Category Archives: youth ministry

announcing the Ministry Architects cohort of YMCP

At The Youth Cartel, our flagship program–the Youth Ministry Coaching Program–is experiencing some amazing growth. With more than 250 graduates now, we continue to refine and tweak and see massive transformation in the lives of participants and their ministries. Just the other day, a fairly recent grad who has simultaneously jumped into our Level 2 cohort and our Coaching Certification training emailed me, writing:

As I stand waiting to board my flight from Chicago home, I’m struck with an overwhelming appreciation for the Cartel. A little over a year ago I didn’t know The Youth Cartel existed and as I reflect over the past year, I can’t believe how far I’ve come-how I’ve grown in ministry, what I’ve learned, but more importantly how my life has so drastically changed from being bitter and focused on the past to future-focused and hope-filled. Thank you for the role that you and the Cartel have played in that transformation. I am forever grateful!

If you’re not familiar with YMCP, you should read this overview.

If you’re wondering about the 8 cohorts we’re currently filling, click here.

But I’m particularly pumped about the four topic-specific cohorts we’re currently looking to fill. So i’m posting about each of them, four days in  row.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about the new Multi-Site Church Youth Ministry cohort I’ll be co-leading with Kurt Johnston of Saddleback Church.

Thursday, I’ll post about the 2nd Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian Context cohort.

And, Friday: the THIRD (woot!) Women in Youth Ministry cohort.

But today, I’m stoked to tell you about the new Ministry Architects cohort co-lead by April Diaz (from the Cartel) and Jeff Dunn-Rankin (VP of Coaching at Ministry Architects):

Ministry Architects and The Youth Cartel are partnering together to offer an exclusive, one-of-a-kind development opportunity for youth workers. Built on the model of The Youth Cartel’s proven and successful Youth Ministry Coaching Program, the two organizations will each bring their strengths, approaches, and ministry values to a cohort of 10 youth workers who will meet together over the span of a year. The Cartel coach (April Diaz) will focus primarily on holistic leadership development, while the Ministry Architects coach (Jeff Dunn-Rankin, VP of Coaching) will focus primarily on building sustainability in your church’s youth ministry. The program includes: three meetings of two days each, in Nashville, three online meetings, plus seven one-on-one coaching sessions (three in person, and four via phone or skype).

We’re hoping to launch this cohort in the Fall of 2016 (participants will speak into actual date selection); but we will look to schedule the first meeting 3 – 6 months out from when the cohort is full.
For more information (including pricing and a full overview of the Youth Ministry Coaching Program), click here.

To lock in your spot for one of the 10 spots, click here to apply and put down a $100 deposit.

Details in summary:
FormatHybrid cohort – 3 face-to-face meetings of 2 days each + 3 online meetings of 3 hours each. 7 individual coaching sessions (3 face-to-face and 4 phone).


CoachesApril Diaz (The Youth Cartel) and Jeff Dunn-Rankin (Ministry Architects)

Launch Date3 – 6 months after reaching 10 participants


For more information (including pricing and a full overview of the Youth Ministry Coaching Program), click here.
To lock in your spot for one of the 10 spots, click here to apply and put down a $100 deposit.

the values driving my church’s middle school ministry in this season

if you read my blog much, you know i talk and write a lot about leading from values. it’s a central theme in our Youth Ministry Coaching Program.

i define values as the answer to the question: What is God calling us to embody in this season? (and by season, i mean: this chapter of our ministry life together.) values should flow out of mission (Why do we exist?), and lead to strategy (How will we embody our values?) and goals (What are our measurable, actionable plans?).

we teach a process of developing ministry values in our coaching program. and the awesome junior high pastor at my church (where i’m a volunteer) recently graduated from a san diego cohort of YMCP. last fall, we had a fantastic volunteer team retreat, where i got to lead our team in developing values. and recently, we came back together to identify which of our values were the most aspirational (we aspire to embody these, but don’t really do so yet), and to come up with strategy for those.

i was reminded how much i love the values our team came up with. thought i’d share them with you here (not so you can copy them, as the best ministries discern their own values!).

things to note:

  • they’re in no particular order
  • the initial italic words come from our discernment process, and are grouped together from a bunch of value-ish stuff that surfaced.
  • the bold sentence is the actual value.
  • the additional sentence(s) are an unpacking of the value.
  • our JH ministry is called Riptide (which is why you’ll see that all throughout).

Riptide Values

  1. Family/Belonging/Known

Riptide is a family. We will be a place of radical belonging for young teens and for leaders. Every junior higher who walks through our doors will be known and know others.

  1. Questioning/Safety/Honesty

We will be a safe harbor of support and honesty. Questions will be viewed as a cause for celebration rather than a reason for shame or embarrassment. Personal stories will be celebrated and treated with the respect they deserve.

  1. Experiencing God/Jesus

We desperately want junior highers to encounter Jesus. We believe that the best life is one that follows Jesus; and to that end, we want young teens to experience God as a means of cultivating their faith and being transformed. We will be leaders who will manifest our own personal relationships into the ministry and lives of middle schoolers.

  1. Celebrate Uniqueness/Culture of Encouragement

We believe each student and leader is unique and has gifts to offer the world. We will actively develop a Culture of Encouragement, intentionally identifying and nurturing competencies.

  1. Integration with church

Junior Highers should be connected with Journey, not just Riptide. We believe that a long view of faith development means we are compelled to think of junior high as one chapter in a life long faith journey. Because of that, we will work to reduce the isolation of young teens in our church and find meaningful ways to integrate them into the life of the congregation.

  1. Take Risks/Embrace change

Change is constant, and growth requires risk. Riptide cannot stay the same, cannot coast, cannot become complacent. We will consistently evaluate, discern the Holy Spirit’s leading, and experiment with change in order to become everything God has dreamed our ministry could be.

  1. Face outward/Mission/Outreach

We will help junior highers engage their faith outside the Riptide room. We refuse to allow our ministry to become program-centric and only occurring in our room. We will engage the world around us in mission and outreach, both for the formation of our junior highers, and to engage the work of the Kingdom of God.

discussion dice

i was trying to think of a creative way to get my 8th grade guys talking about their hopes and fears for the summer, their freshman years and beyond. this week is our final regular small group meeting (we have a small group party next week); and, as i’ve posted before, this group has been particularly tough to engage in meaningful conversation about…well…anything.

since we’ve been re-orienting these last few weeks (me and my co-leader), and attempting to both finish well and meet the guys at their level of interest and desire, rather than ours, i knew whatever we did needed to be fun. so i came up with an idea that i’m hoping will fit the bill.

i’ve seen ‘discussion dice’ before from other publishers. so i cut up a discarded amazon shipment box and taped together some very low-tech dice. i created 6 sharing prompts for one of the dice:

  • What are you excited about for this summer?
  • What are you anxious about for this summer?
  • What hopes do you have for your freshman year?
  • What makes you nervous about your freshman year?
  • What changes do you want to make in how you live your faith in high school?
  • What changes do you want to make in yourself for high school?

and i created 6 ‘reward’ items for the second dice (yes, i know the singular of dice is die — deal with it; and, no, not all of the 6 options are truly ‘rewards’ — gotta make it fun!). if they answer the prompt on the first dice honestly (as judged by me and my co-leader), then they get to roll the second dice:

  • Choose 1 Snack
  • Choose 2 Snacks
  • Choose 1 Drink
  • Choose 1 Drink
  • Admit an awkward truth about yourself
  • Crossfit Workout! (Spin around for 30 seconds, run in place for 1 minute, do 3 push-ups, do 5 jumping jacks)

i’ll pick up some drinks and small candy/snacky items, and we should be good to go! but, uh, who knows? could be awesome; could crash and burn when the 2nd guy crushes one of the dice.


re-orienting to the desires of teens

my middle school guys small group has been…uh…challenging this year. i think i could summarize it best with:

i really like each of the guys individually; but i don’t like them much collectively.

i come to consider it a ‘good night’ when we have a 5 – 10 minute bit of focus and honesty (out of our 60 – 80 minutes together). and we’ve been having a ‘good night’ about once every 6 or 8 weeks.

after a particularly bad night a few weeks ago, i was understandably discouraged. i got thinking a bit about what we’re trying to accomplish, and it dawned on me that we’ve been forcing our agenda (i have a co-leader) on the guys, hoping they’ll buy into it, rather than discovering and responding to their desires.

i called my co-leader and said something like:

we only have about 5 weeks left with these guys before they leave us for the high school ministry. i don’t want them to look back at our two years together and think, “that was ok; but marko and tyler seemed frustrated most of the time.” i want them, at the very least, to think, “my small group leaders loved me, and our group was a place i looked forward to being every week. it was like family.” if we had another full year together, maybe we could rethink this in some other way; but at this point, i think we’d be wise to consider what it is that they guys want out of this group — why do they come? — and meet them at their point of desire, rather than forcing our own spiritual/educational agenda on them.

after some back-and-forth, we decided to have a birthday party that week (for all of them — it wasn’t anyone’s birthday, really), and play some games, and make sure we left a good amount of time to pray for each other (one of the only spiritual practices they’ve taken to).

as i write this, we have 3 weeks left. we bought them each a copy of The Way Bible (a great bible for high schoolers and young adults), which we’ll give them on one of our last nights. and i plan on continuing this re-orienting for our limited remaining time.

(by the way, it’s clear to me that my thinking on this was totally informed by Morgan Schmidt’s excellent book, Woo.)


Recommended Graduation Gifts for Teenagers

Slide1we have a few resources either published by The Youth Cartel, or developed by me (marko) and sold by The Youth Cartel, that are worth your consideration as graduation gifts (either for individual students, or for a youth group context). as is always the case with stuff we sell in our store, excellent bulk pricing discounts are available.

The Amazing Next, by Brock Morgan. honestly, there are so many cheesy high school graduations books on the market. most of them fall into one of two categories: (1) inspirational drivel, or (2) “this is our last chance to cram some apologetics down your throat so your freshman philosophy professor doesn’t undo everything we’ve tried to teach you.” both categories are lame, and both don’t get read by actual teenagers. that’s why we worked with Brock to develop this book. we wanted a grad book that was fun, honest, helpful and–most of all–would get read rather than shelved. i love this book, and the response (it released last year) has been overwhelmingly positive.

The Way Bible. i was the general editor on this baby, and it took 18 months of my life. we wanted (we, in this case, being me and Tyndale Publishers) to create a bible that was truly honest and helpful for older teenagers and young adults. almost all ‘teen bibles’ have a target of a 15 or 16 year old. we had 17 – 20 year olds in mind when creating this. it’s full of evocative black & white photography, book intros and a variety of other elements all designed to connect young adults with scripture. this isn’t a study bible — it’s a reader’s bible (and as such, the new living translation is perfect). it’s available in softcover, hardcover, and a black leatherlike cover. (i’ve bought copies of this bible for the guys in my 8th grade small group as a gift — don’t tell ’em.)

Ignite Bible. i was a general editor on this bible also — and it is specifically focused on middle schoolers (so this would NOT be a good choice for high school graduates — but, instead, for kids graduating from grade school into middle school). softcover and hardcover available.

4 Excellent Teen Devotionals for Summer Use


with the recent release of two very unique devotionals for teenagers, the Cartel now has four excellent options. i think each of these would be fantastic for a variety of summer youth ministry programming:

  • weekly program
  • students completing on their own (since they have more time in the summer)
  • as an aspect of summer camp, or follow up
  • as an aspect of a missions trip, or follow up

all of these are priced low, and have bulk discounts available. all our devotionals work great for individual use. but we don’t actually publish them unless they will work great in the context of youth ministry.

Soul Pirate Handbook, by Luke Lang, is our newest release. it’s a fun and engaging pirate-y approach to considering the good life that Jesus offers us. this would be ideal for middle schoolers and younger high schoolers.

The Real Jesus, by Jen Bradbury, is–in my opinion–about the most theologically rich devotional for teenagers you can find. and it’s pedagogically powerful, in that it very intentionally invites teenagers to bring their own thoughts and insights to the question Jesus asked Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” this devo is perfect for high schoolers and even college students.

Ordinary Time, by Erik Willits engages with the liturgical calendar (for those from non-liturgical churches, ‘ordinary time’ is the name of this season we’re in over the summer). this is a more reflective and contemplative devotional. and, really, this is an all-ages resource (as are the others in this series: Lent and Advent).

Finally, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Manual for Teenagers, by Jonathan McKee. this is our best-selling book for a reason: teenagers love it. it’s part fiction, part devo, all awesome. if you have teenagers who wouldn’t normally engage with a devotional book, this will be the exception.


the junior higher who called my bluff

i’m a youth ministry volunteer. middle school ministry, specifically. and for the last 18 years in a row, i’ve been volunteering with riptide, the middle school ministry at my church. for the last 11 of those, my role has been fairly boundaried by the otherwise-freneticism of my life and travel schedule. so while i teach on sunday morning once in a blue moon, and help with some volunteer leader development stuff, my regular involvement is co-leading a small group.

i’ve had my current group of guys for two years (while we’ve been a 3-year middle school ministry in the past, we’re currently a 2-year junior high ministry, since our church has a thriving and developmentally appropriate 5th & 6th grade preteen ministry).

and, honestly, this group has been the toughest one i’ve lead. this challenge is likely a large portion due to me. i’ve been lazy in my approach. and while i’m prepared for my group each week (that i’m there), i haven’t been great at the other stuff, like connecting with the guys outside of our scheduled time.

a week ago, our group time was massively frustrating. my co-leader and i just couldn’t get the guys to focus for more than a minute. afterward, i decided to have a brief parking lot conversation with 3 of the guys. one had checked out halfway through, and i wanted to verify that he was ok (he was just tired). two others, though, have such a big impact on the group with their choices, and i wanted to challenge them. i thought i was going to give a short, strong word of ‘i believe in you, and i want you to see how you shape our group time.’ easy-peasy, lemon squeezy, and move on.

the last of those short conversations, though, caught me off guard.

it went down like this:

me: dude, you have so much power in our group. you are a natural leader, and the other guys follow your lead. you have more power to impact the vibe of our time together than i have. i’d really love to see you choose to exercise that power in a positive way.

8th grade guy: teach me!

me: uh, what?

8th grade guy: teach me about leadership! that would be so cool!

me: uh…ok.

honestly, he freaking called my bluff. i wasn’t expecting an invitation to step it up with a guy who’s moving on to the high school ministry in about six weeks. but that’s not an open door (heck: it was much bigger than an open door!) that a youth worker can say no to.

so: i ordered a couple copies of 99 Thoughts for Student Leaders, and we had our first meeting the other night.

What Would I Do Differently If I Started in Youth Ministry All Over Again

my newest column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) is now in print. hope this stirs your thinking. what would you do differently??

Recently I was interviewing someone for a ministry position while noshing on a fantastic Monte Cristo sandwich. We had a great conversation about life and ministry; but it was one-sided: I was asking the questions and he was responding.

But at the end of our time, the other guy asked if he could pose a question to me. Then he asked, “If you could go back and start in youth ministry again, what would you do differently?”

Before diving into this, I should probably make it clear that “going back” wouldn’t merely be a year or two. I’m 53 years old, and have been actively involved in youth work since I was 18. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 35 years. It takes imagination for me to remember anything from 35 years ago that I haven’t recently seen in a photograph (and, yes, we had color photographs back then).

I thought for a minute while chewing on a tasty bite of that sandwich made of French toast, ham, Swiss cheese, and raspberry sauce (props to the semi-crazy chef who thought of that!).

First, I acknowledged the easy stuff: I was an immature punk, overly confident on my natural gifting and under-reliant on Jesus. With that framing, I would make changes to significantly shift the focus off of me.

More easy stuff: 35 years ago was a different era. I did what almost everyone else did at the time—focusing too much attention on hype and events and entertaining teenagers. So, sure, I would change that. But so would most others.

Then it dawned on me, what I would really change if I could go back 35 years and start over in youth work: I would change me, my values, my priorities.

I’ve come to see something that many others have articulated in other spaces: The quality of ministry is first-and-foremost dependent on God. But next to that truth is the reality that the quality of the ministry is integrally linked to the inner life of the leader (or leaders).

With that in mind, here’s what I would do differently: I would actively and intentionally develop two parallel tracks for growth.

The Spiritual Vibrancy Track

Over and over again, I’ve seen good (but not great) ministries lead by youth workers with massive skill sets and a lack of personal spiritual vitality. And over and over again, I’ve seen amazing ministries helmed by leaders with B-level skills sets, but an interior life that is overflowing from a growing intimacy with Jesus.

If I could start again, I would pursue spiritual vitality over skill development. I would retreat and pray and seek mentors and read books and schedule down time all to the end of Jesus overflowing from my life all over every aspect of my ministry.

The Leadership Growth Track

In the coaching work I do with youth workers, I regularly get a glimpse into the reasonable ways one might separate good youth workers from great youth workers. I could parse that many ways, I’m sure. But I find that more often than not, the differentiation boils down to self-knowledge and the ruthless pursuit of growth.

Simply put: you can become a great leader by growing in self-knowledge and pursuing growth in a host of leadership character traits. Conversely, a great leader won’t stay a great leader if they’re coasting, if they’re decreasing in honesty, if they’re lazy about growth. After all, the most important aspect of leadership isn’t leading others, it’s leading yourself. And you’ll suck at self-leadership if you don’t know yourself, if you’re not honest with yourself.

If I could start again, I would put bring others around me to help me grow in self-knowledge. Then I would chart an intentional course of growth – in character, first; then in understanding about how leadership works.

Honestly, I have zero desire to go back 35 years and start again. Instead, my challenge (to myself, and to you) is to put these values, these practices, in place now so that in 35 more years, I can look back in celebration about all that God has accomplished!



minimum wage laws and implications for youth workers

I AM NOT AN EMPLOYMENT LAW EXPERT OR AUTHORITY. and this post should NOT be taken as ‘legal advice.’

BUT: the other day over lunch, a graduate of our Youth Ministry Coaching Program, who leads a wonderful nonprofit ministry not too disimilar from the Cartel, but local and Catholic, asked me a question just as we were wrapping up:

So, how do you think the new California minimum wage is going to impact youth ministry?

my first response: huh? (it was a deeply thoughtful response.)

she unpacked her question, and it drove me to an afternoon of searching the internet, ruminating on the implications of what i was finding.

we all know that many, many youth workers are underpaid. old story. but i think — from what i can understand — that many churches are going to operating illegally in how they pay their youth workers, at least in California and other states that are raising their minimum wage. in fact, i suspect that a ton of California churches are already operating illegally, and the issue is about to get worse.

the issue surrounds the classification of exempt and non-exempt employees. i had to deal with compliance on this all the time when i was leading YS, so it was all coming back to me as i read today.

the simplest, lay terminology for understanding an exempt employee is a salaried employee (that’s not technically accurate, but easiest to understand). in other words, federal employment law (for which nonprofits like churches are NOT exempt) says that any employee must be paid at least time-and-a-half for any time more than 40 hours a week. that sort of employee then is ‘non-exempt.’ an exempt employee is one who is exempt from that rule.

sure, a few youth workers are probably hourly employees. but the vast majority are salaried (and their churches treat them as exempt employees, whether they do so intentionally or not).

what the federal law says:

3 tests for exempt status (employees must meet ALL THREE):

the duties test

this one takes LOTS of words to unpack it on every description i could find. but the bottom line for our purposes here is that youth workers can easily fall under the heading of “professional exemption.” in other words: most youth ministry employment easily passes this test.

the salary basis test

this one is simple. for an employee to be exempt, she must be paid a base weekly amount (however often pay is actually distributed) that doesn’t change based on how many hours she worked that week. in other words: most youth ministry employment easily passes this test.

the salary level test

here’s were things get problematic!

federal employment law says an exempt employee must make at least $23,600/year. most full-time youth workers make at least that. but it seems (as far as i can tell) that state laws trump this when they exist. in california, for example, an exempt employee must earn more than twice the minimum wage.

current minimum wage in Cali is $10/hour, or $20,800 for 40 hours/week. that means an exempt employee must currently make a minimum of $41,600.

think about the implications of this:

  • if you are a full time california youth worker making less than $41,600 (assuming you’re salaried), your church is breaking the law.
  • and if you’re a full-time youth worker anywhere in the US, and you’re being paid hourly, your church is legally obligated to pay overtime for anything past 40 hours in any week (think: camp, missions trip!).

but here’s where things are going to get tricky and more complicated (i’m using my state of california as the example, but this is playing out in many states):

California minimum wage is now set to move to $15/hour by 2022 or 2023 (depending on the organization’s size — if you’re not sure what your state’s minimum wage is, click here). that means the minimum wage (with no overtime) will be $31,200/year for a full-time employee (working 40 hours/week). AND THAT MEANS that an employee will need to make a minimum salary of $62,400 to be considered an exempt employee. and if the employee is non-exempt, they are required (by law) to be paid time-and-a-half for every hour over 40/week.

got that? in california, by the year 2023 (that’s less than 7 years from now!), churches employing full-time youth workers will have two options:

  • pay them a minimum salary of $62,400 (and consider them exempt)
  • or pay them something less than that and make them a non-exempt employee, but pay overtime any time the youth worker works a minute over 40 hours/week.

OH, and before you ask: churches (or any other nonprofit) are NOT allowed to have employees volunteer hours (a common misconception and violation of the law).

on one hand, this is great news for youth workers, right? really, i’d love to see all my youth ministry friends receive salaries that allow them to stay in their jobs as they move out of their young adult years.

on the other hand, i’m concerned that this will result in plenty of churches who simply can no longer afford a full-time youth worker. in other words: i expect a bunch of california youth workers to lose their jobs on january 1, 2023.

of course: tons of churches will ignore the law and be non-compliant. that’s thin ice to be on, both morally and legally. (think: massive fines and 100% exposure to lawsuits.)

your state might be different than cali (heck: south carolina has NO minimum wage! so only the federal laws apply). so do some looking. but i hope churches will be both proactive and legally compliant!


FRIDAY NUGGET: do you love your role, or love teenagers?

sure, we’re allowed to love BOTH being a youth pastor (or director, or leader of any sort) AND teenagers. in fact, they’re pretty linked.

but i was reading a challenging fiction book by Will Self the other day, and this line jumped out at me:

I think Steele is one of those doctors who doctors because he loves he loves the disease, not the patient.

i’ve met plenty of pastors who love the role, but not the people. and sometimes i meet youth pastors who fit that description.

pausing to reflect on your own prioritization of loves would be worth a few minutes of your time today.