conversations on the fringe

FREE Spiritual Formation Guide for Youth Workers on the Fringe

Ministry on the fringe can be exhausting and depleting. Developing sustainable spiritual practices in foundational for longevity in ministry to high-risk youth. Unfortunately, these habits are often not taught to frontline workers. Conversations on the Fringe knows how challenging this type of work can be and is committed to providing youth workers with valuable resources to keep you in the game for the long haul. We are committed to partnering with you to ensure spiritual vitality so that the youth you serve get the overflow from a cup that is full.

Download the Spiritual Formation for Ministry on the Fringe Guide for FREE! This is our gift to you. Thanks for all you do for marginalized and vulnerable youth. What you do matter but more importantly, YOU MATTER! Hang in there and may God fill your cup so it runs over to those who need it most. To download, click on the image below.


Youth Ministries That Nurture Resiliency In Vulnerable Youth

Young people are living in a world that seems hell-bent on breaking those who try to navigate it successfully. Likewise, the church in America has a tendency to break people as well, especially its young. If our students, children, and community youth are going to move out of adolescence into functional adulthood they will need to be resilient.

So, what exactly is resilience? Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ after a tough situation or difficult time and then get back to feeling just about as good as you felt before. It’s also the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances that you can’t change, and keep on thriving.

Rick Little and the fine folks over at the Positive Youth Development Movement have identified the 7 Cs: Essential Building Blocks of Resilience. They say “Young people live up or down to expectations we set for them. They need adults who believe in them unconditionally and hold them to the high expectations of being compassionate, generous, and creative.”

Competence: When we notice what young people are doing right and give them opportunities to develop important skills, they feel competent. We undermine competence when we don’t allow young people to recover themselves after a fall.

Confidence: Young people need confidence to be able to navigate the world, think outside the box, and recover from challenges.

Connection: Connections with other people, schools, and communities offer young people the security that allows them to stand on their own and develop creative solutions.

Character: Young people need a clear sense of right and wrong and a commitment to integrity.

Contribution: Young people who contribute to the well-being of others will receive gratitude rather than condemnation. They will learn that contributing feels good and may therefore more easily turn to others, and do so without shame.

Coping: Young people who possess a variety of healthy coping strategies will be less likely to turn to dangerous quick fixes when stressed.

Control: Young people who understand privileges and respect are earned through demonstrated responsibility will learn to make wise choices and feel a sense of control.


This is a great grid to think through when creating programs, purchasing curriculum, and planning events. Can our efforts increase resilience in the most vulnerable youth? I think they can but it will take thoughtful intentionality.

  • What if our we created more opportunities for students to lead (in big church)? Would that increase their competence to have their leadership validated and nurtured by other leaders?
  • What if we taught a series on confidence (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me)? Sound familiar? Are we driving this truth deep into the hearts of young people? I’m not talking about the notion that I can achieve but more the notion that I can overcome.
  • What if we continued to beat the drum of integrity and character but laced it with grace so when they fail they are able to get back on track without having to avoid the shame monster?
  • What if we did more than just allow our kids to babysit for the Women’s Fellowship Coffee? What if we actually gave our students meaningful work in the church and community? What if they led teams with adults? What if they helped plan services? What if they researched their community needs and church leaders valued their work so much that it might actually alter they mission?
  • What if we offered more than shallow platitudes to manage the hurt and pain they experience as they navigate life? What if we deliberately included emotional and social intelligence in all our teaching and small group curriculum? What if we actually modeled self-control and appropriate vulnerability of emotions? What if we taught coping skills to kids in our youth group?
  • What if we allowed teens the power of choice? What if we allowed them to make wrong choices and were there to help them process the consequences of those choices? What if we encouraged rebellion (minor rebellion) and autonomy instead of conformity? What if we didn’t overindulge youth so they develop a sense of entitlement and instead taught them the value of work and earning respect?

I wish I had learned many of these lessons growing up. More than that, I wish I had been surrounded by a great herd of adults that walked alongside me while I learned these lessons, encouraging me, walking beside me, challenging me by raising the bar, modeling resilience, and not giving up on me when I screwed up. I imagine that sounds a little like heaven to a vulnerable teenager and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry

I went to a training on creating trauma-informed systems of care. I was impacted by the implications on schools and youth ministries. People often took to the church for hope in the midst of tragedy. The church can be a place of good new and healing if they take steps to be trauma-informed in what they do.


Trauma studies report 70% of all adults have experienced some form of trauma. Trauma experiences can range from a simple car accident that results in injury, to gang violence in the city, to physical or sexual assault, to repeated name calling, to being in high stress environments such as jail or prison. 90% of those people suffering from trauma end up in public behavioral health systems seeking support and therapy. 70% of teens who seek treatment for addiction report having traumatic experiences in their young lives, often repeated trauma. New research has revealed trauma can actually derail normal development of the body, brain, and cognition.

SAMHSA (2012) reports “individuals can be retraumatized by those whose intent it is to help”. Trauma clearly interferes with healthy brain development and coping measure become problematic (i.e., substance use, avoidance, aggression, risky behaviors).

As we engage youth in our programs (especially schools and churches) we must understand the principles of trauma informed care.

Understanding attachment theory should be required for all who work with children and adolescents. Attachment theory is best explained as the type of connection (attachment) one has with their primary care givers as a child. When the infant/child is cared for and nurtured the growing infant develops a sense of security that their needs will be taken care of. As a result, the child will likely develop into an adolescent/young adult who is autonomous, self-controlled emotionally and behaviorally, well-formed identity, and can adapt to changing circumstances.

A child who experiences high levels of stress or trauma is more likely to develop insecure or avoidant attachment styles of interacting with the world around them. If they are victimized, they will likely be extra weary of people and see the world as unsafe. Due to this worldview, the child has to develop maladaptive ways to interact with the dangerous world they live in.

When a child experiences trauma the architecture of the brain is changed and emotions and cognition are not integrated. The separate regions of the brain do not communicate effectively with one another so, when something triggers a memory of trauma that fear signal cannot be challenged with rational thought because the pathways have been disrupted. This means everything is a potential trigger for re-activating the trauma.

One example of this is when a young person, that has been sexually abused and threatened or coerced into not reporting the abuse, is told by a well-meaning youth worker that she cannot have her cell phone on the retreat away from home. The reason for this is so the student can focus on God without the distraction of modern mobile technology. Unfortunately, a trauma-impacted student may experience this as a loss of safety that reignites the feeling of being powerless to call for help if needed.

Children and youth are vulnerable populations but there are intersections that increase their vulnerability because we live in a society that marginalizes anyone that is different from the norm (i.e., LGBT, people of color, disables, gender, religion, class, etc.). The greater the number of identity intersections the higher the likelihood of victimization and trauma. Think about the homeless black teenage girl who was kicked out of her house because she identifies as a lesbian. She also recently dropped out of school because she has a learning disability. Now, in order to survive on the streets, she resorts to survival sex with strangers just for a warm bed and a hot meal. This is traumatizing if it happens just once but for many marginalized youth, this becomes a way of life.

If a young person is handled with care, healing can occur. Our school or church can help this precious child begin the healing by creating a trauma informed program or ministry. This starts by educating staff and volunteers. Bring a local therapist, who specializes in trauma, to speak to your team about the impact of trauma and how to be more informed as a team. There are also plenty of resources on the web. Conversations on the Fringe has several blog posts dedicated to trauma.

Another way we can help a hurting student is by creating safe spaces for them to walk with Jesus. Their journey may not be as linear as most of their peers. Cultivating an environment for vulnerability is of the utmost importance but remembering the classroom or youth ministry room is no replacement for a qualified and trained therapist.

Trauma impacts whole family systems. They will need support as they begin the journey to freedom and healing. Trauma alienates and can lead to isolation for families who are ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and hurting themselves. They need your friendship more than anything. Be present. Sit quietly. Cry with them. Bring meals to families sorting out their trauma stories. Incarnate real love and support. Prayer is good and essential but no replacement for a hug or wiping away tears or a warm dinner.

Lastly, creating a trauma-informed program is a justice issue. If a traumatized young person is to ever recovery a sense of goodness and justice in the world, if they are ever to let go of the natural anxiety of being victimized and move out into the world a whole-hearted person, they need to know and experience goodness that brings balance to their life. Trauma leaves such a powerful and deep impact on the mind and soul that it will take good people doing good to re-establish equilibrium to their mind and soul. The issue of justice cannot be avoided in human service or ministry organization because, it is the heart of why people seek help for trauma in the first place.

What does justice work look like for victims of trauma? What does it look like for perpetrators of trauma?

The Voices Project – Shifting Focus

The Voices Project aims to share stories of marginalized and vulnerable groups of people, people created in the image of God. Our hope is that these stories humanize and connect us to others who are different that us (although, not as different as we think) and moves us towards closing the distance between one another.

This week’s post comes from Dr. Michael Danner, Executive Minister of the Illinois Mennonite Conference. We are partnering together later this month to have a conversation about whether or not the church can be Good News to LGBTQ youth. He explains why below.

Shifting Focus…

I became a part of Illinois Mennonite Conference (IMC) and the wider Mennonite Church in 1997 (now MC USA) when I was called by Metamora Mennonite Church (MMC, Metamora, IL) to serve as their associate pastor.  A big part of my job was overseeing children’s and youth ministry – with hands on responsibility for jr. and sr. high.

Earlier in 1997, MMC hosted the IMC annual assembly that focused on one question. Would IMC kick out two congregations – who were currently on discipline – because they had openly gay, non-celibate church members.  There was a vote. The vote did not carry. The churches remained on discipline, but were not removed.  Some churches were upset. Others were happy. Some people left their congregations. Others remained. Everyone seemed worn out.

That was almost two decades ago.

I’d love to say that over the past two decades IMC and MC USA have resolved the tensions and questions about the in(ex)clusion of LGBT persons that were present in 1997.  Yes, some things have shifted since then. We do not talk as much about questions of LGBT membership. However, we talk more about non-celibate married gay persons in leadership, whether or not ordination is open to them, whether the church will bless same-sex marriages and pastors are free to participate.  People still line up on one side or the other, with many people in the broad middle, hoping we can move on soon.

In the midst of all this, one thing has escaped our attention. How are we, as a church, engaging youth people in our midst who awaken to a same-sex attraction?

Here’s the thing. Persons generally become sexual aware in their teens (13 – 18).  In the best of circumstances this is an awkward and, often times, confusing time. This is especially true to those who have same-sex attractions. At risk behaviors for students that have same-sex attraction skyrocket – including the risk of drug abuse and suicide. Students often feel alone.

According to recent research by Andrew Marin, published in Us vs. Us, 96% of gay persons interviewed prayed that God would change their sexual orientation when they first came to believe they were gay.  He also reports that when this prayer goes unanswered, the result – more times than not – is that students are driven into church and youth group, not away. Marin’s explanation of this is that gay teens believe their orientation isn’t changed because they are not faithful or “Christian” enough, so they start doing more “Christian” things.

In my view, this has created a situation where the church talks/argues/debates – somewhat abstractly – about questions related to gay persons while there is little done to equip pastors, youth pastors, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers (parents and grandparents) as they relate to students wrestling with their sexuality in their midst.

Whether the adults in the church are aware of it or not, there are gay kids in our youth groups that are wrestling with significant issues. How are we doing at walking with them? Are we creating environments where they can hear and experience the good news of Jesus in their lives?  Do they have the kind of support that makes it less likely they will engage in at risk behaviors? Do they believe that the church is the place for them to experience God’s grace and mercy in the midst of their struggles?

These are complicated questions that raise many tensions among adults in the church. Which means we tend to avoid them. Which means students suffer in silence.

The purpose of Innovative Disruption: Can the Church be Good News to Gay Teens is to explore helpful practices for those who walk with teens. We’re pleased to have Chris Schaffner as our presenter.  I have every confidence that he is up to the task in steering sessions that will lead to practical insights and practices.

As Conference Executive Minister, It is my hope that this event signals a missional shift in our approach to issues of sexuality within the conference.  Instead of abstract discussions that don’t ever land on the ground, it’s time we begin to consider how we minister in and among the culture where we live. That includes development more helpful and healthy relationships between the church and the gay community, including the approach of the church to gay persons in the church. The fighting has not served the gospel well, in my view. It has served the church even worse.  Can we imagine a new kind of dialog and engagement that leads to life, even in the midst of tension?

Bio:  Michael Danner, Conference Executive Minister, Illinois Mennonite Conference.  Live in Morton with my wife Melissa and our two cats. Three adult-ish kids.  MAR Trinity Evangelical Divinity,  DMin in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary.  Blog at  email is

This event is open to the public. You can register for this gathering by clicking the image below.


The Voices Project – Refugee Realities

We’re launching a new series from The Voices Project. This initiative aims to share stories of marginalized and vulnerable groups of people, people created in the image of God. Our hope is that these stories humanize and connect us to others who are different that us (although, not as different as we think) and moves us towards closing the distance between one another.

This first post comes from a friend and former pastor of mine. I’ve known Tim for years and know his heart is for those who are near to the heart of God. Take a few minutes and open your heart to what he has discovered in his work with refugees from around the world. If, after reading this, you want to support Tim and his work, you can find suggestions at the end of this post with easy instructions on how you can help.


Refugee Realities
– Tim Barnes, Executive Vice President at International Association For Refugees (IAFR)

A Little Girl in a Refugee Camp
My colleague and I were walking along the rough paths that wind through the Dzaleka Refugee Camp about an hour or so from Lilongwe, Malawi. As we were in quiet conversation, we heard someone behind us clear their throat.

We slowly turned around to see a dirty faced little girl with a huge grin on her face. With a confident and strong voice, she began to sing, “Welcome, Welcome. Ladies and Gentlemen…I love you, and Praise the Lord. Welcome”. Then with a loud giggle, she ran off as quick as she had appeared.

Her smile and laughter grabbed me. But what I couldn’t shake were her words. ”Welcome, Welcome”. As she welcomed us into her world with open arms, I was acutely aware that the majority of the world was saying just the opposite to her.

Refugee Realities
Our giggling friend is one of 65.3 million people in our world today who finds themselves displaced due to war, violence, conflict, and political or religious persecution. And more than 50% of those displaced, are under the age of 18. In fact, nearly 100,000 refugee teens and children showed up in Europe last year on their own, without a parent or guardian.

As we experience the greatest movement of people across our world, numbers not seen since the end of World II, many of our politicians, leaders, and media work to spread fear through misleading and skewed information about refugees. Unfortunately, there are many in the church who are following the same path.

Reasons For Hope
Having engaged displaced people in the refugee camps in Africa, along some of the paths that are being traveled in Europe, and with those who have been resettled to North America, I would like to share with you three things that I am learning about God, Refugees, and the Church…and that also give me hope.

The first thing I am learning is that God loves and cares for refugees. Deuteronomy 10:18,19 (NIV) says, “He (God) defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners…”. Now, if this was a one-off verse, we might be tempted to move on. But over and over throughout scripture, we find that God has a special heart for those who are the most vulnerable, including those whom we see as “foreigners”.

If you look closely, you will notice that the whole Biblical narrative is full of displacement; starting with Genesis where Adam and Eve are displaced from the Garden because of their sin, to Revelation, which is written by John, while exiled (displaced) on the island of Patmos. Think of Hagar, Joseph, Daniel, David, Nehemiah, Philip, Pricilla and Aquila, to name a few. In fact, Jesus was a refugee. He and his parents had to flee to Egypt in the middle of the night to escape Herod’s quest to kill him.

Over and over we find stories in scripture of God working in specials ways among people who were displaced. And He is doing it today because he loves and cares for refugees.

Secondly, I am learning that refugees are more than just people in need. Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, refugees are some of the most resilient and resourceful people that I have ever met. Don’t get me wrong. They often find themselves in very desperate situations but we often forget that many refugees come with a background in education, business, law, government, medicine, and have other professional skills.

My organization, International Association For Refugees (IAFR) works closely with refugee churches that have started in refugee camps in Africa. In spite of the hardships and vulnerabilities that come with refugee camp life, these churches have chosen to tithe on their meager UN rations. Through this sacrificial gift they have committed to serve the widows and the orphans, started pre-schools, Bible and ministry training schools, and sustainable agriculture projects. They have helped to care for the poor and have planted numerous churches both inside and outside the camp. In spite of their need, they have chosen to be missional to the core.

Third, and finally, I am learning that the church can be a source of hope in the middle of this crisis. All across the world, local expressions of faith are strategically located near where refugees are on the move. And as the body of Christ, are we not to be the vessel through which the heart of God engages the world and brings hope?

Many humanitarian organizations are doing fantastic work, meeting the crisis needs of security, food, shelter, water, and medical care. But for refugees to recover and find hope in their displacement, they need more. They need community, relationship, understanding, increased capacity, a sense of meaning in the middle of their crisis. They need the church to show up and be the church.

Antonio Guterres, who recently completed his role as the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, expressed this hope when he said the following at a special meeting of faith based NGO’s:

“…for the vast majority of uprooted people, there are few things as powerful as their faith in helping them cope with fear, loss, separation, and destitution. Faith is also central to hope and resilience. Religion very often is key in enabling refugees to overcome their trauma, to make sense of their loss and to rebuild their lives from nothing.”

The Church Showing Up
Here is one example of how a church of about 300 in the Minneapolis area showed up. When the need was made known that refugee church leaders were asking for Bibles, the church raised money to provide several hundred Bibles to the refugee church in the camp. Later the Minneapolis pastor went with us to visit the camp. He was able to encourage and minister to the refugee pastors, as he also was ministered to by them.

Another need that was expressed was the desire to hold an annual retreat for the youth in the camp. The youth of the Minneapolis church raised money to make it happen and for the past 3 years, the church has also sent their youth pastor and another volunteer to help run the retreat with the refugee youth leaders. The church has raised money to help put up shelters for refugees and are looking at other projects as well as staying in touch with the churches in the camp through regular visits.

The Minneapolis church decided they could also receive refugee families that were scheduled to be resettled to Minneapolis. They have received two families and will be receiving a third family in just a few weeks. Their involvement with refugees has transformed their church.

What Can I Do?
So you are probably asking, what can we do. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Get Informed about the refugee situation. A couple places to receive a different perspective are or

2. Don’t underestimate Prayer. When I tell the refugees about those who are praying for them, they are so encouraged. It reminds them that they are not forgotten.

3. Consider giving to a group or organization that is doing work among refugees or to a project that will benefit refugees.

4. Look around and see if there are refugees that have been resettled in your area. Welcome them. Show them respect. Invite them into your world. Help them understand and acclimate to your area.

5. Consider showing up in a refugee camp or along the paths that refugees are traveling. Jesus said not only to invite people in but to also go and show up where they are.


1. UNHCR Global Trends 2015.

2. From the Opening Remarks by Mr. Antonio Guterres, UNHCR, at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, 12 December 2012. UNHCR Dialogue on Faith and Protection. Transcript available online at

Tim Barnes serves as the Executive Vice President at International Association For Refugees (IAFR) and also oversees their work in Malawi. He can be contacted at

We would love to share your stories. If you have a powerful story of marginalized living and you are willing to let us share it, we would be honored to share those stories. You can email us at

Help Wanted

We continue to be humbled by the positive feedback we receive, like this one from a local high school teacher. Here’s what she has to say about Conversations on the Fringe:

“I support Conversations on the Fringe because I work with teenagers every Monday – Friday in my classroom. I teach English, but my role is much greater than that. Teachers have to be good role models, show compassion, listen for what we are not hearing from our students and try to keep them motivated to learn, despite a myriad of personal problems. I need every tool I can get to try to empathize with my students. Conversations on the Fringe is one of the best tools for me. It helps me to gain an understanding of perspectives my students might be experiencing so that I can be on alert if a student needs serious help. Each time I read a posting, I am brought that much closer to a student in need. As I educate them, I educate myself, too.”

Angie Stokes-Pittman – High School English Teacher

It’s comments like this that motivate us to keep develop relevant content, training, and other resources.

Our hope for the rest of 2016 and into 2017 is to expand our reach and impact. One way you can help us do that is by sharing our work with new people. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  1. Like our Facebook Page. Share it with others.
  2. Tell others about us. Word of mouth is still the easiest and best way to expose others to our work.
  3. Schedule an event in your community, church, or organization. Check out our Fringe Initiatives to discover the best fit for you and your community/organization.
  4. Tell your youth pastor, supervisor, principal, or organization about us. Shoot him/her an email or text with a link to our website and tell them you think we can help and how.
  5. Email us and let us know what new resources are needed in your community/organization.

We hope to see all of you somewhere in this upcoming year. Check out our calendar to see where we’re going to be and stop by and say hello.


We Need Your Input

Conversations on the Fringe is committed to bringing you relevant training and education. In order to continue doing this we need your feedback. Please take a moment and let us know what you think are the most pressing concerns youth in your communities are facing today. Your feedback will shape future resources. Thanks for supporting CotF for the last decade. We are hopeful that the work we all do together matters…

Listening 101

In light of the political debates and the decline in collective listening skills, I thought I’d repost this blog entry from 6 years ago. It’s still as relevant today as it was then.

conversations on the fringe

Listening is such an important skill, especially when working with adolescents.  But, it’s a skill that isn’t often developed intentionally.  Some of us come by the gift naturally but others really struggle to truly listen to what young people are trying to say.  Good listening is not a passive activity.  The following is a crash course in active listening.  By using the following skills the listener will increase their capacity to discern underlying conditions, increase in empathy, and be able to assure the speaker that at least one person is really hearing their plight.


A: Eye contact
B: Posture
C: Gesture


Five steps to attentive listening

Squarely face the person
Open your posture
Lean towards the sender
Eye contact maintained
Relax while attending


What is it: Restating a message, but usually with fewer words. Where possible try and get more to the point.


  1. To test your…

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Self-Injury Facebook Live Event with Youth Specialties

Here’s a thing we’re doing with Youth Specialties next Monday (8/22/16 from 3pm – 4pm CST).

Youth Specialties is hosting a live Q&A on their Facebook page on the topic of self-injury. Everyone is invited to participate. All you need in a device connected to the internet (smartphone, tablet, laptop). This is free to everyone that works with youth (parents, teachers, coaches, youth workers, etc.) We are hoping you could pass this on to your network and any others you think would benefit from this online event. We’ll be doing two more in September and October on addiction and suicide. We’ll keep you posted on those dates and times.

Until then, here’s a blog post I wrote for YS on self-injury. Take a few minutes are read up on the subject and then join us live next week.

Click here on Monday 8/22/16 for the Facebook Live Event.

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