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Presenting The 2015 Youth Ministry Gift Guide

Welcome to the 2015 Youth Ministry Gift Guide!
These are the gadgets, games, random things, and other purchases that youth ministers love! They'll spark your creativity, make your life easier, and maybe make your ministry a little more fun. Feel free to check your budget numbers, and if you've got a little bit of extra to spend before the year runs out, this is a great place to start. If you're strapped for cash, feel free to pick and choose and to pass around a "Youth Ministry Christmas List" to parents and supporters of the good work you're doing.

Looking for the SmarterYM Reading LIst? Click the link in the sidebar.

This bluetooth speaker gives you stereo quality sound with a ten hour battery-life and will easily fit in your backpack. It's far-and-away the best sounding bluetooth speaker at this pricepoint.

The speaker pairs with any bluetooth-enabled smartphone, which means you're never more than a few taps away from blasting any song on your phone - or on YouTube.

Obviously, you're not going to fill an auditorium with this, but we've used it in rooms with groups of 20+ students and it's given us more than enough sound. Use it to play gathering or background music, and pair it with YouTube's infinite library to create unlimited lip sync battles or a words-free karaoke machine.

Grab one of these and you'll find a hundred different excuses to use it, and they're all worth it.

As far as my students are concerned, this is the best card or board game we've got in our building. I grabbed at Target on a whim, and it's been an absolute hit. Exploding Kittens is stupid-easy to learn and the best part is that games are over pretty quickly, meaning it's easy to jump and out. It's perfect for killing the ten minutes between the part of your program that ended a few minutes early and the pizza that's not quite been delivered yet.

Exploding Kittens appeals to a slightly dorkier demographic - teenagers who are into memes and online cat jokes that I don't quite get. It's built by the same people that run The Oatmeal, which should give you a pretty good idea.

Warning: There is a NSFW-version of this game. Don't buy that version.

Yes, that is exactly what it says it is. A beachball, that when fully inflated, is the same height as me standing on top of another me. We grabbed two of these for camp, and we absolutely love using them in games - particularly gigantic volleyball. Here's why:

There is no one who can fully manhandle one of these things to get it over the net. It takes at least four people - and more like six - to corral the ball and hurl it back over the net. This makes it the perfect teamwork game.

Even better, the kid who wants to show off and take care of it himself? This ball will harmlessly - but humorously - knock him to the ground. The best team-building games that we play all involve a twelve-foot beach ball.

And FYI, you're going to want an air compressor to blow this monstrosity up.

This one isn't actually for your youth ministry. It's for you.

If you're a massive coffee snob like me, your pallet probably struggles to really appreciate the nuances of most church coffee. This is the kettle we have in our office to help us make better coffee (we French press usually) and to put together a quick cup of tea.

When Debi (our fantastic youth team assistant!) grabbed this kettle, my tongue wanted to climb out of my mouth and punch me in the face for not doing it sooner.

Drink better coffee and do it easy with an electric kettle. (You'll thank me later.)

Between this game and Exploding Kittens, my students are generally pretty happy. There aren't many games that get played. SuperFight is like Apples to Apples only instead of creating nonsensical pairings, you send ridiculous pairings into battle under ridiculous circumstances.

Who would win? Justin Bieber with zero-gravity boots? Or Teddy Roosevelt with a Puppy Musket?*

Literally every time we had students laughing to the point of tears, it was during a game of SuperFight.

* The correct answer, of course, is Teddy Roosevelt.

Another gift that's for you or your team more than it is your youth ministry. But given everything we know about the physical well-being of those working in the Church, this devce gives you access to the two data points youth workers are most likely to ignore - healthy sleep habits and regular exercise.

If you're able to grab Fitbits for your team (or for a spouse), it's even better. Engage in a friendly competition where everyone wins.

If your health needs to become a resolution in the New Year, you could do a lot worse than setting some goals and tracking them on a Fitbit.

If you're looking into getting into video, you can build a sound-controlled room, invest in professional lighting, and buy a camera and tripod that are more expensive than you thought they would be.

Or, you could embrace the raw feel of GoPro videos that are so cool everywhere. Strap it on wherever you go and by the time you're done doing whatever it is you're doing, you've probably got enough decent footage to put together your entire highlight video.

This will be a ton of fun, and you'll find lots of ways to use it.

These is the easiest way to create an interactive prayer space in your youth room. Fill up a whole wall or go cheaper and paint a section of a wall, then frame it in.

Use your newly built chalkboard to share announcements, to teach, to let students doodle, or to share public prayer requests with the group. A great artist can turn your chalkboard wall into the cheapest set design you'll ever do.

Be warned, it will take several coats to cover your space, so buy a gallon more than you think you'll need.

This is the probably the easiest Frisbee I've ever found to throw. As a Frisbee-enthusiast, I prefer licensed Ultimate Frisbee discs. But since those are way more difficult for beginners to throw, the Aerobie is the way to go.

These Frisbees make Frisbee-based games way more accessible to those who just aren't good at throwing a Frisbee.

Ultimate Frisbee used to be a frustrating experience for a lot of teenagers. They felt bad that they couldn't actually throw the thing or they got mad that someone else couldn't throw it. The Aerobie has made all of those experiences better.

I use Amazon Prime primarily for its free two-day shipping because it saves me time - especially this time of year. If we run out of batteries or if I need a few more Bibles for the youth room or if I want to pick up a neat gift for a volunteer...

...I can either deal with going to Target or the Christian bookstore or the mall (double yuck) during the Christmas rush and spend an hour driving and parking and shopping and waiting in a line and unparking and driving back to work again.

Or I can click like two buttons and move on to the next item on my list. Amazon Prime probably saves me an hour of shopping hassle every other week. That's time I can use for literally anything else.

How to get parents to pick up their kids on time (or at least close to it)

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman

When I started Smarter Youth Ministry, it was because I wanted to help youth workers deal with their biggest frustrations.

Usually, this meant the BIG stuff.

Fundraisers, volunteer recruiting and management, burnout and stress, out-of-control time management; you know, that stuff.

But when I ask youth workers, what's frustrating them, sometimes they say unexpected things...

...and lately, they've all been saying the same thing over and over again:

"It drives me nuts when I get to the end of a very long Sunday and a parent is an hour late to pick up their kid!"

First things first: It is totally okay to be frustrated by this. I've read pieces before that say we should celebrate when this happens because it's extra time to connect with a student and to be in ministry with them. When you put it that way, it seems almost sinful to be frustrated when a mom is 45 minutes late.

But those 45 minutes might mean you don't get home in time to tuck your own kids in. It might mean making you late for whatever's next on your schedule.

In our ministry, our child protection guidelines are clear about the fact that I'm not supposed to be alone in the building with a teenager. So if it's just one student who's waiting on a ride, I'm either grabbing a volunteer to make them hang around with me...

...or I'm waiting in a compromised situation.

That was reason enough for us to address our problem of late pickup, and imagine my surprise when I learned that the primary problem was me.

Why late parents were kind of my fault

Imagine yourself in this scenario: It's 8:45. Youth group ended at 8:00. Dylan's mom finally rolls into the parking lot. She is so apologetic.

I am so sorry, she says.

What do you say next?

Here were my lines:

"Oh, it's no problem. Have a great night."

"That's okay. We had a good time hanging out and playing Exploding Kittens."

"Don't worry about it. I'm glad I had the time to get to know Dylan a little better."

I mean, that's what you're supposed to say, right? The Church is a grace-filled organization, and it's not like you can just start ranting:

You know what? You should feel sorry! Because of YOU I missed bedtime with my kids. Because of YOU I'm going to have to stop to pick up fast food on the way home because I missed dinner and when the inevitable affects of all that processed junk finally catch up with me, I'll send YOU my medical bills.

So, because we know grace, and because we're kind people, we tend to brush off the need for an apology. The problem is this:

If we tell parents it's "okay" for them to pick their kids up late, they'll pick their kids up late.

That's why, before you implement any of these other strategies, the first thing you've got to do is find a polite and grace-filled way to tell parents to pick their kids up on time from now on.

Four (easier) ways to get kids home on time

End your programs on time.
Here's why. If your program regularly runs late, parents will start showing up late. It's hard to be upset with a parent who doesn't show up at 8:00 if the last three times he showed up at 8:00, he sat in the parking lot and waited.

Post a large sign with the end-time at student drop-off.
Parents need this not-so-subtle reminder, especially if your events have irregular end times. In my first year of ministry, I ran a calendar with random events that happened at random times and at random places. Expecting parents to always remember when an event ends at 6:30 versus 7:00 or 7:30 is impossible.

Make it (a little) boring for students who are left late.
You don't need to make them sit in silence until they're picked up, but if you let them play in the gym until their parents get there, then your students will be the ones encouraging their parents to arrive later and later.

(When we posted our large sign with the 8:00 end time, I heard from at least one mom who was sure it ended at 8:30. Why? Because her son told her it ended at 8:30 simply because he didn't want to go home yet.)

Give students a ten-minute warning.
Ten minutes before your program ends, sound a bell, play a video clip, make an announcement or do something that instructs ALL of your students to text their parents that we're almost done. Even if your program ends at the same time every week, there are some parents who are waiting for the text from their teenager that says, "Done. Come get me."

Having students send that text preemptively instead of waiting until they're done saying goodbye to all of their friends ten minutes after our posted end-time helped more than anything else.

What else do you do to make sure students get picked up on time? Leave a comment below.

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Why youth ministry needs more empathy toward parents

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

Four years ago, I had reached my stress limit in youth ministry.

The primary culprit?

Frustrations with parents who didn't do what I needed them to do.

I had the same complaints you do.

They didn't place a priority on youth ministry, they dropped their kids off late, and picked them up later.

They didn't take the time to read anything that I tried to send home.

Want to know what's changed in the last four years?

It wasn't the parents.

I totally changed the way that I think about parents, and it might be time for you to do that too.

If your concept of parents is that it's their job to get students back and forth from your programs, you'll be frustrated when that doesn't happen.

If your concept of parents is that you're all partners in ministry, you'll be frustrated when they fail to follow through on their end of the bargain.

There are a dozen ways to think about parents as a part of your ministry model, and all of them are wrong.

The right way is to remember that every parent of every student in your ministry is a real human being, overwhelmingly flawed, and often totally overwhelmed.

Hey youth workers, before you get too frustrated with a difficult parent, remember this: They're human too.

Despite the frequency with which we preach it, it's remarkable how often we set our grace and empathy aside when we're stuck dealing with a difficult parent.

When a parent doesn't do what we want or expect, we don't stop to consider if there might be circumstances that we don't know about. We don't stop to think about the life of the individual in question.

We just jump straight into frustration.

That's not good for us, it's not good for parents, and it's certainly not good for ministry.

Here's my recommendation, and it's the brand new perspective that may have saved my ministry career:

Instead of feeling frustrated, choose to feel empathy.

Truth is, most parents don't aim to disappoint you or frustrate you. Sometimes life gets in the way, and sometimes there are incredibly serious circumstances that intervene.

When I decided to try to understand the complicated lives of my most frustrating parents, my ministry stress vanished, mostly because I realized that the stress in my life often paled in comparison to theirs.

If you're a young youth worker, who's not a parent, you should watch this. There's a little bit of language in here, but it's hilarious, and perfectly captures how difficult EVERYTHING becomes when you're a parent.

Empathy is when you stop to realize that the parent didn't want to be late, but it's a tougher thing to manage than you realize. Empathy is when you stop to realize that the parent probably didn't forget on purpose, but that there are five different family calendars to balance and sometimes things get dropped.

Empathy is realizing that sometimes parents are put into impossible situations where they don't have a good choice to make, like when their son is supposed to lead worship at youth group but their daughter has an ear infection and needs a trip to urgent care pronto.

Empathy is when you realize that villifying parents for grounding their children from youth group is less productive than ministering to them anyway.

For me, there was the student who was always fifteen minutes late to youth group and I never took the time to understand why. Turns out he was one of eleven children, and I realized that if I was in that situation, I'd just be thrilled if my kids regularly wore pants.

Or the mom who always insisted on picking up her daughters twenty minutes early. I found out later that her husband was in Iraq and that they had a very brief window on Sunday evenings to Skype with him.

The family that was super-active in the church, but literally never sent their children to youth group? The father worked out of town six days a week. Sunday was a mandatory family day, and you know something?

It should have been.

Right now, I want you to leave a comment and tell me the story of the time you had an empathetic experience with a difficult parent.

And if you don't have one, try to learn one this week.

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