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.