Reflections from a Wanna-Be Youth Pastor: Names

Names are hard.

And I don’t mean the long names that are hard to pronounce. I’m talking about simply remembering names of students. Fortunately, the long and difficult names are often the easiest to remember.

I lead a small group of high school guys at the church where I volunteer. We’ve been meeting together every Sunday night for a half hour to discuss the week’s lesson and share our stories of success, failure and grace from the past week. It’s a slow process, getting to know students well. Names are the first and, unfortunately for many, the biggest hurdle in the slow process.

I have to confess, I did not finally get my students’ names down until well into November. From late August through October, I found myself floundering with “dudes” and “man” as I desperately tried to remember a name. On several occasions, I experienced that lingering sense of deja vu coupled with guilt as a student shared with me a story I probably heard last week, but forgot.

I found myself wondering why names were so hard to get down this time around. This past summer, as an intern, I found names to come pretty naturally. Did I just not care as much now that I was a volunteer as opposed to being an intern? Did I have too many other concerns in my own life to merit me putting to memory the names and important stories of my guys?

I was thinking this through a few weeks ago as I was driving back to school after another night of dancing around names. As a youth ministries major and a volunteer who hopes to one day pastor students in a local church, I know full well that names are crucial, because if you don’t remember names, you are essentially communicating that a student’s identity isn’t important enough to you to put to memory. Knowing a student’s name and story is a crucial first step in bridging the gap between us and them, demonstrating a sense of care and presence in students’ lives so often marked by a sense of abandonment and isolation from concerned and caring adults.

As I was working through these thoughts on my drive home, my phone rang. My girlfriend was off work and wanting to talk about her day and ask about mine. On the way, I grabbed a drive-thru dinner in order to make it back to school in time for my weekly Sunday night meeting with the residence life staff, of which I am a part. After which, I proceeded to tackle the leftover homework waiting for me that I had put off over the weekend. It wasn’t until I crawled into bed several hours later that these questions returned to me. And that’s when some of it started to come together for me.

Volunteers are real people living in real circumstances with real life concerns. This past summer, as an intern, my whole life revolved around the students I was working with. Now, finding myself back in a volunteer position, “student ministries volunteer” finds itself in an awkward juggle with my role as student, resident assistant, roommate, etc. And this is me speaking as a single college student whose focus in college is student ministries. I can only imagine what it’s like being a volunteer in student ministries with a completely separate career field, a family with several schedules, and life demands that draw their attention elsewhere. When my volunteers arrive for student ministries, they don’t arrive out of a vacuum. They come having had a quick dinner with family, a tough day at work facing multiple deadlines, and a car that struggled to get to church that night. In light of this, the names and stories of individual students can get lost in the busyness.

So what then is my role as a youth pastor seeking to connect busy volunteers with students who want and need meaningful connections?

As someone who exists within the world of student ministries, I need to be equipping my volunteers to make those meaningful connections. Part of this entails making sure there is adequate time given for volunteers to connect with students at events and regular gatherings, but this involves a balance between providing time and avoiding additional burdens to already over-scheduled families. A few thoughts, then, on what we can do as youth pastors to overcome the “names barrier” for our volunteers, from my own experience and the shared experiences of other youth pastors.

Remember that your volunteers have lives outside of their time with you. This should be rule #1 for the youth pastor’s mindset in empowering volunteers. Volunteers need our time, concern and encouragement almost as much as our students do. They come to our gatherings every week much as our students do – beat up from a hard week, family struggles, the realities of life. Begin to see your role as pastor to student ministry volunteers first. Part of this includes pastoring them through their ministry to our students.

Make name-games a regular part of your activities. Now, name-games can be cheesy and overdone, but it is a quick and easy way for volunteers to grab onto names and be reminded of names from past weeks. It also has the added bonus of connecting new students with the names of everyone, helping everyone feel connected initially.

Learn names yourself, and use names often. We within the world of student ministry have the advantage of going to work every day of the week with these kids in mind. Leverage this fact for the sake of your volunteers. Whenever you interact with students while your volunteers are around, use students’ names. Not only will this demonstrate to your volunteers the importance of knowing names, your volunteers just might overhear and thank you later.

Provide plenty of consistent time for volunteers to engage students. Establish small groups of students for each volunteer to call their own, and give them plenty of chances to engage them in a variety of settings. The worst thing that you can do as a student ministries pastor is to eat up time when your volunteers could engage students with more of us talking about whatever clever lesson we’ve put together for that week. Volunteers need consistency and time in order to begin to see the benefits of their investment in students.

Teach your volunteers the power of nicknames. This might be worthy of an entire post in and of itself, but nicknames can be powerful ways to develop a sense of identity with the community and a memorable way to remember students. Beyond the easy “dude” and “man,” unique nicknames can help students begin to see the value of their own unique identity in the community. And nicknames are often easier to remember than the generic Johns, Jakes and Justins.

What other ideas have you found to be effective in helping your volunteers connect with students?

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