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 Rules of One: Putting Email in its Place

I read recently that Mike Hyatt, one of the most prolific social networkers in the country and one of the busiest guys in the universe, clears out his email inbox every day.

Weirdo that I am, I was inspired.

If a guy as busy as Mike can do it, so can we youth workers, who tend to be (in)famous for irritating our bosses, our youth ministry stakeholders, and even our spouses with the way we handle email.  Let’s face it.  The all-too-normal youth worker has an all-too-normal day like this:

We step into our office, and the first thing we do is to fire up our email.  We scan through the 100 or so subject lines, delete the spam, read an urgent email or two, and then check the ESPN site.  We get a cup of coffee, come back, maybe even start a to do list.  And throughout the day, we check our email dozens of times, often spending an unexpected 30 minutes or so responding to a single message.  And we end the day feeling like we have accomplished next to nothing.

I for one am tired of having my email take over my day like kudzu.  If you are too, try out my three Rules of One:

Tend to email ONE HOUR a day.   Research is clear: Multi-taskers are actually less focused and less productive.  A single, focused hour each day will take less time than reading emails throughout the day.  An hour a day allows us to attack our email with gazelle-like intensity and avoid the kudzu effect.

Tend to email ONE TIME a day.  Our email doesn’t belong at our dinner tables, in staff meetings, or during our time with God.  Nothing will irritate a senior pastor (or a spouse) quite like our partial presence, while our face buried in our phones. So corral your email work into a single time slot each day.  Tomorrow you can deal with the emails that come in today.  I have yet to meet a spouse, a senior pastor, or a son or daughter who says, “I’m so glad my _____ is being extra productive by keeping up with their email every hour.”  Looking at our email dozens of times daily will cost us.  We won’t get ahead; we will stay distracted.

Develop ONE SYSTEM for managing your inbox.  We all need to create our own system for managing the daily barrage of emails.  Here are a few of mine:

  • If it can be dealt with in two minutes or less, I deal with it and delete it.
  • I try to touch snail mail and email just once, either trash it, act on it quickly, or defer it to a task list that I will focus on later.
  • I like to focus my subject lines so that even people who don’t open the email get the key element of the message (for example, instead of “Youth Ministry Update,” I like “Register Now for Fall Retreat, October 7-8”).
  • I want to make sure your email system gives you the ability to search deleted emails for those times when I need to recheck a detail.

Putting our email in its place allows us to practice that rule of focus: Wherever you are, be there.  We’ll spend less time on your email by giving more focus to it, and we’ll have more time for the things that matter most, for God, our families, and our ministries.

(First published in The Youth Ministry Consultant Column of Group Magazine,  Nov/Dec 2012)

Only YOU Can Prevent Chicken-Eatin’, Do-Nothin’ Meetings

Platter-of-Spicy-Chicken“Chicken-eatin’, do-nothin’ meetings.”

That’s how my urban ministry friends refers to the kind of church meetings we’re all familiar with that are an absolute waste of time.  If you’ve ever left a meeting frustrated, wondering whether it accomplished anything more than scheduling another meeting, read on.

As crazy as it sounds, I love meetings.  I’m a fan of meetings that move a team toward a shared vision, that build collaborative energy, that solve problems that can never be solved without all the parties at the table.

But great meetings don’t happen by accident.  They happen, among other things, because a leader invests in the uncommon practice of creating a well-prepared, results-oriented agenda.

Sadly, most “professional” youth workers are notorious for unclear, rambling, agenda-less meetings, the kind that leave high-commitment volunteers looking for the door.  Even the few youth pastors who actually do prepare written agendas simply amplify their unfocused thinking by what they put in writing.

As a veteran of thousands of meetings, let me share a few secrets for productive, momentum-building agendas that will leave your team eager for the next meeting.

1)    Spend Time on Your Agenda: The longer you spend drafting your agenda, the shorter the meeting will be!  When you throw an agenda together at the last minute, you are much more likely to inflict every participant with a wasted hour or two.

2)    Foreshadow Excellence: The look of your agenda can instill or erode the confidence of your team.  Poorly spaced, amateurish, grammatically bumbling agendas almost never save time and communicate to your team that yours is an operation that embraces mediocrity.

3)    Know Your “Nevers”:

  • Never “Discuss.”  Most agendas have two or three items that say something like “Discuss the upcoming mission trip.”  This approach guarantees fuzzy, distracting rambling.  Instead try something like “Make the Following Mission Trip Decisions: Cost, Location, Target Number.”
  • Never save the most important piece of business to the end of the agenda.  Too many meetings run out of time just about the time you need to talk about the most important item.  Save your updates and secondary discussions until after you’ve addressed your Focus Topic for the meeting.
  • Never just go around the table for an update from each person in the meeting.  This produces unnecessary filler in which committee members or staff members feel inclined to say something, even if it’s exactly what they’ve said for the past three weeks.

If you want first-rate volunteers, prepare a first-rate agenda.  With it, you’re much more likely to accomplish your mission, and you’ll make clear that you value your team’s investment enough not to waste their time.

Go ahead.  Eat some chicken.  But no more do-nothin’ meetings.

First published in The Youth Ministry Consultant Column of Group Magazine Sept/Oct 2013

Why You Can’t Seem to Put Your Cell Phone Down… And What You Can do About it.


It’s becoming more and more normal.

I see a couple on a date, or a family out to dinner, and one of them is engrossed, captivated…not in person with them, but (you guessed it) in their cell phones.  They are checking email, texting, otherwise disengaged from the real life right in front of them.

It leads me to wonder, “Do I really need to know what today’s Groupon is within an hour of its arrival in my in box?!”

I know.  It feels so responsible to be “on top of” all those emails and messages.  But those who buy that lie, who give in to the siren’s song, wind up “staying on top of” the trivial and neglect the essential.

A Modest Proposal

I’ve got an antidote to the insanity.  It starts with creating for ourselves two very different kinds of “time off”: Non-Porous Time and Porous Time

Think of it like the difference between a rock and a sponge.  The porous sponge is open to everything, absorbing everything around it.  The non-porous rock, keeps everything out.

A little detail…

Non-Porous Time Off is time when we are essentially not reachable, when we don’t respond to emails, when we never answer your cell phone (if it’s an emergency, we can listen to the message and call right back).

Imagine non-porous time off as an appointment with the president.  We wouldn’t be available for interruptions, except in the case of the most dire emergencies (and we sure wouldn’t be checking your cell phone for the latest emails and texts!)

Susan and I, early in our marriage, decided that 6 non-porous slots a week would do much to protect our family.  We started with the three slots of the Sabbath (morning, afternoon, and evening).  We added another 3 non-porous, “presidential” slots at other times during the week.

Like most pastors, my schedule was wacky when my kids were little. But the discipline of those six slots almost every week (without email or meetings or phone calls) protected the relationships we said were most important.

Now Porous Time Off is different. It is time off when we are interruptible, though largely disengaged from work.

Though I might plan to be off during this time, I can be more flexible and interruptible.  There might be a meeting at church, a preparation for the next day that puts me on my computer, or a phone call or two that needs to be returned.

Once I have our 6 non-porous slots scheduled and protected, I (and my family) can flex with those times when I’m home, but interruptible.

More and more people in ministry are beginning to embrace the ancient idea of Sabbath.  But sadly, few seem to include cell phones or emails in the category of “work.”  Most people treat their “Sabbath day” as porous time off.  And failing to make the distinction can have enormous consequences for our family, our ministries and our own health.

One thing I learned from marathon training is the dramatic impact of training rhythmically.  Great runners don’t just run long distances every day.  They include a rhythm of strength training, speed work, different ways of working at different times.

Great leaders do the same thing.  They build rhythm into their lives, treating different times differently.

So try it for yourself this week—start by identifying your porous times off and put your cell phone away.

Recipe for Distraction #1: I’ll Just Write It Myself

It was mid-summer and Jim, the church’s two year veteran youth pastor, still hadn’t finished recruiting his volunteers for the fall.  He hadn’t had time to make a personal connection with the new 7th graders and their families.  And he still had no clear youth ministry calendar for the coming year.

But one thing he wouldn’t give up: Writing all the curriculum to be used by his volunteers.  After all, he reasoned, all the curriculum resources out there are mediocre at best, and they all require leaders to spend far too much time making those resources useable.

Jim was right on at least one front: Youth ministry curriculum generally falls into one of two categories: Mediocre or Worse.

But on another front, Jim was forgetting a few foundational facts:

  • Even if the curriculum he writes is consistently better than what he would be able to purchase, Jim is living in fantasyland if he thinks his teachers will no longer need to spend the same amount of time making his curriculum their own.
  • Effective teaching is driven far more by well-equipped teachers than by an ideal curriculum.  Great teachers consistently do a great job with lousy curriculum.  Weak teachers won’t likely be helped by even the best curriculum.
  • Jim will have expended a great deal of sideways energy and make absolutely zero forward progress for the ministry.  And if we’re honest, it’s not just zero progress, it is actually more like “regress,” ministry in reverse, since the hours spent on the rabbit trail of curriculum creation take away from those that could be applied to managing first priorities (like those in the first paragraph above).

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not youth workers should never write their own curriculum.  But until the first foundational priorities are taken care of, spending time on sideways priorities (like writing curriculum) always hinder strategic progress.  C.S. Lewis was right (again):

[well]”You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. … What is the first thing? The only reply I can offer here is that if we do not know, then the first, and only practical thing, is to set about finding out.” — C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock[/well]

With this article, I’m beginning a new series called “Recipes for Distraction.”  In each article, I’ll try to keep youth ministers and youth ministry search teams away from the red herrings that can take their attention away from first-level priorities, in hopes of moving from erratic activity to deliberate progress.

First published in Group Magazine, Sept/Oct 2008