One on ones, 101: The perfect primer on contact ministry

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This post was written by Katy Langely

So you’re getting to know students beyond just the “Oh hey, good to see you again!” You’ve got some contacts and you want to start getting into some “spiritual conversations”, but how exactly do you go about that? You hear that “intentional discipleship” is a hallmark of great youth ministries, but, uh, what are you supposed to do, sit down and say, “Okay kid, here we go. Time to follow Jesus, lemme give you a rundown.”??

Here’s a few tangible jumpstarters you can use as you move from “contact work” to “intentional discipleship”. 

  • Extend Specific Invitation

Students want to know you care. Take time to invite specifically and personally. Whether this is asking if they want to take a quick walk during free time at camp, or grabbing boba after school on Tuesday, initiate. Suggest a time and follow through. If you don’t initiate it, it probably won’t happen.

  • Prepare Back Pocket Questions

These are a lifesaver! Pre-loading a few questions makes one-on-ones way less awkward all the way around. As you get to know the student more, you can think ahead to follow up with prior conversations. See the below list of sample questions for ideas. 

  • Listen, Listen, Listen

Simple. Difficult. Takes practice. Worth it. You’re there to hear them first, not the other way around. Students are rarely heard and often spoken to, so reversing that trend is more meaningful than we can imagine. Advice has its time and place, but often, students need to first be given constructs for thinking for themselves, not just thoughts to think. Ask questions that will help them understand what they’re saying; ask questions that help them figure out a solution. Sit on your hands. Resist answering. Encourage thoughtfulness.

A special note, too, on pain: stay present. There’s no formula for grief and there’s no fixing hurt. Empathy first, solutions second. If a student shares something that hurts, be fully present: make eye contact, acknowledge the difficulty, grieve that all is not as it should be. Lament is biblical.

  • Resource the Student

One on ones don’t end at the one on one. Help the student take next steps of their own by equipping them. For example, if you have a student eager to serve, network them with a local non-profit. If you have a student interested in social justice, get them a book that a social leader has written. Handing them something to pursue on their own time is a huge way to help root what you have planted in your conversations. 

  • Have Your Own One-on-Ones

You need mentors too! What works in those relationships? Can you imitate it with students? 

  • Follow Up

Some students you’ll meet with regularly, some you won’t. That’s okay. Make sure, either way, you remember something the student shared and follow up, even if it’s as simple as an intentional greeting the following program. A little goes a long way. Students need to know they are noticed and valued, and a one-on-one with no follow up or acknowledgement of the time together can almost backfire. Whether it’s a funny moment from your time, or a significant follow-up question based off something difficult they shared, make sure you show them that you really heard them!

Back Pocket Questions

What’s one strength/highlight and one struggle/pain in your life right now?

This is a great “polaroid” of their life and things that they’re proud of and wrestling with.

What’s your family like?

You need to know this information. Period. How’s their relationship with their parents? Do they have siblings? Do they split time at Dad and Mom’s places? Are they alone in their faith, or lack of faith? Is home a healthy or hard place for them?

What are three things I need to know about you?/What’s something you’re super good at?

Give students a “brag-free zone” and a chance to fill you in on things that are important to them! 

What character is God in your life right now?

A personal favorite! It’s a way to help students creatively envision the role God is playing in their lives. Answers vary from “a lifeguard – he’s distant but I know he’s looking out for me” to “a lion, terrifying and huge and powerful”. It’s a thought-provoking question that promotes students looking into where they see God actually present on the daily. Especially fun to follow up on a couple years later.

Where do you see Jesus in your life right now?

More or less a rephrasing of the above, but more transformation-oriented. But be prepared for the “I don’t,” answer sometimes!

If you don’t mind/You don’t have to answer…

Avoid creating any kind of space where a student feels trapped. When you’ve reached a level with students where you’re asking personal questions about their lives and choices, preface difficult questions with a way out. They want to be known, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, but make sure they feel safe with you and know that there’s no pressure to answer anything they don’t want to.

How do you feel about that?

Help students understand themselves! Often a rant on a situation by a student will reveal little of their own worries and fears in themselves. Don’t be taken in by the temptation to fix a situation when the student simply wants to be heard and understood first.

What do you most want?

This is gold. Similar to the above, it helps refocus the conversation away from a “fix-it” to a human conversation. Sometimes what the student wants is a million miles from what they are talking about, and this question helps bring clarity to the conversation.