Category Archives: leadership

vulnerability vs. authenticity

we talk a lot about the need for ministry leaders and speakers to be vulnerable and authentic these days. i’m all for that — 100%.

but some time ago i heard a speaker that caused me to reflect on this a bit, and particularly the fact that the two are not synonymous.

i was sitting in a congregation, listening to a guy preaching. he was a guest speaker, but is apparently someone who speaks once or twice a year at this church. and people seem to love, love, love him. the congregation was amped.

there’s no question the guy was vulnerable. he shared openly about struggles and wrestling. that approach itself can sometimes be a mess — more about the speaker experiencing catharsis (at best) or exhibitionism (at worst). but i didn’t sense this preacher was doing that.

but there was something that was really, deeply bugging me about the sermon (and it wasn’t the content, per se). the preacher occasionally slipped into a funny accent (at least he thought it was funny), used quite a few words pronounced in an strange, super-spritual manner, and utilized other speaking ‘tricks’ to–ultimately–manipulate the listeners to an intended feeling. he told self-revealing stories with an affected performance.

and i realized: i found this completely inauthentic.

i came to a sense that i could barely listen, as the speaker was vulnerable, but inauthentic.

authenticity trumps vulnerability in preaching, imho (and for leadership in general). i’d rather listen to an authentic speaker (or follow an authentic leader) without a ton of vulnerability than the other way around any day. both are great; but vulnerability only helps when it’s a subset of authenticity.

Seven Sins of Re-Inventing Your Youth Ministry

my latest column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) is in print.  some thoughts about ministry change…


I’m a big fan of change. In fact, one of the personal values I try to live out in every area of my life is:
Change is non-negotiable. Upheaval, starting new things, risk and failure are all necessary and good, both for the organization I’m a part of and for my own level of thriving.

Given the fact that we’re all doing youth work in a constantly changing culture, with teenagers whose needs are constantly changing, and with teenagers whose very lives are marked by constant change, we’d be idiots to just keep doing the same thing in the same way.

Experimentation and noble failure are the spark plugs of great youth ministry (well, I suppose Jesus is the spark plug; but you get the picture). Coasting, gliding, and staying the same are resounding gongs on the death bell.

So with that in mind, I’d like to suggest Seven Sins of Ministry Re-Invention. They are all phrased as assumptions; because our assumptions provide mental maps that lead to action (good or misguided) or inaction. Some of these assumptions keep us from change; but I’m assuming that you’ll get the gist of those quickly. So I’m focusing more on assumptive sins that mask as progress. Here we go!

Assuming everything is fine as is. In a column on the importance of change, this one sort of goes without saying. But here’s the reason I list it (even first): most of us know we need to consider change when things aren’t going well; but most youth workers I work with have a working paradigm that says the goal is to reach stability.

Here’s the problem: stability means you’ve already begun the inclination toward decline (of heath, vibrancy, impact – and attendance, sometimes). Great leaders must be courageous and initiate change prior to arrival at stability. This is counter-intuitive, as it means instigating change when things are seemingly at the best they’ve ever been.

Assuming youth culture is what it always was. Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times, they are a-changing.” And—wow—have the times ever changed since ol’ Bob sang that! Youth work might focus on timeless and unchanging truths (like the consistency of God’s unswerving love); but ministry is always set in a context, and great ministry is responsive to that context.

Sure, some aspects of youth culture or the experience of teenagers isn’t all that different. But there is no denying that all sorts of variables, values, pressures and cultural norms have shifted. Being a teenager in 2016 is simultaneously the same as it ever was, and new every morning.

Assuming you have all the answers to what needs to change. If you’re a leader, you have a responsibility to instigate, promote, provoke, and explore change. But change you envision and activate completely on your own will never be as good as change you collaboratively discern with others. I’m sure you’re smart and super-spiritual; but you’re not that smart and super-spiritual. You need sounding boards and anchors and fire-starters and push-backers and people who say, “Yes, and…”.

Assuming change should be a democratic process. I’m a fan of democracy when it comes to government. But when leading change in a youth ministry, democracy can quickly lower the bar, achieving agreement over excellence. Dissent can be healthy. And while ideas birthed and decisions made in community will always be stronger than those without any input, choosing your change collaborators is essential. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Collaborate with creative and hopeful people who don’t have a personal agenda. But don’t pass around a ballot.

Assuming everyone will easily be on board with change. It’s tough not to have the wind taken out of your sails when you’re excited about some intentional and thoughtful change, only to be met with naysayers and criticism and whining. Remember: people tend to resist change. This is almost always due to fear that they’ll lose something they value—something the current reality or program is providing for them. Expect opposition, not so you can be armed to blow people away, but so that you can adopt a curious perspective about what people need to move past their fears.

Assuming more is better. Short and sweet: adding stuff on—more programs—is not the pathway to vibrancy in your ministry. If you’re going to add something, you have to be ready to cut something also.

Assuming teenagers really dig cool programs and nifty youth facilities. What teenagers really want is a safe and encouraging place to belong. They want to be wanted. You might assume that a super-cool youth room or mind-blowing entertainment will deliver, but these are not the droids you’re looking for.

Step into change, with courage (which comes from God). But do so with wisdom (which comes from the Holy Spirit).

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.

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.

FRIDAY NUGGET: When I Was a Youth Pastor…

“My senior pastor was a YP 20 years ago, so…”

i hear a youth worker start a tale of frustration with this line (only the number of years changes) once a month, at the very least. 9 out of 10 times this is followed with a negative story that includes this line from the senior pastor: “When I was a youth pastor….”

some of you reading this are youth workers who will one day be a senior pastor.

let’s all stack hands on this: if we, one day, find ourselves out of direct youth ministry, but overseeing a youth worker, we will NOT be one who utters that phrase, unless it’s followed by “things were certainly different”

you might consider adding, “And you’re awesome.”

FRIDAY NUGGET: 3 characteristics of the best leaders

i was listening to one of my coaching groups share final reports they’d prepared, looking back at the last year of growth, and setting goals for the next year, and it struck me:

the very best leaders–those who are extremely high capacity, inspire people, and really get things done–have three characteristics:

  • confidence
  • focus
  • humility

without confidence, leaders are risk-averse, avoid conflict, and don’t have the self-knowledge needed for excellent leadership.

without focus, leaders can have great ideas and/or be good managers, but don’t possess either the ability to stay anchored in values, or the intellectual (and spiritual!) blinders needed to develop and evaluate ideas and initiatives.

without humility, otherwise good leaders disconnect from the people they’re supposed to lead and rely on themselves too much.

which of these three characteristics do you need to grow?

FRIDAY NUGGET: preventing or navigating conflict with your church leadership

In my coaching groups, I regularly try to help youth workers navigate tension and conflict with their church leadership (senior pastor, or other leadership). Here’s a quick list of practices that can prevent conflict, or help you navigate it if it already exists:

  • Continually clarify and unearth expectations
  • Exercise curiosity; Look for the “positive intent”
  • Be honest with myself about my own motives, desires, and dreams
  • Exercise full disclosure, even when it feels like the wrong move in the short run
  • Look at your contribution to any failure, even if it was only 10% of the problem
  • Hold these two things in tension:
  1. Don’t add drama (don’t make things personal, don’t assume motive)
  2. Enter courageously into places of conflict

FRIDAY NUGGET: What You Do is Not Who You Are

I spin plates. I’m really good at it. Do you know what I mean? I have so many tasks and projects and ideas that demand my attention and focus: they require that I keep reaching toward them, giving them a little spin, to keep them from crashing to the ground.

Someone once asked me if my concern was that I wouldn’t know what to do if one or more plates crashed to the ground. But that’s not my issue. The issue for me is that I’ve often not been convinced I would know who I am, in a deep inner-life sort of way, if the plates no longer required spinning. After all, plate-spinner has become an identity.

Maybe, like me, you’re a youth worker. You passionately pour yourself out into the projects and people of youth ministry. But that’s not who you are. Do you know that, at a deep level? Do you know that you are so much more than what you do?

I’ve been on a long journey to separate “who I am” from “what I do.” Or, as a wise person said to me, to turn both “who I am” and “what I do” over to the transformational, redemptive work of God. So, if you hear a loud ripping sound coming from San Diego, you can assume it’s me. Want to join me?