As some of you know, I recently returned from the Orange Conference in Atlanta.  This is my favorite conference in the world for student and children’s workers.  Every time I attend, I leave recharged, entertained, re-visioned and re-impassioned (I think I just made that word up).  But seriously, the Orange Conference is the best time of the year for me.  I want to tell you about 4 things I’m super excited about after attending OC15.


The First thing I excited about is the new XP3 Middle School Curriculum.  One of the areas where I have the most to learn is contextualizing curriculum in a developmentally appropriate way for middle school students.  The truth is that the middle school brain is not like a kid’s brain and it’s not like an adult’s brain.  It’s like, well…a middle school brain.

I’ve had the privilege of previewing some of the material and it’s pretty fantastic.  You can actually get it for 25% right now.  Check it out:  XP3MS



The theme of the Orange Conference this year was “It’s Just a Phase.”  The focus was on the different phases that kids walk through on their way from the crib to adulthood.  It was brilliant and I swear I didn’t cry at all thinking about my own kids growing up….not even a little.

The cool thing is that the theme is encapsulated in a new book which I absolutely love.  I’m serious.  If you are a parent, children’s worker, student ministry person or whatever, you gotta check out the It’s Just a Phase book.  It’s really great..and colorful because that’s important.

It's Just a Phase


OK, so maybe you didn’t get to go to the Orange Conference this year because you had a wedding to go to, couldn’t get off work, or maybe there was a big NASCAR race you couldn’t miss…wow, I hope that’s not the reason.  The good news is that the Orange Tour is coming.  I love the Orange Tour because it’s short and compact.  If you’re new to the Orange strategies and you’ve been hesitant to fly all the way to Atlanta and spend a week at the Orange Conference, come to the Orange Tour.  It’s only a day and you’ll experience what Orange is all about and decide whether it would be a good fit at your church.  Did I mention it’s $50 off right now?

I’m excited about the tour this year because Reggie will unpack the concepts of “It’s Just a Phase” a little more.  Also, I’ll be bringing my entire team to the Tour in Detroit so if you’re going to be there we should totally hang out!



The last thing I’m pumped about is the Orange Conference next year.  Yes, I’m already thinking about next year.  Here’s a little of what I’m excited about…

Great Communicators

Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley

Ridiculous Amounts of Fun


 Incredible Worship


Oh and a burger from this food truck…


I’m telling you, The Orange Conference is the best.  If you haven’t been, you should give it a shot next April.  And, if you’re going next year, look me up!  I’d love to hang out.

Last week I got to be a stay at home dad with my four kids while my wife was in Florida cheering on her brother as he competed in his first Ironman.  The verdict is still out on which is harder:  an Ironman or solo-parenting 4 kids.  My hat is off to moms…that’s all I can say.

During my stint as Mr. Mom, I was reminded of a few things…

1. I’m not qualified to style my 7 year old daughter’s Rapunzel length hair.

2.  Potty training is harder than it looks.

3.  The best way to end a tantrum is to duplicate it.

4.  It’s really not that hard to eat an entire box of mac n’ cheese.

5.  2 year olds say “Cuz whhhhhy?” a lot

It is the 5th observation that has stuck with me.  My little 2 year old daughter is incredibly curious.  She wants to know everything.  How does that work?  Why do you do that?  Why is the sky blue?  Why are your teeth yellow?  Her thirst for knowledge is insatiable.  She has to know everything because she wants to be able to do everything.  She wants to do everything her big brothers and sisters do.  Her second favorite line is, “NO!  I DO IT!”  Usually, she is screaming it.  She has passion.  You have to give her that.

My point in sharing this is that I’ve noticed a striking similarity between great leaders and my 2 year old.  Great leaders, like a 2 year old, have an all-consuming vision of what they want to be, or what they want their organization to be.  This vision drives their behavior and their language.  For my daughter, it is being just like her older siblings.  She will do ANYTHING to make this possible.  For great leaders, the vision varies, but focusing on the vision is no less important.

Secondly, like a 2 year old, great leaders ask a ridiculous amount of questions.  My daughter knows she doesn’t know everything.  She unashamedly asks about everything.  Often, her questions make her sound pretty dumb, but she doesn’t care in the slightest.

“Daddy, where is Mommy?”

“She’s on an airplane.”

“Cuz whhhhhy?”

“She’s coming home.”

“Cuz whhhhhy?”

“Because she wants to see you”

“Cuz whhhhhy?”

“How about we take a break from asking questions.”

“NO!  I DO IT!”

Great leaders ask questions and genuinely listen because great leaders understand that they don’t know everything  The are inquisitive because they are so passionate about their vision.  Mediocre leaders already know.  They aren’t interested because they’ve already figured it out.  They are more interested in telling you what they already know and what you don’t know.

If you want to be a great leader, focus on clarifying your vision.  Who do you want to be?  What do you want your organization to be.  Let this vision drive you.  Secondly, ask bazillions of questions.  Never stop being inquisitive.  Never become such an expert that you already know everything.  The key to growth is constant learning and the key to constant learning is constantly asking questions.  Be like a 2 year old.



Welcome to the final post of a series about the dumb stuff I’ve done in student ministry.  I hope it has been helpful.  This last post is painful for me.  Some of my posts have been humorous.  This one isn’t.  It is one of the great regrets of my life and ministry career.  My hope is that you’ll be able to avoid this mistake.

I need to tell you a story.  It’s a story that repeated itself during my first few years of ministry.  The names and situations changed but the narrative happened again and again.  I remember sitting at a coffee shop with a student as he revealed a destructive pattern in this life.  He opened up about his pain, the damage his sin was causing and the tension of the struggle.  I listened for a while and then began to share my plan for fixing the problem.  Over the next few weeks, we met three or four times.  During this time, he made no progress.  He didn’t implement any of my advice.  Then, I decided he didn’t really want to grow and change, so I stopped meeting with him because I needed to focus on students who would respond–who wanted to grow in their faith.  In other words, I wrote him off.  I walked away.

If I could only redo one thing in my ministry career it would the choice to walk away from students.  Why?  Because, at that point in my life, I completely misunderstood faith development in adolescents and what it means to be a spiritual mentor.

I want to share a couple images with you that describe the difference between how most of us assume spiritual development works in the life of a student and how it actually works in real life.  By the way, you should know that I stole this images from a breakout session at the SYMC conference back in the day.  If I remember correctly, Scott Rubin and Kurt Johnston were leading the session.

The first image describes the spiritual development trajectory we expect.  Over time, students gradually become more mature and their faith becomes deeper and more solid.  This is what we expect and what, many of us naturally believe will happen.


This second image describes what spiritual development actually looks like in the lives of most of the students we interact with.  It’s incredibly messy.

real growth

Some days they say something that makes you think they might be the next Billy Graham.  Some days they confess a porn addiction.  Some days they start a romance with another student in your ministry and everything gets awkward.  Some days their parents split up and their development goes into a free-fall (hence the line outside the box). Some days they try pot.  Some days they finally understand grace.  Some days they stop attending your youth group for months.  Some days they send you a thank you card years after leaving your ministry that makes you weep.

The truth is that discipleship is incredibly messy.   None of our growth trajectories are linear.  We’ve all been all over the map.  Why would we expect students, who are navigating the most dramatic changes a human experiences, to be any different?

If I could go back in time, I would grab my 23 year old self by the shoulders, shake myself vigorously and say, “Grace.  Patience.  Long-view.  Journey.”  Of all the mistakes and dumb things I’ve shared in this series, the one that breaks my heart is that I didn’t stay engaged with students.  I walked when I should have stepped closer.  I should have journeyed with them as they navigated painful and disorienting spaces.

I plead with you to stay engaged with your students in the mess of spiritual development.  When they blow it, speak the truth but love them.  When they do something great, celebrate them.  When they blow it again, don’t give up on them.  Don’t walk away from them.  They need you.


Walk away image credited to Manny Valdez via Flickr

Linear graph image credited to AJC via Flickr

Terrible looking scribble image credited to me

One of the best things about the Orange Conference is that it’s a two for one deal.  What I mean is that, while I’m here, I feel inspired and empowered to do better student ministry.  There’s no way that you can sit through the sessions and breakouts and not be infused with passion, vision and game changing ideas.  It’s incredible.  This conference and these people make me feel like I could and should lead my student ministry for another 20 years.

The thing that has surprised me is that I almost feel like I’m getting more out of the conference as a parent.  The focus of the conference this year is on Phases:  “It’s just a phase, so don’t miss it.”  I’ve been reminded of the amazing privilege, responsibility and gift it is to be a parent.

I’m convinced that parenting is the hardest thing most of us will ever do.  It’s exhausting, perplexing, and seemingly never-ending.  But, God has given my wife and me four little humans to love, protect, teach, mentor, and guide.  It’s an amazing journey and worth every minute, tear, back ache and dirty diaper.  These little ones are made in the image of God and each one of them possesses the incredible potential that comes with that.  Could there be any more meaningful role, in life, than to help our children discover their potential as image-bearers of God?

14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

It’s Orange Conference Eve!!!  I’m so pumped for this year’s Orange Conference. I’ll be there with a few members of my team if you want to hang out.  You’ll be able to find me at the food trucks.

In honor of the Orange Conference, I’m linking to a post I wrote for the Orange Leaders blog last month.  Check it out…

Last night I had a nightmare. I was at my church campus, leading a ministry event for students but everything was wrong . . . way wrong. My hair was bleached blond, I was wearing a seashell necklace and carpenter jeans. Petra was blasting out of the PA and I was unwrapping marshmallows for an epic game of pudgy bunny. Did I mention there was no one there? Zilch! The only person there was my mom, and even she looked bored. The event was a tragic hodgepodge of irrelevance. Then I woke up…

You can read the rest of the post here.

I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn and experience at the Orange Conference with all of you very soon!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the dumb things I’ve done in student ministry.  If you’re wondering, it doesn’t feel that great, but I think it’s important because what we do as student pastors and volunteers is crucial.  My hope is that by reading about my mistakes, you’ll be able to avoid them in your own life and ministry.  So, here we go with number 2 in my top 10 list:  Saying Too Much

I’ve always considered myself to be a decent public speaker.  I usually receive good feedback, other than the first sermon I gave, after which, a crusty old man came up to me and say, “You’re going to be a good preacher someday.”  I mean, how do you interpret that?  “Thanks?”

In my opinion, becoming a great student ministry communicator requires answering three questions.

1. What’s the focus?

2. Who is my audience?

3. What’s the goal?


I believe that the greatest temptation for someone who communicates to students is to focus on entertainment rather than biblical truth.  This is incredibly difficult because it’s hard to keep the attention of students, particularly students who have grown up in church.  They know all the stories.  They’ve sat through about 3 million sermons.  How do you grab and keep their attention?

For me, the answer is almost always comedy.  To be honest, it is easy for me to get on stage and perform stand up comedy disguised as a sermon and receive great feedback.  However, comedy alone doesn’t change lives, God’s truth does.  The skill we all need to learn is to tap into the natural tension, character development, and inherent conflict of the biblical narratives and let them propel our communications.  And, to be clear, all my communications are funny.  It’s a gift God has given me and there’s nothing wrong with throwing everything you have into crafting a great communication.  But, the point is, if your focus isn’t God’s truth, what’s the point?


I was trained to preach at a conservative bible college.  I was taught to preach using three points.  These concepts were drilled into me.  Then, I was hired as a youth pastor at a church that believed in the same model of communicating.  Now, it isn’t that this model is wrong, necessarily.  However, as I prepared my communications, I had the wrong audience in mind.  I prepared to impress my professors and the adults in our congregation who believed in this model of communicating.  I failed to ask these important questions:  How does my audience learn?  Where are they developmentally?  What will grab their attention, focus their thoughts and move them?  In other words, what do students need to hear, based on where they are at?

I’ve come to believe that in order to be effective, communications must be targeted and tailored to the audience.  If you’re following a communication model because that’s “the model,” it’s very likely that you aren’t engaging your audience.  For me, I spent the first few years of my career saying way too much and yet saying nothing.  I don’t believe my audience of students learned much during my first few years of ministry because I wasn’t aiming for them.  Three points meant no points.  That was a hard lesson for me to learn.


Allow me to be vulnerable for a moment.  I love being told, “That was a great talk!”  It feels so good! You’re probably the same.  We’re hard wired to thrive on encouragement.  The problem comes when you aim for this.  I think that many of us, if we are honest, subconsciously prepare our communications with the goal of getting congratulated.  This focus is dangerous for a number of reasons, but to the point of this blog post, it isn’t the right goal for an effective communication.

I’ve learned to aim for different feedback from students and volunteers.  These days, what I want to hear is this:  “Our small group had a great conversation tonight!”  In our ministry structure, small groups immediately follow the communication.  This is intentional because we teach for the conversation.  The goal of the sermon is to set up conversation in the small group.  My hope is that the focus isn’t on me, as the communicator, but rather on the small group leader and the dialogue.  Students learn by engaging.

In the end, what we want, is life-change.  We want students to embrace Jesus and become more like Him.  We believe that the path to life-change is biblically centered communications that are developmentally appropriate and set up a conversations between students and their small group leaders.  Small group leaders help put handles on the communication.  They help students engage and implement what the Bible says.


As I see it, great student ministry communications are built on the answers to three difficult questions:  What’s the focus?  Who is my audience?  What’s the goal?  If you answer these questions well.  You’ll likely become a great communicator.

Lastly, not every student pastor has the time, or is wired to write great communications.  If you find yourself in this situation, that’s ok!  If it would be helpful, I’d be happy to send you any of our teaching series, complete with teaching scripts and graphics.  Comment on this post or email me if you’re interested.  Also, reThink’s XP3 curriculum is fantastic.


image credited to Elyce Feliz via Flickr


It’s Monday, which means you probably need a good laugh.  Let me help you out with that…

Announcement: Camp Lifeline from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.

BTW…if you are an Ada family, Camp Lifeline sold out in 3 days last year.  Here’s the link to register your child

Click here to sign up



Dumb | One Lawsuit Away

April 16, 2015 — 4 Comments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the top ten dumbest things I’ve done in student ministry.  My intention is not to make myself look like an idiot (although I’m sure that’s entertaining) but rather to help other student ministry workers avoid the same mistakes I’ve made.  My topic for today is liability.  Now, I realize that I might sound like your paranoid grandmother, blogging about this topic (not the blogging–I can’t really see your grams blogging, but rather the liability paranoia) but I’ve come to realize that liability is something worth talking about because the truth is that, while it isn’t a very fun topic, our churches and student ministries are one bad lawsuit away from being shut down.  It happens.  I don’t want it to happen to me and I don’t want it to happen to you because what we do, as student pastors and volunteers is too important to jeopardize.  So, indulge me.  Let me share a little story…

One thing you should know about me is that I love mission trips.  I love how they transform lives.  The combination of having your eyes opened to needs in the world, feeling like God can actually use you, and the experience of traveling and serving together with a small group of people changes the trajectory of a life, over and over again.  I absolutely love it.

As a younger student pastor, my assumption was that the more intense the mission trip experience, the more impactful it would be in the lives of my students.  I suppose that to some degree, this is probably true.  The problem, I discovered, is that there’s a line, and beyond that line, well, you’re just asking for trouble.

Early in my career, an opportunity arose to take students to Honduras to help local church planters build churches among the Lenca people.  I was so pumped!  This was exactly the type of trip I was looking for.  And to be fair, these trips were incredibly life-changing for my students, volunteers and me.  However, looking back, I realized that a few of these trips to Honduras slipped across the line and became too dangerous for students.  Let me explain.  Here’s what I remember from these trips:

  • students riding in the back of pickups with indigenous drivers on horrendous mountain roads
  • never knowing exactly where I was
  • being 2 hours away from the nearest hospital while doing semi-dangerous construction work
  • being stranded in the jungle completely alone with two students for several hours
  • framing a church with a chainsaw…because that’s what we had
  • sliding backwards down a slippery mountain road in our team vehicle
  • students walking on planking two stories above ground while we worked
  • not having appropriate safety gear for students
  • being stranded in a mountain village for a few days because a monsoon washed away the roads
  • building a church in a mountain village that I later learned had tried to kill one of the missionaries
  • did I mention that I brought 9th grades?
  • oh, and Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world..

Look…I know this list makes me look like a complete idiot but I assure you that the results from this trip made me look like a hero with parents, leadership and the students.  In fact, some of them will probably want to fight me if they read this.  This trip really did impact students for life.  Also, you should know that the missionaries we were working with are incredible people who are doing amazing work.  It’s just that these trips weren’t a good fit for high school students.

Looking back, I realized that we were one small mishap away from major problems.  What if a kid had fallen?  What if our team vehicle had slipped off the road and into the ravine?  What if someone had been maimed by that chainsaw?

First off, the tragedy would have been unspeakable.  Secondly, a grieving or angry parent could have ended our entire church with a lawsuit that we never could have won.  Also, a 2 or 3 million dollar lawsuit would sink most churches.  In a court of law, my case would have been indefensible.  “You were where?”  “You were doing what?”  “What were you thinking?!?”  I mean, let’s be real, we didn’t even have a release of liability form!

I encourage you to consider liability as you plan events and trips.  Do you have a plan?  Does your church have liability insurance?  Do you require a release of liability form?  What is your emergency protocol?  Do you run background checks on your volunteers?  Do you have someone in your context asking you hard questions about your liability for events and trips?  In my opinion, we have to be able to answer all of these questions intelligently and effectively because what we do is so important.  It isn’t worth jeopardizing because of negligence or recklessness.


image credited to Shawn Carpenter via Flickr

Dumb | TMI

April 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

Lately I’ve been blogging about the dumbest mistakes I’ve made in student ministry.  My hope is that my dumb mistakes will inspire you to be…well, not dumb.  What we do is far too important for us to be dumb!

One of the dumb things that student ministry volunteers and pastors do is disqualify themselves.  Here’s what I mean…

One of the dumb mistakes I made, early in my student ministry days, was TMI–that is too much information.  I was sharing too much information in the wrong places, specifically, I was processing in the wrong places.  There’s no doubt that ministry is stressful.  Churches are quirky organizations and people do the craziest things.  Everyone in ministry needs a place to vent and process.  The problem is that far too many of us choose to do this online or with the wrong people.  Processing in the wrong places can be incredibly damaging to your own reputation and also to the faith and trust of the people you are venting to.  An unfiltered comment posted to twitter or Facebook doesn’t have the privilege of further explanation or context.  I learned this the hard way in the early 2000s as I explored the writings of the Emergent church movement.  Let me explain:

I grew up in very conservative churches, attended a very conservative Bible church and was on staff at a conservative Baptist Church.  When I ran into Emergent writers, I felt like I had finally discovered the missing piece of my faith, which was a theology that incorporated the kingdom and also cared about suffering in the world.  As I explored these ideas, I took to my Xanga page (yeah, I’m that old) with my musings.  The problem was that my students, volunteers and co-workers who read my blog didn’t live in my head.  They didn’t know that I was adding a kingdom minded branch to my biblically centered theology.  They thought I was going “liberal.”

What I learned was that while I needed to process what I was learning, the Internet isn”t the place to process.  Unfortunately, I lost some credibility and trust with a few students, parents and volunteers along the way.  Processing in the wrong place can be pretty dumb.

The second way I see student ministry volunteers and pastors disqualifying themselves with TMI is also on the internet.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but in the world of social media, it might be better to say that a picture generates a thousand interpretations.  The beauty of Instagram, Vine, Twitter and Facebook is that you get to share your life with people.  The danger is that people have the freedom to make their own decisions about what your pictures mean.  This idea is especially important if you are in ministry.  Let me give you the clearest example I can think of:  alcohol.

We know from the Bible that there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, in fact there is an example of Paul encouraging Timothy to drink a little more wine for health reasons.  We also know that the Bible speaks explicitly again getting drunk, especially if you are a spiritual leader.  In addition to these two ideas, many in our culture struggle with abusing alcohol.  Lastly, if you serve at a church with conservative roots, you probably have church members who think alcohol is the devil.

The thing is, when you post a picture to Instagram of you and your bros at Buffalo Wild Wings, enjoying a brew while cheering for your squad, you don’t get to explain the context to your boss, the volunteer who is a recovering alcoholic, your student who is debating whether to party on Friday night, or your hyper-conservative aunt Gertrude.  They just jump to whatever conclusions they want.

In my opinion, it simply isn’t worth the trouble.  We’ve gone as far as create a social media contract for our staff and volunteers.  The basic gist is, “I agree to not be dumb on social media.”  We have a policy that states that our staff and volunteers won’t post pictures of drinking to social media.  I would encourage you to do the same in your ministry context.  It’s not worth tarnishing your reputation or the reputation of your ministry over a misinterpretation.

Dumb | One Little Mistake

March 20, 2015 — 1 Comment

I’m in the middle of a blogging series called Dumb.  These posts are all about the dumb things I’ve done as a student pastor.  My hope is that you can learn from my mistakes instead of making your own.  My overall point is this:  Student ministry is hugely important!  What we do to invest in the lives of students and lead them into growing relationships with Jesus is amazingly powerful We can’t screw it up!

I’ve broken my mistakes into three categories:  burned out, disqualified, and ineffective.  You can check out my posts on burn out here.


One Little Mistake

It was 10 pm.  The event had been long and exhausting and here I was waiting for a parent.  Of course.  Why are we always waiting for parents to pick up their kids?!?  I care about my volunteers so I let them all go home to get some rest.  That was 30 minutes ago.  That was my first mistake.  Here I was, alone with a female student, waiting for her parent.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.  11 pm.  That was my 2nd mistake.

I finally got her parent on the phone.  He’d fallen asleep and for some ridiculous reason, he didn’t have a car tonight.  You have to be kidding me!!!  I’m so tired!  Forget it!  I’ll bring her home myself.  11:30 pm.  I’m driving alone with a female student in my car.  That was my 3rd mistake.

Here’s the thing:  Nothing happened.  There was no weirdness, no attraction, no nothing.  There wasn’t even a conversation because I was so annoyed and tired.  But, that’s not the point.  This girl was an incredibly broken girl.  The thing about broken people is that they do broken things.  I’ve heard many stories of youth workers being accused of inappropriate behavior with students.  How many ministries and churches have been discredited by inappropriate behavior or even the accusation of inappropriate behavior.   Like I said, in this situation, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.  In the case of an accusation, how could I have defended myself?

Broken people do broken things and we all know of several instances in which youth workers got caught in the mess.  What I’ve learned is that one little mistake can destroy a career, a ministry, a family, a church.  And, sometimes it doesn’t matter if you did something morally wrong or not.  One slip in judgement at 11:30 at night, when you’re utterly decimated by fatigue and frustration can bring the whole thing down.  It’s not fair but it’s absolutely true.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that dumb isn’t usually intentional.  It’s usually not malicious.  Dumb happens when we’re exhausted, frustrated and when our guard is down.  Boundaries, accountability and policies protect us when we’re exhausted.

These days, my philosophy is that anyone is capable of a lapse in judgment, or worse.  I recognize that I am a fallen and broken human being and everyone that I work with and serve is in the same boat.  The wise thing to do is create boundaries, to accept accountability and to work and serve within clear policies.  Student ministry is too important for us to be dumb.


image credited to Kyle May via Flickr