Hire Education — Tips From the Trenches on Finding (and Keeping) the Right Youth Staff

It’s that time of year again.  Hunting season has opened—the season when thousands of churches compete to bag the best and brightest and bring them back to serve as professional youth workers.  And most churches dive into the hunt with all the confidence of a desperate adolescent seeking a first prom date.

The desperation might be well founded.  In fact, by one estimate, a church that hires the wrong person can expect to quadruple its expenses simply recovering from a hiring mistake (footnote: Gary Macintosh, Staffing for Church Growth).  So for all those churches anxiously in the hunt, I offer a few “Secrets of Hire Education.”

1) Build the Dance Floor Before Hiring the Dancer

The typical church expects its (typically inexperienced) youth worker to step onto the job and give the church its vision for youth ministry.  “Dream your dream,” the church says, “Build your vision.”  Though it may sound noble and liberating, placing this expectation on new staff is neither reasonable nor responsible.

Show me a youth ministry that hires staff with this expectation, and I’ll show you a youth ministry that has little chance of sustaining momentum.  The first youth worker might be “purpose-driven,” the next “worship centered,” and a third (my personal favorite) might joyfully scrap all vestiges of previous ministries and call it “family-based.”

To expect a newly-hired 23-year old to define the church’s vision for youth ministry is an abdication of leadership.  It is the church’s consistent vision, not the changing emphases of serial staffers that offers the greatest chance of ongoing sustainability.  Sure, hire a great dancer, but build your dance floor first.

2)    Fish Where the Fish Are

The most common complaint we hear from searching churches is “There are so few fish in this pond!”  My response: “Then maybe you’re fishing in the wrong pond.”

Most churches we’ve worked with have spent almost all their time trying to find ponds filled with experienced superstars who are willing to stay around for a decade and happen to enjoy working for peanuts. Those ponds simply don’t exist.

But once a church has clarified its own vision for youth ministry, there are ponds stocked with those who can implement those visions.   One of my favorite fishing holes is the one filled with engaging, winsome mothers with school aged children.  Most churches are filled with dozens of these experienced multi-taskers who combine an infectious spiritual enthusiasm and a deep love for youth.  Another well-stocked pond is the one filled with idealistic, energetic, recent graduates with a passion for serving Christ.  If supported and mentored by a caring clergy supervisor, these young adults can have an immense impact on students (My own children—23, 18 and 15—give me a daily reminder of just how effective this approach can be).

3)    Tell the Truth Even If It Hurts

Unfortunately, the old joke, “How can you tell a search committee is lying?” (Answer: Their lips are moving) is not far from the truth.  Sometimes, search committees in their eagerness to woo “the right” candidate will shade the truth about their church just a bit.  Here are a few of the most common search committee white lies:

  • What is said: We don’t care about numbers.

What is meant: …Unless you don’t produce them.

  • What is said: We just want you to bring your own vision for youth ministry and implement it here.

What is meant: …Unless it doesn’t work.

  • What is said: This church is willing to do whatever it takes to build a top-flight youth ministry.

What is meant: …unless it involves hiring more staff or increasing the size of the youth budget.

Giving prospective candidates information you wish were true will not help them or your future ministry.  In fact, when interviewing staff for our own youth ministry in Nashville, I start by telling them all the reasons they wouldn’t want to work here.  After 10 years or so of this kind of interviewing, not a single candidate has been scared away by my honesty.  And my staff has been able to enter into the challenges of youth ministry with eyes wide open to the immense expectations that will be placed on them.

Happy hunting.

First published in Group Magazine, 2004

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.