Wednesday, February 12th, 2020
I ran across a Gallup Poll recently that has nagged me into blogging my thoughts. According to News.Gallop.com, nurses, medical doctors and pharmacists earn the highest ratings from Americans for their honesty and ethical standards. What is wrong with this? After all, we want to trust those who advise, treat, prescribe, and care for our health needs. Of course! But what bothered me was my expectation to see Ministers (clergy) in the highest-ranking spot. Ouch! I was hurt that we who wear the uniform of Minister could only muster up a 37% response for being highly honest and ethical. In fact, this was the lowest score since 1985 when we hit the high-water mark of 67%. What!? We surely can’t be proud of this? Now I know you are probably thinking like a true evangelical, such as I. The blame for this poor “trust score” falls at the feet of the Scandalous Catholic Church. Yes, it was those Catholics who brought us down with all the pedophile scandals surrounding their priests and cover ups. Has the Catholic disgrace hurt American’s view of the church overall? Sure, but we non-Catholics can’t pat ourselves on the back that easily. The survey indicates that all those who identify as Christian (I know, most Americans who believe in God think they are Christian) returned only a score of 43% positive for high honesty and ethical standards. Those who identify as protestant rank ministers at just 48%. I might not be concerned if we could have come in at, say . . . 79%. I could have written off the extreme-never-happy respondents whose feelings were hurt 15 years ago and responded negatively to the survey as pay-back. Then, I might could have moved on and forget about it. But, 48% is just not going to do. How can we Gospelize the world if those we live among, work with, and serve alongside view us as exercising average ethics and honesty? If we don’t change our ways, we may be pairing off with the likes of Congress 8%, Lawyers 19%, or telemarketers 9%. Am I wrong for thinking we ought to rank about 92%? I could delight in that stat. I could feel honored to wear a (92% club) uniform even if I knew in my heart that I was just an 85 percenter – close enough.
It bothers me, and I can’t help but put my thoughts down as to why we find ourselves in this declining trend of ministry honesty and ethics. What is going on?
My thoughts on this trend:
MEDIA MATTERS: No doubt the sensational stories of unethical behavior among church and denominational leaders always make great headlines, like a detective who is a secret night-time vigilante or a doctor who delivers comfort to patients in the morning, but enjoys inflicting great pain on them in the afternoon. Anytime there is a chasm between what a person stands for and what they actually do it makes for increased follow-ship, readership, and controversy. This is true every day, but when scandal hits the church, they make national news like a wildfire skipping across the dry western plains. Why? Mostly because we have high expectations for those who are charged with leading people out of sin. When someone of moral religious standing finds themselves in the same sin-pit they advocate against, it seems more infamous. I could post a litany of minsters who have fallen from their thrones due to sexual scandal, but that would not cover the spectrum of financial, personal, and other shameful misdeeds held in secret until exposed.
ONE SIZE FITS MOST: This tag line not only applies to ear buds, toothbrushes, and beanies, but culture as well. Christians hear about a ministry failure of one or two and assume most are that way. Non-Christians hear ministry moral failure stories and conclude that we are probably all the same. The view of the few, extends to the many. I remember taking youth on visitation to follow up with middle and high school students who had visited a youth event or church service. It was a weekly occurrence and we were nearly always greeted with courtesy and invited inside, but in the mid 80s two scandals brought down the prominent Assemblies of God televangelist Jim Bakker. His sexual misconduct with his secretary, Jessica Hahn led to his resignation, while his illegal misuse of ministry funds eventually led to his imprisonment. By 1987 it was a very different and difficult landscape for making “at home” visits to young people and adults alike. These type incidents make people more skeptical, suspicious, or cynical towards minsters and ministry. The Bakker, Swaggart, Haggard, (what is it with these double letter scandalizers?) and Tilton scandals changed the evangelical practice of visitation forever.
SOME VERSION OF THE TRUTH: My final observation in understanding our low honesty and ethics ranking is the loose grip a growing number of minsters seem to have on truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Now, I am not really talking about the Sunday message, because I believe, for the most part, the truth from the pulpit is still the high aim of most minsters who propagate biblical truth. However, when it comes to ministry leadership and management, we must ask ourselves if we qualify for a reputation of being completely trustworthy. In other words, are we more prone to share some version of the truth, that version which advances our agenda, image, or relational capital?
When ministry leaders shade the truth, to whatever level, for whatever reason, the trust level among those observing is reduced. Even if it seems very incidental, people take notice and adjust their filter, and along with it, their level of trust.
When my boys were in their formative years, my wife and I imposed two major principals in the ethics department.
- Daily ask yourself: “What do I need to do before I do what I want to do?” This principal was intended to promote the idea that your time is not 100% personal or discretionary. Ministers certainly know that serving God as a vocational calling requires one to relinquish a portion of time to do what is required over that which is optional. This value also encourages one to be personally responsible for time management and actions. Being honest and ethical with one’s time can reflect well or poorly upon ministry.
- Understand there are THREE types of lies.
1. Telling something you know to be utterly false.
2. Telling only part of the truth as a substitute for the whole truth, leading others to believe something less than the complete truth.
3. Leading someone to believe something to be false by saying nothing at all.
When a ministry leader holds the Ace Card, it becomes tempting to excuse or exempt oneself from the truth in exchange for what might be considered as “for the greater good”. Often this is simply code for – getting something done, having something undone, or preventing something from ever being done. Since the Ace Card eclipses ever other card in the deck, it can only be played a few times before no one wants to play anymore. So, it must be used sparingly or rarely, and only on serious issues where the name of Christ and His Kingdom are at stake.
The problem arises when a ministry leader feels more comfortable with some VERSION of the truth rather than the complete truth. Often, applying pressure for the sake of manipulating the outcome eventually leads down a dark road.
If you are interested in a truth checkup, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you share only favorable information to nudge your team in a particular direction? That is certainly easier than the hard work of prayer.
- Do you overemphasize negative information to sway your team towards a particular decision? That certainly is easier than trusting them with processing facts.
- Do you omit tidbits of information to advance your agenda or point of view?
Ministry leaders often meet with individuals under implied confidentiality or work with teams who are sworn to secrecy. This can inadvertently lend itself into succumbing to the temptation of truth tampering.
So, when it comes to the TRUTH, the whole TRUTH, and nothing but the TRUTH, let’s be deliberate to apply the following scriptures.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Ephesians 4:25
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. Proverbs 12:22
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, . . . Ephesians 4:15
Remember, God is not inclined to bless the ministry where there are fifty shades of the truth.
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
Nearly every week there are churches asking for leads, recommendations, or assistance in securing a student pastor for their church. The most common lament I hear is: “We have been diligently searching, but it seems the good ones (code for young, well trained, and experienced) are few and far between. Can you help us?” Sure, and let me guess, you are looking for a 27 year-old with at least five years of experience – ten would be better, a master’s degree in Christian Ministry with an emphasis in youth, preaches powerfully with cutting edge cultural relevance, a spouse who offers a two-for-one special in organizational management or counseling skills with a personality that any sales manager would love to employ.
Consider that if just two of these seven qualities were found (masters & experience), the resume would be plucked from a seven-percentile pool of ministers within the evangelical church field. Why is finding a “youth guy” becoming an increasingly challenging task?
Based on 37 years of youth ministry experience, numerous consulting interviews, and some informal research, let me offer a few thoughts regarding the phenomenon of the disappearing vocational youth pastor.
- WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO: Anytime a profession becomes deemphasized, devalued, underpaid, and under-appreciated, it’s future is probably not as bright as its past. Fortunately, the nation-wide ebb and flow of ministry culture keeps the position of student pastor from vanishing completely. From books, blogs, and denominational leadership huddles, the vocational calling of youth pastor has been on the receiving end of finger-pointing since the mid-2000’s. Critics are quick to point out the decline in professionalism and productivity flowing from the youth ministry arena. Most of all it is the spotlight shining on the declining number of adolescent professions of faith that sound the greatest alarm (as it should). We seem to overlook the church-wide decline in attendance when we are determined to find “the” reason for the decline in the number of youth conversions. Coupled with the cultural immorality and anti-Christian views defining GenZ, the collective impact of youth ministry is below its golden-age standards of the eighties and nineties. The process of discrediting youth ministry is usually unintentional, but, is none the less being perpetuated by church leaders, pastors, staff, parents, and personnel teams across the fruited plains. Pointing a finger in one direction for too long can be costly to the Kingdom effort.
- PUT ME IN COACH: It is no secret that God has and is continuing to tap student pastors as part of His plan to raise up a next-gen of church planters. In fact, many healthy churches today were started by former youth pastors. It makes sense that God would choose to mobilize His new generation of church planting missionaries using folks who routinely experiment with new methods of reaching lost teenagers and are comfortable with an ever-shifting sub-culture. Since youth ministry is a fertile ground for innovation and passion, it serves as a launching pad –of sorts-for developing a church planting mind-set to go, plant, and grow. We should be proud to support individuals who are called to gospelizing those areas where the gap between population growth and evangelism has dramatically widened. While this is a positive outcome, it is also a depleting factor within the youth ministry pipeline.
- THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG: Are there fewer Christian Universities offering student ministry majors and minors resulting in fewer participants in the pipeline (or) are there fewer students entering youth ministry resulting in downsized programs or cancellation of courses needed to maintain a major or minor in student ministry? Either way, the result is the same: fewer trained and available youth pastors waiting in the well from which pastors can draw.
- IT IS WELL: Most churches have recovered from the personnel downsizing trend delivered courtesy of the recession. However, many have not, or ever intend to reverse the personnel decisions made during the pinch of financial hardship.
- As bread-winners and families adjusted to lower wages, loss of job, or two part-time jobs replacing one well paying full time job, the affect tricked down to the church budget and on the agenda for discussion among finance and personnel teams. The percentage of resources being allocated towards the personnel line was deemed the lessor of two evils (cut personnel or cut programs). Many churches made the decision to call upon available volunteers to step-up and assume the duties of the pastor being let go until the financial bleeding stops and reverses. This sounds like a logical solution and should have been more successful in application, but the recession lasted longer than predicted, was deeper than many wanted to admit, and hit the church harder than reserves could make up. Many ministries had not prepared their volunteers through biblical lay-ministry ownership like lead-team ministry and were ill-equipped for taking up the mantel of leadership during the interim of financial hardship.
- The full-time youth pastor position was reduced to part-time status requiring the vocational youth pastor to seek other employment, re-tool towards bi-vocational ministry service, or move to a different ministry position entirely.
- When church budgets didn’t allow for a well-trained, experienced youth minister the pastor or search team may have looked for a home-grown candidate within the congregation. This often resulted in hiring a well-liked albeit unqualified, untrained, director of youth activities rather than a professional youth pastor.
- HIDDEN NUMBERS: With fewer GenZ students attending church, many churches have given up the fight for the souls of this generation. The reasoning is simple: less youth or less interest equals less importance, or less need. In fact, it’s just the opposite. During an epidemic, more emphasis and assistance should be assigned to the front lines of the outbreak. We need more children and student pastors answering the call than any time in our recent history. We must never give up the fight for a generation, despite extreme cultural immorality, anti-Christian sentiment, or decline in church attendance and support.
- FAMILY MATTERS: No doubt, the Family Ministry Movement helped shine a spotlight on the importance of ministering to the family unit. It also helped improve the overall ministry impact to families who wanted to accept the role of primary disciple maker within the home. It simultaneously initiated a much-needed dilution of the wayward “silo” approach to youth ministry. This well-intended, if not necessary approach to move the resistant church of the 80s and 90s toward reaching the adolescent community was never intended to endure as the ranking philosophy for reaching youth and their families for the Kingdom. However, the family ministry movement inadvertently affected the position of student pastor. Many churches either eliminated the position of student pastor altogether or greatly reduced the role and importance of the position. Some joined the ranks of the “Youth Ministry Abolitionist” movement and completely dismantled and abandoned their ministry focus on the adolescent community. This extreme approach has proven futile in capturing the mind and hearts of a growing community of digital natives. This generation is increasingly untethered from the family and free to decide where they spend their discretionary time and money. Some church leaders invested such tremendous relational capital in making Family Based ministry the new model that it became nearly impossible to admit its ineffectiveness. Some leaders felt compelled to double-down on the Family Based approach even as we watched this highly-promoted silver bullet miss its mark by the same margin as traditional student ministry.
Many churches falsely believe the answer to their aging congregation is to hire a young, vibrant youth minister who will attract youth and families. Surely this will reverse the trend of a declining church. But if the pipe-line is deficient, what will the church do? Some churches will be fortunate in their search to find a limited version of a youth director, student pastor, or willing individual to lead the youth ministry and that will likely have a positive effect. However, it is rarely the solution to a churches overall decline and ineffectiveness. Other major deficiencies should be explored in addition to expecting the youth ministry to be part of an effective ministry coalition. A comprehensive and honest evaluation of the churches worship, small groups, evangelism, discipleship, and ministry to the community should be part of an overall plan to achieve a standard of ministry excellence.
- Pray for student pastors, search teams, youth and families, and for God to raise up an army of men and women called to serve among children and youth.
- Speak often and positively towards the need for reaching the adolescent community with the Gospel. Remember, the future of our churches is sitting in middle school right now!
- Encourage your paid youth staff and volunteers. Nothing feels as good as being noticed and appreciated.
- Speak to your pastor, denominational leaders, Christian college/Seminary leaders and other influencers about the need for professional student ministry training.
- Be generous. Make every effort to compensate your student pastor with an honorable wage and benefits package. Sometimes the only significant raise a youth pastor ever receives comes from moving to another church or another position.
- Refrain from treating youth pastors as Jr. Ministers. Ministry is hard work and age-graded ministry for a trained youth pastor is no less important and often more challenging among an ever-shifting sub-culture of teens.
- Give more platform time to the youth pastor. Even if you feel the need to script what is said, the effort will still advance the cause by increasing exposure. Pastors and denominational leaders can more often weave into their messages the high call of ministry while emphasizing the call to serve the adolescent community.
- Spend one-on-one time with your youth pastor listening and praying with them. Give them the freedom to share disappointments as well as successes.
- Maintain realistic expectations for your student pastor. Measure what you expect against your community and church growth or decline.
- Discover and point youth pastors and volunteers toward continuing education or certification in youth ministry. The more prepared a person is, the more likely they will feel competent and confident in their ministry.
I call on every pastor, church leader, and youth ministry advocate to raise the banner of youth ministry high while raising the standard of excellence in which it functions. In His name, we can change the tide of student ministry and reach this and the next generation for Christ.
If you are searching for a youth pastor and need assistance or want your youth ministry to have greater Kingdom impact, contact me. I want to encourage and assist you.
Saturday, December 1st, 2018
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 on a football team with a reputation of being a winning dynasty in the third-grade age group. I was concerned he 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.
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, linemen 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:
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.
Simple systems for executing youth ministry will outlast a complicated one. Highly complex systems 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?
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. 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 express their gifts will pay huge dividends on game day.
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.
A coach who takes the time to create color-coded 5×7 cards understands something about the developmental stage of his little gridiron troupers. The concrete learning style of his target age group dictated his “playbook”. 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.
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. 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?
Not only did I get to see the “dynasty” in action, but I also 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 a 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. They seem to know it all, can do it all, and look for opportunities to demonstrate it all. They 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 sports 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?
- Do others see this type of leader in me and if not what type do they see?
- 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.
Tuesday, March 6th, 2018
You might not think that you could learn much about Youth Ministry from going to the circus. 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, our parents gave my older brother, sister, and 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.
Cotton Candy Ministry
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 an 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 part of what it appeared to be. While it is hard to diagnose CCM 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.
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 operate much like the plate spinner. Let’s look at this analogy in three parts.
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 changed 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.
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.
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.
To learn more about Cotton Candy Ministry or Plate Spinning techniques in your ministry read my book Equip: Leadership, Lead Teams, and Longevity in Youth Ministry.
Wednesday, May 24th, 2017
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
For the past ten years, I have heard whispers questioning the validity of summer youth camp. As the whispers turned more frequently into questioning voices from passionate youth ministers, I felt a need to weigh in on the subject.
Camp or no camp?
Unquestionably, youth ministers should hold all student ministry programming to honest evaluation and scrutiny. Everything we calendar in the name of ministry ought to have Kingdom impact. However, the ministry calendar should not exclude a valuable tool simply because it has been around for a long time.
I have no dog in this fight, but I do have a lot of skin in the game so allow me to give full disclosure here. No camp producing entity has ever paid me for an endorsement. Neither have I served on the board of any youth camp organization or been a summer camp employee. My opinion is offered as an objective and impartial observer. So, trust me when I say . . . there are some things which almost always produce Kingdom impact if done with excellence – and I believe summer camp is one of those things – as are small groups, relationship building, and leadership development – to name a few.
Let me share four compelling reasons to incorporate summer camp into your student ministry calendar.
1. The “Get-a-way” principle
There is high value in removing people from their everyday environment, distractions, and conveniences into a focused and purposeful getaway experience. Jesus did this with His disciples for the purpose of helping them understand WHO He was, WHAT He required of them, and WHERE He was going to end up. Getting away to rest, focus, and learn is neither a new concept or all that genius – it’s just highly practical and valuable. That’s why fortune 500 companies take retreats, why the US Naval Academy sponsors a one week Summer Camp, and why successful companies like Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby utilize employee retreats to achieve their goals.
2. The “Investment” principle
Dedicating a specified time away is an investment in relationships, discipleship, leadership, and teamship. Summer camp serves as an investment towards at least 4 of the 5 biblical purposes of student ministry. Those purposes are Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, Evangelism, and Ministry Service. Mfuge and other missions focused camps, swap Evangelism for Ministry Service and can still achieve four of the five purposes.
3. The “Life Change” principle
The simple truth is – when lost students attend a Gospel-centric summer camp with programming excellence, there is a high probability they will return home as a new creation in Christ. Of my 35 years of doing summer camp (both contract and custom built), the return is between 40-70%. Not only is the salvation potential high, but spiritual markers and faith growth spurts are more likely. When summer highs fade into school semester lows, it is a valid downer – admittedly, but that is not sufficient reason to kill it. Like a rubber band that expands and contracts, it does not return to the same exact form it was before being stretched.
4. The “Biggest Bang for the Buck” principle
If you add up what is spent through the church youth budget and programmed ministry event fees over one year, you will find summer camp to be a pretty good bargain. Compare YMCA camp costs at $500-$950 without leaving town and eating at home each morning and evening. The average high school sports camp runs $300-$1200 depending on the age level and does not include transportation. According to USDA healthy food facts, it cost parents between 195-$295 per week just to feed a teenager. It may be cheaper to send them to youth camp.
Let me share a small sampling of camps designed specifically for youth.
These camps are designed for church groups and do not allow individual camper registration. I have personally directed, spoke at, or visited each of the following camp ministries except one – Generate Camps by YM360.
Summer Camp Facilities
Laguna Beach Retreat, Panama City Beach FL
Blue Horizon Lodge & Retreat, Panama City Beach FL
Springville Camp & Conference Center, Odenville, AL
Surfside Christian Retreat, Panama City Beach FL (Small – 72 beds – but directly on the beach)
Camp Lee, Anniston, AL
Several denominational conventions maintain an extensive network of facilities for rent. Southern Baptist, Methodist, and Assembly of God have a large network of locations through many of their state conventions
Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
If you have been around youth ministry very long then you have observed how some student ministries seem to grow wide but have little to show for it when it comes to growing deeply devoted followers of Christ.
On the other hand, you may have noticed that some youth ministries grow spiritual roots deeper than a Redwood tree. However, they can’t’ seem to attract or win the lost through their efforts.
So today we are going to consider 7 essential steps to grow your student ministry both deeper and wider
The following list is a summary of sorts – a collection of responses that surfaced from a combination of student ministry consult interviews and surveys.
I have organized the list into 7 essentials found among growing youth groups. This list reflects part-time and full-time ministries without regard to the level of professional youth ministry training achieved by the volunteer or paid staff leader.
So what are these Seven Essentials for Growing Student Ministries Deeper and Wider?
1. Small Groups:
Growing student ministries focus on small group relationships as much as major events. Recognizing the important role small groups play in the spiritual development of an adolescent is a key factor in growing both numerically and spiritually. To calculate your small group effectiveness consider the ideal formula of having one small group for every 8 students in your average attendance. Each Small group should float between 5-10 students with ideally about 7 in attendance. Depending on the age group, interest level, and the time availability of the teacher/facilitator, one group may need to be smaller. Although, other groups can afford to expand without losing the necessary high-touch factor.
If you want more info on the important role of small groups, check out the training video on our YouTube channel dedicated to this topic and titled “The Importance of Small Groups”
2. Quality Excellence:
Growing student ministries have a natural tendency towards programming excellence. The idea is that growing ministries strive for producing programming that is perceived as high quality. Regardless of whether it is or is not high quality compared to the star-powered mega-church – to the parents and youth involved in it and who serve within it – the ministry is perceived and received as programming excellence. Even if it is not Disney quality it is considered top-shelf by comparison.
3. Giving Students Leadership Roles
Growing student ministries will look for opportunities in which to place students into leadership roles. Successful youth ministers want students to be personally involved in accomplishing their mission, vision, and weekly ministry gatherings. They know the value of students developing spiritually through doing, through preparing, and through personal involvement. This essential recognizes the fact that student leadership cannot be limited to those who play and sing with the praise band, are extrovert, or popular.
4. Don’t Repeat Unproductive Ministry Events
Growing student ministries strive not to repeat unproductive ministry programming or events. Growth happens with those who are willing to discard or conclude a ministry that has proven unproductive over time. If you have given your best effort at making a ministry productive to no avail, then you must have the courage to discontinue it. Remember, an unproductive ministry due to programming ignorance or laziness is not the same as an unsuccessful ministry.
5. Identify and Encourage Through Floodlight Ministry
Growing student ministries identify and encourage one another using a flood light rather than a spotlight. Understanding the benefits of flood light ministry is key to high-touch growth. When we treat all students the same regardless of abilities, looks, popularity, athletic ability, etc. the tendency towards inclusiveness breeds acceptance and growth. A spotlight promotes individualism and exclusiveness much like a clique. A floodlight distributes its beams equally regardless of how much or how little a youth brings to the table.
6. Embrace and Promote Change
Growing student ministries will embrace and promote change. Now I don’t mean changing things for change sake (although sometimes even that is necessary in extreme stagnant cases) When it comes to change, we must remember that every ministry has its season. Some ministry programs will last a lifetime, like Summer Camp or Disciple Now Weekend. While the content may change and the programming updated, the concept of an annual ministry event like summer camp may outlive several generations of youth. On the other hand, some ministry initiatives have a very short life-span. They establish them with the intent of only accomplishing a specific, time-sensitive ministry goal. Knowing when it is time to conclude a particular ministry program must be bathed in prayer and executed with humility and confidence.
7. Celebrate Parent Involvement
Growing student ministries celebrate involvement and participation from parents and other adults. More than chaperones, these are adults who are youth-friendly – who choose to invest in the spiritual development of teenagers. Committed volunteers provide students with a significant other-person to which they can turn when the storms of adolescences flood their lives.
Deep and Wide . . . it’s not just a kids song from days gone by.
Friday, July 22nd, 2016
What is it that makes some youth ministries more successful than others? Why do some stagnate, decline or fail while others grow healthy and numerically? Is there a collection of habits that successful or exceptional student ministers practice? In our survey and interviews, we have found ten practices that stand out as doable and adaptable for just about any student minister.
For this study, I focused on two criteria for classifying student ministers as highly exceptional. Managing a growing student ministry for at least three years. I chose three years for two reasons.
1. First, the 3-year mark is just under the cut-off of the average length of stay for paid student ministers in the US (3.9 yrs).
2. Second, the 3-year mark helps prevent a skewed result from those who have not managed or built a ministry but rather inherited the kingdom, so to speak. Seeing continuous growth for three years means that you’re likely looking at a minister who is doing what he does well and not just reaping the benefits of what was built for him.
Let’s take a look at these habits and practices.
1. They Exercise
While this is probably not what you were expecting to top the list it is a reality of healthy youth ministers and ministries. Youth pastors who remain active through a sport, hobby, exercise routine, running club, organized leagues, etc. were more likely to remain satisfied in their position and be successful in the youth ministry arena.
2. They Celebrate
Not only do they celebrate the involvement and victory of volunteers, parents, and student leaders, they also celebrate big and little victories in the lives of students, families, and major ministry events. The celebratory factor creates joy and excitement that radiates from a winning team.
3. They Are Not Afraid to Fail
Successful student ministry ships are captained by those who are not afraid to attempt something new or extraordinary. It is not that they are never afraid but rather they make a habit of overcoming fear in order to experiment with change or create something from scratch. They do not allow fear to keep them from what could make the ministry successful.
4. They Are Confident
This is not the same as being arrogant but more akin to being secure – in what they know, who they serve and how they will organize the ministry God has entrusted to their care. Since the church already suffers from an overabundance of arrogant leadership, we should strive to balance the scales with humble confidence.
5. They Plan and Administrate Well
Over the years student ministers have acquired quite a reputation for being disorganized. I think it suffices to say that if you want to succeed in student ministry you will either organized, plan, and manage out of a natural skill set or you will force yourself to learn, adapt and acquire the needed skills to plan and manage well. Otherwise, you will become a casualty of chaos or burn-out.
6. They Prioritize Well
Successful student ministers have a habit of putting the family in the correct biblical order – ahead of ministry. Some of the most frustrated people in the world are spouses of student pastors and often the root of a premature exit. Too often student ministers appear better at managing the ministry calendar than their marriage and families. It must be both/and.
7. They Maintain a Devotional Prayer Life
It is no surprise that successful student ministers hold their daily devotional time in high regard. They insist upon nurturing an ongoing devotional commitment. It is the one thing, no matter what comes, must be retained, restarted, reignited, and reestablished however many times it takes to preserve it.
8. They Are Not Afraid to Ask for Help
While this may appear surprising to some, most youth ministers realize how much pride exists among ministers. This is especially true among youth ministers who are often times young, inexperienced, and highly pressured to produce. This can lead to a reluctance to ask for help for fear of appearing inept. Successful student leaders know when it is time to get assistance and they are not too shy or proud to ask for it.
9. They Listen More Than They Talk
While this is a valued trait in any profession, it is especially beneficial in the world of student ministry. Listening is paramount among those who serve teenagers as teens need to express their thoughts, be heard, and listened to. Often youth are learning about themselves when they are talking, and listening will deliver a truck-load of insight.
10. They Know the Team They Are On is More Important than the Team They Lead
One of the realities of successful ministry enjoyment is arriving at the conclusion that the staff team is more essential to your success and happiness than the youth staff or volunteer team you direct. While both are certainly important, one must take priority and that one is the pastor and staff you serve alongside.
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” I Cor. 9:24-27
If you’d like to analyze your own ministry, take our ministry excellence assessment and find out where you’re doing well and where you could improve in your ministry!
Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
How much of it do you have? According to The World Health Organization, the United States ranks 36th in Life Expectancy out of 193 countries. This means the average male in the US can expect to live 78.3 years while females can expect to outlast their male counterparts to age 81.3. By contrast, the average male in Kenya plans his last birthday at age 60 while the average male living in Sierra Leone may not see his 40th birthday. If you live approximately 78 years and enjoy the average number of hours per sleep per day (9) then you will have consumed approximately 427,050 hours of discretionary time or about 48 years.
Most of us do take the time we have for granted but in the world of youth ministry, we must not waste it on things that do not have or lead to Kingdom impact. One of the major reasons is because youth pastors have a maximum of seven years to leverage against the development of the students entrusted to their ministry care. In most cases, students are entering and exiting the student ministry arena at different ages making our time for impact even more precarious.
So we return to the initial question: How much time do you have? Unless you know precisely when you are going to die you cannot answer the question with any certainty.
Let me encourage you to guard your time by practicing three important Time Management Tips.
Considering the minutes God entrusts to your care, be sure to:
1. Manage Your Time WELL Because . . .
- It is finite.
- You only have so much of it.
- The amount you do have is unknown.
- It is a non-renewable resource.
- When it is gone it’s gone for good.
2. Manage it INTELLIGENTLY
Be careful not to allow your time to manage you. Instead, take control of your calendar as a smart steward distinguishing between that which is tentative and which is necessary. With all the modern technology available to assist with managing work and personal calendars, there remain far too many poor time managers. I am amazed at the number of managers (ministry and secular) who for whatever reason find themselves missing meetings, double booking, and over-committing.
I have college-age and young adult colleagues who can access and demonstrate a thousand apps on the newest smartphone or tablet but can’t arrive at a meeting on time or make notes to remember what decisions were made during a planning session.
One student minister expressed that he would be a much better time manager if his computer did not also house his favorite games. His distraction and addiction to gaming competition was a hindrance to his smartly managing his time.
3. Manage Time BIBLICALLY
Remember, your time is not your own. You are accountable to:
- God for the time He graciously bestows you.
- Your supervisor for how you spend it.
- Your family for how you prioritize it.
Spending plenty of time in the scriptures will make you and your ministry significantly stronger. Take your student-targeted sermons seriously. If you are writing from scratch, good for you but don’t feel guilty for using ministry tools for sermon ideas and outlines. Conversely, if you mostly use or only use ministry tools for downloading sermon outlines and scripts – please, please write something original. Not only will it ignite a passion to preach what God gives you but it makes you a better persuader of the Gospel. Remember, only the scriptures through His divine revelation can change the heart of a student, a student minister or a student ministry. Who and what you prioritize are some of the tell-tale signs of if you will have a successful ministry.
“Making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:16
“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” Colossians 4:5
Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
According to Ken Kaegler’s study of Youth Leaders who were fired or burned, out 85% are graduates of a college or University. Of those who hold a degree, 49% have sought education in Youth Ministry. This means 15 of 100 youth ministers have no college-level training and of those who do hold a college degree over half have no specialized training for the work of student ministry. Developing core competencies for student ministry service has never been more accessible yet many student leaders seem to be opting out of the academic component. Isn’t it enough that you love Jesus and love teenagers? Well . . . NO it isn’t? The church deserves your best as do the staff, pastor, parents and students. The only person stopping you from becoming an expert in Student Ministry is you. To this end, consider obtaining as much training as you can.
Further Education Options:
- Attend a National Youth Workers Convention
- Adopt a mentor who has the degree and experience from you can draw.
- Observe and glean from a successful ministry in action.
- Enroll in an institute for greater credentials and skill honing.
- Network through professional youth ministry journals and culture experts.
- Subscribe to helpful blogs and webinars.
- Finish college or seminary.
- Audit a student ministry course.
Do whatever you can in pursuit of becoming an expert in your field. Commit to becoming a life-long learner of the ministry you serve.
Consider the following two options.
- Self-education:The primary idea here is to take the initiative to train yourself. You are either a window or an obstacle to learning. a) Research learning – this might include books, how-to resources, insightful blogs, websites, etc. b) Mentor-ship – no one person can provide you all the mentor-ship you need so don’t look for “a” mentor but rather several mentor outlets who will allow you to become a sharecropper of sorts as you harvest from their field of knowledge and experience.
- Formal Education:If you have not been to college consider enrolling. If you are currently in school consider taking youth ministry electives or pursuing a youth ministry major. If you need to go back to school, enroll as soon as feasible. There are so many great online options through today’s technology that few excuses are credible.
- Don’t become a “download dog”. If the foundation of your ministry revolves around a downloadable file then you need to upgrade your level of expertise. Too often there is the temptation to google it, copy it and voila, your good to go for another Wednesday night. Let me encourage you to be a content creator. There is significant benefit in creating your own content and this generation appreciates it because they are themselves by nature content creators. In fact give them a seat at the creation table and allow them opportunity to produce student ministry content.
- A degree is not a magic wand. Having a degree does have its advantages but anyone can testify to the fact that a degree alone will not create success. There are plenty of ineffective ministry ships being captained by someone holding a college degree. Simply having a degree does not make you an effective student pastor but it does give you the knowledge base to become one.
- Don’t do nothing. Next year will arrive whether you advance your expertise level or not. Why not ring in the New Year knowing that you have taken concrete steps towards increasing your competence level.
Education is knowledge and those who lead God’s people have prayed for such a blessing as to know more about how to lead His people, obey His word, govern His leadership, and exemplify His will. May it be so with you as you seek knowledge for your position.
The Institute of Student Ministry Essentials
If you’re looking for a way to further your education, check out the Institute of Student Ministry Essentials (ISME). ISME certification is designed as an alternative to formal classroom education. By combining field training with targeted reading, custom videos, cohort mentoring and personalized discussions, you will have the opportunity to excel using highly successful student ministry strategies.
“Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” II Chronicles 1:10
“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.” Proverbs 18:15
“Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands.” Psalm 119:66