Category Archives: thinking…


18 things highly creative people do differently

i recently found a link to an article that i’d sent myself via email 6 months ago. yeah, i have some strange ways of keeping track of things. deal with it.

really insightful and challenging article in huffpo about the 18 things highly creative people do differently. i think i’m somewhat creative; and i do some of the things on this list pretty regularly. but i would be exponentially more creative if i leaned into these babies a bit more. click through to read the whole article (it’s really worth it, and an easy read); but here’s a list of the 18 habits:

  1. They daydream.
  2. They observe everything.
  3. They work the hours that work for them.
  4. They take time for solitude.
  5. They turn life’s obstacles around.
  6. They seek out new experiences.
  7. They “fail up.”
  8. They ask the big questions.
  9. They people-watch.
  10. They take risks.
  11. They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression.
  12. They follow their true passions.
  13. They get out of their own heads.
  14. They lose track of the time.
  15. They surround themselves with beauty.
  16. They connect the dots.
  17. They constantly shake things up.
  18. They make time for mindfulness.
boss yelling

thinking about why so many youth workers are abused

recently i had dinner with a youth worker couple who had the kind of story i hear way too often these days. they’d been beat up, in one way or another, by a church. the pastor had said they were doing a great job, blah, blah, blah. though he did seem to have concerns about ministry style (they were relational, he was organizational). in the end, they got totally blindsided by the pastor or the board telling them they needed to leave. there was some kind of agreement on what would be said publicly, which the church and pastor (the way it was told to me) totally violated. lots of hurt. lots of pain. lots of mess.

i hear these stories every week. literally. there are variations, of course. some involve massive tension with a cold-hearted automaton of a senior pastor over a period of years, resulting in the ministry version of parallel-play (ministering alongside each other without any significant interaction with each other). some involve a spineless yes-man of a senior pastor and an overbearing board with some misguided ideas about what the youth ministry should be doing or valuing.

but the common thread is “abuse”. once in a while, i get the sense that the youth worker was in the wrong (even if only partially). but whether there was wrong on both sides or not, there are all-too-often scenarios where the treatment of the youth worker is unacceptable.

as i was flying home and thinking about and praying for this wonderful and sad youth worker couple, i started to ask myself some more macro-level questions. maybe it was because i was in a plane at the time, 35,000 feet over somewhere. that big-picture view. anyhow…

why is it that churches are SO bad at conflict resolution?

why is it that churches are SO bad at conflict resolution, particularly amongst their staff? so few senior pastors seem to have any ability in this area (surely, there are wonderful exceptions).

why do so many youth workers get abused by their churches? while they’re at the church, and especially in how and why they leave.

khaki shortsmaybe it’s because our calling is so unique, so given to misunderstanding? maybe it’s because great youth ministry will never look quite like most senior pastors envision a pastoral role to look? when the senior pastor of my church in omaha re-inforced the office dress code, stating that jeans and shorts weren’t appropriate around the office, and that we would wear khakis or slacks and a collered shirt unless we had a specific ministry reason why we were dressed otherwise, i took him literally. and the summer day i was going to be hanging out with middle school kids off-campus, i wore a collered shirt and khaki shorts. he yelled at me in the middle of the office: “we don’t want to see your knobby knees around this office!”

yeah, maybe that’s true. and i’m sure it’s true much of the time. but here’s the harder thought that i almost wish i hadn’t had…

what if the reason so many youth workers are treated poorly by our churches is partly because of us?

what if it’s because we’re immature? or, unprofressional, sloppy and ill-mannered? what if we’re hiding behind our calling and job descriptions (and audience) as an excuse for not getting organized, not growing up, not being a team player?

i’m not suggesting we all start keeping office hours and wearing dress slacks (and clip-on ties!). i’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt as a type this, and i can’t imagine working in a church where they required me to “dress up” for the office.

i tears me up to see so many youth workers treated poorly by their churches. and with each individual case, my primary response is empathy and shared pain. i know what that feels like. but taken collectively–looking at the whole mess from a few tens-of-thousdands of feet in the air… well, i just wonder what role we’ve all played in creating a system that would treat us this way, over and over and over again.


looking back

what has changed in the last 8 years?

i was trying to find an old blog post this morning, and came across this bit i wrote in 2006 (a mere 8 years ago), with thoughts about change over the next 10 years:

The world in 10 years
(a ridiculously subjective summary by Mark Oestreicher)

Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind (one of the best books I read last year) is primarily about the change in culture that will demand more right-brained thinking than the dominant left-brain thinking of the past few decades. He talks about the need for leaders to be creatives and empathizers, more than (the former) logicians and knowledge workers.

In one short chapter, Pink offers a three-part summary of the primary change we’ll experience in the next 10 years (of course, Pink’s book is written to business leaders, so keep that in mind):


A few facts from the book:

    - Each year, universities and colleges in India produce 350,000 new engineering graduates.
    - Half of the Fortune 500 companies now outsource to India.
    - 1 out of 10 IT job will move overseas (to Asia) in the next 2 years; 1 out of 4 by 2010.

Our issue isn’t the outsourcing of jobs, of course.

But what will it mean for our affluent and resourced churches and youth ministries when our country, religiously, looks more like Europe, and the thriving, model-creating influence in the church is coming from Asia? Will be have the humility to learn and grow?


Quote from the book: “The result [of massive automation]: as the scut work gets off-loaded, engineers and programmers [think youth workers!] will have to master different aptitudes, relying more on creativity than competence, more on tacit knowledge than technical manuals, and more on fashioning the big picture than sweating the details.”

Nobody predicted that Western teenagers would so quickly skip over the already slow and tedious technology of email and so fully embrace the instant real-time social technologies of IM, texting, and MySpace.

MySpace has already replaced the mall, and is THE place for teenage social networks. But all we’re doing so far is talking about the dangers.


A few facts from the book:

    - the U.S. has more cars than licensed drivers
    - self-storage is a $17 Billion industry in the U.S. alone
    - the U.S. spends more on trash bags annually than nearly half the nations of the world spend on ALL goods.

The impact: the search for empathy, beauty, play and meaning.

Columbia University’s Andrew Delbanco: “The most striking feature of contemporary culture is in the unslaked craving for transcendence.”

This is our story! Empathy, beauty, play, meaning and transcendence? That’s our stuff! And we know the inventor of those things!

One more thought, NOT from the book

Many sociologist and culture writers are talking about a major shift in identity, from…

An identity rooted in individual and national (I am autonomous, I am how I define myself. “I did it my way”. The Marlboro Man. Anything larger than me is a nationalistic connection.)


An identity rooted in local and global, or what some emerging leaders are cutely calling “glocal” (I am defined as part of a ‘local’ community – but local isn’t geographic, it’s however I define my community; and, I see my identity more rooted in being a citizen of the world than in being a citizen of my country.)

Obviously, this has massive implications for us in church leadership and youth ministry leadership, as most of our theologies, approaches, assumptions and methods are built on individual/national identity frameworks.

looking backhonestly, those words sorta cracked me up, reading them today. and, i was struck by how much has changed in 8 short years. looking in the rearview mirror is always easier and more accurate, of course. if i were to name the variables that have shaped change the most, i would now label them differently. i would suggest a move to a culture in which these realities are primary shapers:

You’ve likely read or heard these sorts of details elsewhere, but the amount of knowledge and information that exists in the world is said to double roughly every eight years. That’s insane. It’s an absurd understatement to call it “exponential” growth.

But an enormous additional dimension to this steep increase in information is the ease at which we can access all of it. No longer are these mountains of knowledge and information protected in musty libraries and hidden in corporate vaults: almost all knowledge is accessible to us with the click of a mouse, or, increasingly, the touch of a thumb on our mobile platforms. Unless you live “off the grid”, information is in your face constantly, whether you want it or not.

Not only is all knowledge and information available (at least more of it than we could ever use), it’s all available at this moment. It’s accessible anytime, anywhere.

When we have to wait for something these days, it automatically feels foreign or antiquated.

The easiest place to see this is our relationships with hard goods, from contact lenses to mobile phones to car leases. Even the laptop I’m typing on right now—a very new MacBook Air—has a “planned” or “built-in obsolescence” of about 18 months (of course, Apple is brilliant at promoting and exploiting this). And what should I do with this fairly expensive and originally cutting-edge computer when I need the new version for whatever reason? Really, I might be able to get twenty or thirty bucks for it on Craigslist; but it won’t be much more than a formerly useful paperweight.

Another easy-to-grasp example for our relationship with technology: computer printers. Several years ago now, the printer industry went through a major re-orientation of change-or-die proportions. Printers became cheap and disposable when printer manufacturers realized they could make more money from ink sales if they got people to buy low priced printers that required disposable ink cartridges. I got the printer that sits on my desk for the best price possible: FREE! But I spend more money annually on the stupid ink cartridges (which are also disposable, by the way) than I spend on car tires!

Disposability, though, is way more far-reaching than the lack of permanence with respect to our technology hard goods. Disposability has become the norm for most things (unless they’re seen as a commodity with appreciating value, which is not the world most people live in). In this reality, careers are disposable, and relationships are disposable, and experiences (merely another item to be consumed for their temporary satisfaction), and beliefs.

these three culture-shaping realities–information, immediacy and disposability–are super-critical for youth workers to be aware of. all of us adults are shaped by these realities, but we’re immigrants to this culture. teenagers are natives. are you thinking about ministry responses (i.e. teaching wisdom and discernment!)?

teenage faith formation grenade

girl shoutingi’m coming to this conclusion, which i verbalized recently for the first time during one of my coaching groups. it’s an opinion, not a fact (yet). but it’s based on a gumbo of inputs:

  • the stewardship of neuron winnowing that takes place in the years following puberty, leading to what the world’s leading adolescent brain specialist calls “the hard wiring” of the brain.
  • various readings of and talks by christian smith and kenda dean and kara powell.
  • mandy drury’s talk, based on her PhD research, at The Summit 2012, on the critical role of “testimony” in faith formation.
  • and, frankly, my unscientific and anecdotal work with my middle school guys small group every week.

here’s the soft conclusion, which i toss out like a grenade, fully expecting some will consider this an overstatement:

for teenage faith formation, verbalization of belief is more important than the accuracy of the beliefs.

it’s not that i think “accuracy” is bad. it’s a question of priority in the role of faith formation.

your response?

Curiosity is the Serum for Judgmentalism

my most recent epilogue column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. here’s what i wrote!

serumI get insanely annoyed by the judgmentalism within the Christian church. I’m not just talking about judgmentalism within a single church, but that judgmentalism that dismisses or diminishes entire movements and tribes within the bride of Christ. That judgmentalism that shows up as ministry leaders who spend so much time and effort deciding (for God, it seems) who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out.” But, I can’t deny the beam in my own eye on this one.

That makes me think of a quote my wife shared with me sometime ago. It’s a quote about Gandhi (not by Gandhi), from the book “The Root of This Longing”:

Gandhi always brings you back to yourself–the beam in your own eye, the discrepancy between your own actions and the ideals you profess. He insists that you look beyond the headlines for the root causes of each new horror, and always the trail leads back to forces in consciousness, like envy and fear and the lust for power, and always you have to recognize those same forces in yourself.

Shoot. I would much prefer the point out others’ annoying judgmentalism than face my own.

Half a dozen years ago, the leadership team of ministry I was a part of was sitting in the living room of a beach house in beach town in California, on retreat. And we were getting worked. Our consultant was in the process of inverting all the dimensions of reality as we knew it. At one point, during discussion, I noticed a co-worker getting defensive. This particular co-worker was pretty transparent when about his defensiveness, so it’s not that I was being perceptive: his body tensed up and he fidgeted like crazy, his voice raised a half-octave, and his answers become a series of “uh-huh’s”.

In the spirit of the truthfulness we were trying to foster, I decided it should be called out — “for the good of the team.” I did, at least attempt to speak with gentleness, even though I was calling him out. I said, “Hey, can I interrupt? You’ve suddenly gotten really defensive.” And here’s where I completely blew it: in the insecurity of that moment (thinking I was doing a good thing), I turned to the rest of the room to back me up: “Am I alone in this? Do the rest of you see this?”

Before the defensive guy could respond, the consultant turned to me, and with uncharacteristic directness and push-back, completely unveiled what I had just done: that I had attempted to gang up on my coworker; that I had tried to manipulate everyone in the room to my opinion in order to corner my friend. Just as the tingly nature of being publicly exposed and realizing he right started to set in, the consultant re-directed again. He said something like: I’m calling this out for a very specific reason. If you five are going to be effective, you have to learn the skill of being curious.

He used the situation that had just been unveiled as a case-study: if I notice that my coworker seems to be getting defensive, and if I really want the best for him as a human being, as an image-of-God bearer, than I should be more interested in what his “positive intent” is (what’s driving the defensiveness, in this case), than in embarrassing him or making myself look like the hero of group dynamics and herald of truth.

This concept of “being curious” profoundly shaped that leadership team over the next couple years. We exercised it all the time with each other, and it — more than anything else, I think — changed the tone of our meetings.

I found the concept of being curious (particularly about someone’s “positive intent”) has spilled over into other areas of my life. And I think it might offer us some particular value in our overwhelming place of judgmentalism in the church.

If judgmentalism is the venom currently coursing it’s way through the veins of the church, I’m thinking the anti-venom, the serum, isn’t what we’ve thought it to be. It’s not more truth or more clearly defining what we mean or retreating.

Curiosity. Loving, “I want the best for you” curiosity. I think that’s the serum.

To the church or ministry leader who seems overly concerned with criticizing others, or with who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” I ask, gently: What are your fears? What are you feeling, and what’s driving those feelings?

And to myself, when I catch myself in the midst of judgmentalism, I ask, gently: Wait, Marko, what’s going on here? What’s driving this judgment or attitude? What’s the positive intent behind this — how are you hoping to benefit from this? What’s another way to think about this?

10 leadership soundbites off the top of my head

soundbitesreally, i’m going to make this up right now. ’cause i gots me a little burst o’ passion that i think will translate to twittery bits (ooh, “twittery bits” probably used to mean something very different). so here we go… i’m gonna wing this!

  • sometimes you fake it until you’re able to break it. that’s when things might get good.
  • “the ways we do things around here” could be, just might be, a really wonderful and good thing. take a second look before you discard it.
  • might is shite
  • “who i’m responsible for” can be legitimately in tension with “what i’m passionate about.” but not for long, or you’ll wilt.
  • you need a “how could this possibly succeed?” moment at least twice a year.
  • crossing t’s and dotting i’s is for scribes. is that all you are?
  • there are a thousand legitimate things you could do with the next hour.
  • loosening your grip is the second most important component of growth.
  • i want to play with people who are weird. i want to work with those who are odd. the edge of change is always populated with weird and odd folk.
  • see that line? put a couple toes over it. there you go.

escaping neverland (extended adolescence article)

some weeks ago, i spent an hour on a phone with a reporter for World Magazine who was doing an article on extended adolescence. i’m often a bit skeptical about what sort of reporting someone’s going to bring to this subject, since i usually disagree with the “why can’t this narcissistic generation grow up?” perspective i’ve seen so often. my belief is that adolescence has extended because we (adults, culture at large) have:

  • isolated teenagers (and now young adults)
  • increasingly treated teenagers like children
  • removed opportunities for teenagers and young adults to spend time with adults in the world of adults
  • ceased pretty much all practices of giving teenagers an opportunity to be “apprentice adults”
  • removed opportunities for responsibility and expectation
  • and, removed all the onramps to adulthood

not to mention the “it’s all about me and my needs” worldview that today’s teenagers and young adults have seen modeled for them their whole lives by baby boomer parents.

so i did the interview, mostly because i wanted to offer what i assumed might be a different perspective. i also suggested the writer connect with rick dunn (author of Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults), and i’m glad she followed through on that. the result, i think, is a good article. what do you think? responses, thoughts, reservations or disagreements?

peter panEscaping Neverland, by Caroline Leal

If the fictional character, Peter Pan—“the boy who would not grow up”—was alive today, he’d have little need to run away to the magical isle of Neverland to escape manhood.

“You no longer have to shut your eyes and pretend you are in Neverland—it is all around you,” wrote sociology professor Frank Ferudi in online publication Spiked. “Our society is full of lost boys and girls hanging out on the edge of adulthood.”

Meet Generation Peter Pan, the ever-expanding band of twenty-, thirty- and even forty-somethings living in a state of extended adolescence, avoiding the trappings of responsibility—marriage, mortgage, children—for as long as possible. Sociologists traditionally mark the “transition to adulthood” by the milestones of completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had passed all five milestones by age 30. But among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in December 2011 found 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are living with their parents or moved back with them temporarily during the past few years. In 2012, another Pew poll found that in 1993, 80 percent of parents with children age 16 or younger said they expected them to be financially independent by age 22. As of 2011, only 67 percent of parents agreed.

With more people embracing the Peter Pan promise to “never grow up,” researchers and psychologists believe a new life phase—emerging adulthood—has developed as social and economic forces make maturing more difficult in the 21st century. But Christian leaders contend otherwise, saying prolonged adolescence is avoidable through discipleship, service-oriented ministry, and higher expectations for today’s wandering “kidults.”

“Extended adolescence is a culturally created phenomenon we must respond to,” said Mark Oestreicher, author of Youth Ministry 3.0. “Culture is obsessed with perpetually infantilizing young people, so we’re creating the low expectations. The first step is to stop coddling them.”

With an extensive background in youth ministry, Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, an organization that provides consulting and resources to help churches and businesses connect with young people. He believes the solution is not “adult” youth groups ghettoizing twenty-somethings from the rest of the church, but rather discipleship and mentoring with an intergenerational focus.

Oestreicher cites a real-life example reflecting his ministry vision: When he was a junior high pastor, the church usher team consisted entirely of men over 60 until an usher began involving his developmentally challenged grandson. The boy learned ushering and participated in the group’s barbecues and prayer sessions, and soon other ushers started involving their grandsons. Then the grandsons invited their junior-high friends to join. “Eventually the usher team became a group of old guys gently mentoring these junior-high boys, not just in ushering, but in life and spirituality,” Oestreicher said. “These young men were offered a chance to become apprentice adults. It’s a vision for how we can view young adult ministry.”

Some churches are already working to make that vision a reality. At Fellowship Evangelical Church in Knoxville, Tenn., 65 percent of the congregation is under 35. Its pastor, Richard Dunn, co-authored the book, Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults, and believes ministry to extended adolescents isn’t rocket science: “It’s just discipleship.” At Dunn’s church, young adults are intentionally given opportunities to use their gifts in leadership positions alongside older adults who function as role models.

Fellowship Evangelical also has weekly “college life” groups of about 800 students. The young people split into groups with leaders for Bible study and mentoring. Some of the twenty-somethings in these groups have already been divorced, and a large portion are sexually active. “That brings a whole new set of complications for ministry to this demographic,” Dunn said. “We have to address those issues and be willing to walk with them in authentic, mentoring relationships. If you’re going to be successful, you need patience and a long-term focus.”

Greg Matte, who began as a campus minister at Texas A&M University, now serves as senior pastor at Houston’s First Baptist Church. He carried his philosophy for young adult ministry to the church, which has a singles group of about 1,000: “That’s where we see more of the prolonged adolescence happening,” Matte said. “But we’re intentional about not segregating them.” The singles are involved in many different activities in the church, regularly leading worship, teaching Sunday school, and working with seniors. And every Saturday, single young men join older men to serve different widows in the community, changing light bulbs, doing yard work, or pressure washing their houses.

“This kind of approach is relational and serving,” Matte said. “We don’t define our young adults by their marital status. We don’t babysit them. They mature in productivity and leadership.”

Beta Upsilon Chi (BYX)—the largest national Christian fraternity in the United States—also reaches out to the “kidult” crowd through activities designed to help them launch. Formed at The University of Texas at Austin in 1985, BYX is active on 28 campuses nationwide. Brian Lee, chief development officer for the fraternity, says young people today lack motivation, often defaulting to graduate school after college or moving in with their parents. “Because it’s culturally appropriate now, with no negative stigmas or a sense of failure attached, the pressure to grow up just isn’t there anymore,” he said.

BYX counteracts the extended adolescence trend through the rigorous process of service and commitment. Prospective members do community service projects like yard work, house remodeling, and other physical activities. During small group meetings, members share their struggles and hold each other accountable, a difficult process that spurs spiritual and emotional growth, Lee said: “If a freshman comes to college and wants to play video games for twelve hours and attend class for two, he’s not going to make it with us. They learn how to give, work and sacrifice, so they develop maturity and are prepared for a successful life outside of college.”

Young adults’ mental and emotional growth depends on their spiritual development, which is why Christian leaders should be on the frontlines of helping them transition from mediocrity to maturity, Matte said: “If you choose culture over Christ, you’re going to become an extended adolescent. Ultimately, the maturity of your faith determines the maturity of your life.”

new brain research about young teens and identity formation

my friend (and YMCP participant) gavin richardson sent me a link to a report on a fascinating new brain study (read the summary of findings here).

brain scanthe researchers did MRI brain scans of a group of 10 year olds (pre-pubescent), and again, on the same kids, when they were 13. while the scans were taking place, the researchers asked them a series of questions: some were particularly focused on self-perception and identity issues (and, even more particularly, on identity issues connected to social interaction), while other questions merely focused on knowledge.

they found no significant difference in brain function on the knowledge questions. BUT, they found a significant difference in brain activity (focused in part of the pre-frontal cortex) with the self-perception and identity questions.

my thoughts:

1. i find this to be a wonderful scientific confirmation of the reality that after puberty, young teens begin the trek into the new world of abstract thinking; and a big part of abstract thinking is the new possibility of third-person perspective. in other words, young teens, unlike their pre-teen counterparts, have the ability (if not practice) to view themselves, and other people and objects and issues, from another’s perspective. this new third-person thinking is rocket fuel to the adolescent task of identity formation. without self-perception and some sense of how others view me, it’s difficult to form an active identity.

2. the part of the brain that was really firing–the part where the difference showed up–was the pre-frontal cortex. this is a big deal. on one hand, it makes complete sense that it was that part of the brain, since it’s that part of the brain that’s responsible for higher-order thought (and third-person perspective, including self-perception, is complex stuff). but here’s what’s significant about that: the pre-frontal cortex (or frontal lobes) is also the part of the brain that we’ve heard so much about in adolescents over the last 10 years. MRIs have shown us that the frontal lobes of teenagers are significantly underdeveloped, something we didn’t know until MRIs helped us look at live, healthy teenage brains in action. the reality of underdeveloped frontal lobes (responsible for all sorts of important things, like wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, decision making, and other critical thinking skills) has become, wrongly in my opinion, cause for assuming that teenagers are not capable of these thought processes. this study confirms for me: sure, teenagers (and particularly young teens) are limited in their decision-making, prioritization, impulse control and so on; BUT they are NOT incapable.

parents and youth workers: let’s get those pre-frontal cortexes firing. i’m convinced that, other than the mysterious transforming work of God, frontal lobe development is about the most critical aspect of both faith formation and the move to adulthood.

willing to make the wrong decision

ymcpv west screen shot

yesterday i hosted the second meeting of one of my online YMCP groups. during our ’round the horn time of sharing highs and lows of the past month, as well as reporting on homework, one of the guys shared a bit of input he’d received from someone that, in the midst of a particular decision he was trying to make, he found shaping and instructive. it struck me as brilliant input, and i quickly jotted it down:

You don’t lack the ability to make the decision; what you lack is the willingness to make the wrong decision.

man, that’s it. that’s what, so often, keeps me frozen in the process of decision making. my fear over loss or scrutiny or embarrassment or the potential of spilled milk. and i see this over and over again with leaders of all sorts, including youth workers. great leaders are willing to make the wrong decision (and, of course, to own it when wrong decisions are made, rather than pointing at others or external factors). this isn’t a cry for impulsivity or a cavalier approach to decision making that ignores potential hurt or mess. instead, it’s an invitation to move out of that frozen space of indecision, with a willingness to risk.

are you willing to make the wrong decision?


youth ministry seasons

the other day i found an old middle school ministry column i wrote for youthworker journal, published in the january/february 2012 issue, and written shortly after the beginning of the school year in the fall of 2011 (so, a little over a year ago). it’s an interesting time capsule of my mindset about both my ongoing (starting a new lap) middle school volunteer work, and of my parenting:

After 30 years of working with middle schoolers, there are moments—plenty of them—when I wonder how I can keep it up. One of these moments (actually it was two hours) happened two weeks ago.
My moment began an hour prior to the small group kick-off night in my church’s middle school ministry.

“What the heck am I doing?” I asked myself. “And who am I fooling?”

My plate was particularly full that week, and I wasn’t feeling very Jesus-y. Nothing in me—nothing—wanted to spend my evening getting to know a new group of sixth grade boys: stinky, annoying, wired, juvenile boys.

That feeling escalated from the emotional equivalent of low-grade heartburn to full-on ulcers when I walked into the middle school room and tried to herd nine fresh-faced, sugar-buzzed pre-pubescents through the process of naming our group. (They landed on the highly appropriate Atomic Squirrel, by the way).

Call it the grace of God, an inescapable calling or whatever, but I got my feet under me, eventually, and was overflowing with gratitude and joy by the time I left.
However, there’s another newness on the horizon in my world of middle school ministry, and it’s a much bigger deal to me than starting a new sixth grade guys’ small group. It’s that Max, my 14-year-old son, will finish middle school at the end of this year. (Meanwhile, Liesl, my 17-year-old daughter, will finish high school).

I have lived as a passionate middle school guy for so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize myself apart from that calling. When I had children of my own, I felt a little shift; but when my daughter entered middle school, the change was seismic. For these past six and a half years, I’ve loved settling into the beautiful and surprisingly life-giving space of being a middle school guy with middle school kids of his own.

That’s about to change once again. Having all my own children be older than the age group I’ve always worked with is…well…odd. It makes me feel…well…old.
Being a parent of a young teen is the strangest blend of fun, terrifying, expectant, nerve-wracking, second-guessing, thrilling, surprising, painful, hopeful, agonizing, sweet, button-pushing, weakness-exposing and Jesus-clinging experiences one can have. Here’s the hand-on-a-Bible truth: I’ve loved being a dad of a middle schooler even more than being a middle school youth worker, but I’m almost finished.

Of course, I’ll still have those nine squirrelly sixth grade boys, who will then become transforming and mutating seventh grade boys, who will then become eighth grade young-men-in-the-making. Then, I’ll have a new group of squirrelly sixth grade boys.

Here’s the reality we all experience: There are seasons of middle school ministry, seasons of excitement and newness, seasons of weariness and discouragement, seasons of feeling clueless, seasons of feeling you could do this for-ev-er. The unshakable truth: Jesus is with you in every single one of those seasons.

fast forward about 14 months to today:

  1. liesl (my daughter) has graduated from high school and is living in ireland at the moment. talk about a completely new chapter of life.
  2. max (my son) is doing well in high school. i enjoy him more than seems fair.
  3. those guys — the atomic squirrels — are now almost mid-way through 7th grade. that means that i’m about a month away from being at the halfway point in my 3 year journey with them. and that’s insane. it feels like i just met them. due to a bunch of travel (plus halloween), i’ve had to miss the last few weeks of our small group, and i really miss them. sure, i still have plenty of wednesdays, in the late afternoon, when i’m thinking about meeting in a few hours, where i’m mixed about it. but, mostly, i’m in. when i think of each guy — one at a time — benton, devon, evan, mitchell, chris, jacob, jake, ben, sean, noah, tyler, josiah, hunter, and trevor (assuming he returns after whatever sport has taken him out this fall) — yeah, when i think of them one at a time, i’ve got nothing but “i dig these guys” feelings.

i guess what i’m thinking today is this: if this is a season i’m in, i like it.