Guest post by Jeremy Lefler
Every pastor faces creativity drought at some point. Does your ministry lack creativity and passion? Are you struggling to create new and exciting services and events? Is your creativity tank on empty? This is exactly how I felt in June of this year. Our high school ministry had just completed an amazing mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Our ministry seemed to be clicking at all cylinders. But then planning for the fall, winter, and spring event schedule began. I was exhausted and my creativity tank was on empty.
I don’t know about you, but when this happens to me I am tempted to ask questions like: If only I was cooler, taller (I’m 5’9”), more creative, a better speaker, then my ministry would grow.
We all know this is the wrong question to ask and that it leads to unhealthy thinking, but unfortunately we often ask that question first, or one similar to it. I encourage you to ask different questions, questions I believe WILL lead to growth in your personal leadership and unimaginable growth in your ministry (It definitely did for me): What ideas do my students, leaders, and parents have? Who do I need to listen to? Who in my ministry has a voice of influence that I am not listening to?
Effective listening is one the most important leadership skills one can learn, and it’s the one most leaders desperately need to develop. The problem is most leaders do not have extensive training in the art of listening – seminary didn’t teach me it. There are no conferences, classes, or support groups available that teach the art of listening. Overlooking the importance of effective listening can have costly consequences, including but not limited to, the decline of your influence and effectiveness. We all must get this right! Improving your listening skills may be the one leadership tool that will push your leadership and ministry to growth.
So how do we listen to those around us? What is preventing us from being effective listeners?
Let’s learn from the number one communication source in the world, social media. Social media has forever changed how we communicate. Breaking news is attainable by the touch of a screen and our ability to relate with others face-to-face is being challenged.
According to a poll done by pewinternet.org, 93 percent of young adults (18-29) who own a smart phone admit to using it to prevent boredom, to avoid others, and to get somewhere (GPS) – 85 percent of all young people own a smart phone. The ever growing popularity of social media has taught us that people like to be heard, noticed, and liked – the same holds true for your students. Your students have amazing ideas that they are afraid to share with you. Here are a few tips on how to improve your listening skills and how to get incredible ideas from those in your ministry.
Tips to improve your listening skills:
- Pause for 10 seconds after asking a question: If your student does not respond immediately to your question, give them the silent treatment.J Ten seconds is a long time, but for many people answers are hard to come by. Their lack of response does not necessarily mean they do not have an answer; it just may mean they need more time to gather their thoughts. Everyone thinks and responds at different speeds, give them the chance to think.
- Ask open-ended questions: Yes/no questions only lead to yes or no answers. Open-ended questions allow the other person to take the lead and feel more confident in what they say, leading them to feel more valued and appreciated by you and your ministry. Plus, you get them talking more! Examples of open-ended questions: Tell me what you think about last week’s Harvest Party? (Don’t ask: Did you enjoy the Harvest party?) Open-ended questions open the door to deeper communication by asking questions that encourage your interpretation.
- Follow-up their answer with a validation question/statement: So you are suggesting that we do…? People love to be heard and If you want to keep the line of communication open for future conversations, then it is essential that you validate the one you are listening to. Additionally, do not be afraid to give credit where credit is due. If a student comes up with an awesome idea that you use and is a success, give them a shout-out from stage. The long-term benefit of doing this may be that it encourages others to share their ideas with you. WIN!
Tips on how to get their attention so you can listen:
The art of great listening goes far beyond using your ears in face-to-face contact.
- Go to their extra-curricular events: I know most of you are already doing this, but what do you hope to accomplish with it? How is sitting in the bleachers at a soccer game going to help you listen to the student who is playing? It doesn’t. However, when you purposely sit with a parent (who often sits by their son/daughter’s friend’s parents) you have an hour or more to get acquainted and listen to them. If they don’t immediately tell you what is going on at home, eventually they will. The parents are the ones who keep the family calendar together, not the students. If the parents are aware of your ministry services and event times, it is far more likely the student will show up. Keep going and sitting next to the parents. You need the parents to be your champions and keep their students focused on church and Christ. Remember, you get students for maybe an hour a week. Their parents get them every day at home.
- Follow your students on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – Snapchat is a beast of its own. (There are some awesome discussions on the DYM Facebook page if you want suggestions on how to use it or if you should even use Snapchat.) Using social media should be a given, but I still meet and talk with youth leaders who say, “Social media is from the devil.” (Yes, I actually had a small group leader tell me that recently.) Your students’ posts tell you more about what they are going through at home, school, work, in sports, and in their relationships than you will ever see or hear at church. If you are struggling with what your next sermon series should be, look at what your students are saying on social media and you will have a plethora of ideas. The same goes for event brainstorming and planning; your students’ Friday night posts will tell you what they and their non-Christian friends love to do together.
- Do multi-choice polls on social media or through your group text account. Ironically, for better or for worse, your students value space and privacy. Social media polls are anonymous and they only take a few seconds to do. Heck, your students do this with their friends when they do a TBH (to be honest) post.
- Ask your local high school and middle school administrators out for lunch or coffee – offer to buy and promise to keep it to an hour: Ask your local high school administrators for a list of the after school clubs being offered, specifically the new clubs added this year. This list is a gold mind for creative event and programming ideas that students will want to participate in and are willing to lead. I have a sophomore girl whose number one goal in high school, above being in the top 10 percent of her graduating class, is to break the record for the number of clubs a student participates in one school year – the standing record is 15. I literally laughed out loud when I overheard her telling this to her small group leader.
- Have your small group leaders email you after every small group: Small groups are designed to be more intimate and close knit. These types of setting help students to open up about current social issues, problems at home, problems with their friends, and get them discussing the scriptures. Your small group leaders hear a lot of small talk that you will never hear. Get them to share it with you! Also, don’t forget to thank your small group leaders every time they send you a follow-up email/text.
This is not an exhaustive list, there are many more listening practices and communication platforms out there. I hope this list equips and inspires you to improve as a leader, especially in the art of listening. Do not feel as if you are doing this alone, everyone of your students has the capability to
Jeremy Lefler has been a pastor for the last 7 years and is the Student Ministry Pastor at Light and Life Church in Avon, IN. He oversees 6th-12th grade and has an amazing team of volunteers that help put on Wednesday night middle school services and Sunday night high school services. He is passionate about Jesus, coffee, and the St. Louis Cardinals.