Six Practices Growing Leaders Embrace (longer version)

some time ago, i posted a short FRIDAY NUGGET on six practices that growing leaders embrace. some time later, i expanded that into a column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK). thought it would be worth sharing here:

Over and over again, I see Christian leaders holding up balance as a biblical value, a goal by which we can live in a Christian way. And, honestly, it angers me. Let me be clear: balance is not a biblical value: it’s a western value born of the enlightenment and modernity.

I’m much more interested in sustainability and thriving. When I read Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full,” I don’t hear balance; but I do hear sustainability and thriving.

This issue comes up often in the coaching groups I run with youth workers, people who’s lives are often—because of the never-ending nature of our roles—completely out of balance. Together, we explore what it might look like, for each individual, to practices and commitments that will move them toward a life of sustainability and thriving.

Recently, during an open time of questions at one of these coaching groups, one youth worker asked the group for suggested practices for ongoing growth as a leader. I loved the question (even the question itself is fantastic). And as others in the group suggested ideas, I started scribbling ideas on a piece of paper. I’m not normally one prone to alliteration; but six words starting with R revealed themselves on my page.

If you want to grow as a leader, moving toward greater impact and the sort of life that God has always dreamed of for you, I think you could do a whole lot worse than to lean into these six practices:

marko growth croppedRhythm. If you desire to experience the fullness of life that Jesus offers, you’ve got to be intentional about finding a rhythm of life that works for you (and the significant people in your life). If your beautiful and wonderful calling to youth work gets played out with you being out five evenings a week, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm. If you don’t have downtime, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm. If you don’t have times when you’re not thinking about ministry, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm.

Consider a rhythm that leads to vibrancy at a weekly level, a seasonal level, and an annual level.

Healthy, growing, vibrant leaders are both proactive and reactive about rhythm. They plan and ruthlessly schedule rhythm; and they pay attention to three things: their energy levels, the fruit of the Spirit in their daily lives, and their levels of intimacy with core relationships. And, when they discern any of those things are out of whack, they make adjustments.

Read. Surely you’ve heard the saying “Leaders are Readers.” It’s tough to grow without reading. Put yourself on a reading diet.

Make sure you don’t only read books you expect you’ll agree with. Often our best growth comes from being challenged to think in different ways.

And don’t only read ministry books (though include those also). Read widely, from many genres. I often find that fiction, and nonfiction from bodies of knowledge that are foreign to me, spark my most creative thinking.

Risk. Just yesterday I was coaching a youth worker, and asked him, “Where are you taking a risk in your ministry this season; and where you are taking a risk in your personal life?” He struggled to find a good answer, and we both knew he was coasting. Coasting = no growth.

Bluntly: there is no growth without risk.

Renew. If you’re in full-tilt mode at all times, you’ll soon be headed for a crash, or burnout. Check this: even Jesus was intentional about withdrawing from his work and the crowds. Jesus left people unhealed, potential sermons unpreached, and miracles unmiracled! And remember (duh!) that Jesus is God, with limitless power. Clearly Jesus wasn’t a slacker; and clearly, you need renewal if you’re going to serve in youth work for more than a few weeks.

Bottom line: healthy leaders find meaningful pursuits that provide recalibration, refreshment and renewal. (Ooh! Three more R words!)

Reflect. Great youth work requires adjustments that most often come from careful, contemplative, strategic thinking. And that sort of thinking rarely happens on the fly, while grabbing another large coffee in a drive-thru.

Instead: great leaders make intentional time to reflect. This requires a discipline of slowing down (at times).

Retreat. This last practice overlaps with some of the other practices on this list (particularly rhythm, renewal and reflection). Growing leaders pull away for extended times on a regular basis. Short bursts of renewal and reflection are great; but real growth also requires more extended retreat.

Are you growing? Are you thriving? Does your entire life (ministry and not) feel gorgeously sustainable? If not: take a moment to prayerfully consider which of these practices you need to ramp up.

FRIDAY NUGGET: The Role of Trust in Youth Ministry

sorry for the unplanned month off of blogging there. just had too much on my plate for a bit. i’m back.


possible to build. but it requires time and intention.
easy to lose, in a second.
possible to re-build. but it takes twice as long as the first time.

without trust and safety, your ministry will not experience communion. and without communion, the ministry will be clubbish and wimpy.

youth worker story: 10 church youth ministry

meredith hinton is a youth worker in one of my current north carolina YMCP cohorts. and she’s a freaking rockstar.

(disclaimer: it’s very possible i have some minor details off on this; but the basics, i’m quite sure, are accurate; and any minor discrepancies in no way diminish the large servings of awesome.)

so: meredith was a youth intern, and then, while in seminary, was involved in some sort of ministry effort that involved multiple small churches. and in that context, a vision was birthed. when meredith’s freshly minted husband (also a minister, but of the ‘one in charge’ variety) got placed in a small church in far-western north carolina, meredith started to dream and scheme, plan and pray. she knew the methodist churches in appalachia were all tiny, and that few–if any–could support a youth ministry.

meredithmeredith and four local pastors (including her husband) put together a grant proposal and got funding for a few years of start-up. she met with 10 small churches in her district and shared a vision for a shared youth ministry. all 10 jumped in. and now, a year later, this beautiful thing is unique and quirky and powerful.

get these realities that are so contextualized and amazing:

  • the 10 churches have something like 5 pastors between them (more than one of the pastors have a ‘multi-point charge,’ meaning they preach at multiple churches)
  • most of these churches have between 6 and 50 people in them
  • 5 of the churches do not even have a single child or teenager, yet they’re on board and fully supportive (and involved)
  • the youth group meetings rotate to a different church occasionally (i think it’s every three months)
  • meredith has about 15 teenagers coming regularly; and get this: she had so many adults (mostly parents) showing up to help (too many for the youth ministry), so she started an adult small group that meets concurrently with the overflow of parents.

meredith’s context is certainly unique. and what’s next, when the grant runs out, is still unclear. but meredith has developed a deep love for–and localized understanding of–the ‘mountain people’ (as she calls the people in her community). as readers of this blog will know, i’m deeply convinced that the very best youth ministries will always be highly contextualized and borne out of discernment from the spirit’s leading. meredith hinton, and her one-of-a-kind youth ministry are embodiments of those two realities.

here’s a little video of meredith put together by the duke endowment (her grant provider). well worth the few minutes to watch — you’ll be inspired!

FRIDAY NUGGET: Stop Wrecking It for the Rest of Us!

a few years ago now, i lead a discussion at a convention about ‘the future of youth ministry.’ in prep for that, i’d asked for quotes from a variety of youth ministry thinkers. steve argue, the brilliant pot-stirrer who was just hired as a youth min prof at fuller, sent me the following e-grenade (put your kevlar vest on before reading!):

Hey church, adolescents are NOT leaving you. You are perpetually leaving them. Stop using statistical bullsh*t to project blame. Repent.

Unless you’re willing to let adolescents mess with your own life, you have no business messing with their lives.

Most churches are not worthy of youth pastors. Youth pastors, stop giving yourself to organizations that use you to better “market” their church to families; that expect you to “produce” programs; and that exploit you because they know it’s hard to leave the kids you love. Walk away. Don’t take the job, because if you do, you’re wrecking it for all of us. Raise the bar. Boycott churches unworthy of youth pastors. Amen.

FRIDAY NUGGET: let’s re-weird-ify youth ministry

a couple weeks ago, i posted (on twitter and facebook) this quote, in a graphic form:


reading the responses (mostly positive), reminded me of an amazing quote from kenda creasy dean. a few years ago now, i lead a discussion at a convention about ‘the future of youth ministry.’ in prep for that, i’d asked for quotes from a variety of youth ministry thinkers. kenda sent me a mic-drop. i love, love, love this:

Teenagers know, better than we do, that when we ask them to be Christians, we are asking them to do a very dangerous thing. The only way out is to adopt a “safe” version of Christianity (which might not be Christian at all) that helps them become good, nice people instead of people who love others sacrificially. But as we know, good and nice “Christianity” seldom lasts past high school, since teenagers quickly learn that people can be perfectly good and nice without Jesus anywhere in the picture.

So I think in the future, youth ministry will try to re-weird-ify Christianity, highlighting Jesus’ radical actions and peculiar self-giving love, in an effort to resist the American church’s habit of trying to tame the gospel into a middle class bedtime story. If Christianity is dangerous, then we need to act like it. Teenagers aren’t afraid of risk, but they want to know that Jesus is worth it. Young people are going to demand that we, the church, be who we say we are–people who obviously follow Jesus, which makes us “weird” in a culture based on self-actualization and self-fulfillment–or they’re just not going to bother with us at all.

bam. stew on that one a bit.

How I Changed My Mind

how i changed my mindmy every-other-issue column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out a few weeks back. this time around i wrote a bit about how i changed my mind on a leadership conviction. and the magazine illustrated it with this awesome cartoon of me changing my mind!

I had convinced myself that I was speaking the truth; and whether it was spoke “in love” or not, speaking the truth was the thing leaders were supposed to do. But the young woman in my office started crying, and something tipped sideways in my self-analysis.

This crying young woman was the third meeting in a single day, all in my office, where I had spoken “the truth” to someone, only to have them end up in tears. After the first of these meetings, I felt a rush a power—confident that I was doing what leaders do. After the second, my confidence waned a bit, and I had an inner-Scooby-Doo saying “Huh?” But that third meeting; well, it started me on a path of change.

I’d always been a leader who was willing to be vocal with my thoughts and opinions (I’m sure, much to the frustration of everyone in my life). On those spiritual gifts tests, I’d always scored a flat-lined zero in the area of mercy. And here’s the silly part: I was proud of that.

When I worked in a church going through a massive transition, I was asked to be on a transitional leadership team, and was taken under the wing of the two older pastors leading the process. They were both naturally gifted leaders, but had similarly convinced themselves of the strength of their weaknesses. In fact, I remember to this day the exact wording of the mentoring I received from the two of them in one meeting. They said, “Marko, your lack of mercy is the strength of your leadership.” Hey, that sounded good to me (embarrassing and stupid as it sounds to me today). And for the next few years, I steamrolled people left and right under the ruse of “strong biblical leadership.”

What a misguided idiot.

But that crying young woman loosened something in me. And through divine revelation or long overdue common sense (or some combo), I immediately knew I needed to change. But I had no idea how to make that happen (and, I was accustomed to “making” everything happen in my world).

I carefully selected two older men who I perceived as strong leaders, but also merciful, and asked them to mentor me in the areas of mercy and gentleness. At one of my first meetings with one of these guys, he stated the should-have-been-obvious: I couldn’t make myself have mercy; I could only ask God to give me mercy, and pursue a life of mercy. They other guy helped me understand something that became a framing idea for me: I’ll likely never score high in mercy on spiritual gifts tests; but I can still grow in mercy. This same kind of parallel plays out all over my life (I’ll never be perfect, but I’m still called to righteousness; I’ll never love perfectly, but I’m still called to be loving).

These two new understandings re-framed leadership and mercy for me, and put me on a multi-year quest of change. I met with these mentors; I read books on mercy (and the kind of leadership that was more Jesus-y than CEO-like); I journaled and prayed; and I asked friends to help me.

About two years later (yes, it took that long!), I received a great double-confirmation from God that I was making progress. In the span of one week, I had someone comment to me (who didn’t know of my quest) how gentle they thought I was. I could hardly believe someone would ever use that word to describe me. Then, a few days later, one of the administrative assistants of the church told me that the other admins had a nickname for me: the gentle steamroller. I laughed out loud when I heard this: yup, I still had that steamroller way about me at times; and I’m not even sure what a “gentle steamroller” would be. But I responded, “Hey, I’ll take that!” I thought it was the best compliment I’d received in a long time.

As I write this, it’s about 18 years later. I’m still a merciless jerk on a regular basis. I am still very capable of possessing the gentleness of a sledgehammer from time to time (and even of being momentarily proud of it!). But I can see change. I wish it were more immediate. The only thing that was immediate was my recognition of need for change. The process of change has been, and will continue to be, a long, slow journey of transformation.

How are you changing? Which of your rough edges need some Holy Spirit sandpaper?

FRIDAY NUGGET: 6 Growth Practices of Leaders

one of my coaching peeps asked recently for thoughts about growth practices of leaders. i did a little brainstorming while listening to others respond, and came up with this list (uncharacteristically, for me, all starting with the same letter!):

  • Rhythm — some refer to this as balance; but i’m not a big fan of balance. i think the issue, instead, is sustainability. great leaders pursue a rhythm of work and non-work that leads to sustainability.
  • Read — you know the saying, “Leaders are Readers.” read widely.
  • Risk — there is no growth without risk.
  • Renew — healthy leaders find meaningful pursuits that provide recalibration, refreshment and renewal.
  • Reflect — great leaders make intentional time to reflect. this requires a discipline of slowing down (at times).
  • Retreat — overlapping with some of the other practices on this list (particularly rhythm, renewal and reflection), growing leaders pull away for extended times on a regular basis. short bursts of renewal and reflection are great; but real growth also requires more extended retreat.

stop and consider which one of these you’re missing.

The Life Book and National Evangelism Week

thelifebook-book-coverhey youth workers: have you heard of The Life Book? it’s a nicely designed gospel of john with additional comments and interaction bits, aimed at teenagers. it’s designed as a simple, non-coercive ‘gift’ for teenagers to give out to their friends and classmates. and thanks to support from the Gideons, it’s completely free. in fact, more than 1.3 million teenagers have given out more than 19 million copies of The Life Book since 2010.

there are certainly a couple levels of benefit surrounding this. first, it gets the gospel of john into the hands of teenagers who would never step into your church or youth group. but it’s also a pretty cool discipleship step for christian teenagers, an onramp to having spiritual conversations with friends. this sort of verbal articulation of faith, we’re finding (most notably in mandy drury’s research on the importance of ‘testimony’ in adolescent faith formation) is critically important to developing a faith that last beyond youth group attendance.

i like the people at The Life Book also. they’re not weird. they’re good hearted, genuine people who really care about teenagers. so i feel good about telling you about them. we’re doing some stuff with them at our event, The Summit, this year also. and for those of you who order anything from The Youth Cartel store in august and september (and as long as our supply lasts), you’ll find you get a copy of The Life Book with your order.

so i’d totally encourage you to do a couple things:

  1. order copies of The Life Book for your group to give out.
  2. consider linking your distribution week with others during National Evangelism Week (NEW), september 20 – 26.

for more info, or to place an order, click here.

here’s some info straight from the peeps at The Life Book:

For National Evangelism Week:

  • We just made it up. Why? We thought it would be awesome if we all focused on both Evangelism and Prayer during the week of See You at the Pole.
  • Imagine one week focused on Evangelism and Prayer. September 20th- 26th, 2015
  • Make your request for Free Life Books by August 31st (that’s next monday!) to get them in time for this week.


  • What is The Life Book? The Life Book contains the Gospel of John (ESV) and includes interactive student comments and scripture helps for issues students face. Over 1.3
    Million students have handed out over 19 Million Life Books since 2010.
  • Can students give them out beyond National Evangelism Week? Yes. Feel free to request 2500 Free Life Books and have your students hand them out all throughout the
    school year. This is a great way to foster an evangelistic mindset in students. (Our experience recommends you request 25 Life Books per student in your youth group to
    hand out.)
  • Is it really free? Absolutely. No strings attached. We are wholly funded by The Gideons International.
  • Is this only for churches? Yes. We can only provide free Life Books to Church pastors and youth leaders.

how The Summit is shaping up

i had this idea swimming around in my head for a couple years, of a youth ministry event that was totally different and unique. i imagined it as TED for youth workers. i even looked into making it an official TEDx event, but discovered that TED doesn’t allow events with religious connections.

so, once adam joined me at The Youth Cartel, we decided to take a risk and try this thing. we tweaked a few things from the TED format, to make the event more ideal for the sort of learning we hoped would occur. and The Summit has been a win. two years in atlanta, and now in our second year in nashville.

we’ve always said The Summit is not a training event. there are other youth ministry events with that goal. the goal of this event is to spark your imagination and instigate new thinking. we want the presenters and their content to be fodder for the holy spirit to get your stirred up, out of ruts, and into dreaming new dreams for your youth ministry. (these aims, by the way, are why we pull a thematic thread through the event, and why we have 45-minute ‘digging deeper’ dialogues after each main session.)

summit-2015-theme-squarethis year we’re making what we think is an awesome tweak, based on our theme of Elephants. we’re going to address “three elephants in the room of youth ministry.” The Summit always develops in a very organic way, with me having tons of conversations with people, exploring our theme(s) and getting input. this year that’s especially true since we have a curator for each session. so, for now, here are the descriptions of the sessions, with info about where we are in the planning.

NOTE: today is the early bird registration deadline. if you register by tonight, you save $40 on the individual and group rates. we really hope you’ll join us in nashville on november 6 and 7.

Session 1 (Friday Evening)
Elephant: Immaturity and Transition in Youth Ministry
Curator: April Diaz
April, along with other presenters, will guide us in an exploration of the awkward topic of our collective immaturity. While misaligned values and unspoken expectations are normally the cause of conflict, we youth workers often seem to have difficulty seeing our own contribution to the problems. Not knowing how to deal with conflict, we too often move on, only to repeat the pattern. Together, let’s look at the plank in our own eye.
other confirmed presenters:

  • Jen DeJong — Transitioning Well
  • Danny Kwon — The Surprising Benefits of Staying a Long Time

other likely presentations:

  • Why We Lie to Ourselves
  • Celebrating Youthfulness Without Being Immature
  • Being Professional Without Becoming a Suit

Session 2 (Saturday Morning)
Elephant: Evangelism and Apologetics
Curator: Dan Kimball
In an increasingly post-Christian world, how do we talk about Jesus and the gospel with those outside our youth room? While the age of pluralism has caused some to simply stop talking about Jesus and the gospel, others charge forward with 1980s approaches. Honestly, the issues are complex; and many of us find it easier to avoid altogether. Dan Kimball, along with other presenters, will bring a variety of perspectives and ideas to this Elephant in our collective room.
other confirmed presenters:

  • Brock Morgan — Bringing the Good News Back to Evangelism
  • Daniel White Hodge — Baptized in Dirty Water: Evangelism in Post-Civil Rights Era

other likely presentations:

  • Good News or Bad? Interpreting Lifeway vs. Pew Research
  • Beyond Conversion Theology: Toward a Postmodern Apologetic
  • The Bono Effect: The Shift from Evangelism to Justice

Session 3 (Saturday Afternoon)
Elephant: Ministry to LBGT Teenagers
Curator: Ginny Olson
We’re not out to change your theology (in either direction!). But let’s be honest enough to admit that we are not wildly succeeding at responding to and including gay teenagers (and those questioning their sexuality). And most of us will be totally lost when we have a transgender teen sign up for summer camp or a mission trip. We promise you: the presenters in this session will not all agree with each other. But our hope is that we’ll all learn and think in the midst of the dialogue about this massive youth ministry Elephant.
other confirmed presenters:

  • Daniel Merk-Benitez — Helping Your Church Be Proactive with LGBT Issues
  • Mark Oestreicher — Helping Parents of LGBT Teenagers
  • Justin Lee — Creating Safe Places (title not final)
  • Gemma Dunning — Love The Saint: how to pastorally support, love and encourage LGBT teens

other likely presentations:

  • What I’ve Learned and What We’ve Changed

Session 4 (Saturday Late Afternoon/Early Evening)
Focus: Elephants as Formation Instigators
Presenter: Jon Huckins
This last session is a chance for us to worship together and wrap up the day with a broader perspective. Jon Huckins is an accomplished guide in the arena of peacemaking; but we’ve asked him to apply those insights to how we address the Elephants that exists in our churches.

oh, and…

Pre-Summit Sessions (3-hour learning experiences during the day on friday — included in your registration. note that these are not necessarily connected to the event theme)

  • Dave Sippel — Sustainable Youth Ministry
  • Jake Kircher — Helping Teenagers Own Their Faith
  • Mike King — Theological Imagination and Spiritual Practices Among Elephants and Sacred Cows
  • John Huckins — Arming Teenagers to Wage Peace

(more Pre-Summit Sessions will be added)

seriously — this thing is very much shaping up to be a barnstorming, powerful, revolutionary time together. i had the youth pastor at a very large church (a guy with more than 50 paid youth workers under him — a guy who normally gets paid to go speak at events) email me the other day, writing, “I’m planning on coming to The Summit this year. The topics and line-up look SO GOOD and important!”

photo in need of a caption

saw this on a friend’s facebook page the other day, and felt it was screaming out to me: “Marko! Make me a Photo in Need of a Caption!” and, so, i comply.

winner gets a copy of one of our upcoming Cartel product releases! (all pretty amazing, btw)

bring it!


(so many good ones this time, i had to be picky!)

Erik Day
Meanwhile…, youth pastors in Portland, OR ReThink the knitting and crochet lock-in

The wise men’s outfits didn’t do their wisdom justice

Seattle Youth Leader Network

“We’re Sgt. Hipster’s Lonely Jackass Band.
We hope you will enjoy the ennui.”

Jeremy Duncan
Shoes optional.

Dare 2 Share 2 Much

Jeremy Best
3 of them are dressed ironically. 1 is not. Guess which one.

Bob Morman
There is a law against this somewhere in Leviticus.

Toby Shope

Michelle Hutchinson
Listen, hobby lobby had a sale and one thing led to another.

Taylor Brown
VBS grows up

(i’ll make the final call tomorrow, friday)

and the winner is…

this was a tough call, as i thought about four of them were a tie. but, can’t have that many winners. so:

Toby Shope’s “Crochetmeless!” took me a few seconds to get, then totally cracked me up. you win, toby. i’ll contact you about your prize!

thanks for playing, everyone.