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

You need to get out more

“Leaders are learners.”

We’ve all heard this. And most people I know in youth ministry are very well read. They read a lot of books and attend a lot of training stuff.

But I also think one reason people can’t think outside of the box to solve problems is that their context is so tiny. They only really know how to “do youth ministry” one way. Sometimes I’ll sit down at a conference or spend an hour on the phone with a friend and we’ll agree… their current strategy isn’t working. But they’d rather get fired than change.

Why is that? 

  • Is it that they are stubborn? (No)
  • Is it that they are uneducated? (No)
  • Is it that they are dispassionate? (No)
  • Is it that they lack creativity? (No)
  • Is it that they lack the power to change things in their ministry? (No)

It’s usually because they’ve only ever seen youth ministry done the way they do it. They grew up exposed to a style. They went to college or seminary and were fostered in that methodology. Then they got hired by churches who want them to run a program that same way. And they hang out with people who do ministry like them. And when they go to conferences, they go to conferences who do ministry just like them.

You know the mantras— We do Sunday school and small groups. Or we do a midweek program. Or something like that.

These are all viable methods. But there are TONS of other methods available in youth ministry. Chances are good that you never even took the time before you started the job to figure out, “Does the method I know even work in this context?” Oh no, we usually come at it the other way. “This method worked for me in another context, it’ll work here.

It’s not a lack of learning holding them back. It’s the lack of contextualization, study, observation, and experimentation that’s killing you.

You need to get out more

If you want to consider this a profession, you need to expose yourself to a wide variety of methods. It’s like going to a doctor who only wants to cut people open. He might know there are other types of surgery out there, and he might have heard about some pills that you can take, but he’s really into cutting people open because that’s what he knows how to treat your problem.

You wouldn’t go to that guy would you? He’s a 1-trick pony.

But that’s how we roll in youth ministry. We have tribes of people who are 1-trick ponies. It’s not that they don’t know there are other methods out there. They just do what they do. We hide behind terminology like “primary giftedness” and other ways of self-convincing ourselves that we can only do ministry the way we grew up doing it.

Learning that isn’t diverse in its approach isn’t really learning, it’s reinforcing what you already know.

You need to get out more.

If learning is a value and all you’re doing is reading books or going to conferences reinforcing what you already know, you’re not a learner. Spend some time observing other methods. Go visit other churches who aren’t like yours. Go see youth ministry in another culture. Make the time to do so. Set up some experiments. Create some brand new theories and test them out.

Whatever you do. Don’t keep working on something you’ve proven doesn’t work in your context.

That’s not professionalism, that’s insanity. 

Culture iphone Web/Tech

iPhone, Your New Cigarettes

iPhone, Your New Cigarettes

The parallels between the iPhone in 2011 and cigarettes in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s are stunning.

  • It’s iconic.
  • It’s celebrated as the cool thing.
  • It’s a status symbol.
  • It’s celebrated in the media.
  • It’s manufacturer is getting rich.
  • There are cheap imitations. (Sorry Android users)
  • It’s addicting, but not viewed as a serious addiction.
  • The first thing you do in the morning is light up your iPhone.
  • The last thing you do before you go to bed is put your iPhone out.
  • People step out of meetings to check their iPhone.
  • People huddle around their iPhone while they walk around.
  • They do it in public, to the sneering glare of non-iPhone users.
  • After sex… well, some people light up their iPhone.
  • The price could go up at any minute, but you’d still need an iPhone.

I’m as much an addict as the other millions of regular users. Hopeless. Helpless. And happily satisfied in my addiction.

Just like cigarettes– users are left with the question:

Do you own your iPhone or does your iPhone own you?