12 Ways to Make a Youth Christmas Party More Meaningful

Charlie Brown: I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.

[shouting in desperation]

Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

[moves toward the center of the stage]

Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please.

[a spotlight shines on Linus]

Linus Van Pelt: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]

Linus Van Pelt: That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.*


I love “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.  Hard to believe the show was created in 1965 – it gives me chills every single time when Linus shares the real meaning of Christmas.  Even Christian youth leaders are guilty of forgetting about the real meaning of Christmas as we get caught up in the hustle and bustle and commercialism of the holiday…or in the stress of planning a fun Christmas party.

So what about your annual Christmas party?  We all know how to run a mean white elephant gift exchange, right?  But what else can you do at your youth Christmas parties to make the experience more meaningful?  Here are 12 ideas to add more meaning to your youth ministry party:

1. Watch the Charlie Brown Christmas – I already mentioned being a fan.  You can show the entire movie or just the clip above and talk about it.  What do your youth say that Christmas is all about?  What is the meaning of Christmas to your youth?

2. Have an Ornament Exchange  Instead of a traditional gift exchange, have youth bring a Christmas ornament to exchange this year.  Have everyone sign and date the ornament they brought and each year the recipient can remember the youth ministry time together.  Even better, Make Ornaments. Check out the post I wrote last year for easy ornament and gift ideas.

3. Act out the Christmas Story – No doubt your church has probably had a Christmas pageant.  Maybe some of your youth were cast as Mary and Joseph back in the day.  Challenge youth to create a skit about the real meaning of Christmas.  Here’s a free example script for youth I found online.

4.  Birthday Party for Jesus – Have a birthday cake for Jesus’s birthday.  Sing the birthday song.  Talk about what Jesus would wish for if He was blowing out his candles.  Would He wish for peace, love, kindness?  Ask the youth – What can you do to make Jesus’s wishes come true in the next year?  As part of the party, Give a Birthday Gift to Jesus Christmas is about Jesus’s birth.  Have youth give Jesus a present by donating a gift to the needy.  Challenge the youth to donate something that they still like – there is more meaning in giving away something nice than giving away your old sweatshirt you didn’t really want anymore anyway.

5. Bring your Christmas party to the doorsteps of the elderly or shut-ins or go to nursing homes (call ahead).  As you plan your party, call a local shelter or talk to a pastor about the needy in your community.  What are the greatest needs in your community?  From canned goods to clean socks, collect the items most needed and deliver them personally as part of the party.  Consider singing traditional Christmas carols and handing out Christmas cards and candy canes while you’re there.

6.  Wrap Christmas Presents for Others Have elderly or busy parent church members bring gifts and wrapping paper to the church.  The youth can spend party time wrapping presents.  This also works as a fundraiser idea.

7. Nativity Scavenger Hunt Armed with digital cameras, have teams of youth find elements of the nativity to photograph.  Or the team that finds the most nativities in a certain time limit.  Inspire your youth by sharing Mark Oestreicher’s blogpost of the 42 worst nativities.

8. Gifts of Prayer – Have youth spend time in prayer, even writing prayers on cards to give to others as gifts.  What are the youth thankful for?  Who needs prayer this Christmas time?

9. Give Alternative Gifts – You can support the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) by collecting money donations and purchasing from the UMCOR Alternative Gift Catalog.  Rethink Christmas http://www.umcor.org/christmas

10. Sing Christmas Carols by Candlelight – Close your Christmas Party with some time of worship and singing.  Instead of “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” opt to sing traditional hymns and carols about the true meaning of Christmas.  End with “Silent Night” and a prayer.

11. Cards for the Military (if by Dec. 7) We’re pushing the last minute deadline to send cards to the military this year, but consider checking out the Red Cross for ways to support the military.  http://www.redcross.org/support/get-involved/holiday-mail-for-heroes

12. Nativity Story Gift Unwrap Game  If you have a large group and the steal-the-gifts-gift-exchange format doesn’t work, or if gift exchange time is short, consider using this Right Left Nativity story to exchange your gifts instead.

Instructions: To play this Right Left Christmas Game, form a circle and pass the gift(s), (candy, prizes, etc.) to the right when you hear the word RIGHT and to the left when you hear the word LEFT. When the story is over, the gifts belong to whoever is holding them.

In those days, Caesar Augustus decided to count everyone LEFT living in the whole Roman world. Joseph LEFT, taking Mary with him RIGHT to his town of Bethlehem to register.

When they arrived, there were no rooms LEFT. All of the inns in Bethlehem were RIGHT full. There was just nowhere LEFT for them to stay. Finally, someone offered to let them stay RIGHT in their stable.

Mary was pregnant and while in Bethlehem the RIGHT time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a boy RIGHT there. RIGHT there in a Bethlehem stable, the Savior of the world was born. Mary wrapped him with LEFT over strips of cloth and laid him RIGHT in a manger.

Some shepherds who lived RIGHT near Bethlehem, were out at night RIGHT in their fields watching over their sheep. RIGHT then, they saw a bright light. The light was so bright that they had to close their eyes. When they opened them again, a beautiful angel was standing RIGHT in the sky RIGHT above them with his arms LEFT opened wide. The shepherds looked RIGHT at each other and were LEFT feeling very afraid.

Then the angel spoke RIGHT to them. “Do not be afraid. I’m RIGHT here to bring you the good news LEFT for all people. Today RIGHT in Bethlehem a baby has been born, He is the RIGHT one, the one that will save the world. You will know the RIGHT baby because He will be LEFT wrapped in cloths, and laying RIGHT in a manger.”

RIGHT then, a large group of angels appeared RIGHT there, and they said, “Glory to God, and peace be to all people LEFT on the earth.”

The shepherds were LEFT amazed and excited. They had to go RIGHT away to see this baby the angels were talking about.

They LEFT as fast as they could, and soon found Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus RIGHT were they angels said they would be. The shepherds fell RIGHT to their knees when they saw Jesus, and were LEFT filled with joy that they had found the Savior. They stayed for a short time and then LEFT . As soon as they LEFT they began shouting RIGHT in the streets and telling everyone LEFT in town about what they had seen.

RIGHT after Jesus was born, wise men traveling RIGHT on their camels noticed a very strange star RIGHT in the sky. They knew that the RIGHT One who would save the world had been born.

RIGHT away King Herod got very worried. He assembled all of the important people LEFT in the area and asked them where this baby had been born. The people replied, “RIGHT in Bethlehem.”

RIGHT then King Herod called the wise men to meet with him RIGHT away. He asked them to go and find the child RIGHT away. “RIGHT as soon as you find Him,” he said, “ tell me, so that I can go to Him RIGHT away and worship Him.”

After the wise men spoke to the King, they LEFT to find the baby. They didn’t know RIGHT where the He was, but followed the star LEFT in the east until it hung RIGHT over the place where Jesus was. When they found Jesus, and they bowed RIGHT down and worshiped him.

RIGHT after that, they opened the gifts they had brought Jesus… gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they LEFT to find a place to sleep for the night.

That night the wise men all had the same dream RIGHT as they were sleeping. They were not to go RIGHT back and tell King Herod where they had found Jesus. King Herod wanted to kill Jesus because he was jealous of Him. So, the wise men LEFT for home another way so that Herod would not know the RIGHT direction they had come from. They also decided RIGHT then that they would not tell King Herod anything about what they had seen.

When the wise men LEFT , an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Arise, take Jesus and Mary, and run RIGHT to Egypt. Joseph got up RIGHT away and woke up Mary. She quickly picked Jesus RIGHT up and they LEFT in the middle of the night for Egypt where they would be safe.

RIGHT after King Herod died an angel appeared again RIGHT away to Joseph and told him to go RIGHT to a place called Nazareth. And that’s RIGHT where Jesus grew up.


Hope this list inspires you to think about ways to make your youth ministry celebrations more meaningful.  As you move closer to Christmas, our prayer is that you personally find the joy that is in the real meaning of Christmas.  You are a blessing.

Be blessed,



Do you have an Annual Christmas party with your youth ministry?

What other activities have you done to make the Christmas season more meaningful for your youth?  Please share your ideas in the comments section below.


*Sources: Charlie Brown Christmas Quote: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059026/quotes?qt=qt0272807
Nativity Gift Exchange: http://creativechurchideaattic.blogspot.com/2007/11/christmas-party-games.html


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Here’s my latest article for The YouthWorker Movement. Would LOVE to hear your ideas/comments. -Erin

7 Thrifty & Easy Gifts to Celebrate Your Inner Artist this Season

“We are all artists in everything we do.  Art is creating; it is our link that makes us like God.  All you have to do is look at any form of nature to know that God is the greatest artist of all.  He gives us beauty in his creations to inspire us to find the artists inside of us.  Art isn’t just about painting or sculpture.  It is in everything from how you organize your life to how you communicate with the world.” – Bethany Jane Andrews Hoey

Killing a little time, I ran across this Facebook status update, “Make things for Christmas this year not simply because of economics, but because you’ve forgotten that you are an artist.”  So who would have guessed – maybe the Facebook newsfeed is the new way to get inspired.

Now, I don’t define myself as an artist.  In the world of arts & crafts, I certainly lean toward the passably-crafty-at-best end of the spectrum.  But why not spend a little time unleashing your own creativity or the creativity of your youth this season?  

Here are 7 really easy & thrifty gifts you (or your youth) can make this year:

1.  Handmade cards.  Grab a piece of card stock, cut it in half and then fold that in half (any direction is okay).  Voila!  You have the beginning of a card.  There are a jillion stickers and stamps and products you could buy to make a card, but the favorite one I ever received was a hand-drawn stick figure with a santa hat and a heartfelt message.  You could recycle images from old Christmas card fronts as well.  How cool would it be if the youth made cards for the seniors or the pastors in your church?

2. Favorite Memory Drawing.  Think of a friend and a favorite time together – maybe it was a special worship time on a retreat, for example.  On a plain sheet of paper, draw a picture representing that memory.  This doesn’t have to be impressive art here – think Shel Silverstein or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Frame your art when you are done.  On the back of the frame, you could write a personal message about your friendship.

3. Start an annual ornament tradition.  For the last several years, I’ve crafted little ornaments for each of my youth.  The idea behind an annual ornament is that if they stay involved in the youth group, by the time they graduate they will have 6 ornaments of their own to put on their first Christmas trees as young adults.   There are tons of ways to make an ornament, here’s how I did mine: First, I found matching plain wood cutouts, usually with a meaningful symbol like a cross, angel, star, etc.  I spray painted them white, drew the date & a little verse or symbol on the back with a ultra fine permanent marker, tied on a ribbon.  (I have a weakness for glitter so I added that, but it’s totally optional.)  Although I made mine as a gift for the youth, you could also have the youth make them as a group project or tie it in with an advent lesson.







Marbled Ornaments.  Here’s a really easy ornament that youth could make, but make sure it’s youth who can handle breakables.  You’ll need clear glass ornaments & craft paint in a variety of colors.  Remove the metal cap & drip paint into the opening of the ornament.  By slowly turning the ornament around, the paint coats the inside of the ornament.  You can add additional colors until you get the marbleized effect you like.  A little paint goes a long way.  For best results, let the ornaments dry overnight before replacing the cap.





4. Time capsule ornament.  You’ll need a clear plastic ornament that you can open (available at most craft stores), strips of colored paper, optional small photos & mementos, ribbon & tape.  Write down favorite memories from the year on strips of paper, or even favorite Bible verses and wishes for the future.  Fill the clear plastic ornament, tape it shut and tie it with a ribbon.  Add the date on the outside.  If you happen to know someone with a little one having a first Christmas, this is a great gift.  This might be a cool New Year’s Eve project as well.

5. Cookie baskets.  Or really any kind of homemade food.  Include the recipes for an additional nice touch.  (Feel free to send me one.)

6. Homemade Coupons.  A meaningful way to tie the idea of serving others to Christmas is to make service coupons for gifts.  Have youth brainstorm ways they could help out their loved ones & make coupons.  Would they be willing to shovel the sidewalks for other church members?  How about offering to clean the kitchen without complaining?  Youth could put them in a decorated envelope.  (I’d suggest making coupons good for “Staying after the New Year’s Eve lock-in to clean up,” but that’s just me.)

7. Write a poem, compose a song.  Everyone has different learning styles, different gifts.  Celebrate the creative genius in your youth by having them write poems or songs.  Or write a song yourself, make a YouTube video of it & share it with us.


I don’t know about you, but I’m getting about two dozen emails a day from retailers this week trying to get me to buy something no one really needs for Christmas.  Why not give a gift of your own creation this year?  And if you do, share some pictures with us!

What other creative gift ideas do you have?

Erin Jackson is National Director – Community & Care for the Center of Youth Ministry Excellence and the YouthWorker Movement. She is a veteran & certified youthworker as well, and loving her current role as a volunteer Senior High Bible Study teacher.  She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis, three kids and a dog. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/
Follow @ErinJackso




Just One Starfish Mentoring Begins

Thank you so much for your faithful prayers about our new ministry endeavor, Just One Starfish.  This is such an exciting time!

A quick update: God has been opening doors left and right for this new ministry!  We have our first team of 12 mentors (representing 3 different churches and 4 high schools) trained and ready to begin mentoring at our first elementary school, Blanton Elementary.  (Thank you to Alley Cats of Arlington for donating a meeting space for our training!)

It was really special to tour the school with the mentors last week and to see the positive reaction faculty and staff had to the mentors. God is doing big things at this elementary school and it’s humbling to be part of His work.

Prayer Request: Will you take the time to pray specifically for these 10th-12th grade young adults and their 4th-5th grade elementary school mentees?  The student pairs will meet for the first time starting next week.  Here are their names:
Mentor and Mentee:
Lara K. and Emily M.
Will R. and Adrian R.
Morgan K. and Joana S.
Katie K. and Blessing N.
George T. and Edwin A.
Alex S. and Jose Jr.
Emily W. and Coraima V.
Bailey B. and Angela M.
Steven H. and Samuel V.
Kaitlyn J. and Angela O.
Hannah J. and Oralia M.
Landry P. and her unnamed 4th grade girl that God is selecting for us right now 🙂

Next steps/prayer requests:
  • Now that we’ve got our first team of 12 youth in place, we will begin talking to more youth ministries and schools about expanding the program.
  • High School Students Can Apply Now for Our Second Team of Mentors: Just One Starfish Mentor Application
  • I meet with the CEO of an incredible Student Ministry organization next Thursday about aligning our organization with theirs – please pray that God’s will be done in that conversation.
  • On October 26-28 we will be putting together our new website with the generous, talented help at Dallas GiveCamp.  Please pray a special blessing on those volunteers.

I have full confidence that it is because of your prayerful support that we’ve been able to accomplish all that we’ve done so far.  Knowing that you had been praying about our match-ups and letting the Holy Spirit do His work, we let the young adults select the mentee who’s name most spoke to them (a beautiful selection process.)  I can hardly wait to see what God has in store next!

Thank you so much for your faithfulness.  Can you help spread the word by sharing this post with your friends/Facebook contacts?


4 Critical Signs of Youth Ministry Burnout

Is it burnout or just a funk?

In direct sales, you know right away if you’re succeeding or not – you either have the sale or don’t.  In sports, you know if you scored or not, you can measure your stats to gauge success or failure.  You can measure or see the results of your work in physical labor jobs, even jobs like accounting have an output you can see.

Youth ministry is one of those professions that has a lot of “gray areas.”  You’ve spent the last several months and years pouring your heart into your ministry.  You’ve stayed up all night at lock-ins, retreats.  You’ve worked long hours to be there for your youth ministry.  You’ve done the work.  Have you been successful?

It depends, did someone just schedule a 4 hour meeting on “improving your numbers”?
Did a parent just stop you to say thanks for how much you have impacted their child?
Did a youth just direct every profane word they know at you, because you caught them smoking a joint?
Did more than one youth in your group decide to go to school for seminary?
Did your own child just complain about “you like the youth kids better”?

On any given day, what you do may not directly tie to how you allow yourself to feel at the end of the day. You are in control of what you do but, you are not in control of the results that you may feel on a daily basis.

Here’s the good news: God calls us to youth ministry to be faithful, not impatient for worldly success.  You’ve been faithful.  But maybe you’re working too hard at trying to be seen as successful.  Or maybe you’re just working too hard.

You’ve heard that if you don’t take care of yourself in youth ministry, no one else will. You can get youth ministry burnout.  This time of year, it’s common for youth workers to be tired, discouraged or “in a funk.”  How can you tell the difference between a temporary downturn and serious youth ministry burnout?

If it’s a temporary downturn, give yourself a break.  Return to the basics like prayer, sabbath, rest, personal time, exercise and eating right.  Find friends to talk you through things.  Have fun outside of youth work.  Seek pastoral support – and you might need to look outside of your church for this help.

If you think you might be in burnout mode, seek help.  How to tell the difference?

According to crisis intervention research*, there are 4 main areas that burnout affect: behavior, physical, interpersonal, and attitudinal. The following are the things that can be effected in each category:

– abuse of alcohol/illicit drugs
– difficulty coping with minor problems
– loss of enjoyment
– dread of work
– increased irritability/impatience
– losing things
– suicidal or homicidal ideation/attempts
– reduced work efficiency
– PTSD-like symptoms (post traumatic stress disorder)

– chronic fatigue
– insomnia
– muscle tension
– panic attacks
– weakened immune system
– flare-ups in preexisting medical conditions
– weight gain or loss
– changes in appetite

– withdrawal from family and friends
– difficulty separating professional and personal life
– decreased interest in physical or emotional intimacy
– loss of trust
– loneliness
– allowing clients (pastors/parents/youth?) to abuse your professional boundaries
– ending of long-lasting relationships
– difficulty coping with minor interpersonal problems

– boredom
– guilt
– depression
– pessimism
– helplessness
– survivor guilt
– grandiosity
– sense of meaninglessness
– self-criticism

The world needs good youth workers.  Your role as a youth pastor has the opportunity to transform lives. But the world needs you to be healthy.  Your youth and your family need you to be healthy.  If too many items on the lists above sound familiar, it may be time to take a break, reevaluate and seek help.

Be blessed,

For the veterans, have you gone through times of burnout? What got you through it?  What advice would you give to youth workers who might be experiencing burnout symptoms?

Is there anything you’d add to the list of burnout symptoms?

What do you do to stay healthy in youth ministry?

About Erin Jackson

Erin Jackson is National Director – Community & Care for the Center of Youth Ministry Excellence and the YouthWorker Movement. She is a veteran & certified youthworker as well, and loving her current role as a volunteer Senior High Bible Study teacher. She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis, three kids and a dog. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/
Follow @ErinJackso

Originally published for The YouthWorker Movement, 5/8/2012.

*(Source: Cooper, J. (2010). Essential crisis intervention skills. In L. Jackson-Cherry and B. Erford (Eds.), Crisis intervention and prevention (pp. 55-71). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, p. 70.)

5 Immediate Ways You Can Help St. Barnabas UMC Rebuild


I have been overwhelmed with the outreach of support for our community and church family after Tuesday’s tornado destroyed our church building.  It has been a tough couple of days – so many have told me that they feel helpless because they want to help but don’t know how to help.

Here is your opportunity the help our church and community rebuild.

Here are 5 ways you can support our church right now.

1. Prayers.

First and foremost, we need your prayers right now.  Specifically, please pray for:

  • Our church and Early Education Center staff that they can find rest and care in the midst of chaos and stress
  • For the safety of everyone who works to help
  • For long-term encouragement to our church family as we struggle to rebuild
  • For the ministries of the church to continue and strengthen as we rebuild our facilities
  • For the children and people who were traumatized by this storm
  • For our groundskeeper and master gardener Dave as clean-up work begins
  • That God be glorified and that we can continue our mission of spreading the love of Jesus Christ to our community for the transformation of the world.

2. Presence.

Our building is down, but the Church (that’s us!) is still going.

You can support our church by being there physically. Temporarily, our Sunday worship services and Sunday school are being held in the Seventh Day Adventist Church of Arlington located on the I-20 Service Road near Kelly Elliott Rd.  The Preschool is meeting at Tate Springs Baptist Church.  In the weeks to come, your presence at worship services and church ministry events will be more vital than ever.  Visit the church’s website to stay up to date on where you can be.

3. Gifts.

Financial Need: While the church’s insurance will end up covering a lot of our rebuilding costs, we still will need help financially to rebuild our church.  You can send donations by check made out to St. Barnabas UMC and designated “Rebuild” to 5011 W. Pleasant Ridge Rd., Arlington, TX 76016.  

Or you can donate online: http://sbumc.org/online_giving.html

Give to our Community: Hundreds of homes in our area were damaged this week, many families lost much of their household goods.  You can help by donating food, clothing, furniture, diapers, wipes, hygiene items, household goods and cleaning supplies to Mission Arlington, 210 W. South St., Arlington, TX 76010.  Specifically, I have learned that local food pantries need staples like peanut butter and canned goods and local families need children’s clothing.

4. Service.

UPDATE: ANYONE FROM ST. BARNABAS MEMBERSHIP who wants to volunteer, please call first to sign up or text your name and number to 682-888-6980. 

IF YOUR HOUSE WAS DAMAGED AND YOU NEED HELP WITH TRASH AND DEBRIS REMOVAL, call or text 817-505-5154 for Arlington and Kennedale residents who need help. We will do what we can to help arrange teams of volunteers to help.

Find time to volunteer to support our church’s ongoing ministries, such as the Open Arms Free Health Care Clinic.

5. Witness.

We need you to tell the world about God’s amazing work being done.  This is Easter season – there is no better time to share the Good News that Christ is Risen.  He is alive today and He is here to protect and guide us.

More than 80 preschoolers, their teachers, church volunteers and our church staff were inside the walls of St. Barnabas when a tornado destroyed much of our building.  In fact, seventeen confirmed tornados damaged homes, property, businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Tuesday, April 3.  

No one died.

Since the tornado, hundreds of people from around the country and from all denominational backgrounds have stepped up to help.  

No matter our denominational differences, we are all Brothers and Sisters in Christ.  You can help by telling others about how the Body of Christ works together.  Tell others about God being glorified in the midst of a tough situation.  Help as many people as you can as much as you can, all for the glory of God.

You can help by sharing what is needed with others you know would want to help.

We are the Church.  Our building is down, but we still stand.


(photos taken by Jayme Philp & Erin Jackson)

Asking my Really Big Question

Hmmm...so what do you think about that?

I’m totally biased, but I kinda think my husband Dennis is a super genius.  (You don’t read these posts, do you, hon?  Don’t want a statement like that to go to your head.)  On his blog, blog.trainforpurpose.com,my husband wrote an inspiring post based on his time at TEDxAustin.  I will now attempt to interact with his post Learn this to change the world: Big Solutions REQUIRE a really big question first.

An introduction from Dennis:

I attended TEDxAustin this past weekend, and I really enjoyed and was inspired by all the people that came on the stage and how powerfully they we changing the world for the better. They say TED is about celebrating and spreading ideas, but I was struck by how much all of the speakers on the stage had DONE. just check out this speakers list :http://tedxaustin.com/TEDxAustin-2012-Program.pdf

A world record holder in free diving, Someone training dozens of doctors in Iraq, A recognized and awarded Musician and conductor, An accomplished photographer, Successful and energized urban renewal activist. These speakers had done a lot.

I was also struck by something else, the similar process they went through to get to where they were. I am going to try to distill what I heard down to a few points that seemed to recur frequently during their “Life in 18 min” talks.

First, See the bigger problem

Almost every speaker had a more or less common problem, experience and took a different or second look at it. And they saw something larger than what they were dealing with.

Michael McDaniel who looked beyond the news of Katrina and the sad pictures of the first few days and weeks and saw a huge injustice in the way people who had lost their homes were being housed.

David R. Dow who handles death row cases, looked beyond the problem of the trial and appeal process and said literally “how can I make this problem bigger?” and started to see the amazingly similar backgrounds and stories that make up the most common back story for 80% of the people currently on death row.

Chris Bliss, Who looked beyond the “10 commandments public display” controversy to find a truly mind boggling lack of the celebration of the bill of rights.

Taryn Davis, who saw beyond her own pain and loss to see that there is an entire generation of people, just like her, that did not have support, and even google could not figure out where to point them.

Luis von Ahn, who we saw pre-recorded, took a look at the success of his captcha technology and looked beyond that to see the tremendous amount of time that was being wasted daily on a global scale.

Jeremy Courtney, who looked beyond the one sad father that wanted him to help find his child a lifesaving surgery in America, to see the massive epidemic that was going on in Iraq.

So step one is to take a point of view that sees something bigger. It was often not sought out, but something that these speakers found themselves in. Some of them were people who had trained for years to be in the field, but the vast majority were people pursuing something else, and when they encountered a problem, took enough time to see the bigger problem behind it.

See the bigger problem.  So, if I am going to take step one to heart, I’ve gotta tell you that the big problem I see is too many broken people in youth ministry.  The people aren’t broken so much as they are abused by a system that will let them work with at best one day off a week, pay them poorly, criticize what they do and expect more than can be done.  I have more than a few friends who are talented, smart people full of love for Christ and young people that essentially got beat up by their churches.  It’s frustrating to hear about people leaving the church because members of the church or senior pastors think it is okay to dump on them.  No youth worker is perfect, no youth worker will ever be perfect.  But unlike ordained clergy, there is no system or  set of standards in place to protect youth workers from losing their jobs unexpectedly, from working crazy hours, from being criticized, from neglecting their own care.

Obviously this varies for every church.  I’ve seen churches with incredibly healthy ministries and healthy relationships between the student ministry staff & pastor as well as staff & congregation.  I get the sense that where there is ministry health it is directly related to the leadership of the church.

Step 2, Ask a really crazy bold question

I have written before about the power of questions. I have seen firsthand how powerfully the world can shift if you earnestly seek an answer to a good enough question.

Jeremy asked, how can I do something that will make sure that every child in Iraq that needs a lifesaving surgery can get it?

Taryn asked how she could help all the military widows reclaim their lives and identity and look forward to waking up?

David asked, What can we do as a society to prevent murder in the first place?

Michael asked, How can we provide descent emergency shelter that can be deployed anywhere it is needed in time to meet the need?

And most boldly of all was Luis, who asked the very powerful question, in the 10s on average that someone takes to do a captcha, can we get them to do something useful at the same time? The emphasis is mine. The genius of and thinking is really apparent there.

And what is amazing is that every person on the stage was well on their way to providing a definitive answer to these crazy questions. But they could not be where they were if they had not responded to seeing a bigger problem, by asking what must have seemed at the time to be an impossible question.

So be sure to ask yourself a question that will solve a problem in the most _________way possible.

(pick one or two here) Audacious, Impossible, Resolute, Passionate, Just, Permanent, Life-changing, Bold, Crazy, Immediate, Unexpected, Complete, Fearless, Imaginative, Powerful

We all solve problems every day, often we don’t look beyond the face of the problem presented, and if we do, we only use that insight into the bigger world to just solve our problem better. To live into a bigger destiny, you need to take those moments of insight into the bigger problems of the world, and make your problem bigger, ask a bigger question.

My big questions.  The word that rolls around in my head the most is ADVOCACY.  As in, who is an advocate for youth workers in the church?  Who is standing up for them?  How can I be a voice that reconciles the conflict between youth workers and their churches?  How can I communicate what is reasonable to expect from a person in youth ministry?

Step 3, You ARE the leader, Take action, Now

If you are going to ask the big questions, you also need to “get comfortable with the fact you will be a leader” that aspect was mentioned multiple times, by Chris regarding his monumental project for the bill of rights, Jason Roberts when talking about his projects in Oak Cliff, By Michael and by Jeremy. They might not have felt comfortable being the leader, they might not have had the experience to do this on paper, but they all leaned into the discomfort and looked around and saw that they were the leader that was needed.

Chris even mentioned a point where he was looked around the room, and found himself staring in the mirror, and how he knew at that point, if it was going to get done.. It was going to be him.

And then he took the leap, and so did the others. They made the commitment. They took the plunge and jumped, not into the know, but into the compelling unknown.

One of the speakers quoted W.H. Murray

 The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

I don’t believe I can improve on those words.

Whatever you are wrestling with starting today. Begin it now.

Hmmm.  So here I am.  A reluctant leader?  Or am I even by myself here with these questions?

Are great organizations like Simply Youth Ministry’s Simply Soul Care and We Love Our Youth Worker the only voices out there?  Who else is standing up for the youth worker and setting standards for youth workers and churches?

Anyone wrestling with these questions besides me?

And does anyone else dare to ask their own big questions?


7 Choices You Can Make To Keep From Losing Yourself in Youth Ministry

I had a reality check six months ago while sitting in a volunteer training seminar.  Our instructor suggested that youth ministry volunteers focus on their hobbies and figure out creative ways to get the youth to participate too (a youth flyfishing expedition? Why not?)  He had us start with a list of our hobbies… and I realized that I didn’t have any hobbies outside of my job in youth ministry.  This cannot be healthy. 

In a profession like youth ministry, it’s easy to get caught up in the role of youth pastor/youth director and lose touch with who you are as a person.  Youth workers almost by definition are givers, people who sacrifice their goals to help others. It is almost universal that youth workers will ignore their own needs every chance they get. But you have to spend some time taking care of yourself or you will find yourself where you have nothing left to give, and probably at the worst possible time.  Here are 7 choices you can make to keep from losing your sense of self in your job:

The first 4 choices are internal things you can control – basically ways to take care of yourself.  The last three involve external factors that you can work on but you might have limited control.


Four Internal Choices to Make to Keep from Losing Yourself in Youth Ministry

  1. Choose to care for your own soul.  You pour your heart into helping others.  But who is your pastor?  Consider finding a pastor who is not your boss.  Who holds you accountable for your own spiritual growth?  The best way you can minister to other people is to make sure you are spiritually fed yourself.  Choose to make time for personal Bible study, retreat, worship – whatever you need for your own spiritual growth – and make sure to do these things before you get caught up in work.  Do not get in the habit of putting youth ministry before your own relationship with God.
  2.  Choose to care for your mind.  What do you think about? The questions you ask will become habitual.  What kind of thoughts are you letting into your head?  Are you reading positive things and surrounding yourself with a positive helpful message?  Just the simple act of reading positive material can keep your mind from spiraling down into negative thoughts.  (check out some inspirational books, read Scripture)  You need to keep yourself in a positive and healthy frame of mind.
  3. Choose to care for your body.  We all know youth work can mean lock-ins and a seemingly limitless number of occasions to eat pizza.  That might have seemed like the ideal job in college, but we’re not getting any younger.  Be honest, are you eating well?  Getting enough rest?  Exercising?  You know what you need to do – do it!  We all need to take care of ourselves physically – get adequate rest, exercise regularly, wear sunscreen.  If you are taking care of your body, you will find that you have more energy and you will last longer. One of the healthiest things you can do is to say “no” when people are asking you to add another commitment to your schedule.  Consider this: When asked the secret to making amazing products, Steve Jobs said “It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much”. Your ministry works the same way, do too much “not amazing stuff” and you can’t focus on the truly important stuff.
  4.  Choose to develop yourself outside of your profession.  Get a hobby.  Learn new things.  Keep your mind sharp.  [Have a bucket list? No? Make one. Have one, cross one off this month. Who do you have fun with? In the military they say at social events, “never open the hangar doors”, which means when you are at a social event with people in your unit, focus on the fun, and don’t talk about work. Having trouble turning off the worker mode and relaxing? Maybe you need friends that are not involved in youth ministry in any way shape or form.


Three External Choices to Make to Keep from Losing Yourself in Youth Ministry – these are about your relationships

  1. Choose to make your home relationships a priority.   It’s too easy to take your family for granted.  If you are married, you need to make sure your marriage is a priority over youth ministry.  This might mean turning the text messages off when you get home, scheduling date nights and not letting youth events conflict with them, eat regular meals together.  If you have children, you need to be demonstrating the priority your own kids have over the youth events.  Bonus: when you choose to make it clear that family is your priority, you are being a great role model for youth.  Set boundaries.
  2. Choose to build positive work relationships.  Church politics is [not any different than office politics, when people who have different opinions and values work together, sometimes their personalities don’t fit. It’s] unavoidable.  But you can be part of the solution instead of feeding the problem. Make sure you are keeping things positive with your coworkers.  Try to understand the pressures the senior pastor might be under.  Take the janitor out to lunch.  Lift people up.  Work relationships are one of those things that make the job joyful when they’re great, miserable when they’re bad. 
    Work relationships also include your relationships with volunteers – be positive, affirming.  And if there is a problem with fit or calling be loving but direct, not everyone is going to be a successful long term volunteer.
    Along those same lines, choose to have healthy youth relationships –  set your boundaries and make sure your relationships are appropriate. If you are not doing safe sanctuary where you are consider adopting it as a standard, it helps keep everyone safe, and it doesn’t leave room for any inappropriate rumors to take root. Remember that your role is not to be the “cool buddy” of teenagers, you are an adult. Being a youth worker is not the same thing as being a youth.  You can coach your students, you can listen, you can cheer them on, but you are not there to live life for them or through them.   Choose not to be alone with youth or to be in situations that can be misunderstood.
  3. Choose your job wisely.  Churches and youth ministries have different personalities; just like youth workers have different personalities. If you are working in a church that has unrealistic expectations for you or just isn’t a fit for your personality and gifts, you might be miserable and on the way to losing yourself before you even begin.
    Choosing the job that is right for you starts with an honest self-assessment.. What are your strengths? Gifts? Passions?  Are you an extrovert that gets your energy from having a large number of people around? Then don’t go to work for a small church with a high average age and few youth. If you are passionate about student leadership, will you be content working for a church that expects you to produce programs?  If you are passionate about discipleship, will you be content working for a church that expects big outreach events and large crowds?  How much time does your job really require?  Will this work with your other priorities for spiritual growth and healthy relationships?
     If you find yourself in a church that doesn’t fit your personality and gifts, it may be time to make the difficult choice to make a switch.  The more you can align who you are as a person and how you are comfortable in ministry, the healthier you’ll be.



Erin Jackson is a veteran & certified youthworker as well as part of the Youthworker Movement team. If you are in youth ministry, you should learn more about Youthworker Movement at http://www.ywmovement.org.  She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis and three kids. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/ If you like this post, please let me know.






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What if we threw away our curriculum and just used the Bible?

Last night at the Senior high Bible study I teach, I did a revolutionary thing.  Instead of coming into the class with a lesson plan full of activities, skits, handouts, etc., I brought the Bible.

Here’s how it worked:

We opened to a book of the Bible (Jonah – which is hard to find, so we used the Table of Contents).

I talked briefly about the background of the book to set the scene.

I asked for volunteers, and a youth read Chapter 1.  We talked about it verse by verse.  What do you think was going on in Jonah’s heart?  What must the Ninevites have done to get that reaction from Jonah?  What does this text say about the nature of God?  (What we concluded: God is powerful, creative, merciful, answers prayers and has a sense of humor.)  I had done some research ahead of time, so I added a little bit of information from scholars on the text.

Then we moved on to Chapter 2 and did the same thing.

At the end of the evening, we did what we always do.  We closed in prayer and passed out a little card with a Bible verse (Jonah 2:1-2) on it.  If the youth memorize it and can recite it next week, they get candy.  Maybe this is bribery, but I say it’s worth it if I get youth thinking about Scripture and getting it embedded in their thinking.

Here’s what we got from the lesson:

Incredible conversation.  The ability to discuss it without worrying about the theology of the author.  Depth.  Laughter.  Youth listening to youth.

Here’s why it’s revolutionary:

I have shelves of youth ministry curriculum in my office.  I tend to use it like a crutch or a lifeline.  Instead of relying on my own creativity and knowledge, I just grab the book of the shelf, pick what looks fun, look at the supply list and try to recreate someone’s learning scenario.  It’s not bad or inherently evil or anything, but it’s also not awesome.  It feels like creating entertainment more than creating engagement.   What I’ve learned is there is beauty in the simplicity of just reading the Bible and discussing it.  The youth agreed.

So my question/challenge for youthworkers out there: What would youth ministry look like if we made the Bible our main source of curriculum?  How would this change the face of youth ministry?  Pros/cons?  What keeps you from doing this?

Want to Understand the Teenage Brain?

Gracing the cover of this month’s National Geographic magazine is “The New Science of the Teenage Brain,” a headline the result of years of research on teenage brain development.  It attempts to answer the age-old question about teenage risky behavior, “What on Earth was he doing?”
As a person who works with and loves teenagers, what do you need to know from this article that will help you in your ministry?  

Based on new research by the National Institute of Health, this article proposes some new takes on the teenage brain.  Instead of saying teenagers do what they do because their brain is simply immature, it proposes that the teenage brain is actually  wonderfully adaptive for making the transition between childhood and living on your own.  The idea is based on evolutionary theory (called the adaptive-adolescent story) and suggests that even risky teen behavior is a natural part of development.

What I found most interesting is a new explanation on teenage risk-taking:

Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

While conventional wisdom might say that when a teen does something risky, they are not thinking of potential consequences, the study suggests that teens simply view risk/reward differently than mature adults.  In fact, studies showed that teens might even pay higher attention to potential risks.  However, teens tend to place a higher value on potential or even perceived rewards to behavior than adults.  In short, a mature adult may avoid a behavior (let’s say jumping off a cliff into the ocean) because of potential harm (let’s go with broken bones or death).  A teen will also be aware of the potential harm, but puts more value on perceived rewards like peer recognition…as in, how cool will I look when I survive.  Another idea is that youth thrill-seeking experiences can lead to positive traits – the love of adventure and new experiences helps teens to widen circles of friends and grow as a person.

The research, much like the adolescents themselves, is still in progress and well worth reading & sharing with your youth and adults.  A few thoughts from this youthworker on how we can apply this research: I think it can only help to cast the teenage brain in a positive light.  In youth ministry, we could feed into the natural tendency toward risk-taking and adventure by offering opportunities to try new things. We can also offer more ways to reward teens for their choices through recognition.

What do you think?  Are there ways we can use this research to work better in youth ministry?