Ministry Toolbox: The Minimalist Calendar

One of the easiest ministry traps to fall into is over-calendaring your ministry. Early on in my ministry career I struggled with this, and have worked hard to find a balance that makes sense for our church. Even with the addition of several events to our calendar this year, we run a pretty sparse calendar compared to a lot of my compatriots. Here are a few thoughts on the benefits of a minimal calendar.

Minimalist art isn’t just simple, it is very intentional. Every brush stroke has to be well though out to make sense. Likewise, in ministry, it’s important for every event to be well thought out, and make sense. “Is this event necessary?” needs to be asked of everything. Everything. Pulling events from the calendar to only the necessary will help you focus on events with meaning, and purpose. That doesn’t mean you cut out every ‘fun’ event, it means you understand that ‘fun’ events are a necessary part of the ministry calendar. So is worship, community, service, etc.

On a related note, the fewer events you have the easier it is to communicate their meaning and potential impact. Also, it makes it easier to promote those events, and give them the necessary attention beforehand. I find it a lot easier to promote an event as a ‘big deal’ if my families haven’t heard that from me for three different events the past week.

Over calendaring puts an misplaced value on attendance. I get it, scripture says that we’re not to forsake the assembly. But when your assembly takes up every night of your week what you are actually communicating is attendance is valued, not the power of God in the assembly. And what about those that can’t make every event? What are you communicating to them? Are they going to feel as connected to the body if (gasp) their kids happen to play sports or want to be in the school play? I worked at a church that had a clique problem (surprise surprise). When I looked at who felt ‘in’ and who felt ‘out’ there was a clear line between families that lived in close proximity to the building and could easily attend multiple weekly events, and those who had to travel at least 15 min+ to get there. Also in the ‘out’ group were kids with single parents, and low income families. I would argue that a busy calendar is not meeting the needs of a single parent family, but creating more stress. And if your events cost money (even gas money) to attend, theres is an even bigger need to filter those down to the worthwhile and necessary.

Speaking of parents, I would be hard-pressed to find a parent in my ministry that would say “We don’t have much going on, I wish there was something more to fill our free time.” Most of our families are busy; too busy. Over calendaring reinforces that busyness. How are our families supposed to learn to say no to busyness if we’re only asking them to give up non-church practices, and filling up their time with church events? Healthy families spend time together. Reinforce that, and communicate that with your calendar.

A packed calendar will keep new people from joining your ministry. When I was starting my first full-time ministry job, I planned and event and asked our teens to invite their friends. They all said that would be easy because all of their friends were in the youth group. They did so much together that they didn’t have time to develop relationships outside of the church. That was great for making friends, but terrible for outreach. And for the families that do want to join your ministry, expecting them to participate in a packed calendar is like asking someone to merge on to the freeway while riding a moped. It’s possible, but not very wise. At the very least, a packed calendar is communicating to new families that you either expect them to have nothing going on during the week, or they need to drop whatever it is they’re doing to be a part of the church.

A minimal calendar allows you to focus on the events that make sense for your ministry. It’s easy to look at other church events and say, “We should do that too”. Every ministry has a different personality, and that personality can change very easily over the course of a couple years. What worked for another group, may not work for your ministry. What worked in the past, may not make sense anymore. I’m looking at one of our biggest events in spring right now, and planning on making some massive changes to it’s structure, maybe even it’s existence. I’m sure that’ll meet some resistance, but the best way to silence that critique is to keep doing things that make more sense.

Minimalist calendars allow for healthy pastors. If the expectation of the church is that the pastor is at every event, and there’s a ton of events, what is the church communicating to the pastor’s family? Healthy pastors have a healthy balance of work and should be able to model that for other families. Also, if a pastor feels they need to fill the calendar to justify their position, or their salary, then there is an unhealthy system or set of expectations in effect.

I love church events, and I know how easy it is to say, “This was great, we should do this more often.” But my encouragement today is to take a look at what you have on your calendar, and what values it communicates. Talk with your leadership about why you do what you do, what needs to be changed, tweaked, developed, or let go altogether. Have the courage to make the necessary changes. Focus on making what does make it to your calendar your very best effort, and give those events over to the Lord as worship.

One love, one heart.

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Youth Minister X #2

I want to start this off by saying I am blessed. I know it might not appear to be this way when I’m laying out some of my frustrations, but it’s true. I am blessed.

That being said, We’ve been at our Church for a few years and feel stuck. Our Elders and Preacher are constantly on my case about growing the Youth Ministry, but our congregation has not grown in years. We look at the other churches in our town that are growing and criticize them for doing something unscriptural in order to grow. I look around our youth group and see tremendous growth in knowledge, but our Church only gets to see that on a couple of Youth Sundays.

Whenever I’m asked to take on another task, it’s assumed that I’m going to say yes. If I say no, I get accused of not earning my paycheck. If I say yes, I get separate meetings with the Parent Team, the Youth Deacon, The Elders and probably the Preacher too when I inevitably drop the ball on another task.

My wife is the most underpaid person on staff. She earns $0 as a youth minister but has almost as many expectations as I do. She goes above and beyond what any other volunteer at our Church does. She does get recognition for her effort, but she’s also exhausted.

When times get hard I start daydreaming about what would happen if I just up and left youth ministry all together. I could go work for my father-in-law, or go back to school. I wonder if I’m qualified to do anything else.

The big problem is that there are plenty of us here that want to help create momentum, but we have no outlet. Our oldies but goodies no longer have the energy they used to. And any new ideas get bounced around leadership meetings until any ounce of energy has left. Every once in a while someone will step up and create some movement. Whenever that happens there is this spark in our Church and those invested eyes’ light up, and then shut tight again when it typically fails due to lack of support.

The highlight for us is always the youth group. They have an endless supply of energy, and typically have an optimistic spirit about our Church. Whenever we start to get down about something they serve as a constant reminder that God’s love is never-ceasing. Most of them don’t know any other way of youth ministry or Church which makes it easier to carry on.

I know we’re not alone. Long conversations at NCYM [National Conference on Youth Ministries]  have taught me that there are plenty of others like us that struggle with frustration. We feel called to ministry, we feel blessed with the teens we get to work with, but battle with a steady stream of ‘if only’ questions.

I also know that there are plenty of others have it worse off. We are by no means martyrs. We’re simply stuck. My hope is that others would read this and have the courage to talk to someone about their frustrations. We’ve have taken the past few weeks while writing this to invest in another couple at another Church and are seeking that outlet in our own congregation as well. Our prayer is that God opens that door for us soon.

Sincerely,

Youth Minister X

Youth Minister X.

Over the past decade I have been fortunate enough to meet youth workers from all over the world. I am constantly amazed at the shared joys and frustrations that transcend background, theology, denomination, location and so on. While it comes to no surprise that we share a common passion to share the Word with teens, I have been amazed at the common frustrations we tend to share as well.

I thought it would be interesting for church members outside of the youth ministry circle to get an insight into the conversations of youth workers. Unfortunately, the conversations between youth workers often have to stay behind closed doors for fear of reprisal. How do we have an open and honest dialogue when the potential for backlash typically causes many to remain silent?

ESPN the magazine has a monthly feature ‘Player X’ that allows readers unfiltered access into the lives of athletes. I’ve always been fascinated by the honesty in these anonymous authors and would like to bring the same openness into the conversation about youth ministry.

I have asked fellow youth workers to participate in a new series on this blog and NewVintageLeadership.org entitled, ‘Youth Minister X’. These youth workers come from different denominations, locations, and backgrounds. Some are close friends, and some are merely acquaintances. They are full time, part-time, volunteers and a few are retired. However, they all share a passion for working with teens.

The goals are simple: to provide youth workers with a place to speak their hearts without fear of reprisal, and to create conversation amongst churches and youth workers about ways we can improve our ministries. 

If you are a youth worker that would like to participate in ‘Youth Minister X’ please email dj@newvintagesd.org. All contact information will be kept confidential.

___________

I want to thank YOUTH MINISTRY X for inviting me to share. It should be noted that no one person is able to speak for the whole of youth ministry/ministers. Our ministries, our roles, and our solutions to common problems are unique to our church environments. So, I do not write or speak for all youth ministers, but from my particular context and perspective.

I want to start by suggesting a statement that I hope all of us can agree upon, and then build upon it in the rest of this post.

Statement: Students deserve well-educated, deep thinking, theologically trained ministers.

I believe that most churches recognize the importance of the students who attend their churches. The research and statistics show that a devastatingly high percentage of students are leaving “church” upon graduation. I know there are a lot of reasons for these numbers, but I can’t help but wonder if our churches have failed by hiring youth ministers who are unable to match their needs. I do not wish to overstate the role of the youth minister/pastor; I am aware of the statistics that show the role of youth minister/pastor is not as forming or persuasive as family and other influences. However, this is no excuse not to take seriously the person who is teaching, building relationships, and spending time with students.

I am grateful that more and more churches seem to be seeking out women and men who are educated to fill the role of youth minister/pastor. In my own circle of peers, there seems to be a trend away from “big programs” and “entertainment ministry models.” There is the desire to offer students environments where God is present and the Holy Spirit is working. I desire to help students through the disorienting moments of junior high and high school with the purpose of allowing God to reorient the students to his good purposes in restoring a broken world. I believe that this is what students want and need, because I believe that this is what all of Christianity wants and needs. I am excited, because I believe that this trend will continue in our youth ministries. However, there is much work to be done.

I wish to offer two observations when it comes to the future of youth ministry. Again, my premise is, “Students deserve well-educated, deep thinking, theologically trained ministers.”

First observation:

Youth ministers must continue and pursue their education outside of the world of youth ministry. I enjoy the big national youth conferences I have been to. They have often been times of healing, encouragement, and learning for me. They are wonderful and fulfill a need in the youth ministry world. However, I believe that youth ministers must not rely on the youth minister world alone for their education.

I put off moving into full-time youth ministry to pursue an MDiv, because I believe students deserve someone who has been trained to think deeply. Now, I am not advocating that all youth ministers need a Master’s degree, but I am advocating that furthering our education is important. We need to pursue our education and read the great theologians of past, and present. We need to insure that we have thought deeply about the difficult questions our student’s are asking before we offer answers. We need to struggle through our own moments of disorientation and doubt and allow God to reorient us to his good purposes, and I believe that education is foundational for this.

Second observation:

Churches and church leadership need to act on what they say they believe. If student ministry and students are a cherished part of our current and “future” church then churches must take seriously who they are hiring. Churches should expect the person they are hiring to be worthy of the calling to work with students. They should expect the youth minister/pastor to be more than entertaining, fun, and high-energy. They should expect the youth minister/pastor to be able to think deeply, communicate well, and be spiritually disciplined. They need to take seriously the idea that their students deserve the best.

I want to suggest two quick ideas of how churches and church leadership might be able to help insure the “best” for their students.

First, churches need to pay accordingly. I know it’s a drum that has been beaten over and over again, but it is one that deserves to be beat. Churches cannot expect to pay their youth minister/pastor 30-50% less than their pulpit ministers and expect to keep their youth minister/pastor long term. If churches begin to seriously hire women and men who are educated and exceptional at their jobs then the church needs to be willing to compensate these women and men. I am not saying that churches have to pay their minister equally (though in many situations that would make sense), but churches cannot continue to have such large disparities in pay. Sadly, I believe that the disparity may betray the idea that many churches do not take seriously the role of youth minister/pastor.

Second, churches and church leaders need to be willing the youth minister/pastor an equal voice in meetings and decisions. Youth ministers, we need to be patient and mature in voicing our opinions. If churches have hired the “best” for their students, then that person is more than qualified to be heard on the important topics that face a church community. Churches who fail to listen and give equal ground to their youth minister/pastor may need to reconsider whether or not they believe they have hired the best for their students.

I want to again thank Youth Minister X for having me and allowing me to share my brief thoughts. I understand that very little in church is simple and there are a lot of factors that go into each unique church community. It’s not simple… but I do believe that all of our students deserve to be taken seriously and that includes who we hire to fill the role of youth minister/pastor. Let me close again with my statement: Students deserve well-educated, deep thinking, and theologically trained ministers.