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!


The Grace of Palm Sunday, part 2

the other day i noticed a trickle of incoming readers to a post i’d written back in 2009 about palm sunday. i clicked through and re-read it. here’s what i wrote back then:

this morning in church, hearing the teaching pastor talk about the events of palm sunday, it struck me how this story is such a clear expression of god’s grace to us. here’s jesus, riding the colt into jerusalem, with everyone all pumped up about “the prophet” coming. they laid down palm branches and shouted hosanna and all that. the buzz about jesus had reached a fever pitch after word of lazarus being raised from the dead in the nearby town of bethany. clearly, this was the prophet moses had promised would come.

and, of course, the whole time, jesus knew what was coming his way in the next week.

this is where the grace part struck me: jesus accepted their praise.

jesus accepted their praise knowing fully that they would turn on him within days.

i think i’ve always thought of this story in terms of “them” — those people who would so quickly turn on jesus. today, i was struck by how it’s my story also.

jesus shows me the same grace every time i acknowledge him, every time i choose to follow him, every time i give him praise. he knows that, just like those palm-waving peeps that day, i’ll quickly turn away, betray him (and what he stands for), choose my own way, discredit him, praise myself, or ignore him.

and yet he accepts my praise.

mmm, this is grace.

what really struck me as i read those thoughts, though, was the timing i couldn’t see when i wrote it. this post was written about a month before i shut down my blog and all social media. i was heading into the hardest months of my life, trying desperately (and failing) to keep the ministry i loved from falling apart or being dismantled. and in the end (later that year), i lost my job and parts of the ministry got sold off anyhow. more than 20 people lost their jobs, and a few more chose to leave on their own.

in the wake of that mess, i was lost for a while. i wrestled with god and questioned everything from my own identity to any possibility of a hopeful future to theo-practical questions about god’s goodness. eventually, hope arrived (with the presence of jesus, as it does). (btw: i wrote about this extensively in my book Hopecasting.)

little did i realize on that palm sunday in 2009 that the grace i was reflecting on was soon to become so intensely and desperately needed in my own life.

Why I’m Traveling to Easter Island With My Son Today

in the last several years, i’ve found myself in conversations multiple times with a dad of a high school guy who’s asking for input about how he should address the growing gap in their relationship. of course, some distancing between a high school guy and his dad is completely normal, developmentally.

funny example from the healthy relationship i’m blessed to have with my son — an exchange that took place while i was backing up the car and he was in the passenger seat:
Max: “You can back up further.”
Me: “No, there’s a bush.”
Max: “There’s tons of room!” (Then, continuing in a quiet affected voice, to no one in particular:) “I’m disagreeing with the male role model in my life because I’m an adolescent trying to establish myself, my identity and my power.”

in one of the earliest of that series of conversations with dads, i made a suggestion: you and your son need an epic adventure together. the idea took shape in my mind in the midst of me describing it: i’m not talking about taking your son on a ministry trip (or business trip). and i’m not talking about a night out. i’m talking about prioritizing something of a splurge in terms of time and cost. travel somewhere together where neither of you would likely go on your own. create an epic shared memory where you’re stuck together for a number of days without any other relationships to default to (spouse, siblings). the combination of epic-ness/adventure and quantity time will likely be massively fruitful. (i’m convinced that parents — especially dads — need to adopt a mindset that quality time only occurs in the midst of quantity time. you can’t really schedule quality time.)

since i articulated that idea in that conversation, i’ve repeated that advice a half dozen times to other dads. honestly: i don’t know if any of them took my advice.

but: even though my relationship with my son (who’s now 18 and about to leave the nest) is really wonderful, i decided a couple years ago that i should take my own advice. max and i started talking about what our epic adventure could be. my rules for myself on this were:
– this trip can’t be combined with a trip where i’m working in any way
– this trip would ideally be to a location neither of us had ever travelled to before
– max has a 51% share of the votes on where we go

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 11.42.03 AMfor a couple years we’ve talked about going to iceland. but once we settled on spring break of his senior year for the trip, we ruled out iceland (too cold in march!), and started considering locations in the southern hemisphere. somewhere along the way, i mentioned the idea of easter island. after a ton of research, we agreed, and made our plans.

easter island is one of the most remote inhabited islands on earth. we fly to santiago, chile (where we’ll spend 24 hours on each end of the trip); then we fly five hours straight west of santiago to get to easter island. easter island has an extremely unique history — it’s the story of a culture that was thriving, with well over 15,000 residents. but due to a bizarre story of seemingly bad choices involving competition between chiefs to construct massive statues (some call these ‘tikis’ — their official name is ‘moai’), every last tree on the island was cut down. then the topsoil completely eroded. along the way, the population ate all the indigenous animals. all of this led to a societal collapse, almost to the point of cultural extinction (they got as low as 111 residents in 1877). today, there are roughly 5000 permanent residents of the island, with a little over half being descendants of the original rapa nui people.

easter island moaisi have the advantage of airline miles. so max and i can get to santiago and home without flight cost. our cost, then, included reasonable flights from santiago to easter island and back, and humble accommodations with a partial kitchen that will allow us to avoid eating out the whole time. and the splurge i chose was booking private tours of the island (which seemed so preferable to being on a tour bus with a bunch of other tourists!).

because of my work, max has had the somewhat uncommon benefit of traveling to lots of cool places with me. he’s been all over the US and canada and mexico. and he’s been to haiti, peru, guatemala, england, and new zealand. but those were all ‘my trips’ where he got to tag along. this trip is OUR trip, only.

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.

inviting teens to make decisions without being manipulative

brad hauge, a brilliant and thoughtful youth worker friend and YMCP grad, sent me an email the other day with a great question:

You tweeted this from the camp you were speaking at last weekend:

“Amazing night at the Fairfield County Winter Summit. About 40 teens decided to follow Jesus tonight.”

I’m honestly interested in what the looks like when you are speaking and leading those moments. Not sure if you have the time/ability to type that out… but man, I trust how you speak and lead (e.g. not manipulating emotions, making promises that may not hold up, etc) and have been struggling with this for a while. Which seems weird to type…

But I’m really working at how to lead moments at camps/retreats/trips that aren’t manipulative, that aren’t gross, that aren’t about numbers… but still give kids a chance to confess their desire to know and follow Jesus in a healthy both in that moment and then in their future contexts.

my response:

yeah, i went back and forth about including that number 40 in that tweet, for all the reasons you list. it’s been a journey for me also. many years ago, i found that i was really good at manipulating teens (especially JHers); and, disgusted with that, moved away from calling teens to a decision (though i probably still focused a good bit on application and ‘next steps’ stuff). but i eventually came back around, in a way. i realize that most teens need to make decisions (heck: most adults do also) that feel like important place-in-time commitments. and i’m not all that concerned any more about whether that decision “sticks” completely — most need to make a series of decisions. in my thinking now, i see those commitment points as ebeneezers on their journeys — points in real time where they sensed that they were experiencing god, and wanted to mark that in some way.

so — i’m VERY careful not to manipulate. i use common language and am not overly emotive. but i do offer an opportunity to respond — usually a first-time commitment as well as a recommitment of sorts. i tell them they can express that desire to god however they want. and then i offer that if they’re not sure how to pray, i’ll suggest some words, and they can “grab them out of the air and make them their own.” i try to avoid overly churchy words (i don’t talk about a ‘personal decision to follow christ’ or ‘get saved’ or anything like that at all; i usually use wording that connects with whatever talk i’ve just given).

i RARELY do ‘come down front’ (alter call) responses anymore — i don’t like them, but am willing to if the event hosts really want me to. but i’ll often ask for students who made a commitment to raise their hands and make eye contact with me. i take time, looking around the room and intentionally try to point to each one and make eye contact and say “i see you.” this past weekend, i actually had them stand up too (just what i sensed i was to do in the moment — this group felt like it needed a little extra action step). i have found that some sort of physical action (even as tiny as raising a hand) goes a long way to make the moment more impactful and memorable. sort of like the action of physically building an ebeneezer.

so, what are your thoughts? have you struggled with this tension?