Keeping It Simple (or Learning To Cancel Stuff In Ministry)
Let’s face it. Most of our ministries DO NOT struggle with having too little on our calendars. In fact, most of us have the exact opposite problem: Our ministries have way too much going on! The problem is that teenagers and their families today also have a lot going on. The students you are currently in ministry with have some of the busiest, most structured schedules you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t take much to realize that we have a problem on our hands. I’d like to offer up some thoughts on calendar, programming, and staying sane in the game (I couldn’t help myself).
One of the most common complaints I get from youth and family ministry leaders is that people don’t prioritize church anymore. “Parents are allowing their kids to attend baseball games on Sundays instead of church” they say (or something like that). At a point in my ministry, I began to say some of the same things out of frustration. After all, nobody likes to put their best time and energy into an event or a program only to have a handful of people show up. I’m incredibly thankful for great friends and mentors (and my wife) who got me out of the self-pity game and into trying to figure out what really matters in ministry. I’m still working on it, and hopefully I can help a few of you by sharing some of what I’ve learned in the process.
A few underlying issues
Before we get into a few dos and don’ts that will help you engage more people with less programing, can we just be honest about a few reasons we end up with crazy schedules? This is important, because what we’re doing is burning us out without attracting more people.
Job/Pay justification: This is not just a youth ministry problem. But in the United Methodist world, where clergy don’t worry (yet) about job security, it’s ministry staff-persons who suffer most with this. Put simply, we are trying every day to justify our church’s need for our particular position and compensation. So we do more things more days of the week in an attempt to prove our worth. I don’t know how many times I had church members ask something like “so this is your job? Like, full time?” I’m sure this has happened to you too. When I started cutting back on programming, I also started keeping a time-log to make sure there was no doubt about how much time I was putting into my work. I can’t tell you how helpful this was in the process.
Comparison: In a world of social media highlight reels, blogs, and leadership conferences, it’s really hard not to end up comparing ourselves and our ministries to the ones we read about, listen to, or see in pictures. My advice: take some time off from the world of uber-successful ministries. Simply ignore it for a season. Instead, start studying your community. What are the patterns? Where and how are people spending their time? What are kids and families struggling with? And how can you partner with them?
Good old EGO: I’ve been the guiltiest person out there when it comes to ego-driven ministry. If I’m completely honest, I just don’t like to lose. And this may not be your particular issue, but EGO affects us all. You may be proud of how you teach or preach. You may be known for relating well with young people. You may even be a perfectionist, and very particular about how you perform. Whatever your personality type is, our EGOs can sometimes get the best of us. I’ve been learning to ask probing questions to myself before either coming up with new commitments, or saying yes to ideas (and there are ideas for days in youth ministry!).
Tips for starting, evaluating, and ultimately canceling stuff in ministry
Please don’t do this alone: I remember a few turning points in my life. One of the most significant of these turning points was being convicted that leadership and ministry are team sports! I’m a recovering “solo heroic leader” which simply means it’s too easy for me to fall into work patterns that rob others of opportunities to respond to God’s call and utilize their gifts and talents in ministry. And while I believe every youth ministry leader needs a solid group of volunteers, what I’m talking about here is taking a step deeper. I believe all of us need solid teams, and that leading with others who are in covenant together and who trust each other is the ONLY way to thrive in the long run.
If you haven’t yet done this, then it should be your number one priority. Invite a small group of people to be team with you. Don’t know whom to invite? Then spend some time in prayer and ask God to provide. But seriously, build yourself a team!
Background work saves the day: Before you ever touch (our click) a calendar, do the foundational background work for your ministry. I coach teams on asking five basic questions: What would we risk everything for (values)? Where are we now, really (context)? What’s our purpose (mission)? Where are we going (Vision)? How will we get there (systems/strategies)? There are a ton of resources on doing this with teams, and we don’t have room here to go deeper. So allow me to jump ahead to the systems and strategies question: “How will we get there?”
It’s all about steps: Every church ministry (especially if you are a Methodist) should be implicitly or explicitly involved in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” However we seldom think through how exactly we are doing this as a ministry. Dallas Willard is often quoted asking “do you have a [discipleship] plan?” and “is it working?”
A healthy way to think about this is with steps. If discipleship is a journey, then naming the steps in the pathway is helpful. Here are a few steps I believe every discipleship plan should have:
Step One: Engaging students who are not currently in the fold. Every discipleship journey starts with friendship relationships. Creating opportunities for your students to engage with friends and have meaningful conversations is essential.
Step Two: Introducing students to Jesus and Christian community. Whether you subscribe to a more attractional or a more missional approach to ministry, at some point, people need to be welcomed into the fold of the body of Christ. This can be in your church building, at a chick-fil-a, in homes, etc. The point is that introducing students to Jesus and to a community of disciples is an important part of the journey.
Step Three: Teaching and formation. Once teenagers are involved in Christian community, they must be equipped in their faith and character. What environment(s) has your ministry created to foster spiritual formation?
Step Four: Accountability in mission. Spiritual formation and teaching is great, but discipleship would be incomplete without offering ways for students to embody their faith in challenging and practical ways. This might happen through mission opportunities, leadership roles, faith-sharing, etc.
I don’t mean to imply that every ministry should adopt fours steps in their ministry strategies. This should be something you work out with your team. But it’s important to define those steps (3, 4, or even 5 of them!), name them, and only then look at calendar.
Evaluate your calendar against the plan: After you’ve done the foundational work of your ministry and your steps are defined, now it’s time to take a look at what activities your ministry has been engaged in throughout the last year. Start by making a list of everything that has been done in the last year. Next, write out each of the steps you’ve defined and try categorizing each activity under it’s matching step. This is when things get interesting.
As a rule of thumb, if an activity doesn’t help move kids along the journey, you should consider canceling it. This will either be really tough for you, or it will give you immeasurable joy (depending on your personality type). Either way, it’s super important to be honest at this point.
Now that you (hopefully) have a more manageable list of activities all serving specific purposes, look at your steps and the activities attached to them. You will find that certain steps will be more populated than others (i.e. there may be lots of opportunities for service and mission, but very little in the way of spiritual formation). If your overall list of activities has been reduced significantly already, then all you need to do is spend time coming up with activities that will cover your weak areas. However if you still have a pretty busy list of activities, this is when you can create a scheduling rule like: “for every activity we add, we will remove one” or some variant of this.
Once you are done with this exercise, your team should be ready to populate the calendar for the next year. Remember this: a healthy calendar will provide opportunities for students to fall into rhythms that move them along each step. This looks linear in paper, but it’s anything but! Instead, think rhythms and cycles.
Measure what matters: Church ministries are notorious for starting lots of things, while having a really hard time ending others. Usually this is because we don’t define purpose and objectives for everything we do. This makes it very hard to evaluate. I remember having endless discussions with volunteers about how I thought our pumpkin patch was not an outreach (I’m sure you’ve had similar conversations). I should’ve known better! Without a clear purpose and defined expectations for that activity, my argument was just as good as theirs Hopefully I’ll save you some trouble by sharing this. I sure hope so!
Write down what you hope to accomplish in each of your ministry’s steps over the next year. Then take note of how each activity is expected to fulfill that. This way, every few months, your team can take a hard look at your calendar and evaluate the effectiveness of each activity. Allow space for experimentation and for failure, continue improving what works, and continue letting go of what doesn’t.
I look forward to hearing your experiences with this. Feel free to get in touch with me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on twitter @thejplopes