Most of us in the “profession” of ministry were not trained to lead.  We were trained to speak.  We were trained to teach, to preach, to visit, to exegete, maybe even to manage.

But few of us were taught to lead.

Leaders place a premium on setting a course, galvanizing a team, and moving the needle.

Managers do the important work of keeping the status quo on schedule—meeting deadlines, running meetings, keeping up with tasks.  Most who stay in ministry, by necessity, develop management skills.

But leaders are more rare.  Leaders take us into unknown places, the places  where we have not yet been.

Managers apply grit and determination to stay the course, to help us do better than what we have been doing.

But without a leader, a ministry will find itself, at best, working efficiently to hit yesterday’s targets.

Management tasks flock to us like hungry pigeons.  Leadership tasks—at least the game-changing ones—must be sought out one by one.

What would it take to raise up a generation of leaders equipped to walk the church into its next chapter and through the uncertainty and disequilibrium that will comes with that walk?

Habits of Uncommon Leadership

What would happen if you stopped doing what normal youth workers do?

Normal youth workers make no effort learning to organize their time or get along with senior pastors and elder boards.  Normal youth workers know more about the Xbox than about exegesis.  Normal youth pastors are on the fast track to shallowness, burnout and premature resignation.

We need more than normal.  We need “Uncommon Leaders” in youth ministry today, leaders who stay around for the long haul, build sustainable ministries, and actually enjoy their work more as they get older.  Uncommon Leaders makes three decisions:

1)    Resilience Over Resentment. 

If you’ve observed a growing pattern of pessimism and negativity among youth workers today, you’re not alone.  Some youth workers, it seems, feel entitled to being touchy and defensive when difficulty or criticism comes their way.

But the Uncommon Leader is never surprised that the church is “political,” that senior pastors don’t seem to “get” youth ministry, or that parents who want their kids to want to come to church can step into attack mode long before they have the whole story.    Uncommon Leaders know that getting knocked down is just a part of the game.  And they respond by getting back up, not with bitterness and cynicism.

2)    Initiative Over Inferiority.

Many youth workers have grown comfortable with the self-pitying image of youth ministers as the runt of the litter on any church staff.  And some youth workers seem to find comfort in feeling victimized when the custodian suggests that the Monday morning clean up disaster was might have been caused by the youth group.

But the Uncommon Leader is willing to admit (without playing the victim) that 90% of the time when a custodian blames the youth, the shoe fits.  Uncommon Leaders don’t whine that they have no power in the church’s decision-making process; instead they take initiative to build strategic alliances with those who know exactly how the process works and how to work those processes to the benefit of both the youth ministry and the entire church.

3)    Uncommon Over Common Time Management. 

Strangely, Uncommon Leaders find time to be alone with God, time to be with their families, time to read, time to exercise, time to meet with a mentor, time to think strategically about ministry.  They have time for the most important priorities, even if they may not be the most urgent.

Uncommon Leaders work hard to become exceptional time managers, and they learn to do as a matter of course those things that normal leaders simply find too inconvenient.  They make sure they do the 20% of the work that produces 80% of the results before even starting on the 80% of the items on their to-do lists that bring about only 20% of the results.

So go ahead, be uncommon in your hair, your clothes, your tattoos or your piercings, but first make sure that you choose the ministry-sustaining, life-transforming habits practiced only by the Uncommon Leader.

The One Thing Worse than Saying the Wrong Thing

It’s happened to all of us.

  • We greet someone we’ve known for years by introducing ourselves as if we’d never met.
  • We try to be funny, but wind up saying something that cuts so deeply that it brings tears to her eyes. 
  • We try to give a word of comfort, and our words just end up adding to his weight of pain.

If you are human, especially if you are a human in the world of ministry, it’s happened to you.  And when it does, our natural response is simple, “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

The same principle holds true in ministry….

  • The disengaged kid, the very one we’ve been trying to hard to connect back to the group, gets inadvertently left off of the invite list to the one event she actually wanted to come to, angering the parents and convincing the youth (once again) that she’s not wanted. 
  • The new email software sends out the primary invite to our biggest event of the year, and it winds up in junk mail/span filters.
  • We go all out to personally visit all our college students away at school.   As we roll back into our driveway after 50 great visits, we get the call from the freshman girl we forgot to call, wondering if we’re still in town.

And when these things, happen, it’s only natural to think, “It would have been better to have done nothing, to have said nothing at all.”

And we would be wrong.

There actually is one thing worse than saying or doing the wrong thing: Saying nothing or doing nothing at all.

I was reminded of this truth profoundly in Shauna Niequist’s book, Bittersweet this week.  Her words hit me like a ton of bricks:

“…there’s something worse than the things people say….When I lost my job, embarrassed and hurt and tender, I remember exactly who walked the other direction when they saw me at church and who walked toward me….The same was true with my miscarriage.  I can tell you to this day what people said, and much more hurtfully, who said nothing at all (p. 117).”

Speaking to a person in the midst of deep sadness can be risky; we hardly ever say just the right thing.  Trying out big ideas can be risky, because something will go wrong.

Of course, the safest thing for us to do, the best strategy for self-protection is to keep a good distance from people and their messy in lives.  The least embarrassing, the least awkward thing to do is to never get close enough to people to ever have to admit we’ve forgotten their name.

But once we give up on the illusion of perfection, when we avoid the tempting trap of assuming we can (e.g., must!) get it right, we step into freedom.  We are free to experiment, to incubate new ideas.  In short, we are free to love.

Sue Monk Kidd nailed it:

“New life comes slowly, awkwardly, on wobbly wings.

Today, may you have eyes to see the grace in your awkward, slow, wobbly efforts to love and to lead your ministry.

Dumbledore Was Right!

I had just begun an early morning two-hour drive when the phone rang.  It was my good friend, a senior pastor, talking so excitedly I was having trouble keeping up.

We had talked the day before.  He had shared how stuck he was feeling in the political dance his church was requiring of him, the church’s inherited unhealthiness weighing heavily on him.  On many days, he felt as if he were being dragged into battles he desperately wanted to avoid.


He had gone to bed the night before, enjoying a little recreational reading.  As he read, he had an undeniable sense that God was speaking–through, of all things, a Harry Potter novel (senior pastors can be weird like that).  The words hit him so hard that he actually woke up his wife, saying “You’ve GOT to hear this!”  Here’s what he read:

“[Harry] understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him.  It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.  Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew–and so do I, thought Harry,…that there was all the difference in the world” (J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE, p. 512).

As youth pastors, we will never be able to control all the surprising anxiousness or toxic dysfunction in our churches.  What we can do, though, is choose the way we enter into our ministries day after day.  We can fall into the all-too-natural stance of helplessness and hand-wringing, staying mired in the trivia-obsession around us.   Or we can choose, choose to bring a different kind of spirit than the one around us…

…bringing the light touch, taking the high road

…trusting that God’s success does not depend on our “winning”

…embracing the most powerful weapon we have—not logic, not argument, not power in any worldly sense of the word—but love alone

…and believing, sometimes against all odds, that love really does win

All of us with a “suffer-calling” (another word for ministry) would do well to internalize Dumbledore’s lesson to Harry.  There really is “all the difference in the world” between being dragged into our impossible callings and willingly embracing them.  It was true for Harry.  It was true for my pastor friend.  And it’s true for every one of us in youth ministry.

An Exercise in Missing the Point

“You and I just have totally different philosophies of youth ministry,” the frustrated intern told his youth pastor boss.

“Really?  Tell me about that,” his boss replied.

“You are all about programs.  For me…it’s all about relationship.  I’d be happy just hanging out with kids one-on-one, without any programs at all.” 

Wouldn’t we all?

Wouldn’t it be great if we, as youth pastors, could go back to a simpler time when all we had to do was hang out with kids and help them discover their faith, one conversation at a time?

The truth is… we can.

All we have to do is shift from being a paid staff person (or the person in charge) to being a volunteer. Once we join the ranks of paid staff or take a point leadership role, our responsibilities shift from simply building our own relationships with kids to creating those opportunities for other adults.

The sentimental fallacy behind the “relationships-only” philosophy of ministry is obvious:

  1. Program-free, relationships-only youth ministry only exists in the imagination of the inexperienced.   Ministries that attempt this approach almost always wind up with the vast majority of the youth leaders “doing relationships” with a select few kids who are easy to be with, eager to grow, or who pursue a relationship with us, ignoring the harder-to-reach kids God has given into our care.
  2. Anarchy is not a philosophy of youth ministry. At first blush, it seems so like Jesus, doesn’t it—just “do relationships”? But take a closer look—Jesus had a very specific, uh, program for exactly how he would make disciples.
  3. Youth ministry is not, first and foremost, about youth workers doing what makes them “happy.” It is often about swimming upstream, doing the things no one else is doing, building like no one else is building, in order to reach the kids no one else is reaching.

I hope you’re as weary as I am with the simplistic polarization between relationships and programs, as if someone can take responsibility for ministry to more than a handful of kids without both. Intentional programs multiply relationships.

Youth ministry is still about one adult investing in one kid at a time. But as youth ministers, we are called not just to build relationships but to create systems (some might call them programs) that allow other adults to have the thrill of investing in one kid at a time.

Don’t Mention It: 3 Things Not to Say in Your First Year

I wish someone had warned me just how damaging a few words could be, how a few innocent statements could sabotage my efforts at getting a new ministry off the ground.  I call them the Unmentionables, words that have a way of eroding our credibility and alienating the very people we most need as partners as we start in a new position:

Unmentionable #1: “Back in My Old Church”

Instead of saying,

“Back in Rosedale, we used to…”

Try this:

“What if we…?”

The second statement allows us to get our ideas on the table without rubbing our listeners’ noses the superiority of our previous church.  And if we repeat this phrase enough, the stakeholders in our new ministry naturally begin wondering why we didn’t just stay…“back in our old church.”

Unmentionable #2: “This Church Just Doesn’t Get Youth Ministry”

Instead of saying,

“This church has been trying to do youth ministry the way it was done in the seventies.  News flash!  This isn’t the seventies any more.  And all those things you used to do don’t work any more.”

Try this:

“There are folks in our church who have been praying about this youth ministry for years, people who are open to what God wants to do here.”

We will get what we focus on: Focus on the clueless morons who ran the youth ministry before you arrived, and watch them multiply before your eyes.  Focus on the willing hearts of those who long to see their kids grow in Christ, and they will start coming out of the woodwork.

Unmentionable #3: “I Don’t Have Time”

Instead of saying,

“I’m not trying to be rude, but frankly, I don’t have time to go every kid’s activity!

Try this:

“I sure want someone from our team to see your son’s play.  If you can get me the schedule, what I can do is…”

By focusing on what we can do instead of on what we won’t do, we honor the input of those asking something of us and strengthen our partnership with those doing ministry alongside us.  Of course, there will be plenty of times when we don’t have time, but using the “I don’t have time” excuse can come across as if we think that our busyness is somehow more important than the busyness of those requesting our time.

So the next time you’re tempted to speak one of the unmentionables, don’t mention it. 

First published in Group Magazine 2008