Ask Rooted: What is Your Goal and Approach When Meeting with a Student One-on-One?

We asked several experienced youth ministers about their goal and approach when meeting with a student one-on-one. As you’ll see, they have a lot to say! We hope their wisdom sparks insight and ideas in your own relational ministry.

Liz Edrington (Coordinator of Girls’ Discipleship & Young Adults at North Shore Fellowship, Chattanooga, TN) said:
What is the goal when we meet with anyone one on one?  What is the telos of the Christian life? If the answer isn’t love, if it isn’t glorifying God and entering into the mystery of loving by, in, and through Him, then what are we doing? I like to think of a dual conversation happening (when I can remember) as I spend time with a student; I am not only in conversation with the student, but I’m in conversation with the Spirit. What is He showing me about the topics this student is passionate about? How do I see the image of God in this student, that I might call that out and celebrate it? Where does the gospel touch down in what this student is facing? These are questions I may ponder in my heart as I attempt, by God’s grace, to be a redemptive listener, one who sees and hears well for the sake of love. My hope is to discover who God has created this student to be, even as they are discovering it. And y’all, there are so many ways to connect. I tend to be a question-asker, but that isn’t always what builds safety and trust with a student; sometimes they need us to take up a little space by bantering for a bit, or maybe sharing some of our own story. Maybe playing basketball for a solid hour with our student is the best way we can love them! Healthy relational intimacy is meant to build, and then to taper; if we dive in the deep end (for example, by asking a huge question about where they’re struggling or about their identity) before spending some time splashing around in the shallow end, we risk causing them to shut down or feel pressure to share things they aren’t ready to share. I’m learning to splash and then throw out deep end questions, with invitation to answer or not. Sometimes I’ll even prime them for “a Liz question,” as we’ve jokingly begun calling them. Every kid is different; be a good student of your kids to learn what meets them the best where they are, that you might swim alongside them and invite them more and more to the riches of following Jesus, who reveals the beauty of every portion of that pool.

Jon Coombs (Youth & Young Adult Pastor of Rowville Baptist Church, Melbourne, Australia) said:

When meeting with a student one-on-one I find it a great time to foster relationship, show care, and listen to what’s happening in their life. With these elements in mind it provides an open conversation that can intersect with life and faith. The approach I most regularly use is a relaxed one; knowing that this is a long-term relationship and conversation. Sometimes this means it might be a very casual and varied conversation, at other times a student may bring a particular topic they are dealing with and seek advice. Hopefully, whatever I provide and whatever is going on in the life of a student, it is wisdom from above.

Kyle Whitehead (Assistant Pastor for Counselor and Youth Ministries at Christ Community Church, Daytona Beach, FL) said:

At first, I like to ask open-ended questions: What’s new? How’s it going? How’s home? How’re your buddies? What’s been tough? What does your faith feel like these days? This is kind of like Genesis 3, God walking in the cool of the day asking, “where are you?” I don’t assume I know where they’re at and I let them show me. Any of their short answers are met with a smile and eye contact—which lets them know that it’s ok to be brief, but I’m hoping to hear more. I don’t push if they give the red light consistently. I want to hear what they are currently hoping for. I want to hear what is requiring the most faith for them. And, I want to hear what they are loving. My goal is to listen to what the Spirit is doing in them. Most of us have a hard time answering spiritual questions honestly, so I don’t ask them these questions directly. Instead, I try to ask questions that “get there.” For the same reason, I don’t ask “why?” This puts people on the defensive. I try to word it like this: “Is it ok if I ask, how did you come to see it that way?”

I also listen for ways that they are in need of relief, encouragement, clarity, help, spiritual direction. How are they refusing grace? How are they digging broken cisterns? I try to show curiosity over concern—unless they share something dangerous. It’s paramount for me to communicate to them that I too trust God in their lives. I don’t worry for them; that would be faithless. And I don’t tell them what to do and not do; that would be hopeless. We all need deep relief, purpose, and community, and all of this comes through receiving the good news and being around others who are fumbling to live in God’s loving presence each day. Whether it’s through my warm curiosity to know them, or in a deep talk about life, love, and God, I hope that my students feel the transcendence and immanence of Jesus and his invitation for shalom. If I get to open the Bible and witness to my faith, then I am thrilled and share whatever seems most fitting. This is how I work with seasoned Christians and unbelievers alike.

Nick Conner (Youth Pastor at Grace Church of DuPage in Warrenville, IL) said:
My first goal when meeting with a student is to simply let them know I care about them, their life, and what they’re going through. So much of this care is communicated through the simple act of arranging a time to hang out or pick them up from school (I’ve found that buying them a milkshake only reinforces this notion). Once we’re together, I want to spend the majority of the conversation just listening to them. I want to hear what is on their mind, what they are wrestling with, and get an idea of how they are viewing the world at this stage of their life. The next goal is to bring God’s Word into the conversation. The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word to change us. Since I want the Word to speak to my student’s particular life situation, I don’t usually come with an already prepared thought to share. I listen for a long time and then I let the Spirit lead me and call to mind something from Scripture to speak into their life. Finally, I always end my time with students by praying for them, asking God to accomplish what His Word says he will accomplish in this particular student.

Brandon McCulloch (Pastor at Calvary Chapel Twin Peaks, CA) said:
When I meet with a student one-on-one, I always aim to hear them. Truly hear them. Which means most of my words are used clarifying what they are saying by asking follow-up questions. I also seek to rephrase what they say in my own words so that the two of us can progress with the confidence that I hear them. Too often we fabricate assumptions about what students are saying based on what we’ve heard someone else share. We clump this student into a reorganized file created by past experiences. We do this because it is easy. But I seek to understand each student’s unique situation as unique to them.

Russell Boone (Henderson Hills Baptist Church, Edmond, OK) said:
I live in Oklahoma, which many have called the Buckle of the Bible Belt. Because of that I have many students who know all the right answers. They have a lot of Bible knowledge. To be honest, it can be intimidating because at times it feels like my students may know more of the Bible than I do. However, judging by the ministry of Jesus, God is after so much more than the mind. He is after the heart. Jesus demonstrated this heart pursuit when he was approached by the Pharisees concerning the disciples breaking the traditions of the elders. Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).

Just a few verses later, talking to the disciples, Jesus expounds upon this statement, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:16–19).

The Pharisee knew the traditions and were well educated in the Law but time after time showed no real heart change. Much like the Pharisees, many students in my context take pride in their knowledge and self-righteousness yet fail to consider the condition of their own heart. The reality is that even the most moral and Bible literate person has an evil heart. My goal when sitting down with students is to simply expose their heart and help them see their need for the Gospel. My approach is generally to ask more questions than I answer.

Helping students see their need for the Gospel is not easy, nor is it a formula to follow. However, I have found the following questions to be helpful.

  • In what way do you struggle to trust/believe the Lord?
  • In response to a confession of sin I may ask:
    • What do you think is the desire beneath that sin?
    • What does this reveal about you?
  • How do you think God views you in light of the sin you just shared?
  • What does God want you to see right now about himself/yourself/others?
  • What lie might you be believing right now?

Adam Peterson (Director of Youth and Families at Christ City Church, Memphis, TN) said:
My primary goal when meeting with a student one-on-one is to get to know himor her better. This applies no matter the purpose for our meeting: discipleship, discipline, or planning for a special event. If I’m taking the time to meet with the student, I want to make sure I use it well by trying to understand them better. If I want them to know God, I want them to know they belong. This means I’m open about what’s going on in my life, too, however the main focus is on the student.

I always ask about three main spheres: school, family, and friends. Sometimes a student is more keen to share on one than another. From there, we talk about whatever it is that we came to talk about. My approach for discipleship meetings is to simply walk through a book of the Bible together. Then, to close our time, I ask how we can connect the second part of our discussion to the first. Or, put another way, if we were meeting to discuss scripture, what are the indicatives of what we talked about (sum up some takeaways) and what are the imperatives (what are we supposed to do with what we read in our lives). This structure has served me well because we always get to what matters for the student.