Dry Cleaning, Youth Ministry, and the Art of Kintsugi.

I had just finished my sophomore year of college in the summer of 2000, and had trekked back home across country with a friend of mine ready to make some money that summer. Dad had recently been re-diagnosed with a brain tumor, I had academic probation looming, and hadn’t yet told my parents about my bad grades. I figured making money that summer would help out a ton. The job fell through. I was at an all time low. I got frustrated, and went and signed on with a door to door sales company that I saw online. They promised huge commissions and easy work. I spent the next few weeks walking door to door training to sell small businesses on switching their credit card processing to whoever our client was. I was terrible at sales, still am.

I hadn’t made any money past my two week training period, and was starting to get desperate. I was on my feet driving and walking all day in a dress shirt, tie, and really uncomfortable dress shoes in one of the most beautiful places to be during the summer. One Wednesday morning I managed to get a dry cleaner to sign on with our company. They family owned business was eager to save money. I was glad to finally get a sale. There was only one problem.

I lied to make the sale.

I remember driving home across the lake during lunch ashamed of what I had done. How could I look my parents in the eye later that day? I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.

I got home and ripped off my tie and threw it down on the driveway. My next door neighbor saw me, and asked what had me so pissed off.

After I told him that I hated my job, he told me he hated my job too. He owned a landscaping company and said he needed another english speaking guy on his crew to help deal with installs. It was tough work, but it was outside in one of the most pleasant places in the US during the summer. I accepted his offer, got in my car, drove 30 min back to the dry cleaners and told them to tear up the paperwork, and not trust anyone that came unsolicited through the door offering them ways to save money.

I sat in the car and prayed. I prayed that God would forgive me for ripping people off. For being so arrogant to assume that money would solve my problems. I was tired of having my priorities out of whack, and I knew that I didn’t want to be part of that system. I knew that there was another way of life for me that I had been ignoring.

It was at the little dry cleaner’s that I decided to become a youth minister.

Youth ministry had been on the horizon for a while, and it seemed like everyone else knew I would end up there. My parents knew, but were wise enough to let me figure it out myself. My friends knew. My professors knew. Everyone at my church seemed to know too. It seemed like the biggest surprise was not me telling everyone that I was going to change my career trajectory, but that it had taken me so long to figure it out.

I drove from the dry cleaner back to the home office, told my boss that I was quitting (her and the other lead were more upset about their lost commission) and drove home.

The next day I woke up early, put on some work shoes and gloves, and spent the rest of the summer installing yards and sprinklers, breaking up concrete and rough soil. It was perfect. Me and God had plenty of time for conversation. I ended up helping out with the youth ministry as a volunteer that summer as well. I came back and did the same the summer after my junior year. I was hooked.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, creating a unique value in a broken object. Often times, the objects take on a greater beauty than before, and their value grows because of the unique nature of every repair.

I’m up in the Seattle area this weekend for my 20 year high school reunion. There’s several places that I wanted to visit while I’m here, and this little dry cleaner is one of them. It’s not much of a tourist attraction (actually, it’s not even open anymore) but it’s an important place for me. It’s a place where God starting pouring a little gold.

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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.

From the YM: Tips and Thoughts on Kids and Social Media

Lately I’ve had a few parents ask me for tips on helping their kids navigate the world of social media. I’ve talked with a few of the NVC teens about this as well to get their thoughts and here are a few tips/reminders that I’d like to share.

The question I get asked most often is, “When is my kid old enough to be allowed on social media?” My usual answer is every family needs to make that call on on their own, based on the individual child. Much like rated R movies, dating, driving, and curfew, how ready a kid is to navigate social media ultimately comes down to the parents belief in their maturity, and their willingness to walk alongside their kid as their world expands. The keys are an open and honest talk beforehand, clear expectations and guidelines, and a willingness for kids and parents to revisit the issue on a frequent basis.

There are a three areas I recommend talking about before allowing your child on social media:

Setup.

  • Parents should register social media accounts to a shared (or parent) email so notifications of changes in security are sent immediately.
  • Parents should have password access to the account for an agreed upon time. My recommendation would be until High School. Obviously, that timeframe should be based upon trust that has accrued.
  • Especially when it comes to younger kids, parents should be on every social media platform that their kids are, and connected to their account.

Safety.

  • All social media accounts should be set to private, meaning anyone that views the posts or profile have to request permission beforehand.
  • All friends requests/followers/subscribers should be approved by parents for an agreed upon amount of time.
  • Turn off all location settings for posts until an agreed upon time. Almost every social media app has a setting allowing your location to be displayed. A quick internet search can help you turn that off.
  • Report all bullying immediately to the social media outlet.

Posting guidelines.

  • For the first several weeks/months kids should get verbal approval from parents before posting anything to social media. This allows kids and parents to establish a mutual understanding of what the family does/does not want public. It also allows parents to speak to the kids about potential dangers of social media in a non-threatening way.

A few other ideas to consider:

Social media is well past mainstream acceptance, and is a viable means of communication, but like any other means of communication there are social cues to be learned. Talk with your kids about what they see on their feed, and how they feel, or want to respond.

One of the dangers of social media is the temptation to use it as a means of self-worth. Unless you are getting paid for posting (a growing, viable demographic we’ll talk about at another time) how many likes, followers, reposts etc… does not determine your self worth.

Like I mentioned before, social media is an increasingly valid form of communication. Encourage your kids to think about what they want to communicate. Do they want to share extraordinary events? Daily life? Encouragement? Connecting with others? Creating an intentional plan for how to use social media encourages your kids to use social media to be a blessing to others. For example, instead of posting selfies, maybe there is a friend they can build up instead.

Respond to what your kids post in person. If your kid posts a great picture of the sunset, let them know you enjoy their photography, or the way they see the world. If they post a picture of their group of friends, compliment them on their decision making, and ask how one of the friends is doing. If you’re struggling with a conversation topic, your kids social media account may provide a great lightning rod for conversation, and insight into their personality.

I’d love to hear your tips and advice for helping kids navigate social media as well. Feel free to share in the comments below.

One love, One heart.

Youth Ministry Failures (When Your Event Flyer Accidentally Reads ‘Free Sex and Ice Cream’)

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I’m blessed to be a part of a couple different groups of youth ministers that meet together on a regular basis for a time of encouragement, brother (and sister) hood, and event planning. At our last local National Network of Youth Ministries meeting we had several young interns present, guys that are just getting started in their life of ministry, mixed in with us old pros (I almost typed that without laughing). We actually started on time (a first) which allowed us a few extra minutes to chat, so we decided to go around the table and do introductions and some fun facts. I threw out one of my favorite ‘ice breaker’ questions, “tell us about your worst event failure”.

After an initial wince from most of the table, one of the ministers talked about his mentor that started a christian club on a school campus. They wanted to talk about something pertinent to teens so they decided to go with sex as their first discussion topic. They also wanted to draw teens in so they decided to offer up free ice cream as well. Unfortunately, a minor grammatical error left their flyer for the event reading, “Free sex and ice cream”. That club no longer exists.

Another guy from a large church started up with a story about losing $10,000 on an event. Yikes. He also talked about a Christmas tree fundraiser that profited maybe a few bucks after a team of volunteers put in a month of round the clock work.

Another guy shared a story about leaving a kid behind in Mexico after a mission trip. (I can’t say that there haven’t been times where I dreamed about leaving a kid behind).

I shared a story about playing puddingball with some teens, and not seeing the brown chocolate streaks that ended up all around the front entrance of the church. Those streaks were found by our facilities deacon on Sunday morning before service, and he had no idea that it was pudding. Needless to say I had some serious explaining to do.

When it came time for the interns to share, they said they didn’t have much to draw from in their few weeks on the job. They then went on to talk about promoting a bible study for a month, only to have 1 kid show up the first four weeks. A quiet kid. All the old guys grinned and started chiming in with our own experiences of ‘just 1 kid’ events.

It was a long conversation.

It was a great experience to sit among friends and share stories about what we thought were failures. Through all the wincing and laughter though, the stories started to take on a great tone of how God had worked through those ‘failures’. Lessons learned about fundraising, keeping track of kids, messy games, 1 kid events, and poorly designed flyers. Even more lessons learned about experiencing God’s grace. Despite our shortcomings, God had worked mightily to raise up a great group of ministers.

When it came time to pray, I asked that God would bless us with many more ‘failures’. Among the chuckles were several “amens”.

‘Failures’ are a great way to stay humble and remember that God’s providence is so much bigger than our best efforts. They’re also a great call to evaluate what truly defines a successful ministry (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not numbers). Lastly, because ‘failures’ are inevitable, the longer we are in ministry the more war stories we will collect. But a long career means that those ‘failures’ have been overshadowed by many more victories, and that means God is truly in control.

May your ministry be blessed with just enough ‘failures’ to keep you humble and reliant upon God. May they cause you improve your work habits, your prayer life, and your next endeavor. May you celebrate the learning experiences with the victories in your long life of ministry.

But please, double check your flyers.

One love, one heart.

If you’re a youth minister, please look into National Network of Youth Ministries to find, or start a group in your area.

Ministry Goal: Deep Thought

A few weeks back Stephen Colbert pointed out research about the decline of the reading level of the State of the Union address over the years. The latest Presidential address came in around an 8th grade reading level. By comparison, John F Kennedy’s speeches averaged around a 12th grade level, and the Constitution was written around a 17th grade level.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that our literacy is losing it’s eloquence, especially any of us that are blessed to be around teenagers. A few minutes on Facebook and one could very easily be driven to become a literary missionary traveling cyberspace to explain the difference between your and you’re.

I think one of the dangers in this cultural shift is that we assume students are not capable of, or desire to seek depth in their communication. It would be very easy to write-off a student who’s texts barely qualify as english, as a ‘surface’ thinker. And why not? Media outlets that have invested billions of dollars into entertaining our teens certainly seem to believe in aiming for the lowest common denominator when it comes to depth of thought.

Growing up, one of the things I remember, and liked the most about my youth minister was the depth of conversation we had over the years. That was his calling card, and it resonated with so many of the students that he worked with. When we began our youth ministry program last year, one of the big goals was to seek and foster deep conversation. Over the past several years I’ve noticed a chasm developing between the complexities of our culture, especially for teens, and our ability to process these complexities. Students may gravitate towards communicating in a ‘cuL8r’ language, but they are increasingly in the midst of difficult situations. Our goal was simple, foster deep thought to help equip students navigate difficult times.

There are plenty of reasons to shy away from going ‘too deep’ with a youth ministry. We tend to worry about how students, especially younger students, will track with conversations that may be a little over their head. We can also get worried about dealing with difficult questions that could arise. Here are a few of my goals, tips and thoughts on fostering deep thinkers:

  • It’s okay for the younger students not to get everything right off the bat. Obviously there needs to be a time where they are completely engaged, but it is okay to challenge the younger of the herd. That’s how growth occurs. If we let younger students off the hook now when it comes to deep thought, how long do we wait to ask them to engage their ‘deep thinking’? My experience says that deep thought is something that has to be groomed over time, through constant care and guidance. One does not simply become a deep thinker overnight.
  • In my experience we tend to underestimate students’ depth of thinking. We do a comparison to our own level of thought at their age and assume because we know so much more now, that they can’t handle our conversation. Realistically, what we used to expect to be on the minds of our college students is probably what our high-schoolers are dwelling on, high school to jr high, and so on.
  • Talk about difficult or complex subjects or situations, and let students surprise you. If the group as a whole isn’t tracking it’s okay to tone it down a little, but don’t sell students short from the start.
  • Encourage and equip parents to talk to their children about complex issues. What better place than the dinner table to discuss some of life’s more difficult questions.
  • Not every question needs to be answered. If you don’t have a straightforward answer to a students’ question it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’. It’s even better to let them know you’ve been thinking about the same thing.
  • Don’t answer every question immediately. Let the kids wrestle with difficult ideas. I’ve got my own views on what it means to ‘love your neighbor’ but I am constantly impressed by the varying answers my students give to applying that principle.
  • Make students explain their response. If they give a great answer to a question, follow up with, ‘can you explain what you mean?’ or my favorite, ‘that’s a great answer, can you tell me why’?.
  • Joke around. I put a time limit on deep discussions to let students (and if I’m being completely honest, myself) time to let new ideas take root. In the mean time, seek laughter and levity. Even watching Saving Private Ryan can get old if you don’t throw in Dumb and Dumber every once in a while to bring in some laughs.
  • Speak from an overflow of thought. Challenge yourself to pursue writings, authors, poets etc that push your depth. You may not need to have all the answers, but you should be a few steps ahead of your students. Trying to play catch-up to your students would be a difficult task to overcome.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and where you agree or disagree. And yes, I realize this was probably written at a 6th grade level.

One love, one heart.