The problem with “We do our own thing”

Maybe it’s just because we’re now publishing curriculum? Or maybe it’s because after 4-5 years of trying I realized that buying curriculum is better than trying to do everything myself?

But as I’m out, talking to youth workers, I hear a phrase over and over again when I ask about what they are teaching. “We do our own thing.

Really? You write your own curriculum? Why?

In the words of my 10-year old, Paul. The answer… “dot, dot, dot.

There’s really not a  single answer to that question. Some do it because they just want to. Others do it because they assume that’s what professionals do.

I was like them. I came out of my undergrad fully empowered and capable of writing curriculum for the church, kids ministry, and youth ministry.

Then I remember talking to my buddy Jeremy Brown, a guy I looked up to because he’s just a flat out better organized person and a stronger communicator of biblical truth to adolescents than I am. It shocked me that he shamelessly bought a curriculum and taught it, nearly unaltered.

Adam: “Wait, why do you do that?

Jeremy: “Because my job is to minister to teenagers, not write curriculum.”

Adam: “Dot, dot, dot.

He had a good point. And a point that lead me to more of my current viewpoint: Buy and contextualize curriculum. Let someone else do the vast majority of the work, then flavor it to taste for my group’s needs.

Yes, I could write everything I teach. But that might not be the best use of my time, either.

Now that I’ve had a little longer to think about it, here are a few reasons why I think you should adopt a buy and contextualize mantra for your ministry:

  1. It’s arrogant to write everything: When I first started I thought it was cool that I could write stuff. I even thought that since I knew my students and a curriculum writer didn’t, I was writing stuff that was better. That’s an arrogant posture. Now that I know how the editorial process works, know that there are people with advanced degrees in curriculum design, and see how cool it is when multiple experts collaborate on a curriculum together, I just don’t think very many churches have the resources to make curriculum that’s as good as something that’s edited, tested, refined, and published. Now, some churches do have all of those resources and I think many people do a mighty fine job of writing their own curriculum. But that leads me to my second point…
  2. Curriculum is cheap, your time isn’t: I remember talking to Jeremy about this when it sunk in. I spent 8-10 hours prepping a lesson for Wednesday night. At $25-$30/hour… that was a $250-$300 talk. If I’d just bought a resource for $10-$15 and spent an hour with it, would my talk really have been $200 better? Of course not. More than just the money, my role as a youth worker is to minister to teenagers. Spending a day each week not-with-students, but writing? That’s not why I do youth ministry. Maybe it makes sense in a system that has levels of youth workers and I’m the primary teacher? But in most churches the paid youth worker has a few volunteers, so  spending 25% of your work on lesson prep is really costly to the whole ministry. Which leads to my third point…
  3. It communicates isolation when students long for connection.  This has a few nuances to it. First, your students want to know that your church is connected to something bigger than them. Believe it or not, they talk to other people who go to church at school. And it’s really cool when you do things that aren’t isolated. (Which is why I loved doing the 30 Hour Famine with other churches!) Even if it’s 1-2 things that crossover per year, that communicates connectivity rather than isolation. Second, your students can tell what your priorities are. So if you’re working hard to “do your own thing” they can see the antithesis of that is that you’re not spending that time investing in them. Third, if one person in your ministry is spending a day in a coffee shop, alone, writing curriculum that doesn’t just communicate isolation over connection… it is isolation over connection.

Some places to look for curriculum

Question: If you’re writing most of your own stuff and you feel like I’ve just kind of slapped you a little, I’d like to hear your response to my 3 points above. Where am I wrong about “buy and contextualize” versus “we do our own thing?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

30 comments

  1. Adam, I really like what you have to say about this. I have been on both sides and would love to dialogue more off line about it. With that said…I have a hard time finding good curriculum. I used to drop hundreds on a certain popular online curriculum for small groups. When looking at the lessons, it was obvious “I can write better stuff than that” I have a hard time spending a lot on things I end up rewriting anyways. When writing “my own” curriculum for a lesson on Mission a few weeks ago I did use curriculum from the Youth Cartel (the Good News in the Neighborhood one) and put a footnote on my handout crediting the portions I used. If someone is an expert on something I am teaching, it would be dumb to not use (and cite) other resources as we put our own stuff together. So much of the stuff out there is repackaged content I bought ten years ago.

  2. Love this post and couldn’t agree more! Keep providing great curriculum and resources! Hopefully soon our new church plant will have a youth pastor and I will direct him or her to the youth cartel’s stuff! Until then, I’ll use it to help launch our student ministry! Thanks for all you do! So appreciate it! And, small world, Jeremy is my church planting coach. Small World!

    1. @jason – That’s really crazy. Yes, Jeremy and I were pretty close back at Moody. We did a bit with him when he was in Ohio, and I’m stoked with what God is doing through him in Jackson.

  3. I enjoy writing my own Bible Study. I take joy in doing it. I do use other resources for small group but when it comes to our big youth event, I do my own thing….sort if, I actually use the lectionary. I enjoy the research, the wrestling with the text, etc. but you did give me food for thought.

  4. I would rather buy curricula, but that isn’t always an option. As youthleadergina implies above, a lot of the stuff out there isn’t that good. Especially, as a Wesleyan, I find that a lot of the “generic” stuff for sale in the marketplace isn’t so generic, but has a definite Calvinistic bias to it that I do NOT want to be sharing with my kids. By the time I’m done “contextualizing” that material I could have written my own. Still, more often than not, I do find that others before me have tackled the same issues that our youth are wrestling with, and even though I rarely use it in whole, I can follow their lesson plan and only need to tweak it, not re-write it, to make it fit in our context. Still, I would also suggest that the couple of hours I spend making it “mine” help me to own it in such a way that I do a better job of presenting the lesson than I would have otherwise. That time may be every bit as costly as you claim; I would still suggest it is time (and money) well spent.

  5. Someone wants to sell more curriculum 🙂

    I think curriculum CAN be a good thing in the proper context, and given the proper treatment and time. However, the problem with curriculum is that it REQUIRES that time to be delivered and handled properly. At the same time, it creates a false sense of “I’ve got this” that leads to laziness. You can say that you need to “contextualize it” and “dig into it” and “make it your own” until you’re blue in the face, but in the end, leaders will probably buy it and replace their own study and exegesis time with something else and deliver poor lessons they don’t really own themselves. Much more I could say, but that’s a good start. How about we challenge our leaders to really up their game, be creative, and “eat the Word?”

      1. From my experience, youth ministers don’t typically burn out because they have to write lessons. They usually burn out because of criticism, lack of leadership, discouragement, and unrealistic expectations. If I’ve been educated, trained, and called, why not me? And the false dichotomy of “relationships” or “lessons” is completely faulty. It can be both. Just my thoughts, thanks for giving me something to work through. That’s always appreciated.

  6. I fall into the group that writes their own curriculum. I do for a couple of reasons. Now I should note, I do not create something completely from the ground up. Sometimes I get ideas from books on particular subjects, that I use as a guide in thought.

    First, I write because it helps me become more confident in what I am speaking on. When you dive into the scripture, you challenge yourself to be more like Christ, and you are able to share with the students your own thoughts from your studies.

    Second, their are certain subjects that I want my students to know before they graduate. Sometimes the curriculum falls into that plan, and I am able to use it, but often times curriculum is inconsistent in what is best for our own students.

    I don’t use my own stuff all the time, it fluctuates but I think its more beneficial to try your own thing. At first it takes time, but eventually you get in a really good rhythm and eventually it takes a few hours to write two lessons for the week.

  7. Gene, as someone from a Wesleyan Holiness tradition, I understand your frustration. We use a lot of Nazarene Publishing House stuff, and a website called barefootonline.com. I’m not always in love with it, but it is the approved curriculum for my denomination, and has a strong Wesleyan bent to it.

  8. I love writing my own curriculum (shocking, I know). Here’s where I’d push back on your 3 points.

    1. I don’t think I’m being arrogant at all. I think I’m being faithful to the students that find community in our ministry. The students get ownership over what we talk about each week and in their small groups. They actually have a voice (every few months) to sit down with the leaders and I and brainstorm what they’d like us to address in terms of helping them move forward in their faith and love of Jesus. We guide them to think both of themselves and their peers that aren’t a part of our community. They know when they show up we’ll be teaching and discussing something that truly fits their context- not something a curriculum writer, or even myself, assumes they want to wrestle with. This may be the most invigorating aspect of our ministry for me.

    2. Simply, students go to school. That leaves me with 3-5 “working hours” each day where I can’t be with students even if I wanted to be. Sure, I have administrative stuff to get done and staff meetings, etc. But more often than not the most faithful, and the most enjoyable, way for me to spend that time is reading, researching and studying to come up with words, questions & illustrations that will matter for our community.

    3. I don’t really think time spent on our “own” curriculum contributes to a sense of isolation. Our discussion and teaching topics fit the context of our community and I think (no, I know) that is appreciated in very real ways by the students. They want me to be learning and fighting to address their contexts- especially in the coffee shop while they’re at school.

    Now- our service time at the soup kitchen with other groups, or the partnership we have at the local elementary school with intergenerational mentors, or the after school program we collaborate on with the local college- these break down barriers of isolation far more effectively. If I told our students “Hey- there are other groups talking about this same thing in a similar way!” They’d probably respond with a “dot, dot, dot.”

    Now- with all that said, I hope people who either need or want some help buy the crap out of your curriculum 😉

    1. I meant isolation of your students from other students in their school. If you do your own thing and the baptist church does it’s own thing, how in the world do those students know they are together?

  9. Interesting thoughts. You got me thinking. This has me wondering if the push back comes from this being a broader conversation than just curriculum.

    I have some questions:

    I’m wondering how your idea of what a youth pastor should be fits into this?
    Is discipleship the primary role? I know the term pastor implies discipleship, but I think the paid role has become a far leap away from that.

    What should be outsourced and what should be done by ‘paid staff’?
    What should be done by volunteers? What role should the church consider worth paying?
    Is it someone who can hang out with students? Someone with a training in counselling teens (moving beyond just relationships)? Someone who is a gifted and creative program director? A gifted teacher?
    Is the idea of a paid youth ‘pastor’ necessary at all? Should the role call for someone who is more of a facilitator and empower-er of volunteers to do the ministry? So crafting curriculum could potentially be a part of that role.

    Also, what about the ‘pastor’ in a broader sense? Should a ‘sr/lead/teaching pastor’ be spending time crafting their own sermon?

    Maybe I’ve opened this up far bigger, but I’m really curious.
    Thanks for a great article!

    1. I think Ben B is spot-on: your definition of what you define a “youth pastor” as will define where you believe your time should be spent. For some contexts, high emphasis will be placed on the preaching. For others, it will be placed on equipping volunteers to work with teens in small groups. Still, in others, it will be placed on one-on-one discipleship. I’m not saying you can’t do ALL of that, but they are all time-consuming things, and you will place your emphasis probably primarily in one of those things. If you don’t place your emphasis on preaching, then you should consider curriculum. If your emphasis IS on preaching, then you need to be doing it yourself, IMO!

  10. I partly write my own curriculum. However, it’s my student leadership team that works hard to choose the topic, big idea to get across, some key questions they want to tackle, some relevant scripture passages, and perhaps a skit or video. I fill in the rest (sometimes with my own stuff, sometimes by adapting other material), write my large group talk, and give it back to them for them to facilitate the small group discussion. It’s more time consuming, but it’s a great process for them, and many of them come from our leadership team with some amazing skills! Plus, those students are invested in the topic, and know where they are headed in their small group facilitation.

  11. I share the teaching load with another leader, whereby he teaches the sr. high and I’m with the jr. high students. I prefer to purchase material (DYM & XP3) that allows us to be on the same page, but still craft it to fit our own voice and be age appropriate.

  12. This is something that I have been thinking about very seriously recently. I have spent a lot of time writing my own messages, discussion questions, family devotion questions, etc. And I’m wondering about the benefits of doing exactly what you’re talking about, buying a curriculum and then adapting it to make it my own. I have a couple of questions on this subject that I’d love some feedback on:

    1) Small question: Has anyone heard of Wayfarer curriculum? Wondering if anyone here would recommend it, has used it, etc.

    2) Big question: When you’re buying the curriculum, what advice do you have to make sure that the topic is still something that is close to your heart? When I write my own messages, they are on Scriptures that speak to me, or topics that have hit close to home in my life, and I can speak honestly and authentically. I’m worried that using curriculum where the outline is predominantly written by someone else will not sound as genuine if I haven’t taken the time to let it speak to me first. Looking for thoughts, opinions, and advice on this!

    Thanks again!

    1. “Big question: When you’re buying the curriculum, what advice do you have to make sure that the topic is still something that is close to your heart?” Not to sound picky, but you aren’t called to teach stuff that’s close to your own heart. You are called to teach stuff that students need to know. A youth worker is 100% in the indoctrination business!

  13. Adam, I had to take a bit and think through what I wanted to say, but my main response is that I completely disagree.

    I’ll share my context: High School service weekly with 25 minute message, mostly written by our leadership team / the person speaking; Jr High service weekly w/ 30min message that is written by the speaker within a series developed by our team; Jr High small group intro message to introduce the topic in the curriculum for our curriculum-based small group night (15 minute message large group followed by 45 min small groups).

    I think curriculum has its place, and that’s 90% in small groups. Let me first address your three points:

    1. “It’s arrogant to write everything” I’m reading this and truthfully feeling the opposite. It’s arrogant to claim that your (or anyone else’s) curriculum is going to be better than a message that a youth pastor has prepared. Not because my message is the best ever, but really the curriculum out there always seems like it’s not quite there. I haven’t yet found curriculum that I prefer over my own teaching. I find it more difficult to wrap my head around where most curriculum comes from than to just take a series that our students are asking for and bring them a message that I’ve worked on and prayed over. Where your point about multiple editors and testing and everything else falls short is that most of those things are going to combine into something that’s “safe” for everyone. So, yes, in most cases I think a message tailored to my group will be better than something I worked out from the curriculum. I am almost always frustrated and spending more time figuring out the curriculum than when I just write my own, and my preaching is far stronger when it’s my message.

    2. “Curriculum is Cheap, your time isn’t”: That’s viewing life through a very narrow lens. I’d rather take the 20 hours spent on random administrative things in the office and hand them to someone else than give up my study time. Because my time isn’t cheap. And my time in the Word is valuable. I’m a better minister to teens when I am weekly spending time in deeper study that goes beyond my daily devotions. And back to the first point I mentioned, curriculum tends to feel cheap, too. If you have something better, I’m happy to take a look, but much like elevator music, curriculum tends to feel canned. It’s unrealistic to think that if I cut my sermon prep by 5 hours that it would automatically translate to 5 hours spent with students. And not all time with them is the best possible use of your time. Relational ministry has its limits. Spending all your time with people and none in private study or prayer is not just wrong, it’s unbiblical. And since I’m not Jesus, I’ll expect that I need that alone time with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit far more than Jesus did when he walked the earth.

    3. “It communicates isolation when students long for connection” Only if I’m neglecting students the rest of my time and choosing private sermon prep over them. But I’m not. I do both. Most youth pastors I know do both. And the ones that don’t? Where they spend little to no time prepping messages because they’re just on curriculum for everything? It shows. There’s a lack of Biblical grounding in their lives that goes far beyond their teaching. (Mind you, this is just my personal experience.

    3-1: “First, your students want to know that your church is connected to something bigger than them.” Curriculum isn’t the answer to that. Connecting with other groups through joint events and camps and other things is much more fruitful. My students really don’t care if two churches in town are teaching from the same notebook.

    3-2: “Second, your students can tell what your priorities are.” I still disagree that your premise holds water. I’m not neglecting students to prep messages. It makes me a stronger pastor.

    3-3: “Third, if one person in your ministry is spending a day in a coffee shop, alone, writing curriculum that doesn’t just communicate isolation over connection… it is isolation over connection.” Again, Jesus spent time alone. According to this thinking, he was doing it wrong. Because, just like our LORD, I (and many other youth leaders/pastors/teachers) spend some time away, alone, in prayer and study. And I spend much of my time in contact with students and leaders.

    I think curriculum can be extremely beneficial in its right place in a ministry. But I don’t think you listed that here.

  14. I agree with Brian. But also, I think you’re missing an option that can work and accomplishes both sides of the coin: PREPARE WITH YOUR STUDENTS.

    I only started doing this a couple years ago, but I love it. The kids know where we are headed in a series, so I or one of my leaders will get together with one of them beforehand, go over the passage or topic, and then put together a lesson and small group questions. Sometimes I or the leader will teach the lesson, and sometimes the student will teach.

    Granted, there are some topics I will prepare myself or just give to the leaders, but for the most part, we try to include students in the process. That way we are preparing ourselves (which is tailored and relevant to us), and we are discipling future leaders at the same time!

  15. Adam, great stuff. Over the last few years I have been outsourcing more things, empowering more volunteers to do things I used to do (including speaking), and our ministry is at the healthiest spiritually and largest numerically it’s ever been.

    I use plenty of different curriculums and I LOVE them and couldn’t do what I do without them. They allow me to plan way in advance and easily prepare the flow of our teaching strategy for a whole year and beyond if we wanted. They allow me to schedule my volunteers to speak way in advance and give them content to prepare with. It allows me to spend time innovating in ministry and pursuing things that I would never have time for otherwise. It allows me to spend way more time on leadership development.

    For me the benefits of curriculum outweigh the negatives 100 to 1. That’s just me though and even though I would try to convince anyone else in youth ministry to see it that way, I understand certain people have different expectations of what a “Youth Pastor” is, or should be.

    I see my role as a paid staff person as someone whose job it is to equip and empower the body to do the work of the ministry. I don’t want to hog it all! I want to spread it and share it and give others major responsibility – including teaching/preaching! So the easiest way for me to do that is to use curriculum. That way I know what’s being taught, and I can strategically prepare and plan what’s being taught, even though I’m only teaching 25% of our messages. And you know who the real youth pastors are – my small group leaders. They are the youth pastors to their students.

    I love to speak. But what I love more is to seeing others use their gifts. Curriculum goes a long way for us to see that happen.

    And another point is what is the goal of your message? For us it’s to set up quality discussion in small groups afterwards. The real application happens in small groups. Where students can discuss and ask questions and doubt and ponder. The message (for us) is just to introduce the topic and get them thinking about it and what God has to say about it. We save nearly all application of the topic for small groups.

    This has been extremely effective for us. And this has also allowed us to have volunteers taking more ownership of ministry than we’ve ever had before. They feel more invested in students lives, which in turn creates more passionate volunteers who feel the weight, responsibility, and fulfillment of being a youth worker.

  16. I buy lots of curriculum … with places like the Youth Cartel, SYM, Download Youth Ministry and YS offering crazy good deals on solid materials, I love doing it. I actually tended to create everything when I was a small church youth pastor; now that I’m in a larger context, I buy almost everything we use. Not because I’ve gotten lazy (which some may think), but because I find it actually helps keep my volunteer team and I on the same page. I have close to 30 great volunteers. I probably teach half the time and rotate a number of them in on the other Sundays; selfishly, I would love to teach every week, but it’s great for the kids to have a variety of male and female voices from up from, it makes the weeks I do teach better, and gives volunteers with great gifts a chance to shine. I buy curriculum so we can teach series together; I tell them to use as much or as little of it as they want, as long as they stay on the basic topic for that week – it makes long range planning easier, working together easier, and our teaching has better continuity even though it’s different voices. Because I buy it all digital, we can do all our prep through email, which is quicker and easier.

    And the reality is, it does free me up to do more ministry. There is never enough time in the week to do all I want to do. You’re absolutely right, Adam; why spend ten hours working on a lesson that most of the kids won’t be able to articulate five minutes later (I don’t feel bad, though – most people that walk out of a sermon can’t remember it the next day either), when I can adapt something someone else has put together in a fraction of the time. This gives me more time to work with teens, volunteers, and parents.

  17. Instead of ditching sermon prep, ditch the blogging! As a volunteer, I love free resources online, but I wouldn’t want our youth pastor wasting time he could spend meeting our student’s needs.

  18. I’m writing a curriculum now for girls on Esther. The reason I’m doing so is because I couldn’t find a solid Esther curriculum for middle school girls.

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