Cotton Candy and Plate Spinning

I was a young boy when the circus visited our small town. Our family loaded up the Fleetwood station wagon and went to the big show. From food carts and clowns to endless contest booths, I have two distinct memories that remain. First, my older brother, sister, and I were each given a white cardboard stick with a pink fluffy snack wrapped around it. It was the first time I had ever seen or tasted cotton candy. My taste buds disapproved, so I never became a fan. What I remember most about that hornet’s nest-shaped snack was that it was extremely sweet smelling and sticky. Eating it was like pulling off a huge chunk of cobweb and finger-stuffing it your mouth. No sooner than it passed my lips, it dissolved into nothingness. All that remained was a tiny sugar ball the size of a Tic Tac. It did not matter how large a bite you pulled from the candy hive, it still disappeared in only a few seconds.

Many student ministries remind me of cotton candy. At first glance, it appears large and filling until you take a bite. Then it dissolves into an unhealthy tiny little ball. Large, small, deep, shallow, professional, lay-led and everything in between, the effects of Cotton Candy ministry dot the church landscape. It is no respecter of ministries and can find its way into just about any size, style, or flavor of ministry.

The size of the church does not provide immunity from CCM (Cotton Candy Ministry). Neither does impressive dedicated youth space. From large professional student ministries to small volunteer-run outposts, CCM can become a silent killer. Sometimes it pops up even at the sincerest churches with great reputations. Some promote and operate ministry programs and package their website and social media as if a professional marketing company is at the helm, but are unaware of the CCM creeping up on their doorstep. On closer examination, these ministries provide little toward Kingdom increase. The vast activity, planning, and marketing seem to dissolve into only a fraction of the intended ministry impact. Perhaps they are full and inviting ministries for a season, but three months after the youth leader moves, the ministry dissolves into a partial of what it appeared to be. While CCM can be a bit hard to diagnose at first, once you become aware of the symptoms, you will be able to guard against it developing within your ministry. If you are currently seeing signs of CCM or have inherited a CCM ministry, there is good news. It is easily treatable and the cure is in your hands under the Lordship of Christ. Although this book as a whole will help you diagnose and treat CCM symptoms, let me refer you to the evaluation instrument called The Youth Ministry Assessment Guide found in the appendix section.

Now, back to the circus. The second thing I recall about the circus was the amazingly entertaining plate spinner. He started with one, then two, then three, and before we knew it, he had a dozen plates all spinning on a bunch of thin poles. Some plates would start wobbling and he would rush to attend one, put another spin on it, and quickly rush to the next plate. He moved with precision and awareness, from one plate to another, tending to the ones that would slow down. Before they came crashing down, he would rescue the plate by giving it a fresh spin while moving up and down the line. It made me nervous to watch as he positioned himself just in time to spin-up plate after plate. Focused and busy as a bee, he demonstrated his ability to keep all twelve plates spinning. To stop and answer a question would have been absurd. To step back and enjoy the display would have been impossible. After a while, the anxiety of the crowd gave way to applause as the hurried plate spinner finally removed each plate from its pole without breaking a single one and took a bow.

Now, I am not trying to say ministries are similar to a circus (although that may be the case for some), but often ministries today are operated much like the plate spinner. Let’s look at this analogy in three parts.

  1. Inherited plates: You inherit a youth group with one or two plates that need the spinner’s attention, so you jump in and add your touch to keep the existing plates spinning. Soon, to establish your specific ministry, you spin up another plate, then another and another. After a year or two, you have a dozen or so plates up and spinning, all of which seem to require constant attention from you, the plate spinner. You start to feel that if it were not for your constant attention, some of the plates would fall, others would break, and it would be your fault. After all, you are the plate spinner and it is your job to keep the plates spinning, right? You secretly and increasingly wonder if anyone else around here knows how to spin a plate. You resist a still small voice somewhere in your logic that says: “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there are others who already know or are willing to learn the art of plate spinning.” Imagine what it would be like if the plate spinner decided to change his act. What if he were to teach others to spin one plate each? One person spinning a single plate. Better yet, two people spinning a single plate. Before long, he would have the same number of plates spinning, but each would be looked after and monitored by the person assigned to that particular plate. Now, admittedly this approach will likely not invoke much applause from the crowd, but the end result would be an ever-increasing number of spinning plates with no limit to the number that could be added.
  2. Core plates: Some plates are essential to every student ministry such as fellowship, worship, evangelism, discipleship, and missions. We cannot omit any particular one and still achieve true ministry health. While some student leaders have woven these essentials into their ministry for decades, many others simply ignore the core needs of ministry health and spin only the plates that are colorful and convenient. You must determine which plates are essential and which need to be sunsetted.
  3. New plates: These are the programs or ministries that you begin under your banner of reign. These are not the inherited plates you maintain, but rather ministry plates created for a specific purpose, which receive your branding, your style, and your initiative to launch. The question is, how many new ministry plates can you spin up? How much time do you have to keep them spinning? At some point, a plate spinner (even professionally trained) will resist new ministry opportunities simply from a lack of time to crank up another new ministry. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how great the potential for Kingdom impact might be, the youth leader simply has no more time to give. New ideas or ministry opportunities never make it onto the strategic planning table simply because deep down, that minister knows if one more plate is added, it will put the entire plate spinning operation in jeopardy.

Too often, we are so accustomed to doing the work required to crank out yet another successful ministry event that we struggle to find adequate time to fulfill the relational calling of a youth pastor. Primarily this is because we operate within a church culture that has taught us and allowed us to be the quarterback rather than the equipper, trainer, or coach.