Tips for Having “The Talk” With Your Students

Tips for Talking About Sex with Students

This Fall, our student ministry tackled the “gods at war” series from Kyle Idleman. The series identifies false gods that war for our affection. From the moment we chose the series, I circled the date on my calendar when I would be teaching on the “gods of love, sex, and romance.”

Every youth minister knows the sweaty palms and the lump in the throat that come along with speaking to students about sex and purity. As youth ministers who care deeply for students, we know that this topic is of the utmost importance. We know that the average age a student sees pornography for the first time is around 11. We know that by the time a student graduates, 92% of the guys and 63% of the girls will have viewed pornographic images. And, frankly, that is only one of the battlefronts as students are also dealing with questions about their sexuality and their gender and being pressured from all sides to be sexually active.

As I thought more and more about sharing with students about this difficult topic, I thought it might be beneficial to communicate some lessons I have learned along the way about giving “The talk” to your students. While some of these lessons were learned the hard way, I hope that they are all beneficial as you approach this topic with your students.

Everything in moderation 
It seems some youth ministers talk about sex almost every week. Honestly, with students facing this topic at every turn, speaking about sex at every youth meeting is a real temptation. But remember, sexual sin is just a symptom of the larger disease. I would encourage you to spend most of your teaching opportunities focusing on the bigger picture of being a disciple and a lifelong follower of Christ. Speaking about sex every week is too one-dimensional and misses the point.

Sound the alarm
I am convinced that one of the best things you can possibly do prior to having “the talk” in youth group is to communicate the details with parents and your leaders. Whether you send a letter in the mail, communicate in a weekly email blast, send a text message, or all of the above, you need to give parents and leaders a heads up. Not only does this communication help keep everyone on the same page, it also helps parents to prepare mentally for the conversation that will most likely happen after youth group. I invited our elders to sit in on our youth group that evening so that there would be no question about what I had said or the tone in which I said it. Communicate like crazy. You will be happy that you did.

Be bold
Once you have set the stage by communicating with parents and leaders and you have prepped well, it is time to be bold. The world is screaming from every direction about sex and romance, and it is high time that the church speaks with holy boldness on the subject. Don’t be afraid to attack certain angles of this topic head on. Talk with your students directly about pornography, sexual promiscuity, movies, television, cohabitation, and whatever else you feel God leading you toward. You know your students and the pressures they are facing in their context. Don’t pull any punches.

Avoid slang 
One of the mistakes I made the first few times I spoke on sex with my group was utilizing slang terms. Every student has a different level of understanding about sex, so using slang terms ended up causing more difficulty than I anticipated. Students spent time during my lesson whispering back and forth trying to figure out what that term I just used meant. For some, the use of slang terms created more curiosity and confusion. I’m not suggesting you give a doctoral thesis and only use medical terminology, but stick to the basics so that your students are sure to understand and can continue to track with you instead of laughing about the term you just used. Parents will also appreciate the deliberate avoidance of slang terms so that they don’t have to define crazy terms to their student after youth group.

Trust the Truth
God’s Word has lots to say on the topic of sex and purity. Students are hearing the world’s view on sexuality from magazines, movies, television, and even their friends in the locker room. But God is the Creator, and He is the one who created us as sexual beings. Trust in His Word, and confidently share that truth with your students. Many times, the Bible will stand in stark contrast to the world on this topic, but you can trust in it and communicate it without fear. Be ready to answer questions after youth group, but know that the Bible is trustworthy.  In turn, you should deliver its Truth confidently.

Give grace
I can’t tell you how many lessons on sexual purity I’ve heard that have been very heavy-handed, guilt-ridden, and condemning in nature.  Honestly, I’ve been guilty of delivering a few of these in the past.  But what I realized is that students who are struggling with lust, pornography, and sexual sin are already dealing with the weight of guilt and shame.  They certainly don’t need me to add to their guilt by bashing them over the head with the Word.  I fully believe that it is possible to encourage students to sexual purity while extending the incredible and glorious grace of Jesus.  When I am confronted in my sin, I prefer it to be filled with grace. So, I have started approaching this subject with my students the same way.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way about having the purity talk with my students.  I’d love to hear what has worked for you as well.  Comment below so we can dialogue about this important subject.

The best Youth Ministry Conference out there

the orange conference youth ministry

They often say “leaders are readers,” but the underlying truth there is that leaders are learners. We all get that.

That’s why conferences are, in my opinion, so crucial for leaders.  In the world of Youth Ministry, we have a number of options to choose from. In my time as a Youth Pastor, I’ve been to a lot of the major, national conferences and several of the smaller, regional ones.  I don’t mean to bash on the others, but there really is nothing that can top the experience and education of the Orange Conference.

I wrote this summer about the idea of the 10 word answers, that it’s easy to be able to say a quick phrase that sounds great or offer a general solution that might solve a problem without understanding why the phrase is true or why the solution works. For me, I can go to any conference and get inspired, see something that is killing it in another ministry, or hear an idea that would be phenomenal for my church. But rarely at these conferences do I learn a) Why an idea is a killer idea in general, b) why an idea is being successful there in that context, or c) how I can make it successful in my ministry, or if it’s even a good fit for my ministry.

That’s why I love the Orange Conference. You’re going to see a lot of amazing things, hear about a lot of killer ideas. But the focus of the conference isn’t the solution, but instead the philosophy of the solution. You won’t just leave with a notebook of ideas or curriculum options, you’ll leave planning a strategy for YOUR ministry.

So I know I’ll be in Atlanta this coming spring, and I’d love to meet more of our YouthMin community there. Registration opens up this week (october 9th) and you can save $80 per person for opening day, thats a HUGE savings!

Even better, the amazing folks at Orange have been kind enough to give us a ticket to give away to a reader. Just leave a comment on ANY post this week, and on Thursday at 3 pm CST, we’ll choose a random winner!

Check out the highlights from last year’s conference

The Orange Conference 2014: Highlights from Orange on Vimeo.

*Disclaimer: I’m asked to help promote the Orange Conference, but I’d write the same post above even if they hadn’t asked.

Embracing the New Normal

taking attendance in youth ministry

Carey Nieuwhof is a name many of you might recognize. If you don’t recognize his name, check out his new leadership podcast, it’s great! In his first episode, Andy Stanley makes a statement that kind of shook my existing paradigm as it relates to student ministry.

“A regular church attender is someone who goes to church about 12 times a year, not every week…as we looked at our children’s attendance patterns, the truth is that people, a regular attender, somebody that says, ‘Oh that’s my church, I love Andy or I love Carey or I love my church,” they’re going to go 12-15 times a year and consider themselves ‘churched.’  …they haven’t left.”

TWELVE TIMES? Growing up, my mom was on staff at a major church. From my perspective as a kid, the thought that we would even miss 12 Sundays a year was foreign, much less only attend 12 Sundays a year. So whether or not that statistic plays out to be true in your context, from a general point of view, there is a notable culture shift among church attendance. I would argue that there is a new normal. (Keep in mind, “new” is relative. For some contexts, this normal may have existed for years and years, and in other contexts, it may not be there at all).

Let’s assume, for a second, that this is the case and that it plays out to be true for students, as well. How does that impact how we cast vision for our students? How does that impact processes for pastoral care? How does that impact how we might view different circles of “core” vs. fringe? How does that impact how we script our series and our small group/Sunday school curriculum? We could talk for decades about how to increase involvement to an “acceptable level”, whatever that is…but let’s resist that temptation.

Instead of trying to FIX the problem, how can we do better at working within the framework we’re given? How can we be better leaders, pastors, and shepherds under the assumption that this statistic, to some degree, is true?

 

I don’t have all the answers…but I can think of plenty of questions.

PASTORAL CARE. When a tragedy happens in my town, my tendency is to use our D Group ministry structure as a conduit for pastoral care: visiting groups, checking in with group leaders, and meeting with students that were directly effected. If a student only attends 12x a year but considers you their pastor, seeing no reason why you would consider them a “regular visitor,” how are we shepherding students we only see once a month?

FOLLOW UP. When a core student, who may miss one meeting a month, misses for a couple weeks, there is cause to follow up. But if Jim only comes once a month to his home youth group, what’s the best way to follow up? The same way you’d approach a student there every week, or more like a student who has come with a friend a couple times?

SERIES DEVELOPMENT. I’m writing this 3 and a half hours before preaching the first message in a series on times when God feels silent. I feel like this series will hit home with many of our students who struggle with connecting with God. But if Jim comes 1 time every 4 weeks, he may not know the series is happening until it’s over. Do we have ways our students can stay plugged in and fed if they’re not there? Do we drag out series? Do we need to over-communicate when a series approaches that we think is particularly honed into where our students are?

Those are my first thoughts as I process the incredible implications should this statement be true, but I would love to hear how this perception or knowledge impacts the way you do student ministry, and if you think it plays out in your context.

Don’t Kill Yourself – Volunteers are Key

youth pastor volunteer

Volunteers… We don’t always have them but we need them.

I have been in Youth Ministry for a little over 4 years now and for about the first 3 years I thought that everything was my responsibility. I did three lessons a week, scheduled a meal sign up sheet and made contact with whoever was signed up for the current week, spent as much time as I could with the students (which wasn’t much). I led parent meetings, did lock-ins, 30 Hour Famines, Camps, Mission Trips and all of the fundraisers that our program needed. I had parents come and volunteer their time but I never appreciated their help fully until about 6 months ago. I started in a new church about a year and a half ago and for the first year I continued my devastating trend of not allowing anyone to help me. I was exhausted, I was depressed, I didn’t feel like I belonged in ministry anymore.

The past 4-6 months I have truly begun to understand the need for allowing adults to help in student ministry. I need to be in the front leading the group in the direction we are going but that doesn’t mean that I have to be pulling the entire group behind me. Now, I have a group of 4-6 adults that are absolutely invested in this ministry. I bounce ideas off of them, I ask them to do stuff for the ministry (instead of me doing it all) and I do my best to be there whenever I have a leader that has a question or idea for the program. Believe it or not, I am not stressed anymore. I don’t worry about how I am going to tackle certain tasks now, because I have a team that I know can help me and is behind me 110%. Whether that task is little or daunting, my team works together with me and we accomplish it.

A question arises though… Where can I get the leaders that I need to do this?

1. Talk to People

There are many people in the church that don’t do anything and are not invested because they have never been asked to do anything. Invite them out for lunch one day, give your vision for the ministry, ask where they can see themselves helping out and give them the reasoning on why you chose them. Most of my volunteers have stepped up because I have asked them or talked to them about the ministry.

2. Broadcast Your Ministry to the Church

Make sure your church knows that they actually have a student ministry.  And make sure they know that the student ministry is doing everything in its power to equip the students with the faith and the biblical understanding that they need to be able to tackle the challenges that are waiting on them when they leave to go to college. Your students are your best promotional opportunity, so get your students to stand up in church and make announcements for the youth program. When you go on a mission trip or go to church camp, get up in front of the church and let the students share how God moved in their lives during the event. Adults love to hear how the students are tackling the difficult concepts of faith early in their lives and more than likely would love to help out.

3. Make Sure Your Ministry is Inviting

This is something that really took some effort and practice on my part. In all my time as a Youth Pastor, I had never truly worked on being open and inviting to criticism and being open to people trying to help out. I honestly believe that I have had some great volunteers run through the ranks of my ministries and I have burned bridges by not listening to ideas and critiques. Make sure that you are welcoming to volunteers when they have questions or concerns. Discuss their thoughts (neutrally), find solutions to the problems and move on with implementing the solutions. Burning bridges because someone gave you a critique that you didn’t like will only make it harder for you in the long run. Be humble and be wise. You do not always have the right answers, neither do your volunteers. That’s why it is best to work as a team.

 

Please don’t kill yourself like I did for close to 3 years… It’s not worth it. Find some volunteers that share your vision and love on them as much as possible. Give them tasks to accomplish, get their opinions on things that are happening and get out there and love students with everything you have.

Intern 101: Hiring an Intern

Mentoring and pouring into an intern can be one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of youth ministry. As I write this post, I find myself preparing for my eight intern during my 13-year tenure at Hazelwood Christian church.  I absolutely love the opportunity to invest in students and future ministry leaders, and I value the friendships that I have forged through internships even to this day. As I have experienced the highs and lows of internships, I have learned a few tips that may be helpful to you as you seek to invest in interns as well.

This first post will focus on the steps leading up to the internship, including the hiring process. Subsequent posts will talk about what to do during the internship and even how to be a mentor after the internship is over.
1. Convince your church leaders of the value of internships.
The first step is to make sure that your church leaders are on board with the idea of having an intern. While every church is different, I would recommend waiting until you have been at the church for at least a couple years before requesting an intern. That gives you time to learn the culture and the people and get your stride before bringing in an intern.  As you approach your church leadership about hosting an intern, here are a few of the benefits you might want to point out to them.

  • Having interns is a great way for your church to invest in future ministry. Your church can play a major part in the next generation of ministry.  I currently have 6 former interns serving in local ministry, and that brings me great joy.
  • Interns are cheap and helpful. Interns typically work over 40 hours a week for very little pay. While I think you should take good care of your intern (more about this in the second post), your church leaders should know that this is very inexpensive help.
  • We expect other churches to do this for OUR students. We encourage students to enter full time Christian ministry, and we assume that other churches are going to provide a great internship for them. We should be doing the same for others.

Once your church leaders are on board with the idea of an intern, it’s time to begin the hiring process. The next few steps deal with how to do that well.

2.  Get really good information from applicants.
Most times, colleges will have an online database of internships and job openings. You can use this resource to invite students to apply for your internship. Once they contact you, make sure you get really good information from them so that you can learn a little bit about who they are and what their talents may be. Make sure you have an application that asks some good questions right from the start. Also, be sure to include some questions about their spiritual background, their previous experiences, references, and why they desire to go into ministry. Do the hard work and contact references, professors, previous employers, and even other contacts that you might just share a connection with. Doing the hard work here may save you heartache later.

3.  Don’t underestimate the importance of chemistry.
Through the application process, you will probably encounter a number of very talented and qualified individuals. But not all of these individuals are going to fit well with your personality, your context, your philosophy of ministry, or your staff. Chemistry is an intangible element in this process, but it is also the most important in my opinion. Make sure you speak regularly with your potential intern, do online hangouts so that you can see them face to face, and meet them personally whenever it is possible. Whenever I have multiple applicants that are talented and equally qualified, I always go with my gut in terms of chemistry.

4.  Communicate regularly.
One of the most common things I hear from people seeking employment with churches is that the communication is rare and usually unclear. Break the mold! Communicate with your applicants regularly, letting them know where you are in the process and what the next steps will be. Also, communicate your expectations and guidelines as well as any compensation packages early on so that everyone has the information that they need to pray and make a wise decision.

5.  Involve others in the process.
Sometimes, God uses others to speak into our lives. Make sure that you involve others in this process. I typically do all of the hard work when it comes to references and interviews. However, as I narrow my search, I invite our senior minister to sit in on an interview. It is always helpful to get another opinion from someone you respect.

6.  Make your decision and offer a clear invitation
Once you have decided which young person you are going to mentor, make sure to call them and let them know the good news. Don’t allow any room for confusion. Make your invitation clear, and make sure that they clearly accept the position so that you can move forward together. Once you have all of this confirmed, make sure to call the other applicants and let them down easy. Be honest, but be encouraging.

Internships can be a formative and life-changing experience both for you and the intern.  Make the most of the hiring process, and you will be blessed throughout.  What has been your experience with interns?  Is there anything you would add to the hiring process that I missed?

Ministry Under Fire: Responding to Criticism

Let’s start with a simple truth.  It doesn’t matter what type of church you serve in, what denomination, what size, how many staff you serve with, or how healthy your ministry may be.  One thing about ministry is universal: we will all face criticism.  Criticism comes in all sorts of forms.  It may come from a student who just doesn’t want to plug into your ministry and wants the world to know it.  It may come from a parent who is just not on board with your philosophy, your personality, or your leadership style.  It may come from another staff member who thinks you aren’t pulling your weight.  It might even come from one of your youth leaders who thinks they can do your job better than you can.  No matter your situation, you WILL face criticism at some point in your ministry.  When you face that criticism in its various forms, here are a few things to remember:

1.  No one is immune

Believe it or not, George W. Bush holds the record for the highest Presidential approval rating at 92% after the 9/11 attacks.  That means that 8% of the population still didn’t approve of his leadership.  And we all know that  his high approval rating was short-lived.  Leaders are targets.  This is true of youth ministry as well.  As you lead, guide, mentor, and work with people, you are going to have your detractors.  Understanding this truth doesn’t kill the pain of criticism, but it can help take the sting out of it.

2.  Consider the source

A dear woman in my church named Grandma Crowe lived by this adage for years, and it seemed to serve her pretty well.  When you are criticized, consider the person who is criticizing you before you do something you might regret.  Some people aren’t happy unless they are making someone else unhappy.  Some people are overly critical.  Some people lash out when they are hurt.  Sometimes, people just have a bad day.  Consider the source before taking a criticism too personally.

3.  Respond positively

If we are being honest, our initial reaction to criticism is to defend and lash out.  We invest our time, resources, energy, and our lives into ministry, so it’s nearly impossible to separate ministry from our identity.  But remember the wise words of Proverbs 15:1 – “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  Responding negatively in the moment will only lead to more negativity, and will certainly not contribute to your “approachability” points.  Choose to respond positively, validate that you hear their concerns, and think it through later.

4.  Mine out the valid points

Even though we probably hate to admit it, most criticism does have at least a small amount of validity.  Even the harshest, most unfounded criticism might be something you can learn from to become a better leader.  Take some time to see things from their perspective.  Be objective, and see if there might be any validity to their criticism.  If there is, learn from it and grow moving forward.

5.  Communicate and clear the air

Once you’ve responded positively to the criticism, considered the source, and mined out the possible valid concerns, it’s time to move forward, make changes, and mend the relationship with the critic.  Set up a time to meet with them, or try to catch them naturally next week.  Let them know you appreciate their perspective, communicate any changes you might be making because of their concern, and clear the air so that you can move forward together.

As a leader, you can expect some criticism from time to time.  Choose to respond in a godly, humble way, and see how people respond.  You may see people lining up to support your ministry like never before.

What are some positive things that have come from a criticism you’ve received?  Comment below with a way God has blessed your ministry through criticism.