not making it happen

my friend mark riddle wrote an excellent piece for the ys blog a few weeks ago. and for those of you who missed it there, i wanted to re-post it here:

I got off the phone this morning with John, a youth pastor, who will leave his church in 20 days because of the church’s financial situation. He’s built a big youth ministry with lots of kids and very few volunteers. “The church isn’t interested in working with teens,” he tells me. John is truly heart-broken for the kids and is reaching out to me to see if I can help the church in some way after he leaves. He doesn’t want to see it all fall apart and he knows it will after he leaves.

I didn’t tell him this. It’s probably for the best.

You see, somewhere along the way we youth pastors bought into a lie. We believe our job is to make things happen, to build programs, to attract youth all in the name of ministry, or building the kingdom. We bought into the idea that our job, our ministry is to make things go. We believe that somehow, our success or failure as a pastor is dependent upon our ability to motivate people to follow through and implement our plans and our dreams in the name of vision. In fact, we in the church are infatuated with visionaries who make it happen. The lie is pervasive these days.

Chances are this is a small reason why you love being a youth pastor. You have ideas, and you get to inspire and envision people to produce your programs. Chances are you are evaluated by how efficiently you bring others on board with your vision and how well you produce the goals and objectives you declared.

But this is a deeply flawed understanding of leadership and is destructive for church staff, and those within the church as well. This is a flawed perspective because it has unintended consequences. This kind of thinking is highly colonial and creates a level of isolation, entitlement and passivity that enables congregations to abdicate their responsibility to the leaders, who often gladly take it.

The leaders become strangers and distant from the people they are called to lead in this environment. In extreme cases people can become cogs in the details of a leaders mechanistic plans. Service is reduced to volunteer positions that must be filled.

It’s important for you to understand something.

You aren’t called to make things happen in your church.

Oh, you may be paid to make things happen, but it’s not God calling you to plan, lead and pull off all that unsustainable stuff. It’s not God calling you build it all, or convince others to build your vision either.

You will always have more ideas, more dreams, more hopes, more plans than your church should pull off in your ministry. You will always see more than can be done right now. You must learn to live with this tension.

* Your job as a leader isn’t to make plans and then have others buy into them.
* The role of a leader is to declare the mission, and create an environment in which people can dream and live into it.
* By making things happen you are robbing people from the God given responsibility they have to children in your church.

The difference is in the level of commitment of the people you lead. Take John for instance. John created a lot of great experiences, but the people within his church weren’t committed to it outside of a paycheck to a staff member. When John leaves in 20 days, his ministry will crumble and it will be a beautiful thing for his church. Because it will force them to make a decision about how engaged they will be for teens.

I know what you are thinking. His church won’t step up. They will lose kids.
Could be. It’s pretty common.

This is the commentary on how well we lead in the church though, not so much on the church itself. The people of the church are being faithful to how they were led. They are living out their ministry teens the way it’s been expected of them.

How many of our churches are this way and how many churches would lose people if the staff stopped making things happen? There is an entire culture of leadership within the church rising up based on this faulty understanding of leadership.

You see, not only is top-down leadership often manipulative, colonial and patriarchal, but it’s also reactive. It only creates more of the same problems that it’s trying to solve.

Whereas leadership that declares the mission and then cultivates an environment within which it can happen is restorative. It produces energy, not hype. It confronts people, and forces accountability. The kind of leadership creates accountability, without directly calling for it.

So is this the end of visionary leadership? Absolutely not. It is simply a change in the way churches approach the role of staff and the way the mission blooms within your church. There’s a difference between helping your community imagine a world beyond their currently reality (vision) and convincing them to live it your way.

What kind of leader are you? Do you feel the need to make things happen? Have you always been this way? If not, what taught you that this was the right way?

Or do you cultivate an environment in which people can engage deeply, or superficially? An environment where you let go of the implementation to the people of your church?

7 thoughts on “not making it happen”

  1. I needed this this morning. Thanks. Of course, now I’ve got to find another blog that says HOW to cultivate such an environment.

  2. Several years ago God blessed me with the realization that the youth program was not about me and couldn’t sustain if I made it that way. I didn’t like this because my ego took a hit and people judging your performance want it to be about you. But if we care about our students we will build a ministry that can live without us. I have spent the last 5 years developing leaders from the church whom invest in the lives of kids. I know that when God decides for me to move on we have leaders that will continue the ministry. They have lived here their whole life and are vested in this community, church, and ministry. They have built the ministry with their hands and they will be here for the students today and in the future.

  3. Great word on “leadership” regarding our current model of church ministry. I like to provide a huge canvas (vision) for our student ministry and invite our church to come paint on it. Our best ideas this year have come from parents, interns, buisnessmen, you name it. Its been incredible!!!

  4. thanks for posting this Marko.
    A couple thoughts to keep up the conversation…

    1. I’m glad it generated a bit of conversation.. even though it’s way behind the number of comments for the Dancing Cheese singers. I know where I fit in the world.

    2. Sam I appreciate that this was meaning ful to you man. Youasked, “HOW”, like many folks do when it comes to this kind of thing. In fact it’s the most common question I’m asked. But I wonder if HOW is the wrong question. That HOW is often a soft way of saying “I’m not so sure about this” in that HOW often is the way we all displace responsibilty onto someone out there. Some expert, some blog, or someone else. HOW points to an answer outside of myself that I must search to find. If I’m lucky.

    What do you think? Is HOW the wrong question?

  5. Hey Marko:

    Thanks for posting this.

    Here are some of my thoughts from the Catholic perspective of youth ministry, not necessarily in any order:

    – So, I agree with everything that Mark said in his article.
    – I think that anyone that chooses the vocation/profession of youth worker has a wonderful ability to serve and to incarnate God’s love in a community. Any youth minister that has this quality is more than likely good at this.
    – It seems like pastors and parishes evaluate the work of youth minister (meaning, the person on the parish staff who is hired specifically to work with young people) based on the outcome of programs: how many teens are getting confirmed, how many teens came to youth group, how many teens participate in Sunday Mass?
    – The lie that Mark discusses in his article (which, I can say that I’ve bought into and am currently living) is, in my opinion, caused by two things. The first is youth ministers who are either not equipped to be effective leaders or choose to “get things done” instead of empowering other people to take ownership. The second is the motivation of “getting things done” is NOT because any youth minister wants to work 12-13 hours a day. It is simply that we want our pastors and parish staff to know that we are actually earning the salary we are paid. So, producing a video about a trip or hosting a clothing drive are much more tangible measurement of job performance than the counseling/prayer time/teaching moments with and for teens.
    – We are visionary, top-down leaders because, well, we feel like our job and our salary and our “authority” depends on it. Rightly or wrongly, youth ministers, particularly in the Catholic Church, have been put on a pedestal. My spiritual director said to me once, “No one wants your job.” I think he was only expressing what many adults feel: youth ministry is good and necessary but thank God there is someone to deal with those teens.
    – So, youth ministers need to change their focus. A college student asked me for help on a paper she was writing on ministry and posed the question “What would you do differently?” Being a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers I wrote, “To be more Phil Jackson, and less Kobe Bryant”. There are people who are good at youth ministry. But the people who are REALLY good at youth ministry make other people good at youth ministry.
    – BUT, if we youth ministers have to change, so does the culture of expectation of the youth minister in our parishes. And that has to start with our pastors and parish staff. There needs to be better understanding of the characteristics of a professional youth minister. We should not be defensive about why we do what we do, but to clearly state that if we are not in our office during normal business hours for the rest of the staff, we are leading a lunch time bible study at a school or networking with other youth workers or supporting teens at a sporting event or play or, fancy this concept, praying.
    – If a youth minister is supposed to advocate for others, who will advocate for the youth minister?
    – We, at least in the Catholic youth ministry world, need to rethink how we train and empower the men and women who serve the Church and its young people. Yes, we need to have training on how to better run a Confirmation program or youth group night or mission trip or relational ministry. Some people have gifts in certain aspects of ministry and need to learn how to be better in other areas. But, if we buy into what Mark says in his article, all of us, regardless of experience, education, charism or training, need to be leaders. If there is truth in what Mark says, I would say that many youth ministers either don’t know how to lead or forget that leading other people is part of their ministry. I am personally in both categories. And, trust me, it’s place a pretty good sized cross on my shoulders.

    Mark’s words are certainly challenging. But, how can those words become a reality?

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