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?

Trip Follow-Up with Students

Following a trip with students, the first thought in our minds is typically not “how can I follow up or debrief my students?” It is usually, “how much stuff do I need to put away until I can head home and sleep in my own bed?”

As we collect ourselves from the last few days and begin to navigate assimilating to our regular work schedule and life, we often focus on the immediate tasks at hand: putting away all of our gear that we took, washing out the water jugs and coolers, returning or attempting to return all the lost and found items, washing and cleaning vehicles, and nursing the sore muscles we didn’t realize we had.

But what about following up and helping our students re-engage with life and culture again? How do we help them not simply have a “camp high” but a truly life changing moment with Jesus that alters everything? Today my desire is not to give you more work, but hopefully give you insight and ways to help your students engage life differently as they apply what they heard and learned from their trip.

Incorporate follow-up with trip training.

One way to build this into what you are doing is by letting students and leaders know that a debrief or follow-up is a part of going on this trip. All of your meetings for a trip should be mandatory and this should be no exception. When you are walking through training and what to expect on the trip, make sure you talk to students about the importance of reengaging with “normal life” when you return home. Our goal on these trips should not be to give students a temporary high but rather help them change their lives for the long-term.

When students are on these trips they will grow in their relationship with Jesus because they are intentionally focusing on Him, serving others, and will be spending extended time in prayer, worship, and Scripture. Helping students understand that these moments don’t need to stop after the trip is over will allow them to better acclimate back to their normal routines. So make sure to highlight that the group will regather at least once when you return to check-in, debrief, and begin crafting plans on how students can continue strongly in their relationship with Jesus.

Utilize available resources.

There are tons of great resources out there that you can use to engage in follow up and post-trip conversations. One of our favorites is a book called Flipping Missions by our friends at LeaderTreks. This book is fantastic for both middle and high school students, and provides helpful guidance on preparing for the trip, devotions for during the trip, and follow-up devotionals for when you return home. Each chapter of the book is short and written intentionally for students, providing deep and meaningful truths coupled with helpful knowledge about what to expect, how to serve, and how to be missionary for Christ.

Another great resource is a book called When Helping Hurts. There are also YouTube videos from Life Church called Helping Without Hurting that can be utilized alongside the book to help make training more impactful. It is helpful to acknowledge that this resource is more suited for older students, but if you take time to discuss the book and material with your team it may be applicable to younger students as well. Taking advantage of resources will ensure that your team is prepared and ready to serve when you head out on your trip. Make sure that whatever resource you choose is suited to your team, and that it will help you ensure the trip is impactful and purposeful.

Leverage your leaders.

Often on trips we will see our students broken up into smaller groups to help the discipleship process take root. When you come back from a trip, encourage your leaders to not let those moments and relationships fall by the wayside. Instead challenge them to continue engaging with and following up with those students, even if they are not students who are in their regular groups. Part of the beauty of trips is that students can connect with different people including leaders, and these moments could be pivotal in the spiritual formation of our students. So challenge your leaders to engage in follow up, set up hangouts, grab coffee, and pray with and for the students they interacted with on the trip.

Engage in large group follow-up.

Many of the ideas above are focused on pre-trip or smaller group engagements (i.e., leaders following up). But there are benefits to bringing your whole group together to engage with each other, remember the trip, and think through how to continue growing as disciples of Jesus. These gatherings can be very unique depending on your context and may be more formal or may be really relaxed. They may also be different depending on the type of trip you’re coming back from (i.e., a weekend trip, a week-long trip, or a mission trip). Here are a few ideas for how to utilize large group gatherings after your trip.

  • Have a meal together. Consider not only bringing your group together to fellowship and rehash the trip, but think about inviting people from the church to join as well. In these moments, you can challenge your students to connect with people in the church and share their experiences from the trip. This will not only allow for intergenerational discipleship, but will also give those who supported your students an opportunity to have direct follow-up from the trip.
  • Choose a follow-up project to get involved in. Coming off of a mission trip, students are often chomping at the bit to continue helping and serving. Think through ways that students can serve and contribute in your community and at church. Gather the group together to actually engage in a service project and challenge your students to step up and consider serving somewhere long-term.
  • Collect stories from students. God works in amazing ways during trips, and we witness transformative moments in the lives of our students. Consider collecting their stories and sharing them with the youth group or the church at large. You can do this in a variety of ways: collect written testimonials and stories, record videos of students to share, or host a panel discussion to talk about what God did in through the students on the trip.
  • Have a post-trip devotional. One of the best things you can do for your students as you go on trips is have a devotional for during and after the trip. If it is possible to tie the two together, that will allow for a stronger connection overall. You can then utilize these devotionals in follow-up conversations at large group gatherings and ask questions of the group from the devotional.

Ask helpful questions.

Regardless of the type of trip or how long the meeting lasts, follow-up is always important. It is important because it helps to connect what students experienced on the trip with what is happening now in their lives. It also helps them think through how they can apply what they learned to their spheres of influence. But what questions should we ask them? Here are handful of questions that will help you and your leaders engage in helpful and meaningful follow up and application with your students.

  • What was your favorite part of the trip?
  • What changed in your relationship with Jesus?
  • What did God teach you?
  • How are you going to live differently as a result of the trip?
  • What do you need to share with others about this trip?
  • What do you hope others will see in you?
  • Why was this trip important?
  • What are you applying from this trip now that you are back to your normal life?
  • How can you serve back home?
  • Who can you share your story with?
  • How can you love and care for others better after this trip?

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.

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.

How to Re-Engage Well

With many states reopening, vaccines being widely distributed, and restrictions being rolled back, the opportunity to re-engage with life and the rhythms we previously enjoyed is becoming more of a reality. But with that reality comes a question: how can we help our people re-engage well? We can easily rush into this new reality, but if we don’t think proactively about what we walked through the past year, we can miss opportunities to engage and care well for others.

Today, I want to provide some ideas to help us step into this new season of life. These could be helpful for you as an individual, or perhaps you could take these and use them to encourage your leaders and families within your ministry. If you are going to provide this to families, I suggest thinking through a few practical examples to help them think creatively about how to implement these in their lives. There are some practical ideas below, but it may be helpful to offer additional ways for families to think critically about how to put these ideas into practice.

Re-engage but don’t forget.

This is a big one for all of us. It will be easy to simply jump back into things, dismiss the time of COVID, and forget all that we walked through, but we cannot. To simply dismiss what happened would not allow there to be growth, change, and opportunities to move forward well. There were many beneficial things that happened during this time that were helpful and allowed us to grow and mature. We shouldn’t go back to being chronically busy. We should spend more time together as a family. We should relish the opportunities to be with those we love. We should find joy in the smaller things. We should celebrate the special moments in our lives in unique ways. We must continue to spend quality time with Jesus.

Establish rhythms.

For many of us, our rhythms were disrupted greatly at the beginning of the pandemic. Our schedules changed, our work locations were radically different, our time with Jesus was altered, and schools embraced remote learning. But over time we established new rhythms and built around our current mode of life. The key thing to remember is that this took time to do because the change was so quick and drastic. But now as life changes once again, it would be beneficial to think proactively about what our rhythms will look like going forward. We have been given the opportunity to look ahead and think about how we can establish rhythms as life changes again. Maybe you’ll keep some you have now, perhaps you’ll add new ones, or maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul. But being proactive will allow you to engage well and not have important things fall by the wayside.

Do a heart check.

I think if we are honest with ourselves we would all admit that the pandemic has affected us in a variety of ways. We have had some extreme highs and some drastically low lows. We have gone through an emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual roller-coaster and as we think about re-engaging, it would be helpful to assess how we are doing. We should not dismiss the reality of what we experienced but instead should assess what has happened in our lives and our hearts, and think through how we are actually doing within the midst of all that has happened. We should ask questions like:

  • How am I doing spiritually?
  • How is my attitude toward the church and other believers?
  • How are my emotions?
  • How are my relationships with others?
  • How is my mental health doing?
  • How is my family?
  • How is my relationship with Jesus doing?
  • What is burdening me right now?
  • How have I responded to all the pressures and difficulties that have been happening?
  • What have I rejoiced in?

Asking these questions will help us to see how we are doing, and also help us see our strengths and areas for improvement. Knowing ourselves allows us to be cared for and ministered to, and will also allow us to care for and minister to others. This is all about making sure we are doing well and seeking the help and assistance we need so we can then continue to pour out to those we care for.

Start a faithfulness journal.

It is easy during seasons like we have just experienced to lose sight of God’s faithfulness. But the truth is God never stopped being faithful. Keeping a journal and remembering what God has done will help to put us in the right frame of mind as we re-engage. This may seem a little late as we have already been navigating this for a year, but consider taking time as an individual or family and reflecting back on what God has done this past year. Then consider keeping this journal going forward and see how God continues to show up and care for you.

Be willing to give grace.

As we begin re-engaging we must acknowledge that not everyone will be at the same place. They may not be comfortable stepping out fully, others may have already been engaging without restrictions, some may still be unsure and that’s okay. But as we re-engage we need to be will to give grace and freedom in those moments. Be willing to die to self and seek to care for those around you.

There will be people who had an easier time during this season and people who struggled deeply. And both are okay. We are all unique and have had a different experiences navigating COVID. We need to be willing to listen well and not impose our views and presuppositions upon others.

Be in constant prayer.

This may seem like a no-brainer but we must be proactive in this. We need to be praying for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our leaders. This has been a tough season, and the Enemy has been celebrating as he has seen the church divide over things that should be non-issues. But instead of being frustrated and angry at him or other people, we should be on our knees seeking our Savior and His direction. Let us pray for ourselves and others, and seek to be a tangible representation of Jesus to this world.

Be willing to serve.

As things reopen across the country there are going to be needs that arise. Don’t simply be a consumer, but instead be willing to serve and care for others. It may be within your church, volunteering at local organizations, at the schools in your community, as a coach on your student’s team, or even in helping people do yard work in your neighborhood. Be willing to lead out and care for others as we begin to build a new normal.

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.

7 Ways to Encourage Others

This past month the staff at our church was given a challenge: encourage one another. We drew names from a hat and were told to encourage that person for the whole month, and at the end we would reveal who we were encouraging. It was like Secret Santa but in February.

As I reflected on what we were doing, I thought about the practical application this could have within our personal lives and the ministries we lead and serve. Today, I want to offer some ways to think about encouraging others within your spheres of influence. These people could be your volunteers, staff at your church, your neighbors, your spouse, or whomever you choose. This has been, and continues to be for many, a challenging season, and if we apply some of these to our daily rhythms we will encourage, strengthen, and empower those with whom we do life.

1. Write an encouraging note.

This could be as simple as letting someone know that what they have been doing has been noticed, or it could be more personal. The purpose of this is to actually give the person a tangible message. Handwritten notes or letters contain much more meaning than an email or text, and have a way of encouraging people in powerful ways.

2. Leave them their favorite snack.

One of my favorite things to do with my volunteers is find out what their favorite snack item is and then randomly send them that snack or give it to them at a camp or retreat. It sounds simple, but it holds meaning for that person because it shows intentionality and a relational connection.

3. Share an encouraging Scripture.

Sharing a passage of Scripture with someone is hugely encouraging. It can simply be a verse God gave you for that person, a passage to encourage them during whatever season they are going through, or a passage that reminded you of that person. What I would recommend is provide a little rationale with the passage so the person knows why you are leaving it for them.

4. Get students involved.

Encouraging your volunteers, other youth staff, or parents? Don’t forget to get your students involved. They can do something as simple as sending a text or video message to their leaders, or they can create hand-written notes to drop off or mail. Wanting to do a little more? Edit together videos from multiple students and share them with your leaders and staff. Students will remember special moments with their leaders, which can encourage your entire group. Plus fostering a grateful community is always a good idea.

5. Give them a gift card.

This may sound a bit impersonal at first, but let me say this: give someone a gift card to a place they enjoy. For instance, if you have a leader who loves tea, don’t get them a gift card to Starbucks. Consider getting them one to David’s Tea or a local tea shop. If they love online shopping then grab them a gift card to Amazon or their favorite retailer. You could also consider providing a gift card for them to use as a way to take their spouse or significant other out for a date night. The more intentional you are with the destination of the gift card, the more impactful and meaningful it will be. This will mean that you need to know what the person enjoys but as leaders we should be seeking to know our people and find out more about their lives.

6. Take them out.

This is one of my favorite things to do with my volunteers. I love grabbing a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza with my leaders and encouraging them. I always try to pay for them, listen to how they are doing personally and in ministry, and find ways to pray for them. This is a practical and tangible way to care for and encourage your people.

7. Don’t forget important days.

This may seem obvious, but honoring important days is the perfect way to make others feel special and remembered. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, or other meaningful milestone, recognizing an important day in the life of others shows that you are paying attention and invested. Set a calendar reminder, or keep a planner where you note these days. Then use one of the suggestions above to celebrate the person, their milestone, and why they are a meaningful part of your life.