Fuller Youth Institute


Photo by Chris Martin.

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

1. The best family summer ever

Practical ideas for making a family summer plan together.

2. Get help navigating technology with your kids

Learn how to navigate technology with your family.

3. Using social media to strengthen family bonds

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

4. Twenty Ideas for Grandparents

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

5. Parenting strategies for launching kids into adulthood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Special deal for leaders who do premarital counseling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by paul.

How do I know if he’s depressed or if this is just normal teenage behavior?

This mom could no longer tell the difference between teen angst and moodiness and something more serious. She brought her son to my counseling office and asked the question that echoes concerns I’ve heard from parents through the years, both as a therapist and a ministry leader.

Under this mom’s concern is the fear many parents have when it comes to the issue of depression and teenagers: Am I going to miss something crucial in their mental health which could lead to serious consequences?

This is a good instinct, because like many issues related to mental health, there are two really important factors that frequently obscure the true nature of what is going on: First, depression itself can be somewhat tricky to diagnose, not to mention deciding what type of depression is at hand. Second, there are cultural contexts in which talk of depression (like that of anxiety) brings about lots of shame and guilt, often driving those who suffer from it underground in order to avoid any stigma.

Discerning depression

Most parents can paint a picture that describe their teenager’s behavior as (though not limited to) moping around the house, spending inordinate amounts of time alone in their room, seeming emotionally short-fused in verbal tone and responses, and generally refusing to engage in family activities. These are some of the things that often stand out when concerns begin to creep up about depression.

The problem, of course, is that most of us can recall times in our adolescent years when we mimicked similar behavior, and we may have not been depressed. I vividly remember a time when I was about 17 years old and my dad sat me down and told me that it felt like they were running a hotel and restaurant for me and that I showed little desire to engage with the rest of the family. Was I depressed? Possibly. But I was also 17 and in the midst of significant transitions in my life surrounding school, identity/relationship/faith formation, not to mention all the changes in brain development.[[For a helpful reference on teen brain development and its implications on everyday behavior, see Dan Siegel, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (New York: Penguin, 2014).]]

So how do we understand depression at work in the lives of our teenagers?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America write that:

“Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general. When these feelings last for a short period of time, it may be a case of ‘the blues.’

But when such feelings last for more than two weeks and when the feelings interfere with daily activities such as taking care of family spending time with friends, or going to work or school, it’s likely a major depressive episode."[[Anxiety and Depression Association of America: http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression]]

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that “About 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18"[[National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/depression-in-children-and-adolescents.shtml]]and that in the past it was thought that young people actually couldn’t suffer from true clinical depression. But today we know so much more about depression. The NIMH reports, “We now know that youth who have depression may show signs that are slightly different from the typical adult symptoms of depression. Children who are depressed may complain of feeling sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent or caregiver, or worry excessively that a parent may die. Older children and teens may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative or grouchy, or feel misunderstood."[[National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml]]

When you look at the research on depression and its symptoms, you will find a list that runs across organizations and resources like the NIMH, ADAA, and the DSM. Some of the symptoms of depression that you might notice in your teenager include:

  • persistent feeling of being sad or anxious, or describing themselves as feeling “empty”.
  • a loss of interest in activities that your teenager used to find pleasurable like a particular hobby, sport, or time with friends.
  • change in eating habits (not eating/overeating) and sleeping habits (inability to sleep/sleeping a lot).
  • describing themselves in ways that are shaming, as well as talking about feeling worthless and helpless.
  • decreased level of energy and fatigue, and an inability to concentrate on tasks or make decisions.
  • change in mood (irritability, irrationality, etc.)
  • thoughts and talk of suicide.
  • physical issues such as aches and pain, or digestive issues that don’t seem to go away.

If you are a parent or work with teenagers it can be difficult to determine the difference between “normal” teenage behavior and a teenager who is depressed. Back to my story above, when I was 17 and my dad confronted me about my behavior, was I depressed? I had always excused that phase as some type of adolescent angst, until I began to work more on my own family of origin issues (specifically the death of my mom when I was 11 due to breast cancer) as well as learning more about depression. I’m now convinced I actually was pretty depressed at that stage of my life, but the resources and tools were not available then to help those around me make discerning decisions about what I was going through.

So when you wonder about depression and teenagers, you may find it helpful to ask yourself a couple of questions:

1) Do the behaviors I am witnessing deviate from the typical and “normal” behaviors of this teenager?

2) Has there been some recent event that might be related to this change in behavior and mood in this teenager?

Once you can answer these questions, a few follow-ups help the process of discerning what to do next:

1) Is this behavior some form of depression brought on by the onset of something such as the death of a loved one, a rejection by a close friend, or failing to get onto the team or into the school they had hoped for?

2) Is this behavior a part of their personality?

3) Have I always thought this was part of their personality, but could be a form of long-term depression? In my own teenage story, what was probably seen as some quiet and withdrawn personality trait or some form of teen angst was probably an ongoing struggle with depression that was being masked.

As a therapist these questions often help me formulate some type of possible diagnosis so that I may begin to know what steps to take next. But sometimes I have a hard time knowing what to do next. If you find yourself unsure of what the next steps are for you, this is when I would recommend that you seek out professional help.

What can we do to help?

Depression, like talk of suicide, is one of those mental health issues that many people find overwhelming. It’s easy to feel helpless. I believe we all can utilize a specific set of skills that can be helpful to those teenagers around us suffering from depression.


One of the worst things we can do to someone who is suffering with depression is to judge them. When someone is depressed they are already wrestling with feelings of worthlessness and shame, and further judgment only perpetuates this shame cycle and drives the person further into hiding. Often people look at those with depression and think, “If they just do this … or that,” but what we fail to realize is that depression can have a decimating effect on even basic actions like eating, sleeping, exercising, and prayer.

Instead, work towards approaching those with depression with empathy and compassion. Ask yourself the question, “What do I need to do to get in their shoes and see things from their perspective?” These forms of understanding defuse judgment and make it safe for the person with depression to come out of isolation and hopefully engage in a way that is life giving.

Unfortunately, one of the more unsafe places for teenagers to talk about their depression has been in the Christian community, which has historically been stuck in all kinds of unfortunate stigmas related to mental health. I have voiced my concerns before about the perception of depression in the Christian community[[See “Christian and Depressed,” Relevant Magazine, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/whole-life/christian%E2%80%94and-depressed.]], but we have a long way to go still.


Depression is multi-faceted and needs a very robust approach. If you know a teenager struggling with depression, I recommend that you keep your options open and explore all kinds of possible treatment. Pastoral caregiving, professional counseling, and psychiatric medication could all be helpful at different times, as well as looking at various aspects of self-care and the young person’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives.

Begin by engaging that teenager in a non-judging way to best determine what they may need. In my experience, some teenagers navigate through depression in a healthy way because there is someone present in their life who cares about them. Sometimes a teenager may need the safe space of counseling for a few months to work through depression, and other times playing pick-up basketball with a friend may do the trick. The point is that not one size fits all, and it’s helpful to experiment with different approaches and see what works.


One of the most powerful transforming agents in the life of someone who is struggling with depression is the healing presence of someone else. A presence that is non-judging, compassionate and empathetic, and willing to just be with the person suffering from depression. Too often we find ourselves wanting to try to do something to fix the person who is depressed, when one of the only things we can really offer is our ability to sit with them. I believe that one of the reasons people struggle to be with someone they know who suffers from depression is because it bumps up against their own feelings of inadequacy and inability to find a quick fix.

In his beautiful book Let Your Life Speak, [[Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Jossey-Bass. 1999. Also see http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/.]]educator Parker Palmer talks quite vulnerably about his own seasons of depression. He notes that one of the most helpful things he experienced was a friend who was willing just to be present. Palmer talks about how this friend asked permission to come by every day at four o’ clock in order to take off Palmer’s shoes and massage his feet. In an interview with On Being host Krista Tippett, Parker states:

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.[[http://www.elissaelliott.com/the-spiritual-dimension-of-depression/]]

An Opportunity for Growth

I know few teenagers who escape adolescence without some brush with depression. The teenage years are full of difficult transitions, broken relationships, peer pressure, struggles at home, school and work, which make that time of life a ripe environment for depression to take root.

Ultimately, I believe one of the best things we can offer a teenager who is struggling with depression, is the opportunity to help them see their pain and suffering as a catalyst for growth in their lives. But it is a journey they can’t enter into on their own, and you may be that trusted guide they are needing and wanting.

Action Points

  • Is there a teenager in your home or your ministry who is showing signs of depression? Check the list in the “Discerning depression” section above and think about whether those signs exist in ways that are becoming disruptive to everyday life.
  • Think about ways to talk with your teenager in a non-judgmental and non-threatening posture about what is going on, and offer to help or to seek help. Try to identify someone they can go to who they already trust to talk with about this, if they don’t want to talk to you.
  • As Rhett suggests, consider a cluster of support that addresses depression from multiple angles rather than assuming one counseling session or prescription will resolve the issue. Locate and talk with other parents whose children have suffered from depression, and other adults who face depression themselves. Ask them what helps, what doesn’t, and what resources in your community might be particularly useful.

Photo by battle14

It all happened in the same week. My mentor in youth ministry (who also happened to be my boss) was called to serve at another church. And a student attempted suicide.

I was out late three nights in a row running youth events and going to meetings. Those three nights were my weekend.

Then Monday came, and I went right back to work.

That week happened over six years ago, but I remember it well. I remember thinking that I could not wait to get it all as far as behind me as possible. Plus, I was a youth pastor. Youth pastors have a special, God-given ability to bear heavy burdens and keep up to speed... right?

Maybe I didn’t know how to reflect on and grieve those losses. Or maybe it was just avoidance.

The truth is, what I experienced that week was intense. I experienced a lot of loss. There was emotional loss, physical loss, relational loss, and more. I am not alone in experiencing these losses as a youth pastor. We sit with students and their families in their stuff all week. It often can feel like too much to deal with our own stuff too. It can be easier to just ignore our losses and start planning the next talk or retreat.

The majority of youth ministry programming is now almost completely “downloadable.” From youth talks to inspiring videos and game ideas, the majority of that stuff is just one click away. What is not downloadable is caring for the soul of the youth pastor. It does not matter if you are just starting out in student ministry or if you have been doing this for over thirty years, self- and soul-care will always be challenging for us. We have to practice self-care, and part of that is naming and facing our losses.

Naming Our Losses

Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, pastoral care experts, identified six primary losses that most pastors experience. [1] Working from this list, I surveyed fifteen youth pastors of varying age and experience in order to get a snapshot of how these losses resonate with everyday youth ministry leaders. What I found was that the survey became a safe place for youth pastors to unload their grief. The research suggests that loss is a serious issue for pastoral leaders, and that our losses are seldom addressed.

Role Loss

Seventy-five percent of the youth pastors I surveyed spent the majority of their reflection on role loss.

One of the most common experiences for the young adult youth pastor is finding community for themselves. A lot of youth pastors stand in a generational gap in their church community and find it difficult to develop close friendships in the church that are differentiated from their role in the community as youth pastor. This situation adds to the difficulty for many youth pastors to maintain spiritual life in their own community.

When I attended social functions with families from the church, I often found myself surrounded by teenagers because they knew I was the only adult who would not ignore them. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to engage in meaningful conversations with other adults.

The fact of the matter is that as youth pastors, we spend the majority of our time with youth. It is common to find ourselves feeling isolated from peers our own age as well as the greater church body.

Pastors in general struggle with isolation, role conflict, inability to trust on some levels - all of this leads to lack of community.

Not only is the youth pastor’s ministry to the church public, often our private lives are more public than desired. We have to think twice about where, when and how we go off the clock in our communities. As one leader lamented, “Everyone is watching you.”

Another possible role loss is rooted in the stereotypes often placed on youth pastors. I have heard a lot of them over the years. Youth pastors are seen as young, rowdy, uneducated, careless, full of energy, and likely to move on just when you get to know them. It can be an uphill battle to change these stereotypes, especially if the leader before you validated any of them. Stereotypes become losses leaders have to live with, grieve, and work against.

Relational Loss

Ministry leaders experience relational loss in our personal lives. Just like anyone else, we lose family members, co-workers, spouses, friends, and pets. Amidst the grief of our own losses, we must continue to be sources of support and spiritual guidance for our congregations through their seasons of loss.

Relational loss is just part of the game. It's painful, difficult, and inevitable. However, the loss of relationship could be lessened if the church would do a better job of taking care of youth ministers, giving them monetary and vocational value, and making the possibility of retaining youth ministers for a longer period of time.

While everyone experiences relational loss, there are some losses that are particular to the youth minister’s world. We lose students to graduation. We have to send them off well, honoring their time in our program while in the same breath building excitement and momentum for the new incoming class.

I often found that by the time a student was finishing high school, I was just beginning to really know them on a deep level. Then, in many cases these students left town to attend college somewhere and our relationship changed significantly.

This can often feel like losing a family pet on Monday and adopting a new one on Tuesday. Even if we said goodbye well, it still hurts.

Youth pastors can’t please everyone. We make people angry with some of our decisions, including students, parents, head pastors, and volunteer leaders.

When I had to “fire” my first small group leader… My reasons to let her go were extremely valid, but I lost her friendship and the friendship of her family in the process. The church subsequently lost a supportive family to another church down the road. My pastor was supportive, but it strained the life of the congregation. This was a painful, but real… loss.

There are a myriad of ways that youth pastors lose relationships with our students and leaders. Regardless of the reason, when a student or leader leaves, we lose a relationship in which we have invested deeply.

Loss of Identity

The youth pastor’s vocation comes with many challenges and expectations. Often there are layered and conflicting expectations from church staff, parents, and students. As one leader shared, “The expectations/disappointments that the youth pastor faces within themselves can lead to a lot of shame, guilt and further problems.” Grief experts call this “intrapsychic loss,” or the loss of hopes, dreams, and identity.

Because of all of the pressures on the leader, questions arise like, “Can I do this job for the rest of my life?”

For some, the dream of a happy marriage (or a marriage at all) and personal family life seems challenged by the call to be a youth pastor.

It is hard not to let your identity get wrapped up in the ups and downs of a student’s journey or to take their mistakes as signs of personal failure. As one leader shared:

Our spirituality becomes so enmeshed with growing the spirituality of others that we lose touch with ourselves in the process.

Our spiritual journey is not easier simply because we are pastors. We experience the complexities of the spiritual journey too. The youth pastor is often on the forefront of making theological statements about cultural issues. Students ask tough questions all the time, and we are supposed to be able to answer them. If we do not know the answer, what does that mean?

Finally, there is the loss of our own walk with God. There are weeks when we read the Bible only because we are teaching from it. There are weeks when we pray only because we lead two prayer meetings and there was prayer at the staff meeting. There are long stretches of time where we do not Sabbath… because we are too busy.

Functional Loss

This may sound surprising, but youth ministry leaders also often lose physical function. There’s the twisted ankle sustained while playing three straight hours of dodge ball. There is also the loss of staying in shape, which according to the survey is a common struggle for youth ministry leaders.

It's probably unfair for me to blame youth ministry, but I gained a lot of weight during my time as youth pastor because I didn't have the healthiest diet. Lots of pizza and ice cream bars.

It can be hard to take care of our bodies because of all of the fast food and because of our erratic calendars. Sometimes ministry schedules change dramatically from week to week. Youth events during the week are built around times that students are available, which means late nights, long weekends, and very few evenings spent at home during the workweek. These losses can directly affect our mood, our ability to sleep, and our ability to function well when we are “off the clock.”

I never felt encouraged to rest well. I always felt like my value as a youth pastor was tied to how many activities and events I was organizing.

Early in my career, because of the pressure put on me by my driven pastor, I sacrificed a lot of family time. Even though I changed my priorities, it is time I will never get back.

Functional loss may be one of the toughest losses to recover in youth ministry. As a result, this vocation has a history of burning people out … and quickly.

Systemic Loss

When I was hired on as a young youth pastor at my first full-time calling, my mentor was also on staff as a pastor. Within six months of my hiring, this close friend and boss received a call to another church over 400 miles away. After he told me, I cursed him under my breath and started praying that God would make his new job fall through… it didn’t. I had to grieve the loss of my mentor and friend, and I had to submit to new authority. My position on the church staff was never the same.

Sometimes our church staffing models and polity can be extremely frustrating. When the youth pastor disagrees with something, we often find we have little to no power, and that our voice is at the bottom of the ladder.

Our church session met on Tuesday night (when we had junior high group). As a result, I was assigned an elder who would represent the concerns of the youth ministry. During some years, the elder assigned was someone I had a close relationship with who I trusted to represent the youth ministry well. During the last few years, this was not the case, and there were several times I wish I had been able to participate in important discussions that directly affected me.

Youth pastors leave their positions. Sometimes we get fired. The process of leaving well and processing that loss can be very difficult, whatever the reason.

The one major career change I had in my life was due to being forced out of a church I had been at for almost 11 years. At the time, it was a devastating loss. I didn't know what to do with myself.

Hope in the Midst of Loss

It is important to keep in mind that loss is loss. No one can tell us how big or small our losses are, or how significant or insignificant our feelings of loss may be.

Our hope as ministry leaders is that God is present with us in our losses. When we voice our losses, it validates the real pain we experience. Finding others with whom we can be honest about our losses is one way we can begin to care for our own souls in the midst of grief. Working through our losses will grow and shape us in ways that will be obvious to our students and other leaders. Below are a few ideas to get started.

Next Steps for Youth Ministry Leaders

  1. Enter into a mindset of self-care, also known as “self-compassion.” This means acknowledging to yourself that it’s okay to give energy to your own care.
  2. Work through the types of loss named in the article and list one or two examples that come to mind for you right now for each category.
  3. Write down your feelings about these losses.
  4. Intentionally create space and time to grieve your losses. Consider inviting other trusted voices into this conversation who can hear you and grieve with you.
  5. Consider seeking out professional help from a spiritual director or a therapist.

Further Resources

[1] Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: Resource for pastoral care (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).

If you are a church ministry leader, pastor, Sunday School teacher, or small group leader, we think this resource will be perfect for you!

These five short films capture insights from the best research on family faith, as well as confessions and practical ideas from real parents like those in your group. Here are a few tips to help you set up and lead a series for parents:

1. Plan a 5-Week experience.

Depending on how much time you have available and the nature of your group, it’s possible you will want to spread out sessions every other week over 10 weeks instead. Note that the videos in sessions 1 and 5 are shorter, giving your group time to get to know each other and the topic on the front end, and then to process the series and formulate a family plan to conclude the series. Sessions can flex between 60-90 minutes depending on your context and the length of the group discussion.

2. Consider your audience.

Are you using the films within an established small group, or are you attempting to gather a new group of parents for this study? If you need to market this opportunity in your context, feel free to point parents to our website for background information (this is a good starting point), and make use of the #stickyfaithfamily hashtag. We think the films work well for parents of younger AND older kids, so feel free to cast the net wide to capture parents of young children, elementary-age kids, and teenagers. Single parents and grandparents raising grandkids should feel more than welcome. If you are not a parent, it may be wise to invite a seasoned parent or two to help lead the discussions. It will increase your credibility when you lean into the wisdom of experienced parents.

3. Watch the films ahead of time, and review the reflection questions before and after each film.

The films differ in length, and sessions 2-4 include both a dramatized story and an unscripted parent discussion. In particular, the content of Session 3 (Warm) includes a fairly intense narrative around a young adult daughter’s addictive lifestyle. You will want to prepare yourself for the kinds of emotions that may be stirred among your group during the post-film processing time.

We wrote reflection questions for each session, and created a downloadable handout that includes all of the before and after questions in a format your group can use to jot down their thoughts and capture ideas from others. Be sure to print these ahead of time for each participant. We also put the questions onscreen to facilitate group dialogue. They are geared to help participants connect the dots between the films’ insights and their own families. Guide the discussion time toward practical and implementable ideas that families can try right away.

4. You may want to link this series with a book study of The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.

While the content is not identical, a few of the book chapters line up thematically with the films, and give more research and concrete examples for families wondering how each topic plays out in other families. The content in these videos relates to chapters 1-5 in the Guide, specifically:

  • Session 1: Why—Chapter 1
  • Session 2: Mirror—Chapter 2
  • Session 3: Warm—Chapters 3-4
  • Session 4: Spark—Chapter 5

Read the full product description

The remaining eight chapters in the book could be great fodder for an ongoing group discussion on building family faith.

5. Help parents live into the uniqueness of their own kids and families.

Hearing other parents’ stories can make parents feel inferior about themselves, their kids, or their own family practices. Remind your group that each family is unique, with unique personalities, relationships, and family dynamics. What works best for each family is different, which also means the parents within your group may disagree or take a different approach to the same issue. Be sure to affirm the diversity that exists between families throughout this series. 

6. Parents don’t really need another class. They need partners for the journey.

Please resist the temptation to see this as “just” a five-part series. We find that what parents need more than just about anything else is to know that they are not alone in the process of raising their kids. One of the best gifts you can give the parents in your context is an opportunity to forge lasting friendships they can lean into when the winds of discouragement are blowing strong. We encourage you to create space in your gatherings for parents both to connect deeply as well as to share fellowship. For example, you might begin each group by sharing a meal, followed by the video and discussion. Or if you are meeting in a Sunday morning context with limited time, consider adding a parent and/or family potluck into the mix at some point during this series. The more you can get parents connecting, the more likely they will carry these friendships beyond the course of this series.

Finally, we would love to hear from you! Please direct any feedback, stories, or ideas to stickyfaith@fuller.edu.

Buy the video curriculum

Photo by Mathijs Delva.

As the year kicks off and we look ahead to an innovative 2015, we took a few minutes here in the FYI office to look back at our top traffic for 2014. Here’s what you liked best this year, or what you might have missed that others thought was worth reading!

10. How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media? – One in a multi-part series on helping young people navigate technology.

9. New Research about Teens, Social Media, and What They Need from Us – Perhaps it’s not as complicated as it seems.

8. Reimagining the Gospel in Relationship – What does the gospel mean for teenagers and friendship?

7. FYI Playlist: 20 Free Resources for Transition Season – Our best articles, videos, and downloads for saying goodbye, hello, and walking through transitions with students.

6. 4 Steps to Help a Stressed Teenager – Because they need it more than ever.

5. How I Blew It With My Kids’ Bible Verse – How do you help students define themselves as God sees them?

4. Four Words That Can Transform Your Conversations with Teenagers – They may not be the words you’re thinking of.

3. The One Truth I Want All Kids (and People) to Know About Lent – Grace, grace, grace (yep, that’s a spoiler).

2. What Should I Do When My Kid Says, “I’m Not Going to Church”? – A little help for responding to one of the toughest parenting questions for people of faith.

1. The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to their Kids about Sports—Or Any Performance – This post stirred up more conversation about youth sports than we imagined, with nearly 2.5 million views, over a million shares, and nearly 200 comments. Who knew?

… With an honorable mention shout-out to our Can I Ask That? page, which garnered the most traffic this year on our Sticky Faith site. Check out the video trailer and free sample of this best-selling 8-week curriculum for high school students.


Happy New Year from the FYI Team!


Photo by Luann Hawker.

He sat in my office, tears rolling down his cheeks, feeling overwhelmed by the pain in his life. Paul asked, “Why me? Why does everyone else have what I don’t—like a family and people who care for them? Why have I been abandoned? Doesn’t God care? If he cared, he would rescue me.”

His pain was real. I sat with him and listened. I, too, found myself asking those questions we all do at times. Why does suffering have to exist, and why does this person have to go through pain? Without answers that would help, I did the only thing I knew to do. I sat with him. I listened. I was present with him.

As the conversation continued, it was obvious that what he thought he needed and what he wanted was to be rescued... by God, by his community, by me, by anyone. This student longed for someone to make it better, to take care of him and take away the pain he was experiencing. It seemed reasonable enough.

He is not the first—nor will he be the last—student who has asked me to be a rescuer. I get it. The pain can be crippling, and may cause us to feel stuck.

Like us, when students are facing crisis and the pain in their lives, they are looking for answers and more importantly for relief. Before we examine ways we can respond, we need to start by asking why young people want to be rescued.

Why do young people want to be rescued?

Students today are facing pressures that students twenty years ago didn’t experience. In addition to academic pressures, they face family dynamics as well as societal challenges. They are facing and maybe even experiencing trauma, all in a social media-saturated era. News is immediate, instantaneous, and at times panic and fear-driven. Young people need adults to keep them grounded in this swirl of activity. According to the Search Institute, all young people need between 4-5 mentors in addition to their parents in order to become productive and healthy citizens.

Students can feel more vulnerable when this community is not in place. Paul was without family support due to the years of abuse and suffering he endured at their hands. He never seemed to recover from the loss of those biological ties. Many students in my youth groups over the years have suffered without this web of relationships and have operated from a place of crisis and fear. They may feel isolated, alone, unattached, and vulnerable. It is understandable why they want to be rescued. They may feel ill equipped to face the challenges and pain, and so escape becomes the option for providing immediate relief.

But not all students are lacking resources and support. Some students may be avoiding responsibility or facing reality. They may not want to do what is needed for them to find healing, wholeness, and purpose. Instead, avoidance, worry, and anxiety ensue, which can lead to bad decision-making.

Why rescuing is bad

Many developmental and education experts are concerned that when it comes to young people in our society, we tend to rescue too quickly. According to leadership specialist Tim Elmore, we hijack the growth process and development of the student when we don’t allow them to work through the pain at hand. “When we rescue too quickly and over-indulge our children with ‘assistance,’ we remove the need for them to navigate hardships and solve problems on their own."[[See http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2014/01/16/7-crippling-parenting-behaviors-that-keep-children-from-growing-into-leaders/]] When a student is rescued from a problem, it removes the need for them to problem-solve themselves. Wendy Mogel, a leading researcher in this area, urges, “Remember that kids are hardy perennials, not hothouse flowers. Let them be cold, wet, or hungry for more than a second and they’ll appreciate the chance to be warm, dry, and fed. Abstain from taking the role of Sherpa, butler, crabby concierge, secret police, short order cook, or lady’s maid. Your children are hard-wired for competence. Let them do things for themselves."[[See http://www.wendymogel.com/articles/item/overparenting_anonymous/]]

In addition, when we rescue students, we replace the role that Jesus can and needs to play in their lives. As students turn to us and depend on us more, they may find their need for God diminished.

Why do we want to rescue?

In thinking about students’ issues, it is important that we examine our motives as well as the ways we respond to students in need. We need to honestly ask ourselves why we want to rescue students and fix the situation. Does it make us feel better? Are we trying to alleviate our own sense of responsibility or the pain of watching someone we care for suffer? In reflecting about Paul’s situation, I wanted to make it better. It pained me to see him in pain. I wanted to take the pain away and rescue him. The motivation may be innocent enough, seeking the well-being of the student. However, the action of rescuing can complicate what the student is going through and compromise how they recover.

What then is our role?

It takes time and patience to build trust with young people. The Search Institute researches the development of kids and teenagers, and the role of adult mentors in that development. They have identified several key conditions to developing this trust in your mentoring relationships, including:

  • reliability
  • consistency
  • patience
  • identifying and telling the student what positive qualities and behavior you see in them
  • listening to cultivate understanding (rather than just giving advice)
  • honoring confidentiality
  • allowing your students to make decisions for themselves

Developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell notes that young people themselves say we are more likely to influence their life paths if we possess the following six qualities:

  1. being supportive
  2. being an active listener
  3. pushing just enough
  4. taking authentic interest in youth as individuals
  5. fostering self decision-making
  6. lending perspective[[See Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “Six Qualities That Make You a Good Mentor For Teens”  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moment-youth/201301/mentoring-youth-matters]]

All of these qualities are crucial. In particular, decision-making helps students grow into adulthood. How can we facilitate their ability to walk through life challenges and make choices that are good and healthy? More importantly, as spiritual leaders, how can we point them to Jesus as the one who saves?

Jesus saves, restores and transforms

Jesus doesn’t simply rescue us from pain, but rather he saves, restores, and transforms. Jesus is making all things new. It is his transforming work in us and through us that brings healing and wholeness. Revelation 21:5 declares, He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Jesus’ work on the cross provided salvation to all. He saved us. In that sense he did rescue us. But rescue doesn’t always mean that our circumstances change or the pain is removed. We are promised that Jesus walks with us, but our immediate context may not be changed. We must help students understand the difference, and help them to engage Jesus who saves, restores, and transforms. We start by sharing how Jesus has done this in our own lives. We can share how we have crossed the difficult waters in our lives and how Jesus has met us in those places.

Best practices for caring without rescuing

  1. Practice the ministry of presence. Offering a ministry of a presence is a tangible reminder that the student is not alone. We are with them and God is with them. 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.[[See “The Ministry of Presence: Being a Safe Place for Teens” on the FYI site at https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/ministry-of-presence.]]
  2. Offer stability. As we walk with students through their life struggles, we can demonstrate our commitment to them and provide stability through consistent investment in their lives over time.
  3. Be a safe place. Students need to have safe places to feel loved, secured, and cared for. They need to have safe places to develop their skill sets and decision-making abilities as well as to express their feelings and emotions. There are several ways we can create safe places for students.[[For further student on how parents can create emotionally and spiritually safe places for their teenagers, see American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)]]When students feel safe, there are several positive outcomes. Teenagers who experience increased well-being grow in self confidence, connectedness to community, and a more authentic life.
  4. Speak honestly. Rather then giving platitudes or pat answers, we need to speak with authenticity. We can’t be afraid of the hard conversation, but rather speak the truth in love.
  5. Validate their pain without giving easy solutions. The emotions students are feeling are neither wrong nor right, they are real. We need to bring value to that experience without trying either to explain or to resolve it.
  6. Increase our training. As mentors and leaders, it is part of our commitment to students to grow in our own training and skill sets. Books, articles, and workshops can help us to grow in our knowledge and experience so we can better see the signs of trauma and pain in a student’s life.
  7. Connect them with resources. Students will turn to us in times of need. One of the most practical ways to help is to provide resources including reading, skill-building, other adult mentoring relationships, and referrals to counseling or health professionals.

Action Points

  • Evaluate your own response pattern in situations of crisis with young people. Do you tend to react by rescuing, by listening, by getting out of the situation as quickly as possible, or some other response?
  • Think of a particular young person in your care who has a critical need right now. With another adult on your team, brainstorm a response that offers support without rescuing. Name other adults who can be part of the web of support for this young person, and if possible connect with this teenager’s parents about your ideas.
  • Share this article with your whole ministry team and host a follow up discussion about how this plays out in your ministry. Identify skill-building areas for leaders, and role-play interactions with students that model support without rescuing.

Week To Year

How to turn a week-long service trip into a year-long process of transformation

Matt Laidlaw

Photo by John.

If you’ve served in student ministry for any amount of time, it’s likely that you’ve participated in some type of mission, service, or outreach trip with your students. It’s also likely that some of your students came home from the trip saying things like:

“God changed my life.”
“I will never be the same.” 
“I’m not the person that I was before.” 

As youth workers, we have to celebrate when we hear students articulating moments of positive growth and transformation. However, we also have to grieve when we don’t see the growth and transformation manifested in their lives long-term. I’ve heard plenty of students and volunteers make pronouncements like this after an experience, only to profess a few weeks or months later that their lives are the same as they were before the trip and that the feel as if they’ve “lost” something since they returned home.

Or, if we’re all really honest, I bet some of us have had these experiences and uttered these words, only to very soon find our own lives looking and feeling very much like they did before the trip.

If we want to be faithful to our calling and faithfully steward the time, resources, and students we’ve been trusted with, we have to be asking: “How can service trips have the most possible impact on the lives of the people we’re serving AS WELL AS the students and volunteers who participate in the experience?

In a three-part blog series earlier this year (read part 1, part 2, and part 3) I shared the story of the history of our service trips, our transition process, and the new opportunity we innovated for our students and volunteers. However, the greatest of all of the lessons we’ve learned over the past eight years is the following:

The service or mission trip experience we provide for our students should last longer than the week we’re out of town.

I am convinced that it is our responsibility to pastor our volunteers and students through a year of transformation, by creating environments for individuals to prepare for, debrief, and process their experience on the trip.[[Please consider reading everything Dr. David Livermore has ever written. I recommend starting with Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. You can find more information at http://davidlivermore.com/. Also see FYI’s work in Deep Justice Journeys: 50 Ideas to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living, including the “Before, During, and After” model.]] Part of what makes jumping from one cause to the next so unhelpful for everyone involved is not just the lack of a relationship with those we’re attempting to serve, but also the lack of time necessary for students and volunteers to actually experience transformation because of their participation in these experiences.

For example, as we planned our trip to Detroit, we mapped out a year of simple and tangible ways our students and volunteers could helpfully prepare for, experience, and process this trip. I’ll share some examples from our own process in the context of a “Before-During-After” framework you can utilize in your own ministry.[[In Part 1 of my three-part blog series, I outlined a “9-month transition process” as we discerned and prepared for a new service experience. It should be noted that this 9-month process came before the 12-month process included in this article, bringing the entire process to a total of 21 months.]]


5-6 months BEFORE

Send students, volunteers, and parents basic information via email, snail mail, social media, and during large group programming about the upcoming trip. Include an invitation to join an information meeting the following month. In our context, this would always include links to pictures, stories, and highlight videos from previous service trips.

4-5 months BEFORE

Offer a trip information meeting that is open to all students, parents, and volunteers. Provide basic information about the trip details, trip costs, where you’re going, why you’re going, and details related to the application process. During our information meetings, we try to have several former students or current juniors and seniors who participated on the trip in the past to share a few brief stories and encouragements from their trip experiences.

3 months BEFORE

Application Process

Every student (and possibly every volunteer) who wants to participate on the trip should complete a handwritten application. Provide a clear application deadline and method of submission, the purpose of the application, criteria by which students will be selected to participate on the trip, and when and through what medium students (and parents) will be notified if they’re not selected to participate.

However, the application process should be less about providing you a tool to decide who should be going on the trip, and more about the beginning of the individual preparation and reflection process for the trip. We generally prefer handwritten applications rather than online applications because it is easier to verify if the student actually composed his or her application on their own.

Because Identity, Belonging, and Mission are the values of our ministry, our application invited students to consider questions that provide space to reflect on these ideas. In our ministry we consistently create environments for students to ask and answer the questions: “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” (Identity), “What is my place?” and “What is the Church?” (Belonging), and “Why and I here?” and “Why was Jesus here?” (Mission). Any questions that you can offer that will provoke students to reflect on their beliefs about who they are, their spiritual lives, and why they want to participate on the trip will be a helpful contribution to the process of transformation.

Depending on your context and the advanced commitment need (e.g. to plan international travel, raise funds, or meet a deadline based on an external agency you’re partnering with), the application process may need to begin farther out than three months.

2 months BEFORE

Pre-Trip Meeting #1

Your first pre-trip meeting might focus more on team building, trip logistics, raising financial support, and a deeper perspective on why you’re all participating in this particular trip or cause.

During the first meeting for our Detroit trip this year, we did a brief Bible study related to “The Greatest Commandment” (Deuternomy 6, Leviticus 19, Luke 10, Romans 13). We asked students and volunteers to come to our next meeting having thoughtfully considered the following homework: 

Describe a person/group/demographic of people that you feel biased towards negatively – A group of people you don’t like, that you judge, and/or that you’re afraid of.

Without making the experience feel too much like school, “homework” helps focus content of your meeting into one particular “take away” for your students and volunteers, and gives them a constructive way to focus their energy and excitement for the trip towards your next trip meeting. Some leaders also require students who are participating in an “away” trip to serve in some way “at home” locally during this preparation phase.

1 month BEFORE

Pre-Trip Meeting #2

The second pre-trip meeting should continue with team building, space for students and volunteers to share their thoughts and feelings based on the homework given at the previous meeting, and then a deep dive into information about the culture you’ll be encountering and the people you’ll be serving.

For us, this included a number of short videos and films related to the history of Detroit, the Muslim community in Dearborn, and creative solutions individuals are proposing to lead Detroit into the future. We invited students to consider the following questions and ideas to reflect on in preparation for the next meeting:

An impression…(How does this make you feel?)

I didn’t know that…(Something you learned)

I wonder if…(A question you have)

We then specifically asked them to research a specific problem or crisis Detroit is facing and a specific solution people are proposing to help Detroit solve this problem. Depending on your context, you might ask every participant to read a book related to the community or people group you’ll be serving among and then discuss it at your next meeting.

Some groups like to include scripture memory into this preparation phase as well, and in most contexts some time needs to be allotted for planning and carrying out fund-raising efforts.

1 week BEFORE

Pre-Trip Meeting #3

The final pre-trip meeting is an opportunity to continue team building, provide any remaining logistical information, and give students and volunteers space to share their reflections from the previous meeting and the information they gathered in response to the homework.

By allowing students to research the problems and solutions Detroit is facing, it empowered them to feel a small level of personal solidarity with those in Detroit before we ever arrived. It also “primed the pump” for them to have some categories for and ways of understanding what we might encounter in person. We’ve learned that if the staff “teaches too much,” or the students get a lot of information from a person in a position of authority before the trip, it is possible they will assume they are “experts” during the trip – which limits their ability to learn and process new ideas.

In preparation for departing for the trip, we invited students and volunteers to begin practicing transforming their opinions and judgments about anything new or different they encounter into a question.

The homework was to practice a game about our responses. The rule was that anytime you encountered something that made you want to say, “I don’t like…” or “That’s weird...”, to instead ask, “I wonder why that is?”


At the end of the day on every service trip I’ve participated in, the last thing I want to do is talk with anyone, let alone a large group of people. Everyone is usually physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. However, what I’ve discovered is that given the proper environment, students and volunteers are craving the opportunity to make sense of all they experienced that day. I’ve come to believe that when we don’t provide this space for our students and volunteers, we significantly minimize and limit the opportunity for transformation to take place in their lives.

Because of this reality, you should make it a priority to schedule 1-2 hours of debriefing time into every evening of your trip. Have your group sit in a circle together for this conversation, make sure that everyone is included and everyone has a voice (which is more challenging but no less important with large groups.) Despite your own fatigue, it’s up to you and your volunteers to lead this exercise by example and to create a safe and respectful space. Tell students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re going to do it. By the end of the week, students are usually familiar enough with the process that they can lead the conversation for the group.

Several years ago a friend of mine introduced me to a simple debriefing process called “E.D.I.T.” (Experience. Describe. Interpret. Transfer.). In practice, it looks something like this:

Part 1: Experience: Experience the day.

Experience the trip. Do what you planned on doing.

Part 2: Describe: What did we experience today?

Collaboratively re-tell the events of the day. Allow one student to speak at a time. If they miss a detail, a student can interrupt, fill in the detail, and continue re-telling the day. Allow this process to unfold until the story has been told all the way to your present setting.

Part 3: Interpret: What questions did today’s experience raise?

Allow students to ask questions about the experiences of the day. In most cases, don’t provide answers to the questions, but allow the group to sit with the questions and allow them to lead to other questions. A few questions can help get the conversation going:

  • “I wonder why…?”

  • “Did anybody else feel…?”

  • “Is it okay that…?”

Part 4:  Transfer:  In what ways am I different or do I want to be different because of today’s experience?

It is highly unlikely that anyone will experience or be able to articulate transfer or transformation while you’re on the trip. However, giving space for students to respond to this question on the trip will prepare them to be able to more confidently answer it after the trip.


1-2 weeks AFTER

Post-Trip Meeting #1

Invite students and volunteers who participated on the trip, their families, and anyone else from your church community to a large group gathering. During this meeting, invite students and volunteers to share stories from the trip, some of the questions they’re asking because of the trip, and how they’re different because of the trip. This meeting is essentially another venue for students and volunteers to participate in the E.D.I.T. process, having had some time to reflect on the trip and the opportunity to share this information with the group of people who supported their participation in this experience.

During our trips, we usually divided students and volunteers into “work teams” or “work families,” and allowing each group the opportunity to share with the larger group (and any guests) has worked well. This meeting is a great time for any mentors or prayer partners from the congregation to listen for clues about what they might want to follow up on individually with students in the coming weeks.

4-6 weeks AFTER

Post-Trip Meeting #2 + Writing Letters

This meeting should only be open to students and volunteers who participated on the trip, and is specifically focused on the “Transfer” aspect of the E.D.I.T. process. For clarity, what we mean by “Transfer” is the concrete and tangible ways individuals have experienced and desire to experience long-term life transformation. Essentially, this meeting is an open conversation for students and volunteers to share what “re-entry” into their normal lives has looked and felt like since they’ve returned home. Reserve the second half of the meeting for students and volunteers to write themselves a letter that will be sent to them at a future date. We usually guide them towards the “D.I.T.” part of the E.D.I.T. process. Encourage them in their letter to describe the trip, share the questions they’re asking because of the trip, and how they hope to be a different kind of person because of the trip.

2-4 months AFTER

Small Group Conversations

As the school year began and our small groups formally re-gathered after the summer break, we gave our small group leaders a short list of questions to ask any of their students who participated on the trip. The fact that our trip was in June made the fall a perfect time to reengage students about the trip. These conversations could take place in one-on-one situations or in the small group setting throughout the fall, with the goal of inviting students to describe the experience, share interpretive questions, or share what from this trip has been transferred into their lives in a different environment and with a different group of people.

5-6 months AFTER

Send the Letters

Sometime between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we mailed the letters students wrote to themselves in July. With a little extra time outside of school and with family during the holidays, we wanted students to be reminded of the experience, how they experienced change in their lives, and the kind of person they were hoping to become just a few months earlier.


We can’t measure or know the long-term impact service trips will have on our students and the world, but our role as youth workers is to do everything we can to steward the unique opportunity we have with our students because of these experiences. The students and volunteers at Mars Hill thought they were signing up for a week of service in Detroit, when actually we were inviting them into a yearlong process of learning and transformation. By resisting the temptation to jump from one “cause” to another with our students, not only do we better honor the relationship with those we’re attempting to learn from and serve, we also create environments for our students to experience long-term transformation and change. If we want our students to continue to become the kind of people who are making a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God, we have to be willing to do the hard work of maximizing the experiences on these trips for everyone involved.

Action Points

  • Write down one or two new ideas from this process that you would like to incorporate into your own service work in the coming year.
  • As you plan for mission and service trips for your ministry, map out the “before, during, and after” of the trip in a 6, 12, or 18-month process, setting milestones along the way that can become calendar reminders to keep engaged in each stage of the process.
  • Check out these two resources to help you plan and lead trips: Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (David Livermore) and Sticky Faith Service Guide (Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin)

Photo by Miles Actually.

It was the beginning of the summer, and twenty students and leaders sat on the steps outside of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. They were waiting for me to introduce them to the city of Los Angeles, where they would be spending the next week serving various local non-profit organizations. This was their first trip to L.A.

I spent three hours walking and talking with them through downtown, helping them to experience the city through God’s eyes. I gave them tools with which to understand what they were seeing, and challenged them to ask questions and to be attentive to what was all around them. I began the city walk as I always do, with my own story.

Seventeen years ago I prayed: “Anywhere but L.A.” I was praying to God about the next season of my life. Any city was appealing to me except Los Angeles. After all, why would anyone want to live there? L.A. is dirty, crowded, and dangerous.

God has a sense of humor. Today my life and work in the city is focused on engaging and educating people about Los Angeles through city walks and immersion experiences. It has been a wonderful journey of learning more about the city while watching others discover the city for the first time. And now I love this city.

Why walk?

As the walk began, we arrived at the Biddy Mason wall. Biddy was a former slave who not only gained her freedom, but also was an early Los Angeles landowner and a founding member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in LA. We were inspired by her courage and faith. When we walked into the historic 1893 Bradbury building, we were awed by the beauty of architecture and use of natural light. Entering into Grand Park near City Hall, we were refreshed by the huge fountain of water that gave relief from the heat. In the city there is both historical and spiritual heritage, and there are tangible indicators of God’s presence and peace.

Walking with students in the city has given me a unique lens through which to view it. They notice things that I don’t. They see the shades and colors, the joy, the play in the city. They also see the places of isolation and pain that I sometimes miss. Their tender hearts pick up on the hurt in the city. 

Driving through a city does not allow us to join fully in the conversation with God and others happening in the city. Driving in a city doesn’t give us opportunity to see people and dialogue with them. On the other hand, I’ve found that walking in the city provides an opportunity for us to experience it with all of our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). Historian and architect Dolores Hayden describes why cities matter based on her years of experience and research in The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. She examines how people can connect with the history and memory of a city, as well as how people relate to their communities. One of the ways we do this is by walking and being present in the city.[1]

Why cities matter to God

In the beginning, God created.

God didn’t create in a vacuum, he created place and then created in that place. In the book of Genesis we read how God created the garden in which humans and all of creation would interact with each other and with God. Urban theologian Dr. Ray Bakke says, “Humanity’s story started in a garden but ends in a city.” Cities matter to God.

Got works, dwells, and redeems in a place. In John 1:14 “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In Jeremiah 29:4-7, God calls the exiled and relocated people to seek the peace of the city in which they now live. In the process, God would bring his peace upon them. God asks us not just to live in a city, but also to invest our lives in the city, build relationships, and dream in the city. Cities are mentioned over 1,200 times in the Bible. Cities are also now the places where people are dwelling in greater numbers. By 2030, some estimate that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities.

Colossians 1:16-20 tells of God’s reconciling nature. God redeems both people and places, making all things new. As we develop a “theology of place,” we become more committed to the community in which we live.

Why cities matter to young people

Youth long to make a difference and change the world, address injustices, and fight for freedom for the oppressed. God speaks to their passion by inviting them to journey with him in the city.  As the artist Propaganda urges:

You can have a heart that breaks for a dying city, yet have nothing to offer them. Wait! There’s the problem: "Them!" There is no them. Them is us! Culture is you. It’s me. We. We’re our city. We’re the culture. So we too are the problem. And our Savior: He, he wasn’t a commuter. He moved in. He spoke the language of the broken. He spoke our language…. The culture is us. It’s you. We’re participants. How could we possibly be the solution? We need someone to move in! And, the Savior moved in. This is your city. He came and walked the streets of your soul. And you, in the same vein, must move in. You go. You pray that the gospel prospers. ‘Cause if it prospers, you will, too.[2] 

Learning about the city helps us to be more attentive to God’s presence and creates a theology that is God-honoring, people-honoring, and place-honoring. In the city there are countless opportunities to make a difference and seek God’s peace.

Young people are looking to the church to teach cultural discernment—ways to understand and translate culture as well as how they can make a difference. Teenagers have passions, but sometimes don’t know how to connect their hearts with action that brings change. We can give voice to this, and provide students opportunities to engage their passions with the city in ways that will change them and their communities. 

When students engage their cities, they gain a greater sense of connection to their community, and grow in their own sense of well-being. Many of the Search Institute’s 40 developmental assets are about a student’s connectedness to their neighbors and neighborhood. Finally, students grow in understanding God’s heart for them as they see and experience God’s presence and heart for their cities.

Ways to engage students in their city

We don’t get connected by just reading or talking about a city. Research tells us that face-to-face interactions and relationships are what change us and our environments. For example:

One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group’s needs. This finding resonates well with many other experiments, which have shown that face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction.[3] 

Here are a few practical next steps for helping students engage your city:

  1. Share with students what you love about your community. Ask your students to share their favorite thing about the city. Find ways to express God’s love your city and invite students in that process with you. (i.e. build relationship with and bless neighbors, pray in the city, beautification projects, etc.)[4]
  2. Learn together from the history of your city. For example, make it a group project to gather information, interview key leaders and neighbors, and learn from historical figures. In the example of former slave-turned-landowner Biddy Mason mentioned earlier, she also spoke Spanish fluently, was generous, an influencer in the community, and showed bravery beyond her circumstances. In her story we find courage and strength for the challenges we face. But her story too often goes untold in our particular city. Cities offer us many learning opportunities like this as we engage with their histories, but sometimes we have to search for hidden stories like Mason’s.
  3. Create a city walk or prayer walk with your students (praying for city leaders, schools, and shared spaces). You can include a treasure hunt (seeking out gifts in the city) or look for symbols in the city (i.e. the cross, heart, dove, etc.). Provide tools for them to understand what they are seeing and experiencing. (FYI has created a sample guide for an urban prayer retreat experience to help you get started.)
  4. If you are a suburban youth leader outside of a city, find a conversation partner who is knowledgeable about and/or leads walking tours in your community or nearby community. You might also explore questions with students around how your particular suburban area developed. What history do you know? What are the similarities/differences to the city? What is the unique gift and identity of the suburban context? Perhaps do a city walk in the downtown core of both areas to compare and contrast. 
  5. For those who serve in rural communities, identify the rhythms and seasons of your particular area. How is community experienced in your local setting? How are people and place defined? What are the natural and artificial boundaries? Walk and drive to various boundaries and landmarks (e.g. a lake, town square, historic landmark) and do something at each location to interact with the power of place. 

We are called to love our cities, to be part of our communities, to seek their peace and to work on their behalf. Helping students to encounter God in the city makes God’s love real for us and our cities!


[1] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

[2] Propaganda, “Justice and the Gospel,” Live Verge 2012: May 21, 2012.

[3] Edward L. Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. Penguin Books, 2011.

[4] Thriving City Blocks (http://thrivingcityblocks.com/) is a great interactive resource that helps facilitate dreaming for and with your community.