My Favorite Word: Collaboration

It’s taken me a long time to figure this out but I recently uncovered the secret sauce to great student ministry.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a degree from a prestigious Christian university.  It’s not great curriculum, a killer band or an epic student center.  It’s not even hipster glasses.  It’s collaboration.

I’ve realized over the last few years, as we’ve added more and more staff to our student ministry team, that what makes our student ministry programming great is teamwork.  I consider myself to be a smart guy, a good curriculum writer and a solid youth pastor but our team consistently makes me and what I do better.  When I write a new teaching series and feel that it’s really good, it always comes back from team edits with better wording, more vivid imagery and more focused application.  The truth is, as much as I want to say I’m a great curriculum writer, what our team creates together is consistently better than what I produce on my own.

For our summer camp this year, I asked a few members of our team to create a worship experience for our students.  I had personally done this the previous three years, and I thought what I produced was pretty awesome until I experienced the worship night our team created.  It was phenomenal.  It completely blew me away.  Team is just better.  Collaboration creates a stronger student ministry.  Our programming, curriculum, trainings, events, trips…everything is better when our team collaborates.  I’m completely sold on team.  I’m done trying to be awesome on my own.

Here’s the thing:  I understand that not everyone has the luxury of working on a large team, whether your field is student ministry or something else.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a team.  Make one.  If I could rewind the tape and go back to my first student ministry job, the first thing I would do is recruit a team.  I would invite volunteers to edit my teaching scripts and critique film of my teachings.  I would gather together with a group of local student pastors on a regular basis, study together and brainstorm ideas on how to do student ministry amazingly well.

I believe that one of the major weaknesses of student ministry across the nation is that youth workers are far too isolated from each other.  There is so much we could learn from each other if we were willing to share and listen.  Our students deserve and need great student ministry.  Let’s move toward collaboration.

40 Book Reviews in 5 Minutes

You might say I’m a bit of a reader.  I always keep a list of the books I read over the course of a year.  It’s a way of motivating myself and keeping track of what genres of books I’ve been reading.

I believe deeply in the power of reading.  It’s how I stay fresh, informed, inspired, and young.  Here’s the 44 books I read this year and a extremely short review for each.  My hope is that something will catch your eye and you’ll be inspired to read a little more in 2014.

deepandwideSimply the best book I’ve ever read on church culture and leadership.  It’s a must for church workers.

the-advantage-lencioniI read this when I learned I’d be taking over our high school ministry last summer.  Very helpful.

the hobbitHad to read it again  before watching the movie!

3839-You Lost Me book.220w.tnGreat research and perspective for high school to college transition ministry.

prince caspianRead this to my kids.  They liked it but much preferred the first in the series.

love doesOne of the best books I read this year.  I laughed, cried and walked away inspired to love people.  If you haven’t read it you MUST!

Dead-Hand_bookcover-1This is great history of the Cold War arms race…utterly terrifying.

TheHeartAndTheFistConfession:  I love reading about military Spec Ops.  This is one of the best I’ve ever read.

sclbookFunny, so very funny.

screenshot-savage-continent-bookI love reading WWII history.  However, this is the dark aftermath of the conflict.  Very disturbing and yet important history.

9781418578169_p0_v1_s260x420This is such a great read.  We use it as part of our high school to college transition curriculum.

Scoundrels-cover_510Uh…yeah, I love Han Solo.

duck commanderMaybe I was a little obsessed with Duck Dynasty last year.

boo-bookThis book is incredible.  A powerful, beautiful and heartbreaking story of life in the slums of Mumbai.

QuitterI always enjoy Acuff’s humor and style.

a-higher-call-book-jacketMore WWII…this was a great story and a great reminder that most average German citizens were not evil.

not a fanPowerfully challenging and unsettling.

Father to the FatherlessMy church has supported and partnered with this man for years.  What an incredible story.

startThis is Acuff at his best.  A great read.  This was very influential in me starting my blog.

CandyBombersI loved this.  I wish our national character still reflected the values of the WWII/Depression generation.

platformIf you’re blogging this is a must.  Very well written and informative.

Contagious_BookCoverThis book is great for marketing and ideas.

Death-by-Meeting-292918I read this book as I considered how I wanted to lead meeting with my team.  It’s very helpful and a short read which is always nice.

Multiply1[1]I love Francis Chan.  This was a great reminder that student ministry must be about mentoring.

word_document_142646490_canonical_67ff8c6a7aI appreciated the perspective provided in this book:  Student ministry from the eyes of a lifetime volunteer.

first time managerAgain, I was slightly terrified to take the reigns of our high school department so I read a ton on leadership and management.

priceless1A novel about sex trafficking in Ukraine and Russia.  It wasn’t a great idea for me to read this after our failed adoption.

endersgameSomehow I never read this as a kid.  Loved it and enjoyed the movie.

at home bill brysonI’m a huge Bill Bryson fan.  This was a fascinating read about the things we find in our homes.

xenoI was such a huge fan of Ender’s Game and then things got weird.

damn fewLike I said, I enjoy reading about special operators.  They are a unique class of men.

4 obsessionsYup, reading more about leadership and management.  Lencioni is a genius.

the-liberator-jacket1This book blew my mind.  This guy survived so much of WWII.  Amazing.

Simply-JesusThis was my first foray into the world of N.T. Wright.  He’s as smart as they say.

What-We-Talk-about-When-We-Talk-about-God-hc-cSay what you will about Rob Bell but he is arguably the best communicator of our generation and worth reading.

to-own-a-dragonMy friend’s ongoing struggles with father abandonment inspired me to reread this.  Don Miller is my absolute favorite author.

speaker-for-the-deadI loved Ender’s Game and then things got really, really weird.

imagesSo far, this is Miller’s best work.  This was my 2nd read.  This book inspires me to live a life worth living.

Book_Review_One_Summer-09467This is Bryson’s latest.  I loved it and so will you if you are at all interested in American history or baseball.

indexI read everything by Gladwell.  He has such a unique approach.  I didn’t love the way he handled the Bible in this book but overall it was fantastic!

9780241958223_0021Such a simple but powerful approach to business or church leadership.

On_the_Edge_of_the_Dark_Sea_of_DarknessI was looking for a fun series to read to my kids.  I really enjoyed it!  So far the 2nd book is even better.

6097e03ae7a0668091602210.LAfter reading Peterson’s book I had to go back to my favorite fantasy series ever.  Brilliant.

Well, that’s it.  I read 44 books in 2013 most of them were great.  I hope you found something to add to your reading this for this year.  Please send me your recommendations.  I’m looking for great books to add to my list form 2014.

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.

Protect Yourself From Your Own Ideas

What’s up?  I’m chilling on vacation in Northern Michigan.  Here are some thoughts from earlier this summer…


90% of my ideas are terrible.  No, for real.  They’re really bad.  What sucks is that I’m full of ideas.  I’m constantly dreaming up how to tweak or completely transform our approach to student ministry.  I generate so many bad ideas that my team often just tunes me out.  I get the courtesy, “That sounds cool” with a plastic smile.  Currently I’m doing my best to convince our team that what we need is a ginormous student building with 5 attached houses.  I’m telling you it’s the future—for so many reasons.  Someday when every church has a student building with 5 attached houses and our church missed the boat everyone will realize how innovative I am and promote me.

Here’s the thing about my ideas.  While 90% of them are terrible and following them they could lead to immediate dismissal, the loss of thousands of dollars and probable hospitalization, 10% of them are genius.  10% of my ideas could potentially change the world.  The trouble is that I can’t predict which ideas are in the 90% and which ideas are in the 10%.  You really don’t want to guess wrong because great ideas invent the Internet and bad ideas take you to a Nickleback concert.

My guess is that whether you realize it or not, you also have more bad than good ideas.  The thing is, if we could better discern the quality of our ideas we’d save ourselves and our teams a lot of grief.  Nothing is more demoralizing than when the team is chasing down an idea that everyone knows is a dead end.

The good news is that somewhere along the line I stopped implementing all of my bad ideas.  When?  What was the big moment?  It wasn’t a big moment but it was when my ideas were forced into community.  When my ideas are stuck spinning within my own head almost all of them sound fabulous.  However, when having to verbally explain and defend my ideas, 90% of them are revealed for what they are.  Dumb.  I know you’ve been there, when you realize that the words coming out of your mouth are exceeding illogical and you wish you never started talking in the first place—humbling.

Within the context of community (that is well intentioned debate over the validity of ideas) my 90% was revealed to be what they were and my life and ministry was protected from stupidity.  The unforeseen byproduct of submitting my ideas to community is that my good ideas were refined and became significantly more awesome.  “I like this idea that you call the Internets.  But what if we could connect our gaming systems and play each other?  And what if you took the “s” off it and just called it the Internet?”  GENUIS!  You might say that in the context of community my 10% became 90% better.  If you’re not strong at math I probably lost you right there.  I think I lost myself.

The point is, when you have the humility to submit your ideas to your community before implementing them you will uncover the fact that most of your ideas are terrible but a few of them are genius.  Failure is not the best way to learn.  Realizing that an idea is a failure before failing is a cleaner and less destructive way to learn.  The moral of the story is this:  if you don’t have an ideas community, get one!  Honest community will save you from your terrible ideas and help reveal and refine your great ones.

The Cost of Leadership

My boss, Brian, has a saying that goes like this:  “Leadership is a series of losses.”  Like usual, the first time I heard him say it, I had no idea what he was talking about.   But over time, I’ve come to see that he’s got a genius streak.  Let me explain.

A few months I ago I received a promotion.  I was given more oversight, more responsibility and new roles.  Of course, getting promoted is a good thing and feels very nice.  I also love the idea of providing vision and oversight to the ministry.  However, I’ve learned that promotions aren’t all smiles and sunshine.  In fact, I’ve been mourning this transition for a few weeks now.

You see, I’ve spent the last five years building things.  Some of these things I’m very proud of.  About 50 adult volunteers make our high school ministry what it is.  It’s been my privilege and responsibility to recruit, train and walk with these volunteers.  I was the one who interviewed them, chose their small group and helped them find their way in the early days of volunteering.

I care deeply about each one of them.  We’ve walked through some heavy stuff—student and family crisis, personal loss, feelings of inadequacy, and relational conflict.  I also feel a strong sense of pride in knowing that I’ve had a role in equipping them.  But, it’s no longer my role to equip them.  I am losing this role.  It’s time to hand it over to someone else.

Over the last 3 years, I’ve built a high school to college transition program that I love.  At the risk of sounding like a regular jackwagon, I’m incredibly proud of this ministry.  I love it because it’s unique and effective.  My greatest joy in ministry over the last 3 years has been watching graduates of our ministry thrive in college and adulthood.  Knowing I’ve had even a small role in their growth is very rewarding.  But, with my new position, I won’t be able to lead this program any longer.  I am losing this role.  It’s time to hand it over to someone else.

For the last 12 years, I have been leading worship in student ministries on a regular basis.  I absolutely love playing music and drawing students into the presence of God.  I can’t imagine not leading worship.  And yet, it’s no longer my job to lead.  I’m losing this role.  It’s time to hand it over to someone else.

Please understand that I’m very happy about my promotion and I’m excited and honored to lead our high school ministry.  I feel this is exactly where God wants me and I know that it’s right but I have to be honest about the cost of leadership.  It’s terribly painful to build something and then hand it over to someone else and trust them to do the work.  Leadership costs something.

Moving up in an organization always leads to greater leverage and lesser contact.  5 years ago I left behind the role of everyday contact with high school students.  It was a painful but ultimately good transition.  And now, as the leader of our high school ministry, I have been gifted with the leverage to direct the entire ministry and yet, I know I will have less contact with our students and volunteers and less contact with some of the roles and programs I have loved over the last few years.

In this way, leadership is a series of losses.  I must let go of what I love and learn to empower others to take what I have built and transform it into something that is uniquely theirs.  Have any of you had this experience?


5 Things Your Volunteers Are Asking

I don’t care how gifted, relational or vision minded you are as a youth pastor, you can only effectively shepherd 5 or 6 students.  If your ministry is bigger than six, volunteers are a necessity.  The more effectively your volunteers serve, the more effective your ministry will be.  As we approach the fall season, there are 5 things our volunteers will be asking.  Answer these questions well and your volunteers will have a fantastic experience.


Most people want to do good work.  Volunteers wouldn’t be volunteering unless they cared deeply about the ministry.  The trouble is that we don’t often provide volunteers with the tools to do ministry effectively.  Providing your volunteers with constant training is important.  In our ministry, we start every large group program with 30 minutes of volunteer training.

Secondly, provide your volunteers with clear expectations.  In the absence of clarity, people come up with their own expectations.  You won’t always be happy with what they come up with.  Make it clear and equip them for the work and then sit back and watch the magic.


A lack of feedback drives people mad.  “Does she like me?”   “Did I pass the test?”  “Is my spinach casserole tasty?”  It’s no different with volunteering.  People want to know if they are doing a good job or not.  And, in the absence of feedback a new volunteer will almost always feel like they are bombing.  It’s important that ministry leaders see and praise good work.  On the flip side, if a volunteer isn’t doing a good job, gently tell him.  Most of the time, the issue is a lack of clarity on expectations.


We all have a revolutionary streak.  We all want to belong to something big and meaningful.  Thankfully, kingdom work is incredibly compelling.  Share stories of why your volunteers matter.  Highlight the wins.  Paint a picture of what a caring adult can do in the life of a lonely teenager.  Stories are fuel for volunteers.  And, volunteers who deeply believe in the mission of the ministry and the importance of their role in it will likely stick around for years.


Crisis situations can be terrifying for a volunteer (and staff!).  “She is cutting.  What do I do?”  “He’s addicted to porn and his parents don’t know.”  “She says that her dad hits her.”

The best thing you can do for a volunteer is help her understand the process of how your ministry handles these situations.  And, it needs to be in advance.  Make this process very clear.  Help your volunteers understand what they are legally responsible for in terms of mandatory reporting.  The more you communicate these things in advance the more at ease your volunteers will feel.

Secondly, make sure they understand that they are not alone.  Staff should take lead on crisis situations as soon as possible.  Don’t leave difficult conversations with parents and calls to CPS to your volunteers.


Every person had a deep inner need to feel significant.  There is one simple test to determine if someone values you as a person—do they listen to you?

Your volunteers will naturally develop opinions about the ministry and their experiences.  If they don’t they aren’t truly engaged in the ministry.  The way in which you listen to them will tell them very clearly whether or not you value them.  Volunteers who don’t feel valued will not stick around for long.  However, volunteers who feel significant will likely plug in for years.

Listen to your volunteers.  Provide simple ways for them to provide feedback.  Survey Monkey is one of our favorites.  Also, regular talks over coffee are a key ingredient to our care strategy.

Volunteers are crucial to student ministry.  Great ministries have great volunteers and a lot of them.  Equipping and keeping great volunteers isn’t rocket science but it does take intentionality and hard work.  These are the 5 questions I believe volunteers are asking.  Feel free to add a sixth if you think I’m missing one.

Influencing Boys Toward Greatness | Leadership

I can’t remember the last male character on TV who was a leader.  OK, take out every super hero/Jack Bauer type character.  If a man isn’t single handedly saving the world he is a sally—see every sitcom husband ever.

Let me make a clarification.  By leadership I do not mean dominance.  There are plenty of guys out there who know how to get what they want through dominance and abuse.  The leadership I’m talking about is others first.  It’s the kind of leadership that draws out the best in others.  It empowers others to become who God made them to be and rallies people around the mission of Christ in the world.

When I think of my sons, this is what I want.  I want my boys to grow into men who inspire, empower and lead the way.  So, how do you get there?  How do you teach a boy to become a leader modeled after Jesus?


Nearly everything in our culture teaches boys to be selfish.  “It’s all about you.”  “Have it your way.”  “Wear this and women will want you.”

If we want our boys to become others focused leaders, we have to understand that we’re going against the flow of culture.  They won’t become the leaders we want them to be without first seeing it.  Specifically, they need to see us doing it.  The boys in your youth ministry and in your family will lead exactly how they see you leading.  Be the leader you want your boys to be.

One of the best ways to do model others first leadership is through volunteering.  Volunteer together with your son.  Encourage the boys in your youth group to serve in the children’s ministry.  Take your family on mission trips.  Serve together and they will catch others first leadership.


To be frank, many guys in our culture approach relationships asking a simple question:  “What can I get out of this?”  For the record, that’s called exploitation.  Great men don’t exploit women.  They empower and liberate.

At the risk of offending everyone in the universe, I believe that great men lead in relationships.  Before you start writing that hate comment just hear me out.  I think men ought to protect women by taking the lead on physical boundaries.  Unfortunately, many guys are out to get what they can in relationships and many girls are lonely enough that they will trade purity for perceived intimacy.

The world needs men who are more interested in protecting women and bringing the best out in them than getting what they can.   My dream is that my daughters would date guys who are man enough to be upfront about their physical and emotional boundaries and that they would lead the way in maintaining these boundaries.

We need to train the boys in our families and youth ministries to respect women by leading them.  Their role is to protect women, not take advantage of them.  Help boys clearly define their physical boundaries and then help them learn how to communicate and maintain these boundaries with girls.

Also, help them understand how powerfully their words can impact a woman.  Teach him to be careful with his words.  Again, the goal is to protect and empower women—no to get what you can from them.  That’s exploitation.

Great men lead.  They don’t dominant or exploit.  They put others first and empower the people around them.  To influence boys toward greatness, we must learn to lead in the same way.