Category Archives: youth work

My Resistance to Excellence as a Value

my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) was published in the current issue. here’s what i wrote:

One of the wonderful tasks that make up my work is a yearlong coaching program for youth workers. In the four years since its launch, we’ve had about 200 people go through this program, in cohorts of 10. I currently have five cohorts at various points in their journey, meeting in various locations around the States.

Central to this coaching program is a focus on leading from values. Participants develop both ministry values and personal vocational values during our time together, and I’ve seen the process be revolutionary in helping people be more intentional.

I see values as the ship’s rudder, providing an ability to steer, hopefully in the direction toward becoming the ministry that God has dreamed of for your context. Values should be spiritually discerned (ideally in a collaborative setting), and should flow out of mission. Mission is the answer to the question: Why do we exist? Values, then, are the answers to the question: What are we called to embody in this season? Once values are in place, we can think about strategy and identify goals. But without values, goals are nothing more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. (For the record, Strategy is the answer to the question: How will we best live into our values? And Goals are simply the measurable action steps toward that end.)

Taking 200 youth workers through the process of developing their ministry values, I’ve regularly seen a particular value pop up that makes me squirm a bit: Excellence. Because I require my coaching group participants to state their values as complete sentences, this value often shows up as something like: We are passionate about doing everything with excellence, or Everything we do will be done with excellence.

I’m not anti-excellence. It’s not that I desire the opposite: everything we do will be done poorly and in the shoddiest manner possible. No, of course I’m not suggesting that. Excellence is a good thing. I’m just not convinced it’s a great thing.

Too often, what I can read between the lines is a commitment to programming excellence. In my mind’s eye, I see a youth worker with that value slaving at her computer to make extra-stunning PowerPoint slides. I imagine a youth worker combing the Internet and spending way too much time assembling the props for games with that extra-special wow-factor. I get a little depressed picturing the youth worker who drools over better technology for a snappier show.

I realize there’s a semantics issue at play here. Sure, we can commit to doing relational ministry with excellence. Of course, we can embody excellence in our listening, and in our encouragement, and in our patience and love. But that’s not usually, from my experience, what those excellence values are meant to imply, if the value-writer is being honest.

I get uncomfortable with excellence as a value because it all-too-often reveals a subtle wrong-headed thinking that our very best programming will change lives. Honestly, the number of teenagers who owned their faith, or deepened their understanding of Jesus, or asked the questions most deeply on their hearts as a direct result of the design quality of a PowerPoint slide has to be pretty close to zero.

I like sharp-looking graphics. And I’m all for technology helping us connect with teenagers. Planning and creativity and thoughtful programming are good things. But as an elevated value–a focus on the excellence of those things–they can quickly become a seductive distraction from our true calling. And at worst, those focuses can supplant the transformative role of the Holy Spirit, working through and around us in the lives of teenagers.

I’m more interested in leaning into a value of being responsive (to the Holy Spirit, to the needs of teenagers) and present. I want to value responsiveness over proactivity, and discernment over planning.

Dream of a ministry approach that lifts up those values, and you just might find yourself on the road to some truly amazing results.

FRIDAY NUGGET: Small Church Youth Ministry

tiny dogsmaller churches have a shorter pathway to excellent youth ministry. the larger you get, the more complex things become, and the greater the temptation to trust in resources, technology, and robust and creative programming to transform lives.

if you’re doing youth ministry in a small(er) church, stop apologizing. and stop envying the resources of larger youth ministries. celebrate the core of great youth ministry: a caring, jesus-y adult spending time with a small-ish group of teenagers.

youth worker story: starting over at 60

i met marvin this past weekend. we chatted after i led a youth leader workshop at a salvation army youth retreat.

IMG_6567marvin is roughly 60 years-old; a handsome african american man with fantastic salt-and-pepper hair, a warm smile, and eyes full of life. i asked him to tell me about the youth ministry he was involved in. he told me this story:

for 30 years, i was involved in different sorts of youth ministry. for 20 years, i worked for the chicago board of education as a disciplinarian. it was tough work, but occasionally very rewarding. so many of the kids i was working with hung out at the same park; so when the park manager position opened up there, i moved over to the parks department and took that role for 10 more years. i spent time with teens from the neighborhood who hung out at the park (they often had less-than-positive activities in mind and motion).

when the salvation army opened up a rehab center in the neighborhood, i decided it was time for a change. they asked me what i wanted to do, and i said, “anything that doesn’t involve teenagers.”

they put me in maintenance. and i hated it.

i didn’t hate it because of the work–maintenance work was just fine with me. i hated it because–as much as i thought i was completely done working with teenagers–i couldn’t escape my calling.

after two years, i shifted jobs again and became the chaplain of the rehab center. and in that role, i’ve also launched a youth ministry. we’re just ninety days into it at this point, and the kids don’t trust me yet. we have about 27 of them coming, but only 2 were willing to join me this weekend. but we’re making progress. and i love it! i’m starting all over again.

as soon as marvin got to the part of his story where he re-engaged his youth ministry calling, he started beaming a massive smile and quite literally radiating energy.

let’s be honest: youth ministry isn’t for everyone. but when you align with your calling–vocationally or avocationally–you are living the best life: a life of congruence. it the glove fits, you must submit.

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: Vibrant Youth Ministry in 4 Steps

if i could re-write and re-release my book, Youth Ministry 3.0, i would cut the current 6th (and final) chapter and replace it with a chapter that focuses on four things. embracing these four things, i’m convinced, is the pathway to a vibrant youth ministry in 2015. of course, there are plenty of other issues and practices we should consider; but these four are the common ground:

  1. Embrace change as normative. Lean into it.
  2. Develop a culture of experimentation.
  3. Cultivate the skill and practice of collaborative discernment.
  4. Contextualize.

(i plan on expanding this in one or more blog posts in the future; but i thought i’d toss it out as a Friday Nugget for now.)

Mission, Community, and Word 3.0

one of my coaching program participants is a sharp young woman leading a wonderfully tiny youth ministry. i think it’s something like 8 regular teenagers, or something like that. tons of awesome in that, from my thinking: opportunities to turn on a dime and try new things.

recently, she was rethinking her program structure, particularly in response to reading Youth Ministry 3.0. she was feeling that her ministry was just too program heavy for its size. too much complexity, particularly in a small group, made the teens feel like they had to be at everything; which just wasn’t sustainable.

ashley came up with the idea that she’d like to consider alternating foci/purposes for their weekly meeting, rather than multiple programs for multiple foci/purposes. listening to her description of what she was trying to accomplish–the values of her ministry–we came up with three purpose words: Mission, Community, and Word.

she set out to experiment alternating between those three. a Mission week would get the teenagers doing something for others. a Community week would focus on developing belonging in the group. a Word week would focus on teaching and talking about the Bible. the fourth week in a month would either take a second dose of one of those three (most often, Word), or would be a week off.

i loved this. clean, clear, intentional.

FRIDAY NUGGET: the question is one of values

a former coaching program participant called the other day with frustration about how his regular youth ministry retreats have become program-focused, ends unto themselves (“just offer a programmed retreat and that’s a win”). he was wondering about scrapping them.

but good change rarely involves throwing the baby out with the bathwater. sometimes programs need to be shut down; but often they simply need to be retooled and revisioned.

this youth worker had done major work with a team to discern their ministry values. so my input was: strip away all assumptions about what a retreat is (not easy when you’ve done it the same way for many years). then, with your ministry values in front of you, build a retreat that optimizes the rocket fuel of time away together as a means of fully embodying your ministry values.

programs are just programs, not evil but not the goal. the question is: how can we more fully lean into our values?

FRIDAY NUGGET: Courage for Leading Change

Anyone with healthy or unhealthy resistance to change (most of us have this) need a dose of courage from time to time to push us in the direction of innovation. Here’s what I have learned: I cannot make myself have courage anymore than I can make myself have the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual courage comes from the Holy Spirit.

The etymology of the word itself tells us this. The root of courage (“cour”) means “heart”; and courage literally means “to have a full heart.” Excitement and praise and rewards and potential can partially fill my heart. But they’re not sustainable. My heart can only be truly topped off in the face of significant risk by the fuel of the Holy Spirit.

youth ministry is risky business

Teenagers and risk naturally go together. So youth ministry without risk is, in a sense, a denial of our essence (or at least a denial of the essence of teenagers).

You know that teenagers love risk. But maybe you’ve unknowingly bought into the common notion that teenagers’ risk-taking propensity is a deficiency, an immaturity. But spend a minute reflecting on one of my favorite framing questions for how we approach any aspect of teenage development: Are teenagers a problem to be solved, or a wonder to behold?

Heightened risk-taking is clearly connected to adolescent brain development. Daniel Siegel, a brilliant doctor who specializes in understanding brain function, writes in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, “Instead of viewing the adolescent stage of brain development as merely a process of maturation, of leaving behind outmoded or non-useful ways of thinking and transitioning to adult maturity, it is actually more accurate and more useful to see it as a vital and necessary part of our individual and collective selves. Adolescence is not a stage to simply get over, it is a stage of live to cultivate as well.”

Without being intentionally provocative, I’ll go this far: A life without risk isn’t only not worth living, it’s unbiblical. And the same applies for youth ministry.

Seriously, it’s hard to think of a great Bible story that doesn’t have overt or implied risk. Moses confronting Pharaoh, little David running at Goliath, Peter jumping out of the boat, the early church defying Rome (where I was this past weekend). I could fill this space with biblical examples. Maybe it’s even fair to say that creation itself was a risk on God’s part, with God’s foreknowledge of how fickle and self-serving we would be.

Of course, there’s stupid risk and worthy risk. Stupid risk, in youth ministry, looks like playing a game where you expect teens to get hurt, or not counting to make sure you have everyone before leaving a stop on a trip (which once resulted in me leaving a 7th grade girl at McDonald’s, just before closing time, in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago). Stupid risk boils down to arrogance: we assume we’re above it, or impervious to catastrophe. We might spiritualize stupid risk, and think the ends justify the means, or that “God will take care of it;” but, really, it’s just supercilious pride.

As Siegel writes in Brainstorm, “The question is whether we can support the exploration of new things while we also minimize the chance of permanent harm.”

Good risk… ah, that’s the stuff of transformation and revolution. When we step out in faith and risk that God will show up, we’re like the kid who offered his 5 loaves and 2 fishies. This kind of humble, faith-fueled risk is the primary difference between an exclusive, ingrown youth group that doubles as a country club, and a missional community of teenage Christ-followers heaven-bent on joining up with the active work of God in the world.

Is there risk involved in offering a place of meaningful belonging to those kids, without the condition that they become like us? Absolutely. Is there risk involved in taking students on a cross-cultural mission trip? You betcha. Is there risk involved in creating a safe place for teenagers to express real doubts (even when they express them in less-than-polished terms)? Yup. Is there risk involved in not trying to “fix” every teenager, and trusting the Holy Spirit to be the Holy Spirit? Most definitely.

But humble, faith-fueled risk is youth ministry wisdom. The wise youth worker avoids stupid risk, but runs, with a heart full of hope, at good risk.

Where do you need to be more like a teenager and take a risk today? Where does your ministry need an infusion of risk?