Tag Archives: slant33

young adults as youth ministry volunteers

in a recent edition of Slant33.com, i responded to this question:

If young adult brains aren’t yet fully formed (particularly in the areas responsible for wisdom and decision making), what implications does that have for working with young adult volunteers?

click through to see michelle lang and paul martin’s responses, but here’s mine:

Here’s a rub I regularly experience when talking to rooms full of youth workers. I’ll mention the new realities of extended adolescence, and the findings referred to in the question above. Then I’ll ask: how many of you are under 30? Usually, somewhere between 30% and 50% raise their hands. My regular gag is to say, “Well, it’s nice to have so many teenagers in the room today!”

I’ve never been (or at least haven’t been for a long time) one of those youth workers who thinks that only young adults make good youth leaders. I like diversity. But, there’s no denying that some of my most wonderful youth ministry volunteers over the years have been in the 18 – 25 year-old range.

And while I’d like to think my particular young adult leaders were always a serious cut above average, the reality I’d rather not admit is: they are – on average – physiologically limited in wisdom, decision-making, prioritization, impulse control, and a bunch of other skills I’d sure like my volunteer leaders to possess.

Part of my struggle with this, though, is that I’m still very unconvinced that the whole teenage brain thing is a nature thing (god’s design, you might say), and is more likely to be a nurture thing (the result of our collective restrictions on young adults, keeping them from moving into adulthood or using their brains as adults). And, as I’m buying into the notion that young adults (and even teenagers — particularly older teenagers) are fully capable — whether behavioral indicators show this or not — of “being adult”, I’m forced to wrestle with a few things:

  1. Extended adolescence is not the fault of young adults. Sure, there are slackers. I’m guessing there always have been. But I think it’s wiser for us to examine ourselves, our culture, our churches, our homes, and stop pointing the finger of judgement at 20-somethings. Collectively, we’ve created the culture that isolates teenagers and young adults from adults and adulthood; we’ve created extended adolescence. They’re merely living into our expectations (“You’re not yet an adult”).
  2. It seems possible for some (a few) post-high school teenagers and young 20-somethings to step into adulthood, in some cases very quickly, to reverse the extended adolescent trend, or at least side-step it. I’m not talking about those outliers who naturally move into adulthood “early” (by today’s norms), and would have in any culture, in any era; I’m talking about an average 18 or 21 year old newly leaning into the capabilities they already possess. What is required? In short: meaningful responsibility and expectation (can you see where this is going, as it pertains to young adults in youth ministry?).
  3. But don’t even start comparing your experience as a young adult in youth ministry, in 1982, to that of young adults today. Not the same thing, and you’re probably being revisionist in your memory anyhow.

A large church brought me in a couple years ago to help them think about young adult ministry. They knew things were not going well. But it was way bleaker than I expected, or, I think, than they realized. In a church of a few thousand, there were maybe 25 or so actively engaged 20-somethings. About a dozen of them attended a super-lame class on Sunday mornings that felt like death by crockpot. And another dozen or so found their primary connection to the church as volunteers in the middle school ministry. Of course, here’s the tension:

  • Many of the church leadership (but, to his credit, not the senior pastor) thought the best response was to hire a ‘young adults pastor’ and create (my words) a new pocket of isolation, keeping ‘emerging adults’ (the kinder term now being used to describe the third segment of the adolescent experience — formerly called ‘older adolescents’) disconnected from the adult world. Of course, this is all spun under the banner of “let’s create a space that’s uniquely theirs” (which often actually means, “let’s create a space for them so my space can stay uniquely mine”).
  • The young adults serving on the middle school team were the sharpest of the 2 dozen young adults in the church, and — on average — ahead of the curve on the plodding move to adulthood.
  • But, a church (that church) can’t say, “Our intentional ministry for young adults is to have them work with the middle school ministry.”

Or can they?

Maybe the answer to the question at the top of this page isn’t to “boundary” or limit young adults in youth ministry. Maybe we need to take the counter-intuitive step of giving them more responsibility. Or, just, giving them the responsibility we would give any adult, without a bunch of coddling and hand-holding.

Some might read this and respond, “Well, of course, we already do that.” Sure. Maybe you do (maybe you don’t). Maybe you never read about teenage brain development and extended adolescence, and maybe you never bought into the idea (or, I’m thinking: myth) that “this is just the way things are.” Or maybe you were never intentional at all, and were merely perpetuating stereotypes about who makes the “best” youth ministry volunteers.

But I’m thinking that meaningful responsibility, spending time with adults (on an age-diverse ministry team), all covered in a watchful layer of intentionality and a leaning toward developing volunteers of all sorts – well, that might just be the best young adult ministry possible.
What do you think?

How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?

this week’s slant33.com question asked: How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?

i’ll admit, i didn’t answer it straight on. but i riffed on it a bit, as did josh griffin and jeremy zach (click here to read their responses). here’s what i wrote:

My answer to this question has continued to evolve over my 30 years in middle school ministry. Some of that shifting (in my thinking) is a response to dramatic shifts in both the onset of puberty (younger and younger!) and youth culture. And some of that shifting is a response to being a parent of two teenagers: my daughter graduated from high school yesterday (as I write this) and my son from middle school. But at least some portion of the shifts in my response to this question come from a change in my thinking about youth ministry in general.

So let’s focus on that. If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the past four years, you might know that I’ve harped quite a bit on the need to move away from an over-reliance on priority of youth ministry programming. Programs aren’t evil; but the subtle thinking that great programs transform lives or grow faith is – and has been, for many of us – a false-positive measurement of youth ministry success.

If the goal of youth ministry is momentum, combining middle school and high school makes lots of sense, because it’s tough to have momentum without a good chunk o’ teenagers.

If the goal of youth ministry is energy, combining – or keeping MS and HS combined – is perfectly logical.

If the goal of youth ministry is hype, then – by all means – keep ‘em combined.

In fact, for years I’ve suggested that it seems to make sense to consider separating MS and HS into two groups when both of them have something around 20 regular participants each. I’ve suggested that there are great reasons to consider separating small groups prior to those numbers, and combining for some things (worship, for example) even beyond those numbers.

But I’m just not sure I buy that anymore – for two big reasons:

First, with the continued extension of adolescence (about 20 years long now, on average, from 10 or 11 through the 20s), the difference between 12 year-olds and 17 year-olds just seems more markedly pronounced than ever. And I’m no longer convinced that the benefit of momentum and energy and hype is worth the trade-off of providing a developmentally and culturally inappropriate ministry for either group. In some ways (and, sure, this is slightly hyperbolic), you have two choices:

• Combine MS and HS, enjoy a bit of momentum and streamlining, but forfeit being developmentally on-target, while expediting the headlong rush into adolescence for young teens who could really use another year or two of being an apprentice teenager.
• Or, separate MS and HS, focusing more intentionally on both, while losing out on some of the fun and energy that can come from having critical mass. Oh, and this option is more work.

But, if the primary value of my youth ministry efforts are no longer to create hype or momentum… if my belief isn’t that big cool programs change lives… then I’m going to have to side with the second of those options every time.

The other big reason I don’t buy into my old advice on this question is this: I don’t know what you should do! And the reason I don’t know what you should do is a very simple and straightforward set of facts:
• I’m not God
• I have not called you into youth ministry, or gifted you
• I do not know your context
• And, I hate blanket answers

My leaning these days is that it’s best to separate middle school and high school as soon as you can, as often as you can, as early as you can. But what do I know, really? Ultimately, this is a question of discernment: what kind of ministry is God calling you to in your context?

the role of the holy spirit in youth ministry

i was one of the three contributors on this week’s slant33.com question: what’s the role of the holy spirit in your youth ministry? click here to see the excellent responses from the other two contributors, albert tate and brooklyn lindsey. but here’s my response:

I’ve had a bit of an awakening to the Holy Spirit in the last couple years. As soon as most people read that first sentence, though, they will assume I mean that I’ve awoken to signs and wonders stuff. That’s not what I mean. (Everything on the table: I’m in the middle; I’m not a sensationalist, but I’ve not had much personal experience or desire for signs and wonders experiences.) The awakening to the Holy Spirit that I’ve experienced has played out on two levels: in my own life and faith practice and in my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership.

My last year at Youth Specialties and the pressure I felt to perform were particularly soul deadening for me. By the time I got laid off, I was close to burnout—both professionally and spiritually. But in the two or three months that followed, I experienced a gorgeous re-awakening of my soul. I felt God’s presence for the first time in a long time. My prayer life rekindled, and I started to hear God speaking, nudging, consoling. I knew this was the Holy Spirit, who had never left, of course. Instead, my spiritual eyes were merely opening to the Spirit’s presence.

This ramped up when I launched the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. When my cohorts were in times of personal sharing, I started sensing the Holy Spirit giving me insight that was beyond me, and I even started receiving what could only be called words of truth to be offered to others. I entered into the exercise of this with open hands—not grasping it or claiming it or arrogantly confident about whatever I might think I should say. But I was amazed, over and over again (as I have continued to be over the last eighteen months) that what I was hearing—from the Holy Spirit—was usually accurate. One of the most powerful of these was a time when I had a strong sense that another person in the sharing circle had a word from God for the person talking. Sure enough, when I called that out, the words spoken had a profoundly holy and truthy beauty to them, and we all knew we were on holy ground.

This has changed both my regular, everyday experience of God as well as my youth ministry practice. When I’m leading my middle-school-guys small group, for example, I’m trying to choose (and it is a choice, by the way) to simultaneously listen to my guys and to the Holy Spirit. One of the surprise benefits to me, in a youth ministry setting, is that I feel unburdened and free. That’s because I’m not carrying the absurd responsibility of being smart or insightful enough to know what to say.

This personal awakening and shift in my practice has also shaped my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership. If you ever hear me talk about Youth Ministry 3.0 stuff these days, I hope you hear the difference from what I wrote about in that book. When I wrote that book, about four years ago now, I was not operating with this mindset or experience, and most of my suggestions only tip a hat to the role of the Holy Spirit. But these days, I’m convinced that great youth workers (and great church leaders) need to recover the art of collaborative discernment. Great youth ministry takes all different forms because it has to be contextual. But the path to a wonderfully contextualized youth ministry is not merely an effort of assessment and study. In fact, it is first and foremost an exercise of listening (and I believe that listening needs to be practiced in community, which is why I am passionate about collaborative discernment).

Yes, we need to do assessments and learn about the community we do ministry in; yes, we need to read and study and observe. But more important than all of that is the intentional act of gathering a small group of spiritually minded people to actively listen to the Holy Spirit. Ask, What teenagers have you placed in our midst? (No, just observing them is not enough.) Listen. Ask, What teenagers are you calling us to in our community? Listen. Ask, What would a culturally and contextually appropriate approach be to reach those teenagers? Listen.

Bottom line #1: Without a sense of the Holy Spirit’s role in your life, you will always be limited in your own spiritual growth and practice and, therefore, in your youth ministry efforts. Bottom line #2: A youth ministry that’s not informed by active and intentional listening to the Holy Spirit will miss out on who God is calling it to be.

how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

i’ve really enjoyed being part of creating slant33.com this year. the youth cartel picked the 20 primary contributors, came up with the 52 weekly questions, and worked with the contributors to select three for each question. but i’m also one of the contributors. this week’s slant asks a practical question that has been posed to me many times over the last decade or so: how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

here’s my response:

I moved too often in my first bunch of years of youth ministry. Let’s just get that on the table right up front. I can easily explain or justify each move (the church couldn’t hire me full time; I got fired; there were budget cutbacks, and I was going to lose my job). All legit. All rational.

The problem is, though, I think my mess was too much a part of the decision-making goulash each time. I wanted more power. I wanted to be liked more. I wanted to be respected more. And, man, the grass is so freaking green at the church calling you. It’s like green food coloring green.

I’m not saying those moves were mistakes. But I’m definitely saying my process of deciding was faulty. Well, except maybe the time I got fired. I didn’t have much say in that. But my discernment process for the next job was just as faulty as the ones that offered more volition. It wasn’t until I left my fourth church, to go to Youth Specialties, that my process was patient and thoughtful and anything resembling spiritual discernment.

In church world, we are pretty good at masking this. We are quick with the “God is calling me” language because it just doesn’t sound that good to say, “I just don’t like you people” or, “Sorry, but that other church offered me way more money” or, “I ran out of ideas here and need to go somewhere else where I can repeat them all and have them seem new.”

Over my dozen years at Youth Specialties, and in the couple years since, I’ve had hundreds of youth workers ask me about leaving. I don’t think we have the space to go into a deep response about spiritual discernment. But let me take a swing at a couple other related issues:

Are you worn out? Youth ministry can be one of the more wearying jobs out there. There are plenty of other jobs that are more physically exhausting. But when you add in the emotional, mental, and relational strain, well, it’s easy to get toasty. So we all get worn out. The question is: Is this a worn out that, with some rest, you can come back from? Are you tired, or are you worn out to the point that you’re going to do damage if you stay?

You might need some extended rest or a sabbatical in order to figure this out. (Of course, that feels risky too. My friend asked for and received a three-month sabbatical to discern whether he was supposed to stay at his church. On the day he returned to tell the church he had a renewed sense of calling and was going to stay, they informed him they’d decided the opposite. Ah, churches. That goofy bride o’ Christ.)

The other significant question I think youth workers need to ask themselves is: Can I find something—anything—that I can respect about my senior pastor and leadership? In my experience, most people who are even considering a move at all are, to one extent or another, dissatisfied. Something is not great. And, more often than not, when I dig into these questions with youth workers, I find the core issue circling around an eroded trust in and respect for the senior pastor (or sometimes for the broader church leadership; but that’s tolerable if the youth worker feels like the senior pastor is honest about it).

Here’s what it boils down to for me: If you’re wondering about leaving, even flirting with the idea, there are some steps to take and questions to ask yourself:

    1. Bring a discernment team around for this purpose alone. Obviously, these need to be highly trustworthy people who will understand the confidentiality of the situation. Read up on Quaker Clearness Committees and give the group permission, even a charge, to ask you anything and everything.

    2. Ask yourself, Why am I less than satisfied? Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and journal about it.

    3. If your dissatisfaction is centered around a lack of respect for the leadership of the church, you have three options:

  • Leave. If you are bitter and stay, you will do damage. Hear this: Even if the church leadership really is wrong, it’s wrong for you to be a mini Godzilla.
  • Realize you’ll need to leave but not immediately. Set a deadline. Be optimistic and supportive of the church leadership, knowing there’s a light at the end of your tunnel.
  • Or, find something to respect about your senior leadership and pray for a softened heart and renewed passion.

read responses from adam mclane and lars rood here. and check in on slant33.com every monday afternoon for a new question and three slants (or subscribe via email or rss here).


over a year ago, barefoot ministries launched slant33, a creative weekly online set of three responses, by three contributors, to a question that youth workers would find helpful. it was a great start, and mostly interesting. but it also got a big academic at times, and not quite connected enough to the real world of in-the-trenches youth workers.

so, after a nice hiatus (i think slant33 vacationed in cancun), barefoot came to the youth cartel, and asked us to reimagine it for a year, taking the lead on identifying a new slate of 20 contributors, coming up with the 52 questions for the year, and moderating the whole shebang. they redesigned the site, making it much more user friendly. i’m stoked about it, and really hope you’ll follow it this year, engaging in the comments and joining in the dialogue.

the newly re-launched slant33 went live yesterday! new slants will be posted every monday. you can subscribe via email or rss here.

the list of contributors is amazing, including a wide variety of youth ministry thinkers and practitioners with great diversity in every way. check out the list of contributors here.

the first slant, that went live yesterday, has responses from kara powell, ian macdonald, and tiffanie shanks, to the question: how do you pursue personal skill growth?

as a tease, the next six slants, going live on mondays in the weeks to come will be:

– How far out do you plan your calendar? Why? What’s your process?
– How do you determine the line between vulnerability and over-sharing?
– In what practical ways do you find solitude and rest?
– What time and expectation boundaries should be non-negotiables for youth pastors?
– How is the priesthood of all believers fleshed out in your ministry? How does that impact your role?
– How do you decide what to teach?

and there are 45 more questions following that!

i hope you’ll join us!

(oh, and i need a small handful of guest contributors for a few slants throughout the year. let me know if you’re interesting in writing one!)