When my sons were young and playing peewee city league football, I noticed how much time coaches spent trying to teach these little dreamers their individual assignments. Getting an eight-year-old to move on the snap to the right place on the field was quite an accomplishment. My youngest son was placed on a football team with a reputation of being a winning dynasty in the third-grade age group. I was concerned he had landed on a Friday Night Tykes team with an overly aggressive coach. It was common knowledge among veteran coaches and parents that this team had not punted the ball in seven years! In fact, they didn’t even practice punting. If punting had been required in a game, they would have been out of luck. How then, with such young players, did the coach get such a high level of performance? The coach was not a knowledgeable ex-football star. He was not an overzealous parent who scheduled extra hours of practice. He did not employ shrewd recruiting tactics to gain an unfair advantage. His team was not particularly loaded up with speed or size. In fact, he seemed rather relaxed and wanted the kids to have fun. Don’t get me wrong, he wanted to win and he was passionate about his team, but that was not his secret.
It wasn’t until after watching a few practices that I understood where his advantage came from. His system for developing a tiny team of winners unfolded before me. The secret in his sauce: flip cards. That’s right: laminated, color-coded, hand-drawn flip cards. Unlike all the other teams that yelled out plays to the quarterback and then yelled subsequent commands to get players to move to the right positions, this coach used a visual. He simply showed his players where to go, what to do, and a picture of the result of that movement.
Each player was represented on this little 5×7 card. Running backs in blue, receivers in green, lineman in black, and the quarterback in red. Color-coded, dotted lines directed each player where to go. Before you judge the effectiveness of such a simple system, let me add that they only had seven plays off three formations. Now, without trying to draw too much from this little memory, let me outline for you the brilliance of his structure and the parallel application to student ministry.
His system for getting youngsters to correctly perform on the snap was:
SIMPLE: The entire practice was simple. The coach had obviously decided to leave the complicated, tricky, and gimmicky plays to others. They simply practiced a few plays until they were on autopilot. Simple became excellence, excellence became the standard, and the standard became the expectation of winning. Like coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) said to coach Herb Tyrell (Brett Rice) in the classic football movie, Remember the Titans: “I run six plays, split veer. It’s like Novocain. Just give it time, always works.” It did, and it does.
A simple system for executing youth ministry will outlast a complicated one. A highly complex system might look good on paper, but can become too burdensome for some volunteers. A complex process can inadvertently become a drag on enthusiasm no matter how well intended.
- How long does it take for a new volunteer to learn your system?
- When was the last time you sought neutral eyes to evaluate your system?
- How do you evaluate your system internally?
SCRIMMAGE: Except for running to get in shape and learning football basics, the team spent most of their time actually playing the game. They played each other, as well as inviting other teams to scrimmage during practice time. This kept the kids from getting bored with their position, which often leads to under-excelling at a particular task. Involvement keeps youth and leaders looking forward with anticipation of what God is doing. Finding a place for everyone and giving your volunteer team a safe place to practice their faith and express their gifts will pay huge dividends on game day.
ENCOURAGEMENT: From nicknames to laughter, the coach spoke to his players as if he was certain they were capable of doing what he asked of them. His encouragement caused them to believe in themselves. It is not an exaggeration to say kids and parents looked forward to practice nearly as much as game day—nearly.
Youth ministry needs to maintain an element of encouragement and fun. Experiences and memories are often created by the lighter side of ministry, so don’t become so serious that you forget to keep it enjoyable.
VISUAL: A coach who takes the time to create color-coded 5×7 cards understands something about the developmental stage of his little gridiron troupers. His “playbook” was directed at the concrete learning style of his target age group. He taught his players according to how they learned and retained information, rather than instructing kids in the manner he wanted to teach. His players saw it, they got it, and they did it.
Student ministry leaders must understand they are serving the adolescent community and their families. Youth are not mini-adults no matter how sophisticated they dress, act, or speak. Understanding adolescent learning behavior is essential to correctly planning, executing, and evaluating youth ministry.
COACHING: The coach did not try to run the game from the sidelines as if he was the quarterback. He did not micromanage the players with audible instructions as if the game depended on him. He understood the players learned and improved more from experiencing successes and failures with each down. Rather than yelling commands to each player as if he played the position, he equipped and coached quietly from the sideline.
He sparked in them the idea that this was their game and that he was just the coach. Sounds ridiculously simple until you watch some of the antics displayed by some overzealous and intolerable characters still coaching. You wonder if they realize they can no longer play the game themselves and they cannot play the game through their kids. They constrain themselves up and down the sidelines only because they are not allowed on the field. I think some of them would actually be the all-time quarterback of their team if the rules permitted.
Youth ministry demands we never give up on coaching youth or volunteers toward the person God has designed them to be. There must be a balance between expectation and reality. They are not always going to play the game as we would expect or desire. Their execution might be messy at times, but it’s more important for them to carry the ball than to appear perfect in their attempt.
Is there a youth or group of youth that you feel ready to give up on?
Do you have a trusted ally or mentor with whom you can evaluate, celebrate, and troubleshoot your challenges on a regular basis?
Does your prayer life include a system for lifting youth and leadership up to the Father?
MODEL: Not only did I get to see the “dynasty” in action, I watched it cruise to three additional championships until my son outgrew the age group and moved on. As the city recruited other willing dads to become coaches, I became involved. First as an assistant and then as a head coach. And as you would imagine, I adopted the same principles that I had seen modeled the previous three years. It made my job easier and much more enjoyable, win or lose.
One size does not fit all when it comes to churches or youth ministries. There are, however, principles that are adaptable from mini-church to mega-church. Once you see success in action, zero in on the transferable elements that sustain it and put them into service for your specific ministry.
Resist the temptation to play every position on the field or coach every player on your team. We are not the players, but rather the coach. We are not the go-to ball carrier, but rather the one equipping others to carry the ball. Coach youth and youth leaders up to know their job and turn them loose to do it. Train your volunteer staff in positions where you cannot give focus. The bottom line is we need to be about the business of developing players and coaches.
We have far too many youth ministers who are quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and linemen. We seem to know it all, can do it all, and look for opportunity to demonstrate our all. We spin the plates and take a bow as the crowd applauds. As energetic and appealing as it is to be so accomplished, this is not what Paul meant when he said: “I have become all things to all people that I might win some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Building your ministry with an element of simplicity, scrimmage, encouragement, visual, coaching, and modeling will render an overall enjoyable season. When the season is enjoyable, you stop looking for greener pastures, other positions, or other sports, and simply enjoy the one He has called you to serve.
Recently I found myself watching a 30 for 30 sports documentary titled “Broke.” It was an overview of the exploits along the road to riches and back again by professional sport figures. Some of the discussion included a reference to the life expectancy of professional athletes and how long and how well they capitalize on their financial windfall. That piqued my interest as to what the actual life expectancy was for pro athletes. Did you know the average life expectancy of a first round NFL draft pick is around 9.3 years or approximately 149 games?53 When compared to most professions, it is a rather short career. Our research indicates the average life expectancy of a student minister is between eight and ten years, with seventy-two percent leaving the ministry by age thirty-nine, twenty-two percent by age twenty-nine, and sixteen percent in less than two years.
Unlike pro athletes, there is no financial windfall waiting for you the day you are drafted to your first team (thank you, Captain Obvious). However, unlike pro athletes whose physical abilities decrease with age, youth ministers become seasoned with a more mature application of skills and gifts.
Creating a healthy system for effectively coaching leadership to minimize the personal plate spinning will keep you in the game longer and make your ministry more effective and enjoyable.
Would you consider a rather introspective thought exercise? Ask yourself the following three questions and give yourself time to honestly think and write notes of what comes to mind.
- What type of leader am I?
- What type of leader do others see in me?
- What type of leader do I want to become?
Leading well in student ministry can be the result of being inspired, changed, coached, or even delivered. Yet, inside each great spiritual leader is a beginning point from which dissatisfaction gave birth to a desire to improve personal spiritual leadership and management skills. In doing so, leaders begin a prayerful and sometimes painful process of allowing God to develop the skill set He desires.