differently and lead well. If you think about it, we are already engaging in inter-generational discipleship as we have leaders of all different ages leading our students. What we are seeking to do is replicate that within the body of Christ holistically. Seize the opportunity to cast that vision at your fundraisers and allow your students to help create change within the church of which they are an important part.

Helping Families Win: Resources [Part 2]

Last week we shared some digital resources we believe would be helpful for families. Today, I want to spend a little bit of time looking at some books I find beneficial for a variety of topics families are dealing with. These books are not all encompassing, but I believe they will provide helpful insight and guidance for families, and prayerfully strengthen the relationships between parents and students. There are also far too many books to list in a singular post, so I will be doing a follow up to this post with additional books that I have found helpful.

Living in a Gray World – A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality

This is a super helpful book from Preston Sprinkle that seeks to provide insight and understanding for the questions many students (and adults) are asking about homosexuality. This is an easy read that is filled with grace, compassion, understanding, and biblical truth. Sprinkle handles everything from questions we may have, to what the reader should do if they might be gay, to what the Bible say about homosexuality. If this isn’t a topic your family is thinking or talking through, I would still highly recommend reading this book to gain insight and understanding into a topic that is very big part of our world.

It’s Not Too Late – The Essential Part You play in Shaping Your Teen’s Faith

Dan Dupee put together this book to encourage parents who may feel like they don’t know what they are doing when it comes to shepherding and guiding their children. It is an honest and raw book that utilizes sociological research and Scripture to help you navigate the realities of development in your children and to give you tangible ways to engage and pour into them. One of the big things that Dupee will focus on is the reality that students are not removed from your care and influence once they enter middle school, high school, or college. The way you engage may look different but you can continue to engage and disciple them at those points.

If I had a Parenting Do Over – 7 Vital Changes I’d Make

Jonathan McKee is a widely respected youth culture expert, speaker, and author who loves to provide resources for parents, families, and youth workers. The purpose of this book is to encourage and challenge parents to grow and pour into their children. Jonathan offers honest insight into the realities of parenting and mistakes he has made in order to provide wisdom and helpful tools for parents navigating caring for and discipling their students. He provides helpful actions, thoughts, and insights to give parents a place to breathe, acknowledge, and look to grow as they shepherd their students. This book also has a free seven week curriculum designed for small groups of parents to walk through that is amazingly helpful and beneficial.

Understanding Your Teen – Shaping their Character, Facing their Realities

Dr. Jim Burns put together a fantastic book to help parents (and really anyone working with young people) understand and care for their students. This book is extremely practical and offers insight into how to parent well and how to help develop your student in maturity and faith, all while understanding the realities that students are navigating in a changing culture. In the first part of his book, Burns provides parents with insight into understanding their student and gives practical ways to think through and talk about issues that students are facing. Burns provides helpful thought into how to have healthy media boundaries, developing student’s faith, teaching healthy sexuality, and much more. The second part of Burns’ book talks through issues and problems that students are facing and then gives helpful thoughts and solutions for parents to consider as they navigate these topics. Some of the topics that are covered include eating disorders, bullying and cyberbullying, self-harm, abuse, depression, and much more.

52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid – How to Engage with Kids Who Can’t Seem to Pry Their Eyes from Their Devices!

Jonathan McKee has multiple books and resources that are amazingly helpful, and this is one of his books that every parent and youth worker should read. The focus of this book is to help students move from being tech dependent to tech enabled. Jonathan wants to help parents help their students by seeing that the technology they have should not own or command them, but instead is a resource and a tool meant to be utilized appropriately. Jonathan’s easy-to-read style of writing offers the reader 52 ideas on how to proactively engage your student that brings creative advice and ideas to the table and allows for the uniqueness of each student to help parents think about how to engage with them. There are also questions to ponder at the end of each idea, that would be very helpful to simply begin fostering a conversation with your student.

Shepherding a Child’s Heart

This is a wonderful resource to give to families with children at any age. Tedd Tripp offers two sections in this book: Foundations of Biblical Childrearing and Shepherding Through the Stages of Childhood. Tripp first offers the basic biblical principles that all parents need and then begins to look at how to formulate them into a shepherding plan as you love and care for your student. Tripp uses the shepherding metaphor often in his book because he believes that parenting is more than just a task or a developmental procedure. He believes it to truly be about shepherding and cultivating the heart of your children because focusing on the heart focuses on the true aspect of who we are.

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers – 40 Topics, Spiritual Insights & Easy-to-Use Action Steps

Doctors Tim Clinton and Chap Clark have put together an amazing resource when it comes to counseling students. This book offers much insight into a wide range of topics including bullying, adoption, eating disorders, self-harm, pornography, abuse, depression, trauma, God’s will, and much more. They present each topic by first using a couple of portraits or case studies, then they give clarity to definitions and key thoughts to help us understand what is actually being talked about. They provide helpful questions in the assessment interview, they offer tips for wise counsel, action steps, biblical insights, a prayer starter, and additional resources. Now it should be said that I am not advocating for parents to become clinical counselors through the use of this book. Instead, I believe that this book offers helpful insight and knowledge to parents, and gives them practical questions and biblical understanding of the issues at hand. With that understanding, this book will empower and enable parents to have a more centered and biblically grounded conversation about whatever topic their student is walking through. It also will help give parents a better understanding through their student’s responses on whether they should seek additional counseling through a trained and qualified counselor.