Tag Archives: youthwork magazine

Six Practices Growing Leaders Embrace (longer version)

some time ago, i posted a short FRIDAY NUGGET on six practices that growing leaders embrace. some time later, i expanded that into a column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK). thought it would be worth sharing here:

Over and over again, I see Christian leaders holding up balance as a biblical value, a goal by which we can live in a Christian way. And, honestly, it angers me. Let me be clear: balance is not a biblical value: it’s a western value born of the enlightenment and modernity.

I’m much more interested in sustainability and thriving. When I read Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full,” I don’t hear balance; but I do hear sustainability and thriving.

This issue comes up often in the coaching groups I run with youth workers, people who’s lives are often—because of the never-ending nature of our roles—completely out of balance. Together, we explore what it might look like, for each individual, to practices and commitments that will move them toward a life of sustainability and thriving.

Recently, during an open time of questions at one of these coaching groups, one youth worker asked the group for suggested practices for ongoing growth as a leader. I loved the question (even the question itself is fantastic). And as others in the group suggested ideas, I started scribbling ideas on a piece of paper. I’m not normally one prone to alliteration; but six words starting with R revealed themselves on my page.

If you want to grow as a leader, moving toward greater impact and the sort of life that God has always dreamed of for you, I think you could do a whole lot worse than to lean into these six practices:

marko growth croppedRhythm. If you desire to experience the fullness of life that Jesus offers, you’ve got to be intentional about finding a rhythm of life that works for you (and the significant people in your life). If your beautiful and wonderful calling to youth work gets played out with you being out five evenings a week, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm. If you don’t have downtime, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm. If you don’t have times when you’re not thinking about ministry, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm.

Consider a rhythm that leads to vibrancy at a weekly level, a seasonal level, and an annual level.

Healthy, growing, vibrant leaders are both proactive and reactive about rhythm. They plan and ruthlessly schedule rhythm; and they pay attention to three things: their energy levels, the fruit of the Spirit in their daily lives, and their levels of intimacy with core relationships. And, when they discern any of those things are out of whack, they make adjustments.

Read. Surely you’ve heard the saying “Leaders are Readers.” It’s tough to grow without reading. Put yourself on a reading diet.

Make sure you don’t only read books you expect you’ll agree with. Often our best growth comes from being challenged to think in different ways.

And don’t only read ministry books (though include those also). Read widely, from many genres. I often find that fiction, and nonfiction from bodies of knowledge that are foreign to me, spark my most creative thinking.

Risk. Just yesterday I was coaching a youth worker, and asked him, “Where are you taking a risk in your ministry this season; and where you are taking a risk in your personal life?” He struggled to find a good answer, and we both knew he was coasting. Coasting = no growth.

Bluntly: there is no growth without risk.

Renew. If you’re in full-tilt mode at all times, you’ll soon be headed for a crash, or burnout. Check this: even Jesus was intentional about withdrawing from his work and the crowds. Jesus left people unhealed, potential sermons unpreached, and miracles unmiracled! And remember (duh!) that Jesus is God, with limitless power. Clearly Jesus wasn’t a slacker; and clearly, you need renewal if you’re going to serve in youth work for more than a few weeks.

Bottom line: healthy leaders find meaningful pursuits that provide recalibration, refreshment and renewal. (Ooh! Three more R words!)

Reflect. Great youth work requires adjustments that most often come from careful, contemplative, strategic thinking. And that sort of thinking rarely happens on the fly, while grabbing another large coffee in a drive-thru.

Instead: great leaders make intentional time to reflect. This requires a discipline of slowing down (at times).

Retreat. This last practice overlaps with some of the other practices on this list (particularly rhythm, renewal and reflection). Growing leaders pull away for extended times on a regular basis. Short bursts of renewal and reflection are great; but real growth also requires more extended retreat.

Are you growing? Are you thriving? Does your entire life (ministry and not) feel gorgeously sustainable? If not: take a moment to prayerfully consider which of these practices you need to ramp up.

Redwoods & Lighthouses

my “epilogue” column in Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. i wrote it while on vacation in big sur, california, in july. here’s where my mind went…

I’m on holiday in Big Sur, California as I write. It’s on the central California coast, and is known for it’s massive sea cliffs and stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean. But it’s also known for its California redwood trees. Redwoods, in case you don’t know, are massive trees. They can be up to 350 feet tall and 20 feet wide. And the older trees around here are 2000 years old.

IMG_4586The place we’re staying on holiday is in a deep canyon; our cabin is pressed in on all sides by redwoods. Yesterday, I sat outside for a while just enjoying the majesty of these colossal sentinels. And, as is common for me, my mind started wandering to how what I was viewing had connections to my life.

First, one can’t stare at a Rrdwood tree (or a sunset, or any number of other natural wonders) without having a sense of God. Majestic beckons our hearts and minds to reflect on God. Atheists struggle to find words for transcendent moments like this, compelled by a sense of something good outside of themselves, but not having language for it.

People default to faulty-but-aspirational language about “the universe,” ascribing volition and moral will to the earth or all that is. It clearly has an otherness, this sort of beauty. But so many of our attempts to describe it fall short, because, sitting in the dappled sunlight at the bottom of a stand of redwoods, I feel something personal in their presence.

I’m not suggesting that the trees are God. I’m suggesting that I am experiencing, as you would if you were sitting next to me, a liminal space that naturally carries so many of the characteristics of the Creator that I can’t help but sense the Creator.

As a youth worker, it’s critical that I put myself in these spaces on a regular basis, that I am reminded of this sense. I’d even go as far as to say that right now, looking at and contemplating the redwood trees, a full 9 hour drive from the teenagers I work with, I’m actively doing youth work. In fact, this is important youth work. Cultivating my spiritual vitality is some of the most important youth work I ever do.

But there’s another level of reflection I’m drawn to, one that’s more metaphorical and less literal: in youth work, I’m called to be the redwood tree.

I’m reminded of my horrible youth work failure, at about 20 years old. I’d just come from almost-and-accidentally breaking a girl’s neck while attempting an attention-getting pied piper move, when an older youth worker sat me down. He said something very close to this (he said this in love, but he was blunt):

You’re really failing at this so far! You’re trying to be a lighthouse on wheels, following the teenagers around and constantly beaming out “notice me!” But they don’t need or want that from you. They need you to be a lighthouse on a promontory, stationary and dependable. The light from a lighthouse isn’t used for prying or invading or exposing; it’s a faithful reference point.

So, lighthouses and redwood trees–sorry for all the metaphors there. But looking at these redwood trees, words like faithful and dependable and steady and constant take on bark-covered life. These trees show the scars of abuse and fires; but they remain steadfast. Storms have raged and glorious days have passed by. But these trees, they are persistent and relentless.

I’d like to be that kind of youth worker. I’m not interested, anymore, in putting on a good show. And, frankly, I’m not interested in trying to replace the Holy Spirit, bringing conviction, exposing faults. But I dream of being a youth worker–an agent of Christ in the lives of teenagers–who could be described as I’ve described these Redwood trees: dependable, faithful, persistent and relentless.

And just as these California redwoods are a reminder to me of a personal Creator, providing a transcendent sense of God’s majesty, I pray that I will be a youth worker whose steadfast reliability reminds teenagers of the One who created them and loves them, the One my life points toward.

the downside of being well-resourced

my latest back page column (“Mark: My Words”) came out in the latest issue of Youthwork Magazine (UK). i wrote it for british youth workers, and there are a few places you have to remember that perspective if you don’t want to get confused.

Scrooge-mcduckThe Downside of Being Well-Resourced

What youth worker, young or old, small church or large church, liberal or conservative, paid or volunteer, wouldn’t like to have a bit of an increase in resources for youth ministry?

You might be thinking: Nope. I’m good. I don’t care at all that we have, quite literally, no church budget to spend on youth ministry. I don’t care that we don’t have a room to meet in or give a little personality that reflects teenagers. I don’t care that the only piece of technology available to us is a 40 year-old overhead projector with a burned out bulb.

Sure. If you’re agreeing with that in any way, let me just come right out and say: you’re lying.

If I offered you a few thousand quid, or a sweet space to meet in, or a sexy laptop and projector (or whatever other bit of technology would spark your pilot light), you’d take it. You might demure a little, hem and haw once or twice. You might even say, “Well, we don’t really need this.” But you’d take it anyway.

Honestly, I get it. I’ve spent decades trying to weasel more funding, better space, and some piece of technology that would at least bring us into the 1990s.

Resources make ministry easier, right?

Maybe. But there’s a darker side to being well resourced.

I’m in New Zealand as I write this. I spoke these last few days at two youth ministry conferences: one on the south island, and one on the north island. Really wonderful youth workers here – brothers and sisters of ours who, just like I feel when I’m with my British youth ministry friends, are compelled by the same unique calling I have to reach teenagers with the love of Jesus.

Compared to youth workers in other countries I’ve visited, Kiwi youth workers are pretty well resourced. But compared to my ministry colleagues in the States, these youth workers of Aortearoa are way under-funded and under resourced.

I see this under-resourcing even more dramatically when I’m with Latin American youth workers. A conversation about budgets and youth group rooms and allocated technology would simply be met with blank stares of bewilderment. They’ve got nothing, resource-wise.

And, while I might not be excited about swallowing the pill of what I’m about to write: I can tell that these under-resourced youth workers are better for it.

Their ministries might not be as slick. They might not be able to pull off much in terms of flash and wow. But at the end of the day, I think I need to call them blessed. Here’s why:

Over and over and over again, I have seen the resources of American youth workers (and I’m sure this is true for the few well-resourced youth workers in other countries, yours included) quietly and seductively become the focal point of hope.

I’m not saying that all American youth workers place their hope in salaries, budgets, rooms, and tech, or that no youth workers from other countries don’t have misplaced hope. But I am saying, with some level of certainty of conviction based on the observation of thousands of youth workers: resources can rob you of well-placed hope.

Once a youth worker acquires resources, they can quickly become demanding mistresses, begging for more attention. And even more dangerous, awesome resources consistently whisper to us: If you see good things happening in your ministry, it’s because of me.

Finally, looking at hope theologically, biblical hope always implies some ongoing longing for what we don’t yet have.

So: if you’re one of the few with a good amount of resources, beware. Be intentional about viewing your resources as a tool, and not of source of hope. And if you’re under-resourced, rejoice. You are blessed.

Jesus sauce

i write an every-other-issue back page column for youthwork magazine in the UK, trading months with the insightful leader of soul survivor, mike pilavachi. this is the third iteration of me writing a regular column for youthwork magazine. for a few years, i wrote a tiny column called “marko’s misconceptions.” after it must have appeared that i was the stupidest youth worker in the entire world, given the quantity of my misconceptions, the editor switched me to “postcards from marko,” which included youth ministry reflections from various places i was traveling to. but, in early 2011, we changed it again, to the current back page format. my column is called “Mark: My Words.” get it? ha! oh, those double meanings.

i love youthwork magazine, because — while it’s still a resource of thinking and ideas for me and my tribe — it has just enough “otherness” to provide me a perspective i likely wouldn’t always get from american youth ministry bloggers and writers.

anyhow, for my last column, which posted on the youthwork magazine site a couple weeks ago, i reflected on some recent learning from a sermon i preached for my church. it seems to have stuck a chord. a couple peeps from the youthwork mag staff have reached out to tell me it’s the favorite of the columns i’ve written for them over the last seven or eight years. and, in a first, i’ve gotten a couple emails and messages from readers across the pond, reflecting on the application for their own lives.

so… i share it with you here!

I preached in my church a couple of weeks ago, and was assigned a passage: 1 Corinthians 3. There were two strange aspects of this experience, both of which were good for me.

First, in the thousands of times I have spoken to groups of teenagers and youth workers – and occasionally preached to adults – I could count on one hand those that were based on an assigned Bible passage. Normally, I get to pick; and I pick stuff I’m passionate about, stuff I understand, and (if I’m really honest) stuff that I can make sound really good, so I’ll feel good about myself. Being asked to speak on an assigned passage took me out of my comfort zone – big time.

The second aspect that was strange to me was that I discovered that the primary teaching of Paul’s message in this passage isn’t really the message that I’d taught from it dozens of times before. That put me a bit off balance. Fortunately, I’ve found this the posture in which God does his best work on me.

1 Corinthians 3 starts with Paul’s classic words about needing to give the Corinthians milk, because they weren’t ready for meat, because they were infants in Christ. That face-value message has served me well for decades of speaking to teenagers: ‘You’ve got to grow up and own your faith!’ True. Good. Yes, that’s what Paul’s saying.

The handy thing about that message is that it’s not for me. That good and true message is for other people. Same could be said for the following paragraph, where Paul again blasts the Corinthian church for creating a ‘Paul camp’ and an ‘Apollos camp.’ Good. People, other people, those people, need to hear that. But as I sat with the passage in my off-balanced state, as I spent ten times as much time meditating, researching, reading and praying than I normally would, I started to see a deeper message in 1 Corinthians 3. And, ouch, it was a message for me!

The Corinthians were guilty of adding their own cultural values to the gospel, thinking they were improving it. As one of my friends put it, they thought they could keep their sandwich, wipe off a bit of the Zeus mayo, add a little Jesus sauce, and have a greatly improved sandwich.

Now I was in trouble. If the deeper truth of the passage is a confrontation about treating the gospel as Jesus sauce on top of the otherwise unchanged values of my life, I’m fooling myself if I think I’m improving anything. I’m not fortifying the gospel, I’m tainting it. I’m diluting it.

As an American, I’ve been steeped like a teabag in a value system of individualism, self-reliance, and the ‘human right’ of happiness. I spread a whole heap of Jesus sauce over that mess and convince myself I’m a Super-Christian. But that’s not the gospel, right?

When I look at my values through the lens of scripture, rather than looking at scripture through the lens of my values, I’m exposed. (Your cultural values might be slightly different, but they’re no less purveyors of subterfuge when it comes to the gospel.) And, as a youth worker, the next thought has to be ‘Uh-oh. How often must I be slinging travel packs of Jesus sauce to the teenagers in my midst, propping up cultural values and making them look “Christian-y”’? Ick.

I want my life to be formed by the otherness of Jesus more than the values of those who are, as Paul calls them, merely human. Wait – scratch that: I’m already formed by merely human values. So I need to be re-formed.

Only when I’m honest about and aware of the cultural values that seduce me, the ones that are so much a part of who I am, can I hope to resist them. Only when I’ve stopped, or at least started to stop, grabbing for the Jesus sauce to make my values seem good and nice, anointed even, only then can I hope to see clearly enough to stop handing out free samples of Jesus sauce to the youth in my church and community.

update on The Youth Cartel

ok, there’s just so much going on in our wee company, it’s hard for me to discipline myself to not post about my excitement over this or that every day.

so, as further prevention from “all cartel posts, all the time,” allow me to update you and remind you on a few things that are just the bomb:


The Youth Cartel is doing three events this year, and two of ’em are brand new:

  • the middle school ministry campference is in its second year. we have a great line-up (including tic long!); but the line-up isn’t really the reason to come. the reason to come is that, if you’re in JH or middle school ministry, this is the one place where you can really spend three days with your tribe. i’ve never been a part of an event where every single person who attends could offer a raving endorsement. the MSMC is in seymour, indiana, october 26 – 28.
  • the summit is the youth cartel’s new flagship event. i’ve been dreaming about this for two years or more, and with adam joining me, we’ve been able to turn the dream into a reality. but, seriously, it’s already surpassed my expectations, and it’s still 6 months away. the presenter line-up blows my mind. this is the event i would attend even if i had nothing to do with creating it. join us in atlanta, november 9 and 10 (btw: the first 100 who register get MAJOR bonus swag).
  • finally, adam has been dreaming of a grassroots, organic youth ministry event where anyone can speak. talk about leveling the playing field and acknowledging that we’re all in this together! that’s what Open is all about. our first Open is Open Seattle, on october 6. the second location is a doosy! (stay tuned)


with 6 cohorts of 10 youth workers each either completed or in progress, i continue to find the youth ministry coaching program to be my most deeply satisfying days, other than time with my family. we’ve opened 5 cohorts for later this year (or whenever they fill), and are deep into conversations with 3 denominational groups about cohorts specific to their tribe. oh, and we’ve just begun conversations about a possible new zealand cohort! ha!

here’s another quote, from current participant sam halverson:

The YMCP is the single most helpful resource I’ve found in over 30 years of professional youth ministry. While conventions, workshops, and seminars are influential and necessary, the Youth Ministry Coaching Program is a much more personal and personable resource for anyone wishing to understand and struggle with the ins and outs of professional ministry. The spiritual direction, values assessments, readings, discussions, personal sharing, and presence-minded shepherding led by Mark Oestreicher encompass all parts of life – not just youth ministry.


we’ve had a blast this year partnering with organizations and ministries as diverse as biblica, dougfields.com, urban youth worker’s institute, tyndale publishers, and about a dozen others.


already in 2012, i’ve been stoked about the release of The Way bible and A Beautiful Mess. I have 6 more books coming out with simply youth ministry over the next year (3 of which i’ve finished), and i’m working on two versions of an ebook that The Youth Cartel will publish.

adam published his first book, with jon huckins, through The Youth Cartel’s own brand: good news in the neighborhood.

i’ve been stoked about working with a few great authors to help them find publishers for their books, finalizing deals for lars rood, jeff goins, and len kageler.

and The Youth Cartel is throwing in hard on publishing through our own brand, with 7 projects signed. you’ll see these start to come out over the remaining months of this year.

oh, and i still love writing regular columns for Youthworker Journal and Youthwork (the UK magazine for youth workers), as well as occasional contributions to Immerse Journal and Group Magazine. Adam and i both write for Slant33.com.


our weekly Cartel Culture and YouTube You Can Use emails have been a great hit. in just 8 short months we have more than 1200 people receiving them.

we launched a free job bank on our website. and our facebook page, blog, and twitter feeds are all gaining traction.


i still love speaking to teenagers and youth workers, and find my schedule regularly full with amazing opportunities (like, i’m leaving for london this morning, to speak at the Youthwork Summit).

yup, we’re busy little beavers, and we’re having the time of our lives. thanks to all of you who have been so supportive of us. we long to serve you well (and push you a little bit). We have three or four more sweet ideas in the hopper, if we can find the bandwidth to get them going!