Sarah Stanley on Engaging Students in Active Compassion



sarah_stanleySarah Stanley is the Youth Support Pastor at The Meeting House … a 15 campus multisite church! In this interview Sarah gives some great insights into how to motivate students to engage in compassionate outreach into their communities. She talks about some the lessons they’ve been learning about seeing students get out of their seats and onto the streets to serve! This is a fantastic interview for any church leader looking to learn about moving people into action in their faith.

Episode Highlights

00:40 // Rich introduces Sarah and welcomes her to the show.

00:53 // Sarah tells us about The Meeting House.

01:17 // Rich tells us he used to work for The Meeting House and how he is looking forward to a future guest on the show.

01:47 // Sarah talks about her role at The Meeting House.

02:31 // Sarah talks about how the church connects with students and families.

04:54 // Sarah explains how The Meeting House defines areas of need in the community.

05:43 // Sarah talks about some of the practical ways The Meeting House serves the community.

08:52 // Sarah talks about the importance of establishing relationships with the students.

10:07 // Sarah gives an example of commitment and understanding as part of her learnings.

11:34 // Sarah talks about the importance of engaging the students in compassion.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools //

Book Worth Reading // Strengthening by the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Hayley-Barton

Inspiring Ministries // So many, can’t think of a specific one.

Inspiring Leader // Bill Hybels

What does he do for fun? // Read. Run. Hang out with her dog

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody happy Thursday, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich the host around these parts, I’m so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us, to put us in your earbuds. Today we’ve got Sarah Stanley, she is the Youth Support Pastor from a church in the kind of Greater Toronto area called The Meeting House. Welcome to the show Sarah.

Sarah – Thanks a lot Rich, it’s good to be here.

Rich – I’m so glad you decided to spend some time with us today. Now why don’t you do two things? Tell us first a little bit about, for people who don’t know, a little bit about The Meeting House and then a little bit about your role there.

Sarah – Absolutely, so the church, The Meeting House, like you said, just in the Greater Toronto area. It’s a multisite church with about 14 locations now and it’s sort of a church for people who aren’t into church. So maybe people who have had a bad experience in the church previously or haven’t been connected in a long time. So just trying to spread the irreligious message of Jesus.

Rich – Nice and for people that don’t know, you probably picked up, if you’ve listened long enough to the unSeminary stuff, I actually worked at The Meeting House for a while, way back when in the ancient history of this church. So I’m really super bias, I really do think it’s a great church and Sarah’s an incredible leader. I’m so glad, so privileged to have her on the line today. Actually we have Bruxy coming on as well in a couple of weeks, their Teaching Pastor, which I’m excited about as well.

So one of the things I love about what you’re doing at The Meeting House… Oh you didn’t tell us about your role, what’s your role?

Sarah – My role, like you said, is the Youth Support Pastor. Essentially what I do is support our Youth Pastors and Youth Coordinators across all of our sites, at junior and senior high. So encouraging, equipping, resourcing them as they do ministry on the ground at their locations.

Rich – Nice.

Sarah – Yeah it’s fun.

Rich – That’s fantastic, it probably keeps you busy.

Sarah – It absolutely does but we’ve got some really good people.

Rich – That’s great. Well one of the things I love about what you’re doing in the student ministry at The Meeting House, you really do such a great job, it seems to be at least, doing a great job getting students connected and compassion or outreach being involved in serving in the community. Why don’t you give us a sense of the kinds of things you’ve been doing to see students get connected in that way?

Sarah – Yeah absolutely, so obviously with the multisite thing it looks a little bit different at all of our sites, but at the end of the day we want each of our youth ministries at each of our locations to have a very intentional compassion element to it. Just recognizing that as kids discover and learn what it means to follow Jesus and be disciples, part of that meaning being what it means to serve and not just saying, “Hey this is just something I do, but it’s actually because I love and follow Jesus and it’s part of who I am as a result of that.”

So I can see, I guess, more personally to what that looked like for me the last four and a half years. I was in the junior high at our Oakville location and so for me it was kind of trying to get junior highs involved in compassion. Sometimes that can be a little bit tricky because just with age and experience and what opportunities are available to them, but something kind of neat that I’ve appreciated The Meeting House has done, is just being really intentional both with local and global compassion and specifically with local compassion, with all of our 14 different sites, taking a look at each site and saying, “Hey in the city, in the community that we’re in, what is the greatest need?” That’s different depending on our different sites.

So at, like say our Parry Sound site, First Nations is a lot more prevalent and they have some really cool opportunities to get involved, serving on some other reserves and working with youth up there. For us at Oakville that’s just not as readily available to us. It doesn’t mean that’s not something we should be learning and getting involved with, but for us just recognizing that there’s a lot of youth and just vulnerable families in our communities.

So what that looks like for us, especially with junior highs, is getting involved in our local organization and there’s one in Oakville called Kerr Street Ministries that already does an amazing job of serving new Canadians, families that are new to Canada, maybe families that are single parent families or just for a variety of different reasons are struggling. So we said, “What does it look like for us to help our students get really meaningfully involved there and not to just kind of pop in and serve but also to build relationships with some of those kids and some of those families?”

Rich – Now just before you jump on, how at each of those locations are the various youth workers, and I’m assuming the Lead Pastors or the Campus Pastors are engaged in that conversation as well, how are they coming up with or defining the areas of need in their community?

Sarah – Each site at The Meeting House has its Compassion Coordinator, which is awesome because that helps our Youth Coordinators. A lot of our Youth Coordinators are either part-time or volunteer, so they’re able to connect with the Compassion Coordinator just as a resource who’s very aware of the city, the community and the organizations that The Meeting House as a site is already partnering with and saying, “Hey how can we help the youth get involved in something that our community is already connected to and involved with?”

Rich – Okay.

Sarah – So that’s been awesome and just really a great resource and sometimes they try things and it works amazingly and sometimes it was a cool experience but maybe not like a long term thing for them. So that’s sort of what it looks like really.

Rich – Okay, cool. So what are some other ways, some of the other kind of practical things that they’re doing?

Sarah – For our students at the Oakville site with Kerr Street Ministries, what we started doing is taking the kids once a month. Every Monday Kerr Street Ministries run a family night, so they put on a dinner for families where they can just come and be together and eat at that time as a gift and then they stay afterwards and there’s often something that’s happening for the parents that’s put on by Kerr Street but the kids were just sort of going to the gym and like running amuck, which is awesome but we saw that as an opportunity for our kids to come in and when the parents are having that time as parents to come in and say, “Hey as junior highs we can come along as kids,” they are part of our city and part of our community.”

So they just come and they run crafts and they run gym games and they’re kids and they just get to play but it’s helping them and they have a blast. It’s like, “Can I do this sample for the craft?” because they want to do the craft. But it is a really neat thing, it has been for me, just to see them step into those opportunities of leadership but also just recognizing that this isn’t actually just about me making a craft because I want to, or me playing this game or whatever, it’s like putting this child that walks through our doors and putting them first and helping them have the best experience and really establishing that relationship. It’s been neat to see them, they come every month because they’re excited to see that kid that they know by name and we’re able to connect with those parents.

Rich – Very cool.

Sarah – Another practical thing that we’ve been able to do is each summer Kerr Street Ministries run the day camp. So again we’ve been able to bring some of our junior high and senior high students to help come alongside and help run that day camp with them for a couple of weeks in the summer. So again just trying to establish those relationships on an ongoing basis.

So that’s happened over a couple of years and the last two years we actually said to Kerr Street, “Hey do you have specific families, we’re seeing them through the day camp, through the after school/evening program, but is there a way that our small groups that our students can, on a consistent basis, be praying for and getting to know some of these families specifically?”

So we were able to match up one family from Kerr Street with one small group in our ministry both for junior high and senior high. So I think we ended up having close to 30 families in the last couple of years that were matched up with specific small groups and it just meant, it wasn’t anything crazy, it just meant that, “Hey if a kid in your family has a birthday we’re sending them a birthday card and every kid in your small group is signing it and we’re putting together a little pack of toys,” or just things that might encourage them and just say, “Hey we know it’s your birthday and we want to celebrate you.”

Rich – Very cool.

Sarah – At Christmas they put together Christmas baskets for the family and so just trying to look for those ways that say, “Hey it’s not just saying that we’re serving because we follow Jesus and that’s what we’re supposed to do,” but what does it look like for that to be part of our DNA and something that becomes our heartbeat?

Rich – Now it seems like there’s a really high focus on the relational connection, which I think a lot of times churches think about doing compassion work or outreach work, it’s more of the kind of like bless and run like, “We’re going to do this thing,” and then… Is that intentional, is that just because that’s your particular heartbeat or is that like a strategy from what you’re trying to do at The Meeting House in general?

Sarah – Absolutely, I think at the end of the day if we can do it through relationships that’s where we want to be. Just recognizing that we don’t want it to be, like you said, where you just parachute in and you feel like you’re saving the day but helping students understand. It’s been really neat to see them grasping this concept and actually I might think that I’m coming in just to help these kids have an awesome night, but I’m actually walking away feeling like it was more of a blessing for me than it was for them and seeing the people that they’re serving actually as a brother or a sister or a friend and not just someone that I’m trying to help, because that’s what Jesus would do and yes that’s true, but recognizing that there’s so much more to it.

So yes, it’s absolutely intentional and again sometimes we are involved in things where it might be a little bit more of a, “Here’s an opportunity where we can go and serve and we might not be back,” but for the most part, if we can find those things where there’s relationships being established that’s the goal for sure.

Rich – Very cool. Now give us a sense… it all sounds like it goes so well and it’s very easy and it happens without any troubles, but give us a sense, there must be a time where maybe you stepped on a little bit of a landmine, something that didn’t go so well. What was one of those examples so that we can learn, so we can try to avoid that in our churches?

Sarah – Absolutely. I think part of it is, one of just the really practical things in our context and I’m sure that that’s true for a lot of people, is that in ministry there is a lot of transition. So I know for me, even transitioning into the new role that I’m in now, some of the things that we were doing look different now because there’s different people in those roles and the ministry that we’re partnering with looks different.

So I don’t think it’s a thing where we are ever going to get to a place where it works and this is what we do always. I think it’s always morphing. One I know specifically and again if anyone works with junior highs they’ll get this. When they were doing the Christmas baskets, they’d all signed up for the things that they were going to bring to make sure we had, you know, everybody in the family’s covered. It’s like, “This is the night that you’re bringing stuff,” and then you’ve got some groups that do an amazing job and they brought this amazing basket and then the grade six boys just bought like some candy canes and so…

Rich – Right, exactly.

Sarah – So just being really mindful of what it is that we’re committing to and the organization that we’re working with and the families that we’re working with and then helping that become a learning opportunity for our students; what they’re committing to and why it’s important and how they make that work. So there’s definitely been some major landmines along the way.

Rich – Cool. Now is there anything else you’d love to share with folks, who might be thinking about trying to engage their students more in compassion before we jump onto the rest of the show?

Sarah – Yeah absolutely, I think something that I have learned and that we need to just continue getting better at is not just providing opportunities for them to engage but also providing the opportunities for them to talk about it and to process and what are they taking away from it and what are they learning from it and how it was different from what maybe they were expecting walking in. Because they know, yeah it’s easy to walk in and walk out but if you’re not taking that time to help them process what that means and how it’s shaping them that’s a significant piece of it for sure.

Rich – Yeah what does that look like in your environment? I think that’s a great insight, what does that look like when you’re working with students?

Sarah – Lots of questions

Rich – Yeah.

Sarah – Lots of questions and recognizing that it’s okay if they don’t have all the answers or they don’t know how to articulate and then allowing them to share with each other how those experiences are significant.

So for us that has looked like having some of the senior high students come in and share with the junior high students who maybe aren’t able yet to put words to, “Yeah that was fun but I have no idea why,” and having the senior highs being able to come alongside and encourage and maybe put words to what some of the junior highs are experiencing. Then I think just the consistency of you’re not just experiencing it once but it is an on and ongoing basis and being able to ask questions about, “Hey how does this look different for you now than it did back in September,” you know, come the end of the year. So I think just lots of questions and intentionality and consistency.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.