Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tope Ten Excuses Every Youth Leader Makes

I got this idea from a post at Tim Schmoyer's youth ministry blog site called "100 Blog Posts I Hope You Write". Of course with it being a top ten, I thought I'd give a nod to the top ten guru, David Letterman. So, if you want to imagine the sound of breaking glass as you read each of these, go right ahead.
I looked back at my 13 years in youth ministry and was amazed at how quickly I was able to think of most of these because I had used them at one time or another, so here we go, starting with #10.
10. Those events are only for big churches. I can't tell you the number of times I didn't go through with an event because I felt our venue/budget/youth group was too small for the magnitude of my vision. When small churches work together, they have the ability to pull off "big church" events. If you find yourself saying this a lot, find a way to network with other youth workers in your area from other churches--even if it's across denominational lines! A good place to possibly find some other workers is National Network of Youth Ministries. You also might try to network with some senior pastors in your area through your local ministerial alliance and find out who their youth workers are.
9. The church doesn't support the youth program (so why should I support the church?). It is frustrating when the youth program is meeting in a converted storage closet, your salaray is ridiculous for the hours you put in, and every year your budget requests keep getting shot down by the finance committee. It can really cause you to sit back and be unproductive because you feel like your effort is futile. The church wants a bigger youth program and you need their support to do that. One thing that can help is you can try to be a team player and get the youth involved in other areas of the church...this is easiest with children's ministry, especially through things like Vacation Bible School. It's not a foolproof plan, but when your church sees the youth making contributions to the church, the powers that be will be more likely to offer their support for the youth program, it's budget, and it's leader. Also, use things like the newsletter and website to keep people up to speed on what the youth program is doing. This helps them realize that you are doing the job they are paying you to do. I like to edit short picture slide show videos after big events and play them during the worship services so people can see how their support in fund raisers impacted the youth and others.
8. I don't have enough volunteer help. Over the years, this has been the biggest struggle of all for me, personally. I have some spiritual gifts the Lord gave me, but unfortunately recruiting is not one of them. We all know that it takes a team of volunteers making an infrastructure of relationships to pull off regular meetings and special events. One thing that has helped in my current church is that we have adopted a sexual ethics policy that makes minimum requirements for volunteers at events. Yes, they have to be trained in order to volunteer, BUT, everyone is aware of the need for volunteer help and you can use the policy as leverage to get them in and soon you won't be able to keep them away. Also, don't limit who you think would be a good youth worker. Sure, parents are an obvious segment of the church population, but also look for couples and singles who are close to your age and may be friends with you or your spouse. Don't overlook elderly people. They may be several generations removed, but they will be able to minister to the kids in ways you'd never think of. I know in some larger churches, it's almost an honor to be asked to "apply" for a volunteer youth position, but in smaller churches, people often expect the youth director to do it all and that's simply not possible. A hands-on education is often the best way to open the eyes of volunteers. Once they are aware of what it takes, schedule regular planning meetings to plan the events for the next few weeks or months (I like meeting once a quarter) and they can start planning ahead for those events.
7. I don't have time for that. Yes, time is always a factor. People in ministry can be as busy or as idle as they want to be. Most successful youth workers I know are self starters who are always casting a vision for new events, new ideas, and new ways of connecting with kids. So, there literally is no end to the job you want to do. That means you really have to evaluate what things are absolutely essential to your time. When I came to my current church, they asked me about being involved in other areas of the church outside of youth ministry. I told them that my loyalty would lie to the youth program first and whatever I could contribute outside of that as a member of the congregation, I would do so as long as the youth ministry did not suffer. When I was part time and/or going to school this was even more difficult. There are two things to do. First, prioritize which things are absolutely most critical and focus on those first, then work on your longer term projects. Second, look at your long-term and short-term goals for the youth ministry and determine which activities will help you accomplish your goals.
6. I don't get paid enough for that. In the ministry it is okay to say "no". When I began at 19, I didn't quite realize that. That is a good thing to remember, however, we can also go the other way and be too comfortable saying "no" any time something comes up that we feel like will stretch our time, resources, and volunteer staff. Again, this is where goals come in. Hopefully you have some goals for your youth group such as drawing them closer to God, drawing them closer to each other, or something more specific. So when an overwhelming idea or activity is presented that you know seems beyond your paygrade, see how it fits into your goals. If you honestly believe it will help your group accomplish its mission, then see about putting a team together to help you pull it off. After all, are you in youth ministry for the paycheck, or for the kids?
5. The kids don't come anyway, so why should I... Numbers can be a tangible measure of growth in a youth ministry, but not necessarily the growth of a healthy youth ministry. But because we love to see our youth rooms packed with kids, it's only natural to get discouraged when there are lots of empty chairs. If we focus so much on the kids that aren't there, it really can zap our motivation--after all, we're not in youth ministry for the money, right? So, what I've learned to do (it was hard at first) is focus on the kids that ARE there, even if it's just two or three. They will feed off your enthusiasm and excitement. Likewise, if you say things like, "Where is everybody?" they will feed off that too. Structure your studies and your programs for the kids that are coming then build on that. Outside of the meetings, be mindful of the kids that haven't been coming and try to contact them through text messages, myspace, facebook, phone calls or whatever, but when it's time for youth group, focus on the ones who are there.
4. My pastor doesn't support me. I've seen many good youth workers run out of town because their pastor didn't support the work they were doing or even worse the pastor worked against them. There is a fine line between supporting a church and supporting a pastor. Can you support a church and not support the pastor's ministry? That's a tough question. However, in my opinion, the church staff functions easiest if the youth director (minister/pastor/leader) as well as the rest of the church staff, sees their ministry as an extension of the senior pastor. That means not only do they support the church, but they support the pastor. Can you be in a situation where you are supportive of the pastor and he/she isn't supportive of you? Absolutely. However, we as youth workers can never change that. What we can do is be supportive of his or her ministry and lead the youth program in being supportive of that ministry. If we constantly lock horns with our authority figures, they will feel the power struggle and what should be an atmosphere of teamwork and support becomes an environment of distrust and skepticism which can take down a church staff very fast. So, support your pastor and he should support you. If you don't feel you can support your pastor, or if he doesn't return the support you give him, discuss this with him. It may be time to wipe the dust off your feet and move on.
3. That's not in my job description. I mentioned earlier that most youth ministers are self-starters--people who are driven by vision, not by a checklist on a job description. If we look at the job description handed to us at our hiring and mark off each week or month when we have filled our "duties" our ministry will become stagnant and given over to the status quo. While these items may be the minimum requirements of our job, the driving force behind what we do should be a desire to see our students drawn into a deeper relationship with God. It just may happen that something very powerful (and time consuming) could impact our students but lo and behold it's not in our job description. So we write it off because it takes more time and energy and isn't really required of us. In this case, we hide behind our job description to keep us from being too busy. Not only that, but part of being on a church staff is being a team player. There will be times when you as a youth pastor may need to help out in another area of church ministry. Too much of this will pull you away from your primary responsibilities as a youth worker, but from time to time, other areas of the church need to see that you and the youth department are on their side and working with them for the sake of the church community. Don't be afraid to take on tasks that aren't in your job description.
2. If I only had a better facility. In the first two churches I served as a youth minister, the youth group had Sunday School in large closets and had our meetings in the fellowship halls. We did have some land outside that we could run around on and a volleyball court at one church, but for the most part, we were pretty limited. Now, I'm at a larger church with a whole 2-story house to serve for our youth building. But guess what, I still find myself dreaming of a larger facility with a gym, room for a sound system, a stage, etc. So no matter what our meeting space is like, we can always write off elements of ministry because we "don't have the right facility." The first thing to do, though, with any less-than-perfect youth facility is to find ways to improve it. Many times, trustees or those in charge of church facilities don't spend any time in the youth department, so they may not realize any improvements need to be made, especially if the youth room/building is in a more secluded part of the church that's not readily visible. Paint is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to transform any youth meeting area. Also, there is a neat book from Group called Meeting Space Ideas for Youth Ministry that has lots of ideas to transform any youth building of any size. No facility is perfect for every activity, so, what I like to do is plan around the facility. One of the greatest online resources for games is Jonathan McKee's The Source 4 Youth Ministry. If you like to do games and activities but don't have room, look for games that can be done in a small area or games that can be done up front with just a few people. If you have room outside like a sports field or grassy lawn, do some outdoor games. Your youth building/room will always be your home, but don't be afraid to use other facilities in the church for special events and activities (check the church calendar first, and be sure to take care of the facilities). Another obvious answer to the facility issue is to plan plenty of events that get the kids away from the church. These may be trips to concerts, camps, campouts, retreats, movies, theme parks, or in-home parties. I try to take pictures at these events and put the pictures in collage frames or blow them up to poster size and put them throughout our meeting area. This brings the memories of those events right into our Cinderella youth building.
1. We don't have a big enough budget for that. Money is essential to the ongoings of ministry, most any youth ministry of any size is always in need of a little more capitol. In entries 6 & 7 above, I discussed the importance of goals in ministry planning. If there is something you really feel needs to happen in your ministry (an event, an acquisition for the youth building, etc.), but is not in your budget, there are several options. First, if the item or event is that necessary to the ministry and your kids and volunteers both understand the need for it and are excited about it, then the group can raise the funds themselves. This includes selling the vision for the event or item for which you are raising funds (ski trip, adventure camp, HDTV for the youth building, etc.) If they aren't excited about it, you may be running a bake sale by yourself with a few dozen cookies your wife made. Another option, if your calendar is full and fund-raising is already being done for some other ministry events, you can put it in as a line item on next year's budget. If you can't wait that long and this is an event you want to do, you can network with other youth ministers in your area and see about partnering with them for resources to have an event (i.e. bring in a band for a concert). If you are aligned with a denomination, you may have funds available in your area, or district office for events if they are done for the churches in your area of your denomination. Of course, some of these options may be done together. Last May we had a garage sale and raised $1500 for a ski trip we will be taking in March that was factored into this year's budget. A final option is ask for money or items to be donated. I don't like to use this one much, because I feel it's important that students learn the value of raising money. However, if you need a couple of TVs for the youth building and can't wait until next year, you might put a blurb in the newsletter and Christmas may come early.
This is not a definitive list. These are just some things I've found myself using over the years to talk myself out of being motivated and ways I've found to work around them.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Staples of Soaps and Spirituality

When I was a kid, I used to spend time in the summer at my aunt's house with my cousins who were a few years older than me and who happened to be female. So, you can imagine the things I "learned" hanging around them. One thing I was introduced to, though, was soap operas. I don't remember much about them, but I do remember a few things about the plots that seemed pretty odd to me. Fast forward about 25 years and as my wife is now a stay-at-home mom, I've come home for lunch at times and found myself watching one of a couple different daytime dramas. So, I thought to myself, "What is it that makes a soap, a soap?" So here are a few character traits of a soap opera.
1. An evil twin with an eye patch
2. Someone everyone thinks is dead but is really alive
3. A rich person who always tries to buy everyone's affections
4. Someone with severe amnesia
5. Someone who is in, about to go in, or has recently been in a mental institution
6. Someone or someones who are still in love with someone who is deceased
7. A money-grubbing floosy who just wants some guy for his money
8. A young person dying

This is by no means an extensive list, but these items, I think, pretty well run true in daytime detergent dramas. As I thought about this, I asked myself, what are the staples of a spiritual life? There was a time when I would have made a list to include the following items and possibly a few others.
1. Regular prayer
2. Regular personal Bible study
3. Regular church attendance
4. Regular group Bible study
5. Regular tithing

But, as I looked back at my own life, I realized, the times where I had the most spiritual growth were times when many items on this list took a backseat to a lot of other pressures, stresses, and issues in my life (maybe during a time of divorce, losing a job, having financial woes). The late Youth Specialties president and founder Mike Yaconelli adresses this in his book, Messy Spirituality. This book breaks down the difference in being religious and being spiritual and looks at several biblical examples. Don't misunderstand me. All 5 items on my previous list are VERY important, however, sometimes we get so caught up in the disciplines of Christianity that we miss the rhuah of God moving in us. The book is a pretty quick read. Check it out! If you feel like you don't pray enough or read the bible enough or don't "have it all together" there is hope for you yet!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Things I learned in 2008

I've been in youth ministry nearly 13 years, 8 of those years have been spent serving full-time on a church staff. I've had many years where it felt like things just weren't clicking, then I've had years like this one where I look back and think, "Wow, we really had a good year!" Since the Lord allowed me to have one of the most successful years in my ministry, I wanted to pen the things I've learned. So, here we go.

1. Get excited about your facilities and your kids will follow suit. Whether you're meeting in the Taj Mahal or a converted broom closet, try to unlock the hidden potential of your meeting space and do what you can to make it a cool place. Our building before. Our building after some TLC.

2. Go to bat for your program with your trustees or other decision-making people in the church. Many youth programs are treated like red-headed step-children because either people assume youth enjoy things like ugly, worn-out sofas; they assume the youth will just tear up anything new; or they never go to the youth building/room to see what needs to be done. This doesn't just apply to facilities but all aspects of the program.

3. Find the right people in your congregation to help make things happen. No youth worker can do it alone, so find the right people to help you accomplish certain goals. This year, I had help from a church member who was a contractor, as well as our trustees chairman who were able to do some things for us, and parents who were constantly bringing food on a rotating basis.

4. Advertise your program to the congregation. This sounds egotistical, but the more the church knows what you and the youth group are doing that is positive, and spiritually enriching, the more they will support you and the program. Use your newsletters, websites, and if you know how to edit short videos you can run them during the services showing people in about 90 seconds what you and the kids did at your event last week.

5. Stay busy and be visible. It sounds like a political statement, but there is some truth to being visible in the congregation. If you can work from your office, do that, rather than "working at home". For me, this is more productive anyway. If your congregation sees how hard you work, they will support you.

6. Enlist and utilize your volunteers. This one has been beaten to death, but we all know the value of good youth workers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Working With Youth Bands: Tragedy into Triumph

Last Sunday, our power trio youth band was rehearsing--having a normal practice, getting ready to do some new songs we'd passed out the week before. We had just finished a song and as our bass player was flipping through her song book, the strap came off her bass and it fell to the floor. I didn't hear any pop, thud, or unpleasant noise coming from the amp, so I assumed it was a false alarm. She picked it back up and we had no sound. As I pulled the backplate off the guitar, I noticed a solder joint had come loose, as I suspected. But then as I examined the input jack, we realized that it had landed right on the instrument cable and had completely shattered the shell of the instrument right around the input jack. So even with a good solder job, we'd still have to find a way to keep the cable in the guitar.

Anyway, I went to my supply closet and got out a set of congas that haven't been used in at least 3 years. Our guitar player (I play drums) is very reluctant to play without a bass player, so he opted out for our Sunday night worship time. What happened was just an amazing, acoustic, unplugged type feel with me on acoustic and our bassist doing a pretty good job considering she'd never played a pair of congas before. Then by Wednesday night, our guitar player decided he wanted to join in the fun and he was playing a tambourine and a rainstick.

The change was nice, even though we didn't have a chance to rehearse the new format. I hope we can do it more in the future except under different circumstances. How has adversity, or unexpected change, forced you to be more flexible as a worship leader/band and what were the results?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Getting it Right!

This weekend I was at the National Youth Worker's Convention in Nashville, TN. It never ceases to amaze me how God works when he is trying to prove a point. We sat through several general sessions that discussed how Christians are called to be a loving people who share their possessions with each other and carry each others' burdens the way the church did in the second chapter of Acts. Well, as we spent the weekend walking back and forth from the convention center to the hotel we (me and two friends from Palestine) had an opportunity to buy a hamburger for a homeless lady. We were disappointed that we couldn't do more since we were so far from home and had limited resources, but our eyes were opened to a need. As touched and moved as we were at the opportunity we had to help her, the biggest teaching moment for me came later. Sunday afternoon, after the general session, there were no seminars that really interested me. So a friend of mine and I went to the grill in the lobby of the hotel to watch the Cowboys game. While we were there we met a guy from Kentucky who was a huge Cowboys fan. We could tell from his vocabulary that he was probably not a believer and certainly was not there for the youth ministry conference. But we had a common bond--our love of the Dallas Cowboys. After we had talked for a while, he went and sat down and we didn't think much about it. However, a while later, he comes over with 2 slices of a quesadilla and puts it in front of us. He says, "Hey guys, you can have this. We are going to have a big dinner later and we dont' want to get too full." Of course we thanked him and began to chow down. Even though we had already eaten lunch, this was a great second course! As I sat there, I thought of the absurdity of it all. He gave us some of his food because we cheer for the same football team. THAT IS CRAZY! As I reflected on what that meant, I couldn't help but think of the church in Acts 2 how they devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching and broke bread together and sold their possessions giving to one another as each had need (my paraphrase). When was the last time we did something nice for someone simply because we knew they were followers of Christ? Even better, when was the last time we did something for someone simply because we knew they were not followers of Christ? I hope we will all learn to live more like the church in the book of Acts and less like the church of 21st century America.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Working With Youth Bands: Will the Audience Really Know the Difference?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of playing bass with my friend Russell Martin as we led worship for a 6-th Grade mini-camp weekend. As Russell and I talked with our percussionist, Brooks, we began analyzing the ins and outs of playing technique, whether on guitar, bass, or percussion. Brooks played out a drum beat and noted how many drummers would play it "one way" (badoom boom crack ka-doom, etc.) but he would play it "this" (insert onomotopeia here) way. As we began to discuss this idea, we realized how we all have a tendency to overanalyze our playing, regardless of which instrument we are playing. Given, the Lord wants us to play to his glory, using the best of our ability and skill (Psalm 33:3). However, we can get caught up in the flashiness of our playing and then it's not about worship about all, but about showing off our chops.

The great thing about leading worship is that 9 times out of 10, the audience won't know the difference if we don't get our part exactly like some recording. Unless they are musicians who play as well or better than the members of your team, they will not care if you pick instead of strum, if you play 16th notes instead of 8th notes on the hi-hat, or if you slap a funky bass line instead of merely playing the root note of each chord. Now, subconsciously, they will be able to determine what sounds good or what doesn't, but as far as HOW you get to that point, very few people in the audience will be able to pinpoint that. Leading worship often is about taking a great song and making it fit the playing ability of your worship team, making it easy for the congregation to sing along, and still be true to the original song.

This concept came up in our praise team practice Sunday afternoon. Our bass player, who has been playing guitar actually longer than our guitar player, knew how to play a particular guitar riff on a new song. She wanted to play guitar on that song and then switch back to bass. However, I pointed out that most people (probably everyone in our youth group) wouldn't even know the riff was missing and switching instruments would only be a time-consuming distraction. Also, it was robbing our guitar player of a learning opportunity. Why should she switch instruments and play the riff when he could learn it from her and probably have it nailed in a week or two. It is good to be skillful, but if our best is just being able to play the basics well enough to get by, God is still honored in that. So, let us all keep building our chops, play to the best of our ability, but let us not get so caught up in flashy playing that we forget who and what we are playing for. In the words of Neil Young, "Keep on rockin' in the free world!"

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Getting Lost in the Numbers

Over the past few weeks I've been pretty discouraged about our attendance numbers at our youth group meetings. I know this is not good or healthy, and part of it has been due to a burden for some of my kids who have fallen by the wayside. I want to see my kids at church, so being disappointed about low attendance is not necessarily a bad thing. However, through several blogs and online devotionals (one is at http://www.timschmoyer.com/), God has been reminding me that I shouldn't get caught up in the numbers game.

For whatever reason, kids who once regularly attended our group meetings have decided not to come any more. It may be due to new school activities, a change in family situation, new interest in another church's programs, a new group of friends at school, or any number of circumstances beyond MY control. Despite my coaxing and keeping in touch with these students through myspace, email, text messages, visits with parents and just about every other means, I have been unable to get these students to return. So, the reminder God has been sending me is to focus on the kids who ARE here. This doesn't mean we should give up on the ones who are no longer regulars in the group, but in the meetings, instead of saying "where is everybody?", we should focus on what a good group we have, even if it's just a handful.

This has really changed my perspective. One of the things I did with my newfound inspiration was that I went and printed a lot of the photos I've taken of our kids and filled collage picture frames with them. Then I had several of our group shots from various events posterized and hung them in the youth building. This has really compounded itself because as I've put more pictures up of the group, I've gotten more excited about them, and they've gotten more excited about our facility and the things we've done. And guess who were also in the pictures...some of our kids we've lost that serve as a reminder to me and the ones who are still here to reach out to them. It's been a simple, but great tool for us! This weekend we will be putting new paint on our old drab youth building, making it a cool place where the kids can hang out. Good things are happening because I changed my focus to the kids who are here!

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Cost of Discipleship

At our church, we have a 2-story house on the corner of our property that was donated to the church so the church could have the lot space and expand our campus. The house is over 100 years old and is in great structural shape, but needs some TLC on the cosmetic end. So, in an effort to get the house taken off the property and to prevent demolition of the structure, our trustees put a sign in the yard "Free House to be Moved." Needless to say, we've had many inquiries and people come by to look at the house. But here is the reason the house is still here. The house is taller than most power lines and would probably have to be partially dismantled, then reassembled at it's permanent home. The cost of moving the house, we've heard from interested parties, is somewhere between $55,000 to $85,000.

Well, today, I was thinking about a comment I heard this past weekend at a 6th Grade Retreat at Lakeview Conference Center. Our speaker told us that some people will tell you that making Jesus your Lord and accepting His forgiveness is the easiest decision you'll ever make--a no-brainer, if you will. But he riminded us that choosing to follow Christ is really one of the hardest decisions we'll ever make because it involves a life-long commitment to loving God and other people, even when it's not easy.

I think a lot of believers encounter God and get caught up in the "free house" mentality, and then realize what the cost of that free house is and their excitement dwindles. Jesus talked about this in the Parable of the Sower (The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.). So, was choosing to follow Christ, the hardest decision you've ever made? The easiest? Somewhere in the middle?

"Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." --Matthew 16:24

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Way It Ought to Be

I remember my first Christian concert. It was 1987 at Reunion Arena in Dallas. We saw Twila Paris, and a couple of other people, but the headliner was Petra. We were on the floor...13th row if memory serves correctly right in front of a towering wall of speakers and I had no idea what to expect. They all came out in silver jumpsuits and big hair (it was the 80s, remember?) and blew our ears out much like Marty McFly at the beginning of Back to the Future. Ever since, I've been to dozens of Christian concerts both for my own enjoyment and as attempts to get my youth group plugged into music that wasn't mired down with messages of sensuality, physical perfection, and the "do whatever you want" mentality of our culture.

But somewhere in all the loud guitars, lights and sold out arenas there runs a danger of something getting lost. With all the T-shirts and shameless plugs for the upcoming album Christian music begins to look a lot like non-Christian music which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But I've been to many shows where the artists didn't speak much or talk about what their relationship to God meant to them. At these shows, the band came out, sang and played for 2 hours, and we all went back to buy shirts and CDs on the way out. But last Saturday, Oct. 11, I experienced a breath of fresh air amidst all the tyranny of contemporary Christian music. I went to Christ United Methodist Church in College Station, TX to see Building 429 with opening acts After Edmund and Addison Road. The experience was as spiritually enlightening as it was pleasing to the ears.

We paid a modest price of $10 for our tickets and were in a church that seated about 1500 that was maybe 2/3 full. So there was plenty of room to get up by the stage and get very close to the performers. After Edmund had done a show the previous spring here in Palestine and our kids were so crazy about them...they are a great band and put on a great show. But when the guys in the band realized that our kids had been at the Palestine, their memories were jogged and they remembered them. It was so nice to see this band who was touring across the country to remember a bunch of jr. high kids from Palestine. Jason Roy, the lead singer of Building 429 served as emcee for the whole show. Many times the headliners stay tucked away until the big finale, but he wanted us to experience God's love and worship him at that concert. So the concert was about Christ, not about them. They also did a few worship songs that were not orignally written or performed by them to lead the congregation in worship. I wasn't really surprised, but yet, I wasn't expecting it either. I mean nobody is going to be able to go to the back table and find the Building 429 CD with the Matt Redman song on it--it doesn't exist. But their heart was for worship and community and I felt that superceded any agenda for record sales.

I realize that record sales are a small portion of what funds these cross-country behemoths as they go from town to town with huge trucks filled with lights and sound equipment and in order for them to do what God has called them to do, they have to make money. However, it's good to know that amidst all the bright lights, record sales, touring, merchandise, and everything else that bands are still doing the Lord's work by lifting people's spirits and leading them to the throne of God.
(Below, my youth group kids with members of After Edmund)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New Creations or Banged Up, Suspended Coulda' Beens?

I was so excited at the beginning of the season--every time I turned on SportsCenter, my Dallas Cowboys were getting tons of air-time discussing how they were the most talented team in football. and favorites for the Super Bowl. I've been a Cowboys fan as long as I can remember--my Mom even tells a story about us driving past a Holiday Inn (back when they had a big white star on their sign) and I shouted from the back seat in my best baby talk "Dadda Cabboy". From the days of Staubach, Dorsett, and Coach Landry, up through the Danny White era, I watched it all. It was a tough pill to swallow when Jerry Jones bought the franchise, but when the triplets (Aikman, Emmitt, and Irvin) and their supporting cast started making a run for the championship I quickly came around. But the events of the last week have been disturbing. Our all-pro quarterback has a broken pinky along with our punter who has a broken foot. Our #2 running back is out with a torn hamstring and many of the players are just "banged up". But the one inactive player that tops the list is not due to an injury. Yes, the gamble that team management took in acquiring Adam "Pac-Man" Jones under the condition that he would behave himself did not pay off in a positive way. He had some drama at a hotel in Dallas two weeks ago and is now in an indefinite suspension for a minimum of 4 weeks. I felt Pac-Man should have been suspended by the team regardless of what the NFL decided to do, but it seemed that to the management that winning was more important than discipline. In other words, it was like the Cowboys were saying, "We don't care how you act off the field as long as you put up big numbers ON the field." Add to all this the constant ego issues with Terrell Owens who never seems happy with the amount of passes thrown his way. As I thought about the team's situation, some thoughts came to mind as well as some scriptures.

If we are in Christ, we are new creations, right? Paul says in Romans that we are to be "more than conquerers." But I think many times we are a lot like the Dallas Cowboys--a team that has a ton of talent, but whose egos and injuries get in the way. They can't seem to be successful right now because of all the drama they experience off the field. Paul says this is the human condition in Romans 7, beginning in verse 7. He says "what I want to do is what I do not do and what I do not want to do are the very things I do." Our lives are bogged down by sin. Even though we are new in Christ, we still deal with our sinful nature. How would our lives and ministries look if we put all the personal drama aside and lived as new creations...as conquerors? For seasons it seems we do that, but a lot of times we spend our time and energy chasing futile goals--either in ministry or in our personal lives. We are trying to get to another rung on the "ladder" or trying to make enough money to afford the payment on another car. If we would learn to run the race God calls us to run, we will live like champions, not like banged up "coulda beens".

Monday, October 13, 2008

Planting Seeds

This morning, I opened my myspace inbox to an email from a student I haven't seen in the youth program in a long time. This student lives a pretty good distance from Palestine in a small community. She was a regular in our program at one time, but due to gas prices and family changes she has been unable to attend for some time. We have kept in touch over the last year through myspace. I always wanted her to know that she was missed and we wanted to see her next time she got a chance to come to one of our meetings. Well, this morning she reported to me that she had been almost agnostic over the course of the last year, but at a couple of events this weekend with another church, she had "gotten saved" (that was how she put it--I have to assume she prayed to make Christ the Lord of her life--either way, she had a spiritually moving experience and had talked to someone about her relationship with God). She told me how she saw the reality of who God was. One of the events she had attended was a production of "Hell House." Personally, this is not how I like to approach preaching the gospel, however, this was something that spoke to her heart. I was encouraged to know that the seeds I had planted over nearly 2 years of study came to fruition somewhere else. She is now getting plugged into the ministry of this church that is closer to her home and where she has several friends from school.

Sometimes it's hard to let go of stuff. We want to be the guy who leads droves of students to Christ each week and has the big program with standing room only at each of our lessons and when it doesn't happen that way, we can get discouraged if our pride gets in the way. The church in Corinth had this problem (I Cor. 3), although, It wasn't Paul and Apollos who had the pride issue...it was the congregation. They were taking up sides for who was their favorite preacher. As youth ministers, we want to see those kids make a profession of faith and come to Christ under our watch and we forget that we may be planting the seeds or watering, when God is the one who will bring the growth and it may be someone else who gets to reap the benefits of the harvest. For those of you guys in the trenches of youth ministry, be encouraged. Isaiah 55:11 says the Word of God will not return void (KJV). The lessons you teach week in and week out are sinking in, but they may not take root until long after you teach them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Yahweh and the Festival of Manliness

This past Friday, I got to spend the day doing one of my favorite things--hunting. Not just hunting, but hunting with my best friend, Tommy Rosenblad who is a pastor in Bartlett, TX. Tommy is not only my best friend, and an avid hunter, but he also shares my love of football--particularly the Dallas Cowboys. So on Friday, we met early that morning at the deer lease. With it being very early in the season we decided to sit in the same stand and "film" our hunt. It's hard to film when you don't see any quarry. We got skunked. We saw no deer. The only thing we saw was a lone coyote who walked the length of the field and came near our stand just out of bow range. The hunting forecast doesn't look too good when there are predators lurking around. Anyway, I digress.

Fast forward 2 days to Sunday School this past week. The lesson was centered around the story of David and Jonathan. (short Bible story paraphrase: Jonathan's dad, Saul, was the king and was jealous of David and had been trying to kill him. Jonathan made an oath to God that he would be loyal to David no matter what.) We studied about how some friends bring us up while others bring us down. What I began to realize in that study was that for some students (and adults) Christianity is just another thing they have in common with their friends (they like the same movies, video games, sports, sports teams, etc.) Then their are others for whom faith isn't just something that they have in common with their friends--faith is the foundation of that friendship!

Sunday night, we were doing a small group guys study called "Becoming a Young Man of God". One of the questions posed was, "What do you think it means to be a real man?" Many people would say that 2 guys dressed in camoflauge and toting bows and arrows in the woods and talking about their love for the Dallas Cowboys and all things football would be very manly. But I think that true manliness is when men can have a friendship that is built on their faith in God through Jesus Christ. "Jonathan said to David, "Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, 'The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.'" (I Sam. 20:42) Pretty manly, huh?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Youth Band: Leading Worship from a Drum Set

Recently, our youth worship band in our fairly small youth group suffered a tremendous loss when our drummer's family moved away. I played drums in a worship band in college so the natural transition was for me to move to drums. Although, I considered myself to be a better drummer than guitar player, it has been a difficult transition. I would like to share with you some of the obstacles and frustrations I've experienced. If anyone out there has any advice, please post a comment. I'm thinking of getting a drum machine, so if you've worked with those, maybe you can make a recommendation.

A drummer doesn't have a commanding presence over the rest of the band. Unless the band members are intent on watching you for cues it's difficult to have that nonverbal communication you have when standing up and playing guitar. With a guitar you can move around, bob your head, and even turn and show them your fingers on the fretboard. From a drumset, you are limited to really only being able to control the tempo and texture of the song.

It is difficult to interact with the audience/congregation from behind a drumset. In worship circles, we talk about the invisible wall between the stage and the audience. As a worship leader, that wall really gets bigger when the "leader" is at the back and tied to a chair.

Having a band leader on drums puts more pressure on the singers because there is no one standing up beside them singing with them. Although you may be singing from the drumset, they still feel isolated from you and can make younger singers more nervous.

Leading singing and playing drums can be challenging in itself. This may just depend on the person doing it, but certain instruments, like rhythm guitar, really lend themselves to accompanying singers. I find it easier, in fact, to sing from behind my guitar than without it (if it's a song I know). Drumming and singing don't always blend, especially if the drum rhythms are not right in sync with the vocal lines.

As I said earlier, I'm considereing getting a drum machine for our worship band and going back to guitar. What have your experiences been with drum machines? Is it a good thing, or is it too "canned" where the kids don't really connect? Also, would I be better served having another student learn to play djembe or cajon? My guitar player doesn't have an acoustic, so I don't think that would blend very well. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Things to Consider Before Purchasing a Curriculum

I'm writing this post in response to a post on Tim Schmoyer's blog called "100 Blogs I Hope You Write." Being in youth ministry, few things are more important than the curriculum we teach. I've had both good and bad experiences with curriculum, so here are some key things I would like to consider.

1. How long is the study? How many lessons does it contain and how many weeks will the study last? Is that too short or too long of a period to study the particular topic? Will you have to break up the study for Christmas vacation or cut it off when summer starts?

2. Is the curriculum doctrinally sound? Different churches have different teachings about a variety of topics. Is this a curriculum that your Senior Pastor or others in your church would want you teaching? Will you have to edit the material to make it line up with your tradition? Some churches will authorize you to teach anything from the denominational publishing house (i.e. Lifeway for Baptists, Cokesbury for Methodists), but will also allow things from interdenominational publishers such as Group or Youth Specialties without having anyone screen your curriculum. Check with your senior pastor or church board to see about accountability standards for curriculum.

3. How long will it take to get through each lesson? This may be difficult to determine until you've actually done the first lesson, but needs to be considered. If the lesson will take over an hour to cover everything, the kids will be restless (especially jr. highers) by the end of the lesson and you won't have much time for announcements, worship, or games, if those are normally part of your program. Also, can you shave off some of the content in the interest of time and still get the message across?

4. Will the material in the curriculum be relevant to your kids? Sometimes Bible studies are developed to address certain issues in the lives of teenagers. Are these issues really relevant to YOUR kids? Once I purchased a curriculum that was great in and of itself, but it dealt with very heavy issues that many of our kids didn't face. Consequently it was really heavy and somewhat depressing in our context, even though it was still a very well-done curriculum with some of the foremost speakers, teachers, and writers in youth ministry today. I didn't finish the study because I felt like 13 more weeks of this would bring down my kids.

5. Does the curriculum fit your format? Do you want it for a small group study or for more of a sermon-style teaching format with more one-way speaking and less discussion? Many small group curricula can be adapted for the latter style of teaching, but there might not be enough usable material to justify buying a whole study.

6. How much does it cost? Depending on the size of your church and your curriculum budget cost may be a large or small factor. Video curriculum can cost more than just printed material, but will make up for cost in terms of holding the students' attention. Another thing technology has made available to us is downloadable Bible studies. By bypassing the cost of publishing the print media and the costs of shipping and making the material available directly to your computer, you can print and copy it yourself for a fraction of the cost of ordering a book. Some of the best (and cheapest) material I have used is available at Sycamore Tree Publishing.

What would you add to this list as important factors in purchasing curriculum? Have you ever neglected an aspect of curriculum and had negative repercussions? Have you ever purchased a curriculum that really was a home run? What factors made that study so successful?

Monday, September 29, 2008

5 Things to Help Your Transition with a New Pastor

Recently, my church got a new pastor. This was my first such transition in the United Methodist Church. Quite literally, I had one pastor on Thursday, and by Sunday morning I had a new one. I've served several churches as a youth director...some were churches where we had an interim period between pastors. Either way, these are some things I've learned as a church staff member that have helped in each of these transitions and hopefully they can help you.

1. Dont compare your new pastor to your old one. If you really liked your former pastor and got along with him well, don't immediately look to find the flaws in your new pastor or expect him to do things exactly like his predecessor. Likewise, if you did not get along well with your former, do not automatically assume things will be the same way with the new guy. Don't get caught up in playing the comparison game. This will only put him in a box in your eyes and limit your perceptions of the effectiveness of his ministry.

2. Be helpful. Chances are that your pastor moved in from a new community. One of the easiest things you can do to build a positive relationship with him is to help him get oriented to your community and the church. Let him know where he can go in town to get things done or who you would recommend for various professional services or where the good places are to eat. Also, let him know who the key leaders are in the church and also which members he should approach with more caution.

3. Focus on his strenths. Every pastor has a completely different make-up of strengths, weaknesses, and spiritual gifts. More likely than not, your new pastor will not be as skilled as your previous pastor in some areas. However, there will be many things that he may do better than his predecessor. Be on the lookout for those qualities. Learn from the way he does things then you can do tip number 4!

4. Be positive with your church members. Being on staff, many members of the church will follow your lead in determining whether or not they will get on board with the ministries of a new pastor. Often times they will ask how the ministry is going under the new leadership. If our previous pastor was admired by many church members, the more we say, "Well, he's not like _____", inadvertently we are destroying the ministry of our new pastor before it ever really gets started. Find some of the strengths he has and build him up to your church members. This will help them get on board with what God is doing through him in your church.

5. Be a team player. Help your pastor know that you are here as a spoke in a much larger wheel and that you see the youth program as a vital part of the church. Many youth programs are run as a kingdom unto themselves rather than as a part of the church as a whole. Letting him know that you want the youth involved in all the ministries of the church, not just the ones for teenagers, helps him to see that you are here to build the church with him, not to be divisive.

What things have you done to build a relationship with a new pastor? What lessons have you learned?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Importance of Empowering Volunteers

One constant struggle in many youth programs is finding people who will REGULARLY commit to attend your meetings and be with the students. Some people are reluctant to do this. Others are doing it because church policy requires more than one adult at the meetings. Then others just jump in with both feet and may cause more problems than if they had never come at all. Recently, despite all the adults we had attending our meetings, things were still getting out of hand with the kids and my workers were sitting there somewhat idle. I was trying to figure out why I was doing most, if not all of the discipline. I approached my volunteers at our youth team planning meeting and realized that they were not sure if I wanted them to do that or not. You see, for me, being in youth ministry, I have a clear idea of what I expect from my kids and my workers and how things should flow on a Sunday or Wednesday night meeting. However, I had not passed that information on to the parents and workers. They did not know what my expectations were of them and did not want to overstep, so they sat on the sidelines at our youth meetings. This was a HUGE error on my part. So in the interest of time, I created a few basic guidelines for behavior at youth meetings to give them then we discussed them at our next meeting.

You see, with different types of parents and volunteers who use different styles of parenting and different ways of relating to the kids, these parents and workers have different ideas of what should and shouldn't be done at meetings. Ultimately, though, they need and to know what we and the church expect of them. So, here are three things we need to do with our workers:

1. Give them clear guidelines on discipline and expectations. Make sure they understand what behavior is inappropriate and acceptable. I'm not a big fan of placing rule posters all over the room...I think that sends the wrong message to the kids. So make sure youth workers know where the lines are and give them the freedom to enforce them. Ideally, these guidelines can be decided by the team of workers who attends youth meetings, but if it will be a while before your next meeting, the guidelines may just need to be given to them from you. This will be easier if the rules are more tangible (i.e. nobody outside the building unless we all go outside as a group or your ride is here to pick you up). The more vague a guideline is, the more reluctant your volunteers will be in enforcing them.

2. Make sure they understand that youth ministry is relational--you WANT them to interact with the kids. They need to know they have the freedom to engage the students, ask them about their day at school, and build those relationships with them. It may sound obvious to us, but many youth volunteers may not realize they need to do this or that we want them to do this. Help them understand that you as a youth minister cannot personally get to know each kid in the program and that your personality will click more with certain kids. Help them understand that you need their help to build relationships with kids in the group.

3. Thank them for their time in volunteering. For some who feel obligated to help, it may be an uncomfortable experience to get involved with the kids. It doesn't hurt to pat them on the back for a job well done. This can be as quick as an email, a note in the snail mail, a "thank you" announcement from the pulpit on Sunday, or maybe take them to lunch with your robust professional expense budget! Whatever you do, make sure your youth workers understand you appreciate what they do for your teens.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How do you rebuild in the fall?

It is September and we've survived a wild summer of youth events at our church--in fact we passed with flying colors. It was one of the best summers I've had in youth ministry. Here is what we did not pass, though. We did not survive the summer of band camps, family vacations, soccer camps, etc. What I mean by this is we had a solid core of students at the end of the school year and the beginning of summer. But as students began their summer of other events, many of them really got out of the habit of coming to our youth group meetings. Now, these events are all great and none of them are bad in and of themselves. But I find that not only was I competing with them during the summer, but long after summer is over these events have taken their toll on my kids in that they are out of the habit of coming to church and no longer feel that vital connection with kids in the youth group (connections I feel should be the very best friendships they have).

I have called, emailed, texted, and myspaced all these kids, and visited with their parents (if their parents regularly attend church). I've had kids in the group contact them. And we still haven't gotten those students back on a regular basis. So, I have two questions for you, my colleagues. 1) How do you keep that momentum going during the end of summer and into the beginning of the school year? 2) What do you do aside from the above contact methods, to reach out or get in touch with kids who have not been coming in a while?

Dealing with Criticism in Youth Ministry

I originally created this particular post at a time when I was a little upset and defensive about some comments I'd heard about people in the ministry. However, I never felt comfortable with my post because it seemed like it was a pity party about how miserable it is to be in ministry and I didn't want that to be tone of the blog. But then I was reading a post from my friend Russ Bowlin about dealing with conflict in the church...particularly when you are on the chopping block. A few days later, I saw a post on Tim Schmoyer's 100 Blogs I Hope You Write requesting someone write a post about "How to respond to criticism." I realized, one reason that one reason ministers (particularly youth ministers) come under a lot of fire is because we have such a diverse job description and are expected to do a number of tasks on a competent level. A lot of times I think we come under fire because people don't realize how big our job can be. If you've been in ministry very long, you've had to address criticism--if not, you will soon. So, I offer five steps to help deal with criticism.

1. Pray about the issue and pray for your critics. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and petition, submit your requests to God."--Phil. 4:6

2. Approach the situation with humility. Unfortunately, more often than not, you will get an email or overhear murmurings that Mrs. Jones is not pleased with the job you are doing. At that point, after praying about the situation, think of ways you can contact that person. Remember that we as youth ministers have a widely diverse job description and will not do everything well. You know, all throughout scripture, there were men who couldn't do it all--Moses had Aaron, Paul had Barnabas, Silas, Mark, and Timothy, David had Jonathan, Joshua had Caleb. So we should have the humility to realize our weaknesses and find people to help us in those areas. We should also help our church members understand that we can't be great at everything we do.

3.Determine if your critic has a valid complaint. This will have to be done with some sort of meeting with the nay-sayer at hand. Ideally, meet with this person face to face--nonverbal communication is lost over the phone and even more so over email. Some people will always find something to gripe about, but when you come under fire, determine if this person has a legitimate concern. If they just want to gripe, ask them for their opinion as to how you should fix the problem. Sometimes people don't have a gripe necessarily as much as they just want to be heard. Other times a person is looking at a situation through a colored lens and perceive actions completely differently from the way you intended them. So it's important to find out if their complaint is justified. If there is a true issue, then proceed to step 3.

4. Get a the opinion of others in the church to see if they will affirm or reject the criticism. I wouldn't go to your inner circle for this, but rather go to the people who you know will be objective and honest with you--including your Senior Pastor. Tell them the nature of the criticism and ask them if they think you've been negligent or lacking in the area in question. DO NOT TELL THEM WHERE THE CRITICISM CAME FROM, AS THIS MAY CAUSE MORE DIVISION. (Many times they know the source anyway, but do not use this tactic to be divisive). Listen to their responses in a constructive way and use this as an opportunity for personal growth. It may turn out that they want to reaffirm you and will tell you that you don't need to listen to your critic(s). If you need to continue addressing the issue, proceed to step 4.

5. Work with your critics and others to determine a solution to the perceived failure. Often times when people share their concern for a ministry their tone will change when they are asked to lead out in that area. Or, they may find that they can work alongside you in this area for the benefit of the youth program and the church.

Do not
Get defensive
Rally a "camp" of people to take your side
Tell a bunch of people what Mrs. Jones said about you and your ministry
Do anything that will further divide your church.

What suggestions would you offer in dealing with conflict?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Starting a blog

Well, as a child of the late 20th century, I've been one of those people who likes to think and talk with a keyboard in my hands. So, I've started a youth ministry blog where I hope to share some thoughts on things that have happened and are happening in my ministry, as well as successes and failures for the benefit of anyone who may be out there reading.

I currently contribute to a blog at http://www.forkintheroadmusic.org which is a blog site for my friend Russell Martin. This is a blog site dealing with thoughts on worship, leading worship, working with youth bands, and other related material. I will continue to contribute to FITR as well as post some more general ministry related material on this site. I hope you will check back or subscribe to this post.