We Have More Choices Than We Realize

There are more than 87,000 Starbucks options on their beverage menu. (Hello, Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, Vanilla Latte With Soy Milk & a Caramel Drizzle.)

Starbucks choices

But life is not a coffee shop.

Finding ourselves unsatisfied and unable to make a change seems to be increasingly common.  It could be true that we simply need to become content when things are not “perfect.”  Or it could be true that we have more choices than we realize.

Heard in Church World from Pastors:

  • I can’t retire until I’m 70.
  • I don’t have enough experience to take on that position.
  • It’s too late to seek a new call at 58.
  • I don’t have much energy left in this ministry, but what else would I do?
  • I’m too old to learn how to do ministry a new way.
  • I can’t afford to work part-time.
  • I could never work with an old white guy.
  • I could never work with a tattooed, non-binary twenty-something.

Heard in Church World from other leaders:

  • We don’t have the capacity to offer Sunday School any more.
  • We can’t afford an associate pastor.
  • Who has time to volunteer?
  • We’re not a church without a  Wednesday night Bible study.
  • Can you imagine trying to be a church without a choir?
  • We have nothing in common with the neighbors.
  • Nobody wants to come to our Chili Dinner.
  • What is those people come through our doors?

Maybe we aren’t really stuck.  Maybe we just haven’t broadened the possibilities. (Who ever dreamed 50 years ago people would put caramel in their coffee?)

What I Wish I Knew When I Started in Youth Ministry

Note:  Betsy Hanzelin is a Rock Star youth leader, and in these days when many youth programs are fragile, I invited her to be the guest blogger today.  How does she do it?  Read and learn.


These are my reflections after 22+ years of working with teenagers, churches, families and volunteers.    I didn’t go to seminary, but I’ve been in the trenches and figured some stuff out as I went along.

Relationships are key to your ministry, and your relationship with your students should not be at the top of your list.

  1. God: It goes without saying that you need to be working on your relationship with God. You can’t lead people on a journey that you’re not on as well.  All else stems from this (and sorry to be so cliché, but it’s true)
  2. Volunteers: Grow a team of people who love God and love teenagers to serve with you. I spend 40% of my budget and at least that much of my time and energy on building and maintaining relationships with my adult and youth volunteer team!    The time spent in teaching, planning and playing with my volunteers means I have people willing to return year after year because this ministry gives them a place to serve with people they care about and enjoy spending time with.  Younger youth look forward to the day they can be a staffer, because they recognize that we love each other and it’s a bunch of fun.
  3. Senior Pastor: When I have a great relationship with my Senior Pastor, I am energized!   I know I am free to try new things and he/she will have my back.  And when I fail, she/he is there to help pick up the pieces, encourage me to keep trying, and defend me when parents complain.   When I don’t have that relationship I feel afraid to try things, isolated and alone and my ministry suffers.  Seek out regular time to check in with your Pastor and be honest about the joys and sorrows of your job.
  4. Parents are often super busy and details like permissions slips or trip deposits are way down on their to-do lists. Cut parents slack and look for ways to support them in the task of parenting teenagers (which is really rough).   Hold events where they can be included and they don’t have to pay, cook, clean or give the right answers. (parent dinner night; mom/daughter conversations about beauty, self-esteem, acceptance;  A family Capture the Flag night; etc.)  Communicate through emails, texts, Facebook posts, postcards, calendars, the church newsletter, etc. on the off chance that one of those might catch their attention and keep them informed about church stuff.  Answer their phone calls, emails, texts.   Don’t view them as adversaries, but as partners … even when they don’t live up to your expectations.    Parents are the #1 influence on the spiritual lives of their children and they need your help and support!
  5. Students: It may be surprising that this is so far down my list, but besides knowing everyone’s name and some of what makes them tick, I can’t be expected to have close relationships with all my students.  And they don’t necessarily want that either.  That’s why I rely on my volunteers!   They can attempt to forge those relationships with everyone.  I do have close relationships with some of my students, there are those who are naturally drawn to me and who I “click with” deep down.   My goal is for every student to have that “someone” and know that when they aren’t there their absence is noticed and they are missed.  It just can’t always be me.

My Stuff

Be authentic.  Teenagers always turn away from people they know are full of crap.  They respond and are drawn to people who are real and honest about who they are, what they love, and where they falter.  Admit when you’ve made a mistake, apologize often, accept the consequences of your actions and don’t hide any of it.  Be willing to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to figure it out”.  Tell stories of your successes and failures.  Speak of your strong faith, and those areas were you are uncertain and/or doubt.  (But also set healthy boundaries … don’t overshare or burden your team or students with stuff that isn’t appropriate).

Take care of yourself.  I’ve met many youth workers who are a hot mess.  You weren’t called to this ministry to kill yourself.  Sabbath is not a suggestion, it’s an imperative.  Hot baths are good, long showers are good, chocolate is good, catching up with an old friend is good, time with your spouse or partner is essential.   Eating well (so hard, I know) and exercising are good.  Don’t be that worn out, tired, mentally frazzled person that shows up when too much is going on.  Be that beloved child of God who needs to take care of themselves so they can do the work they are called to.

Fun is not a bad word.  For the middle years of my ministry, I outlawed the use of the word “Fun”. Fun could not be the goal for a lesson or event.  After all, I only have them for six years and there is so much that I want to teach them before they leave for the scary, secular world of college!  Jesus didn’t die on a cross for us to have fun or be happy!  But I was ignoring my number one goal … building relationships.  I’ve learned that fun is not a dirty word, and that providing opportunities to just have fun together is what binds us together.  My most favorite activity is our yearly Work Camp Nightly Volleyball game.  Everyone plays, no score is kept, each person gets to serve, it doesn’t matter how many are on your team or where you stand on the court, and if you don’t know how to serve, someone will take a 5 minute game time-out to teach you (and you get 20 tries before we move on).    I never set these rules, they just organically happened when I allowed space for fun to take over.   And Jesus might have been willing to die on a cross for these types of all-inclusive games to occur! Don’t always take yourself and your job too seriously.

Grace is the word.  Give it like crazy.  Give it to your Pastor, the parents, your volunteers, your students, your congregation.   Cut people breaks.  Give your volunteers time off.  Forgive when people screw up.  And give grace to yourself as well.  Don’t just preach it, do it often and without hesitation.

Congregational Stuff

Keep your Congregation informed.  When they don’t hear about the good stuff we are doing and the challenges we are facing, they write us off.  You are the advocate for teenagers to your church.   If you need more money, volunteers, resources, space, etc. you will have a much easier time with those requests if your congregation is invested in your ministry.  But they aren’t going to walk into your office and say, “Tell me about the youth”.   Cheerlead for your youth, make spaces for them to participate in worship, hang pictures in the hallways of their crazy activities, feature a student each month in the church newsletter, and ask them to write summaries or give talks following meaningful trips or retreats.  Anything that helps the congregation know and care about who they are and what they do will help when you need them to back you up and invest in your ministry.

Getting youth to worship is a difficult battle.  Churches often believe their youth ministry is weak if they don’t see youth in Sunday worship.   I’ve tried for years to think about ways to get my youth to come the hour or so early to attend worship before youth groups.   But they just don’t, and often times their parents don’t either.    Teenagers like to sleep in when they can and often Sunday is the only day they are not scheduled like crazy.  IF they do go, their friends aren’t there and they often get dirty looks if they are dressed in t-shirts and jeans.   Traditional worship isn’t touching them down deep.    But none of this means teens are not faithful, deep, inspiring or in touch with the living God.     They are, they just don’t often find that in worship.  Choose your battles wisely on this one.

Youth doesn’t have to happen on Sundays.  Tap into the pulse of your families and find out what works for them.  The traditional models aren’t working anymore in much of the country and we need to be in touch of the demands on students and their families.  Be creative and willing to try something new.    If you need to run things through a Board or Committee, bring those results and preferably a few parents with you as your present new models, dates, and times for approval.  Congregations who are unwilling to meet the needs of families are losing members and frustrating Youth workers.

Good luck, God bless and be ready for the best job ever!
Betsy has been the Director of Youth Ministries with Flossmoor Community Church in IL since 1992.  The image is a stained glass window from their sanctuary featuring Jesus going out into the world.

Dear Dads & Moms on Your Cell Phones at the Aquarium Today

mom on phoneIt was a good thing that my own phone was dead or there would be pictures.  (The image you see is from a Tumblr called Parents on Phones.)

HH and I went to the extraordinary Shedd Aquarium today which was all kinds of wonderful.  After checking out the belugas and The 4-D Experience, we went to the coffee shop for a break.  And there we saw seated at other tables:

  • Toddler in tutu with pink boots and adult on phone.
  • Two little girls with matching Frozen shirts and adult on phone.
  • Little girl holding a stuffed white Beluga toy and talking excitedly about how whales eat “really tiny fish.”  And adult on the phone.

I thoroughly love my phone.  I get it.  There is always a text to make or a fact to check or an email to read.  But when we are out with the kids – especially in A Kids’ Place like a playground or a zoo or an aquarium, let’s focus on the kids.

This article from last summer spells out the importance of giving our children the attention they deserve.  Social media is here to stay and I love it.  But our children – and also adults – deserve our undivided attention.

Jimmy Fallon Schools Us on Leadership

Slate-night-jimmy-fallon-50everal people have written about what we can learn about leadership from Jimmy Fallon.  Check out this recent article by Eric Clayton and this 2014 article by MaryAnn McKibben Dana.

Sadly, many of our congregations are diminished by poor leadership and those leaders aren’t particularly interested in (or aware that they need) ongoing leadership training.  So, here’s the thing: if our leaders aren’t going to take classes or get coaching or read helpful articles, then maybe we’d be willing to pick up some pointers from late night TV.

So let’s make this easy:  People love Jimmy Fallon.  He is both crush-worthy and supremely likeable.

But he can also teach us how to increase our capacity to lead.

1- He lifts up his team.  Steve Higgins is “so great.”  He regularly asks us to “give it up for The Roots.”  Even if there are issues on a church staff, it’s crucial for a pastor to back up her/his leaders.  Have fun with them.  Appreciate them. Back. Them. Up.

2- He writes “Thank You” notes.  There are so many people who contribute to the life of our community.  Strong leaders are appreciative for both the grand and the trivial.

3- He invites people known for one thing to try new things.  Emma Stone lip syncs.  Don Cheadle sings R&B.  Daniel Radcliffe raps.  Imagine if we invited the long-time treasurer or an experienced Bible study leader to try something new and fun?

What if each of us adopted these three simple practices this Lent?  And if Jimmy Fallon inspires you, consider taking a class, reading a book, or subscribing to some articles.  We are called to lead to God’s glory and we can do better.

Parts of Speech

AdjectivesAn adjective is a describing word.  A noun is a naming word.

No, this is not a child’s grammar lesson.  But sometimes we need an ecclesiological refresher.

Rob Bell wrote a while back that “Christian” is a poor adjective.  I would call it a misleading adjective.  Examples:  Christian Phone Book, Christian Hair Salon, Christian Band, Christian Author.

Christian” is a much better noun.  (Note:  Not necessarily referring to Christian Grey here.)

At our staff retreat yesterday, some of us came to the conclusion that “Church” is an excellent adjective.  Examples:  Church Building.  Church Staff.  Church Meeting.  Church Playground.

Church as a noun can be confusing.  This is a church.  This is a church building. “Going to church” could mean heading to a Bible study at Starbucks or heading to a food pantry to stock shelves.  But usually it means we are going to the building where our congregation gathers on Sundays.

One of the marks of a 21st Century Church is that the people do not merely “go” to church.  They are the church.  They are the church in Starbucks, in the food pantry, in the car, and in the office.

And now a note for Presbyterians (or any denomination without a bishop):  the word “Presbytery” is an excellent adjective, but a crazy-making noun.

Is Transparency Good for the Church?

Yes. Transparent Church

It used to be true that sharing certain realities of life was frowned upon even (especially?) in a spiritual community. It was usually kept quiet, for example, that:

  • The pastor ever struggled with doubt.
  • The most generous financial contributors were not always The Rich Ones.
  • The church staff didn’t always get along.
  • The perfect-looking family sitting next to you on the pew for 10 years had dealt with all manner of crises.

Our culture has changed and today healthy churches do not keep such things quiet. This article covers why transparency is good for business. Transparency is also very good for spiritual communities.

In fact, as people seek community today, we are increasingly attracted to:

  • Leaders who are real. The healthiest pastors have strong emotional intelligence and excellent boundaries, but they also share their personal struggles in pastoral ways. “The Perfect Pastor” or the pastor who tries to convey that her family is perfect does the congregation no favors. It’s a community killer.
  • Finances that are managed openly and effectively. There are thousands of charities that would love to have our money. Congregations with transparent accounting procedures instill trust and confidence. When salaries and benefits are published, we better understand our sense of fairness, justice, and commitment. (Is our secretary earning a livable wage? Does the Senior Pastor earn three times what the Associate Pastor earns, and if so, why?)
  • Rules that make sense. Do we say we are a welcoming congregation but our rules tell a different story? Do we hold up a vision of tolerance but we have written or unwritten rules against certain people holding office?
  • Open opportunities to serve. Nobody joins a church to serve on a committee with endless meetings, strange processes, and cliquish leadership. When there is a secret inner circle that makes all decisions, the congregation is negatively impacted.
  • A clear and transformational purpose. People want to make a difference in the thick of our busy lives. We do not have time to waste on institutional administrivia.

Social media contributes to transparency, but it can also isolate us. Oversharing how very perfect everything is – and especially oversharing someone else’s issues – is not what I’m talking about here. Social media that reaches out trying to connect (sharing prayer concerns, for example) creates intimacy.

Neil Patel of Fast Company writes, “As people become more transparent with one another, their relationships deepen. And who is responsible for leading that move towards transparency? It’s the leadership of the business. Transparency has to start at the top.”

Attention Pastoral Leaders and Denominational Staffers: Transparency starts with us. It keeps us honest. It infuses trust. It creates community and makes us better.

Do we ourselves trust that God is leading us? Do we seek to be faithful followers of the way of Jesus? If so, we can afford to be transparent in our ministry.

Image of the Transparent Church located in Limburg, Belgium and designed by Arnout Van Vaerenbergh.

Not All Churches Are Broken (But Some Are)

toppled-steepleIn reviewing some of the comments made about this post, it’s clear that many congregations are anxious. And this is why so many pastors are indeed expected to “bring in the young families.”

Aging buildings, declining attendance, and budget deficits add to the anxiety.  And so these church leaders often contact denominational leaders or consultants for some coaching on How To Transition. They may not like it, but they realize that shifts must be made to be a thriving congregation in the 21st Century.

And then there are the churches with no energy or no capacity to make these shifts.  What do we do with those congregations?

One of my brilliant colleagues and I sometimes discuss this and we have (especially he has)  come up with a few ideas. These ideas would not work in every denomination or situation, of course.  In the PCUSA (my denomination) we tend not to close churches unless the congregation itself wants to close.

But what if . . . 

  • The church cannot afford even a part-time pastor? (Translation:  They hire someone to preach on Sunday but no one necessarily provides pastoral care, educational support, administrative guidance, vision casting, or missional leadership.)
  • The church leaders are landlords rather than spiritual leaders? (Translation:  They rent out their church building space to all kinds of organizations to cover their basic costs.)
  • The church is isolated and isolating.  (Translation:  They do not reach out to partner congregations, their denominational resources, or anyone else for assistance.)

Yes, there are congregations who exist to survive long enough for their own funerals.  Honestly, some have said these very words to me.  And are we – as denominations – being faithful if we perpetuate a survival model of ministry?

My own denomination has had congregation choose to close with great faithfulness.  They have realized that their congregation’s ministry is over but – if their church closes – the resources left behind can serve future congregations.  This, my friends, is resurrection.  And that’s what we who try to follow Jesus are about.

What if – denominational policies allowing – we closed congregations that:

  1. Have been served only by a supply preacher each Sunday for at least the past two years?
  2. Funded over 50% of their budget from resources apart from congregational giving?
  3. Do not effectively manage their finances as displayed in the lack of a regular review of their books?
  4. Have no ministry relationships with anyone outside their congregation.  (Note:  Writing checks to an organization ≠ a relationship.)

God deserves our best.  We who gather in Christ’s name are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all nations.  All of us can do better and most of us try.  But when we cannot try any longer, it’s a holy thing to let go.

Image from a church building we see on vacation every summer.  Yes, every summer for the past six years.

Kids and Babies

We love kids and babies.  Bright cross

Twice in the life of this blog, posts have gone viral much to my surprise.  Both of those posts have been about kids and/or babies.  We love kids and babies.   And we in spiritual communities want and need them.

But there’s something we need even more than children in our congregations. We need to be clear on why we exist as a church.

I regularly ask congregational leaders why their church exists.  The answers include something like these:

  • This church has been important to my family for generations.
  • We have a meaningful history.
  • The Presbytery believed that a Presbyterian presence was needed in this part of town.
  • We need to preserve our traditions.
  • Our building has architectural significance.

God didn’t call us to be the church for the purpose of perpetuating institutions, serving individual families, creating attractive edifices, or establishing certain brands of theology.  God calls us to make disciples, to reach out to broken people in the name of Jesus, to love our neighbors, to be equipped to minister in the image of Christ, to be spiritually formed in community.

I believe that congregations that do these things, that are these things will thrive. Are we interested in being this kind of church?

Image source is unknown.

When Churches Want a Pastor Who Can “Bring In Young Families” . . .

. . . please consider sharing this post.Children in church 1

Almost every church I’ve ever known has wanted to Attract Young Families.  The reasoning behind this includes the following:

  • If we don’t regenerate, everyone will eventually get old and die.
  • It’s energizing to have young people around.
  • Younger members can do the work that older members can’t/won’t do anymore.
  • Older members tend to be on fixed incomes and younger working members are needed for their pledges.
  • Young families (i.e. mom, dad, and kids) remind us of church when we were (or wish we were) part of young families.

There are a few things wrong with this reasoning, including the fact that “attracting” people in general feels manipulative – as if people are “targets” to be used for our own purposes.  Yuck.

Let’s be honest about the “why.  Are we saying that we want these rare and valuable Young Families for what they can give to us?

What if  – instead – the “why” of this demographic quest was about feeding souls and sharing authentic community?  I always hoped – as a young mom – that church would provide adults that could help me nurture my children.  I always wanted to know that – if my kids couldn’t come to me or HH with a problem – they would have other trustworthy adults to whom they could go (and they did.)

Young families are great.  Old families are great.  Families made up of child-free couples are great.  Families of single people are great.  Imagine if every church simply wanted A Pastor Who Could Bring In Broken People.  Now that’s a church.

Also, the days are gone when Young Families were present in worship every Sunday.  The statistics are in about how the definition of “regular worship” has changed since the 1950s.  (“Regular” used to mean weekly.  Now it means once or twice a month.)

Instead of seeking a Pastor who can bring in those vaunted Young Families, we need to call a Pastor who knows how to shift congregational culture.  The culture in which we live and move and have our being has changed, but we are killing ourselves trying to maintain a dated congregational culture.

News flash:  Most pastors will fail at “Bringing in Young Families.” Families of every kind are drawn to communities that are in touch with real life.  For example, check out Carey Nieuwhof’s recent post about why even committed Christians do not worship as regularly as they did in previous decades.  At least two of his “10 Reasons” specifically impact cultural changes connected to Young Families.

So how can we be the kind of congregation that welcomes Young Families for more than their energy and wallets?  We can:

  1. Be real.  Deal with real issues in sermons, classes, retreats, conversations, prayers.
  2. Listen to parents’ concerns.  Listen to children’s concerns.
  3. Ask how we can pray for them.  And then pray for them.
  4. Allow/encourage messiness.  Noses will run and squirming will ensue.  There might be running.  There will definitely be noise.
  5. Check our personal Stink Eye Quotient.  Do we grimace when a baby cries?  Do we frown when the kids are wearing soccer uniforms?
  6. Refrain from expecting everyone to be the church like we have always been the church.
  7. Help parents, grandparents, and all adults become equipped to minister to children and youth.  How can we learn to offer such loving hospitality to the younger people in our midst that they will always experience church as home?
  8. Do not use children as cute props.  Yes they say the darndest things during children’s stories, but they are not there to entertain us.
  9. Give parents a break.  Really.  Help struggling parents get coats and hats on their kids.  Hold an umbrella.  Assist in wiping spills.
  10. Give parents a break administratively.  Make it easy to participate. Minimize the unnecessary.

It’s also okay not to have Young Families in our congregations depending on the context.  Some neighborhoods have very few young ones living nearby.  But there are still people who crave some Good News.

I want a Pastor who can minister to whomever lives in the neighborhood in the thick of these cruel and beautiful times.

Image is a popular one that shows up in lots of random blog posts.

Think Fast: “I Would Give Up My Life for _______.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

Lenten Cross[Note:  Thanks to my brilliant colleague BC for the insights that contributed to this post.]

Losing is different from giving.

My parents lost their lives to cancer.  I have lost exactly two (expensive) fobs to get into the Presbytery Office building.  I have lost my mind on at least one occasion.

Kayla Mueller gave her life for Syrian victims.  She didn’t lose her life.  She gave it.  Yes, technically a building fell on her after a bombing or maybe someone personally killed her.  Either way, she chose to give up her life in a global way for the sake of the suffering in Syria.

Deah Barakat gave up his time to offer free dental care to Syrian refugees.  (But then someone took his life, which is different from losing or giving, but that’s for another post.)

Many of my my colleagues have given their lives for the institutional church. (Or we think we have.)

A fine preacher pointed out last Sunday that Jesus said we can save our lives by losing them, but then she wondered if he wasn’t really talking about giving rather than losing.

Nerd alert:  The Greek for for “will lose” is ἀπολέσει which means something like “utterly perish” or “cause to be lost.”  In other words, Jesus isn’t talking about “losing” as in losing our keys.  Jesus is talking about an action more akin to giving up something or allowing something to die.

Jesus didn’t lose his life for the sake of love.  Jesus gave his life for the sake of love.  Huge difference.

So, this makes “giving up something for Lent” different too.

I get the spiritual discipline of loving something so much (chocolate, coffee, bacon) that refraining from it for 40 days might remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice. But give me a break.

Jesus doesn’t much care if we give up our favorite food.  Jesus cares if we give up our lives.  And I’m not just talking about who or what we’d take a bullet for.

I’m talking about who or what we’d give up our personal dreams/goals/habits for.  Giving our lives for what Jesus gave his life for seems like our only choice, if we hope to be serious disciples.

This sounds much preachier than I expected.  But Lent is serious business.  And I confess that I’m pretty terrible at it.

Image source here.