Letter From a Leader

One of my favorite parts of working with youth is getting to work with a team of adult leaders. Overall, I would consider myself pretty good at leading a team of leaders. However, I sometimes fall short. A leader in our ministry has decided not to return next fall as a leader, and he wrote a detailed list of reasons why. Before sharing that list, it’s important for me to say that this leader and I get along well on a personal level, and that he is very supportive of what we’re trying to do as a church in general when it comes to youth ministry. I am thankful that he took the time to delineate in writing why he was disappointed in what happened this school year (my first year at this church), especially related to my leadership. Though the letter contained criticism, it was delivered in a gentle, loving tone that exemplified how to disagree with someone in a way that upholds the demands of discipleship. He was kind enough to give me permission to share his letter with others, although I have changed some names and other identifying information. Here’s the portion of the letter that was specifically related to my leadership:

My small group never really showed any real interest in learning about God or the Bible. By the end of year they seemed less interested. There were a few good nights here and there, but no evidence of directional change or growth in the boys. At the beginning of the year you told me that you gave me this particular group because they are curious and want to learn. That does not seem to be the case at all.

Things seemed disorganized and chaotic with regard to getting our lesson materials, and us knowing what was happening on any given night. The lessons often did not engage the boys and I ran out of questions way too soon. It is okay to punt once in a while, but it seemed like I was punting almost every week.

I am really worn out by the level of disrespect in the high school group as a whole. It seems to be a culture of disrespect. I have a higher threshold than my co-leader had, but not as high as yours. I am not sure if your approach with the kids will ultimately work. I hope it does, but I don’t think I can take it that long. You need people with a similar threshold and I think they will all be a lot younger than me.

I think that I am too old for you to relate to, as well as the kids. You call me Mr. XXXX instead of XXXX, which just makes me feel old instead of feeling like I am your friend. When we met for lunch you didn’t have any interest in my life beyond my small group other than [talking about mutual acquaintances we both know]. That makes me feel like a worker bee instead of a family member. Maybe I was spoiled by serving with [a previous pastor] and expect too much. [My place of work] ranks almost last out of 200 federal agencies in employee morale. Anytime our church feels more like my workplace and less like family I don’t like it. (You not answering my e-mail last week confirmed this feeling.)

I’ve had some time to digest what he had to say. Essentially, in his mind I fell short in the following ways:

  • Where I asked him to serve did not end up being a good fit, nor did it live up to what I said it would be like;
  • I did not create a culture where our leaders were respected and appreciated by the students;
  • I did not make him feel like we were teammates in that I didn’t support him by helping him be prepared to lead and I didn’t relate to him much outside of his role as a small group leader. Beyond small talk and discussing issues related to our ministry, I never really engaged with him on a personal level. In fact, at one point in time I did not reply to an email he had sent.

You know what? He’s right. I don’t think this is how I’ve been leading across the board, but in his case, I really dropped the ball. He was one of my most consistent leaders, and in some ways, I took him for granted because I never had to follow up with him, I never had to worry whether he was committed. To his credit, he served for the entire school year, which was his commitment, and came prepared each and every Wednesday, even though he had decided at some point not to continue on as a leader in the ministry. As for the lessons not being organized, I do feel like we did a pretty good job (mostly because our youth ministry administrator was on top of things and created a leader’s guide for each series we did so that leaders had all the lessons at the start of every series), but he did not feel like they adequately helped him be prepared as a leader.

I think this letter will help me grow a whole lot as a leader of leaders. This leader could have just faded into the night by saying it just wasn’t his thing, but he helped me by being honest in a loving way. I’m thankful that our church has created an environment where honest, loving criticism is welcome. I hope that God continues to help me grow by showing me–sometimes through people–where I am in need of improvement as a pastor.

Time: Should we pay students for good grades?

This is an interesting idea. Some in the article say we should do it because “it works.” however, what goal is being accomplished? Is success measured in results, or by a student’s character? In the end, it teaches students to only do something if you get a reward, not because it’s simply the right thing to do.

From here:

In Chicago, Duncan discovered that the program affected kids in ways he’d never expected. “I remember going to schools and seeing how excited the kids were when they got their checks. They were like pep rallies — but around academic success!” he says.

Tim Schmoyer: How to push a spiritually apathetic teen to be spiritually passionate

This is a topic I’ve thought quite a bit about lately, and Tim Schmoyer has posted some great thoughts on it:

The best term I can come up with that explains this is “pushing them toward obedience.” A lot of people don’t like pushing kids spiritually because they’re afraid the teens will rebel against it or be turned off, but I see kids who are being pushed in every area of their life except their spirituality. Their athletic coaches push them hard physically, their teachers push them academically, their jobs push them to perform, etc.

In my experience, the times I’ve seen students really rise to the occasion in a spiritual sense has been when they’ve been challenged to do so. Since I love sports, the athlete illustration really hits home for me. I think back to the times when I really stepped it up as an athlete, and all of them have been when someone has pushed me (in a positive sense; I know there are negative stories out there about putting unrealistic pressure on student athletes). So why can’t we expect more out of students in our ministries? Why can’t we say, “These are some of the expectations Jesus has for his followers, and so that’s what we’ll expect of you, too.” The fact is that we need to. I know that I need a push at times in my spiritual life. In fact, I’ve found that I’m actually bummed if I hear a sermon that doesn’t tell me to do something as a result of what we’ve studied in the Bible during the service. And I’ve received the same feedback from students, too. Students are hungry to follow Jesus with all their heart, and as youth leaders and pastors, our job is to shepherd them and help them follow Jesus with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, no one program or strategy can accomplish this. It begins with the heart of the leaders who pastor the church and pastor the students. If I don’t seek it in my own life, how can I help students seek it as well?

Rick Warren Twitter

I came across this while looking for a video. Here’s a recent tweet from Rick Warren:

Before banks trust u with a loan, they check your credit. Same with leadership. People are always assessing your credibility.

True. A seminary professor, Dr. Scott Wenig, would use the analogy of poker chips. To make changes, to get people to follow you, both require lots of proverbial chips. You need to earn those little by little before you can spend them.

The same is true about losing credibility. To use a different metaphor, I’ll borrow from my father-in-law. One of his pearls of wisdom he shared with me during monthly lunches together while I was dating Jennifer was this: “House points. You earn them one at a time, and lose them by the thousands.” The point: just as a harsh word to my wife or a stupid, thoughtless mistake can really harm my relationship with my wife (thankfully, she’s really forgiving!), so too can just one instance of not being totally above board or a breach of character–even a small one–can lose for a leader many years of building credibility.

By the way, this is very, very true in youth ministry. Teenagers can smell hypocrisy and disingenuousness a mile away.

Student Short-Term Mission Trips and Risk

Tim Schmoyer posted today on the amount of risk that is involved in short-term mission trips, especially to locations that have been in the news for violence. Specifically, he brings up trips to Haiti and to Mexico. The whole post and ensuing conversation is worth reading, but here is my favorite part:

Second, I personally think it’s about time Christian Americans stop worrying about their comfort and level of risk and start living for Christ no matter what. I know you’d say that to your teenagers about the discomforts of living as a Christian in their school. I think the same applies to every other area of life. Jesus’ missions trip killed him, and thank God it did.

Giving up control of our lives and turning it over to God 100% is what He asks for, not just when it feels safe or convient [sic] for us. My life belongs to God. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do stupid things and trust He’ll save me from all harm, but when He calls me to serve Him in missions, I know that’s in accordance with His will because He said so in Matthew 28 and many other places in scripture. Whatever happens while I serve Him is up to Him.

I do believe that we (yes, including me) as Christian youth workers are guilty of proclaiming a safe Christianity. What does it mean to really be a committed follower of Jesus? Too many times, our answer focuses on making sure we have daily devotional times or wearing Christian t-shirts to school. Why don’t we simply give students Jesus’ words about taking a risk as a disciple:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

-Luke 14:25-33, ESV

The answer to the “What do I do now that I’m a Christian?” should be “Take a risk. Not a self-centered risk that’s irresponsible and ends up glorifying yourself, but a real risk that will cost you something that you love, perhaps that you love more than Jesus. That’s the cost of discipleship. I can’t tell you exactly what that will look like in your life, but in essence, to risk it all, to be willing to risk all that you have for the sake of following Jesus is what it means to be a Christian.”

Thanks, Tim, for tackling this tough issue.

Students in Church

Last October, I was leading my 10th grade guys small group, and I discovered something: not one of them (there were about 12) had been to our church’s worship service the previous Sunday. Now, I was not naïve enough to believe that all of our students make it to a worship service, especially those who only attend our Wednesday night small group ministry. But I was floored that not one student had made it to a worship service at our church that week (we have four on a Sunday).

So a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t have our Sunday morning large group gathering. Instead, we encouraged students to go to church. As an incentive, I did open up the youth room and have snacks available about 30 minutes before the service. But once the service was about to start, I locked the doors, and we all headed up to the auditorium. I was pleasantly surprised how many students ended up coming. Not only were they worshiping with believers of all ages, but most whose families attend our church sat with their families.

We will definitely do this again some time. During a conversation with another youth pastor in our community, I even started to wonder if we shouldn’t just shut down Sunday morning large group all together. However, that’s an idea I’ll need to pray over for a while. We get lots of guests at those gatherings, and we try to cover some tough and deep subjects in our teaching. But for the long run, I’d rather have all those students in the large worship service than in our youth group, if I have a choice between the two. Ideally, the two wouldn’t compete for the students’ time. Priority one should be worshiping with other believers of all ages, and priority two should be our large group gathering. It’s a journey I’m on, and I can’t wait to see where God takes us.

Coach Puts Character Over Winning

From SI.com:

You’re a major college football head coach now, or didn’t you get the memo? You’re not supposed to care about character. You’re not supposed to mold young men. You’re supposed to “pray for a misdemeanor,” as Bobby Bowden once did. Most importantly, you’re supposed to win.

With Masoli, you would have won. Don’t you remember the way he dumptrucked that Oregon State defender to make sure you guys won the Pac-10 title? Who cares if he probably carried the laptop he swiped the same way he toted that football? That doesn’t matter. What is important is winning — not whether Masoli leaves school and becomes an honest, productive member of society.

This is a great tongue-in-cheek piece on how a college football coach–who has a team in 2010-11 that could win a national championship–has suspended his star quarterback for one year, greatly lessening his team’s chances for that national championship. Coach Chip Kelly has made a great choice. Perhaps his star quarterback won’t win a national title next year, but he may learn a thing or two about honesty and the consequences of his actions. The ending is fantastic:

But you had to make a statement. You had to place character above winning. You had to send a message to all those little ones who wear green and gold and who sleep under Oregon posters that they shouldn’t steal, that they shouldn’t lie. You had to tell your fans and boosters that you’d rather risk losing a few games than risk selling your program’s soul for a title that would make you a very, very rich man.

What on earth were you thinking?

Lifeway: Youth leaders encouraged to make parents the "heroes"

I know empowering parents is often a stated value of many youth ministries, but few of us actually put that value into practice. It’s a road we’ve been journeying in our children and youth team on our staff, reading Shift: What It Takes To Finally Reach Families Today in our weekly meetings. I’m trying to always keep this value on my mind and heart as I plan, and this article, given to me by one of our parents, is a good reminder:

Bunn pointed to Deuteronomy 6, which calls upon parents to make permanent marks upon the lives of their children. Parents, he said, are an “invaluable” element in students’ development into godly adults. “We are seeing a renaissance of the idea that God says parents should be the primary spiritual developers of their kids.”

The first step in reintroducing (or introducing) parents to this idea is getting to know them, Bunn said. “Find out who they are and what they are going through,” he insisted. “Relationships with the parents will allow you to be transparent with them so that you can, at some point, share the truth of Deuteronomy 6 with them.”

Part of this mindset shift in youth ministry involves more than simply involving parents – it requires youth ministers to think about how their youth groups can be part of the larger church body.

“This is not about adding events to the church calendar,” said Sherry Spillman, a student ministry specialist at LifeWay, during a breakout session. “Think outside of the box to create a holistic, unified church.”

What I want ministry to look like in five years

We are in the midst of our semester, and I’m quite busy. Not too busy for ministry not to be fun, mind you. However, I am busy enough to get caught up in the mechanics of ministry and to not give enough thought and prayer to some important questions. One question that I’ve been avoiding lately has been “What do I want this youth ministry to look like in five years?” This isn’t a simply question of numbers, programs, or teaching. It’s a question of how I want ministry to work. I like the somewhat arbitrary number of five years, because 1) it’s far enough away to feel like anything’s possible, and 2) it’s close enough that if I am really serious about this, I can begin taking steps in that direction today. Plans are great, but only insofar as I realize that God is in control and that I should seek to make plans according to his will and not mine (James 4:13-16). So, what do I want ministry to look like in five years?

  • I want to have jumped in with both feet. I’ve noticed lately that in some ways, I’m holding back from what God is urging me to do. Why? I don’t know. Probably my sinfulness and a lack of trust in God. I don’t want to look back and regret the past five years.
  • I want students to be ministering in ways that I can say, “Wow! They are doing a much better job than I ever could!” I want to be amazed at what God is doing through the students I love so dearly.
  • I want parents to be actively involved in the faith lives of their kids. I want parent ministry to mean something more than one or two seminars a year. And, I want to be modeling this in my relationship with my family.
  • I want our ministry to constantly be introducing people to Jesus. Isn’t this at heart of what we’re supposed to be doing (Matthew 28:16-20)? And I want students to be passionate about it. Really passionate about it.
  • I want to be so passionate about Jesus that it’s contagious. Life’s been tough for our family in the last year. It’s been great in many ways, such as coming to a church we love and getting to take our daughter home from the hospital–twice! Once when she was born, given to us by God; the other when she was healed, given to us again by God. It’s been a good time of growth for us, but I have been convicted that I have not been passionately following Jesus through it all. (Note: I do not equate passion for happiness. One need not be in happy circumstances to passionately follow Jesus.)
  • I want a good part of my time to be spent training and teaching others to minister to youth. I would love to have a great internship program going that really helps people develop their gifts and discern their call for ministry. I’m a much better coach than I ever was an athlete, and I feel the same way about ministry.
  • I want students to be actively involved in telling people about Jesus in their schools, athletic teams, skate parks, and circles of friends.
  • I want students to serve in a variety of ways in the name of Jesus, within our church, within our community, and on the mission field.
  • I want our ministry to have a thriving small group ministry where students learn to rely on one another in their walks with Jesus.
  • I want to have a picture of my brother and me at Coors Field celebrating the Colorado Rockies’ recent World Series win. (I just wanted to see if you were paying attention).
I’m sure there will be more, but for now, this is my wish list.