Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What I Learned about Youth Ministry from...Chef Ramsay

In this feature, I will discuss unlikely lessons for ministry I have learned from unlikely sources. Today, I will discuss what I have learned from ubiquitous TV chef, Gordon Ramsay.

You might know Chef Ramsay as that British guy who is always yelling on television shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and "Master Chef." I think he is on television for roughly 23.5 hours a day. In fact, I am pretty sure the CEO of Fox handed Chef Ramsay the keys to the network and said, "take care of the place while I'm gone."

I do have a particular fondness for "Hell's Kitchen." I think the attraction of the show is that Chef Ramsay finds the 16 worst humans on earth and then yells at them all summer. I know there are easier ways to find head chefs for one's restaurants. Chef is probably doing this on advice from his therapist so that he can have a productive outlet for his considerable rage.

In watching the show, I have discovered something that is somewhat useful in ministry. Chef Ramsay is a master at creating drama.

Well, not creating it so much as manipulating the circumstances so as to create an environment conducive to drama. He always makes sure to keep the two people who hate each other the most working together. He always increases the pressure on his contestants to strain their emotions. He is constantly making decisions to maximize potential drama.

Now, obviously, this is being done to increase conflict so as to increase ratings. However, there can be good that could come out of manipulating situations to produce conflict and tension and drama in youth ministry.

What Ramsay has discovered is that there is always drama to be found when you put 16 people in a competition against each other, then require them to work together. They are simultaneously working for and against each other. Of course people are going to snap on each other.

In ministry, we are always working with people who are fallen, who have struggles and insecurities, and can be very sensitive. Of course there is going to be drama in youth ministry. But is that a bad thing? Should youth workers try to minimize drama or exploit drama for the purpose of helping people grow?

I would argue that it is good to allow drama to take place in your youth ministry. It is good to have conflict among students in your ministry. It is good to deal with hurt feelings, damaged egos, and emotional wounds in youth ministry. And it could be a good thing to draw that drama into the open where it can be dealt with.

For one, your ministry can be a safe place for it to happen. All of your students are going to run into drama and conflict at some point. In your ministry, at least you have the possibility of controlling it. You can help people work out conflict in a gentle, Christ-like manner, and, in the process, teach them how to handle conflict and drama on their own. Should gossip or lying occur, you have a real-life instance of the damage things like that can cause.

Two, conflict can lead to good discussion. This could be a theological dispute, this could be a dispute over the proper lifestyle of a Christ-follower, this could be a relational conflict. Presenting students with two options of a debate from which to choose and making them pick one, or having students identify their positions along a continuum, or placing students who typically don't get along in a small group together are good ways of provoking some conflict with the intention of producing a life-changing discussion and dialogue. You can teach students to respect people who disagree with them. You can teach students the value of not making every disagreement personal. You can help them live with some tension, which, as most adults know, is a very valuable thing to learn to do. And you can help them sort through their emotions and maybe even discover reason and rational thought behind the discussion. They can learn from each other, learn to listen and understand people they disagree with, and all in a relatively safe environment.

Three, it's better to have it all out in the open where it can be dealt with than simmering below the surface. Apply some gentle pastoral pressure to a situation so we can get it all out in the open beyond sideways-glares and passive-aggressive remarks. Bring the conflict that already exists into the open where those involved can work it out before it comes out on its own (and this is never preferred).

Now, as a guy, I am wired to run away from drama. I like low-maintenance when it comes to relationships. I am not one to instigate drama or conflict. But in working with youth, I have found that it is often better to help that conflict come to light than watch it slowly grow underneath the surface. It's OK to draw that conflict out; the sooner it comes out, the better off everyone will be. And hopefully, you've taught the students involved how to deal with conflict on their own from now on.

I think there is room for disagreement here, and I am sure there are angles to this that both support my theory and disagree with my theory that I am missing. This idea is still very embryonic in my thinking at this point. I hope to have fully formed thoughts about this concept eventually. Probably when I am ready to retire.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How I Became Your Youth Pastor (Part 1)

My wife and I really enjoy the show "How I Met Your Mother," in which the main character, Ted, has been telling his kids the story of how he met their mother for about the last six years now. Since I am just about as big a sap as Ted is on that show, I will tell the story of how I became your youth pastor in a similar, meandering style.

Kids, it was the Spring of 1996. It was a down year for my beloved Cubs--they began the year 0-14, so by the end of April they were already out of contention. Bob Dole was kicking off his legendary campaign against incumbent president William Jefferson Clinton. I was just completing my sixth grade year and found out about a huge youth conference my church's youth group attended ever summer called CDYC. We had talent competitions, volleyball and basketball tournaments, awesome chapel sessions, and loads of cute girls I would never have the guts to speak to in a million years. We spent a week at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

So I was gearing up for my very first CDYC. I didn't know what to sign up for. There were so many options for sports and talent. I briefly thought about entering the musical solo contest with my violin, then wisely thought better of it (it would have made a better comedy act, anyway). I signed up for volleyball, because that was what everyone signed up for. Then I asked my friend, Danny, what he was signing up for. He said "volleyball, drama, and preaching." Preaching, huh? Since I was kind of shy and planning on clinging to Danny for dear life that week (much to his chagrin; he was actually going to talk to the aforementioned loads of cute girls), I too signed up to enter the preaching competition.

To understand this story, you need to know a few things about me at this stage of my life. First, I was a nerd. Major-league nerd. Second-of-ly, I was awkward as all get out. I wore huge glasses, my voice squeaked and squawked, and I basically repelled all but a few people. Third, I was constantly doubting myself, constantly down on myself, and constantly in fear that I would never be accepted by more than just a few childhood friends. Fourth, I didn't consider myself very talented. I loved sports but sucked at most of them. I tried music and soon realized I was born without a sense of rhythm and my fingers were too stubby to be any good at violin. Fifth, and most importantly, at this time in my life I couldn't imagine Hell being much worse than sixth grade.

So I signed up to preach, having never even once considered the idea of me preaching before. I soon realized that this was the best thing I ever did.

In preparation for the preaching competition, I got a lot of personal attention from my youth group's intern, Brandon. He was young, still in seminary. He, like me, was a huge Cubs fan, and, like me, spent most of his childhood being a total dork. He was also the first adult outside of my parents and their friends to take any kind of an interest in me. He welcomed me unconditionally, put up with my awkwardness while affirming the good qualities he saw in me. And, during the months leading up to CDYC, he worked with me once a week, teaching me how to preach.

I worked so hard on that sermon, mostly because I wanted to impress Brandon and make him proud of me. He worked so hard with me, I didn't want him to be disappointed. I went over and over every text I used, fine-tuned every sentence, tweaked every illustration so it was just right. In the end, I had a 4.5 minute sermon on love.

CDYC came. The preaching competition was on Tuesday, the second day of the conference. It was in the afternoon, after chapel and after lunch. I had never been so nervous. I got dressed in my nice clothes I had brought just for preaching. I arrived about 15 minutes early and stood outside the door while some kid from another church preached. I thought my heart would beat so hard it would fly out of my chest.

It was finally my turn. Brandon prayed for me before I went up there. I got up there, and after the first sentence, I felt as though I had done this a million times. I felt calm, comfortable. The words came pouring out of my mouth perfectly, with no squeaks or squawks. I didn't even need to look at my notes; I had the thing memorized! I even ad-libbed a line or two. I finished, and walked off, pumped-up beyond belief. It was exhilarating, it was exciting, it was fun. I had not had that feeling in my life--ever.

While the competition was on Tuesday, the award ceremony where you found out how you did was not until Thursday. I had to wait until then to find out if I received a "Superior" ranking (meriting a gold medal), an "Excellent" ranking (meriting a silver medal), or no award at all. As I sat there waiting for what seemed to be an eternity as the announcer went through all the winners from the drama categories, the music categories, the art categories, the photography categories, and everything else, he finally began announcing the winners for the preaching category. He read through the names of the "Excellent" winners (which I thought would be where I would end up), and my name wasn't called. I figured I wouldn't earn a "Superior" ranking, mostly because I didn't want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed. Then all of a sudden, he called my name. I had won a gold medal for preaching! Three months prior I had never even thought of doing such a thing, now I was winning awards for it!

I didn't see myself in that moment, but I imagine I was flashing the biggest grin I possibly could. I couldn't wait to get home and tell my parents. I was good at something. Other people--older people--told me I was good at something. For the first time in my life, I was really, really good at something. I had a talent.

I went up on stage and received my medal, then headed back to my seat where I told Brandon, "I think I want to go into ministry." He smiled back at me and said, "That's awesome."

I would go on to preach 5 more times at CDYC before I graduated. I won "Superior" all 5 times. But nothing to me will ever top this first one. This was the seed of my calling. This is where the idea entered my mind. This is when the thought of me having God-given talents and abilities that I could use to serve him introduced itself to me. As I think back on it, what an awesome role we youth pastors have; we get to be there and watch our students find their places in this world. We get to guide them, direct them, enable them, and empower them to discover who God made them to be and what He wants them to do. Brandon was there for me at a time when I needed him; sixth grade was awful for me. I came out of a depressing year with hope for my future, with direction, with purpose. And now, I get to be there for other students in similar situations.

But more on that later...

Brainstorm: Summer Missions

In the "Brainstorm" category on this blog, I will share some ideas that I have stumbled across that demonstrated some success and could potentially be replicated by you. I don't promise anything earth-shattering here, and by no means do I claim to have original ideas. These are just things that I have found to be good in ministry.

Summer missions can be a somewhat tricky subject. Often, the benefit is solely for the students participating, especially with some of the more poorly-run youth missions organizations. It ends up being very expensive, very time-consuming discipleship ministry for your kids. Missions trips can be a waste of time, money, and effort if you are not too careful.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Missions trips CAN be a good thing, both for the participants and those they are serving. While youth missions organizations can be great (I worked for a summer for YouthWorks!; they are good at what they do), one idea I stumbled upon this past year was to partner with a church plant within my denomination and partner with them in their on-going mission work in their community. My church is in a fairly prosperous region of New England, and our partner church for this week was doing some awesome mission work in a poorer city in New England. We only had to drive an hour and a half away to serve for a week in a design-it-yourself missions trip. We helped out at a center for disabled children, a homeless shelter, helped rehab a community center and garden, and put on an afternoon fun camp for the children in the neighborhood. Everything we did was something the church plant did already; we just brought more workers and more energy than they were used to. We had a great impact on the community and helped make a better name for our partner church in that community.

By essentially doing the trip on our own and not using an organization, by staying close to home, we were able to do this week-long missions trip for well under $200 per student. But the financial benefit was not the only one:

1) Because it was so close to home, and because we partnered with a church with whom we already have close ties, students were able to dream about what they could CONTINUE to do for the people in that community beyond just the one week.

2) Because it was so close to home, students were able to better see that they didn't need to travel far away to do mission work, and they were able to see better that their own hometown and surrounding areas were a mission field.

3) We didn't have to do a lot of fundraising. People didn't get sick of us asking for money. Trust me, this is a good thing when the youth ministry doesn't become known as the group always looking for a handout. Most families paid for the trip out of pocket. Plus, a lot of money was saved because we didn't fly or drive across country. We based our decision based on what was the best mission for us, not the most interesting location.

4) It will be easy to form a long-term, on-going relationship with this mission field. We can easily come back next summer, or even spin it off into a family mission trip. We can take day trips up there and do something positive for the community. The mission won't die once all the kids are back from the trip.

So this is something that has worked for my group and I think it could be something worth looking into for most youth groups. There are certainly quite a few benefits to going through a youth missions organization, but partnering with a fellow church and forming on-going relationships with people in the context of mission is a worthwhile way of doing summer missions with youth.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weekend Links

Here some youth ministry-related links to get you through the weekend:

How to Land your Kid in Therapy. Wow. 'Bout time someone figured this out.

The Four Responsibilities of a Leader of Leaders. Simple guidelines for leading a ministry team.

an open letter from a father of teenagers, part 1. Good affirmation of the role of youth pastors.

an open letter from a father of teenagers, part 2. Good challenges to youth pastors from a parent's perspective. Really good stuff.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Bad Idea Youth Ministry: Recruiting Volunteers

Face it. The hardest thing to do in ministry is recruit. This is especially challenging for me because, for whatever reason, there are, like, no young singles in my church. The natural recruiting field is very limited for me, so I have been forced to get creative.

With that said, here are my Bad Ideas for Recruiting Volunteers:

  • Lock sanctuary doors before anyone can leave after the service on Sunday morning. In a loud, commanding voice, bellow, "Nobody leaves until my middle school ministry is fully-staffed!"
  • Catch a parishioner buying a little too much alcohol at the grocery store? Know someone skipping church to go fishing a little too often? One word for you: Extortion.
  • Work out a deal with your local penitentiary for a prisoner work-release program. This might actually scare some parents into volunteering, too, so, win-win.
  • As soon as the technology becomes available: Inception.
  • Until Inception becomes available: Hypnosis.
  • Step 1: Kidnap parishioner's dog. Step 2: Send them photo of said dog with note reading, "Want to see Fluffy alive again? Then volunteer to chaperone the winter retreat!"
  • Call a recruit at 3 am every night until they agree to volunteer for your ministry.
Those are my bad ideas. What are your good ideas for recruiting volunteers?

Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

A few days ago, my friend and fellow youth pastor Ryan turned me on to Divided: The Movie.

Apparently, this has been getting out there. In it, the filmmakers point out the crisis of young people leaving the Church, showing that it could be anywhere from 40-88% of teens leave the church once they are out of high school. Anyone who works in youth ministry and takes it seriously know all about those statistics.

So the filmmaker sets off on a quest to find out why teens are leaving the Church in droves and what the solution to this crisis is. They ask great questions. However...

They "know" the answers before they even begin.

What is disguised as a documentary is actually an infomercial for a group called The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. They begin by constructing a Straw Man: that modern youth ministry is universally about fun and games with no real effort toward discipleship and led by young, hip, cool guys who call themselves youth pastors. To construct this Straw Man, they use carefully edited interviews with teens at a Christian music festival. From here, they go into their pitch, talking with the intellectuals behind the documentary who espouse their philosophy of family-integrated, father-led discipleship. They claim that for the first 1800 years of the church all education (religious and otherwise) was done in the home or as integrated family units. (This link shows otherwise.) They further argue that age-segregated ministry, including Sunday School and youth ministry, are pagan, Darwinian, and antithetical to the teachings of Scripture.

They argue that to end the rapid exodus of young people from the Church, age-segregated ministry should be abandoned and churches, in order to be faithful to God and Scriptures, must use family-integrated discipleship models. In other words, modern youth ministry must be abolished.

Without going into to too much detail, here are my issues with this:

1) If you are going to be presenting the best and brightest of your side in an argument (or, better still, as a "documentary filmmaker," don't take a side), you should present the best and brightest from the other side. I am sure that there are people who believe in youth ministry that could have given a better understanding and philosophy for youth ministry than those teens at the music festival. They did interview Mark Ostreicher and Walt Mueller, but most likely ignored anything that would be antithetical to their viewpoint. But next time, why not give Doug Fields or Kara Powell or, you know, any other youth pastor in America a call. Oy.

2) Is anyone else sick of Straw Man arguments against youth ministry? Have any of these people even been to a youth group meeting before? I have never once been a part of a youth ministry that was purely attractional, purely fun and games, or purely centered around a really hip, young youth pastor. I am sure they exist, but let's take a more nuanced approach to understanding youth ministry. Blurgh.

3) Is anyone else sick of either/or dichotomies? Why is it that certain Christians can only see the world this way. My way is right, your way is wrong. Instead of abandoning all age-segregated ministries for family-integrated ministries, why not do both? Why not make youth ministry and children's ministry more family-oriented? Why not provide opportunities for both age-specific discipleship and for whole-family discipleship? Why not help equip parents for their role as primary disciple-makers and have youth pastors minister alongside of them as a supportive, secondary disciple-maker? There are already people working to get the church moving in this direction, such as Orange and the people at Fuller Youth Institute are hard at work addressing the youth exodus.

Those are my thoughts for now. For better thoughts than mine, check out:

Tim Challies

Walt Mueller

Your thoughts?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Being a Team Player: The Money People

"Being a Team Player" will be a running feature on this blog and will focus on how youth pastors can contribute to the ministries of other pastors and volunteers at their churches. There are things youth pastors do that can make other staff people go bananas and there are things youth pastors can do that will make the lives and ministries of other ministers better (or easier).

Today we will focus on the tenuous relationship between youth pastors and who I like to call "the Money People." The Money People could be your church treasurer, financial secretary, or whoever it is that handles money for your church.

If you are anything like me, you are terrible with money. You lose receipts, spend money without thinking too much about it, and you couldn't manage a budget to save your life. There are probably many youth pastors like me out there.

You see, we focus on the kids, the people. We see money as a way of ministering to the real needs of real students. We take them out for coffee, for Five Guys, for ice cream. And we don't need some stuffy bean-counter constantly nagging us for receipts or telling us that we can't be spending the money we are spending.

We sometimes cast a negative light on these people. They care too much about money. They don't care enough about people. All they are concerned with is the bottom line.

And so there can be tension between youth pastors and the Money People. But there doesn't have to be.

We whine that the Money People only care about the bottom line. But you know what? Someone has to. Someone at the church needs to make sure the bills are paid on time, that spending is comparable to giving, and that the church maintains fiscal integrity. If you ask me, they might have the most difficult role in the whole church. They constantly have to play "bad guy" concerning spending and budgets and credit cards. They are the ones who see when spending is outpacing giving, and they get nervous because that can reflect on them. This is their ministry, for which they most likely don't get paid, and they care about it just as much as you care about yours.

So what can youth pastors do to make the Money People's lives easier?

1) Turn in your receipts on time. If your church lets you have a church credit card, keep your receipts organized, and turn them in on time. Even if you don't have company plastic, take special care to turn in receipts so they can keep better track of your ministry's budget and the church's budget.
2) Submit your budget proposals on time, and give your reasoning behind your budget decisions. Show them how you plan on using the money you are requesting.
3) Make sure to read their reports so you aren't calling them in a panic the night before a major expense to make sure you have the money. Do whatever you can to stay within your budget.
4) If you make a mistake, apologize. Own up to the fact that you made their life a little more difficult and make sure to make amends for it.
5) Thank them. Nobody sees what they do. Make sure you recognize their hard work and make sure they know you appreciate them.

By no means am I perfect at this yet. Just today I dropped the ball and had to apologize for it. Make sure they know you are trying your best though, and make sure you don't make the same mistakes over and over again.

Those are just some ways you can be a good team player when it comes to working with the Money People. Any other thoughts/suggestions out there?