Fuller Youth Institute


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How can young people bring restorative justice to their communities through reintegration, collaboration, and policy change?

In part 1 of this series we outlined ways restorative justice can be used in the youth group context by helping students take responsibility for wrongdoing and move toward restoration. Where do we go from here?

Carlil Pittman was dropped from the rolls of his Chicago public high school after he was caught skipping class in the cafeteria.

According to Pittman, “I had just found out that my girlfriend was pregnant, so I went and I sat in the lunchroom. And the security [guard] saw me, and he took me to the disciplinary office. And when I got there, some lady in there—I don’t know who she was—she was like, ‘Let me see his grades. … Okay, let’s drop him.”

It took Carlil several months to find another high school that would admit him.[1] For many, expulsion from school—whether on justifiable or questionable grounds—is one step in a pathway toward incarceration in a system bent toward measures that are punitive rather than restorative. Especially for African-American students like Carlil.

A more restorative approach involves moving away from suspensions and expulsions, as well as diverting youth who have committed crimes away from formal processing in the legal system. For instance, another school district worked in partnership with police to create a one-time opportunity for first-time juvenile offenders as an alternative to prosecution.[2] In this process, student records are reviewed and special consideration is given to students in foster care. In addition to addressing behavioral change, students are mentored and taught new skills that will help them make healthy decisions. Local churches, neighbors, and nonprofit leaders volunteer to provide this mentoring support.

This program’s success rate has grown from 75 percent to 100 percent in just four years. The willingness of both parents and students is key to the success. Mentoring partnered with the work of mental health professionals, school, police, family, and community provides the necessary support for restoration to become a reality.

How youth ministries can help support the re-entry and reintegration process

You may or may not know teenagers who have been involved in the criminal justice system, but no matter where you live, all of our ministries have the potential to be impacted by incarceration in some form. More than 2.3 million Americans are behind bars—that’s one in every one hundred people.[3] Many of these are young people who struggle with reintegration once released. How can restorative justice be implemented to help communities receive formerly-incarcerated youth and help youth re-enter their churches and communities? Reintegration is a key pillar of restorative justice.[4]

As a community of peers and mentors comes around the returning young person, they can experience love, value, and belonging. The first step is to provide students an environment to share honestly about what happened. Special consideration needs to be given to mental health and trauma issues related to the detention of the student, which means partnering with professionals is critical.

Second chances come with clear boundaries and expectations that will create safe environments for everyone involved. Critical to this process is the presence of at least one trusted adult. Nell Bernstein writes, “The kids I’ve seen make it have followed various trajectories, but they all have a consistent relationship with at least one trusted adult.”[5] Here is where the faith community can really shine. 

Churches can play a key role in creating healing communities around individuals and contributing to the success of those reentering society. One of the functions of a church is to redefine the identity of the young person beyond the labels society has put on them, labels like “ex-con,” “formerly incarcerated,” or “offender.” Rather than defining them by their crimes, we can begin to define their identity as image-bearers of God. Dr. Gretchen Kerr suggests, “A framework for returning citizens’ spiritual, moral, and relational needs can be built...The church must be there to walk out of the jail alongside them. Even more than that, the church must be willing to stay by the side of each person.”[6] The church is called to be a welcoming place while providing practical care and help. All of this stems from a lived-out theology of relationship and restoration.

Advancing restorative justice in your city

Across the country, Black students like Carlil Pittman in the opening story are suspended, expelled, and arrested in school at much higher rates than white students for comparable offenses.[7] Organizers, advocates, and scholars use the term “school-to-prison pipeline” to refer to the numerous intersecting policies and practices that impact students and their entry into the criminal legal system. This pathway from school to prison predominantly exists for Black and Latino students, low-income students, students with disabilities, and students in foster care. Students at the intersections of these categories are profoundly impacted. Consider that Black and Latino students make up half of all children in foster care, a system in which nearly a third enter the juvenile justice system for cases related to their behavior at their foster placements (e.g., running away from a group home); one out of every four youth who exit the foster care system are incarcerated within a few years of their 18th birthday.[8]

Today, young people are organizing in communities across the U.S. to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and institute restorative justice policies. During his senior year, Carlil joined a group of students in his city, Voices of Chicago Youth in Education (VOYCE) in fighting for equitable access to education and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. VOYCE successfully advocated for a law that brings extensive changes to all public and charter schools in Illinois. The new set of discipline policies requires schools to stop using suspensions and expulsions broadly and disproportionately. Teachers must be educated on positive approaches to school safety and climate, and students must receive support services and other interventions that address the root causes of their misbehavior.[9]

The youth in your ministry are also potential leaders of policy change

VOYCE is a member of the Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ), a national collective of youth-led organizing groups that are advancing a movement for restorative justice and equity in education.[10] According to Jonathan Stith, the National Coordinator of AEJ, their organizing goes beyond winning changes in school discipline policy and practice. It is also “pushing systems to invest more in education than incarceration.”

In Washington DC, a coalition of youth and adults from schools, churches, and community organizations worked together to radically transform the city’s approach to juvenile justice, changing the system from one known for rampant overcrowding and abuse to one lauded for its focus on alternatives to incarceration and positive youth development. Young people most affected by the city’s over-reliance on incarceration were at the forefront of these efforts—holding rallies, lobbying city council members, and educating residents on the need for an alternative approach to justice. Other members raised funds for the campaign, conducted critical campaign research, and helped to write the law that led to system-wide juvenile justice reform.

Working closely with other organizations in New York City, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), a Christian youth leadership development organization, won over $2 million for a restorative justice pilot program in 15 schools.[11] YMPJ employs a faith-rooted approach to organizing, which allows them to foster spiritual formation and draw from the rich resources of Christian faith, while also collaborating with other groups.

Providing restorative justice services as a community development ministry is yet another approach for promoting restorative justice in your city.[12] The Memphis-based ministry Mediation and Restitution/Reconciliation Services (MARRS) exemplifies this approach. MARRS provides mediation services for young people in Memphis—both those who have committed offenses and the people whom they harmed. According to MARRS, “the combination of mediation and ministry lends to the success of the program.”[13]

In a 1955 speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined justice as, “love correcting that which revolts against love.” Fania Davis, the director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, declares that this is “a justice that seeks not to punish but to heal. A justice that is not about getting even but about getting well. A justice that seeks to transform broken lives, relationships and communities rather than damage them further. A justice that seeks reconciliation rather than a deepening of conflict. A justice that seeks to make right the wrong rather than adding to the original wrong. A healing justice rather than punishing justice. A restorative justice rather than retributive justice. This new but ancient justice is none other than love correcting that which revolts against love.”[14] This is the justice that we, as followers of Christ, must seek in our communities.

Action Steps
  1. Learn about faith-rooted organizing, a process of “bringing people together to create systemic change in our communities and world in a way that is completely shaped and guided by our faith.”[15] For example, a ministry team might read and discuss the book Faith-Rooted Organizing together.
  2. Teach youth leaders to advocate for restorative justice policies. World Vision-U.S. Programs offers resources and training to help you walk young people through the process of identifying an issue and advocating for policy change with local officials.
  3. Organize public events to educate your community about restorative justice.  Youth and adults in your ministry work together to plan, organize, and publicize the event such as a film screening. See the resource section below for suggested films.
  4. Learn about and implement restorative justice principles within your ministry. Create space to teach young people how to value one another, see beyond labels and engage in honest conversations about systemic issues, police-youth-community relations, etc. (See first article in series).
  5. Consider involvement with youth in the foster care system as a step toward restorative justice.

  • Growing Fairness: Building Community and Resisting the School-to-Prison Pipeline with Restorative Justice In Schools (documentary film)

[1] Activists Behind School Discipline Bill Are Experts on The Topic.” Accessed online at http://wuis.org/post/activists-behind-school-discipline-bill-are-experts-topic

[2] The Gateway to Success Program. In 2011 the CA Attorney General acknowledged AUSD for their best practices in truancy prevention and early intervention strategies. In order to qualify for this program, students must be either an Alhambra resident or enrolled in AUSD and be under 18 years of age, have no prior arrests/arrest record, committed a non-violent/non-narcotic misdemeanor offense and have a parent/guardian actively participate and complete the entire parenting skills program. See http://www.alhambrasource.org/announcements/alhambra-police-department-launches-new-youth-diversion-program.

[3] The Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2008).

[4] When we speak of re-integration, we mean re-entry into community life as whole, contributing, productive persons,Daniel W. Van Ness and Karen Heetderks Strong, Restoring Justice: An Introduction to Restorative Justice, 4th Edition. New Providence, NJ: LexisNexis, 2010.

[5] See Nell Bernstein in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. Further, The Search Institute’s research shows that students need 3-5 mentors in their lives in addition to parents/guardians.

[6] Dr. Gretchen Kerr, “Re-Entry: Closing the Revolving Door of the Jail and Opening the Door to the Church” (unpublished dissertation, 2012). Also see this re-entry initiative within the United Methodist Church: http://www.rethinkchurch.org/articles/restorative-justice

[7] School to Prison Pipeline Infographic, Community Coalition. Accessed online at http://cocosouthla.org/inforgraphics/

[8] School to Prison Pipeline Infographic, Community Coalition. Accessed online at http://cocosouthla.org/inforgraphics/

[10]Who We Are,” Alliance for Justice in Education. AJE member, Padres & Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), won landmark legislation dubbed the Smart School Discipline Law in Colorado in 2012. The law requires all 178 school districts in Colorado to use restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling, and prevention strategies as alternatives to suspension, expulsion and referral to law enforcement. As a result, Colorado schools have decreased expulsions by 36%, suspensions by 17%, and students’ referral to law enforcement by 23%. Today, the group continues to organize for an end to racial disparities in school discipline that persist despite the overall reduction in suspensions and expulsions. Padres y Jovenes Unidos. “End the School-to-Jail Track,” Padres y Jovenes Unidos Web site.

[11] “Victory! City Council Allocates $2.4 Million for Restorative Justice Pilot.” Teachers Unite Web site. http://www.teachersunite.net/content/victory-city-council-allocates-24-million-restorative-justice-pilot; The City Council of the City of New York Fiscal Year 2016 Adopted Expense Budget,” New York City Council Finance Division, June 26, 2015. Accessed online at http://council.nyc.gov/html/budget/2016/skedc.pdf

[12] Christian Community Development (CCD) is a church-based practice of restoring under-resourced communities, while investing in the leadership of local residents. To learn more, visit www.ccda.org

[13]About MARRS,” Mediation and Restitution Reconciliation Services Web site.

[14] Fania Davis, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Tikkun Magazine, January 9, 2012. http://rjoyoakland.org/resources/

[15] Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel, Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World. Intervarsity Press, 2013.

Photo by Laren Marek

Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve. 

Serving together beyond the church can be a powerful catalyst for the intergenerational relationships young people need. Whether these are weekly or monthly experiences in your community or short-term mission trips out of the country, following are a few helpful tips based on what we’ve learned from experienced leaders:

1. Start small. 

While we do know several youth pastors who canceled their typical summer youth mission trip so they could host an intergenerational trip, few leaders attempt that kind of leap as a first step. Look for a local opportunity to serve alongside adults in your congregation or jump on board with something another ministry is already doing. Serving with your children’s ministry can also be a great first step.

2. Give lots of framing. 

Many leaders have found that they need to frame the “why” of serving together both for young people and for adults. You might want to share the insights from Sticky Faith that point to the importance of intergenerational connection. For example, share that every young person needs a web of support that ideally includes at least five nonparental adults. Teenagers with such a web in place tend to stick with faith and church into adulthood.[1] Serving together creates a natural context for building these kinds of supportive relationships.

3. Mix it up. 

As soon as you have opportunity to do so—whether at a pre-trip planning meeting or at the start of your service day—mix up the generations with get-to-know you games, table assignments, or mixed work teams. Be sensitive to the level of awkwardness that everyone can handle at first. Ideally any mixed group should include at least two students who know each other.

4. Spread out jobs evenly. 

Look for opportunities to level the serving field to set up young people to contribute in significant ways that might surprise adults. For example, you might invite a teenager to lead the morning devotions while a middle-aged CEO is placed in charge of filling water coolers for the day. This can be fruitful for both of them. Also be sure students don’t get let off the hook on tasks like cooking or cleaning up after meals. Create mixed teams for these tasks as much as possible.

5. Create skill-building opportunities. 

Keeping the above in mind, if someone is skilled in a particular area and another person wants to learn that skill, pair them up. The motivation to learn can help relationships grow. And note that it might be a teenager who is teaching that skill to an adult!

6. Look for the little wins. 

When you get adults and young people serving side by side, celebrate that as a win! Then look for every little win you can find. A smile, a conversation, an approving nod, a teenager choosing to sit by an adult for lunch without being asked. Treasure these moments, and make sure someone is capturing photos so you can talk up these stories in your congregation later.

7. Debrief together. 

During any debrief or reflection time, make sure both adults and students participate. Listen for insights that are both similar and different across generational perspectives. As time allows (or over meals or while traveling), invite the older generations to share about a meaningful experience they had when they were younger. Then let the younger participants speculate about what they want to be like when they are older.

8. Don’t stop now! 

If you’ve been able to get adults and young people serving together once, that’s a great start. Gather input from all age groups who participated, and start planning your next shared experience.

Since intergenerational service can feel daunting to those of us who have built our ministries around youth-based projects, we thought we’d close with an inspiring story shared by our friend Keegan, a Sticky Faith leader who has been leading intergenerational trips for the past handful of years:

We began experimenting by mixing our traditional youth summer mission trip with an equally traditional adult summer mission trip. This was a huge change, and one of the important components of those trips was to be intentional about intergenerational connections. I did not realize how difficult this was going to be for us. We have become so accustomed to segregation by ages in the church that we do not know how to engage relationally with one another. People tend to think that if all ages are in the same space together it’s an intergenerational gathering. This couldn’t be further from the truth, because more often than not none of those age groups is actually talking with another.

In the months leading up to the trips, I would remind the adults, “We are in this together.” I would even say they could get work done faster without the teenagers, but if they would take the time to teach the skills and be present with the teenagers, they would be offering more than just skills in building a park or church office.

After two months of our pre-trip meetings, I finally got them to split up and sit in mixed groups. We offered specific questions to get conversation going. About the time we left for the first trip, a few adults actually began to interact with students. Slowly the walls began to come down.

After the first trip, life on Sunday mornings back at church began to change. Students would call the names of adults from across the patio and run for a hug. People began to notice this change, even Vic, the general contractor on our work sites both years.

By the third year, Vic couldn’t wait to go on our summer trip again. He became known that as “the guy who would buy ice cream every day after work.” It was one way he could relate with the kids.

The students fell in love with Vic too. When we came home one summer, I asked several students what they thought about Vic joining our volunteer staff on a regular basis. They thought it was the best idea! The coolest part? Vic was sixty-six years old.

Sitting down with him and inviting him to share his life with students wasn’t that hard because he’d already told me how great they were. It was affirming for him to hear appreciation from teenagers too. Vic became an amazing ministry volunteer.

Getting adults and teenagers to learn to serve with each other—and like each other—was hard work. But our church is less fragmented today than we were before we started this journey. That’s another step in the right direction.

Learn more about the Sticky Faith Service Guide and download your FREE chapter today HERE.

[1] See chapter 4, “Sticky Churches,” in Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

Part 2: During: Experience and Reflection

Photo by Amanda Tipton

Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve.

When I heard about FYI’s research among high school students revealing the three BIG things they are hoping for in their youth ministries, I thought, wow, the things they want and the things we can provide are really within our reach.

Students responded by saying they wanted more:

  • Meaningful relationships
  • Opportunities to serve others
  • Mission trips[1]

I wondered what it would take to make the latter two happen more often? Honestly, we’re pretty good about making meaningful relationships a priority. But the other two can feel more like seasonal experiences rather than part of the DNA of our weekly ministries.

Serving others in compassion is something God has called all of us to care about, but it can be a difficult thing to make a priority when ALL OF THE 5,008,983 other youth ministry tasks need our attention.

I had to look at what we hoped for, and begin to make choices out of that hope, instead of making choices out of the fear of missing out on something else. If serving is important (God says it is, high school students say it is), then we may need to make some adjustments to reflect its importance.

For me it started with two questions:

“How do we use our resources (time, leaders, ministry dollars, and focus) to influence our ministry program and relationships to deliver the things teens long for most?”

And the equally important question: “How do I do all of that sooner?”

The answer is to the second question is MIDDLE SCHOOL MINISTRY. The answer to the first question is LEADERS.

Why we need to help middle schoolers serve

If we want something to exist in high school ministry, then we need to begin to build the culture and framework in middle school ministry. Starting sooner supports a rhythm we want to see exist later.

Developmentally, we’re working with students who are asking big questions. Who am I? Do I belong? Do I have anything significant to contribute? Even though much of their time during middle school is spent looking inward, giving them opportunities to look outward also affirm their identity, belonging, and feelings of significance. If you want a kid to feel significant, give them something significant to do.

Looking out also widens perspective. A teenager may feel alone, confused, or in need of help. Seeing the needs of someone else can serve as a source of comfort. When they can see that everyone has needs, they realize that being needy doesn’t make a person less valuable.

But how do we go about doing it? How do we build relationships that collectively value serving the poor, oppressed, the sick, or anyone in need? Especially when middle schoolers are in a developmental phase that needs so much personal affirmation and support. How do we get a kid who’s saying “I NEED YOU” to also say “I’LL HELP OTHERS”?

In the early days, I leaned on curriculum and creative programming a lot. I thought passion + good resources + a mission trip = students motivated to serve.

While all of these are catalytic, good, and needed, I think there’s something else that needs to be in place. Without it, it could take away any opportunity to provide what students look for most in a youth ministry.

That something is actually a somebody, many bodies, humans who volunteer in our youth ministries.

There’s a correlation between what they want and who is around them.

They want to serve.

They want to explore.

They want to discover.

But they want to do it in the context of affirming relationships.

Before the plan, we have to build the team, even if it’s small, like one parent leading one kid, and even if it’s a big team, like one dozen leaders leading one hundred students.

Building a team of adults to lead middle schoolers in service

Teamwork makes the dream work.

Which leads us to ask, What does a leader look like? What kind of person helps us launch kids into significant opportunities to serve (and walks them through those experiences)?

You can begin by looking for big-hearted, justice-minded, service-oriented volunteers who are willing to walk with middle schoolers as they are taking their first service steps, as they are learning how to look out, as they are experiencing new emotions. These are also the people who will celebrate the smallest discoveries and see the unique contribution that every kid has in an environment. Middle schoolers often feel like there is no one to sort things out with, no one to bounce thoughts off of, and nobody to notice what is happening in their world. Give them more of those kinds of adults in their lives.

I’ll never forget the time I took a group of middle school students to a nonprofit to do some outdoor maintenance work. The job was to break the concrete from the bottoms of uprooted fence posts.

The smallest middle school guy on the team wanted to swing the sledgehammer. Our leadership team wasn’t so sure he could pick up the equipment. Swinging it may be complicated. But his energy trumped his physical strength and he started killing that post. Concrete was flying everywhere, and his eye goggles fogged with dust and particles. On his final upswing he yelled out,


It was awesome.

Not only was seeing him find joy in serving awesome, but it was also awesome to have a conversation later about why it made him feel like he was truly living, and how that is different from other days.

In meaningful conversations like this, we find the places where we can take students deeper in their journey toward serving others and sharing God’s love and justice in the world. That’s when I realized that it’s not so much about what we do in this life as it is about who we get to do life with. Middle schoolers need a person, someone who can process things with them, someone who can walk with them, grow with them, be there for the highs and the lows.

Six characteristics to develop in yourself and other middle school leaders

There’s a classic list found in Wayne Rice’s Junior High Ministry used to describe the best middle school volunteers. I love this list. It has been a guide for me since my first day in youth ministry. If you take this list and align it with the priority to create meaningful experiences to serve, you’ll find something really cool happens.

Middle schoolers will feel liked, loved, affirmed, and motivated to do incredible things out of hearts being formed in a culture of love and possibility.

If you want to build a solid serving ministry in your middle school group, you’re going to want to build a solid group of volunteers who are committed to doing that together with you. Here are 6 things I adapted from Wayne’s list to help you be the type of leader that leads students to justice, to serving, and to having missional hearts.

  • A desire to understand middle schoolers. If you can understand a middle school kid, you can create better experiences for them to serve others. You will better know what will make sense to them developmentally or what will frustrate them. You’ll be more creative and able to think with their shoes on, think with their backpacks on, and think with their need for affirmation and exploration in mind.
  • A heart that likes middle schoolers. Middle school students can tell if you like them and they’ll be more likely to say “yes” when someone who likes them asks them to serve. How many of us wanted to do work for a grumpy teacher who had a passion for teaching but was missing the ability to like their students? The kids who feel most connected in small groups, or with an adult leader, are the first ones to jump to their feet when we ask for help putting away chairs or volunteering for a project.
  • A patient spirit. Things take time. Regardless which age group you are working with. But you can be sure that with middle school students you will not finish most of the projects you begin. You will not usually raise all of the money you hope to raise. You will not have more kids show up for serving than you do for the sugar. If you let frustration defeat you, you’ll give up before the good conversations can happen. You’ll give in and miss a chance to go deeper. Persistence guarantees results. Your commitment to working with squirrelly middle school kids will help them grow into people who believe that no matter how chaotic or slow serving or seeking justice is, it matters, and is worth the time it takes.
  • An awesome listener. Never miss an opportunity to talk to kids while serving. Start at church, or in your home. What are you thinking about? What valuable things are you learning while you’re serving? What special gifts do the people you’re serving give back to you? How do you feel when you do something without needing anything in return? Sometimes middle schoolers get frustrated when they serve because they see a mirror image of their own life (my family is broken too, we don’t have much money either) or they feel such empathy for something so different than their life (they see the contrast and wonder why). Let them ask questions and be good about encouraging them to form answers.
  • A positive perspective. There was a time when our youth group showed up to serve and we weren’t quite early enough to get a spot serving the food, passing out waters, or greeting. There were simply way too many volunteers and we had missed the chance to be on the frontlines. Instead we walked around the neighborhood and talked. We prayed a little, but mostly talked and tried to keep everyone’s spirits high. We didn’t get to do the thing they had been hoping to do, share a meal with friends who needed one. But we had a chance to learn about a neighborhood, learn about each other, and at the end of our walk someone thanked us for being well-behaved kids in the street. It was a little thing, but I was so proud. They had set an example. That was their act of worship, their opportunity to serve, on that day. When nothing seems to get done. When everyone spends five minutes each working and the rest of the time is spent goofing off. Think about how many chances you get in a year to spend time showing you care and be positive. Kids have enough negativity in their lives. Try to overwhelm them with the good you see, camp out in that, and let the times you do have be the tools you need to share what it’s like to serve as a lifestyle.
  • A flexible posture. What if you’re too busy to serve? How will you convince kids with homework that weighs more than they do that they can make time? If we want to lead students to serving, we need to take a look at our own lives and ask ourselves how flexible we are being. What can go from your life in order to make room for the priority of loving others? Make time in your family or youth ministry calendar for serving others. If you do it as a team, family, or as a leader, your ministry will reflect the priority. It’s one thing to say you want something in your ministry, another thing to go after it.

Pablo Picasso did some nice things in his lifetime. Some would even say he was inspired; okay, maybe a lot inspired. He was rejected a lot, but persisted until his art made an impact. He was known to say, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

I believe the same is true for us as we try to balance the youth ministries (in our homes or in our churches) to reflect God’s care for the poor and for those in need. We can’t ignore it if we believe there is a pathway to doing it. So we need to show up. We need to build a team of people who like middle schoolers so much that they are willing to sweat with them and stay with them, no matter what happens. And that team begins with us, and with who we are becoming as leaders who love our students and lead them well.

Literally being willing to sweat together, ask questions together, understand each other, and making time together will change the landscape of your middle school ministry. Maybe even the landscape of your own life.

Action Steps
  1. Ask a question. Is serving others a priority in my life? Checking your heart and making serving a priority will give you credibility when you ask others to join you. You’ll be able to empathize with others as you reflect during the times when you don’t feel like serving. You’ll be able to share both the joys and lessons learned. But most of all you’ll be able to set an example for the kids and adults in your ministry.
  2. Help your team listen by providing great questions. Sometimes finding out how your students would like to serve is as easy as asking a question. “What kinds of things would you like to do to help others? Is there something that really blesses you that you’d like to give back to?” If you use small group material, add an additional question about how the lesson can help everyone look outward. Get small groups serving together. Make it a point to connect with leaders and get feedback.
  3. Make a list of 100 things you like about middle schoolers. Start an email with your team and keep replying until you have 100 things. You’ll be amazed at what your team comes up with! It’ll also serve as a double win for your team on those days when it’s easy to be negative. If you have someone with a design mind on your team, capture the list in a PDF and make art for your walls, include it on your ministry website or social media page. (100 things we like about middle school people”) Keep the positive vibes in front of you!



[1] See Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 141.

Photo by Connor Bleakley

Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve. 

What is one hope you have for your mission trip in Los Angeles?

This is the question I typically ask students coming to L.A. to serve for a weeklong trip. Los Angeles welcomes thousands of students each year who want to offer care here in the city of angels. For the last several years, I have been working with a variety of colleges, non-profit organizations, and churches who seek to re-imagine short-term mission trips in the city.

The responses I get to this question are all over the map, but quite often I hear some variation of this answer:

I cant wait to bring Jesus to people in need.

I love students’ desire to serve and care for others. Yet this kind of posture raises all kinds of questions for me as someone facilitating a team of outsiders in my city. Questions like:

How can we help students discover ways to serve without doing harm?

How can we help students discover how Jesus is already present in the city?

I encourage students to enter their week of service with the hope to share their lives and receive others in mutuality instead of trying to fix what they may think is broken. In particular, we look for ways we might encounter Jesus in the people we meet, each one made in God’s image.

During their service immersion, students stay at a local homeless rescue mission, sharing facilities with men and women who are part of a yearlong discipleship program. Over the week they get to know these individuals and share stories with each other.

When debriefing one morning, one of my students shared about a conversation he had the evening before with one of the men in the program. They each had shared deeply about their journeys including struggles, celebrations, and how God had walked with them. They realized they had more in common than they thought. In this conversation, God was working through both of them. The insight this student took away felt life-changing. He told us he would never forget what they shared. Later in the week I ran into the man from the program and he shared with me the same insight. We move from service to relationships when we provide people platforms to engage with each other and share their stories with those whom they might not connect with in their spheres of community. 

Learning to see

This process of moving from service to relationship begins with (as my friend John Tiersma Watson says) asking God to be our lens so that we might see people and places through his eyes. This kind of vision enables us to see not only deficits, but also promises. With this perspective, we can enter into a city, share our lives, and trust what God will do.

Despite the potential pitfalls, there are many positive outcomes to cross-city engagement. As we lead students through these trips, several frames can help us view the experience differently:

  • We recognize that Jesus is already in the city. Our job is to help our students discover God’s handprint and presence in the city and its people.
  • We dont come with the answers but enter with a posture of learning. We do this best by asking questions. Our human tendency is to want to make things right. Sometimes we may try to fix what isn’t broken and in the process cause shame or cycles of dependence.
  • Jesus desires transformation, not change. We change our clothes, our address, and sometimes our jobs. God brings transformation in our minds, hearts, and lives. Rather than just changing circumstances (which are often symptoms of deeper realities), we long to see how God is working on root issues. Transformation takes more time but is more holistic. How can we help students to partner with God’s transformative work in themselves and in communities?

What is the role of short-term trips in long-term missional engagement?

The short-term mission (STM) trip movement started in the 1960’s and gained popularity in the 1980’s/1990’s.[1] According to one resource,[2] “2-3 million people from the U.S. go on STM’s internationally, 20-25 percent of any given church members will go on international STM sometime in their life time … $1.6 billion is a conservative estimate of international STM spending per year.” With so many resources invested into STMs, we want to make sure we are being good stewards.

One of the challenges of STMs is that they can create unequal relationships. We maybe believe that the people coming to serve are bringing what those in need will receive. But in reality, there are layers of need on both sides. Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett[3] define poverty as broken relationships rather than just lack of stuff. When we biblically and holistically define poverty, it impacts our lens and approach to others. We are all in need of God’s healing, shalom, and reconciliation in our relationships with God and each other. When we understand poverty in this way, it allows us to see our need both for God and each other, and opens us to the possibility of learning and receiving from our hosts. This also helps reframe short-term work in light of longer-term engagement and transformation in both the sending community and the host community.

From service to justice to relationship

Over a ten-year period, researchers studied a Central Texas congregation in its partnership with a residential children’s home in Guatemala.[4] One of the most significant perceived outcomes of the partnership was the sharing of love. “Most participants if not all shared that love was the number one need which this team met.” However, one of the limitations of this relationship was the focus of participants providing love for the children but not receiving love in return. In other words, mutuality was not highlighted as an objective or outcome of the short-term trip.

Our traditional “serve” models utilize a “to” or “for” approach. We do service “to” people “in need” or we provide resources “for” them. These kinds of “service” approaches can result in dependence, shaming, isolation, arrogance, and even harm. In contrast, asset-based community development (ABCD) is a model and methodology for the sustainable development of communities focused on their assets, values, and strengths. This model was developed over twenty years ago by John McKnight and John Kretzmann.[5] Through their research and community work, they discovered ABCD principles that identify the gifts of people and communities as well as a methodology of working with local leaders and residents for transformation.

This assets-based approach mirrors the approach of God—a ministry of presence. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.[6] God models this idea of “with” in who he is and how he lives. Pain, challenges, and injustices in a community may cause sadness or outrage in our hearts. Service may be our first response. But God invites us to move from service to seeking justice, all through relationship.[7]

What is Mutuality in Mission?

I met my friend Carmelita several years ago at New City Church. We joined the same small group. Carmelita loves God and people so freely. She spends much of her time in Skid Row serving at two of the missions. When not serving in the kitchen, she walks the halls of the missions and around Skid Row, calling people by name, giving out hugs, and sharing a laugh. To many she is an adopted mother and grandmother. Her role is vital to the wellbeing of many in the Skid Row community. But this is not a one-way transaction. Carmelita models mutuality. She gives and receives love. By God’s design, we are called to live in such a way that creates an environment of interdependence. 

Nelson Mandela describes the African concept of ubuntu as, “I need you in order to be me, and you need me in order to be you. Mutuality is the condition or quality of being mutual, marked by reciprocity and mutual dependence. Mutuality ensures that the interaction and experience is not just about meeting one’s needs, but it encourages empathy and concern between parties and a sense of the self as part of a larger relationship unit.

In first few days of immersions I lead, students are anxious to serve and provide practical acts of kindness. I continue to encourage them to enter into conversations and share their lives. By the third day, something clicks and they understand how mutuality is changing them. They begin to see God’s heart for us to be in relationship with rather than doing service to. In the process, they experience interdependence. They find they have more in common with others than they think and realize that they have something to learn.

Extend the trip back home: Re-entry

When students return from a mission trip experience, they often will encounter the challenges of re-entry. How do we help students translate their experience, transformation, and newfound understandings into their home communities? It can be difficult and at times painful to leave the place where we have encountered Jesus, people, and place in meaningful ways. Here are a few ways to help students during the re-entry process:

  • Begin conversations and provide teaching about re-entry before, during and after the trip. (The Sticky Faith Service Guide is packed with exercises for all three stages.)
  • Encourage students to find prayer partners to pray with them throughout their trip.
  • Provide ways for students to apply new learnings and understandings to their home context.
  • Have students share testimonies about what they are learning and how they are being transformed.
  • Follow up with students regarding their transformation process in the months after the trip.
  • Strengthen long-term relationships with people and organizations in communities into which you are bringing your students. Invite those people and organizations to serve with you in your home community.
Next Steps

Short-term mission trips have the potential to be transformational for all involved. How can we create a movement of students committed to their own transformation as well as the transformation of communities? How can we turn short-term mission trips into long-term transformation?

Here are some next-step ideas:

  • Evaluate your current model for mission and service trips and ask questions like, What are the values[8] and theology communicated and lived out in this model? Who is benefiting from the trip? How might those in the communities we are “serving” be harmed or impacted negatively? How are we partnering with local hosts? Are we utilizing a “to”, “for,” or “with” approach?
  • Work with students to create values and theology that will holistically shape how they see themselves, others, and place, including providing good theological and practical training.
  • Provide opportunities for students to craft their own stories and teach them how to share with others as well as listen to and honor others’ stories. Share stories of transformation before, during, and after, including what they have learned from others in the communities you are engaging with.

[1] There are over 1,000 U.S. mission organizations and ministries as well as colleges that send students on service project trips. See www.ShortTermMissions.com.

[2] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Helping Without Hurting in Short-term Missions (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 9-10.

[3] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2014).

[5] John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Communitys Assets (Chicago: ACTA, 1993).

[6] John 1:1-2, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

[7] In Deep Justice in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2008), Chap Clark and Kara Powell tell the story of the parable of cracked roads (p. 11). When seeking to “right wrongs” we want to make sure we aren’t just responding to symptoms but identifying root issues. We can help our youth by teaching them how justice needs to be deep and it can’t be separated from love as we are so exhorted in John 13:33-35 (p. 242).

[8] In an effort to provide standardized values and guidelines for short-term mission trips, the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (www.soe.org) has outlined seven standards including “empowering relationships”. Rather than just focusing on service, justice and system change, we need to engage in mutually transforming relationships. 

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?

1. Researchers have helpfully identified three reasons people play digital games: to kill time, to hang out, and for recreation.[1] 

Killing time refers to quick games kids play when they have a few minutes to spare between activities. Using a handheld game or puzzle to fill moments like this is certainly nothing new. App games have replaced distractions like the marbles or Rubik’s Cubes of yesteryear.

Hanging out is probably what most of us envision as the “typical” teen mode of gaming—playing games with friends and family as a way to relax and escape the stresses of everyday life.

Recreational gaming refers to when someone specifically wants to play a game—with or without others. The game is no longer just filling the void of “nothing better to do.”

These categories offer helpful distinctions; if a person or group is looking for something to do and chooses to play video games, it is hanging out. If they specifically want to make time for playing video games, it is recreational. This does not make recreational gaming inherently bad, it just means this type of play has become a more intentional hobby. And hobbies become an important part of a young person’s identity.

2. Gaming has become pervasive enough that it brings some measure of the same social benefits young people find from other hobbies: practicing to master certain skills, feelings of achievement outside of the classroom, and respect from peers.

A number of studies have also found that gaming has potential to be a healthy, positive recreational activity. Games have been found to improve perceptual skills, visual attention, and spatial skills, and they can be powerful learning tools.[2]

Contrary to how we often perceive gaming, it is not necessarily an inferior alternative to other activities like art, music, drama, or sports. Gaming has become an important and [mostly] healthy part of teen culture that can equip young people in distinct ways for future careers in fields like engineering, architecture, and information/technology. 

3. Recent data suggests that teens in the U.S. spend an average of one hour and thirteen minutes playing video games, three to four days per week (roughly four or five hours total per week).[3] If your kids are playing much more than this and arguing that “everyone” gets to play more, you can actually defend yourself with data.

4. The amount of time spent gaming peaks between the ages of eight and thirteen and then tapers off for many young people. This doesn’t mean parents should cut kids off after their fourteenth birthday, but it may alleviate some of your concern to know that kids’ interest is likely to wane as they get older. 

5. Gaming might be a problem when it becomes disruptive to other responsibilities such as homework and chores. If a young person begins skipping these other duties, it could be a sign that their gaming is becoming unhealthy.

If kids are playing too often or for too long, but still managing to get their responsibilities taken care of, they may just need other recreational options. Talk with your kids about their interests, and then ask other parents or church leaders for some suggestions.

6. Taking breaks while playing is extremely important. Gamers can fall into a “flow” state comparable to gambling when they play for long periods of time. Some games have been designed to break this flow with timed levels and narrative sequences; others cater to it by offering endless continuous action.

Extended gaming sessions of an hour or more should only be allowed if short breaks are taken frequently throughout. The way television shows are broken up might be a good rule of thumb: brief interruptions every fifteen minutes, a short break every thirty minutes, and a longer break after an hour.

7. There are now more adult gamers than ever before, which means there are more games made specifically for an adult audience. Keep track of the games your kids are playing to make sure the content is appropriate, just like you would for movies or music. We encourage you to check out the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) website: www.esrb.org. This organization is responsible for assigning video game ratings, and they offer a lot of great resources for parents.

8. Most video game consoles and devices have built-in features that allow parents to limit how long their children can play, restrict accessing the Internet through the system, and in some cases can even block games above a certain content rating (e.g., “T for Teen” or “M for Mature”). In addition to info on game ratings, the ESRB website can help you set these up.

9. A common trick young people pull is to ask extended family members and friends to give them games with higher ratings than appropriate for birthdays or as Christmas presents. If your kids have a generous grandmother or unassuming uncle from whom they typically receive gifts, make sure these folks know what your standards are and how to check ratings.

10. Several parents told us that their kids (sons in particular) would get extremely angry while playing certain games. While games can be a good cathartic outlet for adolescents, and part of what makes any game fun is yelling and getting excited when the action picks up, make sure this doesn’t get out of hand. Encourage kids to stop playing games that elicit intense anger and instead opt for others that are equally as fun and challenging. Some parents have noticed that games in which players are first-person-shooters are especially prone to excessive anger, so keep that in mind as you’re making gaming decisions as a family.

One mom told us that she took a particular game away because of the way it stirred up rage in her son, but she also bought him a replacement game so he wouldn’t feel punished. “I just didn’t like the game, and when we talked about it he kind of realized ‘Wow, it is stupid to get so mad about a game.’ So I let him pick out a new one that was fun but a little more mellow.” 

Find this helpful? There’s way more! Download a free sample chapter of Right Click HERE today


[1] Mizuko Itō et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media.

[2] Lavinia McLean and Mark Griffiths, “The psychological effects of videogames on young people,” Aloma 31 (1): 19-133. See also Richard De Lisi and Jennifer L. Wolford, “Improving children’s mental rotation accuracy with computer game playing,” Journal of Genetic Psychology 163 (3): 272-282.; Jing Feng, Ian Spence, and Jay Pratt, “Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition,” Psychological Science 18 (10): 850-855; C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, “Action video games modify visual selective attention,” Nature 423 (May 29, 2003): 534- 537; C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, “Enumeration versus multiple object tracking: The case of action video game players,” Cognition 101 (August 2006): 217-245.

[3] “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to 18-Year-Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study,” a survey by The Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010, available at: http://kff.org.

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?

If you’re like us, you have wondered more than once what age is the “right” age to start using a particular digital device, app, or social media platform.

When we talk with parents about this, many express feeling like they’re holding the line in a battle for as long as possible. They feel constant pressure, from multiple sources, for kids to start using more and more digital technology at earlier and earlier ages.

That cultural pressure makes this question particularly tough.

We can tell you what doctors recommend, what legal regulations say, or various other pros and cons; but when your kids’ school tells you they need an email account, or their coach tells you they will be coordinating practice times by text message, or your teen comes home and tells you the irrefutable sad refrain, “All my friends have one!”—the data seems to go out the window. Here are a few tips:

1. Listen to what the doctors sayThe American Association of Pediatrics recommends keeping “screen-free zones” in the house, especially a young person’s bedroom, as well as “screen-free times” like during meals. They also recommend just one to two hours of entertainment screen time per day, and zero screen time at all for children under two years old.

Keep in mind that these are the same people who recommend brushing your teeth three times a day, sleeping eight hours a night, daily exercise, and a well-balanced diet—they set the bar at “best-case scenario.” But that best-case scenario is based on what’s good for our bodies, minds, and emotions. Aiming high never hurts.

2. The magic number is 13. The minimum age required for Facebook, iTunes, G-Mail, Pinterest, SnapChat, Instagram, and a host of other social networks is 13. If you have a child under the age of 13 who is using these platforms, you can appeal to terms of use and the current law (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA) to draw a line.

3. Talk with other parentsMost parents feel left on their own to make decisions about digital media. Agreeing to particular standards (like holding the age 13 lower limit) with other parents in your community provides some peace of mind, and can be helpful when teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and so on try to push toward using particular contact platforms by providing strength in numbers.

4. Remember why it matters. These devices and platforms are to our kids like the Air Jordans, leather jackets, Walkmans, or whatever else were to you at their age. It is easy to get misdirected by questions of convenience, necessity, requirement for school, and so on. What is at stake for a lot of young people when they ask, then beg, for these devices or networks is a feeling of fitting in and self-worth. Take that into consideration, show empathy, and remember how important social access and status symbols seemed to you in your adolescent journey.

How are you managing the “How young is too young?” conversation in your family or ministry?

Share your ideas in comments below or via social media using the hashtag #rightclick.

This is a free sample from the introduction and first session of our all-new high school curriculum, Can I Ask That Volume 2: More Hard Questions About God & Faith.

Download the Sample    Download the Promo Pack

Can I Ask That?

It was the little things that did it.

Not big stuff like doubting the existence of God altogether, but little stuff. Like hanging out with her best friend from Thailand whose family practiced Buddhism. Or her church leaders’ lack of response to two huge back-to-back incidents of racial injustice in national news.

It was the little things that led to Kayla’s drift from God.

One of those little things was the way her parents responded when she pointed out things in the Bible that didn’t make sense or didn’t seem very loving. How could God be all-loving and then damn good people to hell for eternity? Can we do anything that God wouldn’t forgive? Whenever Kayla raised a question like this, her parents either flipped out or shut her down with their blanket response for everything: “We just have to trust that the Bible is right and not expect it to defend God to us.”

At church it was more subtle. Kayla could see her volunteer youth leaders’ inconsistencies in the way they were living outside of church and by what they shared on social media. She wasn’t sure she really knew any people who were living out all the stuff they said they believed. And whenever someone questioned God or a Bible passage in youth group, the high school pastor would respond without really answering the question and then change the subject.

Yeah, lots of little things.

So when Kayla found herself as a junior telling her parents that she didn’t want to go to youth group anymore, she couldn’t fully explain why. But she knew what she couldn’t do: ask questions. For too long and from too many voices, her questions just didn’t seem good enough for the church or her parents. Or God.

Or maybe the bigger problem was that God wasn’t big enough to handle real questions. Who needs a God like that?

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Photo by Chris Martin.

Whether summer seems far away or already half over, here's a playlist you can return to again and again for ideas to keep your family connected and building Sticky Faith this summer!​

1. The best family summer ever

Practical ideas for making a family summer plan together.

2. Get help navigating technology with your kids

Learn how to navigate technology with your family.

3. Using social media to strengthen family bonds

A practical guide for parents who might be feeling powerless and clueless when it comes to leveraging technology to boost their relationships.

4. Twenty Ideas for Grandparents

Summer is a great time to boost the grandparent connection! Encourage them with this best-of list.

5. Parenting strategies for launching kids into adulthood

This one's just for parents of recent grads and rising seniors over the summer. And actually, here’s part two as well.

Are you a ministry leader? Check out our Surviving the Summer Playlist just for you!

As a leader, you never forget the first wedding you perform. For me, it was for one of my youth group graduates.

While I was a bit nervous about my first time officiating a wedding, at least I had been a bridesmaid before and had some idea of what would happen. What scared me more was premarital counseling. I was single at the time, so I had no personal experience from which to draw. 

That’s why I’m glad for resources like Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Fuller School of Psychology grads Les and Leslie Parrott. I had lunch with the Parrotts a few months ago, and loved hearing their passion for equipping pastors to launch couples on a trajectory of healthy and flourishing marriages.

Whether you’re single or married—and whether you’ve performed hundreds of wedding ceremonies or none—the practical ideas the Parrotts share in this interview will be useful the next time you find yourself preparing a couple for marriage.

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times best-selling authors of numerous books. Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, and Les, a psychologist, are professors and founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They’ve appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, The View, and Oprah. Read our first interview with Les and Leslie on “Relationship help for busy parents.”

The Parrotts are also founders of the highly acclaimed pre-marriage tool, the SYMBIS Assessment. For those of you who find yourselves doing any kind of pre-marriage counseling, the Parrotts are offering a limited-time fifty percent discount to friends of FYI. Check out the special discount code at the end of the interview!


FYI: What convinced you to put so much emphasis on pre-marital work in your writing and training?

Les: We never had pre-marriage counseling, but we spent the first year of our marriage in therapy.

Leslie: That’s the truth. We had a tough first year of marriage – even after dating through most of high school and college. We had very little preparation. And we weren’t the only ones.

Les: The sad fact is that even today, the church does a pretty poor job of helping couples prepare for marriage. Ministers aren’t really trained in how to do it well and so they end up doing what they can, and too often they focus as much on the ceremony they’ll be preparing as they do the relationship that follows.

Leslie: Soon after graduating from Fuller, we took teaching positions at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school, and quickly learned that our students who were headed toward marriage weren’t getting much from their own churches when it came to launching lifelong love. That’s when we started holding an annual event in Seattle we called “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts” – SYMBIS, for short.

Les: SYMBIS became pretty popular. We soon had hundreds of couples attending annually. So we wrote a book (and his/her workbooks) by the same title. And then Oprah invited us to talk about it on her program. Since then, that book has sold more than a million copies.


FYI: What are some of the most common surprises couples find after the wedding that could have been prevented by preparing better ahead of time?

Les: We sometimes liken pre-marriage work to teaching someone how to use Excel on their computer when they have no real-life application for it. Their eyes roll back in their head and it becomes a real snooze fest. If pre-marriage isn’t done effectively, it’s the same thing; it leads couples to thinking they have prepared for marriage when they really haven’t.

Leslie: That’s the biggest surprise for some couples. They thought they knew what married life would be like and it didn’t turn out that way. Of course, that’s not their fault. Those of us who are preparing them have to take responsibility to do a better job.

Les: So true. And on a practical level, we can do better at helping couples get healthy. We often say that a person’s marriage can only be as healthy as the least healthy person in it. This is key, helping two individuals be healthy. That means spotting caution flags for them so they can work on their issues. Awareness is sometimes the biggest part of the cure. Holding a figurative mirror up to couples before they are married to show them a clear picture of their psychological and spiritual wellbeing is imperative.


FYI: When you think about your experiences with ministry leaders, and youth pastors in particular, what do you think are the top few mistakes we tend to make in helping couples prepare for marriage?

Leslie: The biggest mistake by far is not knowing what content to cover, and then not covering the right content in a personal fashion – so it applies to the couple in specific and concrete ways. It’s a fatal error, because as ministers we can feel like we are doing “the work” with a couple when we are simply going through the motions. And the heartbreak of it is that ministers don’t even know it.

Les: Exactly. Research is very clear on what works and what doesn’t. And some of what works can be counter-intuitive. For example, most ministers don’t know that there are “marriage mindsets.” Every individual about to be married has an attitude toward marriage. It might be “romantic,” or “rational,” or “resolute,” for example. And the attitude of both persons in a couple, when they mesh, can predict fairly accurately the kind of road they will travel together early on. But most ministers don’t know about this research.

Leslie: Another mistake occurs when we project our own story of marriage onto the couples in our care. Every couple is unique. We can’t afford to assume they will have the same experience we did. What helped you may not be nearly as helpful to them. We’ve got to understand the couple we are working with – really get an accurate picture of their personalities, for example.


FYI: What are the most important two things a leader needs to know about counseling a couple prior to marriage?

Les: Every leader needs to know that each person in every couple has unique needs, expectations, pain-points, wounds, goals, and aspirations. Every person relates to God and to their partner in distinctive ways. We give and receive love uniquely through the lens of how God made us. So when you are counseling a young couple, don’t project onto them, don’t assume you know what they need before you understand who they are.

Leslie: Another important point, in my opinion, is to have a roadmap. Know where you want to take a couple through the pre-marriage process. Be their guide. Know when to go “off road” in the process, but ensure that you get them to their destination. And what is that? It’s to a place where they are equipped as well as possible to enjoy lifelong love that honors God. That’s an incredible task. But it’s more doable today than ever. The roadmap is readily available. It stems from God’s Word and helps couples begin their marriage journey – not with mere optimism and hope – but with proven skills and in-depth understanding of one another and God’s path for one of the greatest journeys this life can provide.


FYI: How has your approach to pre-marital counseling and preparation changed over the years?

Leslie: So much has changed – primarily because we have better tools than ever before. And more research to know exactly what helps most (and what doesn’t help that we once thought did). It’s one thing to teach communication skills, for example. But it’s entirely different to teach those skills in the context of each person’s unique personality.

Les: We often say to couples: “There has never been a marriage like yours before, and there never will be again.” Why? Because the combination of two unique personalities has so many facets.

Leslie: That’s why these days we can help couples understand their “talk styles” – how God hardwired them for communication – rather than trying to teach universal skill sets that may or may not work for them.

Les: It’s very exciting to teach skill sets, whether it’s communication, conflict resolution, spiritual intimacy, and all the rest, through the lens of each person’s unique personality.

Leslie: Can you tell we are pretty excited about this? It’s fair to say we are actually obsessed with helping pastors help couples launch lifelong love successfully these days – more than ever!


FYI: You are currently updating SYMBIS and have built something you say is a game-changer around it, right?

Les: That’s right. We have a completely updated edition of the book, workbooks and video curriculum. But we’ve poured a ton of effort and resources into building what we call the SYMBIS Assessment. After completing a “listening tour” with hundreds of churches, asking what they are doing when it comes to pre-marriage and what would help them do it better, the thing that bubbled to the surface was clear: Ministers wanted a robust, contemporary, and full-featured assessment they could use with today’s couples.

Leslie: We took that as a mandate to create that kind of assessment.

FYI: How does the SYMBIS Assessment work for pastors – especially youth ministers?

Les: It’s simple. You get trained and certified as a SYMBIS Facilitator. That takes 3 hours and you do it at your own pace online. Then you invite the couples in your care to take the assessment online and it generates a 15-page report on their relationship. This report is what you unpack with the couple (you can do this in small groups and classes, as well).

Leslie: It makes the pre-marriage process so much easier and effective for any pastor. The SYMBIS Report has discussion starters baked right in. You’ll never wonder what to do with a couple. It provides structure and a map for your sessions, making the process engaging and nearly fool-proof.


Special deal for leaders who do premarital counseling:

FYI and the Parrotts are partnering to offer you a FIFTY PERCENT DISCOUNT on Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts Facilitator training! Enter the Discount Code F7DFFD1 at SYMBISassessment.com/facilitators between now and April 30 to become a facilitator at half the normal rate (a $100 value).

It’s probably no surprise that we think relationships are pretty valuable here at FYI. Research continues to affirm what we know from Scripture and experience: young people need strong relationships with their parents and with other adults in order to truly thrive. That’s why we interviewed 50 amazing families as part of our research for The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family so we could understand more about what makes family relationships sing.

Along the way, we have learned from folks who are experts in family relationships. At the top of that list are Fuller School of Psychology grads Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott. I’ve had the joy of learning from the Parrotts’ wisdom, and invited them to share insights with parents like you.

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times best-selling authors of numerous books, including The Parent You Want to Be, Helping Your Struggling Teenager, and the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, and Les, a psychologist, are professors and founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They’ve appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, The View, and Oprah. The Parrotts are also founders of the highly acclaimed pre-marriage tool, the SYMBIS Assessment. To find out more about them, visit www.LesandLeslie.com.

FYI: You’ve been talking about relationships for decades. What can parents of teenagers do when it comes to their own marriages?

Leslie: I love this question because it almost subsumes the answer within it. Parents of teens need to nurture their marriage. We know from research it’s the most neglected season in a couple’s life. You will find the lowest levels of satisfaction in marriage across the board with couples who have teenagers in their home.

Les: And that’s not all because of the teens. It’s mid-life and other factors, as well. But teens contribute to it, for sure.

Leslie: We’ve all heard that the most important thing parents can do for their children is to have a loving marriage. There’s so much truth to that. So what can parents of teens do for their marriage? One answer will come across as so hackneyed but it’s so true: build a consistent date night into your relationship.

Les: But not just any date night. Why? Because research reveals that couples who fall into a predictable routine of a movie and a dinner for their date night, for example, don’t get nearly as much out of their dates as couples who do novel experiences. If you want to really turbo power the positive effects of a date night, try unique experiences together.

Leslie: We actually went to a trapeze class on a date not too long ago. Crazy, right? We also went paddle boarding. Trust me, these kinds of activities do not come naturally. It would be easier to just go to a nice dinner (and we do that, too), but we know that your neurochemistry actually changes as a couple (like it did when you were first dating) when you do things together that get you out of your rut. Every mom and dad of a teenager needs to consider that.

FYI: What questions do you hear most from parents about their teenaged kids?

Les: Parents wonder about a lot of things, some of the most common being eating disorders, identity issues, video game addiction, peer pressure, masturbation, alcohol, loneliness, and so on.

Leslie: But we also hear questions like, “How do I get my kid to do such and such?” Parents seem to want a magic technique or formula for eliciting the kinds of behaviors they desire. Understandable, for sure. But if there’s any advice we feel compelled to give parents of teenagers, it’s this: Focus more on the kind of parent that you want to be than the kind of kid you want to raise. Why? Because when you do the former, the latter almost takes care of itself.

Les: We wrote a book called The Parent You Want to Be that’s all about the qualities you want your kids to see in you. And that’s what we’ve focused on most with our two boys. We want to be affirming and visionary parents, for example. Wanting that and being that are two different things. We fail miserably some days. But we know that being is often more important that doing because it’s what stays with your child years from now.

FYI: When parents see their kids start to explore dating and romantic relationship interests, they often freak out. What words or advice do you have for parents in that phase?

Les: Every teenager is different. We can’t give blanket statements, for example, about when it’s appropriate for your son or daughter to start dating. That has so much to do with each teenager’s maturity level. Some 16-year-olds seem like 14, while others seem like 18.

Leslie: Well, not only that, but “dating” is not what it used to be. It’s worlds away from what you as a parent experienced. Asking to “hang out” is more frequent than dating.

Les: So when you ask for words of advice, our answer is simple: empathize. Work diligently to put yourself in your child’s shoes and see their world as they do. This doesn’t mean pestering them with a million questions, but it does mean not projecting your own assumptions onto them. And it means listening with a “third ear” to their feelings – even when they don’t express them out loud. The more your child feels understood by you and feels that you genuinely want the very best for them, they will open up and come to you for advice.

Leslie: That’s when you can have conversations about their relationships, being ever so sensitive, of course. But empathy doesn’t mean you don’t set up guidelines for your child’s dating world, too. And the dating decisions you make with them at 15 are different than 18.

FYI: For parents slogging through the deep waters of the teenage and young adult years, what two relationship tips would you give them to help keep their own marriage strong?

Les: First, slay the time dragon that can so easily wreak havoc on your relationship. Few things pull a couple apart more significantly and sometimes subtly than simply not having enough quality time for each other.

Leslie: I completely agree. Time is a precious commodity for couples in a busy household with teenagers. Managing your kid’s schedules on top of your own can sabotage your time as a couple.

Les: That’s why you’ve got to carve grooves into the routine of your day, your week and your month to ensure you have couple time. It may be as simple as having 15 minutes together after dinner, just the two of you, to take a walk or chat about your days. It may mean reserving a time for date nights. It may mean having a weekend get-away every quarter. Whatever it is, you need to be intentional. Otherwise, it just won’t happen.

Leslie: And the second thought that immediately comes to mind is prayer. Sure, this may sound a bit perfunctory. After all, church-going parents already pray, right? But if there is ever a time to envelop your child, your marriage, and your home in God’s wisdom, grace, and guidance, it’s now.

Les: It seems like my continual prayer these days, with a pre-teen and a 17-year-old, is for the Holy Spirit to help me do the things as a father and a husband that I already know to do. I can’t do them on my own strength.

Leslie: Amen to that. Most of us don’t need new things to do to be better on the home front. We just need God’s strength and abiding Spirit to do what we already know needs to be done today.

Watch for Part 2 of this interview with Les and Leslie, especially for leaders:Practical help for the ministry leader preparing couples for marriage,” coming soon!