youth ministry

You know you’re onto something when…

  • the powers that be (doing nothing for years) are nervous about you.
  • people from the church start leaving tracts and books on your desk anonymously.
  • an old lady cusses at you and about you.
  • country club members decide to worship elsewhere.
  • tattoos and pick-up trucks outnumber lattes and minivans in the parking lot.
  • you get sued.
  • your building gets tagged.
  • you get a “performance improvement plan” and are assigned to take the Strength Finders test.
  • a week later the Senior Pastor confesses that he’s jealous of your ministry.
  • the janitor starts covering for you.
  • a ministry magazine and an investigative reporter want an interview on the same day.
  • you schedule volunteer meetings and everyone shows up.
  • your budget gets slashed.
  • you can’t remember whose graduation party or wedding reception you’re at anymore.
  • the fellowship hall you booked for a fundraiser is suddenly being used for a knitting conference.
  • you get called a heretic.
  • you can’t sleep at night.
  • the discouragement is unbearable.
  • the walls of the church seem paper thin.
  • you are exhausted, weary, blurry eyed, but can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.

Remember: Discouragement does not come from the Lord. When you’re onto something our enemy attacks. The closer you get, the more you can expect to be attacked.

Church Leadership

Competitive Advantage

This clip from Tin Cup highlights the differences between an amateur and a tour professional. 

Whether you are a casual golfer or a week-to-week preacher in a church. You and the guy on tour are fundamentally different in how you approach your craft.

What you do is similar! But how you approach it and how it’s carried out are completely different.

As the movie shows, the tour pro takes calculated risks, repeating the same simple winning swing over and over again, week-to-week, tour stop to tour stop.

Whereas the casual golfer, even the aspiring professional, has to take greater risks to see lesser rewards, often swinging wildly and taking big risks in hopes that it’ll pay off.

Having been around PGA and Champions Tour players as a tour volunteer I know that there are a lot of differences between their game and your game. 

  • They will hit +/- 1000 practice balls per day. (Driving range, sand, putting green, chipping)
  • They are surrounded by people who advise them on their game all the time. (People who know what they’re talking about, too.)
  • They only play on courses at the top of their condition. The greenskeeper at a Tour stop builds his whole growth cycle around that week.
  • They have a caddy with them who does all of the math and can tell them exact distances and best approaches to every shot on the golf course.
  • The TV cameras only show the best players on shots that have been edited. Each minute during a tournament 40-50 players take a swing, you only see the best of the best.

I’m a 12 handicapper on my own. But I guarantee you that if you put me on that stage, in those conditions, with that practice… I’d look a whole lot better than I do normally. Give me a week with those set of circumstances and I’d break 80.

It’s not that they don’t have skill or talent. It’s that their skill has been put on display in the best possible conditions for them to look good. (They would argue that they rose to this spot just like everyone else. Sure, they take advantage today. But they got to that point with nothing but hard work and rising through the amateur, college, and mini-tour ranks. Fair enough.)

It’s that the game they play is similar, but completely different from the game I play with my friends. It’s set up for them to look good.

What’s my point?

A lot of times we go to a conference, camp, retreat, or a convention and we see a tour pro on their best day, in the best conditions, absolutely NAIL a talk. And we walk away thinking… “Why do I even bother?!? I’ll never be that good. Why not just buy that dude’s DVDs and play them at my church each week?

But before you get upset or lament realize this: The talk you’ve just heard has likely been delivered dozens of times. It’s been critically reviewed by an inner circle. It’s been refined, they know when to drop what line, they know how to adapt it to your setting. They have only booked themselves at events they know they’ll play well to. The lighting, sound, and environmental conditions are tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. A professional band set them up. Someone else introduced them. At best, their talk has 1-2 calculated moments of risk.

It’s not that they are better than you. It’s that given the conditions their talents are amplified and you’re able to see them at their absolute best.

In the end… the act of speaking at a conference is similar to what you do on a week-to-week basis, but completely different at the same time. They are only thinking about that talk. They didn’t drive the van to the retreat. They don’t have to give a new talk each week. On and on. It’s completely different from what you or I do on a week-to-week basis in our ministry.

Here’s the fun part: Just like in the movie– you could tell that the tour pros got a kick out of the caddy hitting the big shot on the big stage. There’s a little glimmer in their eye when you take a big risk. They kind of wish they could do it, too. 

hmm... thoughts

Dealing with discouragement

Last Sunday, I wrote about some of the discouragement I was feeling. Anxiety. Self-doubt. Questioning my abilities. Questioning decisions I’ve made. Paths I’ve chosen. I wish I could say that was just a moment of self-doubt and second-guessing. And I wish I could look back on that 7 days later and laugh.

But I can’t. It seems I’m passing through a little season of discouragement.

And it sucks.

It is completely antithetical to reality. My head knows it but my heart doesn’t seem to care.

As I look out my window right now, the Eastern sky is about to burst with the morning. With the blue sky to later burn through the morning mist– I’m reminded that discouragement comes from Satan.

Discouragement is Satan’s ministry to me. He wants to distract me and destroy me. He wants to get a foothold. He’d love nothing more than for me to give up.

3 Ways I’m Dealing with this Season of Discouragement

  1. Looking back – I reread two posts this morning that really helped me put this whole thing into perspective. The first came from July 2010. (5 Ways to Encourage Your Church Staff.) The second needs more context as it was written nearly 6 years ago. A lot was changing in my life. We moved to Romeo in 2003 with hopes that big things were to come at that little church. It had grown from about 100 people to about 400 people when I was hired. Then four months after I arrived, the senior pastor resigned and we quickly went from nearly 400 to about 175. In the midst of that, my new boss (a person I had lead the charge to hire) didn’t have the same high-view of youth ministry I had. So, in turn, I was getting pulled away from the thing I loved most, youth ministry, and pushed into more of an assistant pastor role. On top of that, I’d go to my local network meetings and because Romeo was seen as this little town in the country and because my church didn’t have 3,000 people like everyone else at the table… I was often completely ignored. In the midst of that I wrote a post called, Am I OK with “Just OK?” As I reread that post this morning my own words from 2005 put tears in my eyes. I have dealt with seasons of self-doubt before and yet here I am, STILL STANDING in the simple knowledge that God is the author and I am not!
  2. Looking around – I’m in an amazing season of life. The last six weeks since Jackson’s birth have been some of the best times we can remember. That little boy has been an amazing gift to our life. Not just in welcoming a new child. But also in how he’s brought our entire family closer together. On top of that, it’s been an amazing six weeks of blessing from our friends as we’ve relished in watching Jackson act as a joy machine everywhere we’ve gone. As I think back over the last year, I just shake my head at how much God has shown Himself. It’s more than just Jackson, (and Ruby, Eliza, Xander, Sofia, Lucy… and the other babies who have arrived into our life) it is in my work, in our community group, in our neighborhood, at our church, at the kids school… God shown Himself clearly and repeatedly.
  3. Looking forward – This Winter and Spring I said no to a ton of things. I missed two YS Palooza’s, I missed a PlanetWisdom, and I missed a few other conferences/opportunities because I wanted to be home for Kristen and the kids. I love those things. And I’m already looking forward to getting out and doing the thing I love most more this Summer: Meeting and encouraging ministry folks. More than that, there are some really fun things on the horizon with our family & our church. Even our garden gives me something fun to look forward to.

Here’s the excerpt that made me smile this morning. I love when my 2005 self preaches to my 2011 self:

How come so many youth workers look up to Mike Yacanelli, but when it comes down to it… They don’t have the balls to live like him? They read his books, they chuckled at his joke “I am the pastor of the slowest growing church in America” but they wouldn’t ever put themselves, their talents, their families, or their reputation in that situation. Let’s face it, a lot of youth workers out there HAVE EGOS THE SIZE OF THEIR YOUTH GROUPS. They are snobs who wouldn’t ever want to work with broken and busted churches. They hear what church I work at and head for the hills because we are too small, too broken, and can’t offer them anything of value. So the reality is, that they are in ministry for themselves and not for others. They have been trained and are getting experienced so that they can have easier jobs with more stuff and less problems. The concept of “others first” or “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” is foreign to them. A lot of the “big guys” I know have bought into and perpetrate the lie “bigger is better.”

Read the rest

Christian Living

Let Grace be our language

Is grace enough for you?

Maybe I’m a cynic but I don’t think grace is a hallmark of a lot of Christians. We’re too busy having unrealistic expectations for one another and then wallowing in the disappointment of failed relationships.

I’m too busy judging you for judging me for grace!

Let’s get past this oddity of evangelical culture and descend into the heart of what we believe.

We’re all perfectly imperfect. We need to expect imperfection from the people around us while individually, through the power of Jesus, trying to make our live more like Jesus. Not to celebrate it. But build it into our expectations for one another.

I sin. I am messy. I hate things about my nature. Loathe even. I sadden myself with my sinfulness. Sometimes I disgust myself.

Failure is a part of our walk with Christ. Some would say it is the beginning of our walk with Jesus. It’s part of being a leader. It’s part of maturing. It’s part of learning.

You simply cannot walk with Jesus in a state of false perception of yourself, your mess, and your unique ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

Think about it like this…

The whole reason God created Eve was not for a sin bringing playmate. It was because the Father looked at his creation and said, “Its not good for man to be alone.”

There is no more alone place than in a broken relationship. Conversely, there is little more powerful on this world than a grace-filled relationship with two people.

Here’s my encouragement

Every day you are given the choice between grace and judgement. In all things, chose grace.

Christian Living

Fire is Free

Photo by Harsha K R via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I was listening to a message by Rob Bell a few years ago and someone posed the question to him, “Why do people drive for hours to be a part of Mars Hill.” His answer was profound and simple: “People will drive from miles around to see what’s on fire.

Very true, isn’t it?

When I read the book of Acts I am sucked into the story of both the fire God started and the massive attention that fire drew wherever the Apostles traveled. Sure, there was spectacle on the day of Pentecost where God dropped tongues of fire on believers as they were indwelled with the Holy Spirit.

Yet they only grew by a few thousand that day.

By the end of Acts there were tens of thousands of believers. (Maybe more?) They had unleashed a virus of forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship that the Roman army couldn’t stamp out. By Acts 28, what started as a small fire in Jerusalem was spreading. God had captured hearts whereas other gods and kingdoms tried to capture their bodies– and the Romans simply couldn’t shut down a virus that spread with love.

Because of the division between Luke-Acts we lose sight of the resolution of the story of Jesus’ ministry. While the credits roll and Easter is celebrated at the empty tomb, the story isn’t over!

The story is really just beginning.

It was a virus so strong that within three centuries it would topple the most powerful and dominant empire the world has ever seen.

The empty tomb is the climax. But the unleashing of God’s people by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the resolution.

Why did Jesus come to earth? Surely, to seek and save the lost. Surely, to make a way for salvation of all who seek him. Of course those are reasons He came to earth.

But it was also to unleash a fire through his believers that can’t be stopped.

For 2,000+ years the fire has burned as the only hope of the planet spreads. While evil has appeared from every direction over millennia the fire has spread. Even as martyrs were literally burned at the stake they passed the flames on with their love. The fire is shared from father to son, neighbor to neighbor, classmate to classmate, and homeless man to executive.

A lot of people I know are disappointed in God today. A new year has dawned and they look at the resources they have available, they scratch their heads, they look at the agenda God has laid on their heart, and they cry silently– God, there is no way I can do this with the resources I have.

Unfortunately, too many of my friends in ministry woke up this morning wondering if God has still called them to a life in ministry.

To both, I have this simple reminder from Acts: Fire is free.

The great Hope of the world flows from the pores of our weakness. While we may be depressed by a lack of resources or even a lack of a job– be encouraged the your greatest calling spreads fastest through people with no resources, no stock piles, and nothing left but a flickering flame.

Church Leadership youth ministry

Labor Day Remembrance for Youth Workers

Labor Day became a holiday in response to the massacre of 13 employees to end the Pullman Strike at the hands of the Illinois National Guard. Why were they on strike? The owner of their company cut their wages on their 12 hour work day while holding rents on employee housing. When the owner refused to meet with the employees about the cuts 125,000 railroad workers brought the nation to a halt with a strike… until Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to violently end the strike.

For me, I cannot think of the plight of the 19th century worker without reflecting on the working conditions of many of my friends in youth ministry. If we’re honest… being in youth ministry is very much like pre-organized labor days. Mike Rowe has never shown up at a youth group meeting. But just know that being a youth worker is a Dirty Job.

Today, I am reminded that thousands of youth workers struggle to serve Jesus while employed by churches who often, either intentionally or unintentionally, mismanage them.

The latest economic downturn has lead to a whole new round of horrible stories. No one is exempt. People who once thought they were in great jobs at great churches have learned that tough times can lead to miserable work conditions. And with so much re-thinking of youth ministry vs. family ministry vs. parachurch-styled youth ministry… an unprecedented amount of youth workers are currently either looking for new ministries or trying to figure out how to be tent-maker in youth ministry or looking to get out of the pressure-cooker altogether.

On this Labor Day, I want to draw your attention to some specific examples of their struggles:

  • Apparently, being pregnant or a new parent is the perfect time to fire a youth worker. I’ve heard tons of stories like Ryan Smith’s. What a horrible thing!
  • This is a tough time to look for a job in youth ministry. As I run the YS job bank, I know that churches often get hundreds of applicants for each opening. Many excellent/gifted/experienced youth workers are forced out of youth ministry each month because they simply can’t find a job.
  • It goes without saying that the youth worker is often the least respected pastoral staff member. Their role is seen as child’s play despite every statistic available which shows the importance of faith development during the teenage years.
  • It may be 2010, but nepotism is alive and well in the church. I have recently heard from youth workers who were fired because the senior pastors kid just needed a job.
  • Lots of people received pay cuts this year. They take the form of reduction in pay, losing medical/dental/vision benefits, foregoing conference/continued education allowances, etc. Of course, this is often in violation of an existing employment contract that wasn’t mutually re-negotiated. And churches balk when you ask for time off to do part-time work to make up the difference.
  • Most churches regularly break various federal employment laws, claiming to be exempt of all federal employment laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The church is not exempt from minimum wage laws except in a few circumstances. (Such as, ordained by your denomination.) No employer can make you work more than 40 hours without compensating you. You are not allowed to have uncompensated “ministry hours” on top of your work hours. I routinely hear of churches who advertise as a 50-60 hour per week job. Um, that’s against the law!
  • Many youth workers are punished or even fired because of the actions of their children or spouse in the church. You can’t be fired because your children don’t like the kids program or your spouse goes to another church. Working at a church does not mean you have no civil rights. (Interesting test of this by World Vision, good thing it only applies to the employee.)
  • Youth workers in small-to-medium sized churches work almost entirely in isolation. They have very limited fellowship with other people their age in the church. And their work hours make it quite difficult to have friendships with people in their community. Isolation leads to depression and all sorts of other bad things.
  • Speaking of small churches. These are especially difficult roles because youth ministry is just one of the myriad of things they are asked to do.
  • Part-time youth workers have it even rougher. Most churches that pay part-time really expect/demand full-time work.
  • Many spouses of youth workers are expected to be volunteers in the ministry. This is jokingly referred to as the “two-for-one” deal by churches. It’s a sick double-standard as the same is rarely expected of all ministry employees and is, again, in violation of the minimum wage/Civil Rights laws. I can’t think of another profession which makes the same demand.
  • The day-to-day job of a youth worker is quite difficult. It’s a multi-disciplinary role which requires skills in everything from teaching the Bible to counseling to marketing to event planning. Yeah, totally realistic.
  • Double-standards are the norm for youth workers. Just one example is work hours. They are asked to hold regular office hours. Plus, they are asked to be out evenings to work with students where they are.
  • When employment ends, many in youth ministry are treated poorly and without respect. There are countless stories out there from youth workers who weren’t even allowed to say goodbye to students they’ve ministered to for years.
  • Youth workers often take abuse from all sides. They work long hours which draws criticism from their spouse. Meanwhile, their boss is unhappy because their groups aren’t growing. All the while, parents express frustration because their child isn’t getting the 1-1 attention she’d hoped for.
  • This list could go on and on… but its a holiday and I don’t want to bore anyone before their barbeque.

Certainly, many youth workers have wonderful employers who respect them and treat them well. I don’t want this post to over-shadow that fact.

But perhaps those in great positions can take time to encourage those who are struggling today?

Maybe, in the coming months you would find ways to lift up and encourage brethren in ministry who are in bad circumstances?

Offer them a relationship of confidence?

Offer your home as a place of refuge and relaxation?

Share in your abundance?

Share resources and friendship?

Maybe be that calm and familiar voice who reminds them that this isn’t the way the bride of Christ is supposed to treat its workers?

More than anything… will you take some time today to call or email a youth worker in your life and affirm them? Tell them that their ministry matters. Tell them that you know their job is difficult. And tell them that they are making a difference in your community.

Christian Living

Never be afraid to compliment

I’ve noticed that many folks in ministry are cranky right now. No one seems to get along or agrees with anyone. (I had to say “many” because if I didn’t someone would get cranky about my use of generalization!) It’s all the rage to be a raging disagree-er.

Exhaustion from the launch of the Fall season probably is impacting this back-biting time. The fact that the economy is feeling scary probably isn’t helping, either. The guilt of unconfessed sins. The weight of working for money instead of passion. Too many carbs and not enough sleep. Forgetting to put the seat down. You know, big stuff that weighs us down.

Our tribe feels tired and cranky.

I just want to share what I’ve been saying to myself lately. (Guilty as charged, your honor.)

The world is already full of smart asses. I’d rather be known as an encourager than a smart ass. Something tells me my kids would be more proud of me for saying nice things about people instead of always trying to prove that I’m right or clever or funny or whatever.

That’s why I’ve been trying to lean into the wisdom of my wife. She’ll give me the look and say, “No one cares if you are right if you’re a jerk.The woman is a prophetess, I tell you.


I’ve been reminded that I need to be more conscious of encouraging the people in my life. Even the 45 seconds it takes me to send a text to a friend make a big difference. It’s not much, but it’s something.

As the recipient of some timely encouragement lately, let me say what everyone already knows.

I can live a week on a compliment.

Christian Living

5 Ways to Encourage Your Church Staff

One thing I learned when I was on church staff rarely does a person really want what they are presenting what they want.

In other words, when a parent wants to come in and talk with you about some ideas for the summer youth group schedule, that’s only the presenting issue. I know that with enough time and a couple “How are things going?” and “How can I pray for you?” type of questions you can usually get to the real reason they drove 20 minutes to come to my office.

I’m finding the same is true with church staff.

Satan has a very active and special ministry with church staff.

We have an enemy. Not a metaphorical one. Not one who wears a red cape and pulls some cameos around Halloween. No, Satan is real and he is active and he is effective.

And he knows when, who, and where to tempt your church staff. He is sneaky and he thrives on discouraging them. Satan loves a sucker punch so he gets them when they are really, really high and really, really low.

As a youth pastor, I hated the end of our youth group time on Wednesday nights because I knew what was coming. I called the hours between the end of youth group and when I finally fell asleep, “The dark night of the soul.” I went home and questioned everything. I relived every moment. I wondered why I was a youth pastor since I clearly sucked at it. My heart criticized everything I said. I’d often stay up late and re-write everything.

Logically, I knew that Jesus wasn’t the author of that. But emotionally, I just couldn’t flee it.

And I’m not alone. The staff of your church likely experience the same things.

5 constant temptations for all church staff

  • Evaluate the wrong things.
  • Make brash decisions and abuse power.
  • Do it your their way with their own talents.
  • Comparing to other ministries.
  • Leading more and serving less.

5 ways to encourage your church staff

  • Translate evaluation questions into affirmation of calling. They are asking, “Am I doing the right things?” And you need to tell them, “You are the person God is calling. You are in the right spot.
  • Communicate to your staff that you love them by praying for them.If you won’t pray for the staff and their families find a new church.” A long time ago I went to a membership class lead by Ray Pritchard. He said that and it kind of shocked me. I thought he was being arrogant. But its true. If you don’t love the staff God has placed in your church enough to pray for them than you better take that up with Jesus. He’s way smarter than you are. Get over yourself.
  • Only say nice things on Sunday’s. I know that sounds fake. (Maybe you need to be more fake and less mean?) But your staff has laid their hearts on the altar in ways you will never see. Right after they have finished their ministry time they are most open to Satan’s attacks. They will pick up on the slightest slight and amplify the words you say. Just save it. Sleep on it. Put it in your pocket. Instead, look your staff in the eye and tell them thank you, that you are praying for them, and you think they are doing a great job.
  • Act as a shepherd and guardian for their family. Not the cute, cuddly shepherd who leads sheep to still waters. No, the defensive one with the rod. Smack people in the forehead when they attack your church team. In case you didn’t know, your church staff isn’t paid all that well. Help them take care of their relationship with their spouse by offering free childcare so they can go on dates! Grab a gift card at the grocery store “just because.” When you hear people pick at or about the pastors spouse or kids, get angry and defend them. When you hear a staff member squirm with embarrassment at their kids behavior, grab their arm and say, “Stop it. They are kids. It’s OK for them to be kids.
  • Think about their schedule and send notes at the right times. Find out when your pastor is preparing the sermon. Or when the worship band practices. Or when the youth pastor writes the talk. Or when the kids worker is photocopying curriculum. That’s when you want to drop them a text, Facebook message, or email. That’s when you want to leave a voicemail just to let them know that you are praying for them, that you love how they are ministering to them, and that you are thankful to God for bringing them to your church. 8:00 AM on Sunday morning, that’s not the right time. Friday afternoon or Saturday morning… bam.
Church Leadership hmm... thoughts

3 Tests of a Leader

1. Are they attracting leaders? A great leader surrounds herself with other talented leaders. Other leaders make sacrifices to work for her. A leader doesn’t just attract talented leaders, she keeps them. Established leaders pop in to hang out with her. She raises up leaders from within. She creates a culture of education and mentorship. If you are new to organization– you don’t have to be an insider to see this happening, it’s obvious.

2. Is the vision happening? Lots of people call themselves leaders. And lots of leaders say they are visionaries. But I measure a leader by their fulfillment of the vision. Is it really happening or are they always one thing away from it really taking off or always starting something new and changing courses without admitting that they failed? Is the company, church, or organization funding their vision to rally behind the leader? Does the vision show measurable results in the last 30, 60, 90, 180, 365 days? (More income, more people helped, better customer satisfaction, etc.)

3. Do they stick around? This is a little tricky for emerging leaders as they have a tendency to try a lot of things out until they find the right fit. But by the time they reach the highest levels of leadership they should be steady. If they have a tendency to get big jobs and stay for 2-3 years before moving on… chances are they will do that to you, as well. There’s nothing wrong with that type of person… you just need to know that they are like that and you’ll soon be a part of something without them. When I think of powerful leaders I think of people who have lead an organization successfully for a long time.

There are so many other tests I use to know if someone is a leader I want to follow… but those are my top 3. They are big, obvious, and universal. I can see them on the surface. From there I need to know core stuff like, “Are they open/honest with me or do they hide stuff?” “Are they a leaders outside of their job or is it just a work hat they wear?” “Are they fun to be around?” “Is their leadership about them or is it about the good of the organization?” “Do they flee notoriety?”  Things like that are obviously super important, as well.

Church Leadership

Encourage One Another