This article by Mandy Kyes from Southwest Community Church in Indian Wells, California was originally published in YLO92 as a part of our focus on “Youth Ministry 101”. You can learn more about YLO92 here.
Establishing solid relationships with students in your ministry is one of the most essential pillars needed for a ministry that goes beyond the walls of a church and into a deeper foundation for discipleship. These relationships take more than one or two “group nights” a week to build; they require an intentional mindset and a willing heart. Here are seven simple ways to connect with your students outside of scheduled ministry programs. When you connect with them outside of the church building, they will feel valued, validated, and loved.
1. Attend a sports event, a school play, a band performance, etc. in which your student/students participate. Unfortunately, many students don’t get any support from the people who are closest to them, including parents. Your small act of showing up tells the student that he/she is worth your time.
2. Remember their birthdays and show recognition through a phone call or card. I know how daunting remembering each one can be, especially when some of us can’t even remember what day of the week it is! Make it easy on yourself – when a student fills out a welcome card, make sure their birthday is listed, and then enter it as soon as possible in your phone calendar, office calendar, etc. Have a dry erase calendar board on the wall of the youth room and have students put their upcoming events (including birthdays) on that month. This will help you keep better track of the students’ activities (see number 1) and special days.
3. Take them out for lunch. I know budgets are slim and money is tight, but that’s a two-way street. Some students haven’t splurged on a greasy cheeseburger for quite some time. So treat them! It’s a great way to have casual conversation in a nonthreatening environment. This lets students know they’re worth more to you than your money. (Note: Although intentions are pure, remember that society looks at the interactions between older men/women and minors. Be above reproach; only have one-on-ones with students of the same sex. You can always bring lunch to the students’ schools and interact in small groups all while achieving the same goal.)
4. Encourage students through little notes, postcards, texts, etc. Students are surrounded by put-downs, criticism, and verbal abuse at school, home, and/or just walking in a store. Bullying is at an all-time high, and depression in youth is rising. Counteract the disease by encouraging students at every opportunity. Postcards and letters make great “trophies” that students often put in their binder covers. A little encouragement goes a long way with students. Show them how valuable they are through your words.
5. Provide ways for students to show off their talents. Noticing that Jenny and Angelica are creative geniuses could spark a craft day or art gallery showcase. Hearing Matthew’s guitar skills may bring a day of guitar lessons or even a youth band in which he helps other students find their musical abilities. Have a writer in your group? Ask them to write an article about the latest youth trip; better yet, add a student who loves photography and you can get a youth newsletter up and running. Whatever the case may be, provide opportunities for students to shine with their God-given talents.
6. Be real. Need I say anymore? If we’re honest with ourselves, we try to paint ourselves in the best light for students, but the reality is that students want to see that you have flaws and are working on them, that sometimes you don’t always respond the way you should, that you yourself are growing in Christ, just as they are. This doesn’t mean you divulge things that you share with your accountability partner; it just means that it’s okay to be real and open about some of the flaws you struggle with. This flips the script and lets students know YOU trust THEM.
7. Be available. Plain and simple. Students have curveballs thrown at them left and right. When they trust you enough to reach out, reach right back! Return phone calls in a timely manner, text back when you can, and answer your phone. (You need to have time for your family and for yourself. So if your office hours are 9am-5pm, be available.) What students often need most is just for someone to listen. Be the one to step up and listen up.
Don’t feel pressured to implement all of these at once. Tackle them one by one and enjoy the ride!