One of the hardest parts about student ministry is saying goodbye to old students one week and saying hello to a bunch of new ones the next. Last Sunday was promotion week so all of our new 7th graders joined us for the first time.
As kids were streaming into our room I kept thinking “How am I going to learn all these new names?” It seems like every new name I learn pushes out an old name to make room. The older I get the harder it is for me to learn the new names of students, but it’s totally worth the effort. We can’t rely on excuses like, “I don’t have a good memory.” or “I’m not good with names.” We also can’t rely on nicknames like dude, buddy, and partner. Student’s will pick up on this shortcut really quick.
When we do the hard work of learning names, our ministry will feel more personal and personal ministries are ALWAYS more effective. Here are few tricks I’ve learned along the way to learn names and make them stick.
Rely on other leaders. Some ministries are larger than others and at some point it becomes impossible to know everyone’s name. While it’s good for the lead youth worker to know as many names as possible, it’s not necessary as long as SOMEONE knows their name. Instead of trying to learn everyone’s name, make it your responsibility to make sure every student is known by at least one leader. This relieves pressure on you and gives your leaders ministry ownership. One way we’ve done this is to take a picture of every student individually (or as a group) and do flash cards with leaders. Keep track of how many you get right and do it multiple times throughout the year to see if you are getting better.
Learn their last names and stories. It’s really tempting to learn just first names of students. We think of names as bits of information. If we shorten it to just a first name then we have to remember less. Actually, the opposite is true. You remember information that is relevant to you. Last names help provide context. They help you differentiate one Bobby from the next. Last names also help you connect new students with families. It’s a lot easier to remember Karson’s name if you remember that he is Blake’s younger brother (as I did last Sunday). If you know they come from a particular family you’ve now connected them to several other names that you already know and reinforced their importance, making their name easier to remember.
Make it a priority. Whenever I get on a bus for an event full of students I make my rounds to all the seats and introduce myself. It sometimes takes me a few laps to get most of the names, but it works. This shows my students that I’m serious about learning who they are. Another way to make it a priority is to make a public announcement that you’re trying to learn everyone’s name and you’ll buy lunch for anyone who’s name you don’t remember. This is called incentive. I don’t want to buy everyone lunch, so I learn names.
Names. Every student has one and they matter. Do the hard work and make sure that every student is known. It’s a simple thing that will keep your ministry feeling personal.