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Importance of Balcony Time in Youth Ministry

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

I used to coach soccer and one of the most valuable teaching tools I would use would be video of our games that was shot from the top of a stadium.  This video was valuable because you could see the whole field.  I would teach our videographers to only pan from one half of the field to the other.  They always wanted to be ESPN cameramen and zoom in.  But what I wanted was video that would show my players, the whole field.  When they are playing in the game they could only see parts of the field, they could not see how all the parts were working together and how to adjust the parts so that we could be more successful.

Mark DeVries taught me the power of this idea in youth ministry.  He likes to call it balcony time.  Balcony time is a chance to pull back from the immediate needs of ministry and to go into the balcony and watch what is going on.  Balcony time can happen literally by taking a week to allow others to carry the responsibility and watching your ministry happen with a critical eye for how things work or do not work together.  Were new students welcomed?  Did we start on time?  Was the band ready?  Was the game prepared?

Balcony time can also happen figuratively as a youth minister finds time and space to reflect on all the parts of the ministry and evaluate the health of each part and how they are working together.

Offensive and Defensive Coordinators on football teams bring balcony time and ministry time together into strategic planning on the fly.  Many coordinators work from the booths high above the stadium so that they can watch how plays are developing and see the whole field.  They communicate with assistants who are on the field relaying the information to the players.  Other coordinators like to be on the sidelines where they can directly communicate with the players, but they have trusted assistants in the booths who relay what they see.

Unfortunately in youth ministry we often plan on-the-fly, but without the insight of what is happening in the balcony.  We get narrow-sighted by what we are experiencing on the field.  We can not see all the parts and how they are affecting each other and make on-the-fly decisions under informed decisions.

I encourage all of us to take time each month (an hour to 1/2 a day is plenty) to get in the balcony and pay attention to how everything is working together, to use that time to strategically think about how we can improve our communication, our response, our ministry so that we offer our best.

Here are some questions that you might use to guide your reflection:

  • Where are we having the most success (as you choose to define it)?
  • What area of the ministry causes me (us) the most anxiety? Why?
  • What are the challenges facing each area of the ministry?
  • Where am I spending too much time?  Not enough?
  • What volunteers are ready for more responsibility?
  • What areas are under resourced – $, time, volunteers?
  • What am I doing that someone else could do?
  • Are we accomplishing our mission?  Does each program help accomplish the mission?
  • How well are we connecting the youth ministry to the church body?
  • How are our transition points – children’s ministry to junior high to senior high to? Others?

Make actionable steps that you can begin to put into place.  Be sure to take it one step at a time!  From time to time be sure to get feedback from your team about balcony issues.  They may see things that you missed.

Growing together question? How has balcony time impacted your ministry?  What advice would you add?

My blog is gradually moving to ymblogs.com. I hope you’ll join me there.

We Love Our Youth Workers – Coming to America

December 14, 2010 2 comments

At Youth Specialties, I was introduced to an organization from the UK called We Love Our Youth Workers and had the chance recently to talk with the leaders of this movement about their plans to expand to the USA and Canada. We Lover Our Youth Workers has a simply mission to invite and hold churches accountable to loving their youth minister, youth pastor, or youth director.  They invite churches to sign a covenant and develop an actionable plan that will create a healthy environment for youth ministry.  There are 7 promise that are a part of the charter a church makes:

  1. We will pray and support
  2. We will give space for retreat and reflection
  3. We will provide ongoing training and development
  4. We will give a full day of rest each week
  5. We will share responsibility
  6. We will strive to be an excellent employer
  7. We will celebrate and appreciate

How wonderful would it be to see churches in the US creating fertile soil for youth minister and youth ministry growth!  If you would be interested in helping with the movement or getting your church signed up for the covenant, hold tight.  They are reworking the website from the Queen’s English to our well hmmm… modified English.   You can contact them and ask them to put you on their mailing list and they’ll keep you in the loop.

CYMT and YMtoday are excited about helping We Love Our Youth Workers as they seek to invite Holy conversation among the churches in the USA.  To learn more about what they are doing visit the We Love Our Youth Worker website.

How2: The Exponential Benefit of Major Event Coordinators in Youth Ministry

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Newsflash: You have more to do than you have time to do!

Solution: Get help and let go!

Today’s post is about how to find and empower folks who can help you with your ministry.  What do you need help with?  Anything someone else can do?

  • Fundraiser Organization
  • Retreat and Mission Trip Organization
  • Communication, Attendance Tracking, Web updating
  • Lock-Out Organization

What do you do in youth ministry?  What can someone else do?  Each of these is an opportunity for someone to help you and share the responsibility of the ministry.

The Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) and Youth Ministry Architects (YMA) like to call these wonderful helpers Major Event Coordinators.  Here’s how to find them!

They are Everywhere

You have parents in your program and folks in your church who run fundraisers for the Women’s Circle, for the band, for their soccer teams, that organize teams for fundraising walks, or who volunteer weekly at their kids school.  I’d would bet that mom’s are coming to mind, but dad’s are great coordinators and worker bees too.  What dad’s coach soccer teams, what dad’s love to do mission projects, what dad’s run companies?  These folks organize, raise money, and do things for all kinds of folks.  Why not you and the youth ministry?  Look down your list of parents and church members and make a list of anyone who could be a Major Event Coordinator.

Ask Them BUT be Specific

Are you still waiting for folks to respond to your listing in the bulletin, the volunteer form that you gave out at the parents meeting, or the church wide stewardship campaign?  Expect to keep waiting.  You want help you have to ask.

Got your list?  The next step is to create a list of things that they might lead or organize for you and the ministry.  Now, go back over your list and prayerful consider what major event each person would be gifted to lead based on what you know about them.

Then, smile and dial.  You are going to get some no’s, but for every yes you get you’ll save significant time and expand your foundation for ministry at your church.

You don’t want to read the person you call the whole list.  Tell them that you have something that you think they can specifically help you with.  Be specific in your ask and be prepared to answer questions related to time commitment and responsibilities if they say yes.  Make sure they know that they will resource them in their role.

If you get a yes, then move to the next step.  If a no, see if they will help with the event that you were asking about.  Will they serve on the team under someone else?

If you get another no, then would they be willing to pray for the youth ministry?

Ah finally a yes.  Great call the next person.  Smile and dial or talk to them face to face.

Word of Encouragement from Jesus while you work “Ask for anything in my name and it will be giving to you.”

Communicate Clearly

After you get a yes, you will want to set up a meeting to clearly communicate to the major event coordinator what you are asking them to do.  Have a job description and list of responsibilities related to the event or program.  Here is a sample:  Major Event Coordinator Job Description

They will only do what you ask them.  So if you don’t want to do it make sure they know it’s a part of the expectations.

Resource Them

Make sure they have what they need to successfully accomplish the task that you’ve given them.  Give them a list of others who have said they would volunteer for this event or a list of parents.  Give them the folder with information about how this event has been done in the past.  Give them a tax exempt form.  Make sure they know how to church policies for being reimbursed.  Make sure they know the budget.   Give them what they need and make yourself available for them to ask more questions.

Let Them Do It!

Now – let them do it!  Ask them, resource them, and then empower them to make a difference in your ministry and for the Kingdom!

Don’t micromanage, but take the time to follow up with them to make sure things are moving forward and see if they need any help.  If you end up needing to help, it’s ok.  They are learning and whatever they do was something you didn’t have to.

Thank Them!

Thank them for their service.  Write them a letter.  Celebrate them.  Let them know the impact of their time on the ministry.  They deserve it and grateful leaders get more helpers!

Why I’m going to YS

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Tomorrow morning I hoop a plane to the NYWC in San Diego.  As a 17 year vet, why am I going?  I’ve been asking myself the question today.  There are some obvious answers related to my current position as the Executive Director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and YMtoday.com like

  • To network with other youth ministry leaders
  • To learn more about how our ministry can serve those in their first 4 years of ministry
  • To see good friends
  • To find new partners

I used to love going to YS because there was nothing better than being in a room with 5000 other people who love youth the why you love them, to be ministered to, to be cared for, to celebrate, to cry, to re-connect with the God I love.  I was reflecting with a friend about how YS has changed.  Not the layoffs and youthworks purchase, but how the YS community has changed.  We timed the change back to Yac’s death.  There are certainly other factors, but this was the beginning of the change.

I love Tic and have the YS staff in my prayers as they seek to reconstruct a fractured community.  Tons of reasons for why youth ministry conventions are challenging right now – church budgets are in a strangle hold, national youth ministry leadership is changing, and the answers aren’t coming easily.

So, why am I going to YS?  I will do the things on the list related to my job.  I will make time to rely on God’s presence and power.  I will listen with new ears for God’s voice.

BUT, I’m also interested to see how youth ministry is changing.  Change is in the wind and has been for a period of time.  Who will lead youth ministry into the next era of youth ministry?  YS and Group to a degree did an amazing job through the 90’s until 2003.  How can YMtoday and CYMT be a part of a new, continued, and future moment?  We’ll see!

Youth Ministry How2: 5 Questions to help find Good Curriculum

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The Center for Youth Ministry Training has a pretty good size youth ministry library full of resources and books.    We created the library because we wanted folks to be able to see the curriculum and try it out before purchasing.  But one observation about how our students and other folks who use our library choose curriculum, they choose what looks easy or simple or they choose it because someone else said they were using it. Finding good curriculum is challenging.  This post is about how WE are responsible for making the curriculum less effective and what WE can do to improve our overall curriculum process.

1. What are YOU trying to accomplish?

You have got to have a plan.  Not a curriculum plan for the week, a curriculum plan (discipleship plan) for the entire time students are in your youth ministry.  When Youth Ministry Architects leads a curriculum retreat with their clients, they have them identify what they hope students know, feel, and have done when they graduate from the program.  Know is the knowledge students have gained.  Feel is what they have felt in relationship to God and the community.  Do is what they have experienced.  What do you hope the the Average Joe and Jane looks like when they graduate from your ministry?

Student Life Bible Studies, Groups new LIVE curriculum, and a few others have created curriculum’s that have tried to think through what THEY believe a student should learn.  Click here for LIVE’s 6 year curriculum template. I’m not saying these curriculum’s are bad actually they are above average.  What I am saying is that when you choose this curriculum you have given them the power of deciding what your students learn to someone else.  If you have thought through that process and like what they have decided, then great!  But you could choose to invest the time to decide what YOUR church believes is important to teach and outline a strategy for helping YOUR students know, feel, and do what you think.  Even if you use a curriculum like LIVE, thinking through the know, feel, do process will help inform your other programming (see my intentional discipleship posts – Drivers License Myth, Training Fleas, and Programming the Gaps).

Don’t pick curriculum because its easy or cool.  Pick curriculum that helps you make Disciples for Christ!

2. Who are you teaching?

The LIVE curriculum is divided into two sections – Junior High and Senior High.  Why?  Some topics are better covered at different ages.  One of the challenges that most youth ministries face is that all youth are being taught at the same time.  You have 7th graders in the same room with 11th graders.  Most churches are forced to choose curriculum that works for the median attendee.  See the Drivers License Myth for why this is problematic.

Who you are teaching greatly influences what curriculum you choose?  Do you have an active bunch of 8th grade boys or a group of serious Sr. High girls?  Are they just starting their journey or are they becoming strong disciples.

Choose a curriculum that meets the needs of your group as it relates to your purpose.

3. What do YOU need from the curriculum?

Know thyself!  Parker Palmer who is a great educator reminds us that knowing our strengths and weaknesses is essential to being a good educator.  Are you strong Biblically but really need help with creative teaching ideas? There is good news for you.  There is a lot of curriculum with creative ideas that needs theological fleshing out.  Find a curriculum that can help supplement your Biblical strength with creative learning.  Are you good at coming up with creative ideas for teaching, but need a good solid Bible study?  Then put down the creative ideas curriculum, and find one with some meat.

Need both?  Unfortunately that is where finding curriculum can be challenging.  Many of our non-denominational publishing houses have curriculum that is more creative than meaty wanting to keep the theology in the middle so that a broader audience can use them.  Denominational publishing houses materials have not been as strong.  I’ve made a few recommendations at the end.

Keep in mind that most curriculum comes in one of two approaches – topical and Biblical.  Most curriculum is topical meaning dating, relationships, stewardship, etc. that pulls in a Biblical emphasis.  The other type begins with the Bible and then looks for real life application.

We must teach with integrity.  Fun activities with light Biblical interaction do not build disciples nor does verse memorization without implementation. Having solid lesson plans that work towards the overall goal is a must.

4. Can the leaders invest the time?

Whether it is you or volunteers who are teaching?  The amount of time that the teacher has to invest also influences your curriculum choice.  Do your teachers look over their lessons during church or even pick them up for the first time during the Bible study?  We often choose curriculum that requires the least teacher preparation.  I understand why we do it, but WE should know that it is backward.  Under-prepared teachers make for uninteresting lessons.

WE as leaders have to set the expectation for how much time is required for teaching.  What we are teaching is important!  Therefore, we should treat it that way.  Choose curriculum that will accomplish your goals for the program and then recruit and train teachers who will invest the time in bringing the curriculum to life.

5. Willing to go from Good to Great?

Most of our volunteer leaders will not be able to add creative ideas to a Biblically focused curriculum  or have the training for deep theological reflection to go with creative activities, therefore WE must help them.  It is clear that there are very few if any great curriculum’s, but there are ton’s of good curriculum’s that you could make great.  Are you willing to put in some time to deepen the theological reflection of a creative Bible study or provide creative ideas for a solid Biblical study?

WE have the opportunity and responsibility to help the curriculum we use move from good to great!  We can look for great curriculum for years or we can take good curriculum and make it great!

A Couple Suggestions:

Creative Lessons:  Creative Bible Lesson from Youth Specialties and Spice Rack by Mark DeVries

Biblical Lessons: Barefoot’s Lectionary Series and don’t forget to look to Adult Bible Studies if you are bringing the creative component.  I have used Max Lucado’s series in this fashion.

Don’t forget that YMtoday.com has samples of a lot of curriculum so that you can try them out or look at them before you buy!  Also, YMbookstore carrries curriculum from almost every youth ministry publisher.  It’s search engine is a great place to find what you are looking for! Save 10% at YMbookstore with this special code that you input at checkout – YMDEECH!

Growing Together: What curriculum’s have worked well for you?

What Age is Right for Confirmation?

September 14, 2010 4 comments

When conducting Intentional Discipleship planning retreats, I get asked this question every time.  For that matter, I get asked this question every time I sit down and talk shop with another youth minister about their program for more than 15 minutes.

I personally believe that there are some developmental factors that should influence our decision, but I also believe their our some guiding theological principals that impact it as well.  I’m hoping you will give some feedback in the comment section as YMtoday.com is looking at this topic next week and we’d love your input.

Next week, I plan to explore what should be taught in confirmation; but today simply trying to answer the question what age is the right age for confirmation will do.

I’ve seen churches go as young as 6th grade and as old as 10th grade not including the churches that have a second confirmation that includes any high school student.  Let’s explore by simply asking the questions?

Is 6th Grade is Too Young or Just Right?

Too Young – Some churches have made confirmation into their tween ministry.  The do not believe these young people are old enough for middle school topics, but they believe they are ready for faith decisions? Can I get a little C&C Music Factory “Things that make you go hmmm!”  Developmentally 6th graders are not yet capable of thinking abstractly.  I personally think this is an important developmental transition.  Most also are operating Fowler’s Literal faith stage meaning they have not owned their faith.  They take everything we offer them on trust.  I’m usually more proud of a student who decides not to be confirmed, because I know they at least made a decision.

Just Right – Others would argue that 6th grade is the perfect time because confirmation can be an instigator moving a youth towards Fowler’s Conventional Faith.  Students are more open to hearing because they have not become as independent in their relationships with peers, parents, and the church.

7th or 8th Grade Good or Bad?

Good – The positive of having confirmation with 7th or 8th graders is that they are in the middle of identity formation.  They are transitioning to abstract thinkers.  They are inquisitive.  What better time for them to study Jesus, understand whose they are, and make a commitment.

Bad – Too much identity formation is taking place.  The boys are squirrelly and the girls are mean.   Because of all the changes taking place socially and physically trying to understand their relationship with God may add to the confussion.

9th Grade Too Late or Just Right?

Too Late – Half of them are gone already?  They are now too busy to participate at the level of accountability confirmation demands.  They have too many questions that can’t be answered.

Just Right – They are more mature and ready to explore the intricacies of their faith.  They are testing the boundaries of adulthood and therefore are ready for Conventional Faith and can really understand and own their decision.  They ask tough questions.  Life is expanding and making a commitment now forces them to learn how to live faithfully.

Ok, I tried not to be biased; but it came out anyway.  I really like 9th grade second semester as a time of confirmation under our current model for the reasons above.  But I much bigger question is does our current model work?  I look forward to exploring that next week.  I know we are all looking for Good confirmation curriculum which is a tell tale sign that we don’t like what we are doing.

As a foreword for next week, I believe that the early church catechist did a lot of things that we have abandoned.  I also believe that we must re-confirm our beliefs everyday and so we need to be constantly helping our students grow in their understanding of what their commitment to Christ means.  So let’s have confirmation every year maybe then it will take!

Growing Together – At what age does your church do confirmation?  What age would you do it at if you could change it?  Take the Poll.

Professional Youth Ministry: A Changing Landscape

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

This article originally appeared in the Journal of Student Ministry now Immerse Journal and can also be found at YMtoday.com.  You can find all my YMtoday.com articles at my author page.

My Story

In 1994 I was 20 years old, studying electrical engineering, trying to play basketball, and working 10 hours a week as an intern at a Methodist church in Memphis. That summer I attended a youth ministry event in the North Carolina mountains.

All week long as I sat through worship services, led a small group, and participated in the event’s activities, I heard God whispering to me that I was called to a life ministering to teenagers. I did my best to put off the voice; I was nervous as it was working with the teenagers under my care at the event.

One evening I took a walk and ended up sitting on a bridge overlooking the water. Then God asked me, “Why can’t you do it?”

God didn’t need to tell me what “it” was—I already knew. And I had my excuses ready.

“Well, the money isn’t very good,” I replied.

God said, “That’s awfully selfish.”

I knew it was, so I said, “What about basketball and engineering?”

God replied, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

After a long moment, I replied, “Alright, let’s do it.”

I walked off that bridge a different person—one who knew and believed God’s purpose for his life.

I headed back to school, changed my major from engineering to religion, and began to ask the question, “How do you become a professional youth minister?”

In the meantime I transferred to another college—engineering schools aren’t known for their religion programs as much as they’re known for racking up debt.

But I continued to ask that question: “How do you become a professional youth minister?”

Fourteen years ago the answers were frustrating—and they haven’t changed much today. Primarily I was told that I really wasn’t called to be a youth minister; instead I should be a pastor. I found no comfort in that. My desire was walk into a room full of pastors (and even bishops) and have them respect my call and ministry as much as anyone else’s.

So, the question remains: What makes a professional youth minister? A seminary degree? Ordination? At least 10 years of experience?

Recently I participated in a youth ministry think tank that brought together 20 veteran youth ministers and youth ministry educators. We explored how youth ministers were being equipped for ministry and how the equipping could improve. The following are the major areas we identified as important components in the formation of youth ministers.

The Call

The call to youth ministry is a distinctive call. Without a call upon your life, your time in professional youth ministry will be limited. Although youth ministry as a stepping-stone or practice ground for “real” ministry is on the decline, we have a long way to go before the broader church recognizes youth ministry as a long-term profession.

I recently spoke with a pastor who was hiring a young youth minister. He said to me, “We’ll help her with her schooling, because we want her to be able to move into other forms of ministry as she gets older.”

I asked why she couldn’t continue in youth ministry as she gets older. His response? “Well, I’m 62; I couldn’t do youth ministry at my age. I’m too old.”

That did it. He hit one of my buttons.

After taking a deep breath, I told him that he had completely offended my call to ministry; I had every intention of doing youth ministry when I was 65. He couldn’t do ministry with youth at 62, not because he was too old, but because youth ministry wasn’t his distinct call.

Youth ministry is only about 30 years old as a profession, and I thank God for those in my life who’ve been doing it 25 or more years. I pray they’ll make it through another 10—that way the church will begin to have some examples of 65-year-old youth ministers who still play messy games.

(Although I believe in youth ministry lifers, I also recognize that God’s call is continuously revealed to us, and that some who begin in youth ministry will be called by God into other areas of ministry. Some of the greatest pastors in the country were trained in the trenches of youth ministry.)

Youth Ministry Education

Youth ministry is one of the fasting growing majors in the country. Textbooks now exist that are focused on the theology of youth ministry, adolescent teaching techniques, and the growing culture. Princeton, Fuller, Luther, and Asbury seminaries started graduate youth ministry programs in the 1990s in order to address the need of educating those who feel called to youth ministry. These schools developed a base of knowledge that they felt a youth minister should acquire, including adolescent development, Christian education, and the changing needs of culture. For the first time, ministry education was focused through the lens of the youth minister instead of the pastor.

And once degrees are acquired, professional youth ministers can add to their youth ministry education through everything from conventions, workshops, and retreats to intensive week long classes that some seminaries offer that let participants dive even deeper.

The acquisition of youth ministry education isn’t necessarily an indicator of youth ministry effectiveness, but it is helping to raise the professionalism of youth ministry.

Theological and Biblical Knowledge

Professional youth ministers take seriously their role in developing the spiritual lives of teenagers and in making disciples for Christ. But the vast majority of them have had no youth ministry training, and even fewer have had any biblical or theological training.

The National Study on Youth and Religion shows that our churches and youth ministries are teaching a shallow theology and faith. As youth ministry grows as a profession, it’s essential that youth ministers develop theological and biblical knowledge—after all, we can teach young people only what we ourselves know.

If you’re at a place in life where you can do it, an undergraduate religion degree provides a good foundation for theological and biblical knowledge. If you’re not, understand that you don’t necessarily need to pursue a degree to gain this knowledge; you can learn by taking or auditing classes from a local seminary. You can become an avid reader.

And if you’re mentoring youth ministers, encourage them to develop knowledge in this area.

Practical Training and Experience

I worked in the local church for four years before going to seminary. One of my best friends went to seminary straight out of college and got an M.Div. with an emphasis in youth ministry. After he’d been working a church for about six months, he said to me out of frustration, “I’ve got a degree in youth ministry and can’t get 20 kids to come to my youth ministry; you don’t know squat and have 200 kids coming to your church.”

If we’d been asked to take a youth ministry test or write a youth ministry paper, my friend would have gotten an A+ and I might have made a C. He had an incredible amount of head knowledge about youth ministry, but he had little practical experience to help him transfer his knowledge of youth ministry into reality.

Learning on the job is an essential part of youth ministry. The best way to understand kids is to get to know them. You can read all the how-to-work with- parents books and volunteer books in the world, but actually doing it will teach you so much more. The adolescent world is ever changing, and the only way to stay in touch is to be immersed in it.

Mentoring I place high value on youth ministry internships where the interns can learn from someone who’s leading and guiding them. Several new youth ministry training programs are incorporating coaching into their curriculums so that those who go through the training will benefit from someone who’s “been there and done that.”

Peer relationships in youth ministry are also an important component of professional youth ministry sustainability. Veteran youth ministers learn to learn from each other as they continue to grow in their own ministries.

As we seek to raise the level of youth ministry professionalism, it’s crucial that we focus on these broad areas—doing so will allow youth ministers to serve competently and, in turn, build long-term sustainability. If you’re just starting out in youth ministry, look for opportunities to develop yourself in all these areas. If you’re stuck and need something to get you going, look for the holes in your own development.

I pray we’ll all become lifetime learners—not in order that we become “more professional,” but instead to expand our gifts to reach the next generation for Christ.