Sticking with Graduates Another Year

“Goodbye and Good Luck!”

For many, high school graduation marks the end of childhood as graduates typically transition to college, military service, or the world of work in the few months that follow. Consequently, many once-important relationships quickly fade to fond memories as the young adults shift their attention and energies into what lies ahead of them. However, those of us who are left behind need to recognize that we still have an important role to play in supporting and caring for these young people. Parents and other adults who care about the graduates, must navigate the changing relationship and find new ways to relate and keep in touch. In fact, our ongoing contact could prove to be a critical component to the young person’s successful transition into adult faith and maturity.

Support from Back Home

Hopefully, you’ve been able to see how your words and your relationship with your younger friend has made a difference in their life. What you may not be aware of is that your words can still make an impact with those same young people even after they leave for college (or relocate for any other reason).

Youth researcher and author, Kara Powell writes in her book, Sticky Faith,

“Contrary to public opinion, graduates don’t want to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Contact from at least one adult from the congregation outside of the youth ministry during the first semester of college is linked with Sticky Faith [i.e. a personal and active faith that makes the transition from youth to adult life]. Hearing from an adult from their home church—whether it be via text, email, phone, or something you’ve perhaps heard of called “the U.S. Postal Service”—seems to help students take their faith to college with them.” (Powell, Sticky Faith, p. 122-123)

Your continued contact can provide a powerful link to a trusted, faith-nurturing past while the young person finds their way in their new, unfamiliar context full of different people, multi-faceted challenges, and competing values and ideas. Sticky Faith researchers report that the top three difficulties Christian students identify during their first year in college is (1) making friends, (2) dealing with aloneness and (3) finding a church (Powell, p. 123). Although, caring adults back home can’t “fix” these difficulties for their younger friends, they can still play an important and supportive role. Depending on what your relationship looked like before, you can still provide words of encouragement, listen with care and offer counsel when appropriate. Ironically, most new college students become so busy with the demands of their new lives that they often pull back from supportive relationships of the past (e.g. parents, friends, mentors), right at a time they would most benefit from emotional support and a safe context for processing all they are facing.

Although it’s quite common for college students to stop taking initiative with relationships from the past, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate connecting with people from the past. I still vividly recall words of encouragement from back-home friends and mentors when I was struggling through some difficulties during my college years. The specific details of those messages weren’t as important as the fact that those cards and conversations were tangible reminders that I was loved and supported. It was encouraging to know that trusted others (i.e. people who knew me from the past) believed that God would help me through the challenges I was facing.

Practical Steps to Keeping in Touch

So, if you’re interested in continuing to invest in your younger friends, let me offer a few suggestions regarding how to make the most use of your words of love and encouragement.

  • Pick a medium(s) that works for both of you. Ask your young friend what form of communication will work best for them. Popularity of communication channels are always changing and what may have worked well in the past, may not work well in the future. Also, branch out and utilize multiple streams of communication (e.g. social networks, picture sharing, messaging, etc.) You could even go “old school,” by putting pen to paper and using the postal service. This will ensure your words get attention in ways that electronic messages never do. However, make sure you pick a medium that you feel comfortable using. Don’t let technical barriers keep you from regular contact.
  • Be consistent but expect inconsistency. The college student’s schedule is one of the most fluid and dynamic schedules in modern culture. College students have more “free time” than when they were in high school and they have more flexibility than when they later enter the work world. Consequently, college students are served when we can offer (but not demand) regularity in our efforts to communicate. That said, we need to recognize that it is unlikely that consistent communication will not likely be achieved. The student may have every intention of keeping in touch, but college-life is too chaotic and rich with spontaneity to expect consistency on the young person’s part. That’s why dependability, on our part, is so important. In their world of rapid and constant change, providing a regular and reliable haven of safety and communication is a powerful gift.
    1. Occasionally spice it up. Given all the options available for communication, make a point to mix it up occasionally. If you usually text, try writing a longer email or scheduling a phone call. If you usually have catch up via Skype, try firing off a tweet or text to let them know you’re thinking and praying about them. If you can remember to wish them well before an important exam or event or ask how things went shortly after, your words will be even more meaningful.Also, never underestimate the “blessing potency” of a treat-filled care package. Care packages are nice because there’s no cultural expectation for the student to return the favor. Also, when loaded with enough treats to share with their friends, a care package from friends “back home” can create a positive bridge between the student’s past and the student’s present. Learning to integrate their past and their present is one of the most critical developmental tasks young people need to navigate during this life stage. Tangible and loving reminders of the past can help ensure a healthy integration.
  • Commit to the year (or longer). If you’re serious about wanting to bless your younger friend(s), make a decision to intentionally and regularly reach out for at least a year. Often, the transitional demands of the first year of college are the most challenging and students are at their most vulnerable points as they lack the supportive relationships, structures and rhythms of their earlier lives. By committing to (at least) a full-year of intentionally reaching out to the student, you are giving the student a life-line of security during a critical period in their development.

Although it’s impossible to predict the timing of the ups and downs of college life, a consistent rhythm of communication over the whole year will increase the likelihood that your younger friend will be able to access you and your care when it’s needed most.

Your Relationship Still Matters

While your relationship will certainly change with your younger friend’s departure to college (or wherever), it doesn’t have to end. In fact, your continued offering of love and care throughout their next year could be one of the greatest gifts you give to that person. As author Susan Scott writes, “The conversation is the relationship” (Scott, Fierce Conversations), so keep the conversation going—even if you’re carrying 90% of the weight—and see how God continues to use you as a blessing in the young person’s life.

Dr. David Zovak
Leadership Development Specialist – International Schools of China
Leadership Development International (LDi)

Knowing God’s Will: Choosing a College (#2)

For most Christian students, choosing the college or university they will attend is one of the biggest single choices they will make in their young lives. In my last blog, I discussed some of the common mistakes students fall prey to when making their decision. In this blog, I will offer some suggestions to help students and families align their choice with God’s will. (This list isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully helpful).

Priority #1: Seek to Honor God

Two verses that I frequently turn to during times of decision making are Proverbs 3:5-6:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Trusting God, by acknowledging our dependence and submitting our hearts and minds to Him is the foundation of seeking God’s will. I do not believe it relieves us from the responsibility of still trying to make good choices, but it frames our decision process in the larger commitment to trust and follow God.

Similarly, Jesus promises that those who “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” will have “all these things” (e.g. needs for livelihood) provided by God as well (Matt. 6:33).

Priority #2: Think Stewardship

Stewardship is when one person manages the property and affairs of another person in accordance with the wishes of the other person (i.e. the owner). This concept is relevant to all Christians as our lives are a stewardship we have been entrusted with by God. As created beings, we do not “own” anything, including ourselves. Therefore, we need to see the development and living of our lives as a stewardship for which we are responsible.

In this mindset, we need to ask “What has God entrusted to me?” The answer to which include: our strengths, passions, bodies, minds, families, weaknesses and limitations. The better we know ourselves, the better we will be able to be effective stewards with our lives. Similarly, we need to ask, “What values does God want me to live by?” Since our lives are not our own to do whatever we please, we are wise to ask God how He wants us to invest our time, energy and resources. This includes where we go to college and what we major we choose.

The good news is that, God is generous with His stewardship in that we are invited to enjoy the privileges and benefits of what we have been entrusted with. God delights to bless us so that we might be a blessing to others. We simply need to trust that God’s ways are better than what we could come up with on our own.

Priority #3: Exercise Wisdom

Wisdom is knowledge applied rightly. In this era of abundant information, wisdom remains of great value, because too much information can be as limiting as having too little information. So, what wisdom is most critical to college-bound seniors and their families?

  1. Make “Learning to Learn” your goal. It’s been said that more than 1/2 the jobs and knowledge required for employment in four years hasn’t even been discovered or invented yet. Gone are the days of learning a single trade and staying in that role for life. Becoming an effective learner is the best preparation for present and future success. This includes identifying your preferred learning styles and leveraging them for personal success.
  2. Develop self-control. Research has shown that those who learn to delay gratification (i.e. deny a momentary pleasure for a long-term gain) are significantly more successful, happy and healthy. This is developed by exercising one’s body, mind and spirit. Saying “yes” to health and “no” to excess is a skill nearly everyone needs strengthening.
  3. Choose growth. College is about expanding one’s horizons and discovering what one is capable of. Take risks, stretch yourself and learn from failure. Make friends with people different from yourself and discover your own passions and beliefs. God created us to grow and develop, so when choosing a college, look for one which will help you grow in a supportive environment.

Remember to Rest in God

Lastly, remember that as you seek to honor God with your decision about college (and any other decision that follows), you have a Father in Heaven that loves you and wants good for you. Your identity as a beloved child of God is secure (even when you don’t feel it) and God is eager to lead you forward into the odyssey of adulthood. Be generous with your life because God promises to provide all that you need as you love Him and love others.

-Dr. Dave Zovak
Odyssey, ISC Leadership Specialist

Knowing God’s Will: Choosing a College (#1)

Common Errors When Choosing A College

Where are you going to college?” is one of the most frequent questions faced by high school seniors in our ISC school system. It’s also one of the most emotionally loaded questions students face in their later high school years. For Christian students, it’s most-likely their first big “discerning God’s will” decision.

So many expectations (e.g. from parents, teachers, friends, themselves) are attached to the answer of that question that it’s no wonder many students just shrug and try to change the subject. At a time in life when students are just beginning to discover who they are, they are presented with the challenge to make a decision that seems to carry the weight of the rest of their lives. (We adults know that one’s college choice does not determine their fate, but from a student’s perspective, it sure seems like it does.) It’s as if going to a “good” college guarantees a successful future, and not going to a “good” college destines one to mediocrity. However, defining what  “good” means is a tricky task and then getting accepted if often even trickier.

In my experience in working with youth and college students (as well as being a parent of a high school senior), I have seen (and, at times, struggled with) several common errors that make the discerning process much harder than it needs to be. Though I can not offer a formula for guaranteed stress-free choosing, I believe there are some helpful things to remember that can make choosing a college a little less anxiety producing. Similarly, for Christian students seeking God’s will for their college choice, these reminders can help to counter-act the fear-based messages of our culture.

Error #1: College reputation = Quality of education

Research demonstrates that factors such as class size, student engagement, and skilled teachers (vs researchers) are much more relevant to student success than a school’s reputation. Finding a college that “fits” the student and genuinely prioritizes effectively educating undergraduates should be a top priority for all students and parents. Some of the more reputable colleges and universities maintain this priority, but many have their priorities split among securing research grants, graduate students and maintaining their reputations. Often times, smaller (and less famous) schools are able to excel in educating undergraduates. Additionally, along with an academic education, schools pass along a value system. Students need to consider what values they want to be shaped by in the years ahead.

Error #2: “There is only one right college for me.”

Whether it’s attending a parent’s alma mater or getting into one’s #1 choice, students often feel that there is only “one right college” for them. While there’s nothing wrong with getting excited by a particular option, the truth is that nearly every college has the potential to offer a fantastic education and life experience. The unique character and offerings of each college does shape a student’s experience, but the attitude and engagement of the student is what matters most. Burdening the process with finding “the one right college” is neither accurate nor helpful. Therefore, as adult voices in the lives of students, let us remind them that God is present at every campus and no matter where they end up, they can expect God to bless and use them if they continue to obey and prioritize their relationship with God.

Error #3: Becoming passive or phony.

Two other errors, that both arise from fear, are when students become passive in the discernment process or manipulative. On the passive side of the spectrum, some students may fail to do the work of reflecting on their interests, priorities, values and vocational dreams. They may not believe that God will guide them, so they simply resist engaging. Paralyzed by uncertainty, some students settle for their high school’s default college options, rather than actively investigating where they might actually thrive.

Alternatively, some students respond to the uncertainty by launching a “propaganda campaign” to make themselves appear to be someone they are not. Ironically, most college application committees can pick out the genuine from the artificial elements in applications and the “embellishments” might actually undermine a student’s chance at acceptance. Similarly, this practice wrongly reinforces the idea that in order to succeed, we need to hide our true selves and construct a façade. We must encourage students to maintain their integrity and trust that God will work through their honesty.

Error #4: Basing one’s identity on their college.

The last common error students (and parents) make is to attach the student’s value or identity to the college they attend (or get accepted into). Sure, it feels good to get accepted into the college of one’s dreams, but it doesn’t make a student any more valuable than they were before. Likewise, it hurts to get a rejection letter from a college (or colleges), but it doesn’t make them any less valuable than they were before.

Competitive colleges reject many qualified applicants. They are limited by a target enrollment goals and end up selecting only a fraction of “worthy” students. Several factors are at play and many of them have little to do with the particular student (e.g. quotas based on regional, gender and racial diversity).

More importantly, regardless of whether students get accepted or rejected by the college of their dreams, they need to know that they are loved and valued no matter where they go (or don’t go at all). While many students know this in their heads, we need to reinforce this message to their hearts.

The road to choosing a college is full of potholes and hazards; however, seeing some of the bigger ones in advance can help us avoid running into them unnecessarily.

In my next blog post, I’ll discuss some positive approaches to choosing a college that can ease the stress and enrich the outcomes.

-Dr. Dave Zovak

Odyssey, ISC Leadership Specialist

Knowing God’s Will: Common Myths

As I work with youth across the ISC system, I have discovered some common myths students believe or attitudes they tend to have regarding the topic of God’s will. First of all, if I were to be completely honest, I would say that the majority of the students in our schools do not even realize that God has a will for their life to begin with, yet alone spend time trying to figure out what it is. They are definitely steeping in the question of, “what should I do with my life?” And they have a general conviction that they want to make the right decision—whatever that is. But, that doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the deeper, broader question of, ”what is God’s will for my life?” That’s one group. The other group would be those students who do believe in God and that God does indeed have a will for people, but have various attitudes or misunderstandings about what “God’s will” means.

Written below is a wide range of attitudes I notice students have about God’s will, followed up with a Scriptural response.

1. Even the concept of “God” is so mysterious and cryptic to me that I don’t see any relevance to thinking about “his will for me.”

100% of the students I encounter, who do not believe in God, have a distorted idea of who God is and an inaccurate view of who they are.  In many cases, when it comes to the topic God’s will, atheist students usually interpret the Christian view of God’s will as meaning that God must be cruel, unfair, highly demanding, egotistical, and power-hungry. Usually, they have either only taken snippets of what they heard a teacher or assembly speaker say and have closed off their mind to the concept of or possible existence of God or they have heard a Christian peer say things that are insensitive or inaccurate and have developed a prejudice against the idea of God and His will. Either way, I think they often have an incomplete picture of this topic.  There are many great passages in Scripture to study on this topic, but one passage that just inspires me on this topic is Psalm 32.

In this scripture passage we learn that God’s view of us is just the opposite! He doesn’t want us to be robots, programmed with an algorithm to always obey Him. As David writes (or sings), He does not want us to be like a horse or mule that strays away from the master unless they are fitted with a bit and bridle. The passage seems to be saying, that through our free will, God wants us to personally choose to stay near Him even in the midst of stressful times, without “being forced.” An open and trusting relationship with Him is what He desires for all of His people. This trusting relationship begins with us coming to Him in confession of our sins and surrendering our will to Him because we realize we just don’t know what to do! In doing this, we discover that God is a hiding place for us in the midst of stress, shame, hard times, or just feeling directionless (verses 1- 7).

After our hearts are purified through confession and we are showing God that we are completely open to Him and we are trusting Him with everything (even our most vulnerable places of mistakes and shame), God’s response is so awesome—He says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.”

Only a pure heart is needed to understand the will of God. A pure heart receives His guidance and is surrounded by His steadfast love (verses 8 -11), which gives us a reason to rejoice with shouts of joy (v11).

2. If God really wanted us to know His will, he wouldn’t make it so difficult to figure out.

My response to this notion is that knowing God’s will is more like a quest than it is a vending machine. The directions we need to move forward in our journey are discovered little by little versus immediately after we input the right amount of money and press the proper code sequence. (refer to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 & Proverbs 3:5-6)

3. I’m okay not knowing God’s will because I’m actually afraid to know what it might be.

I sometimes wonder if a lot of our students are actually afraid of God’s will because they think God might demand something of them they couldn’t possibly give or require them to go somewhere they couldn’t possibly go. Its almost as if they picture God being like the evil game-master in The Hunger Games series—entertaining Himself by constantly changing our world and watching us struggle to survive. But, Romans 8:32 (ESV) says, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” God is not an evil game master—He doesn’t want us to submit to this plan just so he can take good things away from us and make us miserable. He wants to graciously give us the things we truly need, the things we didn’t know we needed, and ultimately the things that will bring us the greatest sense of personal fulfillment (i.e. the abundant life! Read John 10:10).

4. First, I want to know what God’s will is, so I can decide whether or not I want to do it.

These are the students straddling the fence. They can’t decide how committed they want to be with their faith. On one hand, it isn’t unreasonable to want to “count the cost.” Jesus himself encouraged people to count the cost and even said, “Being my disciple will cost you everything” (Luke 14:25-33). He also said, essentially, that not being his disciple will cost you even more! (Matthew 16:24-25) And then later, “What good is a man if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul?” (Mark 8:36-38). In my own personal journey with Christ, I have discovered the hard way that unless I surrender my will to His will completely, I won’t experience the full-joy and deep satisfaction that comes with trusting God. We just can’t do part of God’s will and disregard the rest and expect to feel successful. Making decisions like this indicates our distrust of God, and still carries hints of rebellion and resistance toward Him.

5. I’m okay not knowing God’s will because I probably wouldn’t be able to achieve it anyway and it’s too stressful to think about what the consequences might be if I fail.

I think this is an area student’s parent-pleasing or teacher-pleasing mentalities slip over into their spiritual formation and their view of God. They think they need to do what is expected of them and achieve perfect performance in order to feel good about themselves or maintain a good relationship with the authorities over them. But, Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us that Jesus is our great high priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness. He invites  us to approach His “throne of grace” where we receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. I don’t get the sense that God demands our perfection from this passage. I do get the sense that God desires us to approach Him when we have needs, to establish a close relationship with Him, and to be assured that He understands what we’re going through and wants to help.

Our students need to be taught that we’re not putting our faith in our ability to hear God correctly, but rather in the God who graciously and repeatedly makes His will known to us.

Secondly, our students need to be taught that we’re not putting our faith in our ability to hear God correctly, but rather in the God who graciously and repeatedly makes His will known to us. By His grace, we get more than one chance!

6. I’ll just to whatever seems right to me and if it works out, it must be God’s will for me!

I hear this thought pattern more than any other. It is the belief that my heart’s desire confirmed by success = God’s will. But, we should just call this out for what it is: some sort of retroactive labeling of God’s will that enables us to avoid responsibility. Granted, there are times when we look back at our past and realize God had a plan for certain situations that we didn’t realize in that moment. But, this is different. This is attributing inappropriate things to being God’s will. It is doing whatever seems “right” for you, with no regard for seeking God’s will throughout the entire decision-making process, then stamping God’s name on the outcome because that’s what people want to hear, right?

The majority of our students do not have the slightest clue about how to navigate this tricky transitional phase of life and overall, I think their lack of understanding in this area generates a real sense of fear, frustration, and intense pressure to just figure it out and get it right the first time! At the same time, their emotions and behavioral responses attest to the fact that a lot of our teens really are thinking about this topic and have a lot of serious questions about who they are, what they should do in the future, and for some, what God’s role is in the big picture. I think it is easy for us as adults to forget the raw emotions we ourselves experienced when we were in that phase of life and we can sometimes be prone to dismiss the pressure and urgency many students are feeling day in and day out. But, the anxiety they have related to this topic is very real and it actually presents our students with an opportunity to encounter the identity freeing, life directing, Gospel.


1.  If “Knowing God’s Will” were a piece of candy, what candy would it be and why?

2. Do you see aspects of your own thought patterns in any of these attitudes presented here?

3. What other attitudes or misconceptions of God’s will do you think exist among teens?

4. What would help teens that are interested in this topic to seek God more for direction and guidance in their life?

5. What could be done to help teens better understand the topic of “knowing God’s will?”  

Knowing God’s Will: Intro

This is part one of a four-part series:

“How do I know what God’s will is for my life?” I think that question is intimidating for every Christian teenager. I think it is intimidating for the majority of Christian adults, too! I know it often is for me. At our annual student leadership meetings to prepare for the student-led Vida conference, there is always a point early on where the leaders need to solicit student volunteers to lead a teaching and discussion on various topics. One of those topics we address every year is, “Knowing God’s Will.” Inevitably, every year, the same response happens.

“Okay, next we have the “Knowing God’s Will” talk? Who would like to sign up to give that one?

Awkward silence.

Then, awkward giggles, chuckles, and a few “tee-hees.”

Followed by shout-outs, “so-and-so should do it—he’s smart.” Or my personal favorite, “I nominate so-and-so! She’s spiritual enough.”


The question makes all of us feel nervous and because it seems so mysterious and too difficult to answer clearly, we (myself included) are often tempted to just push it aside and treat it as more of a perimeter question that our students can figure out later (what, on their own?) rather than THE central question we really should be trying to help them figure out now!

Meanwhile, at the core of every person’s spiritual longing is a quest to discover who they are (identity) and the purpose for which they exist (vocation), i.e. God’s will for their lives. Students of all ages are really wrestling with this “quest,” for sure. But, those of you who work with high school students would probably agree that no where is the reality of this quest more evident year after year than in the 11th and 12th grade class. This should not come as a surprise, given the fact that one of life’s major transitions (arguably the biggest) and rights of passage happens at the end of high school when we graduate and head off to college. So, even though our students are not saying these words verbatim, I think the question that is really burning in their heart is, “what is God’s will for me?”

I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy Bryant Myers lays out in his book, “Walking With the Poor,” when he says, “I believe that restoring identity and discovering vocation must be the focus of a biblical understanding of human transformation.” That is his core belief underlying his work with impoverished people and communities, but I also think his words capture the core belief of our philosophy on student development as well. This is also the main emphasis of our Character | Competence and Community | Initiative workshops we run for students, by the way.

So, we are seeking to take this topic off of the back burner, place it on the front burner, and crank up the heat! We hope this series can be a resource for you, making it easier or at least more possible for you to engage your students with a topic and a conversation that is certainly complex and challenging, but so very relevant to them. And if we don’t lead them to the truth in this area, who will?


1) How much pressure do you feel to figure out what you are supposed to do with your life? None? A little? A lot? 2) How important is it for people to be able to answer the question, “what is my purpose in life?” 3) Do you believe God has a “will” or a “calling” for every person’s life? Why or why not?

Relevancy is Opportunity

At a recent meeting with a small group of student leaders preparing to lead a youth conference in November, I was challenged to think about a facet or category of leadership which I had never thought of before: relevancy. I was sitting with a small group of the larger team, three to be exact, discussing the fact that there were potentially three or four other students from different schools joining our leadership team. Being the adult, I figured it was my responsibility to lay out our plan for confirming these potential add-ons. So, without giving it much thought, I explained that we would probably have to email the Odyssey Rep at these two schools with our questions and ask them to track down these potential student leaders at their school, get a final answer from them, and hopefully get back to us before we meet again in a week. Communicating between cities and schools takes a few days, I explained, that’s just the way things work. I was musing along in my explanation when I looked up and saw two of the three students on their phone texting.

Me: “What are you guys up to?”

Student: “I’m texting ‘so-and-so’.”

Me: “Oh! You know these guys?!”

Student: “Of course!”

Me: “So, can you find out if their coming?”

Student: “Yea! He said they just have to check with Ms. So-and-so to confirm and they should know by tomorrow.”

I left that meeting with no follow-up task to contact anyone, no consequential email thread adding to my inbox, not even an additional thought other than to just wait until tomorrow. Sure enough, Monday morning, the adult director of the event found me and confirmed the names and positions of the other leaders that would be coming from the other schools to join our small team.

This was a simple example, but it reminded me of a foundational principle that I still forget when working with students. Effective student development happens when we focus on empowering students not managing them—releasing them, not containing them. More often than not, there are times where

I can better teach a student about leadership by getting out of the way when he or she takes initiative to be an active participant in the decisions that need made and the work that needs done.

But, I must confess, I still struggle relinquishing control to students in some areas, because of my belief that it will be better if I do it myself. It will be better quality, more professional, look neater, and it will be “done right.” But, quality, professionalism, neatness, and systematic processes for getting things done are practically irrelevant terms and methods to students just simply expecting to be involved in an event where they serve, bless, and minister to their peers. So, I think I need some other venue to showcase MY skills!

The other key factor here is that students know the culture of their peers better than I do! They naturally understand the inner-workings of the teenage brain. They have an instant “in” with their peers that I don’t have. They even have instant pathways of communication with each other through Wassup, WeChat, Skype, Instagram, and more, 24/7 via their smart phones and various other tech devices. I think their relevancy gives them opportunity to better connected, and therefore influential, and therefore more capable of leading their peers than me.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to send us your thoughts on student leadership – we’d love to hear them.

Identity, Belief, Character

Our identity, our beliefs, and our character are all interconnected. This post is longer than usual, but I hope you’ll follow my muse all the way to the end.

Character is what results from a series of choices one makes. Character is a neutral word; you can be a person of good character or bad character. So, the quality of a person’s character isn’t defined by his or her abilities to do or NOT do good. That is, character is not defined by whether or not a person is capable of doing something right OR wrong because we know everyone is capable of doing both. Rather, it is defined by what one actually chooses to do in the situations they find themselves in.

That’s not new information to anybody. So, let’s take it further. All of us make choices based upon what we believe. We can see an example of this principle in Galatians chapter 2 when Paul recalls a story where he confronted Peter, a friend and fellow early church leader, about an issue involving Peter’s character. Peter had choices laid out before him, but according to Paul, the choice he made was, “not in line with the truth of the Gospel.”

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

– Galatians 2:11-14

My personal commentary on Galatians 2:

Simply put, character = what you do with what you have

What did Peter have? As one of the original twelve disciples, Peter most assuredly had status. As an apostle appointed by Jesus Himself, he had position, authority, leadership, and respect. He also had gifts of teaching, preaching, and miraculous healing! The list could go on; the point is—he had a lot! But, what did Peter choose to do with what he had? He chose to enforce a legalistic, works-based or rules-based theology on the gentile believers instead of a faith-based theology, which is centered on the truth of the Gospel and grants the freedom to every believer (Jew and Gentile alike) to choose, in this example, whether or not to follow Jewish customs. The lesson here, by the way, has nothing to do with deciding which is better between Gentile or Jewish practices. If followed for the right reasons – both are acceptable to God (Read the ending of Romans and 1 Corinthians – different context, but the same principle can be applied). On one hand, the lesson is clearly about hypocrisy: in your freedom, you cannot live like a Gentile and teach others about their freedom in Christ to live like a Gentile, but then change your behavior AS WELL AS tell others to do the same, just because a group of conservative Jewish men walk in the room, whom you are insecure around. There may be faith-based reasons to change ones behavior for the sake of your brother in the faith, but this passage notes specifically that Peter was “afraid” of the circumcision group. On a deeper level, I see a lesson here on character and identity in Christ. Peter had everything he needed in Christ to do the right thing. I believe the right thing for him to do would have been to live consistently in his freedom along with the other Gentile believers and if the men who came from James took issue with it, he would have had a perfect opportunity to instruct them about how the truth of the Gospel is that believers in Christ are not obligated to follow dietary restrictions or laws; he would have had the chance to disciple them in their weak faith. Would that have been difficult? I’m sure. I bet Peter often felt insecure around these members of the Jewish community being that he was an uneducated fisherman and they were likely the ones with status, prestige, and power in the Jewish community. They also might have been older than him, “wiser,” and more educated, and considering their title (circumcision group) they were also likely more conservative than he was on a number of issues. So, all to say, he made a choice based on his fear and insecurity instead of his confidence of who he was in Christ and in the end, it was Paul who confronted HIM and called him out on his hypocrisy.

What you do in Christ does not determine or define who you are in Christ. Instead, who you are in Christ should determine and define what you do in Christ.

There’s a huge difference between the two. The first is a person whose identity is completely wrapped up in his or her own behavior and I would argue, is actually an example of bad character, regardless of how “moral” their behavior. Let me explain. For those whose identity is wrapped up in their behavior, I see two results. The first is the person who thinks their behavior is generally really good, they don’t make “too many mistakes”, they find their confidence in their own righteousness, they make choices based upon what others would approve or disapprove, they are constantly fearful of “sinning” and are highly influenced by what they perceive others think about them—they are the classic Pharisee. The second is a person who thinks their behavior is generally really bad, they think they make a lot of mistakes and likely have made a lot of mistakes in their past which they think are unforgivable, they are fearful of making more mistakes, they negatively compare themselves to other Christians who they think are “holy” and “righteous,” they see themselves as a failure who has no hope of improving and they perceive that others see them in this same way. One is prideful – the other is really depressed and suffers from low self-esteem.

On the other hand, the person whose identity is completely wrapped up in who they are in Christ makes choices based upon that core belief. Their choices are a genuine display of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. They experience a freedom and satisfaction in their choices, their faith, and their life that others are often mystified about and attracted to. They have less regard for people’s opinions on various matters compared to their regard for the Holy Spirit’s leading in their lives. They are not insecure when they are around other believers whose opinions or convictions differ from their own. Instead, they remain confident in their convictions, while at the same time putting relationships before personal preference or substance. They are not afraid to step out in faith, which OFTEN requires going against the flow.  Their choices stem from the inspiration and guidance they receive from Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s leading and prompting in their lives.

Was that a rabbit trail? Not at all. You see, I believe that just like the pattern of growth for a nautilus, (the logarithmic spiral!) our spiritual formation and growth happens outward, from OUR center – our heart and soul, regardless of what you believe. That’s why it is so critical to make sure what you believe at the core of your being… is actually true… so you can be sure your spiritual development stays true as well. So for me, the most important question to wrestle with in life is essentially—what or who is at MY core? What have I placed my faith in? What do I believe? Because the choices you make on a daily basis are actually a reflection of what you believe. And the result of even one choice based on a false or twisted belief could have devastating consequences for your life. Could. Depending on how serious the choice. But, even more important is to think about what might result in your life after a series of a hundred or a thousand choices that were all based on false or twisted beliefs. By the end of the trail of choices, you’re no longer slightly off like you were way back at choice #1. You’re now, WAY off because of the compounded distance between you and the truth which sets you free.

It comes down to this: I think that reaching your greatest potential in life is ultimately determined by what you believe about God and what you believe about who you are in relation to Him. Your beliefs affect your choices. Your choices will define your character. So, if you want to be a person of godly character, i.e. live the way you were created to live, you have to believe in Jesus, and anchor your identity first and foremost in Him. Otherwise, what hope do you have when faced with your personal sins and weaknesses?

“We fail, so we see ourselves as failures, which only leads to more failure. We sin, so we see ourselves as sinners, which only leads to more sin. We have been deceived into believing that what we do determines who we are. That false belief sends us into a downward spiral of hopelessness and more defeat. On the other hand, Romans 8:16 says, “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” God wants us to KNOW who we are so we can start living how we were created to live (Neil T. Anderson, Victory Over The Darkness).”

So, going back to the beginning, if character really is simply “what you do with what you have”–lets take a look at a few examples of “what we have” in Christ and think about what the results would be if we ACTUALLY believed these things to be true.

Taken from the book, “Victory Over The Darkness” by Neil T. Anderson.

John 1:12 I am God’s child
John 15:15 I am Christ’s friend
Romans 5:1 I have been justified
1 Corinthians 6:17 I am united with the Lord and I am one spirit with Him
1 Corinthians 6:20 I have been bought with a price. I belong to God
1 Corinthians 12:27 I am a member of Christ’s Body
Ephesians 1:5 I have been adopted as God’s child
Ephesians 2:18 I have direct access to God through the Holy Spirit
Colossians 1:14 I have been redeemed and forgiven of all my sins
Colossians 2:10 I am complete in Christ
Romans 8:1-2 I am free from condemnation
Romans 8:28 I am assured that all things work together for good
Romans 8:31-34 I am free from condemning charges against me
Romans 8:35-39 I cannot be separated from the love of God
2 Corinthians 1:21-22 I have been established, anointed and sealed by God
Philippians 1:6 I am confident that the good work God has begun in me will be perfected
Philippians 3:20 I am a citizen of heaven
Colossians 3:3 I am hidden with Christ in God
2 Timothy 1:7 I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and sound mind
Hebrews 4:16 I can find grace and mercy in time of need
1 John 5:18 I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me
Matthew 5:13-14 I am the salt and light of the earth
John 15:1, 5 I am a branch of the true vine, a channel of His life
John 15:16 I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit
1 Corinthians 3:16 I am God’s temple
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 I am minister of reconciliation for God
2 Corinthians 6:1 I am God’s coworker (see 1 Corinthians 3:19)
Ephesians 2:6 I am seated with Christ in the heavenly realm
Ephesians 2:10 I am God’s workmanship
Ephesians 3:12 I may approach God with freedom and confidence
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me


 1. Behavior stems from belief

You have to have a solid, trustworthy foundation for your identity. Without it, your identity–your life, will crumble. Begin with the Truth–plant your identity firmly in Christ Himself.

Ask yourself:

Q: What fears and insecurities do I have?

Q: What lies or false beliefs are those insecurities based on?

Q: What Scriptural truths can I find to combat those lies?

2. What you do does not determine who you are

You can’t base your identity on your successes or your failures–one leads to pride, the other leads to depression.

Ask yourself:

Q: Am I seeking significance through my performance or “good behavior”?

Q: Do I consistently have thoughts that “I’m not good enough, I’m a failure, I’m worthless, I’ll never be as ‘good’ as so-and-so?”

3. Who you are determines what you do

If you begin with a solid belief that you are God’s child, that you are His workmanship created in His image, that He loves you and accepts you no matter what you do, then your choices, your actions will begin to reflect God’s character in all areas of life.

Ask yourself:

Q: Which Scripture passage(s) above do I really need to hear right now?

Q: What is one step I need to take this week to orient my thoughts toward what God says is true of me?

“It wasn’t something that brought the change, but it was someone.”

(Featured Image: “Moving from a house in the suburbs to an apartment in the city was a challenge.”)

As a 14 year-old TCK living in China, I have struggled with a lot. One of these problems is that TCKs don’t always know their identity. I could say, “Yeah! I’m American, and I live in China!” But who you appear to be is not always your identity. Your community back home knows you, but not necessarily your experiences living in a third culture. Your community in your third culture world doesn’t always know your background. This is when there is culture clash, and your identity as a “normal kid” is replaced with an experience that changes your perspective and worldview.

Even though this is my fourth year in China, my life as a TCK began very early. I was adopted from Vietnam, along with 3 of my other siblings, when I was 1 and a half (my oldest sister was adopted from Hong Kong) I had very little knowledge of my background. My dad was also a TCK: born in Mexico and moved to NYC, but ethnically Cantonese. I was raised in Atlanta, GA and homeschooled until I was 11. I remember when my parents decided to move over to China after multiple visits. I didn’t get the blast of culture shock that most foreigners get, even though my mom did. I looked like just like them. Because of this, I was expected to speak fluently, even though the only language I knew was English. My family had never really moved overseas into a country before, but we had a whole community of foreigners, along with the local Chinese staff, who took care of us. Despite the welcoming from those who had come before us and struggled with more than we did, this did not prevent all of my problems.

One thing about going to an international school is that I tried to earn acceptance. The school I go to is made up of over 60% Koreans. The rest consists of the other nationalities from around the world, including everyone part of LDI. I found myself trying to fit in, but that affected my decisions and the way I acted. I would be rejected for my actions, and end up being “that” kid. Also, since I’ve been in China for the beginning of my teenage years, I struggled (and still struggle) with everything a teenage boy goes through. I viewed people differently. I treated them with no respect. Up until this previous summer, I’ve struggled with God. I’ve blamed it on China. I can’t say I was perfect back in the States, but I was a lot better. I’ve blamed it on my parents for bringing me here and being “strict”. I’ve blamed it on the people around me, but even worse, I’ve blamed it on God.
But then, something turned me around. As a result of a fight I had started in school, my principle helped me do what had been nagging at me along time. I brought in the kids I had offended and laid my junk on the table. I told each classmate everything wrong I had done to him or her, whether they knew about it or not. They forgave me, which is something I need to learn how to do, because I’ve received so much of it. They accepted me. I hadn’t really had that feeling of acceptance before. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t something that brought the change, but it was someone.

This summer, I was sent to a TCK camp out in mountains in Guiyang. I had the worst attitude for the first few days. Then I was asked to share my testimony. Up till now, this is basically what I shared. I don’t remember ever accepting Jesus into my heart when I was young, but I sort of assumed I was. I grew up in a Christian family, I prayed before meals, and I went to church every Sunday. Sunday was for God. The rest of the week was for everything else. Prayer was for meals, and then it was for when I needed something to work out my way. I had that spiritual high to do the right thing, but that was for me. I had never really been in a really closely-knit group of guys from all over China, who were also TCKs, and struggling with the same things I did. They prayed for me and encouraged me to dedicate my life to Jesus. I remember relief of my burden. The burden I had shared with others but not with God. And because of this TCK camp, I have been able to embrace the fact that I am a TCK in China.

– Austin Tea
TIS 9th grade

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Mission First. Partnerships Always.

Odyssey is a youth ministry serving the six schools, which comprise the International Schools of China (ISC). We partner with each school to effectively develop students to become all that they were created by God to be, for their good and His glory.

If you look closely at Odyssey’s guiding mission statement and read between the lines a little bit, you’ll notice something a bit unique from most organizations. Those whom we exist to serve and those who sponsor and support us are one in the same. Our “clients” and our “stakeholders” are the same entities. The separate website, the logo, and the branding of everything we do can be misleading, causing confusion as to which group we are a part of and who we serve. Odyssey is actually not a SEPARATE organization from ISC. We are a small department WITHIN ISC. So, why would a small department develop a mission statement, tag line, a website, a LOGO?! No other department in ISC or in an individual school would have such audacity, right? Seems almost . . . subversive.

To be honest, at times it has felt odd and in the past I asked myself, “are we isolating ourselves by carrying around this “branding” all the time?” But, more and more I’m beginning to see the value to ALL the things we have accomplished as a small team to refine our identity and articulate where we fit in the LDi and ISC family. To put a slight twist on the age-old motto of the US armed forces, this year I have decided our motto will be: mission first and partnerships always. Without our partners we wouldn’t have ANYTHING to do and without a mission we wouldn’t know WHAT to do! Our mission isn’t incredibly detailed, but it is clear we exist to serve our partners – our mission is simply to help you achieve yours! So, as we go into this new school year you can expect to see Odyssey providing more resources for schools that deliberately focus on the careful blend of education, discipleship and TCKs. You can expect to see creative and sophisticated trainings for students that challenge them to grow and give back to their communities. You can expect that we will strive to continually improve the practical application of our mission so that everything we do better equips you and strengthens our partnership in our shared vision of developing students for their good and God’s glory.

Want Confident and Inspired Leaders In Your School? Here’s How!

A family that used to work at my school adopted a Chinese girl a few years ago named Anna. After adoption, many families face a huge challenge of trying to break through the insecurities, fears and walls that build up in children that have been orphaned or abandoned by their parents. It takes years of unfailing love to begin to break down those walls, and often the child still struggles with insecurity and fear of intimacy for the rest of their lives.

However, even though she was adopted, Anna is different. When I go to her home, she is the first to greet me. She grabs my arm and instantly pulls me over to her dress up closet where she begins to model for me her newest outfits. “You look beautiful!” I say. “I know”, she replies with a smile. She then begins to dress me up- putting on makeup and pulling out her favorite costume items. “You are so pretty”, she says over and over again as she brushes my hair and pats my face. Later on she asks if I would like to see her dance. She begins to sing loudly at the top of her lungs, and twirl to her newly created song. She then giggles and leaps back into my lap.

What gives her this confidence? The answer came from her adopted mother: Anna truly knows that she is loved. This is the key to confidence- an unwavering belief in the fact that one is accepted and loved beyond a shadow of a doubt. The more confident Anna was, the more freely she was able to encourage me, and make me feel loved in return. TCK’s in particular deal with more loss and abandonment than any other people group in the world. They often live in a perpetual state of transition, as either they move, or their close friends and mentors move away from them. While their parents often are not abandoning them, TCK’s still struggle with the same fears of abandonment, isolation and loneliness that plague many children who are orphans.

Here lies our task- we must help them know and believe that they are loved. It is only in this that they will be able to walk in true confidence, and begin to transform our schools and the world.

Perfect love drives out fear. 1 John 4:18