Church Leadership

How to Disembark from the S.S. Fantasia

Delay is the deadliest form of denial.
~ C. Northcote Parkinson

Have you ever talked to someone and wondered… is this person living on the same planet that I am? This is a bizarre cultural phenomenon all too common among church leaders. Their day-to-day life, ministry, and sadly ministry aspirations are not based on reality but a fantasy version of reality that they have created for themselves.

This disconnection often manifests itself to me when false assumptions have driven decision-making and engagement with their local community.

  • Building a ministry around an assumption of the nuclear family. (In denial of the reality of their own extended family and in the face that the community they are trying to reach has no cultural reference to this ideal.)
  • Shrugging off the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in their organization. (In denial of statistical fact that all of America, not just urban centers, have experienced a major shift in statistical balance over the past 10 years.)
  • Redefining ministry measurables to fit the make-up of what happens naturally versus what ought to happen. (In denial of the role of organizational entropy, the reality that if you measure your impact based purely on who comes, eventually this will lead you to a crushing vortex of inward thinking.)

Sometimes, almost never intentionally and certainly by apathy, I see organizations struggling not merely because they have the wrong people in leadership or because they are bad people or because they have bad values. But they are struggling because they aren’t living in their own present reality. They are trying to win a game no one else is playing. 

They may be perfectly positioned to take community-changing action but work extremely hard on the wrong things.

Surrounded by people who think just like them (known as groupthink) they organization sales the seas of their community on the S.S. Fantasia. 

3 practical steps to help you anchor your assumptions in reality

Let’s get grounded in putting our academic study to work for us!

  • Regularly review census and other statistical data in your immediate area. If once per quarter your leadership team reviewed the latest statistical data publicly available for free via the census and the myriad of government organizations in your community, you could regularly make small decisions based on what you learn. For instance, if the school district releases a profile of new students which shows a spike in a demographic you could ask the most obvious question, “What can we do to serve this new group of people?Don’t understand this or does this seem too hard? Make an appointment with a school administrator or local college sociologist who will gladly share this data and help you understand it.
  • Regularly ask for cultural observations during team meetings. You don’t need to be a trained ethnographer to do basic ethnography. Your team is already spending time outside of the office in the community you are trying to reach… add a new question to your weekly meetings asking for one thing you observed. Maybe its that women outnumber men at a coffee shop during the day? Maybe its about what people are wearing or driving or reading. We all gather this data but until we share it with our teams we can’t make adjustments. Don’t think your team can handle this? We asked groups to do this in our Good News in the Neighborhood curriculum, middle schoolers can handle it!
  • Define your geographical target and make decisions to benefit those within that area. Face the reality that there are lots and lots of organizations/churches/ministries just like yours. Don’t be a purveyor of the rule of affinity, that’s a short-term strategy built on a false assumption that people will always like what you are doing. Instead, define your target area… be it by a mile radius or specific streets or even a zip code. And then, when you make decisions, ask yourself what’s best based on what you know from regular statistical data and cultural observations from within that target area. If you really want to go crazy– reward your staff for moving into that area and only nominate unpaid leaders like elders who come from that target area. That will begin to send the message that your organization is about that geographical area.

What are S.S. Fantasia things you see in your area/context/ministry? What’s driving you crazy? 

youth ministry

How to Keep Your Youth Ministry Job

Spring firing season has begun.

The end of the school year is a dangerous time to be in youth ministry. With the program year winding down it is prime time for church leadership to make a decision on whether to keep their youth worker for another school year.

Hint: If you get invited to an unscheduled meeting with the elders in the next few weeks, you’re getting fired. I’m sorry. (Er “forced to resign” which is the same thing but makes the elders feel better about it.)

I have several friends who are going through this right now. And it really sucks. 

Here’s two things you need to nail to keep your youth ministry job

  1. Measurables. Oh sure, we talk about the importance of relational ministry. But don’t kid yourself… it’s about numbers. If you want to get paid to do youth ministry (a pay check is a number, by the way) than you better deliver something everyone agrees is measurable and communicate that measurable well. This might be your career, but to a church leader the youth ministry program is just another mouth to feed. (It’s an expenditure.) They want to look at the financial investment they are making and see the results. You’d be wise to start the ministry year communicating clearly defined desired outcomes with  measurables and then preparing a presentation in February/March to show what you’ve done to meet those desired outcomes as well as the measurable impact. Flow charts, graphs, and case studies. If you think I’m being ridiculous… go talk to someone who works at a non-church charity, they have staff people whose sole job is to keep the funding coming by creating desired outcomes and presenting measurables to donors. At the end of the day the only way leadership will continue funding your ministry is to constantly prove it’s working.
  2. Donor relations. Earlier this week I wrote a post called Skin in the Game. As a church staff person you need to know that those who attend the church, especially those for 10+ years, have a lot more skin in the game than you do. Don’t buy the lie that the staff have the most skin in the game at a church… it’s just not true. You are an employee hired to do #1, you are not an owner. I could point you to dozens of friends who have learned this the hard way. They thought being friendly with all the leaders or doing really important, hard work meant that they were safe. Or they thought that if they simply cared a lot and gave everything they had to it that their career would be fine. And then they got invited to a meeting and asked to resign. Spiritually, the owners might be “under your authority” but that doesn’t mean they won’t fire you. I don’t care if you’re the best youth pastor in America. If you don’t deliver on #1 above you’re in big trouble. In professional sports terms, they are the owners and you are the coaches. You job is to win and attract “fans” aka potential owners. If you’re aren’t delivering results than your job is hanging purely by your ability to manage donor relations. Manage those relationships well and you can probably hang on until you deliver on #1. But mismanaging those relationships makes a board decision to fire you a whole lot easier. (Hint: It’s not always the board who are the people you need on your side. Make sure you’re managing the right relationships.)

When I talk to friends in youth ministry who have just been let go, those are the two things it always comes down to. Measurables and donor relations. (aka “politics.”) You might disagree with me on that, and you can probably point to a case where that wasn’t true. But let me reassure you… nail those two things and you are eliminating 90% of the reasons my friends have gotten fired.

Maybe this post is too matter of fact for you? Trust me. I’m only sharing to prevent your pain. I know that I’ve taken something so personal, so much a part of you, and so much a part of your faith and narrowed it down to two bullet points for how you can keep going. I know it seems simpleton and I don’t really get your context. But you just need to know the truth. Don’t be naive. We are all capable of getting fired. Manage these two things well and all the other things you love about your job can continue. Mismanage them and you’re in for a world of hurt. It might not be this Spring, but your Spring is coming.

UPDATE: Brian Berry has a continuation of this post on his blog. Go check it out.

Tip: Get canned? Check out our free job board over at The Youth Cartel.

Church Leadership

What does your ministry have to do with Dropbox?

Did you catch that? Steve Jobs invited Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox, to his office to play Let’s Make a Deal. And Drew Houston walked away.

Why? In the written interview for Forbes and the video above you get clued into Houston’s reasoning.

  • He said we were a feature, not a product.” Apparently, Jobs was thinking that Dropbox would be a great feature… what is now iCloud. (Which is buggy and I’ve turned off, by the way.)
  • We are excited about the prospect of building a really great and independent company.

Those two statements have great meaning if you understand how the tech industry works. In the tech ecosystem there are whales and minnows and only a few medium-sized fish in the middle. The whales go around and gobble up anything that looks tasty. If you are a minnow your goal, largely, is to get swallowed by a whale. Virtually no company survives a full life cycle from minnow start-up to medium-sized company to big great, independent company. The whales have too much money and too many lawyers. (see Patent Troll)

While at first blush every tech start-up I’ve ever met will tell you that they are excited about their product line and would love to grow into a great company, the reality is that acquisition is probably their exit strategy. If you asked them, “Would you sell to Google?” Almost everyone will say yes because as they grow they realize a couple of things.

  • They are great entrepreneurs/inventors and not great managers of people.
  • They have a product and not a company. It might be their 4th product which hits and makes them a household name but they can’t see past the success of their first product.
  • They are starters and not sustainers. Their business model is short-sighted.
  • They want to cash out to get billions, bottles, and babes.

What does this have to do with people in ministry?

  • If you want to build a great ministry you have to keep innovating. You can’t get so hung up on perfecting your first “product” that you stop innovating altogether and never find the thing that hits.
  • If you want to build a great ministry you have to be a great manager of people.
  • If you want to build a great ministry you have to sustain. Stop looking for a better job and make your job the best job you could ever get.
  • If you want to build a great ministry you better forget about billions, bottles, and babes.
Church Leadership

Final thoughts on canceling church

My post last Sunday about megachurches (and their copycat little brothers) canceling services the day after Christmas generated a massive response. Apparently, there were a lot of people who also felt it was a smidge ridiculous that in America we found an excuse to take a Sunday off while those in other parts of the world risk their lives to worship Jesus publicly on any day. And a good amount of people, especially those who commented, thought the connection between the persecuted church and canceling services was unfair.

That’s OK. I’m a big boy and can handle people disagreeing with me.

There were several spin-off posts generated which I’d like to call your attention to as they are worth reading:

I learned three things from the post and its fallout.

  1. In general, American Christians don’t feel much of a kinship to non-American Christians. At least the majority of blog commenters would not put kinship above their individual churches rights to meet or not meet.
  2. Few people latched onto a central concept in the post that the church is our real family. I consider my community group part of my family, I’m left to assume that this family-feeling is not all that common. How can that be so?
  3. The priesthood of the staff is so deeply engrained that it was nearly 30 comments before someone brought up that churches canceling services could have just managed their resources/staff differently by empowering more lay people and depending on the staff less.

In the end, the post did more than I could have hoped for. Rather than simply getting a pile of people to agree with me or disagree with me… it seems as though the post generated the exact discussion I had hoped for. And getting church leaders to critically think about their ministry is about all I could ever ask.

Church Leadership management

Fix what is broken


I’m always a bit surprised when I encounter something that is obviously broken that hasn’t been fixed.

For instance.

I went into a small bookstore. While I was there I noticed a steady stream of customers who walk into the shop, take two looks around, and walk out. The two people working there continued doing what they were doing. One person dutifully shelved books while the other stood by the counter. It doesn’t take a genius to see that something is wrong but the people working there are working on the wrong strategy, aren’t they?

I walked into a church and immediately felt overwhelmed with options. There were booths everywhere in the foyer, each competing for my attention. There were greeters handing me things. There were churchgoers asking my name. There were people trying to get my children’s attention. Five minutes into the visit all I could think of was GET ME OUT OF HERE! This was a broken welcome area. It was meant to make people feel welcome but just confused people. But I highly doubt that church staff spends more than 5 minutes a week thinking about the welcome area. They are working on the wrong strategy, aren’t they?

Dropping our kids off at school is absolute chaos. With no bus service every parent must either drop off their child by car or walk them from the neighborhood. Mix in 500 kids and their imagination-driven walking patterns with a few hundreds cars driven by people from all cultures and walks of life and you have one chaotic mess on a small two-lane street. While the school focuses on keeping kids safe and trying to make pick-up and drop off more efficient you can’t help but see that the whole thing is doomed. They are working on the problem instead of trying to fix what is broken.

Sometimes I visit people blogs and see things that are obviously broken. Bad links, colors that literally makes my eyes water, and no way to subscribe via RSS so I don’t have to ever go back. I don’t care how great your content is! Chosing to leave the bad design there while the content is great is the wrong strategy.

Great leaders pay attention to the most obvious stuff. In whatever you lead you have to stop on a regular basis and say, “Are the basic things running perfectly?” Can customers find what they are looking for? Do visitors feel like this is a church they can belong? Can I drop my kids off at school without them getting hurt? Can I read your blog?

If you don’t take care of the basic things– strategy doesn’t matter. No one will care about your company, church, school, or web content unless you have the basics covered. It’s like talking to a football coach who says that his number one priority is implementing the west coast offense. No one will care about your offensive strategy unless you take care of the real number one priority… making sure no one gets hurt.

When I was about 20 years old I got a job working on equipment that produced ID cards for a health insurance company. The truth was that the department was so lost in procedure and doing things right that they had no ability to get work done. The other people operating the equipment didn’t understand how the equipment worked and could only see the piles of mounting backlog. A machine that was supposed to print 900 ID cards an hour struggled to get 1500 produced in a day. Sometimes we’d have orders for 50,000 cards and be left with no choice but to outsource the work. It was bad. Pressure was mounting. And I knew that if we didn’t focus on the basic things my tenure there would be short. When I started my mantra was, “Just keep the machine running.” We started focusing on that one simple thing… keep the cards printing. We started training the operators on how to maintain the equipment. I showed them how to fix the most basic things themselves so that we didn’t have to wait 2-3 hours for a repairman to come in. By focusing on that one mantra of “keep the machine running” we were able to catch-up and eventually eliminate outsourcing the work. Pretty soon we went from one machine running one shift to 24 hour shifts, to a bigger office with 2 machines, to eventually 3 machines that could run 24 hours a day producing more per hour than the outsourcing companies could on their best day. Our team fixed what was broken and that opened the door of opportunity and expansion.

A good starting point for any leader is to look at the day and say, “What’s most obviously broken?” Work on that first.

illustrations management

Rounding 3rd

softball-gameA few years ago I was on the church softball team. Being a church league for adults it was mostly filled with people who used to be able to play well, but time and a few extra pounds had lowered their skill level down a lot lower than their imaginations thought they were. In other words, most of the teams sucked. And none was worse than ours!

After a couple of weeks of frustration I started to figure out how to hit. The first 5-6 times up to bat my golf-styled swing lead to easy outs as all I could do was hit the ball right down the fairway… easily gobbled up by the pitcher, 2nd baseman, or center fielder. While watching a few games I made an interesting observation: There were a lot of dropped balls. I noticed that there was a high likelihood that the person playing first base wasn’t going to be able to keep his foot on the bag and catch a poorly thrown ball.

So I learned to just keep running. In game after game this strategy worked. I’d hit a ground ball to 3rd base and instead of trying to beat out the play I’d just round first and keep running. Time and time again they’d drop the ball or it’d fly over their head and I was off to second or even third.

The last game of the year, while I was riding to the game with a few other players, I joked that I wasn’t going to stop at third base. I was going to just keep the calamity going all the way home. I had a feeling that if I rounded third the same way I rounded first, I could make it a home run.

So, true to form our team was down big with just two innings left. I get up and absolutely tee off on a ball that splits the outfielders and one hops to the fence. It’s a stand-up double and I could probably make it to third if I weren’t so out of shape. The third base coach gave me the stop sign at second. But I look at his stop sign and throw caution to the wind… it’s time to go home! As I got close to third I could tell by the way the third basemen was looking that the ball was coming in and he would tag me out. So I rounded third. My locomotion– instead of sliding– caused him to look up for a brief second and he bobbled the ball. Halfway home he tossed the ball to the catcher which made me stop and retreat to third. But wouldn’t you know it? When the catcher tossed the ball back to third, he dropped it and I turned for home… stretching a double into an inside the park home run.

During my commute yesterday I was thinking about this, I love rounding third. I love the whimsy of finishing stuff off with a bang. Which is a weird statement for a guy who spends a lot of his mental day imagining ideas for projects that will never get done. That might lead you to believe I’m a project start-up kind of guy. Nope, I love seeing that small percentage of ideas come to fruition.

With three of those “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if” projects just hours, days, or weeks away from completion I’m finding that rounding 3rd base has given me a lot of energy and momentum. I know that locomotion, surprise, and a smile will carry it home from here.


Vision, Goal, and Mission Statements

SuccessEvery organization can measure success.

It doesn’t matter if you’re running a non-profit, a government agency, a corporation, small business, or an educational institution… you need to have some ways to set the course and measure your progress. That is, if you would like to succeed.

If you are willing to fail (must be a government agency or educational institution where money comes “magically” from the tax gods) goals, mission, and vision are pointless as your default measurement of success is merely “Did I keep my job another year?” While those in businesses without defined goals have default, meaningless measurement tools like “Did we make more money than last year?” From a business perspective, that’s a stupid measurement tool as you can kill next year by maximizing profits this year to reach the “make more money than last year” measurement tool. Just ask Enron. Organization driven by meaningless measurements like profits will always fail!

So, let’s define some terms. Maybe this will help your organization.