Disabilities, special needs, at risk. However it has been phrased, the last week has brought a daily interaction, question or student into my office seeking to work with this population. In the last months, I have run into several pastors and leaders seeking to launch or enhance ministries with people in these populations. God has … Continue reading
Helping Your Ministry Fulfill Its Purpose
Have you ever stopped and really looked around your ministry? There is so much activity and so much of it very good. Some programs seem to have the direct blessing of God while others are, well, not so blessed. I have always been reticent to call an end to something, even when it looked like a failure. It’s often hard to determine what God may be using in the moment, in the flurry of activity we call ministry. In discipleship, common wisdom says, “fruit often comes over time.” Yet people and resources are always limited. I have often wondered to myself “How do I know what we are doing is producing the fruit we want to see? Are these activities the most effective use of God’s people and resources at this church?”
Many pastors and ministry leaders perceive that God’s work is invisible and thus we should leave “success” or “effectiveness” to God. I have heard many claim “I will be faithful and God will work out the details.” While this is certainly true, the problem is how do we know we are being faithful in what God has called us to do? The answer is that God calls us to evaluate and discern, in both our ministries and our lives.
God calls us to discern
Many elements in ministry resist easy measurement and are impossible to quantify. Difficulty in making judgments does not negate the need for pastoral judgments. We make judgments constantly. Whether subconscious or careful, everyone evaluates. The Bible implies the need for judgment in its qualifications for leadership; being hospitable, not greedy, able to teach, not quick tempered and many others (1 Pet 5:1-3; Titus 1:6-9; 1 Tim 3:1-12; Acts 20:28-31). Judgment entails a form of evaluation. Job asks, “Where shall wisdom be found?” Judgment, discernment and wisdom are major concerns of Scripture and must be considered by the Christian leader. Paul describes evaluative judgment when he writes, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Cor 13:5). Harold Westing states that we are to “critique the ministry of fellow Christians (Col 1:28), leaders (1 Tim 5:17-19), and our own activities (Col 3:16-17)” Merton Strommen notes that in the New Testament “evaluation of a type seems to be obligatory—an evaluation that wakens concern, points out need, indicates direction, and provides an occasion for joy.”
Several key things to understand about evaluation:
Evaluation is pervasive: The question is not whether we should do evaluation. Everyone performs evaluation constantly, whether we acknowledge it or not. The question is whether that evaluation is recognized and can thus be guided. Evaluation that is ignored or denied gains powerful and harmful control over our ministry.
Evaluation in numbers must be understood: Rating a sermon, a program or a camping trip a 4.2 based on a composite scoring of an evaluation sheet can be misleading. The number points to underlying qualities but does not describe them.
Evaluation directs decisions: Many people perceive evaluation as a rear view mirror, only looking backward and only half-useful. However, whatever we use to judge effectiveness in our ministries will steer programs and actions. The way we verify the completion of goals controls our path. Evaluation is much more like a steering wheel. It has the actual power to guide, change and even determine our decisions.
Evaluation improves our ministry: The pastor seeks to understand and improve, to foster growth in discipleship and relationship. Thus, the real purpose of evaluation is not simply greater understanding, but transformation. Evaluation is vital if we want to improve our ministry and effectiveness.
Evaluation frames what we see: Evaluation is actually an integral part of our philosophy, whether we acknowledge it or not. It frames what we see thus altering what we perceive as reality.
Casting many nets in ministry
Elliot Eisner emphasizes the importance and “desirability of weaving many types of nets.” Evaluation must deliberately use many methods to gather evidence. If you want to see what is going on in your ministry, then you must cast multiple nets.
Casting multiple nets means that when we evaluate our ministries, we are looking for more than we are expecting. The nets we cast must be much wider than a single objective or measurement. If our conception of evaluation is limited we will not know what is going on, and our response to the needs of the ministry will be anemic. Many types of nets are desirable for ministry evaluation. If your objective is to catch bass, but the net is for salmon, you will produce a salmon catch. If your objective is spiritual growth, but you only quantify bodies in attendance, attendance will be what you aim at and produce irrespective of your philosophy of ministry. In essence, whatever intentional or unintentional method used to judge ministry will drive the ministry irrespective of theology.
The following is a list of best practices for ministry:
- Form communities to use the hard data and intuitive knowledge available. Communities can take the form of a network or a mentor with whom a pastor discusses what is happening in his ministry.
- Consider sources of information. Has the pastor talked to parents, volunteers, elders, other pastors and the children? Have they observed, discussed and asked? Each source may be biased, perceive only one piece, or be plain wrong but that’s why each is needed: The minister has the same failings.
- Consider the questions asked, not just the information gathered. Every question has an assumption. Multiple questions are often needed in order to seek evidence of what is going on.
- Look below the surface for underlying causes. What is seen is only the tip of the iceberg. Qualities of a ministry as well as biblical and philosophical issues must be searched out and made explicit.
- Seek “depth perception.” Pursue methodologies and sources of information that use both lenses of data that are qualitative and quantitative in nature.
- Gather evidence over time. Many of the most valuable efforts will bear fruit in the future or slowly.
- Compile evidence continuously. Many of the most valuable efforts will bear fruit incrementally. The minister must be diligent in knowing what is happening as it changes. Evaluation helps the pastor steer as he drives.
- Evaluation can be done at the end of an event or program but is best when it is ongoing or continuous.
- Compile evidence with rigor. Simple implicit judgments that do not consider bias, reliability or other viewpoints lack the qualifications for true discernment.
- Create a culture of evaluation. A single evaluation is not powerful enough to stand against the prevailing system. The above practices are directed toward creating a culture of continuous improvement within the church.
As we consider our programs we must know that the questions we ask form the answers we receive. Snap judgments could not escape our own limited perception and bias. We are going to make decisions. Ministries will have to be supported, changed, cut back or eliminated. The growth of our people depend, in part, on our ability to see with clarity. We must see the real picture of the ministry God had entrusted to us. It is time to do some evaluation.
I was ready to call it all off. On the surface they were getting it. They could repeat my main point, apply it to hypothetical situations, analyze and critique. They could explain why it was important, and they wanted to live it out. Still, underneath the mental assent, they were not getting it. I had spent 10 hours in message prep, yet there was no visible change, just more content that I had passed along.
My assumptions about teaching and learning were centered on transmitting information. I was the dump truck that delivered the goods directly into their brains. I basically saw them as empty vessels, holes even, in need of filling. Besides not being very effective, I believe I suffered from a low view of the Imago Dei in those I taught.
Then I discovered something the church has known for a very long time. God’s Word, church history and good educational theory convinced me to use a much fuller, three-dimensional approach in my discipleship and teaching practice: The Head, The Heart and The Hands.
Dimension #1: The Head (Rational Dimension)
Rooted in the approach of doctrinal revelation, I found myself teaching solely in this area. My thoughts were: God has spoken; thus, we should know what He has revealed to us. We are to renew our minds and know the truth.
I like J.B. Phillips’ translation of Romans 12:1-2: “Don’t let this world squeeze you into its mold.” We find that truth is liberating. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). We find that truth actually sanctifies us! “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Truth is essential. We must learn to think God’s thoughts. Regular Bible exposure is essential to Christian living.
Of course there is a danger here of confusing the process of accomplishment with our ultimate goal. We cannot confuse biblical knowledge with spiritual maturity. Just because we or our students can quote, teach and argue the Bible does not mean we are transformed by it. Memorization and orthodoxy are a means to an end. It is possible to know a great deal of Scripture and not be spiritually mature. Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. However, it is not possible to be spiritually mature without knowing Scripture.
The question each of us should ask about our teaching is, “What do I want my students to know?”
Would it be appropriate to:
Close the church to youth programming if they tagged the bathroom two times?
Ask students to leave the youth ministry if the teens were smoking weed in the cemetery across the street?
Forbid a pregnant church teen from attending the youth group?
What if teens are using callousness and indifference to simply veil the real adolescent behind the mask? Research indicates many adults are scared to relate to teens. I wonder if our rules are more for our protection and not for the good of the people we serve. We are prone to think that the teen we see is actually the whole teen. We fail to recognize that there is a veil the teen is hiding behind.
I have worked with churches that have done all these things listed above. Let me tell you a story why I think they were missing the point.
My parent’s church never had an official youth program. We had some denominational retreats and a few BBQs, but it was sparse. Yet my childhood church had a youth ministry.
I remember one poignant model of Christlikeness from my teen years. My church was along a popular cruising strip. The community was in an uproar, laws were passed, police patrolled and businesses put up fences around their parking lots to keep teens out. Not my church. Several elders went to the bakery, bought tons of doughnuts, and spent hours on the parking lot every Friday and Saturday night.
Here’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in ministry: programs cannot make disciples.
Think about natural reproduction. What makes a tree? Only trees. What makes a giraffe? Only other giraffes. Following this logic (and the very definition of disciple), what makes disciples? Disciples make more disciples. Programs? In my experience programs breed more programs.
Jesus’ life and ministry teaches us an important lesson. His method flung disciples into every city in Galilee and eventually every region of the world. Many programs tend to be Centripetal: inward moving and focused on the core. They attempt to draw into the center.
The difficulty lies in that we try to form and fit hurting teens and families into the mold of the program. We want them to come but they have to play by our rules and not spill sprite on the library carpet. Then we ask them to leave if it gets a little scary.
There is a place for centripetal ministry yet Jesus’ ministry was distinctly centrifugal. The core was a training ground for the purpose of launching a disciplemaking movement out into the world: Into the parking lot with donuts.
My elders when I was a teen taught me that ministry is using the overflow of your life to impact other people.
Let’s face it: college students are not the most dependable volunteer pool on the face of the planet.
The problem goes both ways. Sometimes, college students only show up at youth group for a semester before moving on. And as a result, sometimes youth leaders come to expect that, so they don’t bother investing much time in equipping or training their college students. And, as a result, college students often don’t feel very connected to the ministry. And, as a result….
You get the idea. Vicious cycle. I understand that there’s really no simple way to solve this. College students are in a time where they’re figuring out what God wants them to do with their lives. They’re often busy, distracted, and, well, a little immature (I completely put myself in all of those categories, by the way). They might have overcommitted and genuinely need to cut back, or maybe practical concerns like study abroad get in the way.
So, what’s a youth pastor to do? Well, you could rely on guilt-inducing speeches, or force volunteers to sign a four-year contract. If that’s not your style, here are three simple resources you can provide to encourage college student leaders to get more involved in their students’ lives on a regular basis.
It meant a lot when I showed up at various theater, music, or sports events that my girls participated in. But I know a lot of leaders who only found out about an event a week after it was over when it came up in the “praise” time of prayer requests and felt bad that they hadn’t been there. (“Oh, you won the district soccer tournament? That…cool. Wow. I didn’t even know you played soccer.”) Sometimes, it just doesn’t come up.
That’s why it’s a great idea have school calendars for the leaders and tell them to ask the students in their group at the beginning of every month if there’s a concert or game coming up for them. This is also helpful so leaders know, for example, when the students have a day off school so they can plan a party or hang-out time.
Some school websites have a link to their calendar, but for others, you might need to contact the school to get one, then make photocopies. Make sure you get calendars from all the schools that are represented, even the one that two kids go to, so no one feels left out. (And mention to leaders to check with the homeschoolers and write down anything they might be involved in. Poor homeschoolers sometimes get left out.)
If you have college student leaders, they probably have a ton of things going on. I get that. I was involved in at least three other activities, had a full course load and a campus job, and didn’t own a car. That meant that I only went to a few events per year. But I did what I could. Make sure you emphasize to your leaders that this is not meant to put pressure on them to do everything. It just gives them options for connecting with their students outside of youth group.
List of Names
No matter how often people told me how important it was to pray for the students in my group every day, I would forget. Let’s face it: I am a disorganized, scatterbrained person who does not work well with consistent routine, until I actually wrote down the girls’ names and put the list somewhere where I saw it frequently. That triggered my brain to say, “Oh! You’re supposed to be praying for these girls. Do it now, before you forget.”
For visual people like me, it can help if you print out a list of student names for your leaders and ask them to use it as a prayer reminder. They can highlight the names of students in their groups and just pray for them, if they want. Or, chances are, you’ll have at least a few super-motivated prayer warriors whose spiritual gift is lifting people before the Lord, and they’ll tackle the whole list. Whatever the case, sometimes it’s nice to have a simple reminder.
On a totally non-spiritual note, it helps to have a list of first and last names so you can find students on Facebook. Just sayin’.
Parallel Teaching Schedule
I really had no idea what to call this, but let me explain what I mean. Something that’s really good for college leaders (probably any leaders) to know is what the students are learning in Sunday School, in Wednesday night Bible study, in any programming where they aren’t present.
That might just mean sending an email to leaders with a sentence or two saying, “Hey, just FYI, Sunday mornings the high schoolers are working their way through the miracles of Jesus and talking about whether it makes sense to believe in miracles when we have modern science. If you get a chance, ask them what they think about this.”
If you want honest feedback from your students, this is a good way to get it (they’ll tell their college student leader things that they wouldn’t tell you). It also just helps youth group workers make connections to other things the students are learning.
Because I knew the Bible quizzing team (half my group participated) was studying the epistles, I knew they loved it when I used examples from those books, because they were really familiar with the context. Because I knew that several of my group members were in the weekday morning evangelism training, I could ask how they were feeling about talking to their unsaved friends. It’s great to have that cross-over knowledge.
Chances are, not all of your leaders will make full use out of all three of these resources. But they’re easy to provide, and I think they challenge college students to take their role in the ministry seriously. If you let them know that you expect them to do more than just show up and play dodgeball, maybe they’ll actually exceed your expectations.
Amy Green is an amazing “all-in” volunteer, just graduated from Taylor University and has worked with one group of Junior-high students her whole career in college. You can check out Amy’s blog here: http://justthefiction.blogspot.com/
Are We Following Culture or Mission? Ministry Fads and Super Snarks Once as a young teen I went sailing with my younger brother on our father’s Super Snark. The Snark is a one-and-a-half man, aluminum and foam boat with a six-foot mast. We launched into the Puget Sound in Washington State and navigated with the … Continue reading
One last time.
As I held my toddler for the 90 minutes of her nap, I could not figure out why I was practically crying the whole time. Suddenly I realized it was likely the last time. I had no way of knowing, but that there will be a last time is certain. That the last time was coming soon I had no doubt.
What gifts do I give to my daughter in this moment? Her snuggling with me is a gift to me: from her, from God. My spending ninety minutes holding her was not a role I would play for very long. She would move on. These times would never return. In one sense she did not need me at those moments. In a very real sense I needed her, but how often am I convinced to give a little or the minimum?
It was my last chance to invest in her life in this way. Just as there is a long series of firsts, there would be a series of lasts in our life together: The last bubble bath, the last dance, the last time teaching her how to ride her bike. These “lasts” appropriately bring new first and freedoms and independence.
The nap was not easy. She fidgeted and cried when I tried to adjust the 40 pound sweaty ball. It was not even pleasant. First my right arm, then my left arm and then my right leg fell asleep.
I had much to do. Ministry stuff to do.
In a very real sense, adolescence is the time of the last dance. We are often preoccupied, don’t like the music or are unable to dance at all. Many of us and our churches are wounded and wounding teens. For me and my ballerina daughter there are many dances left. But there is a time of the last dance. A send off.
There is a limited window in which we are given chances and many of us are not dancing at all.
Maybe we offer programs, or keep our teens busy because we are scared. Dread of failure, of being hypocritical, of being rejected again drive us to make decisions based, not on our priorities, but on fear. We even withdraw because we are afraid we will damage what little relationship we have.
The very real reality of the western world is that we have abandoned our children.
My fellow youth pastors have told me they use relationships in order to attract students to a program or event. Relationships are offered for some other end than relationship itself. When it satisfies us. When it suits us. When we need a snuggle.
I consulted with a large church after an abusive firing of their youth pastor. The head elder told me, “We can get all the programs and activities going to make this thing successful. What we need is a face. Youth ministry needs a face.” This was stated as if 30 adolescents had not just walked away from the church.
As a society, we allow teens to be marketed towards in the most despicable fashion. We believe them when they say they don’t want us around. We place teens, almost exclusively, in situations where there is little adult interaction and relationship from school to church. We could also mention Christian who are 65+ watch 205 hours of television a month.
One college student recently told me “Churches have failed teens for years because they feel that by using these great programs they are showing the youth how much they mean to them, but instead those very programs just add to the isolation that they are feeling.”
I was recently in an online discussion with church leaders about involving parents in the church’s ministry to children and youth. I suggested sitting down with each family in order to regularly model and teach parents to disciple their children. The idea was quickly dismissed, as nice and impractical. Maybe the efficiency of programs that solve our problems has actually created the problems in the first place.
All that is to say we are often not doing ministry with teens in mind. There are other forces at play that cause us to do things out of guilt and fear. Instead of guilt money (money given to teens because we do not spend time with them), we offer guilt programs and guilt relationships for abandoned kids.
What if adolescence was an opportunity and not a terminal illness to survive? What if we allowed teens to lead the dance, and instead of placating we partnered with them?
The point is that we have tried to form our children into the image of our activity because we are afraid. We are afraid of failure, we are afraid that they won’t join us in our projects, we are afraid that their dreams will be bigger than ours.
I pondered all this as I ached in my heart (and my body) while holding my daughter. Today, she will be a teen under 10 years. I wondered, “Will the church be ready for her?”
Then she woke up. She smiled. She gave me that smile I am convinced only a two or three people have ever seen and then only a handful of times. As if I had not spent the last 90 minutes in agonizing physical discomfort, she said “oh look daddy we should clean up Hi-ho Cherry-O.” Then she looked at me and said “I love you daddy” and she was gone. Off and running, asking me now to participate in an activity of her choice that changed the world and ordered it for the Kingdom in her way. Not in mine.