Warning: Youth Ministry Will Wreck Your Personality

iStock_000011929864SmallBack in the day I was incredibly outgoing.  I was the life of the party.  You could always count on me to be fun, zany, happy and more than a little obnoxious.  In high school I was that guy who could mix with any social group and was liked by pretty much everyone.

Anyway, the point is back in high school and college I was an extrovert.   Every personality test I ever took confirmed this.  If you are a DISC person, I was a high “I.”  If you’re into that weird animal personality test, I was an otter.

Here’s the thing, after a decade in student ministry, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I am no longer an extrovert.  How do I know?  Crowds, conversations, entertaining—they all drain me.  Malls?  Don’t even ask.  When I need to recharge I want a good book, a coffee shop and ear buds.  Side Note:  if you see me in Starbucks with aforementioned items feel free to smile and wave…nothing more please.

So what happened? I’m not exactly sure.  All I know is that we were on a mission trip, there were too many freshmen boys and I torched a kid’s Elmo doll (true story).  Or maybe it’s a decade of being the funny guy, the conversation initiator; the salesman of our ministry to volunteers and parents, the counselor to far too many broken kids and the defender of a couple too many mistakes to bewildered bosses and board members.  Whatever it was, student ministry has literally knocked the extrovert out of me.  I am an ex-extrovert.

At first I panicked because with thoughts like, “I don’t really like people anymore” I wondered if maybe it was time for a career change.  I floundered for a while but in the last year, I have fully embraced my new personality.  At first it was a little embarrassing but now I am an introvert and proud of it.  I no longer feel guilty about wanting to be alone or feeling anxiety about initiating conversations with people I don’t know.  Don’t blame me, I’m an introvert.  Don’t hate!  I’m just better suited to a book and a coffee shop.

I’ve learned that being an introvert has some advantages.  Here’s a few:

  • All this newfound alone time has gifted me with space to think creatively and strategically—which I love to do.
  • Introverts don’t over plan the student ministry calendar which leads to more volunteer freedom and less burn out.
  • Introverts don’t pass out cheesy evangelism tracts or preach judgment on street corners.
  • As an introvert my filter is much stronger.  Based on quantifiable research I now say 50% less dumb stuff.

So what about you?  Are you feeling worn down?  Running on fumes?  Maybe student ministry has knocked the extrovert out of you.  Maybe you too are an ex-extrovert.  I suspect that there are a bunch of us in student ministry.  Fear not, this doesn’t mean you can’t do extroverted stuff it just means that you need to understand that extroverted tasks will drain you and you’ll need to schedule times to recharge.

Has anyone else experienced this?  I’ve love to hear your thoughts.  Maybe we can start a support group…never mind, that would be weird.

Giving Your Graduates a Book is Lame.

4.1.1Look, I’m sorry for offending you.  I know that gifting your graduates with a book is tradition.  At the risk of further infuriating you, I’m just going to come out and say it:   Your students don’t want a book.  They most likely won’t read it and even if they do they probably won’t remember what the book was about when they are struggling through the treacherous first two weeks of college.

For the first 6 years of my student ministry career my well orbed transition strategy included a nice Christian book about graduating, shaking the student’s hand during our church’s graduation ceremony, and an appropriate side hug.

Here’s the thing, our graduates don’t want or need a book.  However, they are desperate for REAL help in transitioning.  Consider replacing or adding to the book with these three crucial transition pieces.

A Hand-Off

We need to stop simply hoping that our graduates connect with a church or ministry and start actually connecting them.  Here’s what I do:

  • Make a list of all your graduates and what they are doing next year.
  • Learn where each school, military training facility, etc. is located geographically.
  • Research churches in the area.  Pick one similar to your church—or the church you wish your church was (ouch!)
  • Discover what campus ministries are active in the area.
  • Contact reps from churches and campus ministries and request that they contact your student in August, before they arrive on campus.
  • Do not give up until you find a good church or ministry who actually contacts your students
  • Follow up with your student to see how it went.
  • Add good ministry/church connections to your database for next year

A Mentor

The first semester of college is about as disorienting as it gets.  Students need a mentor to keep them grounded.  In our high school ministry, small group leaders transform into transition mentors during a student’s freshman year of college.  In order to achieve this we only hire volunteers who are committed to serving as a small group leader for 4 years and then we constantly vision them with Sticky Faith’s 4+1 concept.  Most leaders attach so strongly to their students after two years that they naturally commit to something much deeper and longer. 4+Life

A Care Package

Do you remember how awesome it was to get a care package from your mom when you were in college?  So good!  A few years ago we stumbled upon this idea and we’ve been doing it ever since.  The feedback we get from our graduates is incredible.  The key is to make sure the package lands within the critical first two weeks of college.  The goals are to remind them that we haven’t forgotten them, still love them and to encourage them to engage Jesus and plug into a church or ministry.  Here’s what we put in our care package:

  • A crap-ton of candy and snacks
  • A LifeLine thumb drive and lanyard.  On the thumb drive are digital devotionals.
  • A Starbucks Card (go to Starbucks…do devotional)
  • Letters from LifeLine staff and small group leaders (we still love you…GO TO CHURCH!)

So ditch the book and adopt these practices.  We must do more to help our students transition.  If you have other ideas that have worked well in your ministry I would love to hear them.

The LifeLine Home Shopping Network

I don’t have a great memory but I think there is a verse in the Bible that reads something like, “without fun, the people will be bored and leave your ministry.”  I believe it’s found in Hezekiah 47 or perhaps the book of Hesitations…

Anyway, we consider ourselves to be a biblically centered ministry and that’s why we produce our own weekly announcement videos.  They may or may not be actually funny but our students and volunteers love them.  Here’s a classic from earlier this year.  Watch out, there are a ton of inside jokes and references to people you may not know.  Just take my word for it–it’s funny.  Feel free to steal the concept or share an idea from a video you’ve made.


Announcements | Dec 12 & 16 from LifeLine Student Ministries on Vimeo.

Want Astronomical Volunteers? Give Them a Break!

We have astronomical volunteers.  Part of the reason why they are so awesome is that we train them for an hour before every large group program.  Another reason they are so great is that we give them the summer off.  No one can perform at astronomical level indefinitely.  Here’s a snippet of the training we provided on how to lead well while taking the summer off.


The first thing we want our volunteers to do over the summer is rest.  We tell them to pull back a little and recharge.  They gave us 31 Sunday nights between Labor Day and Memorial Day.  We know they are worn down and ready for a break so we give them one.  We don’t ask them to show up at Bible studies or whatever else we might dream up for the summer.  If we decide to do any programing during the summer, it’s entirely on our staff to pull it off.


While we encourage our volunteers to rest, we still ask them to stay engaged with their small group students, particularly through social media.  I specifically asked them to communicate with their students at least once a week through whatever social media platforms they share with their students.  I hear Xanga is all the rage.

In our structure each leader continues with the same small group year after year so it’s important to maintain the relationships over the summer.  In addition, a little, “Hey, I’m still here and who knows when I might ask you what you did on Friday night” provides students with needed accountability.


Social media is an amazing tool but it can’t replace real life interactions.  Face to face conversations are still exponentially more meaningful to students.  I asked our small group leaders to invite their groups to do something (a movie, a trip to the beach, a service project or whatever) at least once during the summer.  Some of our leaders are all-stars and they continue to meet with their groups all summer long but I know that this is an unrealistic expectation for everyone.


Because our small group leaders are the functional pastors and shepherds in our ministry, our discipleship impact is dependent on the quality and maturity of our leaders.   We work hard over the summer to recruit the best leaders we can find.  However, it is difficult to describe to a person who has no background in our ministry exactly what we’re asking them to commit to.  Because of this, our best recruiters are our current and former volunteers.  They know what we are looking for and they can describe what it’s like to volunteer in our ministry.  Understanding this, we ask our volunteers to identify people within their circles who would make great LifeLine volunteers.  This “refer-a-friend” method has led us to many of our best volunteers.

So if you want astronomical volunteers, give them a break.  But before you cut them loose give them clarity on what it looks like to lead well while taking the summer off.

Do you take the summer off?  If so, how do you vision your volunteers for the summer months?




image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/mortengade/


3 Things You Can Do to Fight Faith Abandonment

We’ve all seen the doomsday statistics about how many students are walking away from church and faith when the get into college.  If you’re like me you probably have a few names and faces that represent the numbers in those statistics.  What’s difficult is that while you’re spinning on the hamster wheel of weekly student ministry it can be difficult to think strategically about college transition.

The temptation is to become paralyzed by the hugeness of the problem.  Guilt and fear tells us that we need to restructure our entire ministry because everything we are doing apparently sucks.  This is a dirty lie.  The truth is most of what we are doing in student ministry is great for the long-term faith development of our students.  Instead of scrapping your entire structure consider tweaking your ministry.  What is one thing we can do differently to improve college transition?  Here are 3 suggestions of ways to tweak your approach to college transition.


Who am I?

Perhaps the biggest issue our students face as they graduate from our ministries is that they don’t know who they are.  They don’t have a clear picture of how God has designed them or what He might be calling them to.  Helping them make progress in this area can be a huge service to your students and maybe even save them a few thousand dollars in college tuition.

Maybe the way to tweak your ministry is to help your seniors discover a little about how God has wired them.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to helping students understand who they are.  Currently, we are using Donald Miller’s Storyline as a template for our discussions.  Jon Acuff’s Start may be more geared for adults but it’s hilarious and insightful.  Finding Your Way is also another great resource that is specifically designed with this purpose in mind.


Senior Retreat

Maybe you don’t have time to create an additional program just for seniors but I bet you do have a weekend available somewhere during the year.  A retreat just for seniors is a great first step toward improving college transition.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  Find a cabin or a lake house and spend the weekend helping them build a strategy for how to grow spiritually during their first year of college.  Our version of this is called Senior Sneak.  See what we did there with the two “S”s?  Genius.


Transition Mentors

Programs will never compare to relationships.  An entire year’s worth of transition curriculum isn’t worth much unless caring adults are pouring into the lives of your students.  Without mentoring relationships students will have trouble implementing the principles you are teaching.

Perhaps you’re too busy for either of my previous two suggestions.  That’s fine.  Delegate it.  Recruit other people to do it.  Find mature and caring adults who are willing to mentor students and turn them loose.  Even if you do have the time and resources to develop a college transition ministry, you should still pull in quality adults as mentors.  Inter-generational mentoring relationships are like a magic bullet against faith abandonment in college.

Faith abandonment in college is a huge problem but don’t let it paralyze you.  Instead of restructuring everything, simply take a step in the right direction.  For now, pick whatever suggestion sounds best.  If none of them sound good then invent your own.  Just take a step.





Image courtesy of t0zz / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Building a Fan Base for Your Student Ministry

I learned early on in my student ministry career how important it is to have a strong fan base.  And, I’m not talking about students.  I can’t overstate how valuable it is to have zealous adult fans—particularly adults who have influence within your church.  When you do something dumb like leave a kid at winter retreat (in my defense he was extraordinarily short) or when it comes time to convince your senior pastor that you need a ginormous new student building, having a group of fans who will go to bat for you is a huge advantage.  So, how do you build a strong fan base?  Here are a few ideas.


A Trustworthy Brand Creates Fans

We love brands because in a fast moving and ever changing culture, good brands consistently deliver trustworthy products.  Once we decide which brands represent who we are, most of us stay incredibly committed for life.  This is because we can trust Apple or Starbucks or Nike to consistently deliver products and experiences that wow us.

In our student ministry we attempt to capitalize on the reality of our consumer driven culture by building a trustworthy brand.  The biggest part of this is delivering consistently great experiences.  We want our students to know that they will experience hilarious videos, high quality worship music, an engaging teaching and small groups led by adults who care about them and are interested in their lives.  By design, we don’t attempt to do much more than this.  By keeping our structure simple and delivering a high quality “product” week after week we build trust in our brand and by extension a stronger fan base


Happy Volunteers Become Zealous Fans

I am convinced that the smartest thing you can do as a student ministry leader is invest in volunteers more than students.  If your volunteers are well trained, well cared for and serving in ways that are meaningful and life giving, they will become huge fans.  I’m talking about the kind of fans that will storm the field after a win and throw obnoxiously gross stuff at the ref when he blows a call.  If you think about it, you want both celebratory passion and angsty (just invented that word) passion on your side.

If your volunteers love serving in your ministry, not only will they amplify your ministry’s effectiveness but when they move on to other volunteering opportunities, or parenthood or whatever, they will continue as lifelong fans of your ministry.  Translation: That 22 year old volunteer will becomes a 35 year old board member who shows up for the budget meeting with your ministry’s logo painted on his bare chest, carrying a placard reading, “Mo Money! for [insert your ministry’s name].”  And isn’t that the kind of passionate fans we want in our corner?


Happy Parents Become Zealous Fans

Unfortunately, we as student pastors have a reputation for being screw offs.  What I mean is that we are more likely to get a chuckle and a roll of the eyes than a nod of respect.  This isn’t really a good thing when it comes to building a fan base.

Parents can be powerful allies and fearsome enemies.  I don’t have to explain this because you already know.  Here’s the thing, when you understand what parents want and play to their desires, 90% of parents will become zealous fans.  Don’t worry about the 10%, they are crazy.

Anyway, what is it that parents want?  Trustworthiness.  They want pastors, small group leaders, and an overall ministry structure that they can trust.  What builds trust?  Consistency—Consistent communication, a consistent schedule, consistent behavior from small group leaders, consistent responses to questions and concerns , consistent, consistent, consistent.  Parenting a teenager is a big ol’ bucket o’ chaos.  When we offer an oasis of consistency and trustworthiness, parents are very likely to jump on the student ministry bandwagon and when parents are happy they become zealous fans.

I know there is much more to be said about building a student ministry fan base, but this is a bit of what I’ve learned.  I’d love to hear a few of your ideas.


College Transition: 4+Life

A few nights ago was the season finale of our senior cell family.  In our ministry structure, cell families are regional collections of 6 small groups.  One of the things we do to help our students with college transition is cluster all of our senior small groups into their own cell family.  We meet together every other week and talk about transitioning into adulthood.  Last night was the last cell family of the year.   It’s tradition for us to give our small group leaders the floor on the last night and let them share their final words of advice to our graduating seniors.  They all shared from the platform of years invested in their small group so their words carried some weight for all and immense weight for a few.

One of our leaders said something that I will remember for the rest of my life—something that reminds me that connecting small groups of students with a caring adult is probably the most important thing we do.  This particular leader said, “Whatever happens from here on out, whatever mistakes you make, we want you to know that we are here for you for the rest of your lives.”  The beautiful thing is that I know from watching her lead her small group that she meant every word of that statement and I know the same is true for the other leaders sitting around that circle.

Ever since I heard Kara Powell explain the core concepts of Sticky Faith in a breakout session at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, I have made the “4+1” concept a key component of our volunteer recruiting and training.  We’ve asked for a four year commitment for as long as I can remember but we began visioning volunteers to continue mentoring their students during their first year of college.  I believe that this concept has made a significant impact in the lives of our graduates.

Here’s the clincher:  if you recruit the right people and vision them the right way, not only will they give you 4+1, they will give you 4+life.   I understand that not every leader has this kind of capacity and not every small group relationally cements together in this way but even if only half of them do—think of the incredible lifelong impact our student ministries could have.  This is why I believe that nothing we do is more important that leveraging inter-generational mentoring relationships.  Life-changing student ministry isn’t complicated.  Find adults who love Jesus and are willing to love a handful of students, equip and vision the heck out of them and unleash them to be the pastors in your ministry.  4+life.

Genius Ideas

90% of my ideas are terrible.  No, for real.  They’re really bad.  What sucks is that I’m full of ideas.  I’m constantly dreaming up how to tweak or completely transform our approach to student ministry.  I generate so many bad ideas that my team often just tunes me out.  I get the courtesy, “That sounds cool” with a plastic smile.  Currently I’m doing my best to convince our team that what we need is a ginormous student building with 5 attached houses.  I’m telling you it’s the future—for so many reasons.  Someday when every church has a student building with 5 attached houses and our church missed the boat everyone will realize how innovative I am and promote me.

Here’s the thing about my ideas.  While 90% of them are terrible and following them they could lead to immediate dismissal, the loss of thousands of dollars and probable hospitalization, 10% of them are genius.  10% of my ideas could potentially change the world.  The trouble is that I can’t predict which ideas are in the 90% and which ideas are in the 10%.  You really don’t want to guess wrong because great ideas invent the Internet and bad ideas take you to a Nickleback concert.

My guess is that whether you realize it or not, you also have more bad than good ideas.  The thing is, if we could better discern the quality of our ideas we’d save ourselves and our teams a lot of grief.  Nothing is more demoralizing than when the team is chasing down an idea that everyone knows is a dead end.

The good news is that somewhere along the line I stopped implementing all of my bad ideas.  When?  What was the big moment?  It wasn’t a big moment but it was when my ideas were forced into community.  When my ideas are stuck spinning within my own head almost all of them sound fabulous.  However, when having to verbally explain and defend my ideas, 90% of them are revealed for what they are.  Dumb.  I know you’ve been there, when you realize that the words coming out of your mouth are exceeding illogical and you wish you never started talking in the first place—humbling.

Within the context of community (that is well intentioned debate over the validity of ideas) my 90% was revealed to be what they were and my life and ministry was protected from stupidity.  The unforeseen byproduct of submitting my ideas to community is that my good ideas were refined and became significantly more awesome.  “I like this idea that you call the Internets.  But what if we could connect our gaming systems and play each other?  And what if you took the “s” off it and just called it the Internet?”  GENUIS!  You might say that in the context of community my 10% became 90% better.  If you’re not strong at math I probably lost you right there.  I think I lost myself.

The point is, when you have the humility to submit your ideas to your community before implementing them you will uncover the fact that most of your ideas are terrible but a few of them are genius.  Failure is not the best way to learn.  Realizing that an idea is a failure before failing is a cleaner and less destructive way to learn.  The moral of the story is this:  if you don’t have an ideas community, get one!  Honest community will save you from your terrible ideas and help reveal and refine your great ones.


A few years ago my boss read a couple books and became paranoid—this sort of thing is pretty common around my church.  He pulled me into his office and asked me a series of hard questions.

“How many of our graduates are plugged into a good church?”

“Uh, I’m not sure.”

“Where are our graduates going to college?”

“Umm…I know a few are going to [insert college] .”

“How many of our graduates have walked away from faith?”

“Uh…hopefully none?”

“What are you doing to ensure that our graduates will pursue faith beyond LifeLine (our student ministry)?

“Uh…I gave them a book and an appropriate side-hug?”

Needless to say, he wasn’t amused.  Then he gave me an ultimatum, “This time next year, I need to know the answers to each of these questions.” That’s how my boss works. He’s a genius thinker but he’s really annoying because he actually makes you do stuff.

Since I need a paycheck, I spent the next year researching, experimenting and finally implementing. Along the way I discovered a passion that keeps me up at night and gets me out of bed in the morning.  The question that haunts me is this, “Will my students pursue Jesus after high school?”  That was about 3 years ago.  Since then we’ve made significant changes to our ministry philosophy and structure.  We decided that we were unwilling to continue doing what wasn’t working.

Here my challenge:  do you know what happens to your students after graduation?  I mean, do you really know where each of them is going to college, what ministry they will connect with?  Will you or someone else walk with them through the transition?  How do you plan to encourage them throughout their transition?  If you don’t know the answers to these questions, (let’s be honest, most of us don’t) then we have some work to do.

The journey starts with an accurate assessment.  Ask yourself, what really happens to my students after graduation?  Where do they go?  What does their faith look like?  Take some time to learn the truth and then develop a strategy to respond to what you learn.  The good news is that you probably don’t need to reinvent the wheel because there is a ton of great research out there on the issue of transition and faith fade.   Keep reading this blog and I’ll share some of what we have learned.