How To Care For Students
From the "Leaders are Learners: 15-Minute Youth Ministry Training" Series
By Doug Fields
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Leaders Are Learners is a series that I did for volunteer youthworkers to help them in their journey of becoming more healthy and effective. Before we go any further, I want to thank you for serving God through your love for students and I want to thank you for learning. Leaders are learners and when you stop learning, you'll stop leading.
Also, thank you for being a significant adult in a teenager's life. Teenagers need adults who will take an interest in them, love them, and point them in the direction of God's passionate and unconditional love.
What you and I try to do within youth ministry can be intimidating! I don't know about you, but I've sure thought, "I wonder if I'm doing any good with this kid?" Or, "How can I really care for this student?" When I meet a youthworker who asks these types of questions, I see a good heart - a caring heart. In the church, we've come to call this heart, "the heart of a shepherd." Let's take a look at the heart of a shepherd and at some practical ways you can better care for the students God has entrusted to you.
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Before we jump into this, let's briefly look at the biblical image of a shepherd - someone who cares for and has the best interest in mind for the sheep. The Bible gives us several images that relate caretaking to that of a shepherd. In John 21:17, Jesus said, "If you love me, take care of my sheep." In Psalm 23 we are told that the Lord is our shepherd. Because He is a good, caring, loving shepherd, we can rest. The biblical shepherd is a protector and a provider, which translates into someone who loves.
Shepherding students is a great picture of a youthworker who cares for kids on a week-to-week basis with their best interest in mind.
Take a look at this description of a shepherd's job and track the similarities between shepherds and youthworkers: "A shepherd moves sheep to greener pasture. They drive them to places where there's more food. The sheep move slowly, feeding as they go, gradually working their way to more 'fruitful' places. Sometimes the shepherd uses words to move the sheep and other times the shepherd bashes the sheep with his staff."
Notice that the description of a shepherd's job is a combination of words and bashing. Isn't that a great picture of a youthworker? We shepherd students by trying to help them move from one spiritual level to a more fruitful commitment with Christ. Sometimes we do this gently while other times we take more extreme measures.
However, just agreeing to be a shepherd isn't enough. The Bible illustrates another kind of shepherd in Ezekiel 34. I don't think the shepherd in this chapter passed too many of his shepherding classes. Let me paraphrase a couple of verses from that chapter: “Woe to you shepherds who spend more time feeding yourselves than your flock! You slaughter the fat sheep and feed and clothe yourselves without concern for your flock! Your flock has wandered and scattered, and there is no one to search and seek for them.”
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Ouch! Could that ever describe your style of shepherding? Maybe you haven't skinned and barbecued a student lately, but have you put your needs before theirs? I sure have. How about letting your kids wander without following up on them? Or, you're aware that one of your students is making unwise decisions and you chose not to take the time to confront him or her? The result? The student wanders away from God, your group, and his connection with you. That's not the kind of shepherd God is calling us to be, nor is it one we want to aspire toward.
Without careful attention, our sheep - our students - get lost. I felt burdened to do this message as a result of this email I received yesterday: "Hey Doug, it's Jonathan. Just wanted to let you know that I won't be attending Saddleback Church anymore. Things went on there that really hurt me. I stopped attending for a while hoping someone would have the heart to notice that I wasn't there. But the people who said they were my friends never called me, not one of them - not even my small group leader. It took four months for someone to call me and say that they hadn't seen me there. To tell you the truth, after four months I'd rather he not of called at all. It just hurts that for years the people there that said they were my friends could care less I was gone. Now I go to a small church where people know if I'm not there."
That email breaks my heart. Even within a big church there should be a care structure where this student is missed. This guy's shepherd lost focus of this sheep - and this student went astray.
Without care and attention, sheep get lost. Let's be honest, being a shepherd of students isn't as easy as it sounds. For most youth workers I know, it doesn't come naturally. But, because, we're learners I want to look at a few action steps that might help us be stronger shepherds.
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Shepherds Know Their Sheep
Let's start with the very basics of youth ministry: shepherds know their sheep by name. You might be thinking, "I was afraid you were going to say that. I'm lousy at names." Well, so am I, and, so are the majority of youthworkers I know. It's an easy excuse to fall back on.
I recently had a student say to me, "Thanks for knowing my name; that means a lot to me." I know it means a lot to teenagers, because it's their greatest possession. I felt good when he said thanks, because more often students say, "Hey Doug, what's my name? I bet you don't remember." Many times, I can't. Shame, guilt, and inadequacy quickly follow.
A name is a personal and powerful possession. It's part of an identity. To know a student's name is to know part of his or her identity. Let me give you some practical suggestions for memorizing names.
- Take photos of students and review as flash cards.
- Repeat a student's name three or four times in your first conversation. ("It's great to meet you Tina. So, Tina, where do you go to school? Hey, Tina, how many times, Tina, do you think, Tina, that I can say your name, Tina, in a sentence, Tina?")
- Ask for identifying information that can solidify a name. ("Hey, let me see your drivers license, student ID, passport, bail bond, tattoo ... ")
- Associate his or her name with someone else you know of that name. (Dave - tall, thin, goofy hair - Dave Letterman.)
- Study his or her face while you're being introduced.
- Transfer the name to a concrete image (Mike - like a microphone)
- Ask the student to test you on it. ("What's my name, Doug?")
- Write it down (into your phone, on your hand, whatever). The act of writing it will help you retain it.
- Ask God to help you remember and care, because we remember what's important to us.
- Or, forget all these ideas and use nametags.
The care of a shepherd takes the knowing process further and deeper than learning a student's name. Knowing a student's name just scratches the surface of knowing that person. Shepherding isn't just about knowing names; it's about knowing students. You can't shepherd everyone, but you can shepherd a few. Even shepherding one student is good youth ministry as long as every student is cared for.
How well do you know the students that you're caring for now? Think about the one you know the best. Do you know ...
- how they feel about their parents and/or siblings?
- two spiritual experiences that have impacted them?
- what questions they have about life and God?
- if their parents are loaded and can loan you money?
- what they desire most in their life right now?
- what they fear?
- what they love to do?
- what kinds of friends they have at school?
- their spiritual habits?
- their common, reoccurring struggle or sin?
You may have just discovered that some of the students you thought you knew pretty well you don't know very well after all. That's okay - for now. Shepherds continue to get to know their kids. One way to get to know students better is to spend time with them in their world. When you enter a student's world you say with your presence, “You are important.” But since you can't attend everything a kid is involved in, find out three things that are really important to him or her. At the beginning of each semester, pass out an index card to the few students you shepherd and have them write down the three things they're doing this semester that are really important to them. Then let them know you'll do your best to make at least one of their three events. At the very least, you now have three things to pray about as well as three discussion starters for each student.
Another idea to help you get to know students better is to take another index card and write down a student's name along with the following four key words: HEART, MIND, RELATIONSHIPS, FAITH. As you get to know a student better, write down some notes or observation from each of those categories. For example, some questions to ask for each category are these:
What do they love doing?
How can I help them enjoy what they love to do?
How can I encourage their future dreams?
What are the issues and questions that occupy their mind?
How can I help them voice these questions and doubts?
How can I help them feel safe to share their personal struggles?
What do they really know about the Bible?
Who are they in meaningful relationships with?
... outside their family?
What issues regularly arise from these relationships?
How can I provide help to this student for those relationships?
How can I help this student learn to restore painful relationships?
... in their family?
... in the church?
Where do they share their struggles or victories about God?
What faith issues are they dealing with right now?
What would encourage them in their faith this week?
A card like this not only serves as a great prayer tool that will knit your heart with a student, but it will also give you a greater and deeper understanding of a student's world. By the way, this idea isn't as easy as it sounds. But, with this kind of stronger understanding you'll be better able to prayerfully discern how to care for them.
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Shepherds Know How To Move Their Sheep
Read the shepherd's job description again for the parallel between what a shepherd does and what we do as youthworkers: "A shepherd moves sheep to greener pasture. They drive them to places where there's more food. The sheep move slowly, feeding as they go, gradually working their way to more 'fruitful' places. Sometimes the shepherd uses words to move the sheep and other times the shepherd bashes the sheep with his staff."
Sometimes students move with a warm verbal challenge, and other times they need something more drastic. I am not sure “bashing” is the word I would use - we don't use violence to move kids, but there are times when students require a stronger challenge.
Just as the shepherd moves sheep at the sheep's pace, we need to lead students to places of growth at their pace. Students aren't going to grow at the pace we want them to. But, our goal is to help move them to higher places with Jesus, to encourage them along with a next step. It's important to remember that the ultimate goal for moving sheep is the DIRECTION, not the pace of the movement.
I had great conversation at camp with a student named Dave. We talked about leadership, life, impacting his campus, and his love for Jesus - a great growth conversation. I thought to myself, "This guy is a stud!" Then, on the way home, I heard him arguing with another student about which cereal cartoon characters could beat up who and I was again reminded that a student's maturity or pace is often slower than I would like.
I have a friend who has been in youth ministry 35 years. He says, "Let me tell you what youth ministry is all about. It's about bringing kids into the presence of Jesus Christ. We are not social workers, counselors, family fixer-uppers, or performers. We just love kids and love Jesus and want kids to know about Jesus. That's what we're about. That's what we do." Is that what you're about? Is that what you're striving to do with the kids you shepherd?
Please don't miss this: DIRECTION is more important than PACE. Did you get that? The DIRECTION your students are moving in is far more important than the PACE in which they're traveling. This is not always easy - sometimes we "pull" them, other times we "push" them, but the point is that we're giving them some ideas, motivation, and belief to take the next step in their faith journey.
An effective shepherd understands when to push a little. Do not BASH your students or you may end up doing prison ministry. There are times when you are justified to turn up the heat a little to move students. Let's be honest, many churched students are challenged harder by the school system than by the church. If there is a relationship with the student, and your words and motives are Christ-like, you'll win. To focus on the positive side of moving our sheep to higher places in their spiritual journey, here are ten practical actions you can take to encourage students' growth:
- Ask a student to pray for you over a specific issue. (When you're vulnerable, you help authenticate your faith in a student's mind.)
- Do a quiet time with a student. (They know they ought to, but do they know how to?)
- Ask, "How is your walk with God going?" (This is direct and obvious but often overlooked.)
- Help them write their testimony.
- Ask a student to do research on a topic for your next Bible study.
- Send a copy of an article about spiritual growth and follow up by asking for their thoughts.
- Ask, "Who are you praying for?" "Who are you inviting to church?"
- Sponsor a "Compassion Child" together.
- Take them with you to an adult-oriented spiritual growth conference. (Promise Keepers, Journey of Joy, etc.)
- Tell them what you see God doing in their lives.
Some students want to grow, but they don't know where to start. They feel unsure of God working in their lives and they need someone to point out God-sightings to them. "Philip, I see God working in your life." Some of our students are great Christian kids who are living lives that are too busy and over-programmed and they need to be challenged to slow down.
A shepherd helps students uncover who God has created them to be. Shepherding is a process where we believe in them and help them be more fruitful with their lives. Caring for students is NOT easy, but it is necessary for a healthy youth ministry.
Shepherds care about their sheep, and the fact that you are reading this article is a indication that you have a heart of a shepherd. Continue to get to know your sheep, and help move them closer to Jesus. Remember, at the heart of a shepherd is love, and that is the heart of Jesus.
Let me conclude with Psalm 23 from The Message paraphrase. Read it as if it's a prayer of thanks to God for being our good shepherd.
God, my shepherd!
I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through
I'm not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd's crook
makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I'm back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.
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