A few years ago, I got to participate in a really cool project with several of my classmates: we wrote a book. We waited until very recently for it to finally hit publication, and for that I (and the rest of us) are indebted to Timothy Jones and John David Trentham, two men I am very glad to call colleagues and friends. The book is called Practical Family Ministry, and it's designed to be a tool for us to give to churches and families to help them make disciples of the next generation.
One line jumps out to remind us of how central this is to the heart of God: "God wants our children in His Kingdom more than we do." As much as Carrie and I want Sam & Gray to grow up to love Jesus and follow after Him, God's desire for their salvation is much greater than ours. And that's radical and incredible to think about.
Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6 point out how central the home is to making disciples. In fact, it's been God's design from Genesis 1-2 that the home is the foundational place for not only raising children but also to see them discipled towards spiritual maturity. Martin Luther even called the home the "laboratory for character." So what does it look like for a family to recognize their central role in seeing the Kingdom grow through their home? I think that's where Practical Family Ministry can be an incredibly helpful resource.
Two chapters that I would commend to any parent are the chapters on family devotions and using family meal time as a setting for discipleship. We live such busy lives and fail to often spend significant time together as a family. But when we as parents make it a priority to eat meals together, we are able to hear about our days and to build into our children a biblical worldview. And when we make it a point to do family devotions (as simple as reading a Bible story, singing a song, and praying; or as complex as working through a catechism) we are putting together building blocks to produce a mature Christian.
I wrote the chapter on missions, and let me end this by pleading with parents to not waste these incredibly formative years on simply getting through life and surviving each day. Make it a priority moms and dads to serve together as a family. Contact a local ministry or mission and take some time to serve there as a family. See your family as a chance to bless others in your neighborhood and around the world (sponsor a child through Compassion, write cards to people going through pain, and make friendships with your kids' teammates and their family so you can share Jesus with them).
I love fall. The crisp cool air, football on TV just about every night, our anniversary is in October, and our house transforms into a wonderful aroma of candles, chili, and looting the boys' Halloween candy. Fall also is when I spend every weekend raking and mulching leaves from the trees in our yard and cleaning out gutters. But fall only lasts a while, and will move on to winter and its uniqueness. Leadership flows just like the seasons, there are different stages in any leadership tenure. I think there are four distinct seasons, and like the calendar can be cyclical (or if you live in Kentucky can happen all in a week!)
Honeymoon - Any leader gets an initial stage where everyone is glad for a new face, new voice, and new ideas. Whatever anticipation was there before your arrival means you have a great time of adjustment and optimism. The honeymoon season is also when you do your most important early leadership task: listen. You need to learn as much as you can about your new setting, and the honeymoon phase lets you do that. You don't need to make any major changes (unless there are glaring issues), because your most important goal is to build relationships.
Conflict - Unfortunately, all honeymoons come to an end. You make a change, replace a long-time leader because of ineffectiveness, or unknowingly stick your foot in your mouth. The conflict happens when your new ideas challenge the status quo, and is the unintended consequence of change. But all organizations, businesses, and churches need to be dynamic in their culture, which means periods of change are necessary every few years. The conflict season in leadership is where many leaders look for greener pastures, to go back to the honeymoon. Leaders in conflict stage have three choices:
Multiplication - In this stage of leadership, organizational change requires you to multiply yourself through the leaders raised up through the coalition stage. Unfortunately, the high-touch leadership needed in the honeymoon and conflict stages has been replaced by a much lower-touch approach because your leadership is multiplied through other leaders. That's why this is cyclical, because as the organization changes and your role as a leader shifts, you may find yourself right back in the conflict stage as people question your changing approach. But a multiplication approach is the most effective phase, because other leaders are raising up other leaders who are carrying out the vision and accomplishing far more than you could ever do by yourself.
When I was a kid I remember staying with some relatives who were very devout Christians, and while we were with them we had to go to church one Sunday. I was asking my aunt about the day and she said it would start with Sunday School, and then we’d go to “Big Church.” My spoon fell at the word “school,” and I responded with something along the lines of “We go to school all week, and God wants us to go on Sunday too?”
In God’s sense of humor I later became a Christian who eagerly attended Sunday School as a high schooler, and eventually became a Sunday School teacher. Even though I serve full-time as a student pastor, teaching Sunday School has been something I’ve held onto until very recently, despite the added administrative, teaching, and visitation responsibilities.
What began in the 1700s as a way to educate street children who spent all week working in the factories in the early days of the Industrial Revolution has now become an institutional staple in our churches. It can go by different names: Sunday School, Cel Groups, Core Teams, Bible Fellowship, Discover the Bible, etc. but the core remains: a small group of people gathered to study the Word. I believe Sunday School remains a key component to building a strong, healthy, and spiritually productive student ministry for 4 reasons.
It provides fellowship - However you arrange your groups (age, grade, gender, division, etc.), they provide natural affinity groups for your students to be around those in similar circumstances. Take advantage of this, many in your class may attend the same school. Work towards building a supportive community where they are allies on their campus, extend the relationships beyond church time. Teachers, have your class in your home, do things with them. My wife and I had the same class for 4 years now and it was one of our great joys to pour into that group.
It becomes the primary teaching arm of the ministry - For many students, this is the point at which they are most connected to the Word. Most pastors, though well-meaning, struggle at times to really connect with teenagers. Take full advantage of this in selecting and evaluating a curriculum. Pick one that does more than offer the best icebreaker. Go with one that really captures the big picture of the Bible, that centers itself on the Gospel, and that provides cultural engagement. A couple great recommendations are The Gospel Project by LifeWay, and Treasuring Christ from Life Bible Study.
Good teachers are worth their weight in gold - I have always been very selective in who I ask to teach in our student ministry. I look for people who are committed to the church, who are perhaps serving in another ministry, who have a healthy Christ-centered marriage, and who seem to have a passion for both the Bible and ministering to students. Recruit well, because it is very hard and costly to dismiss a volunteer. At the same time, invest in your teachers. Keep them in the loop with information. Have fun with them. You as a student pastor are your teacher’s small group leader, so invest in them. Minister to them. Love them, serve them, and they will be your eyes and ears. I regularly ask our teachers if there are needs coming up in class, and we try to be in constant dialogue about ministry needs, curriculum, evaluation, and training. Good teachers can be taught, so make sure to train them well. We take an afternoon once a year (would love to do more) and work through some issue related to teaching, so far we’ve done transformational teaching and developing learning activities.
It becomes the front door for a student ministry - No matter how cool your mid-week ministry is, Sunday School still serves as the best front door for your ministry. This is the opportunity for visitors, prospects, and new-to-towners to gather with their peers and begin the process of assimilation. Our goal with Wednesday night when we have guests is to introduce them to people in their Sunday School class and encourage them to come and attend the following Sunday. We’ve seen it repeatedly, students who assimilate and who become connected are students who stay, grow, mature, and serve. Sunday School classes also provide the opportunity to contact those who have dropped away, who are in need of accountability, and who need encouragement. These are all things that are hard to do on a macro level but which can be done on a micro level.
Are you an introvert? If so, you've probably felt like you don't belong in leadership. Every time we look around, we see all these vibrant, outgoing, go-getting personalities who take over rooms and can navigate a crowd mingling with everyone. And if you're an introvert, hearing that description may make you shrink in your chair. But introverts make great leaders, even in positions where you might not expect to find many introverts. A major obstacle that introverts have to overcome in leadership is that there are myths about leaders who happen to be introverts. Here are three examples:
1. Introverts aren't "People People" - Leaders who are introverted recognize that it's important to be around people, but what makes them an introvert is that they naturally recharge with a book, on a walk, or on a long ride home by themselves. You can't be an effective leader without engaging with people on a heart level, but at the same time don't expect introverts to do small talk or "cocktail party" conversations, leaders who are introverts will build into people extremely well because they value close relationships.
2. Introverts lack enthusiasm - If you are looking for someone to be a cheerleader and do toe-touches will cheering on an initiative, find a former gymnast, not an introverted leader. Introverts are incredibly passionate about the things they believe in, but their emotions are often in check because of their reserved nature. Introverts make great supporters because they are consistent, faithful, and will be there to give support personally. Don't mistake their reserved demeanor for a lack of passion or excitement.
3. Introverts don't have "Stage Presence" - Many introverts who find themselves in leadership have trained themselves to be able to flip a switch in order to do the job they have been assigned. Introverts can be incredibly dynamic and captivating in front of a large crowd, but just like a cheetah who can reach 70 mph for short distances, introverted leaders need time afterward to decompress. Introverted leaders who have a passion for a subject or who have a job that requires a public persona (pastor, business leader, salesman, etc.) are adept at learning how to work around their personality type--so all those books they read pay off after all!
If you're an introverted person who has leadership skills, don't be discouraged. You can do great things in leadership because of your introvert tendencies--you process information well, you build a small group of trusted friends, and you don't get caught up in FOMO so you have your life priorities in line. But you can't let your natural wiring be a handicap or excuse for not actively fulfilling your calling as a leader. Work around your weaknesses, surround yourself with people who can supplement you, and take advantage of that stack of books you're reading to learn ways to be more engaging with people.
If your student has a digital presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) then chances are you've worried about what they're doing, seeing, posting, or discussing on there. And you're not alone, many parents struggle with balancing letting their teenager interact through their phones or computers with their friends. The benefits of using social media are incredible: you can keep up with friends, you can engage in hot-button issues, and post food pics and selfies--really important stuff.
I want to give you as a parent ten rules that you might find helpful in navigating this time with your student. Feel free to use them, add them, subtract them, or use your own set. But I think there's a lot of value to having rules and boundaries. The worst thing you can do for your teenager is give them unfiltered, unaccountable access to the web through social media and their digital presence--it's a recipe for disaster.
1. You will post, comment, like, share, and engage online in a way that reflects your relationship with Jesus
2. You will not hide your passwords from us (your parents) because we have the right to view your accounts. If you change it without us knowing, consider your devices ours.
**Hey parents, one great way to reinforce this is to reward your teenager with an iTunes card or a Christian music CD if they prove themselves trustworthy online**
3. You will not engage with anyone you do not already know without our permission
4. You will not take pictures of yourself that are sexual or inappropriate
5. You will leave your phone in the kitchen or hallway to charge overnight--it may be your room but it is our house
**Side note: Leave all computers and tablets in a common area so there can be no "secret surfing"**
6. We will friend you, follow you, and tweet you - We want to be a part of your life too, plus we think your pictures are funny
7. You will not be naive. Your snapchats are saved on a server somewhere, screenshots can be spread like wildfire, and stupid tweets may be deleted but not forgotten
8. You will have an accountability partner, a friend who can ask you about what you're looking at online and if you're maintaining your integrity and Christian witness
9. You will post things that reflect Ephesians 4:29 - "let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only that which is encouraging" - Don't be a troll or a hater online. And definitely don't talk badly about your parents or your friends
10. We will not micromanage you online or look over your shoulder all the time, but we do want you to know that trust is easy to lose and very difficult to earn back. We love you and want the best for you, don't ever forget that
Parents, what rules and boundaries have you used with your teenager that have been effective?
I hate surprises. Like, a lot. I had a surprise party once and the only thing I could when I came in was look around and stare at it. It's not that I didn't like it, I did. To be honest it was one of the coolest things someone has done for me. It was that I wasn't ready for an entire room decorated for me. Surprises throw me off because they're unexpected. And since I'm a bit of a control freak, the unexpected is scary. To get around that I try to plan as much as I can, what my day, week and month is going to look like. It's not perfect and it doesn't always work out like I hoped, but it's been a really helpful practice.
One way to plan in student ministry is to calendar. When we calendar we're putting some intentionality behind what we do. If you have a set of core values, use those when calendaring. Try to make sure everything you do fits in those. Our core values are an unapologetic commitment to the Bible, a climate of Gospel-focused relationships, a catalyst for raising up leaders, and a concern for missions to our neighbors and to the nations. Everything we do fits in one of those core values--there's no room or time for doing things for the sake of doing them.
Practically speaking, here are five guidelines for developing your student ministry calendar:
Plan realistically ahead - It's awesome to try to develop a detailed calendar a year in advance, but it's often not helpful. Realistically planning means marking down your major, bedrock dates (camp, mission trips, retreats) and working 3-6 months ahead on everything else. On those calendars, work a quarter ahead. For example, you should now be drafting your spring 2016 calendar and brainstorming your summer 2016.
Keep costs in mind - Parents often have to foot the bill for at least part of their students' participation. Be wise with how you ask them to spend their hard-earned money. Keep some of your activities close to home or on the cheap, and leave the big time things for a couple times a year. You also have to keep costs in mind because your church has a tight budget. Forward planning with costs in mind is a great way to keep your stewardship team happy with you!
Make missions a priority - So many student ministries get the label as a holding tank because they never do anything to make a difference. As a student minister, lead them to serve, and put it on the calendar. We try to do at least 6 missions experiences each year, as near as our church parking lot on Halloweeen and as far away as we can go.
Communicate any changes - As much as we try to plan and forecast, things happen. You get sick, the school hosts a major event, you get a freak snow storm, or the signup for an event tanks. In any case, you need to be flexible that changes will happen and communicate that to your students and to their parents as quickly and often as possible. Don't rely on word-of-mouth, use email, social media, announcements, and if possible phone calls or personal contact. Anytime you have to make a change, have a backup plan!
Have fun! - We try to do things so our students can have unique experiences before they graduate high school. So plan things that they want to come to and be a part of. Remember, it's not your job to entertain them or babysit them. You have a unique position to lead them in some cool things--so go skiing, whitewater rafting, to a MLB game, or play kickball in a park.
"Man I'd hate to be in the cave after dark"
That's me in full-on Dad joke mode. Trust me, I got some eyes rolling with it.
But there's something about being in a cave in the darkness. It's one of the coolest parts of a Mammoth Cave tour, when they flip the lights off and you're left in the still darkness of an underground tunnel. There's no light, no sound, no way to tell where you are. And then the guide said something that stuck: "Whenever people would get trapped down here, it wasn't the darkness that got to them. They could light a flame and find their way out. It wasn't the cold. It was the silence, the feeling of being alone."
There's so much for leadership that carries over. Leaders often find themselves feeling alone, whether it's real or not. The scary thing about being alone is not knowing if there's any help, any rescue, any support, or any hope. The loneliness of leadership can quickly lead to despair, discouragement, apathy, and maintenance mode. All of those are dangerous for a leader, the one who sets the culture and drives the ministry train. How can a leader guard against the feelings of loneliness? Here are 3 suggestions:
1) Lead with others, not just alongside others - When you make decisions or develop new initiatives, make sure others are on board with you throughout the planning and implementation process. Leading with others involves a sense of community and support among those leading, and creates a team mindset rather than a group. Leading alongside others without involving them in the process builds invisible walls around the leader (and around the others) that hinders cooperation and synergy.
2) Get out of the office - I heard someone the other day say "Have laptop, will travel." Love it. We don't need to be tied down to our office chair in order to get things done. Consider having meetings at a restaurant or coffee shop, and block off some time each week to do intentional, strategic thinking in a library. Getting out of the office also means interacting with your team members outside of the office. Do team lunches once a month, go out as families to a baseball game, or arrange to watch each other's kids so the couples can do date night. Interacting out of the office tears down the walls of isolation that trap so many leaders.
3) Network with other leaders - Sometimes leaders find themselves alone in the cave because they've shut themselves off from other leaders who might be able to help them. Networking can be done digitally, at conferences, local gatherings, or in the parking lot at the grocery store! When we network with other leaders, it's like the sharpening stone hitting the knife blade: it makes it sharper, more effective, and more fruitful. When we take time to refresh ourselves and spend time with other leaders, we're moving out of the cave and into the light.
Whether it's Coach Reilly telling the Hawks to deliberately take out Adam Banks, Sensei Kreese telling Johnny to "Sweep the leg!," Coach Kilmer forcing his players to get shots to play on injured knees, or the referees in Remember The Titans trying to cheat because they wanted Coach Boone out--we see the often ugly side of sports where adults put kids in a position they shouldn't be in. That's what makes the footage so shocking.
The hits alone are enough to make you gasp, but as the story has emerged a whole new layer to the onion came to light. An assistant coach on the team made the comment "He's got to pay for cheating us." Whether or not the coach told the players to target the referee and take him out with a dirty hit is a moot point, as adults we cannot let ourselves get to a place where our thought is payback, or where we forget that we are the grown-ups in the room and we need to act like it. Complaining to the ref or arguing a call is one thing, but it's completely out of bounds to in essence put a contract out on him. The players deserve whatever punishment they get for what they did on the field, but we cannot let the coach off the hook either.
Being an adult means putting aside what was childish, which Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 13:11 "when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." Unfortunately, we're not seeing that progression from child to adult, we're seeing a delayed maturity called "extended adolescence" which can extend into the 30s and beyond. In those cases, boys never really become men, they just can shave, girls never really become women, they just look like an adult. And it's not just in sports. My heart breaks when I hear of adults who are the enablers for their kids' bad behavior, or where they just won't step in and say no.
Adults need to be the ones with the big picture - A Friday night football game might seem like a big deal, but the adult has to recognize that there's more to life than Friday night. They have to be willing to step back and see how bad decisions can have lasting consequences, and how important it is to develop habits of living with wisdom.
Adults need to be the ones to take responsibility - It's really easy when you're a kid, you just keep passing the blame around. Not the best strategy because it always comes back around to you, but it's worth a shot. Adults on the other hand need to be the ones to own up to what we have done and take responsibility. We need to be proud enough to own up but humble enough to apologize. I've had to say I'm sorry to my boys so many times for failing as a parent and husband. I want them to know it's OK to say you're sorry, ask forgiveness, hug, and move on.
Adults need to be the ones to say no - There are things that sound like a good idea to kids. There's a reason, they're kids. The adult has to be the one to say no to bad ideas. Saying no isn't fun, and it's not always popular, but adults have to be willing to take responsibility and stop bad ideas from becoming YouTube videos.
Adults need to be the ones who set the example - We can try to say that peer culture has the biggest influence on kids and teens, but at the end of the day the research (even from beer companies) says parents are the top influencer. As adults, we have to be the ones who model what it means to be responsible, mature, and faithful. Spiritually it means we're not just telling our kids to go to church, we're going and involved and plugged in and serving. In the home it means not just telling them to clean their room, it means picking up your socks. And relationally it means loving and honoring your spouse so they see how a mom and dad are supposed to treat each other. Dads, the way you treat your wife is how your son-in-law will treat your daughter. And moms, the way you love your husband is the way your daughter-in-law will love your little boy.
This weekend we officially entered new waters: we are now soccer parents. Fear not, the window sticker is coming. We will be those people, no matter how many times we tell ourselves otherwise. And when Sam scores his first goal, we'll probably have to be held back from running on the field.
In so many ways, leadership is like running a soccer team made of 4 year olds. Here's 5 things we heard from the sideline that carry over to leadership:
"Point to the goal" - Coach used every break in play to ask the team which way they were headed. In soccer that age, they know to kick it in the goal....whether it's the right one is secondary. Leaders need to constantly reinforce the vision and direction they want to take. If they don't, chaos ensues. At first a leader has to show the way, then reinforce it and encourage it. If we as leaders don't know where we're going, how will anyone else?
"Pass the ball!" - Teamwork doesn't come naturally. We are built selfishly, when the ball comes near us we want it. During the game it didn't matter who had the ball or which team had it, every little leg was going for the ball. So the leader has to always be the chief encourager who has to push towards the team working together. It also means that we celebrate accomplishments but we value the assist as much as the goal.
"Take a break" - Leaders have to be aware of when they need to give their team a break. The game was hot and coach knew to get everyone in the game he had to give players a break. One of the saddest stats today is how little time off we take. Leaders need to recognize that for long range effectiveness, team members need off time, refreshment, and shade.
"Get your snack before you leave" - So I think the kids were more excited about the juice box than the game, must be nice to be 4. Leaders have to be givers. We give of ourselves, our effort, our time, our energy, and our credit to those we lead. Just like our coach who gave his Saturday morning to coach kids and spend time investing in others, he went above and made sure they had juice afterwards. The best leaders are the ones who give to rather than take from their team.
"Remember to have fun!" - I get sad thinking about the day sports no longer is fun, and I hope that our boys never get to that point. But so many kids find themselves in a sport that's not fun anymore and they do it because they have to. Our work should be enjoyable and our responsibility as a leader is to make sure that the environment we're creating is one people want to be a part of. When we do that, we build a team setting that not only builds productive results but healthy people.
God doesn't need a backup plan, but we do. That lesson was so obvious to me about a year ago when we took a youth trip to Nashville for a day serving and hanging out at Opry Mills. Let me rephrase that, we were supposed to spend the day in Nashville. But thanks to a serpentine belt breaking and a dead van battery we ended up spending most of our day at the Tennessee welcome center while waiting for repairs to get everyone home. Caught without tools, a contingency plan, or any Coke Zero, we had to wing everything that day. Luckily we had great adult leaders on the trip who were able to diffuse any tension, help shuttle students, and work on the van stuck on the side of the road.
Everything God sets out to do will happen just as He intended and wanted it to. That's because He's sovereign over everything, including the stuff we don't see or plan on. But since we're not God, we can't plan on everything so we need a backup plan. Here's 4 reasons why a backup plan is important for student ministry:
You can't control the weather - This is the most obvious but often the most overlooked. If you're a student ministry leader doing anything outdoors you need a rain plan.
You can't control who you're working with - We took a huge group on a mission trip and the ministry we worked with ran out of ideas for us after a couple hours. It's important to have contingency plans in place in case they have too much for you or too little. We took that day and prayer walked the main place they minister, and found the nearest Sonic.
You can't control your health - If a ministry activity or event can't happen without you there, you're doing it wrong. Always recruit other leaders, parents, and others in the church to help carry the load of organizing and executing an activity. Last year I had heart surgery and the only time they could do it was right when our student ministry was supposed to have a Christmas party. Rather than cancel, some adults stepped up to handle the logistics and plan for the night.
You can't control your numbers - If you regularly work with young adults, you know how useless sign up sheets are. Having a backup plan for numbers means keeping additional drivers and adults "on call" just in case they're needed, or to have a plan in case fewer show than expected. One way to help in this is to come up with a minimum number of students committed for an event or activity to make.
You can't stop Wally World - Remember that scene when the Griswolds arrive at Wally World only to find out it was closed? Yeah. That's happened to all of us in student ministry. Rather than take security guards hostage and forcing your way into a closed situation, find the nearest park, mall, Sonic, or ball field.
What other reasons do you have for needing a backup plan in student ministry?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.