Sticky Faith and Special Needs

An Inside Interview

Shares Oct 14, 2014 Amy Fenton Lee

Photo by Marmalade Girl.

If your youth ministry doesn’t have kids with special needs, you’re among the rare exception. The bigger question usually isn’t whether they are among our group, but what we are going to do in response to their particular needs as we lead.

In our first article in this series, “Refusing to Ignore Teenagers with Special Needs,” we looked at the landscape of disability among young people in our culture, and shared five ideas for working toward inclusion in youth ministry.

In this article we look to a seasoned practitioner who cares deeply about kids with special needs, and who has been working to integrate the principles of Sticky Faith in her ministry.

Until this past August, Katie Garvert was the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Katie led the church’s special needs ministry for 9 years before returning to teach special education in the public school system. Under Katie’s leadership, Access Ministries served more than 100 families through respite events, sibling retreats, overnight camp for students with special needs, and parent support groups. Katie also directed the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry. You can read more about Katie’s work on The Inclusive Church website.

I visited Katie recently to hear more about her work and how it might help each of us in our own contexts.

Tell us a little about how your church included students with special needs, and your role in that process.

Katie Garvert: Our church adopted the view that there is no single way to do special needs ministry. Every person with special needs is different, and how the church defines inclusion for each of them may be different. It’s all about figuring out what works for the student, their family, and the church. Our big-picture goal was to provide a sense of belonging inside the bigger Body of Christ.

My job as the special needs ministry leader was to make sure each child, student, or adult with special needs had the support they needed to experience success at church. The resulting accommodation plan could look different for each person. Nearly always we would meet with the individual and their family to learn about and observe their abilities and needs. In many cases I would take what I learned about the student and then work behind the scenes to equip and encourage their respective ministry leaders.

Sometimes we would determine that the individual with special needs and/or the ministry leaders could benefit from dedicated assistance. In those cases, it was our ministry that trained a buddy to shadow the student during their participation in the children’s ministry, youth group, or wherever. And then for a number of students with more complex needs, our ministry offered an alternative environment with sensory activities and sensory-friendly Bible teaching. Some of our ministry participants thrived in our ministry’s sensory room every week while others only needed it for a few weeks. The sensory room also offered a landing spot for students who needed short breaks from their regular ministry environment. Many kids need access to a place they can recollect for a few minutes if they become over-stimulated.

How were you first exposed to the Sticky Faith idea?

A couple of years ago, our family ministry team was reading Sticky Faith at the same time my small group was using the book as a parenting study. So I had the opportunity to process the ideas in the book from the perspective of both a ministry leader and a parent. Like others reading the book, my husband and I could relate to the stories and statistics of students who veered off the path and experienced life pain through the early adult years. Our staff and the other parents all loved the idea of creating a “sticky web” of relationships for the kids in our respective ministries and our own home.

How can a Sticky Faith philosophy apply to students with special needs?

In special education, we often use the term “delayed” to describe a student’s development pace. While it may take longer, the individual with a learning or developmental delay can make progress and often catch up to their peers.

The same may be true for the spiritual development of someone with a disability. Just because a child or teen doesn’t grasp all the concepts their peers do at age 9 or age 19 doesn’t mean they won’t eventually get there. And as church leaders, we often forget about the student who is delayed yet very capable of spiritual growth. Just like you and me, people with disability are hardwired to have a relationship with our Creator. They too yearn for God’s grace and love. Many of these same individuals will wrestle, some profoundly, with God’s purpose for their life. I’ve seen this firsthand working alongside kids and adults with a wide range of disabilities. So the Sticky Faith concepts are still relevant to students with special needs, sometimes just a little later in their life or after repeat exposure.

After reading Sticky Faith, our church began placing a higher value on intergenerational relationships. We wanted to make sure our kids had the opportunity to interact with believers across different ages, life stages, and interests. And with the Sticky Faith 5:1 adult-to-kid ratio in mind, we started asking the following question for each of our teens: “Who are the five people speaking into this student?” This exercise provided a huge “aha moment” for our disability ministry when we realized that virtually none of our students had one, let alone five, meaningful relationships.

The reality was that our kids with special needs only had one significant relationship outside of their parents: a teacher or educator. It became very obvious that these students were even more isolated than typically developing youth. Immediately I started working to create a relational net for our teens with special needs. Like every youth, these students needed a “sticky web” in order to grow into their faith.

My job did change as I dedicated more time and energy searching for the right people to become what we called Sticky Faith “investors.” It was a process, and it didn’t happen overnight. I also began to see the value of facilitating relationships before our students hit middle school and high school. In many cases it takes months, if not years, to identify and “grow” people who can influence and work alongside students with special needs. As a result, I found myself taking every opportunity to dialogue with virtually everyone I encountered inside our church. I was always asking questions and listening for life experiences that could match the needs and interests of individuals in my ministry.

The Sticky Faith initiative also changed my focus as I shifted away from an administrative mindset and adopted the approach of a people-leader and relationship builder. At times this created more work, but it gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my job. And it was especially fulfilling when I began to see our students reap the fruits of their growing number of relationships within our church. I had a front row seat to meaningful life change.

Let me share four ways and four stories that illustrate how we experienced God’s blessings through this shift:

1. We intentionally involved our students in the broader work of the church.

Each week we made the church’s master prayer list a key part of our ministry. In our learning environment for older students with disability, we would take the updated list and divide prayer requests among our participants. After a devoted time of prayer, students volunteered to write notes to the people they prayed for. As more church members began receiving notes and learning they had been prayed for by someone inside our ministry, we saw the church’s view of our ministry change. Suddenly, people began to see our students’ value inside the Body of Christ. Church members who were hurting deeply appreciated the prayers of our ministry participants. And suddenly these same people had something to talk about with our students when seeing them on campus. Some prayer recipients even sought out our students to say thanks. This interaction was often significant for our participants with special needs, and it provided an easy entry into relationship.

2. We found unconventional places to create meaningful relationships.

The adult volunteer running our church’s technology booth agreed to allow several students to help him with sound and lights. This church member quickly recognized the opportunity to make a real difference in these kids’ lives when he adapted his technical service to include relational leadership. Today, this guy has untold influence over a number of kids who were quirky and struggling to fit in in our youth group. Some of these kids have identified special needs. And they now have a connection to other students and to a leader who shares their same spark for technology. This normal volunteer has created an accidental discipleship group, where he leads the students serving under him in a time of discussion and prayer after each media event. As a result of this older believer’s investment, we have several vulnerable teens making huge strides in their own faith journeys.

3. We learned to network outside our own ministry circle.

One Sunday a visiting mother dropped off her young daughter in our church nursery before heading to worship. No special instructions were left, and our volunteers assumed the new child was just like every other busy preschooler. But the childcare workers soon noticed differences and pulled me in for advisement. After several weeks and a delicate conversation with the mother, we discovered the child was blind. This single mother was in need of help and her daughter, who was the age children begin to learn to read, needed to learn Braille. As we were brainstorming ideas, I recalled a past conversation with a church member who talked about working with a little girl who was blind on a mission trip. Remembering this church friend’s heart for a child in South America, I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to reach out. A relationship began after this church member, who wasn’t involved in our special needs ministry, sent an email to the struggling mother. Today, nearly three years later, this church member is the single strongest influence in that family. As the girl with special needs ages into our middle school ministry, we already have one Sticky Faith investor who can help us identify and recruit others.

4. We saw God provide purpose and redemption for Sticky Faith investors.

Several years ago a family in our church adopted three children internationally. One of the children began exhibiting signs of special needs, including Reactive Attachment Disorder. (RAD is a syndrome where children have trouble attaching to their adoptive parents due to earlier trauma or neglect.[1]). As this adopted daughter aged, her challenges escalated, sending the entire family into turmoil.

Our ministry team connected this family to another church member, who years earlier had adopted a son internationally and had walked a similar path. This more experienced adoptive father stepped in, investing hours in the family and particularly the struggling daughter who was approaching middle school. Because he could understand the family’s pain, he earned the right to influence all of them. Our ministry team watched God use this man profoundly in the life of a hurting child whose early life experiences had left deep scars. And his help improved the trajectory of the entire family. At the same time we witnessed God using the Sticky Faith investor, we saw God blessing him as well. This man was still grieving the pain of his own adoption experience. It was through his work with the other family that he was able to catch glimpses of God’s eternal plan for his own pain.

Action Points:

  • As you read this interview, did you think of a student with special needs who before now has been relatively unnoticed by your ministry team? Do you know much about this student’s capability for spiritual growth? Identify one action step to help you understand and aid this student in their faith formation.
  • Make a list of good networkers inside your church. Schedule a time to meet with them individually. Share your vision to find Sticky Faith investors for each student with special needs. Ask the networkers to brainstorm ideas and to identify contacts across the church. Go to these meetings prepared with a mental inventory of the students’ needs and interests. (Be careful to respect students’ privacy and to share information in a manner that protects each person’s dignity.)
  • Begin identifying and building a relationship with potential Sticky Faith investors. It may take time to determine and develop the right people across the church. Be mindful of selecting and equipping people who have the emotional capacity and appropriate level of spiritual maturity. (Hint: Look for people who take a marathon approach to relationships. Sprinters will often fizzle in special needs situations where an abundance of patience is required.)

Refusing to Ignore Teenagers with Special Needs

Five Ideas for Inclusion

Shares Sep 15, 2014 Amy Fenton Lee

Photo by David Thiel.

Every kid has special needs. But John’s quirks were a little different than his church leaders were accustomed to. As John aged out of children’s ministry and into his teens, his leaders worried about how they could weave him into the student ministry, in particular how he’d fit in a small group.

John’s nearly constant desire to recount stats from his beloved sports team wavered between fascinating and irritating. And when John wasn’t giving a play-by-play of a recent game, it was hard to follow his train of thought, creating labored interactions for his peers. So they tended to avoid him.

Other times he became an easy target for jokes.

His youth ministry leaders tried to connect with John, but struggled to read him emotionally. It wasn’t uncommon for John to show visible signs of frustration or anxiety whenever there was a schedule change or new visitor. Yet when discussion turned to a sensitive or emotional subject matter, John seemed lost or distracted. This “disconnect” could create awkward moments for his small group. More than once, John blurted out a random sports fact, interrupting the group dynamic at an inopportune time. And his interjections could come off as disrespectful, especially if they happened on the heels of a peer’s vulnerable prayer request.

Admirably, John’s parents were committed to his regular church attendance. However, John’s youth leaders silently wondered how they could include John in the student ministry environment without compromising the other students’ church experience.

John lives daily with a diagnosis of autism. And if he’s not already in your youth group, he will be soon.

The Rising Rates of Teenagers with Disabilities

More kids like John are becoming part of church youth groups everywhere. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports a 16% increase in the prevalence of childhood disability between 2001 and 2011.[1] While the number of kids with physical disabilities decreased (notably), the diagnoses of mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions jumped a whopping 21% for this same population. We know from other studies that these changes are largely attributable to the escalating rise in autism specifically. It is currently estimated that 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 120% surge in diagnoses between 2002 and 2012[2].

Keep in mind these numbers only account for children who have been identified after being tested and then receiving a formal diagnosis. So the real number of kids with autism is likely somewhat higher. With each new promotion year, the growing number of children with autism are becoming teenagers with autism. That means they’re entering your church youth ministry.  

As with any special needs diagnosis, autism spectrum disorder is complex and requires a largely individualized approach. A broad range of learning styles, behaviors, disabilities, and abilities (that are sometimes unusual) fall under the ASD umbrella. And the degree of impairment varies widely. One individual with autism may require assistance with basic life skills while another needs little, if any, support. As result, many high-functioning students with autism have more in common with their typically developing peers than with other kids sharing the same diagnosis. For this reason there is no one-size-fits-all solution for including students with ASD. Autism doesn’t always show up in the form of a physical or intellectual disability. In fact, almost half (46%) of individuals identified with ASD have average or above average intelligence levels.[3]

Oftentimes, autism presents itself in the form of awkward social interactions and unexpected behaviors. These attributes can present unique challenges for a youth ministry environment, where nearly every aspect of programming revolves around personal connection and relationship. But there is hope for kids like John who have autism, and for their student ministry leaders.

Is Inclusion Even Possible?

While “John” isn’t his real name, John is a real student at a real church in suburban Atlanta. When John transitioned out of children’s ministry and into youth group, the student ministry team worried about including him.

But that was four years ago. John has since become an integral part of the same circle of boys, now sophomores in high school. One of John’s small group leaders, Ben Nunes, reflects on the early days: “Before we figured out a few key strategies, there were weeks we spent more time managing John than doing anything else.” But Nunes quickly points out, “John needed time to acclimate to us. And we needed time to figure out what makes him comfortable as well as how to avoid or overcome what makes him nervous.”

Nunes acknowledges, “Interruptions and awkward moments still occur.” But he quickly asserts that he would no longer call them interruptions or awkward moments, “It’s just what happens with John.” Everyone in the group has grown past the discomfort. The unexpected is now expected and rarely do John’s “quirks” get noticed anymore. Nunes insists that the quality of the group’s interactions have not been compromised. Instead, he contends that the guys have bonded partially due to the shared experiences that John has serendipitously created.

John’s integration into the student ministry hasn’t been without hiccups. Small group outings and youth group events nearly always pose a challenge. And the solution is different every time. Sometimes John participates after his parents have coached leaders through anticipated obstacles and prepared him for the new experience. Other times John will skip the event because his parents and leaders have determined he is not yet ready socially or developmentally. John is more likely to attend short, structured group events and forego the more fluid or open-ended get-togethers. And when John does come to extra activities, his father often comes along as an additional adult support.

John’s small group leaders hope he can join the rest of the group on next year’s youth retreat. But the ministry team also appreciates that his parents have taken a thoughtful approach in years past, electing not to send John because he wasn’t ready for sleepless nights and cafeteria-style serving lines. The small group leaders respect that John’s parents have a good handle on their child’s growth pace. And by sometimes taking the hard decisions off the shoulders of the student ministry team, John’s parents consistently set everyone up for success.

Best Practices for Inclusion

For the past five years it’s been my mission to help churches successfully include children with special needs. I’ve conducted dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews with ministry leaders and credentialed professionals working with individuals with disability. And I’ve hopped on planes to visit churches across the U.S., going into Sunday settings to see first-hand what’s working when it comes to including kids with neurological differences. A number of best practices continually resurface in my research. And below are a few favorite ideas worth sharing. Please remember that every student with special needs is unique. The strategies that work for one individual may not work for another who has an identical diagnosis. And an approach that fails the first time can yield success after repetition. It’s all about getting to know the student and trial and error. While these ideas are shared with autism in mind, they are transferrable to a wide range of disabilities and unique needs.

1) Develop a good relationship with parents.

When church leaders demonstrate a genuine desire to include a student with special needs, they increase the odds of having a healthy and trusting relationship with the parents. An honest line of open communication between the church and the family can be critical for success. Many problems can be solved (often before they happen) when a parent does not fear being turned away and shares more openly about their child’s obstacles.

2) Prepare the student ahead of time.

We all know that it’s difficult to enjoy what’s going on around us when we are preoccupied with worry. This is an ongoing problem for many students with autism because anxiety and autism often go hand-in-hand.[4] In fact, anxiety can be the root cause of undesirable behaviors sometimes associated with autism. If a student tends to run away, hide, or show visible signs of agitation around the time of a change, odds are high that the student is anxious about a current or upcoming activity. With careful observation, leaders can usually identify the cause of the undesirable behavior and then prevent or resolve the trigger. However, it is always smart to remove any element of surprise for the nervous student. Advance preparation eases worry and reduces the likelihood of negative behaviors whenever unfamiliar faces, different rooms, or new activities are going to be introduced.

The following tools and strategies may help some students:

  • Offer an advance tour of ministry space and other relevant church environments.

  • Send pictures and names of key faces the student can expect to see.

  • Provide a map of the church campus, labeling rooms and highlighting travel routes.

  • Create a visual schedule with activity times, locations, and brief descriptions.

  • Use a stopwatch or visual timer as a countdown for current and upcoming activities.  

3) Provide printed guidelines for each ministry setting.

Every board game comes with a set of printed instructions. The instruction sheet establishes the purpose of the game and the rules for play. Ambiguity is removed and all players start with an equal understanding of what they can and cannot do during their turn. Some kids with neurodevelopmental disorders need the same type of instructions for “how to play” in the church youth group. Concrete guidelines can help the student who does not catch on to the unwritten rules of play that are typically communicated through social cues.

Because kids with ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, OCD, and many other disabilities are simultaneously dealing with internal tension (e.g. overstimulation, hyperfocus, nervousness, impulsivity, physical pain, hyperactive “running motor”), they easily miss what’s going on around them. A list of clearly stated “Do’s and Don’ts” along with a simple objective statement for each ministry setting may seem insulting, but is actually helpful for some students. Keep in mind that the rules should not be used as a way to shame or embarrass an individual who needs things spelled out literally or who requires regular reminders. In some cases it is best to provide the guidelines discreetly through email or private conversation.

4) Facilitate interaction for the student who struggles to communicate.

While ministry leaders can’t remove every obstacle, they can prompt and model interactions between the student with special needs and their peers. This often requires a leader to learn more about the communication abilities of a particular student and to create some out-of-the-box solutions. For example, a leader may learn that a student who rarely speaks during small group is actually an extrovert on social media. Odds are high that this silent kid in the corner will interact more with the small group via text or group chat. So in addition to asking discussion questions when the group is gathered, the leader also challenges group members to respond to posted discussion questions via text or a shared (and parent approved) chat app. This type of interaction is helpful for a student who:

  • Processes auditory information at a slower pace (i.e. doesn’t think fast on her feet)

  • Struggles to articulate thoughts

  • Speaks with inaudible, mumbled, or labored speech

  • Experiences distraction or overstimulation in the live group setting

  • Fails to interpret subtle, non-verbal, face-to-face communication

5. Remember that inclusion is more about a mindset than a perfect set of strategies.

Like John, not every student with special needs can successfully participate in every ministry activity. And that’s okay. What the student with disability really needs from a youth group is a sense of belonging. Inclusion happens when an individual feels known and accepted for whom God created them to be.

Action Points:

  • As you read this article, did a student’s face come to mind? While reflecting on their unique traits or needs, create one action step to follow up based on these ideas.
  • Do you have a student with challenging behaviors possibly attributable to a disability? Many behavior dilemmas can be prevented or eliminated once you identify the “trigger”. Take a sheet of paper and create 3 columns. In the middle column, note the undesirable behavior. To the left, describe events preceding the incident, and to the right note what happened after or in response. Keep an ongoing log for recurring behaviors. Journaling the behaviors and surrounding facts will either help to identify the cause or serve as the starting point for solution-oriented conversations with parents.
  • For a student unable to do all the same activities as their peers, write down two possible action steps to help them experience a sense of belonging inside the ministry.
  • Identify a knowledgeable person in your community whom you can approach to ask for guidance related to special needs inclusion. Write down their name and contact information. Good sources include:
    • Speech language pathologists
    • Occupational therapists
    • Pediatric physical therapists
    • Special education teachers
    • Social workers

Stay tuned for more in this series, as we address questions like, “Is it ever okay not to include a student?” And “How do I handle other kids, or other kids’ parents, who complain about the effect of special needs kids on themselves/their kids?


[2] The possible cause(s) behind the surge in autism is the subject of much debate and research.


You Get What You Are

Modeling Sticky Faith

Shares Sep 01, 2014

This article is adapted from chapter two of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.  To find out more about this book or our new video curriculum for parents, please visit

“I’m Kah-wa Powell.”

What our youngest child, Jessica, lacked in pronunciation of the letter r, she made up for in her gusto for pretending to be me. Every day for two months, she plunged into my bedroom closet, grabbed as many items as her five-year-old fists could carry, and then wore them over her own clothing. Her favorite items were my black leather boots, an orange blouse, a turquoise scarf (trust me, it isn’t as eighties as it sounds), a gold linen dinner jacket (okay, that is as eighties as it sounds), and a wool hat.

Regardless of how you evaluate her fashion sense, if you saw her walk around our house, you’d see that she had a sixth sense for imitating me. Stumbling awkwardly in boots that were twice her size, she’d grab my briefcase on wheels and stride across our wood floors, proclaiming to all other family members, “I’m Kah-wa Powell.”

It was even more adorable than it sounds.

It got less adorable when Jessica started imitating facets of my parenting. She’d stand in our living room, wag her finger at an invisible daughter and sternly warn, “Jessica, you need a better attitude.”

Imaginary Jessica didn’t seem to improve. My daughter’s remedy? More wagging of the finger, mixed with, “Jessica, go to your room.”

Sometimes she’d invite friends to join in the dress-up play. Jessica was always “Kah-wa Powell,” and the friend was usually talked into being “Jessica.” What did they do together? Play cards? Color at the kitchen table?

Nope. “Jessica” usually spent most of her time on the couch, receiving a lecture from “Kah-wa Powell”.

One Friday afternoon, another mom and I were invited to watch a “play” that the two five-year-olds had created. In this play, there were no fairies, doggies, or princesses. The “story” (if you’ve watched your five-year-old child’s plays, you know that the quotes are warranted) revolved around my daughter playing me and giving her “daughter” a grim lecture.

The other mom and I laughed (somewhat awkwardly) at the scene. But long after the other family walked down our driveway, one question sat on the front steps of my heart: Was that my daughter’s primary picture of me?

Jessica mirrored to me a posture and a tone of voice that was everything I didn’t want to be as a mom. As she acted out her version of how I corrected her, I knew I was the one who needed correcting.

3 Sticky Findings

As our team has surveyed others’ research on family faith as well as analyzed our own studies of over 500 teenagers and 50 parents, we have identified three “Sticky findings” that are important for parents who want to model vibrant faith in front of their children and teenagers.

Finding #1:  We Will Get What We Are

After studying the faith development of more than three thousand young people nationwide from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon families, Christian Smith and his team concluded, “The best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children’s most likely religious outcomes is this: ‘We’ll get what we are.’” 1  As important as this guide’s other ten factors are in building Sticky Faith families, the reality is that in general, the primary influence in a child’s faith trajectory is his or her parents.

As with all research, please take this with a grain of salt. Or even a mountain of grains of salt. You might have a very different faith journey than your parents’. You might have multiple kids who are choosing different faith paths themselves.

While there is no foolproof formula, in integrity as a researcher I need to be clear: your strategy for developing a Sticky Faith family starts by assessing the vibrancy of your own faith.

Finding #2:  We Will Get What Our Kids Think We Are

Here’s something fascinating. As important as our faith lives are in influencing our kids, multiple studies of teenagers indicate that more important than what parents believe is what teenagers perceive they believe. 2 3

When I was a high school student, our youth pastor decided to make the focus of one of our Wednesday night meetings this question: If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

To my surprise (and dismay), I was one of the three students picked to be on trial. Friends of mine from youth group then gave testimonies about both my character and my behaviors. I remember sitting on a grey plastic chair in the front of our youth room, palms sweating and heart pounding, wondering if there was going to be enough evidence to convict me.

There was. In my opinion, barely.

Because that sort of mock trial can easily become emotionally manipulative and guilt producing, I don’t recommend trying this at your home church. But given the research on Sticky Faith families, I hope you reflect on this question: If I were on trial for being a Christian, what evidence could my kids offer to convict me?

Finding #3:  There Are Many Ways to Build and Model Sticky Faith in Front of Your Kids

As we interviewed parents who had developed enduring faith in their kids, this theme emerged: they made the cultivation of their own faith a priority.

While that was a nearly universal goal, there were no universal steps parents took to make that goal a reality. Each parent seems to find their own channel to stay in tune with Jesus.

Some hold traditional “quiet times,” often in the morning before children are looking for breakfasts and backpacks.

Others prefer to journal in the evenings while kids are sleeping or studying.

Some like to sit.

Others feel closer to God while moving—while jogging, walking, gardening, or even driving.

Some need quiet.

Others prefer the stimulation of a good sermon or great worship music, or even the background noise of a coffee house or the morning bus commute.

The length, location, and posture of parents’ time with God varies. What is constant is their recognition that regular (generally daily) time with God needs to be a priority in their schedules.

Sticky Ideas

In order to understand how creative families are embodying these three findings, we interviewed 50 amazing parents nationwide. Their ideas inspired and encouraged us, and we hope they do the same for you. Here are just a few:

Same Time, Same Place

Of the parents we interviewed, the majority were most successful in carving out time with the Lord when they found a consistent rhythm.

Same time.

Same place.

Every day. Or at least most days.

Even if it wasn’t daily, it was consistent. One busy executive found it challenging to carve out time with the Lord on weekdays, so he spent an hour reading the Bible and praying first thing every Saturday morning. While he wished he spent such focused time with God more frequently, he rarely missed his Saturday routine.

Personally, I double my chances of working out if I plan the day before when I’ll make it to the gym. I triple those chances if I put on workout clothes as soon as I get out of bed.

For many Sticky Faith parents, identifying a consistent time and place similarly increases the likelihood of developing their spiritual muscles.

A Running Conversation with Jesus

While regularly scheduling time to pray, read Scripture, and meditate is hard, I find a second practice of some parents even more challenging. And convicting.

Several parents we interviewed found great spiritual strength by maintaining a regular conversation with Jesus. They would comment that they “pray all the time” and maintain a “regular conversation with Jesus” in the midst of work and family responsibilities.

As one parent described, “Whatever happens during my day, I keep my conversation going with the Lord.”

Some parents find that praying some or all of the “daily office” of fixed-hour prayer (common in Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions) helps pace their day with “God pauses.” Whether on their smartphone or in a book, these excerpts from scripture and the prayers of others can be a catalyst for ongoing conversation with God.

In talking with these parents, I don’t sense that they do this because it’s merely a good idea. To them, it’s like a spiritual oxygen mask, helping them stay calm and breathe when they hit turbulence.

A Day a Quarter

Cliff, a dad of two teenagers, has found he connects with God best when he isn’t rushed or preoccupied with his next meeting. So Cliff sets aside a day each quarter as his time away with God. Grabbing his Bible, a few books, and a lunch, he heads to a nearby park, lake, restaurant, or friend’s vacant house for the day. (Cliff lives in Minnesota, so the time of year makes a big difference in where he holes up.) These quarterly days are Cliff’s lifeline, enabling him for the next three months to be the disciple, leader, husband, and dad that he longs to be.

Praying with Your Calendar

If your calendar seems too full for any of these ideas, perhaps prayer itself is the solution. Abigail, a mom with college-age sons, has found that taking time to pray actually gives her more time to pray. How does that time-math work?

When Abigail prays with her calendar in front of her, the Lord often gives her a sense of what is most important. As a result, she inevitably eliminates some of the items crowding her to-do list. Prayer helps Abigail become more able to identify those tasks that can wait, or even better, don’t need to be done at all.

Community as a Portal for Spiritual Growth

Many parents we interviewed mentioned the catalytic role of others in their own spiritual growth—particularly close friends, mentors, and fellow members of Bible studies or small groups. When parents’ frustration or fatigue makes them blind to God’s vision for their lives or families, it’s often others who show them the way.

As with other ideas that further spiritual growth, these relationships almost always take planning. One single parent makes double dinner every Wednesday night, carefully placing extra plates in the refrigerator with her kids’ names on them, so she can make it to her Thursday night small group. That additional work is worth the payoff that comes from spiritually rubbing shoulders with other women every week.

Our Family’s Steps toward Sticky Faith

Take a few moments on your own, or with your spouse, your friends, or your small group, to reflect on some potential next steps toward Sticky Faith.

Sticky Findings

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being “we stink at this” and 5 being “we rock at this”), rate your family on the research findings shared above.

1.     I myself have the vibrant faith I hope my kids will have as adults.

        1          2          3          4          5

2.     My kids observe me living out my faith in our home and community.

        1          2          3          4          5

3.     I make the cultivation of my faith a priority in my schedule.

        1          2          3          4          5

Sticky Ideas

1.     What are you already doing that is helping you model faith in front of your kids?


2.     Given your ranking of the findings in the previous section, as well as the ideas you’ve read in this chapter, what one or two changes might you want to make in your family?


3.     What can you do in the next few weeks or month to move toward these changes?


  1. Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 57. The importance of parental example is confirmed in a number of studies, including Pam E. King and Ross A. Mueller, “Parental Influence on Adolescent Religiousness: Exploring the Roles of Spiritual Modeling and Social Capital,” Marriage and Family: A Christian Journal 6:3 (2003): 401–13.
  2. W-N. Bao, D. H. Whitbeck, D. Hoyt, and R. C. Conger, “Perceived Parental Acceptance as a Moderator of Religious Transmission among Adolescent Boys and Girls,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 362–74.
  3. L. Okagaki and C. Bevis, “Transmission of Religious Values: Relations between Parents’ and Daughters’ Beliefs,” Journal of Genetic Psychology 160 (1999): 303–18.

EXCLUSIVE interview with danah boyd

What you wish you knew about teens and digital media

Shares Aug 21, 2014 Art Bamford

EXCLUSIVE interview with danah boyd

What you wish you knew about teens and digital media

Art Bamford

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people. Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People.

If you’ve been around teenagers very long, you’ve probably found yourself scratching your head more than once about young people and digital media. What’s going on here? What does it all mean? Even the most tech-savvy adult can find it hard to keep up or comprehend.

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing danah boyd, author of the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. (read FYI’s initial review of the book.) boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, a Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Fortune magazine nicely summed up boyd’s substantial resume by calling her “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet." 1

With that in mind, our hope was to draw from boyd’s expertise and provide some additional insights that relate more directly to Christian parents and youth leaders. We were pleased to find that a lot of what boyd had to say resonated strongly with the stories and strategies FYI has shared through this series, and in our new book The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.


Fuller Youth Institute: A lot of parents and leaders ask us about how to help young people set better boundaries with digital media. What have you learned about how teens and families navigate this?

danah boyd: When parents are looking for limits, I start by asking: why? Are they trying to limit their child’s sociality? Most do not think of it in those terms but that’s what the limiting often creates for youth. Youth aren’t avoiding face-to-face; they’re going online because true, non-surveilled face-to-face is rarely an option. 

I also find that many parents hate when phones are seen as a disruption, but are completely unable to check their own practices around this. So many teens that I meet complain that their parents place restrictions on their technology use that they don’t abide by.

Teens are fully aware of when their parents are being hypocrites. So my advice to parents is to start by collectively constructing household rules that *everyone* (parents and children) agree to. This is so much more productive when negotiated as a household, not top-down.


FYI: What do you see as the biggest disconnect between how parents think about media and technology as compared to their teens?

DB: I get very frustrated when parents – and other adults – focus on the technology because it’s the thing that is new, rather than putting teens’ technological practices in context. Teens aren’t turning to technology because it’s inherently attractive. They’re doing so because it’s the one way that they have to connect with their friends in a culture in which we’ve placed heavy restrictions on teens’ mobility and social opportunities.

With this in mind, my first advice to parents is: step back and try to appreciate your kids’ practices in the broader context of their lives. Most youth are trying to find their way in this world and it doesn’t help when parents get all judge-y.

The second thing that I’d advise parents is to build a wide support structure for their kids, including other trusted adults they can turn to and a strong parent-child communication framework rooted in trust and respect.


FYI: What do you wish more adult youth leaders (pastors, coaches, extracurricular instructors) would talk about with young people regarding how they use social media and digital technology and the common issues that arise?

DB: From my perspective, the key is for youth leaders not to focus on the technology but to help young people work through the struggles that are very much shaped by their age, status, and position in society.

When technology enters the picture, it’s often what makes teens’ struggles very visible. I often think back to the amazing work by Jane Jacobs where she highlighted how safety isn’t about law enforcement, but about a collective willingness to pay attention to everyone around us. 2

I wish that adult youth leaders would be willing to enter teens’ networked lives when they’re invited to do so and be respectful of what they find. But when it comes to talking with them, the key is to get beyond the technology and get to the root of what’s happening. It starts by neither fearing technology nor presuming it to be the center of everything. It’s simply that which mirrors and magnifies everyday life.


FYI: Roughly one-third of the sample group of teenagers in your research self-identified as Christian (Protestant or Catholic). Generally speaking, did anything stand out to you about the Christian teens you interviewed?

DB: To be honest, not really. By and large, they struggled with the same issues as non-Christian youth, although they sometimes narrated their struggles in religious terms. For example, one young woman I met explained to me that bullying was not an issue at their school because it was a Christian school. And yet, she proceeded to tell me all about the various rumors, gossip, and drama that ensued—unable to recognize that this was precisely what many adults meant when they used the term bullying.

I did find that religious teens often had a wider variety of non-school social connections and were more likely to have a non-parent adult that they could turn to, but this applied to all religious youth, not just Christian youth. There’s no doubt that the church can and often does provide teens with a critical support structure, and this is very important.


FYI: A lot of churches and ministries have been trying to integrate social media into both their marketing and outreach, and their teaching curriculum materials for young people. Are there any best practices you might recommend with regards to using it more effectively in either of those respects? Any common pitfalls leaders should avoid?

DB: I get why folks want to use social media to market to youth, but youth want social media to be their own. Valuable marketing occurs when youth pull on something that’s created by ministries and make it their own, not when it’s simply broadcast out.

Thus, my advice would be to focus on creating media that teens can appropriate, remix, or otherwise engage in and see what clicks based on what they choose to share. But above all else, don’t try to be “cool” by directly targeting youth. Work with youth to co-create this stuff. That is the core of authenticity for them.


FYI: Youth ministries devote a lot of time to service projects and helping those in need. In your experience, what are some good ways to get young people active and more meaningfully involved with causes they care about online?

DB: There are two paths in which young people typically get involved with service-oriented and activist work – 1) it’s normative  3 in their communities; or 2) they personally develop an interest in the work.

The former used to be driven by religious organizations, but is now dominated by collegiate expectations that applicants have done such work. This has distorted participation in service and social justice work in problematic ways. The latter, developing a personal interest in the work, used to be more rare and harder to find. This was, in part, because even if a teen had an interest in, for example, an environmental cause, finding a way to engage deeply was difficult at best if it wasn’t normative in their hometown. 

Here’s where the Internet shines. Young people take their interests and find common ground, build connections and imagine how they might fit into the broader efforts. This cognitive and social work isn’t a waste of time; it’s a critical part of developing a sustainable service practice. Rather than dismissing their digital connecting around service, embrace and promote it. It’s step one. When young people are connecting online to develop passion to do service work, they’re much more likely to stay engaged than if they’re simply doing it to list it on their college application.


FYI: What are your thoughts on where things might be headed with digital technology and young people? What do you think will be the major concerns five or ten years down the road?

DB: While I expect that the specific fears and anxieties may shift, the general ones will remain. We are afraid of and for youth; we’re concerned about their sexuality, mental health, and social well-being; we worry about their status and position within this world. Whatever new technologies emerge, we will plug these into the broad concerns that we always have about young people. 

This is why I think that it’s so important to put technology into perspective. We used to be afraid of novels because we were worried that youth would disappear into fantasy worlds and be unable to connect. We feared radio, television, comic books. Each new media is feared, but the fears themselves aren’t that different. The key is to appreciate how hard it is for young people to navigate this world and appreciate their commitment to figuring it out. New technologies are part of that, but what youth need now, more than ever, is the freedom and support to explore. I worry that, in our culture of fear, we’ve done youth a significant disservice. And I’d like us to step away from fretting over technology and focus on the love and attention that teens need from us.

Our thanks again to Dr. boyd for taking time to connect with FYI. A digital version of the book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, has been made available for free to parents and youth leaders and can be downloaded here.

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance
VIA MEDIA Part 5: Cheat Codes: A Quick Guide to Teens and Video Games
VIA MEDIA Shoot to Kill: The Real Impact of Violent Video Games

  1. Ones to Watch: Danah Boyd <>
  2. See: Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. Random House LLC.
  3. This term is used a lot in academic circles and refers to how what we are exposed to growing up we then assume and take for granted as being the normal way of doing things.

Survive The Summer Playlist: 10 Free Resources

Shares Jun 17, 2014

Photo by Chris Martin.

Whether you’re already a few weeks into the summer rhythm or just getting your toes wet, we’ve compiled a playlist you can return to again and again for ideas to boost your ministry this summer.

1. The best family summer ever

Ideas to help families connect before summer slips away.

2. Help parents create a summer technology covenant with their teenagers

Here are a few samples you can pass along.

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. Beyond Camp-As-Usual

Sticky Faith approaches to more intentional camps and retreats.

5. How do you help faith stick beyond camp?

Programs end, but practices don’t have to.

6. Sticky Faith camp ministry ideas from camp leaders themselves

Six ideas you might not have thought about.

7. Three ideas for improving your camp experience this summer

If you still need more camp encouragement!

8. Taking the pastor to camp

This idea rocks.

9. Twenty Ideas for Grandparents

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

10. Parenting strategies for launching kids into adulthood

One to share with parents of recent grads and rising seniors over the summer. And actually, here’s part two as well.


Start thinking about ministry planning for next year! This free sample from our Sticky Faith Launch Kit can help you rethink your volunteer training rhythm.


Like this playlist? Here are 20 more ideas for transition season!

Teens Building Assets in Their Own Communities

A Case Study of School Gardens

Shares Jun 02, 2014 Mary Glenn

Photo by Ciaran Cuffe.

As Jesse looked around at his community, he saw both problems and potential.

Like many communities, there were concerns rising about issues like teen depression and potential gang activity. And like most communities, there were less opportunities for mentoring and support than there were kids who needed them.

The faith community, school district, and local nonprofits for the most part remained siloed in their separate approaches to address kids’ needs.

There must be a better way, Jesse thought. The solution that emerged out of his own passion was Community gardens.

As the Executive Director of Kingdom Causes Alhambra/Monterey Park, a local community-mobilizing ministry focused on capacity building, Jesse Chang began to partner with others to plant community gardens on school properties in neighborhoods within his city. In close connection with the school district (about half of whose students qualify for free or reduced lunches), local leaders were matched with students in order to build collaborative gardening projects that would support both students and their neighborhoods.

There’s a Chinese Proverb that suggests, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.” Jesse discovered that community gardens can be one powerful way to invest in growing students and to give them opportunities to be asset builders.

The Goal: Building Assets

Under Jesse’s leadership, four gardens have been planted in the local Alhambra Unified School District, with plans to begin two more sites in the next school year. These school gardens are a model of the impact of community gardens on asset building. Asset building is a process that focuses on the strengths of individuals and communities (rather than just looking at deficits) and builds upon those. This positive model flips the typical “glass half-full” way our society tends to look at teenagers and their situations. Rather than see more problems, an asset-building approach sees more potential.

Based on research with over three million kids, Search Institute has identified forty building blocks of healthy development known as Developmental Assets that help children and young people grow up to be healthy, caring, responsible, and engaged. Assets are grouped into “external” assets (support, empowerment, boundaries, and use of time) and “internal” assets (commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity). Through their research, Search has determined that teenagers are more likely to become healthy and engaged adults when they have an average of 27 of the 40 developmental assets in their lives as teenagers. 1

Jesse and his team of leaders focus on building the empowerment assets through the gardening project, including “community values youth,” “youth as resources,” and “service to others.” According to Jesse, the core group of engaged students has begun to demonstrate not only these outcomes, but also increased responsibility and positive identity. The vision is for the youth program to grow into an entrepreneurial business class within each school.

Planting the Seeds

There are several indicators that the students’ involvement in school gardens has increased their developmental assets. One student shared how involvement with the school gardens grew his commitment to learning. This student said, “Before the gardening class happened, my grades were sliding. But now with the garden, I am more connected to the school and my grades have improved.” Jesse reports that this particular student has grown in his self-esteem. He even agreed to speak in public forums about how involvement in the gardening project has impacted him.

Civic engagement such as service to people, the community, and the environment builds the health and well-being of students and makes communities stronger. Community gardens have been proven to serve as an onramp to this kind of service. 2

In the gardening process, students are involved in the initial planning and design, preparation of the land, planting the seedlings, and cultivating the gardens. This includes designing the space and choosing what’s planted. Through sweat and determination, students are able to literally see the fruit of their labor. Students have been surprised to see how much they actually care for the garden, and how invested they are in its success. The gardens connected them to each other as they cared for the land together.

The process of preparing, planting, and sustaining the gardens and relationships requires a long-term commitment and investment. For the school gardens planted in Alhambra and Monterey Park, the school principal has served as the gatekeeper who commissions the garden and identifies the champions in the school who will sustain the longevity of the garden as an educational and asset tool.

Jesse serves as the project coordinator. He has developed a local network of resources (of materials, funds and volunteers) in this multiethnic community that ensures the creation and maintenance of the gardens. For example, Jesse was able to contact a local tree trimming company and secure wood chips for free mulch as a gift-in-kind. It was a win-win: the garden needed the mulch and the company needed a place to donate their wood chips.

School-based models of community gardens are not the only ways to partner. For example, churches can work collaboratively to plant a garden in their neighborhood, perhaps in an underused space or even on a church campus. The key is to identify champions and committed partners.

Places to Grow

Like any collaborative project, community gardens are not without their challenges. For this particular school garden project in Alhambra, the challenges included determining how to integrate the school garden more deeply into the teaching and curriculum. Jesse notes, “While there is an intrinsic value of having a place of beauty (for example, one of the elementary schools’ classes insisted on moving their picnic bench right next to the garden), the garden still needs to be valued by the whole school community to succeed.”

In addition to school gardens, neighborhood outreach and local park community garden projects can be challenged by the determination of who will make the decisions and lead, who will be partners, and who will actually do the regular work (not to mention how the fruit of their labor is shared!). The start up phase requires commitment and investment of time by partnered leaders. There may be cultural and language barriers, as well as socioeconomic differences that create potential for misunderstanding. The initial buy-in of the various entities can be a challenging hurdle, especially securing consistent adult leadership for garden projects that depend on kids. 

In addition, sustainability is a challenge, considering budgets are tight and both students and teachers move on from one year to the next. Students may find others areas of interest or feel the demands of keeping up with schoolwork. The process of determining ongoing funding sources can cause tension. There are a number of grant opportunities available for community garden projects, but someone must be committed to seeking these out.

Benefits of Community Gardens

The benefits, however, tend to far outweigh the challenges. School staff and students take pride and joy in telling the story of “their” garden. The garden also gives them an opportunity to know where their food comes from and understand the creation process.

The outcomes from community gardening include:

  • Provision of locally-grown food
  • Increasing care for the land and civic engagement
  • People coming together around common goals and shared work
  • Students empowered by the tending and cultivation process
  • Creating places of beauty, often in spots that have been local eyesores

California poppies and stalks of Kulli Black Incan Corn have replaced barren dirt patches. Unused plots on the school grounds have become sources of sustenance and beauty. Students and teachers have been inspired to spend more time in their outdoor classroom space. They have been surprised by how the fruit of their labor is in demand by local chefs and restaurateurs.

One meta-study found that community gardens tend to boost the overall health and financial growth of a community. 3  The study concluded, “Community gardens appear to lead to increased community development, especially increased social capital. Gardens provide a space for neighbors to get to know one another and organize in support of other important neighborhood issues.” Benefits extend beyond increased neighborhood connectedness and empowerment. These gardens can actually infuse new life into the local economy. This is accomplished through job creation, on-the-job training, and development of skills and knowledge.

Participants in these studies listed “helping others” and “improved neighborhoods” as a benefit of the community garden. Other benefits included decreased racial discrimination, increase in neighborhood engagement, and lowered crime rates. Relationships in the community were strengthened as well as a sense of ownership, belonging, connectedness, and safety.

Through the work of their hands and care of the garden, teenagers can produce food for themselves and their community while learning the fundamentals of social enterprise as they sell the produce and plants they grow. They are more connected to their schools and communities, understand their value and contribution, and increase their own skill sets and experience.

God Planted a Garden

“God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasure” (Francis Bacon). Gardening is a profound activity with spiritual rhythms in which we can participate. Through the original garden (Genesis 2), God created a rhythm of life. Jesus illustrated this rhythm in the parables of the vineyard and of the farmer sowing seeds. The story of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) teaches us about the growth process and the impact of one small seed.

The act of gardening is about process as much as the end result, requiring both time and commitment. Caring for the land is a deeply spiritual exercise, with theological implications rooted in the power of place. God teaches us commitment to place by creating in a location. God’s act of creation was done on the earth, in a garden. We are reminded in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” God redeems both place and people, and he calls us to the same kind of commitment.

We plant seeds with students through investment of time and mentoring. God grows the seeds in them and brings them to full harvest. As it turns out for Jesse’s neighborhood and maybe for yours, gardening provides one more way for students to build assets and engage with their communities. 

Action Points

  1. Find out where and how you (and your youth group) might get involved in existing school and community gardens in your city/neighborhood. Check out these community gardens as examples:
  2. Find out how to start and manage a community garden. Here are a few resources:
  3. Engage students in the process of planting a church, neighborhood, or school garden. Involve them in the collaborative process of determining the objectives and outcomes as well as strategies.
  4. Check out Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets for great research and practical ideas on how to build assets in teens and also ways to help them to be asset builders in their schools and communities.

  1. For a few additional free FYI resources on asset-based ministry, see “Turning Towards Holistic Ministry,” “Unearthing the Whole Truth about Holistic Ministry,” and “Asset-Based Teaching.”
  2. The Search Institute and the University of Rochester, 2013 for the Roots of Engagement Citizenship study . The purpose of this 2013 study was to understand how youth become good citizens by identifying the developmental roots of active participation in communities and society. The study asserted that civic engagement is good for young people's well-being and functioning in other areas of life, and that youth civic participation makes communities and societies stronger.
  3. Lindsey Jones, “Improving Health, Building Community: Exploring the Asset Building Potential of Community Gardens” (Evans School Review Vol. 2, Num. 1, Spring 2012).

What Do My Students Need When Transitions Happen?

Shares May 13, 2014 Chuck Hunt

Photo by Joshua Michael.

It was the day my students exploded.

One of my most faithful and exuberant leaders announced that she was leaving. Her announcement was like letting a skunk loose in the center of a middle school dance. It stunk, and so did the rest of our team as we tried to help students understand that everything was going to be okay.

When the time came, we cried, ate cake, and did a sendoff. But none of it really addressed the loss that our team and students were feeling. Since then, I have tried to do a better job of preparing both students and staff for transitions that impact our ministry.

The Ever-Changing Ministry

As much as we are inclined to seek stability and predictability, we must be prepared for the inevitable. Essentially all ministry is transitional; once I realized that, I was able to get better at preparing people for it. In light of Sticky Faith research and curriculum, I have found it even more important to think about both student and leader transitions.

The culture of any youth ministry changes from year to year based on natural student transitions. When it comes to personnel, whether it’s the head of staff or the part-time intern, a successful change in leadership preserves both students’ and parents’ trust and allows them to adapt to new challenges with imagination and maybe even enthusiasm.

Four Strategies to Mitigate Pain and Loss in Transition

I recently had a conversation with a youth leader who was preparing to leave his position. Though it was under good circumstances, the senior pastor asked him to leave within three weeks of the announcement in order to make the goodbye “less painful,” even though the leader did not have another job and there was no plan in place to replace him. This pastor did not seem to be taking into account the relationships that the youth leader had built over time. Rushing the youth leader out the door may actually end up leading to more confusion and hurt.

Effective transition requires authentic communication about the transition and an honest look at the needs of both the leader and the students. This approach preserves trust for all involved. The Center for Strategic Planning has a great list of messages to communicate in times of change. The list includes communication about important questions like:

  • Why change?
  • What will happen if we don’t change?
  • What will it be like to change?
  • What will not change?

I would add to that list a few statements about the individual who is leaving: How will this affect my relationship with them? How can I best support them?

Here are four ideas we can focus on to help mitigate the pain of transition:

1. Help students grieve the loss without languishing in it.

Failing to acknowledge and sit with people in their grief—however great or small—will inhibit your ability to help them up. Grieving real loss is an adaptive process. Adapting means accepting the loss, defining and solving real and felt problems, and emerging from the loss by looking for the next opportunity together. 1

In our case, the leader to whom we said goodbye led a small group with students who had grown close not just to the leader, but to each other. Her leaving was difficult on that group, but we made it unbearable by simply selecting a replacement leader and announcing it to the girls. As a result, the girls shut down and disengaged. We never really allowed them the freedom to use that group as a means of grieving; instead, we carried on as though the curriculum was more important than their leader. We all lost.

2. Acknowledge the impact of leadership, with the focus on the impact (not just the leader).

The impact of relational ministry needs to “provide the context for understanding and participating in discipleship,” 2  according to youth ministry theologian Andy Root. Root explains that relationships are the tangible place where adolescents live and practice their faith. The authenticity of those relationships, not the giftedness of the leader, provides the context of discipleship. Living that out in word and in action allows the space for students to explore the shift in relationship. As we come alongside them through relational transitions, pointing to the work of Christ in us all sets us on solid ground.

3. Continue YOUR ministry, not that of the previous leader.

When the removal of leadership gifts leaves a vacuum, it is very tempting to step in and fill that hole. DON’T.

God has given you specific gifts for this ministry and you need to stay true to those gifts. 3  Allow God either to fill the void or to leave it empty. This is most important when we try to fill a relational hole.

Several years ago, I followed a friend as the leader of a youth ministry. I wanted to continue some of the things that he had done, and so I co-opted some tools that he had been using. For example, I repeated a phrase that he had often spoken to end prayers. A couple of months after he left, I got a call from my friend saying that a frustrated student had contacted him about my attempts at imitation. Needless to say, I stopped using his words.

4. Build a network of adults around every student.

One of the things we have taught in our ministry team is that while caring for students, we also live out our faith in front of and with students. That includes living out faith through the inevitable transitions in our own lives as adults.

We need to build a network of adults around students because of the nature of adult life. People change jobs, get married, or any number of other factors that may result in having to say goodbye. As Sticky Faith research pointed out, the task of connecting five adults to one student is really an invitation for that student to be in relationship with many adults. 4  One of the ways a ministry can strategically support this is to give opportunities for adults who are not regularly part of your ministry to come and tell their faith stories to students. Whether that is during large group meeting, a retreat, an event, or a small group, it’s important for students to begin to listen to the faith stories of other adults. When we did this as a series, it was amazing to see the relationships of those adults and students grow as a result of sheer exposure.

Preparing Seniors for Their Own Transition

Just as important as it is to help our leaders transition, it is perhaps even more important to prepare our students to leave our ministries. Here are a few strategies we can employ:

  1. Communicate with students about the transition to life after high school before and after they transition.
  2. Help students anticipate that change. Find opportunities for students to talk about the stresses and joys of the coming transition.
  3. Take opportunities to discuss the importance of their faith now, and help them develop a plan for pursuing faith and people of faith when they leave the ministry.
  4. Continue your ministry with them. Just because they are gone does not mean that you get to stop your relationship. Continue to reach out and encourage other adults to do the same.
  5. Most importantly, live your life and faith with them. Celebrate with enthusiasm the things that need celebrating, and allow for grief over the things that need grieving. (Here are 20 more ideas and tools for helping students during transition seasons.)

In our ministry we’ve hosted a small group for seniors that meets throughout the year to prepare for and talk about the transition. We provide a space and a context for those seniors to have honest conversations. We’ve also invited college students to speak to the group about their experiences after leaving the youth ministry, sometimes over Skype. This ends up serving a dual purpose of reconnecting with the college students as well as the seniors in the room.

Action Points

Paying attention to these transitional moments in the lives of students and leaders takes some initiative and intention on your part. Here are some questions that you might ask of yourself and of your staff:

  1. Think about the last few staff or volunteer transitions your ministry has experienced. What went well? What could have gone better?
  2. What is your current practice of transitioning students out of high school? Do your leaders know this practice well enough to articulate it? How effective has it been?
  3. Given your ministry’s existing needs and resources, what part of your transition practice would be the most important to build upon? What would success in that area look like?


  1. Heifetz, Ronald A. 1994. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 236
  2. Root, Andrew. 2007 Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books. 206
  3. Heifetz, 271.
  4. Powell, Kara E. and Chap Clark. 2011. Sticky Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 101

FYI Playlist: 20 Free Resources for Transition Season

Shares May 05, 2014

Photo by heddaselder.

It’s May. That means it’s transition season.

As a ministry leader, you’re gearing up for transitions of all kinds: one grade to the next, elementary to middle school, middle to high school, JV to varsity teams, school-year to summer ministry calendar, and perhaps the most anticipated: high school graduation.

Twenty years ago I walked across the platform in my high school gym and received my diploma. I thought I knew a lot about life—what I would study in college, where I would live, who I would marry.

I was wrong about all of those things. And probably a lot more I can’t remember.

Looking back now, what I see most is that I was overly naïve and underprepared. To some extent, no one could have helped me. But as we’ve learned over the past eight years of studying young people and listening to leaders from across North America, freshly minted grads like me could use some more clues for what’s coming.

Whether you’re thinking ahead to graduation or to other transitions or milestones coming soon, we thought we’d assemble a handful of free FYI resources you might find useful in the coming season. Then we came up with a few handfuls, so here’s twenty-five! Bookmark this one, and keep coming back this summer when you need more help.

1 Transition Prayers: A sample liturgy that my church used for back-to-school season last fall, but could easily be adapted for an end of school worship service.

2 Milestones of Faith: Creating rhythms through rites of passage across every grade of the school years. Here’s one from another church teaching 4th graders to risk. And if you’re dying for more help with crafting rituals and rites of passage, here you go.

3 Anxiety in the In-Between Stages of Our Lives: Healthy Strategies for Coping with Transitions (ideas for students and parents from a licensed therapist)

4 Sixth and Ninth-Grade Blessing Ceremonies: Ideas from a Texas church

5 What You Need to Know About Faith in College: Three ministry leaders share honestly with students about what’s coming.


6 How Do I See Myself After Graduation? A free downloadable curriculum sample to use with seniors or grads!

7 Vision Plans: One church’s unique approach to blessing graduates

8 Grad Gift Bibles with a Twist: Intrigued?

9 The Jacket: A video and discussion guide about what can happen when we treat faith like a jacket, especially when young people leave home for the first time.


10 Emergency Response Plans: Helping students prepare ahead of time for when things go downhill.

11 How Can My Struggles Help My Faith Stick? Another free curriculum sample for grads!

12 A brand-new Sticky Faith Story about Confirmation and getting adults to write down their wisdom for students. Plus this post about Confirmation, and this one with more ideas!

13 What You Need to Know about Life After Youth Group: Believe it or not, your students have no idea what life will look like beyond your care. Here’s a good discussion starter for that hard conversation.


14 Sticky Faith Deployed: Helping young people prepare for military service.

15 Grad Summer Ideas: including weekly discussions, plus posts about a senior retreat and church visit field trips.

16 How Can I Find a New Church? Free curriculum sample via Youth Specialties!

17 How Can I Manage My Life After High School? Yet ANOTHER free curriculum sample to use with grads!!

18 Out of the Nest: Tips for parents to successfully launch kids into college

19 College Transition Packages (it’s not too soon to develop a great idea for August.)

20 And finally, Don’t Send Them Off Without Leads!


Here are some not-free-but-hopefully-still-awesome resources if you have any cash left at the end of your ministry budget year!

Sticky Faith Teen Curriculum: 10 Lessons to Nurture Faith Beyond High SchoolSpecially-designed to use with juniors, seniors, and grads.

Can I Ask That? 8 Hard Questions About God & FaithA high school small group curriculum to help them face what’s coming while they’re still in community with you. We know a number of churches who are using this for their summer small group series. And oh yeah, we have a free sample of that one too.

Ministry of Presence

Being a Safe Place for Teens

Shares Apr 21, 2014 Mary Glenn

Ministry of Presence

Being a Safe Place for Teens

Mary Glenn

Photo by Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro.

Can I tell you a secret?

Will you promise not to tell anyone?

Am I safe with you?

If you’re like me, I’m guessing you’ve been asked questions like these before. Teenagers, like all of us, long to have safe places to be heard, known, and loved. But what makes students feel safe? And what does “safety” actually mean?

Providing safe places for students results in emotional well-being. Ultimately, reflecting God’s love and care for our students also helps them to feel free to be the people God has made them to be.

Students at Peace

A young person’s well-being is impacted by their environment, including their community, family relationships, and support. Research on well-being encompasses emotional, mental, and physical health as well as social competence and healthy relationships. 1  In other words, well-being is a comprehensive term that indicates wholeness, safety, rootedness, and a sense of being at peace with self, others, and God. Teenagers who know they are loved and have purpose in life feel this sense of wholeness.

But for many, that peace is elusive.

What Makes a Teenager Feel Safe to Share?

There was a knock on my office door. It was one of our ministry’s high school students. She was a youth group leader, and overall a good kid at seventeen. But she wanted to talk with me because she’d been hiding a secret.

Earlier in the year, she had fallen in with the wrong crowd. She got involved in drugs and partying, involving some choices that she now regretted. Shame and fear now consumed her. She anticipated rejection both from God and from her church family. She came to me hoping that her secret would be safe, and that I would still love and care for her. She was looking for a safe place where she wouldn’t be judged or rejected; she was looking for help with how to begin again.

The biggest enemy of safety in teenagers is insecurity among their peers. In a Girl Scouts report entitled “Feeling Safe, What Girls Say”, surveys and focus groups with girls ages 8-17 revealed girls’ primary concerns as being made fun of, being teased, and not being accepted, all ranking higher above their concern for natural disasters and their physical well-being. When they feel insecure, they don’t feel safe. When they feel unsafe, they have challenges in making decisions and have difficulty paying attention in school. The girls in the study said that people matter more than places when it comes to safety. One 16-year-old said, “It’s not where I am but who I am with that makes me feel safe.” Trusted relationships that create support and value for teens lead to a sense of emotional safety.

What’s the Impact When Teens Feel Safe? 

When young people feel protected, there are outcomes beyond “safety”. Teenagers who experience increased well-being grow in self confidence, connectedness to community, and a more authentic life. Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence identifies kids’ five emotional competencies basic to social and emotional learning that are a result of a sense of well-being:

  1. Self and other awareness: understanding and identifying feelings.
  2. Mood management: handling and managing difficult feelings.
  3. Self-motivation: being able to set goals and persevere toward them with hope.
  4. Empathy: being able to put yourself "in someone else's shoes" and show that you care.
  5. Management of relationships: handling friendships and resolving conflicts.

Our investment today with our students can reap benefits for years to come. In my own early years, my grandmother played a key role. She made sure I knew that with her I was safe and valued. She communicated this through words, prayer, and presence, which I carry with me today as an adult.

Ministry of Presence

I became a police chaplain 15 years ago while serving as a youth pastor at a local church. Police chaplains provide spiritual and emotional care for law enforcement officers and communities at large. Central to that impact is our “ministry of presence.” 

In “Toward a theology of the Ministry of Presence,” Neil Holm defines this concept as “a faith presence that accompanies each person on the journey through life.” This presence in each of us reflects God’s presence, love, and peace. Central to this ministry philosophy is the idea of “being with.” The love and presence of God is embodied as we are with the other person in their moment of crisis.

A ministry of presence can bring comfort and express care without words. Presence encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This is sacramental presence. It is a revelation of Jesus’ care and compassion through listening, being with, and affirming.

During the baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks affirmation and value over Jesus in Matthew 3:17 saying, “This is my Beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” Ministry of presence communicates the beloved value of God over each person no matter where they are on the faith journey. Ministry of presence reminds individuals that they are made in the image of God and are deeply loved by him.

Not Just a Friend: Defining and Understanding Your Role

We begin creating safe places for students by embodying the presence of Jesus. As we recognize our roles and responsibilities, these are a few key areas to think through:

  1. Understanding the nature of your relationship and the role you play. We often wear multiple hats in a relationship, including youth leader, mentor, and friend. It is imperative that we recognize our role as an adult in their life. I am not a teenager’s peer, and not just a friend.
  2. Establishing boundaries for both our students and ourselves creates expectations and responsibilities. An example of a boundary is confidentiality. If we are pastors, we are obligated by clergy confidentiality. Confidentiality means that we keep things shared in confidence, or privacy, within the context of the relationship. We also must know when to keep and when to break confidentiality. For example, in many states, adults who work with kids are generally considered mandated child abuse reporters. If a student confides that they are being abused, the adult leader is required to report the abuse. If a student threatens to take their own life or someone else’s life, the adult is required to report that information to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. We need to be careful not to make promises that we can’t and shouldn’t keep. Understanding your church/organization and state regulations about confidentiality (and how to limit liability) is a necessity and will create safe boundaries both for you and for the students.

A few years ago, one of the students in my youth group called me late in the evening. She had been abused by a parent, had run away, and now wanted me to come pick her up. She wanted me to create a safe place for her. She also wanted me to keep her secret. However, this was a secret I could not keep. As a mandated reporter of child abuse, I had to file a report to the Department of Children and Family Services. For her well-being, my own sense of ethics, and the requirements of the law, confidentiality did not apply here. I was obligated to report the abuse, a decision that may have initially left her feeling betrayed, but in the end reflected me being a safe place. (For more information about determining if an adult is a mandated reporter in a particular state, please see

Ways to Create Safe Spaces for Students

Parents and Caregivers

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there are several ways parents create emotionally and spiritually safe places for their teenagers, beyond providing a safe and loving home environment:

  • Create an atmosphere of honesty, trust and respect.
  • Allow age-appropriate independence and assertiveness.
  • Develop a relationship that encourages a teen to talk when he or she is upset.
  • Teach responsibility for teen's belongings and others’.
  • Teach basic responsibility for household chores.
  • Teach the importance of accepting limits.

Youth Leaders and Mentors

As youth leaders and those committed to the well-being of young people, there are many things we can do to create safe places for students, including:

  • Use your observation skills (paying attention to what they say/do and don’t say/do), utilize active listening, ask thoughtful questions.
  • Discuss issues honestly, creating an environment that breeds authenticity and respect.
  • Help students to walk through crisis situations, questions, and general teenage struggles, pointing them toward positive ways to move forward (i.e. conflict resolution skills, increasing their emotional and social competencies, and positive self image.)
  • Keep your commitments to them, but don’t make promises that you can’t keep.
  • Do not try either to fix or to judge their pain and suffering.
  • As appropriate, share your own struggles and stories with students; this will create trust and credibility.

One of the most important things we can say and do to help a young person feel safe and secure is to remind them of their core identity as God’s beloved son or daughter (Matthew 3:17). Knowing who they are will significantly shift their perspective and sense of emotional safety. Praying this truth over them, speaking it to them, and treating them in this way will reinforce that they are more than the world around them might say.

Action Points

  1. Identify, assess, and nurture your “ministry of presence” with students. What skills and strengths do you bring to this role? What might you need to develop further?
  2. Become familiar with your church/organization and state requirements and expectations regarding confidentiality, as well as policies about being alone with students or allowing them into your home or vehicle. Communicate these boundaries as needed to students.
  3. Share your own story and lessons you have learned or are learning with students; this will help to cultivate safety, credibility, and trust.
  4. Evaluate ways to make yourself and your team more available to your students. Look at other examples of how to create safe spaces and community. Read Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart, rich with examples of how to create safe places for young people in danger.

Can You Doubt Too Much? An Interview with John Ortberg

Shares Apr 07, 2014

Photo by Willow Creek D/CH.

This article is part of a series celebrating the release of our newest Sticky Faith curriculum resource, Can I Ask That? Co-author Jim Candy caught up with his mentor John Ortberg, a popular author, speaker, and senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, to ask him about the role of questioning in faith. Ortberg is the author of Know Doubt and a host of other books.

JIM: Ok, first question. Why are doubt and questioning important to faith development?  

JOHN: Doubt and questioning are critical to faith development because young people need to make the faith their own. They can’t simply inherit or adopt it from their parents or other family members. It’s very important for churches to understand that faith cannot be conjured up by an act of the will. A young person’s sense of certainty about faith is a result of studying, learning and pondering. It’s not something that happens just by direct effort.

JIM: Got it. So can you doubt or question God too much?  

JOHN: Well, my friend Dallas Willard used to say, “We should ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads.”  So I don’t think it’s possible to sincerely ask questions or follow trails we don’t understand too much. It’s a very good thing to do.

However, we are not just computers or machines. Our thoughts are tied to feelings and our desires, and it’s certainly true that we all have a vested interest in what we want to believe. Some people want to believe in God and so they are more likely to do so. Others don’t want to believe in God and they are more likely not to do so.

If my behavior is lined up in a way that makes me not want to believe in God because I don’t want to be accountable to him, then I’m likely to have more doubts. They aren’t doubts that simply reflect intellectual processes; they reflect the behavioral pre-commitments I have already made. Discerning with folks when wrong behavior or flat-out sin is producing doubt, as opposed to the process of sincere questioning, is one of the most pastoral functions for church leaders.

JIM: Ok, but then how does the Church decide what challenging issues are critical to agree on and which issues leave us room to disagree?

JOHN: Well historically the church has laid out what beliefs are most central by way of creeds, and that’s one of the reasons why creeds can be helpful. When it comes to faith, we want to focus on the beliefs that are most central and make the largest difference to our lives. 

Does God exist? Is there a Trinity of mutual self-giving love that is at the core of reality? Do the Scriptures properly understood and interpreted give us unique knowledge about this God? It’s very important for the church to help young people understand which claims are most central to faith, and what issues are just controversial and hotly contested, but don’t rise to the level of creedal affirmations.

JIM: Right, but even though there is agreement in certain areas, do you think there are ways young people are being left unprepared for faith when they leave high school?

Young people are all too often leaving high school without the deepest, most thoughtful, most reflective views of the Christian faith on critical questions. Science in particular is an area where young people are often given not only bad science, but also very often bad interpretations of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis.

Young people need to have close relational connections with folks they know and trust. A great deal of the preparation of the mind doesn’t involve just “the right answers.” It involves a relationship with somebody before whom a young person can muse, reflect, express doubts, and be able to think things out themselves. There is simply no substitute for being able to think for yourself.

JIM: Right, but that's pretty scary for some people. Can churches help? How do you think churches should be addressing controversial issues of the day with young people?

JOHN: I think the church ought to be asking young people, “What are your main questions?”  

We then ought to bring folks in who are able to speak into those questions fairly, accurately, and civilly. At our church a couple of weeks ago, we actually had a worship service where representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Secularism, Judaism and Christianity each described what their own faith tradition believes about central questions so that people in our church could hear them directly. Too often, non-Christian views end up being portrayed inaccurately or even caricatured by people inside the church. People inside the church may have good intentions when they do this, wanting to reaffirm students’ faith, but ultimately, a failure to listen to or accurately represent another viewpoint will undermine faith because people will be led into doubts when they realize they have been misled. Controversial issues ought to get an even-handed hearing in the church.

Join the Conversation: #CanIAskThat?