Advice for New Writers
I'm taking a one-post break from writing on leadership and family ministry to give some practical advice to all of you out there who aspire to be a writer. Whether you're starting a blog, looking for a journal to publish your research, or a publisher to pitch your great American novel, all of us as writers need to be sharpened.
1. Write from your burning desire to say something, not to get published - It's really cool to see your name on Amazon, I won't lie. But the burning desire to say something should be your primary motivation to write something, not so you can get a publishing credit. Most of the best ideas that get circulated now are done via blog & social media, not traditional publishing routes. Your writing should come from a fire in your bones that reflects your passion. Otherwise (see #6 when someone says your baby is ugly) you'll lack the motivation to make it perfect.
2. Write because you have an idea that needs to be heard, not to get paid - I think every writer starts out expecting to swim in money like Scrooge McDuck, but the reality is less than 1% of writers earn a living off writing. Dream Teams has earned me about $150 this year, which is nowhere near the amount of time spent writing, editing, networking, and refining the book. But my premise behind it was an idea I wanted to get out there because I really do believe churches are less effective because they're not embracing a true sense of "Team Ministry."
3. Write when you don't feel like it - Writing is like exercise, you gotta do it even when you don't feel like it. When I'm in a writing project, I set a daily word-count goal (250-500) and I write until I hit that goal. Not all the words may make the cut, but the daily practice of writing a word count keeps me in the mindset that the project is a marathon, not a sprint. And every day you take off from exercise makes it that much harder to get back into the groove.
4. Write clearly and concisely - A lot of writers feel like they need to get everything out and in the end write way more than they should. When that happens, readers hit TL;DR Syndrome, and they don't even finish what you tried to say, because you never said it. Setting word count limits really causes you to zero in on one main thesis/idea, and forces you to budget your words in a way that maximizes what you want to say. Also, if your reader can't figure out in the first 3-4 sentences what you're trying to say, they won't find out. So be clear up front what you're saying, and be clear throughout what you're trying to say--I hate rhetorical questions, don't you?
5. Write something worth reading - This goes back to #1 and #2, if you want to put something out just to see if it gets picked up, it won't. When you write something, it needs to be worth the time (and money) of your reader. I'm delighted when people read Dream Teams and say they found it helpful, useful, and applicable. That was the point. There are literally thousands of books on teams, so I wanted to make sure what I said was worth the purchase price. Send your stuff out to friends and colleagues to get their feedback on what you're writing.
6. Don't take rejection personally - It will happen. Some publisher will tell you your baby is ugly or that your writing stinks--that's life, deal with it. They're not rejecting you, they're saying no to your work. Getting a rejection letter means someone took the time to read what you had to say because they thought enough of you to look at it. And many publishers will offer feedback on why they rejected it, which provides you an opportunity to sharpen what you wrote.
7. Find good editors - When you're consumed in a project, it's really easy to get sloppy. Most of us don't know the breadth of grammar rules, and when we type fast we're bound to have some typos. It's important to make sure you have good editors who will provide helpful and timely feedback. I always use 3 sets of eyes: Content to look at what I'm saying, Grammar/Style to look at how I'm saying it, and Readability to look at if things flow. Editors love getting credit, referrals, and Starbucks gift cards--it's worth the investment!
8. Talk to other writers - Doing this helps you stay fresh as you bounce ideas off other writers, helps you learn more techniques and practices for writing, and may help you network with editors, journals, and publishing houses.
9. Keep submitting proposals, drafts, and articles - Going back to #6, don't be discouraged if one place tells you no. There are always other places to submit your work. Do the edits they suggest, refine and revise your work, and keep sending it in places. If you really want to get your idea out there and it's worth hearing, eventually someone will pick it up.
10. Have a writing plan - All of us are wired differently, and we need to adjust our plan accordingly. Some people are morning-first, and can be extremely productive before 7am. I'm not. My peak time is between 9pm-Midnight. Also, when making a plan, give yourself a deadline and work backwards. Third, outline first before writing. Don't sit down with coffee and Word (or Pages) open and think it's just going to flow. Spend time crafting an outline that gives your writing bones, and then flesh it out with your coffee. Fourth, block time to write, or else it'll never happen. My wife is writing a Bible study curriculum for a national publisher right now (go Carrie!), and each week she sets aside 2-3 nights to hunker down. If she doesn't plan those nights, they pass with Netflix.
If you're a writer, what advice would you have for those starting out? Feel free to share!
Leaders are Teachers
One of the most impactful books I read during seminary was Gary Bredfeldt's Great Leader, Great Teacher. In it, he makes the assertion that those who have the most influence in others are teachers, so if we are going to be good leaders we need to make sure we're good teachers. The idea of Leadership = Influence is nothing new, but for Bredfeldt this concept was the spark to look where influence is greatest: the shaping of the mind, heart, and actions for effective discipleship. That's what Romans 12:1-2 is after when it talks about being transformed by the renewal of our minds, if we want to see our influence in others, we need to make sure we're teaching well. If we want to teach (and then lead) well, we need to remember 6 things.
1. Make sure our life is in line with our teaching - Perhaps the biggest difference between biblical leadership and worldly leadership is that the foundation for biblical leadership is rooted in the character of the leader, rather than the content of the teaching. Anytime we step into a teaching role, in whatever size group, we need to make sure we've checked our heart and are in line with what God wants. James reminds us how important godly living is, because we as teachers will be held to a higher standard.
2. Teach from one Big Main Idea - One of the first times I preached I tried cramming in everything I had gotten from my study and preparation. Instead of wowing people, I had opened a fire hose on them. One guy said it best, "Man I didn't know we'd get a 2-for-1 today." I don't think he meant it as a compliment. When you prep your outline, start with one central, overarching, big idea. If you can't nail down one idea, you've got too much to work with. Andy Stanley in Communicating for a Change lays out a plan for a one-point sermon, and if you have more than one big main idea, then you have a sermon series! I always ask teachers if they can sum up their lesson in one concise sentence. If they can't, they need to revisit their lesson and sharpen it. The BMI should be memorable and drive home where you're going with your lesson/message.
3. Aim for the head, heart, and hands - When we teach and expect influence to happen, we can't just aim for one, we have to aim for all three. We want to aim our teaching towards increasing knowledge of God and the Word towards a biblical worldview (Head), we want an increased devotion and love for God & neighbor (Heart), and we want them to do something with what we've communicated (Hands). If we overemphasize one over the other, we bring the tension out of balance. We don't want eggheads with cold hearts, nor do we want overly-passionate biblical dummies, and we don't want over-eager servants who don't frame what they're doing in the Gospel.
4. Focus on takeoff, landing, and turbulence - I flew cross-country this year for my sister's wedding and the first thing my dad asked was "how was your flight?" I honestly couldn't answer, I spent most of it reading so nothing stood out, and I answered "fine." If we're honest, we want our flights to be boring and routine. But we do typically remember 3 parts in a flight, takeoff, landing, and turbulence. In teaching, takeoff is your introduction (or Hook), landing is your conclusion, and turbulence are the times in your lesson where you poke and prod the mind & heart. You need to carefully construct these in your preparation, even write it out fully to make sure you don't mess it up. I typically will put turbulence points in teaching where I want people to think or respond to what they're hearing. Landings are often the area we struggle with, we're like Indiana Jones "Fly? Yes. Land? No!" But our landings are just as important, so focus on strengthening conclusions that wrap up what you've said and drive home the Big Main Idea.
5. Get honest feedback - In case you're new to ministry, I'll let you in on a secret--unless you really screw it up, you won't get much feedback from people about your teaching. So recruit trusted people who can give you honest, constructive feedback geared towards improving your technique. The book Saving Eutychus is about evaluating preaching and improving it, and the authors have a feedback form to use.
6. Be you - I remember sitting in a teaching/preaching class in seminary and everyone tried to be the next John Piper in how they talked, prayed, and carried themselves, even using his lingo. The problem is, you're not Piper. You're not even a tuxedo t-shirt version of Piper. One of the most important things a teacher can do is figure out who they are (and who they're not), and be comfortable in their own skin. Some people are naturally funny, others aren't--and if you're not, don't try to be. Others are able to think on their feet and work with minimal notes, and some need detailed manuscripts and transition points. Whoever you are and whatever you're like, be you. Part of what makes teaching effective is the accessibility and transparency of the teacher. If you're trying to front or pretend you're someone you're not, it'll come off as hokey, forced, or fabricated.
Decentralization as Encouraging Trend
Yesterday I read a great article by Thom Rainer (CEO of LifeWay) on two major changes in the landscape of the American church. These changes have been subtle, but their impact is starting to resonate. The two major trends are: Decentralization of Leadership, and Decentralization of Facilities. I loved this article. It was a huge encouragement to see a shift in how churches in America operate and engage their communities for the Gospel. Church leadership should be encouraged as well, because it marks a change towards biblical faithfulness for the local church and her pastors. I specifically noticed 6 implications from the article.
Decentralized leadership leads to a team ministry mindset - One thing that stood out to me was the shift from "Senior" to "Lead" pastor. The change in terminology, while functionally keeping the position the same, showed a flattening of the pyramid. Think of a round table, no one is at the head, each has a contribution. The leadership comes through influence, and in a team ministry mindset everyone buys into the vision/direction of the lead pastor.
Decentralized facilities turn church from attractional to missional - When the hub of activity is the church facility, and everything is directed towards a "come and see" mindset, what happens often is congregational isolationism--where everything becomes an "alternative" for the church. In a decentralized approach, the church is released to go into the community and put less emphasis on having to come to the church property.
Decentralized leadership changes staff focus - In many churches, staff are expected to do the ministry. In a decentralized leadership model, staff are free to cast vision and handle the administrative aspects of ministry, while putting their primary focus on equipping others to carry out the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11).
Decentralized facilities reduce overhead costs - It costs a lot to maintain a big building, and much of that money in annual budgets is frozen, which keeps additional funds from being released for ministry, missions, and recruiting new leadership. By putting less emphasis on the grounds and multiplying campuses rather than adding square footage, a church becomes more cost-effective in how their money is stewarded.
Decentralized leadership gets more done - One person doing ministry is limited by their time, energy, and lack of sleep. But if one person equips 10 to do ministry, the impact is exponential. When we shift away from leaders doing ministry to leaders fostering a ministry culture, we're able to see more Kingdom impact happen. Imagine what could happen in your church if you could equip, disciple, train, and release 10 people to do what you're doing by yourself now.
Decentralized facilities allows for greater community impact - A few weeks ago I got to interview an executive pastor in a multi-site church in an urban setting. I asked him specifically about how each campus interacts with their communities, and that was an a-ha moment for me. By placing campuses in different communities, each with a different feel (some were in the suburbs, others were in the yuppy/Millennial areas), the Gospel can be contextualized in such a way that speaks to the hearts of the people, serves in a uniquely beneficial way, and promotes a culture of missions that shows how Jesus loves that community in its own way.
How have you seen decentralization in your church? What was effective about it? How could we continue to move further?
This month back in 2007 I drove to Memphis to meet with a church that I'd been talking with for a few weeks. During that weekend I met with church leadership, the student ministry, and got a lay of the land. It all capped with a "trial sermon" where I shared my vision and dream for the student ministry. I was 25, inexperienced, and really hoping things went well (this was the position I'd prayed for so Carrie and I could finally live in the same city!) to start a new chapter in God's work in my life.
Reflecting back on that 8 years later, there's so much I wish I could tell young dumb 25 year old me what 33 year old slightly-graying me has learned over the years. These 7 suggestions are more than that, I really believe these are helpful for anyone getting a start in student ministry.
Hold tightly your convictions, loosely your methods - Your convictions are your deeply held beliefs that ground the philosophy of your ministry. Stick to those, because they are your rudder to keep your ministry going towards what God has called you to. For our student ministry, they have shaped our core values: We teach the Bible systematically, we raise leaders, we develop a culture of missions, and we build Gospel-focused relationships. Methods are how you get to your convictions, and those change. I think student ministry has an 18-month shelf life on methods. What worked 10 years ago probably won't work now. I saw that play out on a college campus, where free food wasn't enough to draw a crowd. I remember commenting that in 2000 when I was a college freshman you could've gotten me to show up to anything with food. Always evaluate the effectiveness of your methods. And don't love them enough that you keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Be open to change, and don't be scared to revise and change what you're doing--so long as your end game is the same.
Be comfortable saying no - I wrote on this earlier. You can't do everything, be everywhere, or try everything. You have to know the difference between what's good and what's great, and be willing to say no to the good so you can say yes to the great. One pastor I served under said after his retirement "I wish I'd done less so I could have accomplished more." It also matters how you calendar and plan things, which is an important step in learning the difference between good and great.
Pick your battles - Not everything is worth stirring up a stink for. Sometimes you have to let things slide and let time work its problems out. I have a few things I'll fight for: sound theology, purity, and missions. When The Shack came out, I came out strongly opposed to it because of its heretical portrayal of God. I remember the disappointment and some anger when I announced we'd no longer use NOOMA videos in our student ministry. Those were worth fighting over because there were major doctrinal elements involved. It's not always worth it though. I almost got fired for making a statement against teenage dating. Probably not worth fighting over in hindsight. So choose wisely, and lean on your parents, volunteers, and pastor for wisdom to know what's worth it and what's not.
Be the champion for parents - "Mom and dad say I shouldn't listen to this CD, what do you think?" I remember that question clearly, and I remember my response as clear "As long as you live under their roof and they're paying your bills, do what they say. I'm not ever going to go against your parents, unless they want you sacrificing cats or something." Parents, especially of teenagers, do not have an easy job. You were a teenager once, remember all you put your parents through? Build a library of resources and communicate that to them regularly (I use our email newsletter to send links to articles on marriage, parenting, technology, trends, etc.), pray for them, and give them encouragement or affirmation.
Support your pastor - Your pastor is dealing with stuff you can't even imagine. When you're over every ministry area, there's no one else to pass the buck to. Chances are he's fighting discouragement, he's stressed, and he's feeling overwhelmed. Make it a point to pray for him on a regular basis, and occasionally with him. Be his champion to critics. Don't even entertain gossip or dissension. And if you hear it, rebuke it. It won't be fun, but your pastor needs it. Be available to make hospital visits and the other daily activity in ministry. I did my doctoral work on the pastor/associate dynamic, and the healthiest and most effective leadership teams were the ones that had a solid foundation with the pastor.
Keep reading - Finishing seminary isn't an excuse to quit reading. You need to keep yourself in the literature, attend professional growth experiences, and network. Find out what other student pastors and church leaders are reading, and keep sharpening your mind and heart to be a more effective pastor. Revisit the books you once read that really shaped you (Desiring God and Knowing God are two of mine), and ask your church if they would pay for you to subscribe to journals/magazines on student ministry (Youth Worker Journal is a great one).
Remember to keep your family first - I'm going to be blunt. You're not that important to your church, your students, or your ministry calendar. You are that important to your spouse and kids. The church can always find another student minister, but your kids can't find another mom/dad, and your spouse can't replace you. Don't sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry. Two things I've learned to do on this are 1) Let my wife take the last look at the quarterly schedule, 2) Involve my boys in student ministry activities. I want my wife to see the schedule to catch any blind spots, over-extensions, or to catch any dates we may be double booked! And I want my boys involved because I want them to love ministry and see why Daddy does what he does--to tell the "Big Kids" about Jesus.
A few months ago I met with my student leadership team where we talked about one of the most important words a leader can learn: no. They were shocked when I told them "I say no to anywhere between 80%-90% of the ideas people give me. It's not that they're always bad ideas, sometimes they are, but it's because I don't want to stuff our ministry with things that don't advance the goal." Every leader needs to learn to say no, but I think it's especially important for student ministers. We consume ourselves with the false impression that busy = effective, so we program ourselves to death chasing after every event, mission trip, concert, and retreat. The reality is that in the end, we're exhausting ourselves, straining our church resources, placing an extra burden on our families, asking parents to over-extended their finances, and often spending way too much time doing stuff that doesn't matter.
You're not Superman. Most student ministries are small and often find the student minister (and spouse) as the main volunteers. When we say yes to everything, we put ourselves and our spouses on a pace that we weren't meant to keep. One person can't manage all that's often asked of student ministers. That's why it's so important to develop a team of volunteers, and empower them to lead ministries. Here's the reality guys, you're not that important. Some things can happen without you. You don't have to be at every ball game, every class fellowship, every birthday party, etc. Empower and equip your volunteers and cheer for them when they do those things. It multiplies your ministry and allows you to focus on the priorities God has for you in ministry.
You can't let everyone be a guest speaker. "God's given me a message to share with your students" is a phrase that sends a chill up my spine. I'm not saying every guest speaker is wacky, but there are plenty out there. And as the primary teacher/communicator, you have the responsibility to make sure that what's being taught and presented is biblical and edifying. You can't let anyone and everyone have your teaching spot. I use a rotation of a handful of guys I know and trust when I have to be away from our regular student ministry gatherings. I typically go over the plan with them and get feedback on what they're planning to do, but since there's a high level of trust it's never an issue. It's not always so rosy though, two of the better examples I've had to say no to are:
You can't do every activity that gets suggested. One thing we can never do in student ministry is let things get stale, where we keep doing the same things over and over again. Everything has a shelf life, and even good ideas can become golden calves if we're not careful. Soliciting ideas from others is a great way to generate new ministries and activities. But just because it's a good idea doesn't mean that it's something to incorporate into your ministry. Ask yourself four questions:
In the end, that's ok. You're not called to be everything. If you're serving in a small church with a small student ministry, you can't do all the things the megachurch across town can do. That's ok. Focus on the students God has given you and invest your life in them. And if you're in the megachurch, your time will be spent investing in leaders and volunteers more than in students. That's ok. Empower them to multiply the ministry. The point of this article is simple: be who God has called you to be, and do what God has called you to do. Learning to say no helps you keep your eyes on what's most important.
Closing the Back Door
If I can be honest, one of the hardest things about student ministry is the "Dropout Effect." The dropout effect is what happens when students who had been a part of our ministry walks away from it, the church, or at worst their faith. The statistics are vague on how prevalent this is, depending on who you talk to it can be as low as 50% or as high as 90% (Kinnaman tags the number in You Lost Me at 59%). Because this is such a fluid topic, we'll suffice it to say that the number is "a lot." And for decades this has been an issue for churches to try to figure out how to retain young people. I believe this "Back Door" in the church is a gaping concern, and I also believe that it's impossible to point the blame at any one group in particular. Too often student ministers catch the brunt of this, where they are blamed for failing to stop a young adult from walking away from the church, but had watched their parents for years model a superficial commitment to the church. Or parents catch the blame for failing to raise their kids right, but watched a church burn out student ministers in succession or where the student minister was dismissed for moral failure.
I believe the answer to closing the back door is to first look at the front door, and make some major commitments on the home and church side. Closing the back door is only going to happen when the front door and the time between is such that the back door can stay open and students don't want to leave. It requires both sides to recognize their important role in shaping young adults, and to make one fundamental shift in the common objective:
Our goal is not raising children to adults, but to shepherd them to maturity in their faith
See the shift? We're wanting to do more than simply graduate students to adulthood, but to develop a maturity in their faith. In this paradigm, the church and home work for a common purpose: the discipleship of a student towards maturity in Christ. Along with that come all the normal responsibilities and expectations of adulthood, but with a primary emphasis on their faith becoming the central aspect of their life. Here are the way how I believe the home and the church can close the back door by focusing on the front.
Home - Shepherding Children & Students' Hearts
1. Parents should display a vibrant faith that has genuinely changed them - It's hard to ask from your child & student what you don't have yourself. So the starting place for this is for parents to look in the mirror and ask "Am I a Christian?" "Do I live out my faith in such a way that I show Christ?" "Does our home reflect what the Bible says about the family?" It starts by moms and dads recognizing their need for a Savior and leaning on Jesus for their salvation. More than a decision or prayer, it's reflected in everyday life.
2. Don't just parent, disciple - Discipling in the home is Good Parenting + Gospel. It doesn't mean that everything is over-spiritualized, but it does mean that discipline and punishment is an opportunity to talk about sin and consequences, restoration and forgiveness, and to ultimately point to Jesus who takes all our sin on Himself. It means the Bible is read, studied, cherished, and lived. It means parents are encouraging the spiritual growth of their family (and growing themselves!).
3. Keep the end-game in mind - I tell parents always to ask themselves 3 questions: "What do I want my child/student to Know?" "What do I want my child/student to Love?" "What do I want my child/student to Do?" The end game is the mature disciple produced after a faithful 18 years of loving care, shepherding, providing, and grace. Knowledge involves the shaping of a worldview (see #1 below), Love involves treasuring Christ and loving the Church, and Do involves living life on mission.
Church - Partner with Parents to Provide an Environment for Faith to Thrive
1. Don't just teach Bible stories, develop a biblical worldview - We do a disservice to our children and students when we just give them Bible stories, even if they're really good stories. We have to make a commitment as teachers to develop a biblical worldview. That starts by seeing the Bible as One Story, one that is about a God who Creates, Man who Falls, Jesus who Saves, and Creation that's restored. Everything is about Jesus, and God is at work in every page of the Bible to show His Son. Next, a biblical worldview involves seeing life through that four-fold lens. A biblical worldview informs how we watch the news, read a book, drive our cars, and choose a career/spouse/house/car/etc.
2. Connect the generations, don't separate - If you're a youth leader, ask yourself one powerful question: If an 80 year old widow in your church died today, would any of your students miss her? Even notice? What happens so often in churches is the generations are pulled apart--either philosophically by separate programming emphasis, or physically by the design of the church facility. When we do that, we fail to put the full Body of Christ on display for our children and students. When we connect the generations, we allow for Titus 2 mentoring opportunities to happen (80% of young adults noted never having a spiritual mentor in their lives), we allow older generations to share their stories of walking with Jesus faithfully for decades, and we give children and students an opportunity to allow others into their world.
3. Provide opportunities for students & young adults to live out their faith on mission - When we build facilities that are designed to keep our students inside them and shelter them from the outside world, we do less to impact the world than we do to just build an ivory tower. It also reduces the "win" to just getting them in the door. Instead, embrace the mindset that sees how important it is to be on mission, where students are engaged with their communities and the world in sharing and serving Christ. One of my greatest convictions in student ministry is that every student should spend time serving outside of their context (different country or different region) once before they graduate high school. This gives them a love for their neighbor, a love for the nations, and a heart for serving that carries over long after the fog machines from camp are gone.
What strategies have you seen work in your church and home for producing disciples?
A Word to Parents
Last night during the Monday Night Football pregame, the host asked the panel of former players about Johnny Manziel being the starting QB for the Browns. Trent Dilfer delivered in 90 seconds something that every parent, coach, teacher, and influencer in the life of children should hear. In 90 seconds he destroyed the entitlement mentality that many feel. The sad reality of the Manziel story is that the promising on-field talent will never be fully tapped because of off-field issues and poor decisions. For Dilfer, the blame doesn't rest solely on Manziel. Others are just as guilty. You can see the video clip here:
Parents, here's 4 things you can do, regardless of how old your child is, to show that you love them.
Love them enough to set boundaries - "Third tree!" is what I say to my son when he rides his bike on our driveway. We have four Bradford Pears (which are beautiful right now in the fall colors) that line our driveway. The reality is, the fourth tree is quite a bit away from the road, in fact it's a good 15-20 feet from our sidewalk! But the boundary is in place because we know the same thing every parent does: children find the boundary and try to push it just a little.
Love them enough to say no - Saying yes and caving in is so much easier. It stops the incessant questions, it placates the tantrum, and it brings momentary relief. But it doesn't fix the problem. I love this article from Psychology Today that pointed out for French parents, the word no "rescues their children from the tyranny of their own desires." One way we show our kids how much we love them is we tell them no to things that might hurt them, be bad for them, or simply not be the best for them.
Love them enough to discipline them - The sad part of the Manziel drama is that at any point, the responsible adult could have stopped things by holding him accountable and suspending him for games, grounding him as a teenager, or kicking him off the team. In every case though, the same thing happened: the grown-ups failed to act like grown-ups. Dilfer said it best: "Decisions have consequences." When we fail to discipline our children and hold them accountable, we actually do them a disservice.
Love them enough to forgive them - If we discipline without restoration, we imprison. If we restore without discipline, we enable. When we do both, we redeem the child and show them a picture of what God has done with us. Mistakes happen, consequences must be dealt with, and sometimes you'll lose the car keys for a week. But on the other side of anytime you discipline, there needs to be the reminder of the wonderful love and grace we show because God showed it to us first.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.