Small Group Fail

Do you ever feel like you totally dropped the ball as a small group leader? I don’t mean those times where you go in for the appropriate side hug and get full-frontal attacked by a student, or the times you make some awkward comment to a 9th grade girl about her boyfriend without knowing they broke up two hours earlier. I’m talking about times that you flat-out fail on your own merit.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I am no stranger to those gut wrenching evenings of small group time where nothing is accomplished and the only one to blame is yourself. For me, I particularly get caught up in the “not being prepared” vain of failure. It’s not that I don’t think preparation is important, I just run out of time (so I tell myself). Annoyingly, I’ve discovered that when I do prepare, my small group is typically inattentive, and when I don’t they’re more ready to listen then ever—and I have nothing to say. Knowing I’m responsible for dropping the ball in those cases invites a very different feeling in me than when something I try simply doesn’t work. I’m sure you are all too smart for this, but I sort of have a tendency to beat myself up when this happens—because as the leader, I’m supposed to be the holy one, right? Not the unprepared, lazy kid. It’s in these moments that I think, “Who the heck let me in here?”

Yet when I have utterly botched up small group leadership and feel I am no longer worthy to be a leader, I remind myself of a few things. If you’ve ever been there, I invite you to scan this list as well. I know you already understand that God’s bigger than your stupid moments, but it’s good to be reminded. Here is my reminder list in times of failure:

You are not finished learning

No matter how long you’ve been leading a small group—whether it’s months or decades—you will never be a perfect leader. There will inevitably be days you’re not prepared, days you say the wrong thing, and days when no one responds to your questions or jokes. As it turns out, no matter how many people tell you you’re a great leader, you’ll never be done learning what that looks like. (There’s a head shrinker for you.)

The group isn’t lost

If you’re an invested leader who tries to build relationships and speak truth to students, one bad week won’t scatter the sheep. In youth ministry, we like to remind our leaders about how little time they have with their students because it’s good for them to feel urgency with kids they often see only 30 times a year (or less). But while it’s good to be reminded of how little time we have, it’s also good to keep in mind that one bad week is still only 3% bad in a year. The rest of the year could be 97% good! Don’t beat yourself up, just strive to grow toward that new 97% goal. (I guess you could strive for extra credit and take your kids out to ice cream too, but I’m not guaranteeing you’ll get your 3% back.)

Tell ‘em: adults mess up too

It’s easy to tell our small group kids that they need to own up to their messes (because let’s be honest, many of them have obvious messes to clean up). It’s a lot harder to admit that we screw up too. Talking about past mistakes you’ve grown out of is one thing, but admitting you still mess up is another. Yet I think if we miss out on these opportunities to tell our students when we drop the ball, we miss showing them what confession looks like. Some students may not have ever seen a real apology.

You screwing up is an opportunity to:

  • model what it is to ask forgiveness, even for something small
  • model humility as a leader

You’d be surprised how much respect you can gain by admitting you’re still not perfect. I mean, don’t make it a habit or anything, but a one-time screw up could actually draw your group closer to you.

So next time you don’t prepare, or you lose your temper, or you roll your eyes when you should’ve said something supportive, remind yourself of these things. And most importantly, keep going. Our enemy would like you to give up; God’s given you the grace to move forward. If you haven’t noticed, he’s pretty good at using imperfect people to turn out epic results.


Guest Blogger:  Elisa Talmage has spent over six years as small group leader of kids from 4th to 9th grade.  She is now on staff as the Female Small Groups Coordinator at Ada Bible Church and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Counselor Education. Elisa grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where she and her husband met in fifth grade.


image credited to Chuckumentary

The Secret Power of Memories

I’ve learned that memories are a powerful.  Good childhood memories have a way of evolving into magical nostalgia.  Maybe I’m the only one who romanticizes the past and remembers things a little differently than they actually occurred but I have a feeling you do the same thing.

As a parent, I accidentally stumbled upon using memories as a secret weapon.  You see, I have a semi-famous artist sister who lives in Portland, OR with her shoe designing husband.  They are both artistic and adventuresome so they are exciting to be around and you occasionally score free shoes and paintings which is nice.

The thing is, Oregon has this reputation for being beautiful and incredibly quirky—the kind of place you just have to visit.  So, I decided to fly to Portland with my son and spend a week climbing mountains and visiting coffee shops with my sister and her husband.   Secretly I was hoping to run into Donald Miller…but this story isn’t about me.

Anyway, I intended this trip to be an adventure for my son and I and it turned out to be a partial disappointment and a landmark success.  You see, as it turns out, 5 year old boys aren’t terribly great mountain climbers.  Our first day of adventuring took us to various waterfalls around the Columbia River Gorge.  Keegan did well on the first hike and then fell to pieces on the next eight.   I’ll have you know that carrying a 50 pound kid around hiking isn’t exactly paradise.


At this point we realized that our planned wilderness backpacking trip was never going to happen with a 5 year old.  Undaunted, we scheduled a weekend camping trip at Crater Lake and had a great time.  I was enraptured with the natural beauty of everything I saw in Oregon.  I mean, how are you gonna have a temperate rainforest, volcanoes, and the ocean all in one state?


The truth is that Keegan didn’t much care for the scenery.  He was excited about finding a snake but other than that the best part of the trip was when he uncovered that his uncle Eric had a Super Nintendo with Super Mario Sunshine.  After wandering all over the state and the city, all Keegan wanted to do was stay up late and play video game that’s over a decade old.  So that’s what we did.

Upon returning home, I felt like we needed to return to Oregon the next summer so that we could more seriously tap into the potential of Oregon but I soon discovered that Keegan didn’t feel that way at all.  I can’t tell you how many times Keegan has asked me if I remember when we got “those little pizzas” in the Denver airport?  To him, that was amazing.  “Daddy, do you remember when we got that Italian pop?  That was my favorite! “   “Daddy, do you remember when we saw a starfish at the spacific ocean?  That was so cool.”  “Daddy are you sure Sasquatch isn’t real?  Because maybe you’ve just never seen him” “Daddy, do you remember Eric’s Gollum voice?  How come you can’t do that?  “Daddy, do you remember when we Stephanie said people can ride their bikes naked in Portland?”


The truth is that Keegan had the most epic vacation and the fact that it was just him and I traveling across the country made it a legendary experience.   A few weeks after returning, my wife made Keegan a Shutterfly book of our trip.  Even now, 2 years after the trip he still reads that book nearly every night as he lies in bed waiting for sleep to overtake him.  The memory of that trip has taken on magical qualities.

It was a fun trip but the point is that for a little boy, an adventure with his dad was a milestone experience.  His memories of that trip will forever overshadow what actually happened.  The trip has given us a shared point of reference.  No future conflict or disagreement, no teenage angst or middle aged father stubbornness will ever be able to take away the magic of a week in Oregon.

What I learned from a week in Oregon is that taking the time to adventure with your kids, specifically one-on-one is worth the investment.  It may just be the most strategic thing you ever do.


And How Sex is Like Glue

The other night I was helping my son Keegan with his homework.  The fact that my 2nd grade son has homework every night is crazy talk.  When I was in 2nd grade, my homework was to pit my He-Man and G.I. Joe figures against each other in epic combat for hours on end on end.

Anyway, he was attempting to glue words that he had cut out on a piece of paper in alphabetical order.  You might say he was struggling.  Elmer’s glue and 2nd grade fingers aren’t a great combination.  And, the funny thing about glue is that it is quite effective at cementing two pieces of paper together.  This is great except for when you’re in 2nd grade and you keep putting the words in the wrong order.

Once the glue has been applied, pulling the two pieces of paper apart is a rather nasty affair.  The funny thing is that the papers become one and trying to pull them apart results in ripping the papers and spilling glue everywhere.  The end result was papers glued to the table, fingers stuck together, and a seven year old repeatedly banging his head against the table


In his defense, the entire episode was technically my fault.  He was working as fast as he could because I had just purchased the new Lego:  Marvel Super Heroes video game and promised him that we could play it as soon as his homework was done.  He was essentially doing his homework at ludicrous speed which is never a good idea unless your name is Dark Helmet or Colonel Sanders.

It was about this time that I realized that sex is a lot like the glue my son was using for his homework.  I didn’t come to this realization during the homework session of course…that would have been weird.  Nor did I realize it while we were playing Lego:  Marvel Super Heroes because that game is so fun that any sort of distraction, even thinking about sex is impossible.

I came to this realization about sex and glue over coffee with one of our small group leaders as he talked about a student in his group.  His student had slept with his girlfriend and now he was struggling because things hadn’t turned out like he thought they would.  As it turns out, things were getting pretty complicated.

Often, I think I’ve had a genius idea and then realize that I actually stole the idea from someone else.  This happens in our office all the time, usually after someone reads my blog and realizes that I stole another one of their ideas and played it off like it was mine.  I assure you this is unintentional.  I’m terrible with names and intellectual property.

With this whole sex and glue image, it turns out I’ve stolen the idea from someone fairly high up…God.  In the book of Genesis, God describes sex as forging two people into one person in a way that can’t be broken apart.  There is something incredibly powerful about sex.  It’s like glue.  It cements two people together.  There is no undoing the unity that sex brings.  That’s why when people talk about how so and so still has a piece of their heart they are speaking the truth.

The thing that bothers me is how our culture presents sex as just something fun to do that doesn’t have lasting consequences.    Based on what I’ve read from the Inventor of sex and what I’ve observed over and over again in the lives of friends and students, sex is like glue.  It forges a bond between bodies and souls.  It creates beautiful and lasting unity and intimacy in the context of marriage but when two people who have been cemented together are pulled apart there is lasting emotional and relational damage.


image credited to me and the sysop


What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve read some great stuff over the last few weeks.  Here are a few blog posts that I really liked…

Grand Theft Auto 5 made $1 billion dollars in three days.  Half the universe is playing this game.  Wanna know what it’s all about?  A couple youth workers played it for a few minutes in order to review it for a parent resource website.  Warning, it review is NOT for the faint of heart.


A friend recommended this post to me in response to a piece I wrote about guys not leading girls in our culture.  It’s pretty strong.  I’d love to know what you think:


This post on teaching middle school students is fantastic.  If you teach students you should definitely check it out:


I already posted about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath.  Here’s the post if you missed it.  In his book he argues that being a big fish in a little pond is better than being a little fish in a big pond and how that relates to choosing the right college.  Here’s an article about this concept.

And, if you missed it, here’s an interview with Gladwell about how writing this book drew him back into faith.


I’m halfway through this book and loving it.  Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors.  If you haven’t read him you need to get on it.  For real.  Go get one of his books right now…

How to Pull off an Epic Volunteer Retreat

When it comes to pulling off an epic volunteer retreat, the key is understanding what it is that you want to accomplish.  Over the years, we’ve honed our focus down to three things. We want our volunteers to walk away from the retreat feeling connected, inspired and valued.  Our retreat is all about connecting volunteers to each other and to God, inspiring them to become the best volunteers they can be and valuing them for their uniqueness and their investment.


We happen to believe that fun is spiritual and that taking the time to meticulously plan out a fun experience communicates value to our volunteers.  The key element of fun for us this year was our 80s theme.  Everyone came to the retreat dressed like it was 1983.  The soundtrack from the weekend was exclusively from the 80s.  All the games, prizes, decorations and snacks were from the 80s.  This theme added an incredible amount of fun and structured fun communicates value.



Our goal is to weave community into every aspect of our volunteer retreat because we believe that volunteers who serve in community are better volunteers.  Because of this, we ask our cell families (teams of volunteers) to carpool and eat dinner together on the way to retreat.  We house each cell family together and build in cell family discussion in response to each session.  Aside from these elements, we believe that the very nature of getting away together as a community of leaders, staying up late playing volleyball or Setters of Catan, and eating meals together builds community.


In our ministry context, we train our volunteers every other week.  Our volunteers hear from us a lot.  Because of this we will often bring in a guest speaker for our retreat simply because they bring fresh stories, language and perspective to the conversation.  This year we asked Brian, our Senior Pastor of Family Ministries and Ian Nacy, a local youth pastor to come and inspire our volunteers.


If you’re going to take the time to get your volunteers away, you should make it worth their while.  You need to communicate something valuable.  This year, our schedule included 3 sessions–two on Saturday and one long session on Friday night which included a 40 minute worship set.  If the retreat is all “fun” elements, your volunteers will be asking why they needed to come in the first place.

Here’s our schedule if you’d like to see it:  Retreat Schedule


There are two ways to do a retreat.  There is the, “we have $5 to make this happen because we didn’t plan for it” and there’s the “we’re going to pull of an epic experience for our volunteers.”  We’ve found that it’s the little things that communicate value.  Choose a camp with nice facilities.  Tell the camp what meals you’d like to eat so you don’t end up with cafeteria corn dogs for lunch, bring great snacks, give away something big, put care into the programming elements and for crying out loud, don’t make your volunteers serve on their retreat.


In my opinion, one of the most important elements to a good retreat is when you end it.  It’s always tempting to try to do too much and keep your volunteers for too long.  We’ve struggled with finding this balance over the years but we’ve landed on this truth:  It’s always best to leave them wanting more.  If they can’t wait to come back next year then we’ve nailed it.

We start our retreat at 7:00 on Friday night and end it at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon.  It may seem to short but we don’t feel the need to cram hours of training into our volunteer retreat because we already train our volunteers every other week.


So, the key to an epic volunteer retreat is understanding what you want to accomplish.  For us, it’s all about connecting, inspiring and value.  What’s your goal and how do you achieve it?





Why Your Ministry Needs a Volunteer Retreat

Last weekend was our 17th annual volunteer retreat.  Ok, I actually have no idea how many retreats we’ve done but 17th annual has a nice ring to it.  Here’s the thing, of all the things we do in our student ministry, I believe that our volunteer retreat is in the top 3.  It’s crucial to our culture.  I can’t imagine not doing it next year and here’s why you should be putting one on too.


This year we set a new LifeLine record with 116 small groups so yes, we have a bunch of volunteers.  But here’s the thing, if you have more than 12 students, you need small groups and if you need small groups then you need volunteer leaders.  Not only do you need volunteers but you need great volunteers.  You need the kind of volunteers that you can trust to be spiritual shepherds to our students.  And, not only do you need great volunteers, you need great volunteers who will serve year after year because student ministry is a long-term investment.

So, how do you end up with great volunteers who stay engaged for the long-haul?  You invest in them.  A volunteer retreat is an incredible opportunity to invest deeply in your volunteers.  Here’s how it works.


Here’s what I know:  volunteers who feel valued stay engaged in our ministry.  When volunteers understand, not only that we need them but that we enjoy them as people and value their individual gifting they tend to stick around.  We use our volunteer retreat to to create space for value conversations.  There is so much more that can be said on a weekend.


Volunteers who have a great time serving in student ministry tend to stay in student ministry.  If our volunteers are bored then we are seriously missing the mark.  We treat our volunteer retreat like a party.  Last weekend’s retreat included loud music, big prizes, crazy costumes, interactive games and hilarious videos.  If it isn’t fun you aren’t doing it right and your volunteers will likely go find someplace fun to serve.  Conversely, we’ve found that volunteers who have fun serving in our ministry stay engaged year after year.


Nobody likes to suck at stuff.  This is a fundamental principle of humanity.  Student ministry is not an easy gig.  Leading a small group can be terribly difficult.  Volunteers who don’t feel like they are doing a good job will rarely stick around.  It’s our job as ministry leaders to equip them because volunteers who feel competent stay engaged.  We train our volunteers every other week but there is something special about getting away together on a retreat to really dig into core training concepts.


We are all hungry for community.  We believe that volunteers who have strong community make better spiritual shepherds for our students.  Some ministries require that their volunteers find a solid community, we build it right into our structure.  We have found that volunteers who connect deeply with other volunteers tend to stay engaged in our ministry for years.  For us, this is the biggest win of a volunteer retreat.  A weekend creates a ton of space for connecting.


So, what’s the bottom line?  You should do a volunteer retreat!  Why?  Because we need great volunteers who stay engaged for years.  Volunteers who stay engaged feel valued, have fun, feel competent and serve in community.  A volunteer retreat is a great opportunity to invest in volunteers in each of these areas.

Tomorrow I’ll share some ideas on exactly how to pull off an epic retreat.

The Danger of Not Digging

Have you ever read a situation completely wrong?  I have.  I once got a person’s gender completely wrong.  “Hey Jon, is this your mom?” “Nope.” “It’s my brother.” “Oh….”

I’ve read people wrong in student ministry too.  A few years ago, I received a letter from a former student—a student who had been regularly involved in our student ministry for all seven years.  He was in a small group with the same leader for 4 years, attended snow camp and even attended a mission trip.  His letter informed me that it was all an act.  He never believed any of it.  He is an atheist.  He was playing along for the sake of his parents.  We never knew because we never asked.  We never dug beneath the surface.



Based on the published research I’ve read and my own experience I would say that the majority of students who walk away from church after high school do so for the following reasons:

  • They never figured out what they believe
  • They never worked through their doubts
  • They never understood why Jesus matters

I would attribute most of this to a lack of digging—from parents and youth workers.  We assumed things were fine because they were coming to our programs and weren’t smoking pot.  We never gave them permission to talk about their doubts because, well, that’s uncomfortable.  We never connected them to the mission of Jesus because we were more concerned about intelligent lights and transition videos than we were about actually connecting them to what Jesus is doing in the world.  We never gave them the chance to participate.



The lesson I learned from that letter is that we need to start digging.    There is far too much at stake for us to simply assume.  We need to get messy by asking harder questions, listening better, and connecting them to the mission of Jesus.  The fact that students are walking away from church because they were bored with Jesus is unbelievable.



So, how do we dig beneath the surface?   Here are some thoughts:

1.      Get on their turf

Who are your students at school, at home and in the world of social media?  You might be surprised.  Most students have multiple selves and aren’t terribly bothered by the dissonance of being one person at church and another at school.  Only by digging into their world can we really see who they are.

2.      Drop Your Guard

Honesty unlocks honesty.  If you want your students to be real then you must be real.  You must be honest about your doubts, struggles and mistakes.  They won’t be willing to go anywhere you haven’t already gone.  Free them from  pretense and masks by dropping your own.

3.      Ask Incredibly Awkward Questions

Digging is messy and uncomfortable but let’s be real, there’s a lot at stake.  Be direct.  Be blunt.  If their eyes widen then you’re on the right track.  Ask that question that makes you blush.  Drag sin out into the light.  Force them to verbalize their thoughts.  Be ok with silence and unleash the power of the “why” question.

4.      Overstay Your Welcome

Digging beneath the surface is a long term project.  You have to earn the right to speak truth into the lives of your student.  There is no such thing as trust without time together.  Students don’t need a quick spiritual surgery to set them right.  They need a guide to walk with them as they journey through adolescence.  Stay in the lives of your students.  Students need small group leaders who will walk with them for 3 or 4 years.  Stay engaged with them as they transition into college.  Overstay your welcome.


I never want to read a letter like that again.  Let’s dig into the lives of students and help them as they struggle to build a faith of their own.





My Worst and Best Teaching of the Year

Last week included my worst teaching of the year and also my favorite.  The funny thing is that they were supposed to be the same content.  Sometimes you write a teaching, you think it’s going to be great and then it falls flat.  It’s worse when you are writing not only for yourself but also for other teachers on other campuses.

After teaching our high school students on Sunday night, I went back to the drawing board because, while it wasn’t a terrible teaching, it wasn’t clear or direct enough.  It took some hard work and last minute fine tuning but I and was very pleased with what came out on Wednesday night at our middle school event.

This is the second teaching of our Wakes series and it’s all about how other people influence you.  Check it out.

For me, it’s been 5 years since I’ve written curriculum and taught on a regular basis.  I’m sort of relearning the art.  Thankfully, my team and my boss have given me a lot of grace because there is a learning curve for this sort of thing.  In my transition back into teaching and writing, I’ve found this model to be helpful: