Tips for Maintaining Your Spiritual Health

When life feels up-ended, it can be easy to let our spiritual health decline. Other things crowd in–whether it’s work, the needs of others, or our rapidly changing context–and we shift into a “survival mode” that can cause us to neglect our spiritual well-being. But if we are honest, if we don’t maintain our spiritual in-flow, we won’t survive for long.

We want to encourage and challenge you to make your own spiritual health and relationship with Jesus the top priority during this challenging time, and going forward. Sometimes that can be easier said than done, so today we’re sharing suggestions for prioritizing and enriching your spiritual growth.

Spend time in the Word for your own spiritual enrichment

If you are a ministry leader, you are no doubt already spending time in the Scriptures as you lesson plan. You might be preaching multiple weekly messages, preparing devotional materials, and mentoring individuals. This can result in a lot of time spent in the Bible, but not necessarily concentrated on your own growth.

Before you dive into Scriptural “work-study,” spend time in personal Bible reading, even if it’s only for a short period of time. If you can, find a quiet place where you can rest as you read, looking to hear from God and refresh your spirit. Spend time in prayer, specifically asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you and strengthen you for the work to come.

Establish healthy boundaries between work and personal time

It can be easy to let work bleed into your personal and family time, especially if you’re working from home. Taking calls, responding to texts, jumping on your computer to do something “real quick,” can begin to add up. You may struggle with what to prioritize, especially when it comes to ministry.

There will always be exceptions, but as much as you are able, set boundaries between “work time” and “home/family time.” This may mean keeping up regular office hours, and then setting your phone on “do not disturb” after they have ended. Or it may mean working in blocks of time and setting aside other blocks for personal and family time. Whatever you decide, don’t forget to explain it to your team or those who may be contacting you during “off” hours.

This may feel selfish at first, but it is essential to maintaining your mental health, your spiritual health, and your relational health with family and friends. If you don’t set aside time for these things, ministry work can easily take over your entire life, leaving you feeling burnt out and depleted.

Engage with church services for your own benefit

For ministry workers, church services are often times that are focused on work, and what’s coming next. It may be hard to dial in as your mind is already on what needs to be done as soon as the service is over, or what’s coming up in the week ahead. Whether you participate in your own church’s service, or another one online, give yourself the space to listen, engage, and grow.

Let us encourage you to actually pause and worship with your church community. Eliminate the noise and worship with your family without the worries of what is coming up. Seek to simply be present and worship. Read the Word of God with the church, take notes throughout the sermon, sing loudly without worry of who may hear. Engage with your family before, during, and after the service is done. Respond to what God’s Word is doing in and through your life.

If you find that you have more to do on a Sunday because you have become the “official tech guru,” you can still find meaningful ways to worship. To the best of your ability, seek to engage with and respond to the service as you contribute to it. Or, you may find it helpful to rewatch the service later, or listen to another one online.

Pursue mentorship

Due to our present circumstances, mentoring is something that can easily fall by the way-side. If we can’t meet in person, we may stop meeting altogether. However, mentoring is just as important now as we seek to do ministry in new ways. So we want to encourage you: keep seeking to be mentored and to mentor. In light of social distancing, this will most likely mean meeting via video chat or phone call, but the ability to have real, honest conversations is essential to maintaining spiritual health.

Engage in other spiritual exercises

Our current context calls for creativity, especially when it comes to spiritual growth. We may have to work a little harder to focus on Jesus and building our relationship with Him, but it is so incredibly worth it. Here are a few of our ideas for creatively engaging with God and His Word.

  • Practice journaling. As you read the Bible and pray, journal your thoughts and prayers. This is an excellent way to keep track of what God is teaching you, to respond to His Word, and to see how and when He answers specific prayers. If you’re creatively inclined, you can use different colors, lettering styles, and sketches to add to your writings.
  • Meditate on Scripture. Select a passage that speaks to your current context, whether it is something you are struggling with, something you want to work on, or an area of life where you need encouragement. Write the passage on a card and keep it beside your bed. When you wake up in the morning, before fully getting out of bed, take time to read the Scripture and ask God to bring it to your mind throughout the day. You can also come back and read over it during the day.
  • Listen to podcasts. This is something you can do while you’re cleaning, working out, or doing mundane daily activities. We especially love podcasts that help us think more deeply about what we believe and why. In the fall we shared a few of the podcasts we enjoy listening to. These can also help generate good discussions at home!
  • Engage in spiritual conversations with friends. Ask your friends what they are learning from God’s Word; share what He is teaching you. It is incredibly encouraging to talk through what God has been saying to us, and to hear how He is speaking to others.

How have you been maintaining your spiritual health during this season of life?

8 Tips for Generating Early Sign-Ups

Have you ever tried to get students to sign up for a trip? Have you ever received that last minute phone call, text, email, or DM asking for a student to be allowed to go? Have you been in that situation where its the week of the trip and only one student has signed up for a trip and you may have to cancel?

I get it. We have all been there. Getting students to sign up early, let alone on time, is extremely difficult. For many years I just assumed this was the norm in student ministry, but it doesn’t have to be. There is a way to make it work. I want to share some tips on how to achieve earlier sign-ups and increase them overall.

I should note that you won’t see changes overnight. In fact it may take a couple of semesters, trips, or years for changes to be seen. But don’t get discouraged. Stick to your values, keep the rules you set, and see what happens. Actual change will take time and if you begin to implement these tips it may just help move that change forward in the right direction.

1. Cast vision early.

This is something I learned early on in my tenure in student ministry. It is important to share the what, the how, and the why. If you are asking for students and families to have buy-in to what you are doing, talk about it as early as possible. Communicate why you are going on this trip. What will be the result? What will happen in students’ lives? How will this trip be paid for? Why should a student go? Why is this important in their spiritual journey? Answering these questions early on will allow for families to better plan and prepare for what you are doing, and it will generate buy-in.

2. Be excited about the trip.

Have you ever started at a new church where you had to take students on a trip to a place you had never been? I have, and I will be honest: it was hard generating excitement about going somewhere I had never been. So instead of talking about just the logistics, I shared about what I was looking forward to. I shared pictures and videos of where we were going. I tried to make travelling overnight sound like an amazing adventure (and it was an adventure). My point is this: if you aren’t excited, or you talk about the trip begrudgingly or with no emotion, why would you expect students to go? Get excited and let your excitement bleed into your students as you prepare to go.

3. Know what you are talking about.

This is a big thing to remember. Make sure the information you are sharing is accurate and clear. I will admit that sometimes I have shared inaccurate information and it has kept students and families from signing up. I have been actively looking to better communicate and share what I know to be correct information. In fact, if I don’t know the answer I let them know I will find out and share it with them as soon as I do. This actually helps me be more intentional with communicating with the host site or camp. I ask better questions and get their vision for our trip and that allows me to share more accurate information with my people.

4. Communicate with parents.

Have you ever felt like parents don’t know what is happening? Or have you ever received the email that claims they knew nothing about your upcoming trip or retreat? The reality is that there will always be communication that is missed, but what we should be looking to do is over-communicate.

Think about it: parents have hundreds of emails coming to them all the time. They are seeing all the stuff you are on social media and probably even more. They are trying to balance school activities, sports, social lives and so much more. Be willing to give grace when appropriate but also seek to communicate ahead of time through multiple outlets, and continue to send out communications. Consider hosting a plenary parents only meeting to share about what is coming up. No, you won’t get every parent on your first go-around, but the number will steadily increase as they see your passion and desire to share. The more parents know, the more your students will know, and the more sign-ups you will get because you are all on the same page.

5. Have an early bird sign-up.

Want to guarantee more sign-ups? Work within your budget to have an early bird deadline. Most camps and retreat centers already have that, which is why we preregister so we can save money. But what if you offered the early bird price that you paid for a certain period, and then the price went up to the actual cost (the cost it would be if you hadn’t preregistered)? Now you are generating a desire for students and parents alike to save money. This almost guarantees sign-ups because no one wants to pay extra if they don’t have to. And you are not simply upping the price for the sake of doing so, but from an ethical and moral standard you are keeping it in line.

We do this for all of our big trips. We figure out the lowest possible cost and offer that as the early bird. Then we adjust the rate going forward in accordance with the up-charge in the conference fee. We offer four different payment times: early bird, regular, late, and last minute. At most we have three to five late sign-ups and maybe one last minute because of the price differential. Not only does this generate sign-ups, it also alleviates a lot of stress. Planning appropriate deadlines affords you the ability to collect registrations in a timely manner.

6. Offer a payment plan.

Let’s be real: for some families, paying for longer trips is taxing financially. We get that. If you are asking a family to drop a thousand dollars right away for a trip, you won’t get many sign-ups. If you present a payment plan instead, and give them a means to an end, you will allow families to participate with less financial burden up front. If you have different sign up times you will need to have a plan for each one, but again, it allows families to see how much they owe and when, which can ease the burden.

7. Don’t allow late sign-ups.

This is a big thing for me. I used to always allow people to sign up late. I would hear their reasons why they hadn’t, I would see the change this trip could bring about in a student’s life, and I understood being busy. But what I didn’t see was that I was cultivating a culture where rules, guidelines, and timing didn’t matter. It added stress and tension to planning a trip and going on it. That student didn’t have buy-in like everyone else. Recently we made the decision to not allow late sign-ups unless extenuating circumstances applied. This is a tough stance to hold and there were parents who pushed back. But we shared our reasoning and heart behind it, and when communicated effectively beforehand, parents will see that the were ample opportunities to sign up earlier.

8. Host a scholarship program. 

Regardless of whether there are payment plans or not, you will always have families who cannot afford to pay for trips. Please consider offering scholarships for those families. It may not be a full ride, but even a little may allow for a student to go who originally couldn’t. This may mean getting creative and reworking your budget to put money aside for scholarships, or hosting a sponsorship event at your church, or even seeing if the church would consider taking a special offering. Any time you can help a student go to a camp, trip, or retreat could be life changing with eternal results. So think about how you can help get students to camp who need the financial help.

5 Ways to Improve Volunteer Communication

Let’s face it: without a team of volunteers it is exceptionally hard to run a student ministry. It gets harder still if that team doesn’t know the plan.

I have often found that a team functions best when there is a clear plan and goal because of clear communication. If I am being honest I am not always the best communicator when it comes to planning and sharing what is happening.

This is a place I am constantly looking to grow in, and as such I wanted to share with you a few ways to enhance communication with your team. I have had to learn to do these things and honestly have learned a lot through mistakes. Most of these are digital, but some are face-to-face as well because both are extremely important.

Ask your team how they communicate.

I have a questionnaire I ask my leaders to fill out (both new and returning leaders) and I ask for their preferred means of communication. This allows me to see how they communicate and be able to utilize the best forum. It also highlights any issues that may develop if someone doesn’t use a certain method. Some of my leaders only use WhatsApp and because it is only a couple of people, I make the effort to communicate with them there if I text the rest of the team.

Choose your medium and use it.

As youth workers we are forever surrounded by new and different ways of communicating. But if we continue to switch it up on our teams, they will never know where look. I had a volunteer during my first year at church who would respond to my emails via text. It wasn’t ideal because when I would be looking for information from them, I wouldn’t know where to go. I finally sat down and made it clear that the main way I communicate is email for standard youth group stuff. If it is an emergency or a day-of change it would be via text or phone.

My teams know this is the standard case, and as such they are expecting my communications via these platforms. It has helped to streamline our communication and works well for sharing information. Choose whichever way is best for you, and stick with it. If you do change it, communicate that to your team.

Be consistent.

A big thing I have learned is that when we say we are going to do something, we need to do it. Don’t promise to communicate via email and then switch to text. Doing this not only confuses leaders and doesn’t communicate well, it also creates a lack of trust in what you are doing. Be consistent, and if change needs to happen, bring your team in before you make the change.

Communicate early.

We plan out our schedule a year at a time. Typically this is during late spring and we are able to get that information out to leaders before the start of the new school year. They see when we have events, trips, retreats, and we also note when we do not have youth group. This allows our leaders to prepare for the year and know what is coming; there are no surprises.

I also make an effort to get our small group resources and plans out to leaders at least 24 hours ahead of youth group so they can prepare for the evening. I send the schedule, notes, and the questions for small groups so leaders know what is happening, what is expected, and they have the ability to mentally and spiritually prepare for the next day.

Communicate in person.

Much of what has been shared has been about digital communication, but we cannot overstate the value of face-to-face communication. Those are the moments when you get to truly shepherd and care for your people, and you get to cast vision and passion for the ministry as well. Take time to communicate clearly, answer questions, and receive feedback. We should never undervalue our leaders and must always seek to be with and for them.

Building a Meaningful Schedule

Scheduling events: you either love it or hate it. I have been on both sides during my time in ministry. Some ministries had schedules that were fluid and never held to, and others that held so strongly to them that everything was figured out to within a minute.

Regardless of whether you like schedules or not, they are important. Our lives outside of ministry are often run by schedules, and students and parents value schedules, consistency, and structure. I have learned over the years that having a schedule not only helps to provide structure and support to students and families, but it also helps your leaders to know your plans, have buy-in, and see that you are someone who keeps their word.

Building a schedule can seem overwhelming or difficult, so as we move into a new year, I would like to do two things to help with that: give you some steps to follow in making a schedule and also provide you with two that I use.

Shape it around the priorities.

In order to have a proper schedule, you must shape it around the priorities of your ministry. The reason schedules often fail is because the priorities aren’t driving it and therefore the priorities become muddied and devalued.

So step back, look at your ministry, identify the areas you are passionate about, focus your time-frame around them, and build outward. If you value games and community they should hold the majority of your ministry time. If you see small groups as being the most important, show that through the time you allot. Shape the ministry around the priorities.

Assign appropriate amounts of time.

One area I see churches as whole struggle with is assigning appropriate amounts of time to different aspects of their schedules. Whether it is giving offering too little time in Planning Center, or not allowing the time it takes to calm students down after an amazing game that “didn’t involve eating marshmallows,” you must allow for the appropriate time for each activity or portion of your schedule. In fact I would encourage you to overestimate on time, which will give you a little buffer. If you know you tend to run long in teaching, give your teaching time an extra five minutes, which will allow you to better shape the rest of your schedule.

Allow time for transition.

This is usually something that we miss in crafting schedules, and honestly one I didn’t see until a leader brought it to my attention. When you are managing a youth group, you know that in transitioning from games to teaching or teaching to small groups, there is always some time lost. When I stepped back and saw what my leader was sharing I began to adapt my schedule to reflect the transition times. That of course meant I lost time elsewhere, but it allowed for me to focus on the priorities and trim areas that could be trimmed without compromising the mission and vision of the program.

Know the space.

This may seem like an obvious statement, but when you are building your schedule, knowing your space is key. If you are using an unfamiliar space for an outreach or special event, you have to acknowledge that there will be timing issues due to the unfamiliarity. So build in a buffer for those moments.

Be willing to be flexible.

I know after talking about scheduling and making sure the timing works, saying “be flexible” almost seems counter-intuitive. But we all know that rarely do schedules go perfectly. Be willing to allow for flexibility and to go with the flow to some extent. If your teaching time is delayed because you’re engaged with a student in a heart-to-heart conversation, allow the Spirit to work and be flexible. If a student gets injured during a game, acknowledge timing for the evening will be off and that is okay. If your teaching is shorter than planned, give more time to small groups. Flexibility within a schedule is key and will allow for a more relational component to what you are doing.

Allow for God to move.

Have you ever felt that your best laid plans fell through? Has your message ever gone too long or too short? Have you ever felt like people didn’t get the point? Me too! But so often that is where I see and hear of God moments. These are moments where in spite of our best planning and humanity God moves in ways we would have never seen coming. That doesn’t give us the freedom to not have a schedule or to constantly change it, but to understand there are moments when God steps in and that is good. It isn’t an excuse but an acknowledgement of God working in and through us.

Consider using scheduling software.

Our church uses Planning Center for scheduling and it is a lifesaver. It lets you schedule people to specific roles, allows them to confirm or decline their roles, allows you to create templates, and to build in pre- and post-service needs like setup and tear-down. Most planning software does cost money, but if your church uses it elsewhere, like for Sunday services for example, then they should be able to create a user account for you as well at no added cost.

Bring your leaders into the process.

Cast the vision for what you are doing and share your heart for the way you are shaping the schedule. Allow your leaders to offer insight and critique in order to build the best schedule for your group. This not only allows your leaders to have a voice but now they share your vision and passion. This creates a unified front, you will have multiple people who are helping to craft your programming, and they understand flexibility and the purpose behind what is happening.

So what does this look like practically? Below are our high school schedules for Sunday morning, which is more focused on Christian education, and Wednesday night, which is our main youth group evening.

Sunday Schedule, 10:30-11:40 a.m.:

10:30-10:40

  • Community

10:40-10:45

  • Announcements

10:45-10:55

  • Game

10:55-11:40

  • Teaching and small groups

11:40    Dismiss

Wednesday Schedule, 6:45-8:45 p.m.:

5:30-6:30

  • Setup

6:30-6:45

  • Leaders meeting

6:45-7:00

  • Community

7:00-7:20

  • Organized games

7:20-7:25

  • Transition

7:25-7:30

  • Announcements

7:30-8:00

  • Teaching

8:00-8:05

  • Transition to small groups

8:05-8:45

  • Small groups

8:45

  • Dismissal

Must-Have, Easy Games and Activities

Student ministry always has some component of fun and games to it, but if we are honest sometimes games are hard to run or get creative with. I get it. I tend to focus my energy on teaching and interpersonal relationships over games, and often that means I need to dig into my repertoire of ready-to-go games or ones that are easy to set up and run.

This week I want to share with you some of my must-have games and activities that have proved invaluable over the years. I want to provide you with some activities and games that have an upfront cost but long-term benefits, and some activities you can host with resources you have on hand or are low cost. All of these can be run with minimal or no direction to free you up to do what you need to.

9 Square in the Air

This is an amazing resource and promises hours of fun and friendly competition. Think of it as a unique combination of foursquare and volleyball but you don’t have to be a super star athlete to play or win. This is an easy to set up activity and it runs itself. You can also host tournaments or play a “HORSE” style variant as well. It is a little pricey, but this product was developed by a youth pastor who has a heart for other youth workers so they offer discounts to churches. Simply email them and ask if they will help out with pricing, and they will get you a discount code.

Cornhole or Bags

This is a great activity to have out during a social time or game time. It is super easy and almost everyone knows how to play: toss the bags onto to the wooden board and try to get them into the hole. It is also super beneficial because it runs itself and if you have a couple of sets you can run competitive tournaments or just have multiple games going on at once. These run around $120, but I have found looking for slightly higher quality cornhole games ensures they will last.

Giant Jenga

This is just a lot of fun and the name says it all…it is the Jenga we all know and love, but giant sized! The cool thing about these sets is you can price compare because multiple store have them throughout the year (Aldi currently has one on sale in its seasonal section), or you can even make them yourself if you have some two by fours. This is a lot of fun and sure to bring a ton of laughs and moments that should be shared on social media.

Spikeball

This has taken the college world by storm but it is also a must-have for any student ministry. This is a new and unique style of game that is similar to volleyball, foursquare, and a trampoline for your ball. It can be played one on one, or up to three on three and has really simple game-play. This is a game you will need to walk students through once or twice but it is fairly easy to catch on, and it will run itself if you just set it out for a few weeks in a row.

GagaBall or Octoball

If you haven’t heard of this game, prepare for a game that is a ton of fun and really simple to run and set up. You can always build or purchase one of these games, but my recommendation is to use eight-foot tables to setup the octagon. The game is fairly simple: players stand inside of the octagon and drop a ball (a kickball or volleyball works really well) and hit the ball at opposing players with their hands in an effort to get them out. If a player is hit below the knee they are out. GagaBall can be done indoors and outdoors so this can be a year-round activity.

Sports Equipment

Depending on your facility and what you are allowed to do in it, having a variety of sporting equipment is a must. We don’t have a gym at our church but we do have a lot of outdoor space to use during the warmer months. We have collected various balls, Frisbees, cones, flags, and other equipment so once the weather is favorable we can go outside and have fun. Kickball has become a huge favorite and so has ultimate frisbee. Both of these games are super simple and involve minimal setup and facilitating to make them a success.

Minute to Win it

Everyone knows these games and they are a blast to play. You can find any number of these style games online, and many of the items you need you may already have at your ministry, can find for low cost in dollar stores, or ask families donate (i.e. toilet tissue, empty tissue boxes, packs of Oreos, etc.). Part of making this event fun is setting up a rotation for groups of students to move through so multiple people can play at the same time.

Board games, puzzles, and coloring books

These are relatively low cost or free if you can get them donated. Students love to play card games, board games, and even trivia, so I always keep an eye out at Walmart, Target, thrift stores, and yard sales. But also consider asking people to donate their gently used activities and then incorporate them into your ministry.

Setting Healthy Boundaries: Home and Church Life

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

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

Make sure time off is time off.

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

Be on the same page with superiors.

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

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

Don’t let work take the place of family.

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

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

Be transparent about time off.

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

Make sure your actions and words match.

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

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

Utilize your “do not disturb” option.

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

Empower your team.

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

Growing in Prayer: Meaningful Ways to Expand Your Prayer Life

What a privilege believers in Jesus have! We can come boldly to the very throne of God to make our requests! In Jesus, and through faith in Him, we can approach God with freedom and confidence. (See Hebrews 4:16 and Ephesians 3:12.)

God tells us in the Bible that He sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers to help us pray. When we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He also moves us to address God the Father as “Abba” (Galatians 4:6). “Abba” is an Aramaic term for “Father” that is similar to our “Daddy” or “Papa.”  For the Holy Spirit to urge us to call God “Abba” means that through Jesus we have a personal, close, and affectionate relationship with the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe! Amazing!!

Have you spoken in this way to God yet? If not, give it a try! During your personal prayer time, address God as “Abba” or “Dad” or “Papa.” Of course, by using such a familiar term, we do not want to lose any respect for God; we do not want in any way to disrespect God. Rather, as one brother in Christ put it, we want to relate to God with familiar respect. Or, we might say, we want to relate to God with respectful familiarity. This is a high privilege our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us through His life, death, and resurrection.

In fact, I encourage you to actually say “Abba” out loud. Now an important first step in that direction is saying your private, personal prayers to God out loud. If you have never done that, give it a try! When God led me to begin praying out loud during my private prayer time, my prayers were transformed. All of a sudden they became more concrete. I didn’t just direct vague thoughts to God; I was putting those thoughts into specific words.

Praying out loud also made the personal nature of my relationship with God seem more real to me. Please understand: ever since the night God saved me in 1976, my relationship with Him was real. However, my sense of that reality heightened through praying out loud. When I pray out loud, it is like talking to another person in the room … because I am talking to another person in the room! God is a real Person and He is present. He is not far away somewhere “out there.” Through Christ I am in God (see Colossians 3:3) and God is in me (see 1 Corinthians 3:166:19). God is closer to me than any other person could ever be! Can I say again, “Amazing!!”?

And once you have taken that step of praying out loud by yourself, then take the step I mentioned earlier and address God, out loud, as “Abba” or “Daddy” or “Papa” … with the respect He is due. I am doing this in my prayer times. As I pray to Abba, one thing I am asking Him is that He would help me to better grasp His love for me. I am asking Him to help me experience His love in a deeper way, in a way that powerfully impacts me. Would you like to join me in making that request of God?

We learn from the Bible that asking God to help us grasp His love is a good and right thing to pray for. How so? Because we have record of the Apostle Paul praying for this very thing for the Ephesian believers. He asked “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Notice that not only does Paul pray for them to comprehend God’s love, he also prays for the strength and power to be able to grasp the love of Christ. We cannot know and experience God’s love on our own, through our own effort. We need divine enablement. We need God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp God’s love for us. Why? Because, as verse 19 says, the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” His love is so wondrous, so amazing that without God’s help there is no way we in our weak humanity can know it.

And if God grants us our request to experience His love more, we will be changed. We will be transformed. We will “be filled to all the fullness of God.” May God do that for us.

So join me in calling God “Abba.” Join me in praying out loud to our Father God. And join me in praying to experience His love in a deeper way.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

How to Build a Ministry Schedule

I am often asked “how do you create a schedule?” And usually that is framed by questions like, “what exactly do you do” or “what should I do for my students” or “I think your schedule would work for my ministry.”

Finding and building a schedule for your youth ministry can seem overwhelming and difficult, but honestly it really isn’t. When you are building a youth ministry or reshaping how it functions, the reality of a schedule is rooted in the heart and passions of the ministry leader and the ministry participants.

Each ministry is going to be different, and their function and flow will be unique to their venue. Even within churches that have multiple campuses the flow will look different at each venue. No one church has the best schedule or philosophy for all the other ones. No single structural model can be replicated. And no one pastor is the right fit for every church or ministry. What I mean is this: don’t place other missions, visions, schedules, or leaders as the end-all, be-all for you and your ministry. Remember that you, your students and families, your location, and your ministry are all unique. Don’t try to replicate; rather, utilize resources, know your program and participants, and leverage your knowledge and vision to make the program a success.

So how do you actually do this? Let me give you a few suggestions that I believe help to achieve a proactive schedule.

Identify your priorities and vision

As the ministry leader, you must know what your priorities and vision are for your people. For instance, my priorities are discipleship, community, and the Gospel. For others maybe it is evangelism, games, music, or student leadership. The reality is that you must know your priorities and vision for your students so you can shape the ministry around them. When you know your passion and heart, then you can begin to shape the ministry in the appropriate way. This will show what the value and heartbeat of the ministry is to students and families.

Identify your philosophy of ministry

Your philosophy of ministry will identify your long-term goals and how you look to achieve them. In essence, you are stating how you are looking to accomplish your priorities and vision in a clear way for others to understand. Mine is designed to cultivate students, leaders, and families who can lead out and do what Jesus has shaped them to do–make disciples.

Identify the priorities and passions of your students 

I say this with a grain of salt, because we all know there are those students whose priorities aren’t the best or won’t match up. For instance, if they want to just play video games for all of youth group, that isn’t a good priority. But you can leverage that if your priority is community and encourage them to host a community gathering for their friends at church to come and play video games together. Perhaps they can even turn it into an evangelism tool. But in allowing students to share their passions and heart for the ministry, you are creating buy-in and people who will work with you as you bring them alongside.

Know and honor your time

So many student ministries communicate a start and stop time that is anything but solidified. We say we will end at 8 p.m., but really that means 8:30 because we talk too long. We say we start at 10:30 a.m. but that’s not true because we have told students to come earlier to hang out, or we show up late. By honoring your time and keeping it consistent, you will help parents and students to catch on to your vision, and they will know it is something they can rely on and trust. And by having a set time, you can now build a schedule that is clear, continual, and reliable.

Below is a copy of my vision, purpose for programming, philosophy of ministry, and a schedule for both a Sunday morning program and a Wednesday evening program. I hope they serve as a resource and framework to help you craft you own, and I would love to talk through your questions or schedules.

Vision: To embody the “Live, Love, Lead” mission of our church by cultivating disciples who make disciples and reach their spheres of influence.

  • Purpose of Sunday: Community, discipleship, and fun. This is our Christian education piece.
  • Purpose of Wednesday: Fun, outreach, community. This is the part of our program where anyone, regardless of spiritual understanding, can come and participate.

Philosophy of Ministry:

  • Revolves around student leadership and ownership
  • Developing of leaders
  • Developing of parents and families
  • The Gospel is the key to all we do

Sunday morning schedule (1.25 hours):

10 minutes of community and fellowship

5 minutes of announcements

10 minutes of game time

20-25 minutes of teaching

15-25 minutes of round table discussion

Wednesday evening schedule (2 hours):

15 minutes before the evening for a leader meeting

15 minutes of community and fellowship

20 minutes of game time

5 minutes to move to teaching location

5 minutes of announcements

20-30 minutes of teaching

40-45  minutes of small group time

The Art of Rest

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

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

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

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

Spend regular time with Jesus.

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

Spend time with your spouse and family.

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

Have regular date nights and honor them.

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

Honor your days off.

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

Find a hobby and do it.

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

Use your vacation time.

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

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

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

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

Take time away from social media.

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

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

Journey in Prayer: 7 Steps Toward a Rich Prayer Life

Prayer is vital to my walk with the Lord. By “prayer,” I mean simply talking with the Lord. I am so grateful that the sovereign Creator, the holy and only God of the universe allows me, a sinful creature, to come directly to Him. He not only allows it, He has made it possible. He has opened the way to Himself through His Son, the Lord Jesus. I like how Ephesians 3:12 puts it: “In Him (Jesus) and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Because Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead, and returned to the Father, I can boldly approach God’s throne of grace through Jesus, my great High Priest (see Hebrews 4:14-16).

I want to share my journey in prayer over the past 43 years. In particular, I want to tell you about specific ways to pray God has shown me. I think of them as prayer steps in my journey with Jesus. Taking these steps has deepened my experience of the Lord through prayer.

Step #1: Committing to a daily time of prayer.

Right after I became a believer in Jesus, during my freshman year of college, I began practicing daily prayer. After I was done with classes for the day, I would return to my dorm room, sit on my bunk and spend time with the Lord in prayer and Bible study. This practice laid the foundation of a daily practice of prayer which has been a bedrock foundation of my journey with Jesus.

Step #2: Using the ACTS approach to prayer.

“ACTS” is an acronym which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. You can find these kinds of prayer used by God’s people in the Bible. Adopting the ACTS approach to prayer has helped me to understand these different types of prayer and to regularly incorporate them in my practice of prayer. Please understand: this is not a rigid formula I follow in all my prayers. Rather, I generally follow this outline during my longer times of prayer. By contrast, if I am in need of God’s immediate help in a particular situation, I do not adore, confess, and thank before I ask Him for His aid. I just cry out, “Help me!”

Step #3: Praying out loud during my personal prayer times.

This step was, and continues to be, very significant. Admittedly, at first it felt strange and awkward. But the more I prayed aloud, the more comfortable I felt. I also realized some real benefits. I was able to focus my thoughts and make my prayers more concrete. Talking aloud increased my sense of actually relating with the Lord, that He indeed was right there with me in the room and that I was personally connecting with Him. On a personal note, being the private person that I am, I need to be assured that no one can overhear me during my prayer times. That means I pray in the basement, usually in the morning before anyone else is up.

Step #4: Praying Scripture.

At first this too may seem a strange approach to prayer. Praying Bible verses back to God?! Yes, indeed! That is exactly what it is. And it’s not just some modern approach to prayer. People in the Bible prayed Bible verses back to God! One very clear example is in Acts 4:23-31 where the believers in the early church incorporated verses from the Old Testament, especially Psalm 2, in their prayer to the Lord. What I have found is that the Bible gives me content for my prayers, especially for the “Adoration” part. I also have the assurance that when I pray Scripture, I am praying what is true and what is according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14).

Step #5: Praying “all the time.”

My point here is that there came a time in my prayer experience when my praying to the Lord went beyond my designated daily prayer appointment with God. I began to include spontaneous prayers throughout the day. Something along the line of what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” Another way of thinking about this prayer step is captured in the phrase “practicing the presence of the Lord.” It is an increasing awareness of the Lord’s continual presence. This awareness can be expressed through spontaneously praying throughout the day—and when awakening at night—and when I rise in the morning.

Step #6: Having times of unhurried prayer.

I am a structured person by nature. I structure my day according to a schedule—what I do first, then second, then third, etc.—often with specific time allotments attached. In that schedule, my daily prayer is generally confined to a certain amount of time. What I have found very helpful is to plan an unhurried time with the Lord in prayer. Then I am less prone to be thinking about what’s next in the day and I can be more relaxed and focused on praying. I find that my sabbath day (Monday) is the time when unhurried prayer works the best.

Step #7: Saturating my prayer with the Gospel.

This is my most recent prayer step. I am learning how central the Gospel is in my journey with Jesus. Believing in the good news that Jesus died for my sins and came back to life is not simply my “ticket” into heaven. It is the power of God for the continual transformation of my life into Christ’s likeness. I need to evermore believe the Gospel, rehearse it, and live out its marvelous truth. And so I fill my prayers with the Gospel message, especially toward the beginning of my daily prayer time. I have memorized key Bible verses which give the Gospel and I incorporate them into my adoration of the Lord, my thanks to the Lord, and my confession before the Lord.


I have shared with you a lot of things about prayer. My goal in sharing these steps in my journey in prayer is to not to overwhelm you; rather, it is to encourage you to take one step in your own prayer journey. Step #1 is critical and so I urge you if you have not taken this step, start with this one. If you already have a scheduled time of daily prayer, consider taking one of the other steps.

Journey on with the Lord in prayer! It is a wonderful privilege God has provided us through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.