We are fortunate enough to live across from a park that is full of fun for a toddler. Every day we have a routine that she has to follow. First, we walk across the bridge. Second, we go to the swings. Third, we go to the slide. And finally end our time by walking up and down the steps to the gazebo before going home.
I enjoy watching her explore her surroundings with more and more confidence every time we are there. But its what she does between each “routine activity” that I love the most. Due to a very wet December and January, the park is covered in color. Bright purples and yellows stretch out in every direction creating a feast for the eyes, if you can see them. You see, they are the blooms that have come up in the middle of weeds. It takes my older eyes much longer to focus on the color and not on the weeds that have spread over the park (and across my own yard).
I believe Jesus would be able to see the color much quicker than I do. I believe this fact is a teachable moment for me and maybe for you as well.
I think Jesus knew a lot about weeds and the flowers that show up around them. Only he didn’t call them weeds and flowers; he called them children.
Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way (Matthew 19:13-15).
This may seem harsh to call our students weeds. But if we are honest, we all have a few students that we wish paid more attention in class or better understood and appreciated what we were trying to do for them. In other words, they are “weedish” in their behavior. But regardless of their behavior, Jesus wants these kids close to him and maybe wants them pulled closer than the kids that are less “weedish.” Jesus doesn’t see a kid who can’t sit still or remember what was said last week. He sees a colorful, creative kid full of potential his Kingdom.
What a blessing that He has entrusted these “weeds,” I mean students to us! (I’m afraid of what he would tell me when I get frustrated by them, but that’s for another blog post).
My prayer is that we will embrace the weeds in our youth groups with the same enthusiasm that you do for the flowers. Let’s start by making noticing, like Jesus does, the students in our group part of our daily routine of youth ministry.
I worked hard on the youth group meeting. I had prepped the games, worked hours on the Bible study, and created an application so the youth could live out the lesson during the week. I felt confident it would be a great night. It wasn’t.
The game didn’t work like I thought it would; in fact, on the relay two kids crashed into one another and were (slightly) hurt. Students gave blank stares as I walked through the Bible lesson, and the discussion fell flat. No one would respond to my brilliantly worded questions. Driving home from the church that nigh, beyond discouraged, I seriously contemplated a career change.
The next morning, looking for comfort, I shared my frustration with Bruce, my supervisor. He simply said, “Look at the long view. Don’t judge yourself or your ministry by how a specific night or event went, think longer term.” To be honest, as he shared this with me, as a person who had been in full-time youth ministry for 3 months, I just didn’t get it. His Yoda-like answer didn’t help me feel any better. Yet, as I left scratching my head, I also knew he spoke with wisdom borne from experience. Prior to his role as Associate Pastor at the church we worked in together, he had been a youth pastor at a different church for 12 years (which in the 1980’s was about as rare as a unicorn). I knew he wasn’t just making up some words to make me feel better and keep me doing my job.
His advice helped me let go of my emotions from that disastrous night and reminded me of what Paul said to the Philippians, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13). Moving forward, I sought to apply this passage, and remember his word, as I began to prep for the next week.
Over the months and years, I realized Bruce was right. I needed to flip the flop into part of the weekly rhythm. Over time I have learned to see and acknowledge the growth and life development in the lives of my students that occures over time. The broader perspective allowed me to see the subtle changes I had missed from week to week.
At the time of the flop, I was looking for a quick fix. I was looking for students to be instantly transformed by the amazing teaching I brought (looking back, I’m embarrassed by my pride- that’s another Note to my Young Self). I needed to learn that God’s timing for growth is much different than ours. God is content to shape and mould us over time. Sure there are moments of quicker transformation; but in general, we are all growing slowly and steadily to be more like Jesus. As Eugene Peterson’s book title puts it, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Now, with 30 plus years to reflect on, I see the tremendous wisdom in Bruce’s words. Look at the long view of the work you’re doing. Be patient and keep going.
Questions to consider:
What are the little things that you can celebrate in your life and ministry?
How would taking the long view provide hope for you right now?
Take 20 minutes to sketch out a long view of your ministry. This isn’t a visioning exercise in which you are looking forward as much as it is an exercise of looking back. How and where have you seen God at work over the past months or years?
In the words of the classic rock philosopher, Jon Bon Jovi, you’re “halfway there.” Winter marks the halfway point of the ministry year, which means that you’ve reached the youth ministry equivalent of halftime. Halftime is a time to rest and refuel (hopefully you already did a little bit of that over the holidays). And, it’s also a time to reflect and reevaluate (which is what we all should be doing right now). Think about it this way…
Imagine that you are the coach of a team and the game started in September. Back in September, you had goals. You had a whiteboard full of “plays” for the year. And, you’ve been executing your strategy now for about four and a half months.Any good coach knows that now is the time to reflect on the “first half.” So, how’s it going so far?
Start by asking yourself these three questions:
How am I doing on reaching the ministry goals I set? (Think of ministry goals as your people goals)
How are my “plays” working? (Think of your plays as your programs or ways that you disciple students)
How is my strategy doing at the halfway point? (Think of your strategy as your overall approach to ministry…like your ministry philosophy)
Sounds like a lot to process, but that’s what coaches do at halftime. Good coaches know their teams well enough to reflect, reevaluate, and implement whatever needs to be done to “win” in the second half.
Maybe you find yourself in mid-January with a ton of ministry “wins.” Celebrate that, but don’t get cocky! In the sports world, there have been many teams that have blown big leads at halftime, because they coasted in the second half. Keep working hard, never forgetting that we have an enemy that prowls around like a roaring lion, looking to devour you and your ministry (1 Peter 5:8).
Maybe you’re at the halfway point and you find yourself beaten down by a lot of ministry “losses.” Acknowledge that, but don’t give up! Many teams have overcome huge deficits at halftime to pull off improbable comeback wins in the end. Keep working hard, never forgetting that we serve a God who is able to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think (Ephesians 3:20).
Now is the time to ask yourself what a “win” is going to look like for you and your ministry in the second half.
Now is the time to make any adjustments or tweaks to you and your ministry. Tweaks that will put both in the best position to succeed at what God has called you to do this year.
So, take a day away from your office and find a place that works for you to create your own little halftime experience. Start with prayer and personal reflection. Reevaluate your ministry using the three questions. Commit (or re-commit) to your game plan for the second half. Pray some more. And then implement whatever you need to do to win in 2019.
One would be hard pressed to not come across headlines or stories about “failed church leaders” or “church leaders in crisis.” Credible (or once credible) and noteworthy churches and church leaders fall and fail. In the last 6 months, two churches from the Chicago area, Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Church experienced painful and radical undoing from the actions of the pastor and church leadership. These two churches have had such a positive perception for many years that when it all came undone, people were left disenfranchised, confused, and damaged.
Perhaps you have been on either side of a bad situation. You have been the one whose actions hurt a church or you had to deal with the pain and hurt of another leader. Regardless of the activity and/or the action, the problem typically involves a power dynamic gone wrong and/or a justification by those in power attempting to change perception of the problem. Such leadership failures ultimately result in the removal/resignation of the core leadership, including elder/board leadership. What follows such dramatic correction is a call for holistic and systemic examination leading to a transformation of the church and its community culture.
More can be written on why and what goes wrong with churches and church leaders. There’s a few things to keep in mind moving forward for youth workers who seek to reflect God’s love to students and families during church leader and church leadership failings. To be clear, not all failings are created equal, but there is a similar mentality that goes with handling any church related failure.
Here are a few things youth workers need to remember when things go wrong:
It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. We should be reminded that the presence of sin has broken the world inside the church and church leadership before. And, unfortunately, it will happen again.
Truth takes time, and time can be healing. If authenticity and courage is pursued in the Spirit of faith, hope, and love, then transformation can be expected in the church and in the life of the pastor and leadership that has done wrong. It’s not going to be easy. When darkness is exposed, there’s a tremendous amount of hopelessness and despair that overwhelms people. It will take time, but persevere, spiritual resiliency will occur.
The worst can prepare us for God’s best. God shows this time and time again when we work through hardship and brokenness. God wastes nothing of our pain. So, even if it feels like the worst, it can be a sign of how God can grow you to experience something much healthier and better in leadership and life.
Authentic truth keeps all possibilities, understandings, and perceptions on the table. Unhealthy conflict, leadership failings, and toxic cultures are radically complex, but the complex shouldn’t discourage us from understanding. It just means we consider all the angles, especially if we are close to the brokenness. Ask questions, demonstrate transparency, and acknowledge grief, anger, and hurt. Everyone has a right to their feeling and acknowledging those feelings can open the door to deeper transformation for everyone.
Abuse (any kind of abuse: emotional, financial, physical, sexual, or spiritual) should be held accountable. No matter how “good” or “blessed” a ministry is perceived, abuse has to be brought into account. Abusing and marginalizing is never excused because of a perceived “good ministry.”
Healing/redemption is a promise of encountering Jesus and His Gospel through the brokenness. When truth is sought, brokenness is held accountable, and a process of transformation is pursued, healing and redemption come to real life. Using the disciple Peter as an example, the leadership failure can literally be denying Jesus, and Jesus will still come to meet you and recalibrate you for a different future.
To end the discussion on church and church leadership failure, let’s all consider the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:8-13:
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
Everyone must pursue living a life of light in Jesus Christ. No church’s reputation, perceived success, or leadership platforms are above living in the light of Jesus. No one wants to walk through a church or church leader going wrong. But if you find yourself in that situation, the invitation is one of hope, transformation, and new life for a new day of walking in the light of Christ.
For more resources on church and church leaders going wrong, check out the following links:
Like many youth workers, I fell in love with the thought of ministry when I was in high school. I really enjoyed hanging out with my peers and the adult leaders, discussing the Bible and having fun together. By my senior year, I knew God was asking me to pursue an education and career in youth ministry. Not only did my Bible College education help me learn so much about ministry and the Bible, it also presented me with some solid opportunities to participate and lead in youth ministry. Throughout all of this, my calling became clearer and clearer. My final year in college, though, was a turning point.
I was sitting in my Intro to Counseling class, where my professor, a seasoned therapist and teacher, was explaining a few of his previous clients. As I sat there, listening to these stories of brokenness, my mind began to race. This was the first time I had consciously thought about mental health. Up until this point, I knew it was a thing, but I had never realized how much of an issue it was and was becoming.
My professor then said something that has stuck with me to this day. Even though all these people have serious issues and problems in their lives, we have the answer. We know that Jesus is the solution to all of life’s problems. Yes, it’s often not as simple as that. Or maybe it is, and we make it too complicated? Either way, at that point, I wrote down in my notes that I wanted to become a counselor. I didn’t mean that I wanted to abandon my calling as a youth worker, but I knew God was stretching me at that point to realize it’s more than just teaching the Bible and having fun.
After wrapping up my youth ministry degree, I pursued a youth and family counseling-focused degree in Seminary, and I began my full-time ministry. Not too long after arriving, I met a student who was struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. Now, I realized, it was time to begin living out what I felt God was calling me to do back in college and Seminary.
As I walked through life with him and his family, I didn’t always know what to do. Often, I was just there, sharing in the struggles as he went to the hospital. I had late night phone calls with his parents, took him out for coffee or to run errands just to distract him from his thoughts, and had many informal pastoral counseling sessions. He was one of the reasons why I studied mental health and counseling, and he has not been the last.
My wife also worked in mental health for a number of years, and I heard many stories of her clients’ brokenness. God continues to bring more and more students our way who struggle with mental health issues. He has moved us to a part of the country that has a high rate of suicide among teenagers. He continues to put us in situations where our calling has been renewed and confirmed, a calling that goes back to one day when I was sitting a counseling class in college, and a calling that took center stage when a middle school boy let me know he was struggling with thoughts of killing himself.
As I drove and listened to music, I processed through which families I would see and questions I wanted to ask them to catch up on their lives and worlds. This felt familiar, like many drives leaving work heading to one of my girls’ games or recitals, planning the faces I would see in the bleachers. But this time I wasn’t driving to watch one of my girls play a sport or an instrument. I was driving to a funeral.
A young girl in my church passed away suddenly. Our hearts were broken for her family and the future she had planned. I parked and saw her small group gathering together, a group of girls I have often had to quiet down in Sunday school or late at night during trips and events. But as the cool winds blew in front of the funeral home, blowing their black skirts behind them, there was a silence. A loss. An emptiness.
Her funeral was hard and heartbreaking. Various family members and Sunday school teachers shared, remembering her bright eyes and honest nature. Our senior pastor shared about his most recent conversation with this girl. She had been working at a deli in our small town that many of us frequent. He shared that one day during her break she came over and sat with him to talk. His tears told just how much this moment meant to him as he said, “I just hope in that moment she felt comfortable and welcomed to come sit with her old, grey-haired pastor, because she knew that old, grey-haired pastor loved her very much.”
I’ve thought about this often in the last month. As I sent the girls I discipled most closely off to college last year, the urgency was all over my heart to be SO sure they knew so many things, but I kept coming back to two things. That each and every girl knew deep down in their bones that Jesus loves them and I do too.
I have found I often complicate what I’m teaching those I’m discipling. I feel so sure they need to know the genealogy of the bloodline of Jesus, the best ways to study Scripture, the major arguments against our faith and our response to them, the ethics of big issues in our world, etc. But sitting in the funeral of this sweet girl, my heart felt overwhelmingly heavy that she knew Jesus loved her and that I did too.
Strategic, dedicated, and faithful discipleship are so crucial in the lives of those we disciple. My girls can walk you through the bloodline from Adam to Moses as well as the path we created in the back of our youth building with many an inside joke along the way.
But as I sat in that funeral home chapel and as I receive my girls who are now college girls back on each break, I’ve found myself teaching much less, leaning in much more and praying that they know deep in their bones that Jesus loves them and I do too.
“Me think, why waste time say lot word, when few word do trick.” – Kevin Malone.
Don’t let this phrase be your Youth Ministry mantra. Sometimes Youth Ministry can feel like a runaway train. We have a million tasks to do, and far less time to accomplish them! With so many tasks, and so many priorities (not to mention our home lives), our ministries can collapse into the bare-minimum rather than the full plan that we had in mind! We have plans for leadership development, volunteer training, amazing games, life changing lessons, and instead we just try to successfully deliver the bare minimum, because, to paraphrase Youth Ministry Genius Kevin Malone, “few word do trick”.
If you find yourself stuck in the cycle of just scraping by (and trust me, I’ve been there), and you want to speak volumes without saying many words (i.e. without breaking the bank, or draining your weekly hours), start with training your leaders. If you want leaders that volunteer long-term, and grow your ministry, then add TEAM NIGHTS to your ministry.
Team Nights are simple. A regularly scheduled time for your Leaders to DEBRIEF, TRAIN & BE ENCOURAGED. You don’t need luxurious gifts, amazing food, or high-quality training videos. All you need is to set regular time aside for you and your Leaders to support one another, and feel valued. Here’s some simple tips to get you started with planning your first Team Night.
We started by meeting every other month. Many of our Leaders are only available on our Youth Night, which made extra meetings a challenge in the past. So to make them happen, and because I believe in the power of Team Nights, we ask parents to host a movie night or other hangout night for our students so that our busy leaders can meet together on the night they are already free. Make it a priority, and you will see amazing growth in your Leaders and in your ministry.
Asking parents to fill in every other month might seem like a lot, but remember to schedule Team Nights tactfully. Plan one the week before youth starts, over Christmas break, or during some other “off time.” All of these maintain regularity and ensure that parents feel utilized and not burnt out.
1/3 Your Voice and 2/3 Theirs
Your Leaders have experience. Use it! Give them time to offer insights into the ministry (debrief), to train one another (mutual learning), and offer support (encouragement). You don’t need to know everything; that’s why we have Leadership Teams. Try this schedule out to minimize your voice, and empower the voices of your Leaders:
7:00-7:30 Social Time (Don’t think of this as wasted time! This is Team Unity)
7:30-8:00 Debrief (What is going well? What has been challenging? What needs improvement?)
8:00-8:20 Pastor Training (Ministry Policies, Vision Casting, Etc.) AKA Your Voice.
8:20-8:40 Learning from One Another (Tips for Small Groups, Games that work, etc.)
Choose a location that creates comfort and promotes discussion
A night at the movies might limit your ability to hear your Leaders’ voices. Pick a location that is special (AKA not your Youth Room), and make it comfortable. Meet in your living room, ask a Youth Leader to host, or meet at a hipster coffee shop. Somewhere that feels extra-special and yet comfortable. You’d be surprised at the power of a living room hangout.
P.S Don’t be afraid to mix it up a few times a year and, if the budget allows, throw the schedule out the window and just hangout with your leaders! If your team needs a boost of unity, nothing does it better than shooting each other with lasers at Laser Tag or relaxing by the pool.
What one thing can promote discussion, create unity, and make a person feel valued? FOOD!
Food is a powerful tool. Bake cookies, make sundaes, have a BBQ. All of these make people feel valued. If your budget can’t afford gift cards and luxurious thank you gifts, don’t sweat it! A word to the wise, if you want to kill two birds with one stone, DON’T buy pre-made food. There’s something about homemade food (or things that look homemade) that feel far more special (Cough, and it’s usually cheaper, cough).
Make your nights flexible
Don’t be afraid to throw the plan out the window. You know your Leaders, you know their culture, and you know how Youth was last week. Maybe you had a 30-minute vision casting session planned, when all they need is a prayer session. Maybe you planned training on small groups, but you know a leader struggled with supporting a student who feels like they don’t fit in. Trust the Holy Spirit, and know that if you meet, and everyone has a voice, good things will happen.
Stephen D Kennedy is the Youth & Family Pastor at Grace Community Church in Guelph, Canada. Stephen received his BTh in Youth Ministry from Emmanuel Bible College, and is currently pursuing a Masters of Theological Studies at the University of Waterloo and Conrad Grebel. You can connect with Stephen on Instagram @Stevetheyouthguy and are always welcome to connect with him on any topic! Drop a message, he’d love to hear from you.
There are few things more frustrating things than hearing about an event hours before it’s taking place. Appreciate your volunteers by appreciating their time and understanding they have commitments outside of your ministry. Communicate your schedule of weekly programming, along with special events, where your volunteers’ attendance is desired. Communicate any changes to the schedule as soon as possible and start and end on time. Do not assume a schedule sent out to parents and students has also been sent out to regular volunteers.
Communicate clear expectations.
What role do you desire your volunteers to play? As a regular student ministry volunteer, different student ministers have had very different ideas of my role. One shared his desire was simply for each student to be greeted by someone who cared. This greatly alleviated any pressure or questioning for me on whether or not I was fulfilling my role correctly. Volunteers are not inconvenienced by being given a specific role to play. Communicate expectations clearly.
Provide curriculum that is to be taught in a timely manner.
No matter how great and relatable curriculum may be, it always takes time to be adapted and crafted to best fit its target audience. Communicating value to volunteer teachers and small group leaders includes providing the curriculum that is to be taught at least 5 days before they are expected to deliver content. Furthermore, if a small group leader has been given content to teach and told they have a set amount of time, ensure that time is actually theirs. If at all possible, avoid cutting into their time by going long on an activity or game.
Ask for feedback and provide avenues of communicating needs.
Volunteers fill many gaps and are aware of the gaps in our ministries. A ministry can benefit by asking volunteers to give the pulse they are sensing with the students they interact with. Some good questions include:
Are there any needs the students you interact with are facing (family, health, etc.)?
Is the curriculum impacting students?
Do you have any insights on how to deliver content that other small group leaders could benefit from?
Do you have any ideas of how we can make our student ministry events more safe (physically or emotionally) for students?
What question should we be asking?
Questions can be a fantastic way of sparking engagement with your volunteers.
Over-communicate change and transition.
In change and transition, the student minister or other paid staff members will not face as much of the pushback and growing pains as the volunteers and small group leaders. When a transition is coming, over-communicate the new plan and the purpose for the transition to volunteers, parents, and students. Are you changing the night or time of student ministry meetings? Are you changing a summer mission trip? In order to minimize frustration, each parent, volunteer, and student should be tired of hearing why and what of the new plan. If a volunteer is unaware of the purpose behind a change they are being placed in an unfair and frustrating position. Protect your volunteers and the reputation of your ministry by providing insight into changes and transitions.
Ask and care about their lives.
Volunteers are pouring themselves into the lives of the students in your ministry. They are giving of themselves and often sacrificing their own Sunday school or Bible Study hour with their peers. Shepherd your volunteer team and small group leaders by being aware of their lives and offering prayer. Create community by providing team building programming or gatherings where volunteers and leaders can get to know one another.
Say thank you.
Never assume your volunteers know they are appreciated. Say thank you to your volunteers when you see them at church, in the bleachers at sporting events, and when they show up at church. Let them know you are thankful for their partnership in youth ministry!