I’d Love to Have a Coach, but I Just Can’t Afford It.

There are a lot of excuses for not building coaches into our lives.

One of my favorites is, “Sure, I’d love to have a coach, but I just can’t afford it.”

So…start with what you can afford.

If that’s nothing, ask 10 people you respect to give you a little coaching on a project you are working on (or on your soul).   I’ll guarantee that 2 of them will say yes (if they don’t, I’ll give you a little coaching myself!).

I have coaches I pay (my counselor, for example).  But when I first started building my team of coaches, every coach was a volunteer.

  • I’d find someone doing great youth ministry, and I’d take them to coffee every few months.
  • I’d find someone building great businesses, and buy them lunch.
  • I’d meet someone with a resonant faith and joyful countenance, and we’d meet together.

Some of the relationships became on-going, formal relationships.  Some were one-off meetings that helped me move the needle in some area of my life.

So take a quick inventory for yourself:

How many coaches would you like to have, in what areas of your life?  How many do you actually have?

What are you going to do about it today?

Transition: The New Normal

“What is the question your life and ministry are asking you today?”

That’s the question I asked a group of youth leaders a few weeks ago at the beginning of a retreat.

And out of the 15 or so folks gathered, at least twelve spoke of some significant transition they were in the middle of—with their health, their marriages, their ministries, their vocations, their parenting.

And I was one of them.

As of August 1, 2014, I ended my 28 years of ministry at my church (exactly 1/2 my life) and concluded my vocation as a “youth pastor,” the only real job title I had ever had since becoming an adult.  I’m sure I’m experiencing just a little vocational vertigo these days.

But as unsettling as transitions can be, they are also seasons ripe with opportunity.  In most sports, more points are scored during times of transition and chaos than at any other times in the game.  Learning to navigate transitions with alacrity (yep, it’s a word) used to be a skill we needed once a year.  Today, it may be once a week.

In fact, learning to stay the course with joy, through the acute distractions that always come with major change,  may be the most important life skill required of us in the coming decades.

More and more, transition is the normal life of ministry.

We can choose to leverage each transition to leap-frog us more quickly to where we’d like to be.  Or we can keep swirling in the inevitable churn that always comes along with any major change.  The choice is ours.

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)

The Surprising Power of Unsustainable Change

The biggest problem with most new initiatives in ministry is that we expect them to work.


Now, as a guy who has a strong preference for all things sustainable, I often suffer from this very problem myself.  I expect every change I initiate to work…not just in the near term but in the long term as well.  And I can beat myself up a good bit if, after 6 months or so, the new initiative is no longer working.

And that’s where I would be wrong.  Though some new solutions absolutely must be sustainable, not all change works that way.

Not all change needs to last forever (or even for very long).  Some changes to our ministries will (and I would argue should) have a short shelf life.

Here’s how it hit me right between the eyes this past week…

I was in a meeting with youth leaders, and we were talking about the cliques within our group…again.  Kids from certain schools feel isolated and disconnected from the group.  My first instinct was, “Again?!  I thought we had a plan in place to take care of this problem.”

Then I realized it.  We did have a plan in place.  A year ago.  But plans to address issues like cliques in the group, student leadership, or next year’s kick off event tend to have a maximum shelf life of about six months.

And the quicker we get our heads around that reality, the more prepared we’ll be when our “perishable” plans stop working just months after we launch them.

Try this imperfect metaphor on for size:

Some changes we make are like fruit—they only stay fresh for a short time, but they are very good for us (and our ministries).  Other changes are like, well, like Twinkies.

I saw a cool time-lapse photography comparison of a fresh tomato side by side with an unwrapped Twinkie.  After a couple months, the tomato was totally shriveled and rotten.  The Twinkie looked EXACTLY the same.

In youth ministry, some things are Twinkies.   Structures like an annually updated directory, a 1-year planning calendar, and a clear process for recruiting volunteers are imperative, year after year.  (Okay, the metaphor breaks down a bit, but I do love me some Twinkies).

With long-term, sustainable structures, we’re not looking for freshness and variation.  We’re looking for consistency.

But some of our time must also be spent on perishable solutions…new initiatives that may not last more than six months.  When, predictably, the once-fresh fruit is no longer fresh, we don’t have to be surprised.  We can launch another solution.

It doesn’t mean that our perishable solution was a bad one; it’s just that some challenges must be addressed again and again, with re-invented, re-contextualized solutions.

So go ahead, get sustainable systems in place.  But don’t be afraid (or freaked out or ashamed) when some of your new initiatives turn out to be perishable, unsustainable.

A healthy youth ministry requires both fresh solutions that may not last long as well as sustainable, “permanent” structures that form the foundation of the ministry.

So go ahead.  Have your sustainable Twinkie, but don’t forget to throw in a little fresh fruit as well.

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.

Is the Funnel Dead?

Twenty years or so ago, I remember being captivated by the image of the “funnel” of youth ministry.

You know…you’ve got your “come” level kids, the “grow” level kids, and the “lead” level kids, along with targeted programming for each group.  As a young youth pastor, the funnel gave an awesome structure to my chaotic, reactive programming.  I LOVED the funnel (and have taught it many times since).

But lately, I’ve been wondering.   Does the “one program/one purpose” model still make the same sense in 2014 that it did in 1995?

Here’s what’s got me thinking:

The kids I work with are just as likely to make their first connection with our ministry in a “deep” Bible study setting as they are to enter through traditional, large group, high energy programming.  In other words, the type of program new kids are most likely to come to is no longer predictable.   The most committed kids may actually like our traditional youth group more than outsiders ever would.

Our kids no longer seem to be moving in a linear way through our program (dang it), from “come” to “grow” to “lead.”  Most choose to plug in a) where their friends are, and b) where they leave with the indefinable sense that it was “worth it.”

Instead of moving naturally through the funnel of faith, I wonder if today’s kids are not carving their own paths to faithful discipleship, outside our purposeful programming.

What are the implications for the ways we’ve been thinking and teaching about youth ministry practice?

Is it time to turn the youth ministry funnel into funnel cake?

Joseph Project – Part Three

Over the last few months the contours of the Joseph Project have begun to take shape: Coaching men and women with hearts for ministry to build economic engines to support their current and future work for Christ.

inspirational-quote-by-giantsqurlThere is little doubt that there will be a need for a new kind of youth pastor in the coming decades.  I’m imagining that today’s “normal” youth pastor supported entirely by an individual church will become decreasingly normal, as church budgets shrink and the cost of living rises.

Some youth pastors will learn to be fund-raisers, joining the bourgeoning crowd of non-profits and missionaries competing for the same pot of charitable dollars.   Others will be part of the fortunate few who will be able to land a job in ministry with full salary and benefits.  But unless we do something, most, I fear, will choose to drop out of the vocation of ministry all together.

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you, like me, believe that this work we get to do in youth ministry is crucial, not only to the future of “the church” in our country and the future of our larger culture but more importantly for the future of the 75 million or so kids under 18 in the US.

I can’t help but think of the demise of the church in Europe and wonder what might have happened if a well-equipped sustainable army of youth pastors had been at work 50 or 100 years ago.

The good news is that our educational institutions are doing better than ever at equipping people for youth ministry.  The bad news is that they may be preparing youth workers in exceptional ways for jobs that may not exist (or at least exist in much fewer numbers) in the ecclesial landscape that we might anticipate a few decades from now.

And so, looking ahead 20 years or so, we’re launching the Joseph Project and beginning to work with a few hungry youth pastors who long to stay in this game for decades and helping them slowly launch sustainable businesses.   Seems like Jesus said something about building a tower and figuring out how much it would cost before starting to build.

A couple weeks ago a ran a marathon with a very specific strategy…start out slow and taper off from there.  5 hours and 45 minutes later I scampered across the finish line (okay, maybe “scamper” would not be the first verb that came to people’s minds as they saw my final 50 yards).

We’re launching the Joseph Project the same way…nice and slow.  Scamper with me?

P.S.  One of the ways we are working on missional entrepreneurship is with a Hatch-a-thon at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Click here for more info on the Hatch-A-Thon event with Kenda Creasy Dean and Mark DeVries.

Joseph Project – Part Two

A month or so ago in my blog, I suggested that it may be time for us to begin preparing for a youth ministry “famine” that is likely to take place 20 years or so down the road.  I’m not predicting that this will be a famine in the quality of programming or the importance placed on youth ministry, or even a famine in the number of well-trained youth pastors.

I’m suggesting that, given our current economic trajectory and the low levels of enthusiasm in younger generations when it comes to giving to institutions (like the church), there is a good chance there will be less resources available to hire full-time youth pastors 20 years from now than there is today.

If I’m wrong, I’ll sing the Doxology and be thrilled about the fact that we’ll have far more youth pastors are in place than expected.  If there’s even a strong possibility I’m right, though, we might be better served to consider the possibility of developing a whole different kind of youth pastor.

So I offer here a few provocative theses around the Joseph Project so far…

–What if every youth pastor was not only equipped to do youth ministry, but as a required part of his or her training, was equipped to be an entrepreneur?  My experience is that, since much youth ministry requires entrepreneurial skills anyway, this could be a more natural fit than we might think.

–What if the typical youth pastor could be coached in to developing his or her own “company,” designed to generate income that didn’t just trade time for money but held the hope of producing more income for less time 10 years down the road? Could this not have the effect of extending the ministry tenure of many (if not most) youth pastors, providing long-term youth pastors for churches who would not otherwise have been able to support someone with significant youth ministry experience?

–And if we could find a way to make this kind of model work here in the expensive North American context, how might it be simplified and adapted for “youth pastors” in places like Rwanda and Uganda?  I’ve got hopes of trying out a few experiments in those countries in the next year.  I’ll keep you posted.

Joseph Project – Intro

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a delightful few days with some great youth ministry minds at a Thinktank sponsored by the Lilly Endowment, hosted by the Center for Youth Ministry Training (www.cymt.org).  We got the chance to talk and dream and scheme about the future of youth ministry and the most significant issues on the horizon.

Though we knocked around over a dozen seismic ideas, the most provocative idea for me came in this question:

Are we getting better and better are preparing more and more people for vocations which will be less and less a part of churches in the next two or three decades? 

Here’s the basis for the question:

  • We know that the younger generation of disciples (at least in America) tend to have much less enthusiasm for investing in the institution of the church than did their parents or their grandparents.  Though young Christian adults may be generous, they tend to give more of their tithe to causes and less to their churches.
  • We know that, therefore, it is likely that it will require multiple young adults in the church to equal the given of the typical 60+ year-old church member, a group of folks who will not be around in droves in 20 or 30 years.
  • It seems not unlikely that churches will have less margin to hire full time youth pastors…unless we do something to prepare for this eventuality.

Is it possible that we can get ahead of the coming “famine”?  I’d like to propose that we start thinking of what a “Joseph Project” might look like, accessing the years we do have to ensure provision for youth ministry when the famine comes.

In my next blog, I’ll do a little noodling on what this might look like.