The Secret to Asking Students Great Questions

By Taryn Phiri March 29, 2016

It was a sunny summer morning in Dayton, Ohio, and my team of high school students from Colorado was hard at work in the community garden on Neil Street. My co-worker Luke stood with the team of students prepping for a brick pathway, immersed in a conversation with a student about her recent sports injury. My intern collected trash across the street with another student, talking through deep family struggles. One of Luke’s interns challenged a student to consider areas where he could lead beyond the trip, while his other intern debriefed a student about the risks she had taken that day. Students were having meaningful conversations, and their adult leaders were taking notice.

We sat down as leadership team that night to debrief the day, and the conversation soon turned to the question, “How do you guys have such great conversations with students?” This group of adults wanted to know our secret—what questions to ask and when to ask them. And they’re not the only ones. I speak regularly with youth workers who recognize that their ministries desperately need adults pursuing transformational relationships with students, and I’m hearing this question more and more often.

While it’s important to train adult leaders in the specific second-level questions they can be asking students (for example, How would you describe your relationship with your parents? What are your fears about the future? What are you struggling with in your walk with God?), it’s more valuable to develop the character of the adults in our ministries. By only training on specific questions, we risk communicating to our adult leaders that there is a golden question or a ten-step process that will guarantee them success in every conversation.

There are five character traits that are critical in the development of our adult volunteers. We need adult leaders who are …

1) Willing to be used by God.

We should constantly communicate to our adult leaders our belief that God is at work through them in the lives of students. I like to remind people that the questions I ask students don’t come from my own head, or even my own experience; they come from the Lord. I ask God what to say, he tells me, and I’m amazed at the results of following through on those conversations.

2) Ready to listen.

An adult leader who spends more time talking than listening to a student will kill their chances at a transformational conversation. Students like to test the adults in their lives. They want to know if adults are seriously interested and concerned about them. It’s better to listen intently to a student’s response than to frantically think about what to say next.

“Our ministries desperately need adults pursuing transformational relationships with students.”

3) Committed to the uncomfortable.

Asking students hard questions is bound to make them (and us!) somewhat uncomfortable, and we need to help our adult leaders recognize these uncomfortable moments as opportunities to press in rather than pull out. It’s the difference between asking, “How’s your family doing?” and “What frustrates you about your relationships with your siblings?” It’s choosing to ask, “What do you think God wants you to do with your life?” rather than “What colleges are you looking at?”  Students sometimes balk at my questions that go beyond the surface level, but their desire to be known almost always trumps their initial sense of discomfort. They hope I’ll be brave enough to stick with the conversation, even when it gets difficult, awkward, and uncomfortable.

4) Ready to let go of their insecurities.

It’s easy to forget that youth ministry can bring up old insecurities in our adult leaders. Adults struggling with self-worth likely doubt that students want to spend time with them. Adults wrestling with their lack of biblical knowledge are probably hesitant to facilitate small group discussions. Volunteers who cling to these insecurities will struggle to look beyond themselves to focus on students. A large part of developing the character of your team of adult leaders should be identifying and addressing the specific insecurities that prevent your team from being focused and effective.

5) Dedicated to personal growth in Christ.

The most valuable assets in our ministries are adult leaders growing in Christ. Dan Elsen, our program director at LeaderTreks, regularly reminds me that the degree to which I’m influenced by Christ is the degree to which I can influence others. I desperately want students to know the Lord, but I can only teach students what I have experienced and internalized. If the Lord has taught me the value of commitment, I can pass that lesson along to my students. Yet if I haven’t allowed God to grow me in forgiveness or trust, I can’t develop students in those areas.

Focus first on developing these character traits in your adult volunteers, and you’ll see them begin to acquire the hard skills of great conversation, facilitation, and mentoring. I pray that you see your ministry grow in exciting ways as your adult leaders influence your students to live lives committed to Jesus Christ.

About the Author

Taryn Phiri

Taryn Phiri grew up in various states across the East Coast and the Midwest, but now she and her husband, Jerry, are happy to call Glendale Heights, IL their home. After studying International Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, Taryn served at LeaderTreks for many years as a trip leader and training coordinator….  Read More