Do They Really Have to Choose?

I’ve got a brilliant young friend with a passionate heart for ministry. He got his degree in business, while spending a significant portion of his time as a leader in a ministry to high school students.

When I called him, months before his graduation, to ask whether he’d consider joining the staff of our youth ministry, his immediate answer was, well, less than positive.

He had never imagined himself being the “church guy.” He had always seen himself as a business guy who, sure, would always be doing ministry, inside and outside the church, as a volunteer.

He eventually came on our staff, did an incredible job, and now has transitioned to working part time for the church and part time in a business/ministry of his own with a much higher ceiling of opportunity.

I wonder if his track doesn’t give us a hint about what we should be looking for as the church’s future game changers. I wonder if the church will have the wisdom, creativity and flexibility to receive highly gifted folks who refuse to pretend that having a single career is somehow more faithful than multi-careering.

Could it be that the anemia afflicting much of the ministry world has to do with the fact that so many of its full-time leaders have no life outside their consuming ministry “jobs”? Could we be seeing the toppling of the MIC (Ministerial Industrial Complex), with a new kind of minister finding a third way of ministry between full-time ministry and full-time something else?

The Dream You Can’t Get out of Your Head

My friend and fellow Permissionary at Ministry Incubators, Kenda Dean, asks, “Does the church have to be the place where great ideas go to die?”

Most people have at least one.

  • An idea.
  • A dream to change the world.
  • A brainchild to make the world “more awesome” (thanks Kid President).

But the vast majority of great ideas stay stuck in the heads of their dreamers.

You have had that experience, haven’t you?  You come across something in the store or on an infomercial, and you say, “That was MY idea!”  But it was an idea that never got out of your head into the world.

That’s why we created the Hatchathon experience.  You gather with dreamers like you who share one thing in common—an missional entrepreneurial dream, an idea that links a “change the world” mission to a sustainable revenue stream.

One of our clients is a food truck sponsored as a young adult mission of a local church.  Another is a “farminary,” essentially a seminary (you guessed it) on a farm.

You may have a dream of a coffee shop as a church, a film company that employs the homeless, or a side business to support a ministry or mission you love.

These are the kinds of ideas we’ve seen in our previous Hatchathons.  Our next one is scheduled for just 2 months from now, March 4-6 on the campus of Princeton Seminary.

To register, click here.  For more information, click here.

Why They Can’t Wait

30 years or so ago, I remember reading Martin Luther King’s tiny book, Why We Can’t Wait.  And it changed the way I think about change.

While some profound changes can be almost imperceptible (think frog in the kettle).  But for some opportunities, we simply cannot wait another decade (or century!) before acting.

When it comes to young adult ministry in the church, we don’t have time to let things sort their way out.

How many times have we heard the staggering news that the “nones” have become the fastest growing religious movement for young adults in our time?

And do we respond?

We say, “Now THAT’S a problem!” And then we waddle out of the church to business as usual in the church (Thanks to Soren for his unforgettable ducks-in-worship parable).

The old way—waiting until young adults are forty before they have earned the right to serve or make an impact on the direction of the church—those days are gone.

These are young adults who will make an impact, and they will do it with or without the church.

Getting to the Work That You Love

Why not?

Why not just do the work you love?

There are probably a lot of reasons you can’t make the wholesale shift today, not the least of which are the bills.  At the same time, I’m absolutely convinced that both these things are true:

  • We can do the work we love. In fact, if we make some fundamentally different decisions today (and for lots of today’s afterwards), we can spend exponentially more hours doing the work we love as we get older.
  • Starting out, we probably can’t quit our day job (Thanks Jon Acuff).

Let me say what you already know: What we do for a living is not our life.  It may just be the way we fund our lives for a time.

In the same way that parachurch workers might fund their ministries by doing fundraising (even though they hate fundraising), our current jobs can fund the work we love (even if, for a time, we find ourselves in a job we don’t love).

Ultimately, we may or may not get paid for the work we love, but we can organize the business side of our lives in such a way that, ten years from now, if not before, our time is astoundingly free to actually do the work we love.

Sadly, too many of us get stuck along the way.

This reality is the heartbeat behind the Ministry Incubators (  In March of 2015, my friend Kenda Dean and I will be leading our next “hatchathon,” a 46-hour intensive for folks who’d like to  leap frog toward their missional-enterprise dream.

For application information, Click here!


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?

The Reinvention of the Youth Worker

It was a curious request:  “After 20 years as a youth pastor, I’m feeling…,” he paused, a little embarrassed.  “…feeling the need to reinvent myself in youth ministry.  Can you help?” 

Something about the candor of this question shined a light on why so few youth workers stay in this business after the first 5 or 6 years: We fail to reinvent ourselves.

Most of us step into “professional” youth ministry with an abundance of time, adolescent sleep habits, and turbo-charged idealism, a combination that works beautifully for our first few years. Eventually though, the spouse, the baby, and years of required 8:00 a.m. church meetings put us on a crash course with this stage of youth ministry. Sadly, most don’t make the leap.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The folks I know who have stayed in the game for decades have done anything but do the same things the same way for twenty years running. All of them have found ways to “reinvent” themselves every 5 to 7 years, the pattern, incidentally, of the highly successful fast food chains that actually require a major remodel every 7 years.

The lesson shouldn’t be lost on those of us who believe we are called to stay in youth ministry beyond a single generation of kids:  Doing an amazing job at what we have been doing just won’t keep us in the game, at least not happily so. We need to find ways to reinvent ourselves.

But where do we start?

Start by Knowing Your Own Heart: What are those things you used to love doing that have now become more drain than joy?  You really can decide not to be present at every lock-in.  But you will have to reinvent yourself with a skill set that empowers a joyfully faithful team to carry those responsibilities.

Move to Knowing Your Story: This is the season to “listen to your life,” specifically by looking back over the key turning points in your own story in search of clues that might just point to what needs to unfold in your next chapter.

Consider Finding a Midwife or Two: Apart from meetings with my spiritual director, a “Quaker Clearness Committee” and with life coach Dan Webster (, I would be in the same place today as I was in 2002.

If you’re feeling a little crispy around the edges, maybe you just need a nap.  But maybe, this is a season to consider a little reinvention.  The longevity of your ministry and the collective depth and wisdom of our profession just might depend on it.

Originally written for Group Magazine

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