Steps of Justice

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

If you are not familiar with Steps of Justice, I want to quickly introduce you to Phil Cunningham and the important work they are doing. Take a moment to watch this video and share it with others.  Visit Steps of Justice for a free 30 Day Prayer Guide that you can use with your students to introduce them to the social justice issues that our world faces.  It’s worth your time.

How have you engaged your kids in acts of justice?


Don’t Lose Your Life to Youth Ministry

March 15, 2011 4 comments

My Problem

I can remember counting every hour I worked my first two years in youth ministry to justify a raise.  I don’t remember the exact number, but I went to the personnel committee averaging somewhere around 65 hours per week.  How in the world did I average 65 hours?  Well, I counted the 40-50 that I put in working 5 1/2 days a week.  Then, there were the trips, retreats, lock-in’s, 30 Hour Famine’s, etc.  I would count every hour – all 24 – when on a trip or retreat.  I justified it by saying if something happened in the middle of the night I was responsible and had to deal with it.  Makes sense right?

Wrong.  Sleeping (even if only for a few hours because kids are up half the night) does not constitute a work hour.  Although I did have some interesting part-time jobs where I did get paid to sleep (even if I wasn’t supposed to).  But the argument, I was trying to make did have validity not about a raise, but about how much I was working. Unfortunately, I was working at a church at that time that did not recognize either the need for a raise or that i was overworking myself.

But what do you do when you work all week and then go on a 3-day retreat and are expected to be at a Monday morning meeting? I was headed toward mental and physical burnout and being young and single was not a good excuse.

National Problem

The national burnout rate in youth ministry is 3.9 years! Youth Ministers called by God leave the church to sell insurance primarily because working in the church is too hard.  There are a multitude of reasons for this including lack of training and support, pay, and yes long hours.  The church is responsible for a lot of these conditions, but some of them we have control over and must take responsibility for ourselves.

It’s not  Jesus’ fault either, I don’t think he intended for us to “lose our life” the way so many of us take it.  Yes, give everything in our life to Jesus but that does not mean excluding parts of our life – family, friends, etc. – for ministry.  We should give those pieces of our life to Christ as well.  We have more responsibilities in this life than our job.

Avoiding Burnout

Here are 3 not-so-easy steps to avoid burnout. They are not-so-easy because youth ministers are prone to having savior complexes that lead to overworking.  Some friendly advice from someone who still is learning to do these things.  Get over yourself, and get a life!

Manage Your Time or It will Manage you

The Center for Youth Ministry Training supervises lots of young youth workers. One of the components of the program is that each graduate resident receives a veteran youth minister who walks with them during the 3 years of our program.  One of the key ingredients to the coaching program is time management.  If you don’t learn to set boundaries around your time, your time will manage you and you will lose your life to the church.

It is important for you to learn that you can not do it all.  There will always be more to do.  Don’t trick yourself into thinking that you can take a day off or a vacation when you get it all done.  You will be more productive at your job if you are rested and physically and mentally healthy.    Find a time management program that works for you.  CYMT uses the rhythmic week with our students which forces them to find one full day (3-4 hour blocks) during the week that is down time.  The blocks can move around during the week, but they can not go away!

Friends are people who KNOW you!

Another problem that ministers and youth ministers have in common is that we have no friends.  We have a lot of acquaintances.  Parents of youth, volunteers, church members, other staff can all be surface level relationships.  But do you have true friends?  People who know what’s going on in your life.  If you don’t, then you without a doubt feel lonely.  Who are you in a relationship with that loves and accepts you for who your are?  If you are going to make it in ministry and have a life, you are going to need people like this in your life.  If you aren’t managing your time, then you won’t have time to invest in relationships to have friends.  You don’t have enough time in this life to not have friends!

Exercise makes us feel better!

It’s just true.  Your body feels better when you exercise.  Run, walk, chase a ball, throw a frisbee, dance, hike, or climb!  I don’t care but your body does and you will be a better minister for it.  Again, no time to exercise means bad time management.  In this case, your life actually depends on it.

This blog is as much to me as it is to you!  I’m trying cycling as a physical outlet right now.  I’m trying to avoid working at home at night.  I want to be present with my kids and wife.

What have you found that helps you not lose your life?

I’m migrating this blog to  I hope you will join me there!

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 I hope you’ll join me there.

The FBI wants to Talk to You – Youth Ministry Story

March 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Monday 7:00 AM

It was a Monday morning like every other Monday morning.  I’m half awake and tired from a long day at church.  I’m climbing into the shower wondering why my senior pastor thinks Monday morning meetings are a good idea.  Just when I was almost asleep in the shower, the phone rings.  My wife leaves earlier than me to go to work, so I get out of the shower to answer the phone thinking she needs something.

Me: Hello

Other Person: “Where are you?”

Me still groggy:  “Home, who is …”

Other person: “Did youth meet in the house behind the church last night?”

Me: “Yes. Why?” (At this point I’ve figured out that it is Sue Ann, the church business administrator.  You know the staff person who thinks they have the most power and is in everyone’s business especially the youth ministers.)

Sue Ann: “The FBI wants to talk with you. Be here in 15 minutes.”

Me: “About what?”

Sue Ann: “Classifed. Be here in 15 minutes.”

Me: “I live 20 minutes away.  In the shower …”


Monday 7:40 AM

I arrive on my churches campus to find police and firefighters everywhere.  The back half of our church property has been quarantined with yellow tape.  I’m not sure where they found that much tape.  I park my car and put my life in jeopardy evidently by crossing the yellow line, because the nearest police officer is ready to arrest me on the spot.  I explain that my presence was requested.  After confirming that the FBI is looking for me, I am escorted to where the FBI have set up their post and are coordinating the actions of the police, fire department, and now I realize special response force.  I can see a two guys getting suited up in toxic suits talking with one of our maintenance staff members.

Agent X: “Mr. Kirk can you tell me what transpired in this building (the house used for some Sunday school classes and small groups behind our church and our counseling center) last night?

Me: “We have two youth small groups that meet in that building.  Can you tell me what’s going on?”

Agent X: “No. Do you have the names of all individuals known to be in that building last night?”

Me: “Yes.”

Agent X: “We need those names and any contact information you have now.”

Me: “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

Agent Y: “Mr. Kirk, we have discovered a mysterious white powdery substance covering the entire upstairs hallway of this building.  We believe it to be anthrax.”

Me: “You’ve got to be kidding, why would someone anthrax our counseling center.”

Agent Y: “That’s what we are trying to find out.  So if you would kindly aid us by giving us those names.”

At this point, my youth ministry investigative brain that has watched enough CSI and working with youth for 15 years goes to work.  I realize that one of the two small groups that meets in that building includes three of my primary troublemakers.  I tell the agent that I can give him all the names or I can give him those most likely to be involved.  He wants both.  I suggest that Jamie, Jim, and Stan would be the young men to begin with.  He inquires of their location.  I tell him they are in school as far as I know.  Agent X and a police officer immediately leave headed to the high school.  I’m thinking this will scare them.  Being pulled out of class by the FBI should scare anyone.

I give Agent Y the other names and sit down on the curb with those in charge including Sue Ann (whatever!) talk about the next steps.  They radio the special task force on the house porch telling them to hold off on entering the premises until they hear from Agent X.

My youth ministry brain kicks in and I think I know what the strange white powder is.  I ask if I could make a suggestion.  They ignore me.  The special task force is suited up and wants to go in and look around since they put everything on.  In they go and I can hear the report coming in over the radio.

“Yes.  Confirmed light white powery substance all over floor and door handles.  Foot prints leading out the door also white.”

Agent Y finally decides that he’ll listen to me.  I suggest, “While they are in there could they check the fire-extinguishers to see if the pins are missing or if they have been discharged.”  Agent Y gives me a look that conveys you think we haven’t thought of that.  He relays the message anyway and the message comes back “all pins are in place.”  I kindly suggest that the youth might have put the pin back in place.

I’m told that my assistance is no longer needed at this time.  Please stay where I am.

8:45 AM

A call comes in from Agent X.  They have interrogated all 3 boys separately and their stories almost agree.  I learn later that Sam has taken creative liberties related to the story to protect his innocence (or guilt).   They had removed the pin from a fire extinguisher and gentle squeezed the handle.  The fire extinguisher had released a big cloud of smoke (or powder).  They freaked out, put the pin back in place, and ran out the door.

9:15 AM

Everyone is packing up and I’m informed of what happened with zero acknowledgements that I had been right or helpful.  Instead, I got a lecture on how much government resources where spent on this incident and how I needed to do a better job keeping an eye on the youth.

10:15 AM

My senior pastor has arrived after a good nights rest, complete shower and shave.  I still look half put together from running out the door.  We have a long talk about what happened and the severity of the situation and we make a game plan for how to address it with the boys and their parents.  I’m at a large church so he is unfamiliar with the families, so I share some of the challenges these boys present and their family situations as I have experienced them.

We decide to meet with each youth and their parents one at a time to check their stories and to look for signs of repentance.  We will determine what punishment or our response after meeting with them.

3:15 PM

Jim and Jamie and their parents arrive at the church.  We meet with each of them. They tell the story.  They clearly are telling the truth, probably an after effect of the FBI interrogation.  They show remorse.

5:15 PM

Sam and his dad finally show up.  Sam has a different story blaming the other two.  The story does not hold water, but his dad backs him up.  The conversation got pretty heated between the senior pastor and his dad.  Everyone finally settles down and they leave.

6:15 PM

Senior Pastor and I talk about what’s next.  He feels that the boys should respond with some community service at the church.  He wants them to understand the seriousness of what has taken place.  It is probably important to note that this is only 3 months after 9/11 during all the anthrax scares.

I express that I am confident that they had no idea fire extinguisher powder would be mistaken for a deadly substance and that although they cause me headaches much of the time I think the FBI scare was sufficient.   Sue Ann has influenced this decision clearly by giving her two or twenty cents.  He settles on 10 hours that I’m going to supervise.  Sam gets twenty hours for lying and the senior pastor would like me to get his dad involved too!

7:30 PM

Back in the shower, tired, and not about to answer the phone.

What I learned?

  • My senior pastor could laugh and be an enforcer when it came to our students doing dumb stuff.
  • A relationship with all the maintenance staff that encourages them to call you before freaking out is important.
  • The over controlling staff person is not going to help you in these situations seek help from someone above them.
  • To finish your shower, shave, and get fully dressed even in an emergency.  You don’t know how many meetings you may have to go to.
  • You do not want to be responsible for supervising 40 hours of community service.  Find a different method.
  • Be nice to the FBI.  You might need them in the future.  I had to get there help almost a year later and talked with Agent Y, but that’s a story for another day.

How it worked out?

  • Jamie and Jim did about 6 hours of their 10 before I excused the rest.  I did get good one-on-one time with both Jamie and Jim that was significant in our relationship going forward.
  • Sam did about 2 hours.  He quit coming to youth group which was a blessing in some ways, but he will always be one of those kids that I wish I had tried harder with.  His life was difficult over the next two years at one point his dad reached out to me, but my relationship with Sam was not strong enough to allow for any help.
  • My senior pastor and I laughed for years about the whole deal.  He died from cancer, but I bet is getting a real kick out of this story going in a book.

What I would do different now that I know what I know?

  • Finish my shower and get fully dressed.
  • Looked for ways for the punishment to not be my responsibility.
  • Stayed on Sam.  He needed the church the most.

This post was also shared at Share your crazy stories there too!

Categories: Youth Ministry

Blogging Sabbatical Over – Moving to

March 9, 2011 Leave a comment

My last blog post was in December.  Over the past two months, CYMT has been working hard to get a couple of new initiatives off the ground.  I unintentionally went on a blogging sabbatical during that time.  I’m happy to say that those initiatives are now moving forward and the time and space to blog exists again.

One of the things that we have been working on is how to distribute information to youth workers from e-pub ideas to blogs to resources.  We are seeking new ways of helping youth workers learn, grow, develop, and resource themselves.    I’m excited about the announcements we will be making in the coming months related to work in these areas.

I am also moving my blog – slowly to allow for folks to find me – to where we hope to facilitate conversation and thought from recognized leaders and new voices.  I will be posting in both places over the next month, but eventually I will switch all my youth ministry posts to ymblogs and keep this blog for my personal family stuff.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back in the conversation.  Lots of great things have been happening in the world of youth ministry.  Thanks for your part!

2nd Chair Leadership

March 9, 2011 1 comment

Today, Andrew Zirscky (ymprof) and I have a conversation about what 2nd Chair leadership looks like in the local church.  As youth ministers, we are always 2nd chair leaders.  Listen in as Andrew asks me questions about how to navigate these relationships.

Some things for you to think about:

  • How well do you know your senior pastor or boss?
  • How well do they know you?
  • Do they know what’s happening in the youth ministry?  If not, have you told them about it?
  • Does your vision align with the church’s vision and your pastors vision?

As you grow as a youth minister, your ability to be a 2nd Chair leader is key to your success.

Categories: Leadership, Youth Ministry

Christianity is neither European or American! Powerful Video

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

This fall, CYMT students took Church History taught by Ben Conner.  An entire class of youth ministers taking church history would be a challenge.  I came away wishing I had taken Church History from Ben.  Being a youth minister himself and actively involved in Young Life’s Capernaum, Ben brought great creativity to the class.  But it would be on a whim at the end of the semester that he would switch form traditional paper reflections to a creative project in church history.

The project was to represent the spread of Christianity throughout the world with a focus on the fact that Christianity if now larger in Africa and Central and South America.  Our blue eyed, blond haired Christ was never an accurate portral but an adaption of Christ into our culture.

The project produced some incredible pieces of art and some funny and powerful videos.  I wanted to share this video from Trey Wince, young adult minister at First Presbyterian Church Nashville.  It is rare for a professor to come out of their chair and announce someone doesn’t have to do a final project, but that is what happened.  It is a very powerful piece and one that you might consider using with a high school confirmation class.

Christianity is growing!  Praise be to God!