Picture from Todd Morris via Creative Commons

After 7.5 years leading our middle school ministry, I recently took over leadership of our entire student ministries. While I’m excited about the transition and the new challenges, it’s bittersweet for me as I leave a ministry that’s been my home for so long. As I was talking over the transition with our new middle school pastor (a really great guy), I caught myself calling the middle school ministry “my baby”.

I realized then and there that I’d entered dangerous territory. I had become an owner of my ministry instead of a steward.

It’s a real temptation to take ownership over our ministry. After all, we pour our hearts and souls into our ministries, often to the detriment of our relationships (and bank accounts). This can lead us to believe that our ministries rise and fall with us. We become so invested that it’s hard to tell where our ministries end and we begin.

Stewardship, on the other hand, is what God is really calling us to. Stewardship and ownership look very similar, but are really miles apart.

Ownership says “This is mine” while stewardship says, “This is God’s”. All leaders need a healthy understanding that the ministry they serve in belongs to God. It keeps us accountable to not misuse our position for our own gain.

Ownership shuts people out while stewardship invites people in. When we are possessive of our ministries we tend to hog the glory and spotlight. Stewards want other people to experience the joys of ministry, so they aren’t jealous when someone more gifted comes along.

Ownership gives us a false identity while stewardship gives us true humility. If we act like owners we begin to think that all successes are because of our greatness and all of our failures or due to our weakness. A stewardship mindset allows us to free our identity from results (both good and bad) as we faithfully do the work of the ministry.

Ownership sees “Lifetime” while Stewardship sees “Legacy”. An owner is really only concerned what happens on their watch. They act selfishly and spend all available resources to maximize results in their lifetime. Stewards, on the other hand, realize they could be gone at any moment so they work to leave the ministry healthy for the next generation. They are always on the lookout for the next generation of leaders. A mark of a good steward is that their ministry doesn’t fall apart after they leave.

As much as I want to believe that our middle school ministry NEEDS me, I understand that with God at the helm everything is going to be alright in my absence. It’s actually a much sweeter place to be. Because this is God’s ministry I feel lucky that I get to be along for the ride.

What about you? Are you more of an owner or steward of your ministry?

What was the last invitation you received? Recently we sent invitations to our son’s first birthday party. It’s interesting how hard it was to get anyone to actually commit to coming. We live in an age when invitations are all over the place. We get invited to participate in surveys, join causes, attend events, give fundraisers, and throw parties. It makes it hard to know which invitations to accept. We worry about accepting too early, lest we miss out on something better (FOMO). Our time is divided and the same is true for our students. Ultimately, the invitations I accept are the ones coming from people that matter to me. It’s less about the event and more about the relationship.
In ministry it can feel like all we do is invite students to things.
  • “Come hang out with me.”
  • “Sign up for camp today.”
  • “Are you coming to youth group tonight?”
  • “Can you come help me clean my house?” (I can’t be the only one)

What if we stopped inviting teens to events and started inviting them to a person? In our church’s student ministry our goal is to invite teens to walk with Jesus daily. We’re not inviting them to a program, but to a relationship with the living God.

John 10:26-30 gives us a picture of what the process of walking with Jesus looks like…

“But you don’t believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me,  for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
In this passage Jesus says his sheep will believe him (which is more like an active faith instead of intellectual acknowledgement). How does that active faith come about?
  1. Listening to Jesus – Jesus makes it clear that his sheep listen to him. We are inviting students to listen to the voice of God through prayer, Scripture, and looking for signs of his work.
  2. Knowing Jesus – After we learn to listen to Jesus he becomes familiar to us. We can discern his voice from others. We have ongoing relationship with him. We move from knowing about him to actually knowing him.
  3. Following Jesus – Students to listen to Jesus and learn to know him will naturally follow him. Where he goes he goes they will go because they will WANT to be with him.
And what is the result? As a teenager develops a habit of walking with Jesus they will experience life and security.
So the next time you’re spending time with one of your students don’t invite them an event, invite them to walk with Jesus daily.
Would you stop right now and pray that God would give you the great privilege of inviting a teen to walk with Jesus this week?

I’ve been reading Jeremiah lately and I’m coming to the conclusion that he was a model for youth workers everywhere. He was a long suffering servant of the Lord who did not see the fruit of his ministry within his lifetime. Yet his prophetic role gave us some of the most powerful images of Jesus in the Old Testament. Here are just a few reasons why I think Jeremiah would make a great youth worker:

Jeremiah used creative illustrations to get his message across. 

Jeremiah was notorious for using object lessons to teach God’s message to the people of Israel. At one point he wore the same pair of underwear for an extended time without washing it and then buries it for a long time. His message, “Israel’s pride is like dirty underwear.” Sounds like a great middle school illustration to me. This is a great reminder that using tangible illustrations are essential to teaching to teens.

Jeremiah sacrificed greatly for his ministry. 

The Lord told Jeremiah not to take a wife or have children. Also, He also was constantly under threat of harm from those who didn’t like his message. At one point he was actually thrown into cistern and left for dead. I’m proud to be a part of a youth ministry tribe filled with many men and women who sacrifice greatly for the calling they have for teens.

People didn’t listen to his message. 

The repeated theme in Jeremiah’s ministry was that his audience wasn’t receptive to his message. Likewise, there are many times in youth ministry when must persist to share the truth of God with teens who aren’t interested in hearing the truth of God’s word.

Jeremiah wrestled with his calling, yet trusted in the Lord. 

In Jeremiah 20, he says that God tricked him into the ministry and wished he could do something else. I don’t know of a seasoned youth worker that hasn’t wrestled with God’s calling on their lives at least some point in their ministry. What’s cool about Jeremiah is that he persisted in his calling because of the trust he had in the Lord.

Jeremiah had hope beyond reason.

Despite all the obstacles that Jeremiah faced, he still had hope. Late in his ministry, after setback upon setback, Jeremiah writes a message on a scroll hoping, “It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” (Jer. 35:3). I love it that most youth workers are fiercely hopeful that God is at work even when there is reason to be hopeless.

I wish that more youth workers would read Jeremiah as a primer for youth ministry. I wish we had more Jeremiah-type youth workers who sacrifice, persist and hope in their calling to see lives changed for Jesus. Finally, I wish I would be refined to become more like Jeremiah myself.

There is a mythology that student ministers LOVE to perpetuate. It’s a mythology that has roots in reality, but frankly has taken on a life of its own. It’s become part of our framing story.

When youth workers get together we love to share stories about how we are the disrespected and cast off ones in our churches. We bemoan getting none of the credit and all of the blame. We long for opportunities to “lead up” and “speak into leadership” about what direction we think the church should go. Yes, there are many youth workers who serve in churches that treat them horribly, and I grieve with them, but is that really the case for EVERYONE? And what are we going to do if that never changes?

Many others, including myself, struggle with having status among other youth workers. We want to have a “greater voice” that leads to book deals and speaking gigs. We feel that status equals validation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting these things. We all want to know what we’re doing matters to others. But when wanting these things becomes part of our core motivation it becomes an unhealthy obsession.

I wonder how many youth pastors who tell their teens not to worry about what others think about them are secretly obsessing with what their Senior Pastors or Elder Boards think of them.

Maybe we could use a dose of our own truth. The truth is that our status is already firmly cemented in the Kingdom of God and it’s not based on our church size or ministry reach.

David, King of Israel, came to this conclusion about his status:

“What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:4 NLT)

David is floored by the fact that God would notice him at all. This is a King after all, he had arrived to a place of ultimate status, but that’s not what fed his heart. I am convinced that being noticed by God trumps being overlooked by others.

Paul, reflecting on his own ministry came to his own realization about status.

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8:16-17 ESV, emphasis mine)

God not only notices us in our lowly state, he ELEVATES us to a place of honor. We are co-heirs with Jesus! That means all the rights, privileges and status that Jesus enjoys are ours as well.

I’d love for youth workers to change their mythology of status and start believing the truth that in Christ we have been given the place of ultimate status in God’s economy.

God not only notices us, He elevates us. Even when we don’t have the position we want in our churches, we have the position we NEED in the kingdom. So, let’s walk with our heads held high today. And please let’s stop defining our tribe by our LACK of earthly status and start celebrating the overflow of our heavenly one.

In student ministry we focus a lot on “what”. A what is a program, event, curriculum or a whole host of other things that we use in ministry. We also focus a lot on “how”. A how is a strategy to achieve a what. How are we going to reach this campus? How do we recruit and keep leaders? Most of the time our what determines our how. We have to have small groups (what), so how do we get leaders to lead them? 

The question that most gets left out of our leadership discussion is not what or how, but WHY. The leadership lesson I’m learning right now is that my why is so vitally important to everything I do.

Simon Sinek, from a Ted Talk in 2009 said “People don’t buy your what, they buy your why.”

One of the most crucial roles of anyone in leadership (whether leading a ministry or a small group) is to remind others constantly of the why. When people lose sight of the why, they lose focus and motivation. The tasks before them seem meaningless. The extra work doesn’t seem worth it. But if your why is compelling then people will follow you, even when it’s hard.

There is a real difference between leading with your what and leading with your why. Here’s an example:

Recruiting leaders through your what:

“We have an 8th grade girls’ group that really needs a leader. Would you pray about joining our team?”

Recruiting leaders through your why:

“I’m convinced that the best way for a teen to experience a relationship with Jesus is by having a relationship with an older Christian who loves them like Jesus does. I’m looking for other people who think the same way to invest in the teens in our church.”

One approach gets someone to sign up for a task (leading a small group), the other compels someone to join a cause. When life gets busy, which leader is more likely to stick around? It’s the person who joins a cause because of a compelling why.

So what is my why in student ministry? It’s this: “Teens matter to God.” (I didn’t say it was eloquent). This why informs how I do everything. It gives me a reason to ask people to join our leadership team. It gives me a reason to be the best communicator I can be. It gives me a reason to help other student ministry leaders become the best they be. If ALL teens matter to God then that means I’ve got to do whatever I can to get as many adults as possible in on the mission of student ministry.

So, what about you? What is your why? Do your leaders and students know what it is? How are you going to communicate that this week? Knowing and communicating your WHY will take your leadership to the next level.

“All Scripture is God-breathed…” This verse out of 2nd Timothy is often quoted in the church as a defense for the reliability of God’s word (which I completely affirm). We use it in student ministry to equip our students to trust in the Bible as the source of truth for their lives. As I was reading this passage this morning I noticed something interesting in the in verses surrounding vs. 16-17 (you know, that thing called context). Paul sets up a progression that culminates with “All Scripture is God-breathed.” The progression goes like this….

Vs. 10 – You’ve watched me live my life and you’ve heard my teaching. You’ve see how they’ve lined up.

Vs. 11-13 – You’ve seen my hardships and have heard that suffering for Jesus is a norm for believers.

Vs. 14 – You must remain faithful to what you’ve been taught BECAUSE you can trust those who have been teaching you.

Vs. 16-17 – Because of this you have seen that Scripture is useful for all sorts of things..teaching, correcting, good works.

The implication is that there is a connection between trust in leadership and a reliance on God’s word. If we want the teens in our churches to truly trust in God’s word, there there has to be a trust in the people teaching them God’s word. Parents, preachers, and youth pastors need to gain the trust of teens before they will trust what we teach.

Another way to put it is this…“Teens will value what we value if they value their relationship with us.” (borrowed from Marko). Still another way is this…“Teens will never care how much you know until they know how much you care.” (thanks Young Life).

How do we build the kind of trust in our teens so that they remain faithful to our teaching? The example Paul sets is this: Let teens watch you live and show them how YOU rely on God’s word in a variety of situations. Do this A LOT and connect what your teaching with how you are living.

Trust and leadership go hand and hand. You can never really lead until you are trusted. The degree with which you are trustworthy is at least somewhat correlated with how much your teens will remain faithful to God’s word.

What is your trust rating right now? How well do you think the teens and families in your ministry trust in who you are and what you’re teaching?

Boy, it’s been a while since posted on this site. Over the past couple of years I was writing for a a few other blogs and also had a baby, so that’s prevented me from having time to collect my thoughts for this site. A few weeks ago I made a goal to start blogging weekly again, so here you go.

I’ve been digging into 1 Timothy recently with the hopes of gaining wisdom on leading in a church role from Paul. When I got to Chapter 2 Verse 1, I was convicted by Paul’s first command for Timothy, the young pastor in training.

“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them;

intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.”

Over and over again in ministry the urgent pushes out the necessary. Phone calls, emails, lesson plans, and event details are all urgent. There is a very real consequence to not attending to these things. I find that just as often the necessary things lose out to the urgent things. Paul reminds Timothy that before all things those in pastoral leadership need to PRAY for and GIVE THANKS for all people (even those in our care).

So, I’ve been trying to put this into practice and I’m finding that it’s given me more compassion for people. It’s made me more grateful even for the tough-to-love people in my ministry. It’s also given me a deeper awareness for their Spiritual needs.

In your student ministry, how are you including pastoral prayer into your daily/weekly rhythm? If it’s not there I challenge you to start today. Praying for people is an integral part of your work as a pastor and will keep your ministry thriving.

Tomorrow morning a dream of mine will become a reality. It was a dream that started way back when I was an intern. During those days our city had a thriving youth ministry network. It was a place where differences were honored and where people could be themselves. I looked up to the men and women who modeled humility and vulnerability. That space became the standard that I’ve looked for in networking with other youth workers ever since.

Well, as time went by and people transitioned out of their positions, the network slowly died. Tomorrow It will be resurrected. I’ve been longing to create a place where youth workers from my city would be able to encourage one another no matter what church they serve in. Where we as a tribe of youth workers valued each other no matter the size of the congregation.

I am thankful for the longevity that I’ve been able to have in my town that now I get to pick up from where the “legends” left off. Please pray for community to develop. Pray that we encourage one another instead of size each other up. Pray most of all that the Spirit of Jesus would be present in our midst.

Thanks to Jeff, Rodney, Tiffany, Scott, and Jeff for laying a foundation for me. 

Last week was our annual Middle School Camp to Lone Tree Bible Ranch in Capitan, NM. It was a great week and here are some of my highlights:

Fun is Fun. One of the best parts about getting kids away for camp is that they are more likely to let go of their need to be cool. They act more goofy and silly when it’s in the context of a fun camp environment.

Lost and Found. On Wednesday there was a big mud pit game. Long story short. I jumped in and lost my ring. After searching for nearly 20 minutes with leaders we found it again. It was an impossible find and a picture of the Gospel. God searches after us, the valuable treasure.

Serving with students. We’ve been going to Lone Tree for a long time and a few years back they started offering service opportunities for our students. It’s turned into one of the most popular parts about the camp experience for our students. I love that our students see that serving is enjoyable and choose that over other adventure activities.

A broken DVD player. Our bus ride is nearly 10 hours and this year the DVD player didn’t work. Instead of being a negative, it turned into a positive. Our students had more interaction on the bus ride and allowed our leaders to connect with students on the bus.

If you are at a church that’s anywhere near the New Mexico area. Go check out Lone Tree for a great camp experience. They have great activities, teaching and are super affordable.

Gosh, it’s been too long since I’ve posted on here.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to speak at a father/son retreat at our church. There is a ton to unpack from the weekend, but I wanted to share just a quick thought.

As a childless youth pastor, I often struggle with my role of equipping parents. I feel unqualified to speak to them, but this past weekend I felt more encouraged in this area. Several dads let me know that my talks blessed and challenged them over the weekend. Through that I got to thinking about what makes me qualified to equip parents even though I’m not a parent myself.

  • I forget that both Jesus and Paul were childless and they had plenty of great things to say to parents. The same Spirit is living in me equipping me.
  • I may not be a father, but I am son and I can learn much about fatherhood simply by observing my own dad as well as the other men who seem to be doing things right (and wrong).
  • I know teenagers. My expertise in this area allows me to speak with some authority (as long as I am humble and listen well).

If you are struggling with being a childless youth pastor who speaks to parents, let me reassure you that you can have an impact. Remember to listen, listen and listen. Speak based on God’s truth and your experiences. Love families. If you do these things well, chances are you will have opportunities to grow in your influence with parents.

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