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?