Today, I have the privilege of blogging for one of my favorite blogs:  Orange Leaders.  Here’s an excerpt:

My favorite word in the universe is collaboration. I love it. This hasn’t always been true. For years, I was a one-man show in student ministry. What changed me? Fear.

Three years ago, the pastor who had led our student ministry team for 12 years left our team to become the lead pastor at another church. I was chosen as his replacement. A ginormous multi-site student ministry. A staff team of 12. I’d never managed another person in my life. No pressure. Did I mention that my predecessor was an absolute legend in our church? I was scared to death.

Fast-forward. The student ministry didn’t crash and burn. In fact, it grew. In many ways it became stronger. How? Our team stepped up to the plate and delivered. The keyword here is “team.” I believe that my smartest all-time leadership decision was to choose we over me. You see, I’ve come to believe that we are always better than me…

Click here to read the rest off the post.

Make it Happen

June 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

I’m currently in a blog series about creating a magnetic volunteer culture.  I believe that fantastic volunteers–specifically small group leaders, are the key to a transformational student ministry.  Here’s what I’ve written on the topic over the last few weeks:

How to Take Your Student Ministry to the Next Level

Give Them What They Want

Raise the Bar

Today, I want to share a little about making it happen.  What do you need to do to create a magnetic volunteer culture?

 

MAKE IT RIDICULOUSLY FUN

If you want a magnetic culture, people must love serving in your ministry.  It has to be a blast!  I’m convinced that in our ministry, volunteers have more fun that students.  We purposely target aspects of our programming at our volunteers.  We create videos that will be funny for our students and hysterical for our volunteers.  We put on a leader retreat that is over the top.  Essentially, we believe that if you want a magnetic volunteer culture, you must create a volunteer experience so compelling and fun that volunteers would rather be at your program than anywhere else.
Another easy way to make it ridiculously funny is swag.  Give your volunteers free stuff!  It keeps them happy.  It makes them feel valued and it is great marketing.
If you need more ideas on how to make it ridiculously fun, here’s a post I wrote on how to pull off an epic volunteer retreat:  click me

MAKE IT FREE

Step two in making it happen is to remove every obstacle that hinders a volunteer from serving effectively.  One of the biggest obstacles in student ministry is money.  Events, trips and retreats cost money.  It costs money to take a student out for coffee.
Let’s be honest, some of the best student ministry volunteers are college students because they are close in age to students, have tons of energy and (whether they believe it or not) have tons of free time.  What college students don’t have is money.
If you want a magnetic culture, remove the obstacles that prevent volunteers from doing great ministry.  The first and biggest is money.  In our ministry context, we have decided that volunteers will never pay for events, trips and retreats.  We’ve had to rethink some of what we do in order to pull this off but it has been worth it.  We’ve even gone as far as to create a fund for our volunteers who don’t have the money needed to take students out for coffee or lunch.  We believe in one-on-one conversations and we want our volunteers to do amazing work so we have removed the obstacle of money for them.  Make it free.

MAKE IT OBVIOUS

People want to know how they’re doing.  It’s part of human nature.  This is why we have grades, why we keep score and why cars have speedometers.  We want to know how we’re doing.
Also, it feels like a million bucks when you know you’re killing it–when you know you are meeting or exceeding expectations.  Everyone loves that feeling!   So, if you want a magnetic volunteer culture, promote that feeling!  Make the expectations and grading scale obvious and clear (in writing) and then encourage the heck out of your volunteers.
The truth is that most people don’t like quitting something they are really good at.  When you make the expectations obvious and when volunteers know they are doing a good job, they are very likely to stick around for a long time and tell their friends that your ministry is a great place to serve.  Boom…now you have a magnetic volunteer culture.

MAKE IT DOABLE

Here’s one of my pet peeves in student ministry:  ministries that require too much from their volunteers.  “Listen, we’re gonna need you here Sunday mornings for the service, Sunday night for the youth group service and Wednesday night for small groups.  We also have events twice a month, a fall retreat, a winter retreat, a summer retreat and four mission trips…”
We all know that student ministry is crucial and we all know what is at stake but no one can pull off that volunteer load for long.  You might get a few crazies who have no lives but over the long haul, you’ll only manage to hang on to volunteers for a year or two at the most.  Great student ministry–the kind that truly transforms lives, requires long-term investment over years of a student’s life.  You have to make volunteering doable!
In our ministry context, we keep it simple.  Our program only meets once a week.  We only ask our volunteers to show up for 3 hours once a week because we want them to have the time to get on the student’s turf.  Our training meetings are attached to our programming.  We only require 3 events per year:
  • a leader/parent brunch (2 hours)
  • a leader retreat (1 night)
  • a winter retreat (2 nights)

When you make the volunteer load doable and manageable, volunteers feel like their ministry is sustainable.  Did I mention we take the summer off from programming?  Our volunteers come back after a summer break ready to absolutely crush it.  It’s great.

 

So, if you want to make a magnetic volunteer culture happen in your student ministry, make it ridiculously fun, make it free, make it obvious and make it doable.

 

 

photo credited to Nick Saltmarsh via Flickr

Raise the Bar

June 24, 2015 — Leave a comment

In in the middle of a blogging series on creating a magnetic volunteer culture.  A magnetic volunteer begins with giving them what they want:  community, a mission and a guide.  Today, I want to talk about raising the bar for our volunteers.

Over my student ministry career, I’ve noticed something.  People want to know what the standard is.  Everyone wants to know how they are doing.  That’s why we have grades.  That’s why we keep score.  That’s why we celebrate accomplishments.  In addition, everyone wants to know what the rules are.  That’s why we have speed limits.  That’s why we have regulations.  That’s why God gave Israel 10 Words.

It’s the same for volunteers.  It’s disorienting when you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re doing.  A magnetic volunteer community requires clarity on expectations.  This will help improve your student ministry in two ways.  Volunteers will typically play by the rules.  And, volunteers will rise to the bar you set.  So, let’s raise the bar!  Here’s what I mean.

 

RAISE THE BAR FOR EXPECTATIONS

What exactly does a small group leader do in your ministry?  What are their roles?  How often should they meet with students?  What do you want to happen during small group time?  What events should they attend?  How would they ever know if they are meeting those expectations?  Clarifying these things will bring peace to the hearts of your people and raise the impact of your volunteers’ ministry with students.

Secondly, how do you want your volunteers to behave?  Do they know how they are expected to behave?  What are your standards for dress, language, social media behavior, driving and meeting with students?

It can be uncomfortable to be a volunteer and to sense that their are expectations but to not have clarity on what the expectations are.  The clearer we are on communicating what the boundaries are and what winning looks like, the more healthy and magnetic our volunteer culture will be.

If you’ve never put together something like this, here are a few examples from our ministry:

SG Leader Expections

FM Covenent Staff

One last thing, if you’re going to have expectations, you have to be willing to enforce them.  Volunteers are the backbone of everything we do in our student ministry.  We simply must have great volunteers who are invested and committed.  If a volunteer isn’t fulfilling expectations we will have up to three meetings with the volunteer:
1. Clarify the expectations 
“Hey, you haven’t been meeting the expectations.  I just wanted to meet with you to make sure we’re on the same page on what the expectations are.  Can you do these things?  Yes?  Great!  Let’s meet in a few weeks to check on your progress.”
2. Set a deadline
“Hey, you’re still not meeting expectations.  Can you do this?  Yes?  OK.  I’m giving you 2 weeks to implement these things.  If you’re still not meeting expectations, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to step down.”
3. Enforce the expectations
“Hey, you’re still not meeting expectations.  I’m really sorry but I don’t think this is a good fit for you.  I’m asking you to step away.”
In most cases, meeting number 1 is all it takes because the volunteer thinks, “Oh!  They are actually serious about this.  I better step it up!”

RAISE THE BAR FOR INVESTMENT

Creating a magnetic volunteer culture requires investment.  Volunteers who feel like they are being invested in and growing are likely to stick around for a long time.  The beauty is, when you invest in volunteers, they grow and volunteers who are growing make fantastic leaders.
However, we have to be honest about human nature.  Very few people grow naturally.  We get comfortable.  Most of us require pushes, big and small.  Who has the relational authority and equity to make these pushes?  The people we trust–the people who we are confident love us and have our best interest at heart.
We have to understand that while we need our volunteers to grow, we don’t automatically possess the relational authority to ask them hard questions, challenge their habits or call them into deeper spiritual practices.
If you want the relational authority to speak truth into a volunteers life, you must first invest.  They must know that you care.  This means that your volunteer community must be built on quality relationships, and someone on the student ministry staff needs to be driving the relational culture because investment matters and investment can’t happen outside of trust.

RAISE THE BAR FOR COMMITMENT

Here’s my one sentence descriptions of how high school girls feel about their small group leader…
Freshman year:  “I bet you’ll ditch us.”
Sophomore year:  “You actually came back?!?”
Junior year:  “If you ditch us now we’ll kill you!”
Senior year:  “Can I be in your wedding?”
Graduated:  “Will you be in my wedding?”
Sure, I’m oversimplifying, but my point is that it takes time for a small group leader to gain the trust of students but when trust is achieved, the relational connection becomes powerful.  If a small group leader has invested and stayed connected, by the time that small group is in the last two years of high school the potential is phenomenal.  I’ve been continually amazed by the quality of relationships that develop when a small group leader stays invested for years.  It’s incredible and the spiritual impact is unlike anything else I’ve seen in ministry.
When an adult comes alongside a group of students and invests in them over the long-haul, the result is pure magic.  On the flip side, I recently spent a couple days buried in the statistics of our student ministry.  One of the measurables I was studying was retention.  My questions:  Why do students drop out?  What are the factors that contribute to good retention?  The clearest indicator I found was the student’s small group leader.  If their leader bailed during high school, the student was very likely to walk away.
More than great programming and content, atmosphere or experiences, the most powerfully attractive factor we have in student ministry is the small group relationships.  In many ways, our success is contingent on the longevity and commit of our small group leaders.  We must raise the bar here.
Magnetic volunteer community requires raising the bar in three crucial ways:  raising the bar for expectations, raising the bar for investment and raising the bar for commitment.  I hope you’ve found this helpful.  I’ll be sharing more ideas soon.
photo credited to koocbor via Flickr

I believe the most important factor in a transformational student ministry is a team of magnetic volunteers.  That’s why I’m devoting an entire blog series to building a magnetic volunteer culture.  The first step is to give them what they’re looking for.

GIVE THEM A COMMUNITY

Young or old, Gen X or Millennial, we all want to belong.  We long for that feeling of “family.”  This longing is hardwired within us.  We are at our best when we have a place to belong.  Your volunteers are looking for a community.  Give it to them.

I’ve discovered that when you build a culture that provides volunteers with a place to belong it’s really hard to get rid of them!  I’m serious.  It might sound crazy, but we have a hundred and a half small group leaders and it really isn’t that hard for us to recruit them  It’s common for us to turn away applicants because we don’t have enough small groups for them to lead.  Mostly, I believe this is because we have a reputation of providing our volunteers with a second family.

Each small group leader in our ministry context serves alongside 8-10 other leaders in their “house.”  These leaders sit together at weekly leader meetings and collaborate to lead programming in a house every other week.  In addition, each of these “houses” has two volunteers within it whose primary role is caring for and guiding small group leaders as they lead their students.  Year after year, these “house” teams evolve into something like family.  It is common for our “house” teams to meet an hour before our programming for a leader meeting and to then go out for apps and drinks after our programming because they simply love being together.

If you give your volunteers a place to belong as well as a place to serve, you will create something powerfully magnetic.  It’s amazing to watch.

 

GIVE THEM A MISSION

Not only do we want to belong, but we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  We all long for a cause worth giving our lives to. Volunteers are looking for a mission to invest in.  Give them what they are looking for.

One of the biggest mistakes that student ministry leaders make is asking too little of their volunteers.  It’s easy to think that we’re inconveniencing volunteers so we end up saying things like, “Look, if you just show up and keep the kids from breaking something, I’ll buy you dinner.”

We do just the opposite.  We ask our leaders to pour their lives into students.  Right up front, we tell them that this is a massive investment–it’s exhausting, it’s long, it’s hard and oh, and we need you for at least four years.  How can we ask for all this?  We can because we paint a compelling picture of why this investment is so epically worth it and we can show it in the lives of graduated students and their leaders.

We’re investing in the next generation.  We say things like, “In a culture that has largely abandoned teenagers, you have an opportunity to be a mentor.  The impact that your investment will have is incredible.  Listen, in our ministry, you’ll be the youth pastor.  You’ll be the one who knows our students–what they are going through and what they need.  It’s a huge responsibility and an amazing opportunity.”  I’ve learned that this is a mission that many young adults are willing to invest in–especially if they experienced the benefits of a spiritual mentor when they were young.

Give your volunteers a mission to live for.  Don’t make the mistake of asking too little of your volunteers.  Paint a compelling picture of why small group leaders are so powerful in the lives of students and invite your volunteers into the mission.  Then, watch them get to work and just a warning…be prepared to be amazed.  Volunteers who find a place to belong and are sold out to a worthwhile mission are incredible to watch!

 

GIVE THEM A GUIDE

Students aren’t the only ones on a spiritual journey.  Our small group leaders need investment, direction and care too.  In other words, volunteers are looking for someone to guide them–someone has to have the maturity, resources and time to do this because your ministry is only as good as the quality of your volunteers.  If your volunteers aren’t growing then your potential is being stifled.

As I mentioned earlier, in our ministry context, each volunteer is placed within a “house” team.  Each of these teams has a leader of each gender that we call a coach.  A coach is a volunteer who has ministry experience.  Most of our coaches led a small group of students before becoming a coach.  They know all the tricks of the trade and are great at offering advice and tactics for leading small groups.  In addition, our coaches are typically a few years down the road from our small group leaders.  They are more mature in their faith and more established in life.  Because of this, we ask them to invest in the lives of our small group leaders.  We give them a budget and require them to meet up with their leaders one-on-one over coffee and lunch and journey with them.

We firmly believe that our ministry rises and falls with the quality of our volunteers and that’s why we invest in them so heavily.  Providing them with a built in mentor is a great way to invest in them.  Maybe you don’t have the personal or the budget to create a second tier of volunteers to “coach.”  If this is the case, I think that person needs to be you.  One person can really only deeply invest in about 6 students.  If you have more than 6 students in your student ministry, then it’s time to start investing more into your volunteers than you’re investing into your students.  It’s simple math.  Go for the more strategic investment.

So, how do you create a magnetic volunteer culture?  It all begins with giving them what they’re looking for.  I believe every person longs for a family, a mission and a guide.  If you are able to provide your volunteers with these three things you’ll be well on your way to a powerfully magnetic culture.  Stay tuned.  I have a few more ideas on building a magnetic culture and I’ll be sharing them over the next few days.

 

 

photo credited to timlewisnm via Flickr

 

It’s been a while since I posted about what I’ve been reading so here we go…

 

Its-Just-a-PhaseI’m in the middle of this right now and love it!  If you are a parent, student or children’s worker or volunteer, or a teacher this book is perfect.  It provides a framework and a language for the stages that kids progress through as they develop and grow.  Best of all, it provides a strategy for kids and children’s ministry leaders as well as great ideas for parents.  I highly recommend this book!

 

513F52vnKLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Confession:  I am a history nerd.  Because of this, I really enjoyed this book.  It’s entertaining and I learned a ton.  A general rule of thumb is that if you like history, you’ll like every one of David McCullough’s books.

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A co-worker recommended this book to me and somehow, even though I read a ton of classic literature, I hadn’t yet read it.  It is very compelling and a little dark–which in my opinion, often makes for a good book.

9780804140416_p0_v5_s260x420As we were closing out our ministry season in May, life was busy and stressful.  I needed something light and this book came through.  It is hilarious!  I also recommend Gaffigan’s other book, Dad is Fat.

51nUjnGZGoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I thought this book was great, especially in relation to the question of how followers of Jesus should share the Gospel in our culture.

5191tfUj2VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ugh…I miss Dallas Willard.  I mean, I didn’t know him or anything, but his voice will be deeply missed.  This book was finished and published by his daughter, based on sermons, manuscripts and previous drafts.  It’s a great read.

 

Summer Projects

May 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

If your student ministry is like ours, you have ten billion things to do this summer.  There is fall planning, mission trips, camps, recruiting, curriculum writing, students to hang out with, volunteers to care for and develop and then something called a vacation.  I don’t know what that is but I’ve heard it’s nice.

All these projects are a little overwhelming.  If you’re like me, when the list of projects eclipses 10, my brain gets overloaded and I don’t know where to start.  Then…I do nothing.

This summer we’ve implemented 2 project management tools that have changed the game.  The first is Basecamp.

 

Basecamp-Logo

I have fallen in love with Basecamp.  It is a simple, online tool that has streamlined our workflow.  You can create projects, to-do lists, to-do lists within to-do lists, due dates, and assign people to manage to-do lists.  It has a calendar tool and works well with Outlook and Gmail.  We love it.  Here’s a screen shot of our Camp Lifeline project page:

Basecamp-Logo

The second tool that has made our lives better this summer is Creative Boards.  I bought 3 of their boards.  One functions as a “to-do” list of all our summer projects (white are planning for the fall and red are planning for our summer camp).  The second is a “doing” board and the last is a “done” board.

Every morning our team meets for 15 minutes.  Each team member reports in on progress, what they are working on today and what they need from other team members to accomplish their task.  During their report, they move projects from the “to-do” to the “doing” board.  Here are a few pics…

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Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful.  Enjoy your summer projects!

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.

XP3MS

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

 

IT’S JUST A PHASE

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

THE ORANGE TOUR

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!

 

OC16

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

RJ3_8918

 Incredible Worship

OC15-45

Oh and a burger from this food truck…

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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.

 

 

If you’re like me, you’re never really satisfied.  It’s never quite good enough.  We want to be great.  We want to be part of something big.  When it comes to student ministry, we want to reach all the kids.  We want all the kids to be connected to life-changing community.  We have ever kid to have a mentor.  We want our ministry to be a powerful force for the kingdom in our communities. And so, we always ask:  What’s next?  How do we get to the next level?  How do we growth?  Become stronger?  Gain more influence?

I believe that for most of us, it comes down to one thing:  volunteers.  That’s right.  Whether you’re mega or mini, rural or urban, Methodist or Presbyterian, Sunday morning or Wednesday night, the answer most likely isn’t a better sound system, a youth building, more money, a new Mac, or believe it or not, better teaching (although that might be the second answer!)  The answer is an amazing team of volunteers.

We all know when we have a great volunteer.  They are your all-stars.  Their investment causes your student ministry to become exponentially more effective.  Their small group is the flagship of your ministry.  You wish all your other volunteers would lead and serve like they do.  In fact, you break out into a cold sweat when you think of losing them.  They are indispensable and invaluable.

These amazing volunteers are magnetic.  They are magnetic in the way they…

  • pull students deeper into the student ministry community through the way they love kids
  • pull students deeper into relationship with Jesus through the way they pursue Jesus
  • pull new volunteers into the ministry through the way they passionately share their experiences

Let’s dream for a minute.  What if, instead of having one or two of these magnetic volunteers, you had an entire team of them?  What if your entire volunteer team was a magnetic community?  How amazing would your student ministry be?

I believe this is a realistic and achievable dream.  We can and we must create a magnetic communities of volunteers.  It’s possible.  These communities are what will take our student ministries to the next level.

So, how do you build a magnetic volunteer community?  I’m glad you asked.  Stay tuned over the next  few days because I have a few ideas.

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.

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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