Category Archives: students

Sunshine, baseball, and wornout grass

It was a nice sunny day and the entire family headed outside to enjoy the weather. The kids rode bikes, played with sidewalk chalk and just ran around. My wife and I played catch and talked. But then something happened that reinforced the fact that youth ministry is part of my family culture. Upon seeing one of the neighborhood kids (a 7th grader) come out of his house with his glove my wife says to me, “You should see if he wants to come over and play catch with you.” On one side, she figured I would enjoy playing catch with someone who is better at baseball and on the other side, she knew it would be a great chance for me to talk to him.

Joe (not his real name or is it) has a younger brother who is friends with my oldest son. He’s been over to the house before and we’ve talked before, so this was not going to be something completely new.

What I thought would be a 20 minute session of throwing fastballs and trying to throw curves ended up being something much bigger. I’m not sure how long we played or how many pitches we threw, but I know my arm hurt when we were done. In fact, as you can see from the picture, we played long enough to cause some serious damage to the well-being of my front yard.

We talked about school, family, and a little about church. I learned a lot that afternoon about Joe and his world. Something else happened, though. After I had to leave to start grilling for dinner, Joe stayed and played with my boys. He continued to play catch and just hang out – my kids thought it was great. And because youth ministry is more than a job – its part of our family culture – we had Joe and his brother over for dinner, too.

We were glad to have the chances to connect with our neighbors and it was a great chance to minister. But a few days later I learned that it was something more. One of Joe’s teachers goes to our church and a few days after this I was talking to her at church. We were talking about Joe, she was asking me some questions, and I mentioned to her that I had played catch with him earlier that week. She said, “Oh yeah, I know that. He came in the next day and told me about it.” She went on to tell me that she thinks I’ve been (and need to continue to be) a good influence in Joe’s life.

I was a little shocked. Apparently the fact that I spent time with Joe meant more to him than I imagined it would.

I was reminded that sometimes the seemingly small things we do with people, especially teenagers, are much more important then we first think.

Many times in youth ministry we get opportunities to spend time with students. Are you making the most of those opportunities?


Difficult times in ministry

Just this week, I spoke at the Fall Kickoff on our need to have reminders and memorials set up to help us remember what God has done in the past. I talked about the time, in Joshua 4, where God told Joshua to take 12 stones from the middle of the Jordan and place them as a memorial. Every time someone would ask what the stones were for, the Israelites were to tell them about how God dried up the Jordan and the people crossed on dry ground. The stones were meant to be a visual reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Just two days later, a student I know from a past ministry (and who just received Christ as Lord and Savior six months ago) died from a 4-wheeler accident. This is the 3rd death, all teens and young adults, in the last year in this community. The students are hurting, confused, angry, or numb. It is difficult enough to experience the loss of a friend while in school, but it is even more difficult when it happens multiple times. Some of these students lost another classmate while in elementary school, too.

It is during these difficult times that we need to be reminded of God’s ultimate love and faithfulness. But how do we remember the times in which God spared a person’s life and kept people safe when the outcome “should” have been different? As a caring adult (youth worker) you cannot start a conversation with a hurting student by telling them to cheer up and remember the good times. That is not good counseling and will probably not help the student. No, one of the best things you can do during difficult times is to simply be present. Listen to the students. And pray with and for them.

As I type this post and think about the community going through this difficult time, I have mostly questions and few answers.

  1. What will it look like for the community to come together during this time?
  2. What will be different if this happens again?
  3. As a youth minister, am I prepared for a situation like this? Do I know counselors in the area? Do I know counseling basics? Do I have a relationship with the school, in order to offer help?
  4. How do you get students to already have those “memorial reminders” in place, so they can turn to them during times of tragedy?

How have you handled difficult times in ministry?

Journey of Starting a New Ministry – month 1 (1 of 2)

The first month of a new ministry is very important. It is important for both you and the congregation. During this first month, you will be developing habits and routines which you will continue to use for a long time. You are beginning to set the precedent for what people can expect from you. The congregation will use these first four weeks to watch how you interact and listen to how you present yourself. The are interested in what you will bring to the ministry. Most of these people, even some of those who met you prior to being hired, have not had much time to meet you and ask you questions.

No two ministers will have the same first month at a new ministry. You might preach every week or not at all. You might not even be on stage during this month. You might teach multiple classes or you might be able to sit in and observe. You might have a death in the congregation or maybe its a wedding. You might start in the middle of summer or the middle of winter. Despite the fact that every start to a ministry is so vastly different, I believe there are some things that every minister needs to accomplish during this time.

Tips for Month #1:
1. Learn names
This goes for those who are good at remembering names and those who forget ten seconds after you are told. Knowing the name of a student or adult makes it much easier to start conversations. Plus everyone likes to know that you care enough to learn their name.

2. Implement office hours & your day off
As you are starting your new ministry, you are forming new habits and routines. One of those routines needs to be setting up, and following through with, the hours you will spend in the office and what day you will be staying away from the office. There is plenty of “work” to be done at the beginning of a ministry and you will leave many days knowing there is much more you can do. Do not let the feeling that you need to prove yourself keep you from setting up limitations.

3. Plan informal gatherings with youth
You need to get to know the students, and that will not completely happen in the classroom setting. So plan some time to hang out with them away from church. You can plan a day in the park, go out to lunch, plan a game night or just plan a day to hang out at someone’s house. Do not use this time to give a devotional or plan upcoming events, just spend time talking and listening.

4. Get to know the adults (parents, youth coaches, elders…)
Aside from the students you will be ministering to, you need to learn more about the adults you will be working with. Meet for lunch or stop by their house (call beforehand). Ask a few questions about their family. Learn about their passions and what drives them. Share your heart for ministry. 

Teaching Tips: #1 Silence is Okay

Teaching Tip #1 – Silence is Okay
I was fresh out of Bible college, in my first youth ministry, sitting on a couch teaching high school students. I had spent hours preparing this lesson, studying the Bible, and crafting great questions to get the students talking. As I sat there going through my lesson notes, there was only one thing wrong: no one was answering. I was beginning to wonder what I had done wrong. Maybe my questions were too difficult or unclear. Maybe the students didn’t like me. As I thought through my concerns, all I could hear from them was silence. So I just kept moving. I answered the questions myself or just moved on to the next one. And when it was all over, I left feeling like I just wasted an hour of their life.

Have you ever had that same feeling?

What I have learned since then is that it was not necessarily my questions that were at fault, it was the way I was teaching. I was not allowing the students time to process the questions and formulate an answer. I assumed that silence meant they were either not interested or clueless. The silence scared me as a teacher. This fear of silence was a manifestation of my lack of confidence. Maybe you have the same fear of silence, too. If you do, let me share with you some things I have learned over the years.

Silence can mean a few things:
1. There is a fear of being wrong.
Sometimes, the students are silent after a question because they do not want to get the question wrong. School is a place with right and wrong answers and this mentality carries over into the youth ministry. As the teacher, one of your goals is to create a safe environment, where the students trust that their thoughts are valuable.

2. There answer is too personal to share with the group.
There are some questions we ask that go straight to the heart of a student. These are questions that spark life application and change. These are the questions that really affect the students. These are also the questions that need not always be answered verbally. Are you expecting a student to tell everyone else in class something that might be too personal?

3. The students do not have an answer.
Remember that time you were at a seminar and the speaker asked a question and you could not think of an answer. It happens to our students, too. Every student does not enter the room having spent the last week preparing to discuss the topic of the day. Some students enter the room with a dozen other things on their mind, all of which are competing for their attention. These mental distractions can make it difficult to quickly come up with answer, so try to remember not to rush them.

4. They are processing the question.
After you ask a question, especially an open-ended question, you need to give the students a chance to process. As the teacher, you have had days to think about the questions. The students, on the other hand, have only had seconds. You cannot expect a student to immediately answer. So stop expecting it and allow them time to think.

How to handle silence:
1. Give the students time.
After you ask a question, allow the students a few minutes to formulate their answers. One of the worst things you can do is to continually talk while you wait. You might need to offer suggestions and helps, but do not immediately start with them.

2. Pick students to answer.
If you have some questions to ask that are based off of a Scripture you will be reading, let a few students know that you will be asking them a question after the Scripture is read. This “warning” should encourage them to pay more attention to what is being read.

3. Start with questions everyone needs to answer.
This is especially helpful one of the first times the group is together, but it will help anytime. At the beginning of class, ask a couple questions that need to be answered by everyone. Do not make them too difficult or too narrow. You want the students to start thinking and to feel more comfortable talking in the group.

Do you have any other suggestions for handling silence?

Journey of starting a new ministry – week 4

(Over the next few months, maybe longer, I will be writing weekly posts on my journey of starting a new youth ministry position. The focus will be on general tips and suggestions for any youth minister starting a new position, but I will add-in moments specific to my situation. My goal is to offer advice to help other youth ministers and not write an online journal of my own personal experiences. In order to make this series of articles as beneficial as I can, I would appreciate your feedback and thoughts. And remember as you read about my journey in a new youth ministry that every situation is different; therefore, these ideas are just ideas and suggestions. You need to know your church culture and adjust your week-by-week to fit those needs.)

Week 4
Last week was about little things, this week was more about surprises.

This was the week I was glad I spent the first few weeks getting my office organized (well, mostly organized). You see, this week I needed to know where certain books were and find old information. I felt like I was really starting to settle into the ministry and spending a lot more time dreaming/planning/ministering during the week. This week was the first week that felt “normal” (if there is such a thing as a normal week for a youth minister) when I think of what I want to do each week. I still know that this is just the beginning and I have a long way to go before I get to where I want to be. To put it another way, this was the first week I did not feel completely new to this position and that surprised me.

Another interesting thing happened to me this week. Last week, I planned two lunch gatherings for the students. Both days went well and I knew I would do it again, maybe every other week. This week I did not plan any lunches, but on two different occasions I had a couple students ask when they were. I did not expect that question, but am glad I was asked. I was planning on continuing with an every other week schedule through the rest of the summer, but might switch to every week – only once a week, instead of twice. These lunches will be a good way to build relationships with the students in a very informal setting.

Another surprising part of the week was when I realized that some aspects of ministry never change. No, I’m not talking about the fact that students don’t change, they just change names. I’m not even talking about the job descriptions or responsibilities placed on a youth minister. I am talking about some of the tendencies and habits a youth minister acquires based on certain situations. Let’s say, for example, a youth worker is undermined and threatened early in his ministry and develops a tendency to be defensive when talking with those in leadership. You would think this behavior would stop when the youth worker is years removed from the incident and at a new location. I was reminded this week that it is not always that easy.

There is one last thing I would suggest you remember at this point in your ministry because it will help with the transition. I would suggest that you intentionally work with those who were planning and organizing the different aspects of the ministry before you arrived. As much as the person might want to just dump the responsibility into your lap, do not let them. Try to work with them and learn from what they were doing. You might just pick up a nugget of wisdom that was learned through mistakes, thus helping you avoid the same mistakes. Wisdom like: making sure you remind teachers it is there month when the first or second of the month lands on a Sunday.

Week 4 Bulletpoints:
– try to meet with the parents of those “exiting” your ministry
– find a small, positive change you can make & make it
– continue making initial contacts with parents
– be visible during the church services

Goals of the near future:
– develop a vision & goals that coincide with those of the entire church
– learn the passion/heart of the youth coaches
– encourage youth coaches
– learn more names

Previous weekly perspectives: week 1, week 2, week 3,

(Not so) Practical Graduation Gifts

While there are plenty of good graduation gift ideas out there, I thought you might to see some not-so-practical ideas. None of these gifts are on the same level of non-practical.

1. Super Soaker
2. WWJD bracelet (tye-dye, of course)
3. Pet Rock, with graduation year printed on it
4. WOW ’97 CD
5. A few pizzas from your last pizza fundraiser
6. Leftover Mountain Dew from the New Year’s overnighter
7. Any Thomas Kinkade print
8. A coffee cup that says “Best Graduate Ever”
9. A Psalty throw pillow

What would you add to this list?

Every Youth Worker Needs: to be able to write postcards

(Youth ministry is not an easy ministry. And in this series, Every Youth Worker Needs:…, I want to highlight a variety of things that might make your ministry a little easier. This ongoing series will include ministry tips, book suggestions, technology helps, and many other nuggets of advice.)

Most students seem to have one preferred method of communication – text messaging. Many students (as well as adults) use their cell phones to send more text messages then to make phone calls. I know several students who spend 100% of their time on their cell phone just sending text messages. The youth culture is becoming (some areas have already become) focused on instant communication sent using technology. This attachment to technology is exactly the reason why every youth worker needs to be able to write a postcard.

The goal is to regularly connect with students and parents through a postcard. Remember that what you write on one side can (and will) be read by many more people than just the intended audience.

Benefits of writing postcards
1. Shorter length.
A postcard only has a little room for the message, so you do not feel pressure to write more than a paragraph. This allows you to focus on one key point. There will be times that you struggle to even write a postcard, imagine how you would feel if you needed to fill an entire page. You can keep your message short and not feel the need to stretch it out just to fill a certain space.

2. Shows importance.
A written postcard shows the recipient that they are important enough for you to take the extra time to hand write the note and not just send an email. People are accustomed to receiving emails, text messages, and phone calls. Taking the time to do a little extra will reinforce that the person has value as an individual. Writing a postcard is a great way to rise above the normal.

3. Big impact.
Writing a postcard does not take a lot of time; therefore, you get a lot of impact for a small amount of work. You can write three or four postcards in 15 minutes, but the impact will last for years. Remember that emails are quickly deleted or left to collect digital dust, but a hand-written postcard will be kept by most students. And when they find your postcard while cleaning up their room, they will remember more than just the words written – they will remember your impact.

Tips on writing postcards
1. Use printed address labels.
I have found that using printed address labels for most postcards does not take away from the personal touch. (Plus if you are the lead youth worker – making these labels available to your team makes it even easier for them to write postcards.) You can print both the recipient’s label and the return address label or you can just print the return address label. Using labels saves a few minutes and helps you keep track of who you have and haven’t sent postcards to lately.

2. Use 4×6 pictures as the postcard.
People love to see pictures of themselves. Why not, turn a picture into a postcard? This works great when you are writing about a specific event. Not only are you able to speak into the person’s life, but you are also giving them a very tangible memento. Before digital cameras became so popular, it was fairly easy to just use one of your extra printed pictures. Today, you have to go and purposely have the picture printed. This might seem like extra work, but I think it allows you the ability to choose a great picture (and the ability to edit it when needed).

3. Find funny or unique postcards.
Using pictures of the students is great, but sending funny postcards can be just as good. When you are traveling, keep an eye out for unusual postcards. Find postcards with funny pictures that remind you of a student or two. You can find some great postcards at very touristy stores. My favorite postcard was bought from a Hallmark that was going out of business. It said “welcome” on the front and looked like a miniature version of a welcome mat, complete with artificial green grass. I used it to send to visiting students as a follow-up to their visiting our group.

4. Block out time to write.
Schedule time each week to write a few postcards to different students. I have found that if I do not plan on writing notes to students, it will get pushed off. The more I push this task to the bottom of my “to-do” list, the more unlikely I am to do it at all. The easiest way to block out time to write postcards is to find fifteen minutes in your schedule each week. It might be right before your weekly staff meeting, first thing Monday morning, or after you get back from lunch. It does not matter when you schedule postcard time, but you do need to make time for it.

5. Track each sent postcard.
Keep track of who you send each postcard to. I use a printed sheet with each student’s name, but you can use excel or another youth tracking software, too. You can track on a monthly basis, but make sure you keep your old records. Use this information to make sure you write at least one postcard to every student on a regular basis. Along with postcards, make sure you are making other contacts with the students and their families.

6. Be specific.
Write an encouraging message or talk about something you saw them do. Do NOT use the postcard to simply promote an upcoming event. This shows that you are more concerned with their attendance than anything else. It is much more effective to keep the note simple and related to one specific event, action, or attitude.

Hand-written postcards are a great youth ministry tool. When was the last time you sent one?

(Every Youth Worker Needs: A Blog Series About Things You Need in Youth Ministry)

"Minute to Win It" – youth ministry game resource

Over the last few weeks, I have watched previews for NBC’s new shows. One show in particular caught my attention (and the attention of the rest of the youth ministry world) “Minute to Win It.” Basically, contestants have one minute to complete a game using simple household items. If they complete ten games, then they win 1 million dollars. As I watched the commercials, I kept seeing games I have played with my youth groups. One is the “shrinking grocery bag” game (where the bag keeps getting shorter and shorter and you have to pick it up with your teeth.) I like the single player version better than the way I played. At a 30 Hour Famine we played where you went around a circle and everyone tried to pick it up. My version is not nearly as sanitary as the games version.

If you have not heard of “Minute to Win It” you need to check it out. It’s on Sunday nights at 7 central. You also need to check out the website for the game. Up until a few days ago, I knew about the game, but I had not realized that the show’s website would be a great help to youth workers until I read Youth Ministry Geek’s post. You need to go check out the game vault and use a game or two.

Before I hit “publish” I feel I need to offer this word of warning to youth workers everywhere. Please do not saturate the youth ministry world with an abundance of “Minute to Win It” games or retreats or evangelism events. These games will be a great addition to your events, but DO NOT overdue it. I saw it happen with youth ministry versions of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (and many other pop culture things) and students get tired of it.

Remember that moderation is a good thing.

One last comment (question). I know there will be a t-shirt soon based on “Minute to Win It,” but I just can’t figure out what it will say. Do you have any thoughts?

to quote someone else: Student Discipleship (Mike Yaconelli)

“Most of all, love them. Believe in them. Trust them. Be an example for them. Stick with them over the long haul. And some day, when they’re older, when they’ve weathered a few storms, when they’ve been beaten up by life a bit, they may actually start looking like a disciple – not because you discipled them, but because you refused to give up on them.”

taken from Getting Fired for the Glory of God by Mike Yaconelli

Youth workers need to be reminded that youth ministry (and discipleship) is not a sprint. Remember that Jesus spent 3 years with His disciples, and they still did not get until after He left.

Do not give up!
Do not feel defeated!
Keep going!
Stick with your students!

Every Youth Worker Needs: Less Sarcasm

(Youth ministry is not an easy ministry. And in this series, Every Youth Worker Needs:…, I want to highlight a variety of things that might make your ministry a little easier. This ongoing series will include ministry tips, book suggestions, technology helps, and many other nuggets of advice.)

If you would have known me in high school and college, you would have a hard time believing I wrote the title of this post. Allow me to explain to you, in one sentence, what I mean. I used to be extremely sarcastic. It was simply “who I was” and how I interacted with others. In fact, it was so extreme that I lost a college roommate because he thought I was too sarcastic. We had many (probably at least one a week) conversations over my use of sarcasm and his belief that I used it a little too much. I defended myself back then and despite trying to refrain around him, I did little to change my sarcastic attitude.

Then there came this point where I actually regretted who I had become. For many years, the one word that described me was “sarcastic” and sadly, this followed me into my first ministry. It was years into my ministry before I realized just how my sarcasm was negatively affecting the students and the ministry. As easy as it was for me to be sarcastic – it was pretty second nature for me – I knew I needed to put a stop to it. I don’t remember if I ever sat down with my youth ministry team, the students or the families and told them that I was going to be less sarcastic. I don’t think it was as important to tell people as it was to actually change my words and attitude. And as I changed into a less sarcastic person, I could see visible changes happening within the group.

As I changed, I saw a vanishing of the distance (caused by my sarcasm) between myself and some of the people I was trying to minister to. I wonder what “could have been” during the first two years had I learned sooner. From my experience, I have seen four negatives to using sarcasm in your youth ministry.

4 negatives to using sarcasm in youth ministry.

1. Students do not know when they can trust you.
Okay, so that might be a strong, and over-the-top statement that is not true all the time, but I think its still worth thinking about. When a student asks a question or makes a statement, are they worried about what you will say in return? The more you use sarcasm in your responses, the less students want to open their mouth and say anything. Students need to know they can trust your response to their thoughts and emotions (the stuff they say and do expresses these two) and that your response will be positive or at least neutral, not damaging.

2. Someone (usually a student) gets their feelings hurt.
Sarcasm is known for being “biting.” In my experience, any time it is used it results in hurt feelings. Its not the person using sarcasm that is hurt, nor those who hear it, but the person to whom it is directed toward. As a youth worker, more often than not, we tend to direct sarcasm at a student. And when this student laughs we think we have accomplished the exact opposite of hurt. In reality, we are only fooling ourselves. No student walks away from a sarcastic remark without feeling some level of pain, especially if they respect the person who said it.

3. It neither lifts up or encourages.
Youth ministry needs to be a safe place for students to be. When sarcasm is acceptable and prevalent within a youth ministry, it seizes to be a safe place. Throughout the Bible we are told to encourage each other and lift each other up. Sarcasm hinders us from showing the love of God to those who need it.

4. Simply put, it is cheap humor.
There is no way around this one. If you are looking for a cheap laugh, say something sarcastic. But is this what our youth ministries need? I don’t think so. If you want to be funny, put more effort into it. And remember, you do not need to get a laugh every time you talk to someone. Your ministry is about connecting students with a loving God – not making jokes or getting students to think you are funny.

There are still occasions where sarcasm flows from my lips, but it is much fewer and far between. Not to mention, it is very rarely around a student. Yet, the very fact that I still have moments of sarcastic behavior means I need to be intentional about taming my tongue (see James 3:1-12, especially v. 10). I encourage you to take sarcasm out of your talks, out of your conversations with students, and allow your words to be an encouragement to those students you are ministering to.

(Every Youth Worker Needs: A Blog Series About Things You Need in Youth Ministry)