What Are You Reading?


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Cribbing Seth Godin again for this late edition. In this post, he takes down people who aren’t doing the reading. Here’s the money quote:

The reading isn’t merely a book, of course. The reading is what we call it when you do the difficult work of learning to think with the best, to stay caught up, to understand.

So, for those of you in youth ministry, how are you doing the reading? I read everything Kenda Creasy Dean writes, and the research of danah boyd is invaluable. I also like the work that Sherry Turkle is doing on conversation in a digital age, because so much of that work focuses on teenagers and young adults. Andy Root’s writing on the theological foundations of youth ministry seems really important too.

As for non-book reading, the Progressive Youth Ministry conference is a marquee opportunity to think with some of the best youth workers in the church today.

For my money, a Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort is one of the best ways to do the reading these days.

What about you? How are you doing the youth ministry reading?

Long Live The Finger Rocket


We’re cleaning out the church resource room. Yesterday I arrived at my office to find a box of Finger Rockets on my desk, unearthed from beneath layers of curriculum and craft sediment.

IMG_20151119_113305600These things were all the rage at my youth group when I first arrived. Over time, too many were lost or broken to use them anymore. I went online to buy replacements and ended up with cheap ones that broke on the first use. I grew discouraged and Finger Rockets kind of went away as a thing our youth group played. There is no substitute for the yellow ones.

It makes me sad to know that there was a whole box of them right under my nose these past five years.

In honor of the Finger Rocket era of my tenure at Claremont, I’m posting here a poetic reflection offered by a former student, Jess Croughan, shared on Facebook upon seeing the above picture:

It was a cool June evening. There wasn’t much to be heard, save the wind through the trees and the scuff of shoes on linoleum. Suddenly from the north a snap of elastic! They came sailing from every direction; red and yellow agents of war sent with the one grim purpose of removing us all. I reached for my stash. There were screams, yells, and roars, the noise made one lose all sense of self. I was no longer just a PYG. I was a weapon, a juggernaut of destruction that couldn’t miss his mark. Victory came, but as always it was at a price. I don’t know how many we lost that night. In a way I was lost that night myself. But, we can’t dwell on the past, for there is the ever looming threat that always pushes us forward……the next round.

Long live the Ringer Rocket.

(note: always use with protective eyewear)

Sometimes It Works

Last month I wrote about how my church was fixing children’s time. We moved it into the Gathering movement of the liturgy, incorporated more movement, and started inviting congregants to join in the movement.

Today’s post is to share that it’s working.

Here’s how I know: my colleague does this great thing at session meetings where she invites elders to share where and how they have experienced The Spirit at work in our life together, and last night one of them said it was during the children’s times in worship.

I know, right?

The evidence that it’s working is that they’re making him feel more connected to the community of children in the church. That’s a work of The Spirit more than it is a work of organization or crowd control. It’s totally working.

Church leaders face many intractable problems that seem impervious to our most innovative efforts. Yet sometimes it works. The listening, talking, giving up, risking, experimenting–sometimes it all works.

Thanks be to God.

Brittle vs. Resilient Youth Ministry

Cribbing a Seth Godin post today.

Here’s the money quote:

Brittle organizations are focused on which end of the egg you open. Are you wearing the team jersey the right way, saying the incantations each time, saluting properly…

Resilient organizations are more focused on what you produce, and why.


Brittle youth ministries, then, focus on codes of expected behavior, be they abstinence from sex and alcohol, attendance at youth group, or writing a statement of faith that jives with the Apostles Creed.

Resilient youth ministries focus on the formation of people–human disciples of Jesus.

Are we producing teenagers who understand the narrative arc of scripture and who can see the conflicts of their own lives reflected in the Sarah, Mary, Jesus, and Paul?

Are we producing teenagers who want to invite their peers to church only because they love it and want to share their experience?

Are we producing teenagers who appreciate the distinctions between Christianity and other religions from a posture that combines both respect for non-Christian religions but also a full-throated appreciation of Christianity?

Finally, are we producing teenagers who are aware of the presence of God in their lives?

Of course, the teenagers we work with are equally “produced” by their school environments, families, peer groups, coaches, and cultural influences. Sometimes those other communities support what we’re aiming for; they mostly did in the golden era of establishment Protestantism. Sometimes they don’t.  A lot of evangelical para-church youth ministry was established on the premise that they almost always don’t, with the obvious exception of the family.

Given the time and influence we have with youth, the question I want to be asking is, “What kind of teenagers are we helping to produce.”


A Homily on Worrying (To, Mostly, Myself)

Jesus tells his followers in Matthew chapter six not to worry about their lives, what they will eat and what they will wear. He points to birds who don’t farm yet are fed and flowers that don’t make clothes yet are well-adorned. In light of these, Jesus says, don’t worry.

Instead, strive for the Kingdom of God. The food and clothing will follow.

This is hard instruction in my house these days. I shared last week about a major transition in the works for us, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found worrying to be the best way to get through transitions. When the future is uncertain, worry about it. Even if the worry adds nothing, it at least delivers the satisfaction of taking the situation seriously.

If you’re not worrying, you’re not paying attention.

I’ve also been reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business, which is all about taking down the illusion that women and men (but mostly women) can “have it all” in terms of ambitious careers and healthy families. There’s a lot to worry about in that book, like the observation that, in an increasing share of college-educated families (mine included), women are the primary wage earners, and yet most are carrying that load on top of unrealistic expectations about being a wife and mother, and without the benefit of flexible working arrangements.

So I’m about to yank my family’s primary wage earner out of her job to move us to a new city where she doesn’t yet have a job, and it’s appearing less and less likely that she’ll find one that pays her as well as her current one or that provides more flexibility than she already has, which is none.

Yeah, I’m worried about that. I’m more worried about it every day.

The two assurances that Jesus wants his followers to hear in the midst of our worry about tomorrow are 1) God knows, and 2) we’re valuable.

That the thing we’re fretting about is known by another–that helps, right? Also, doesn’t it help to know that God is at least as worried as we are?

This is just a start. And it doesn’t address the very real experience of anxiety that, for many people, requires medication. Enduring that anxiety is not a sin. I don’t think chastising the anxious with platitudes about not worrying is what Jesus is about. I think Jesus takes anxiety and depression dead seriously, so I do too.

May you know your value as you strive for the Kingdom of God, and may worry be a fleeting companion.

Remembering Toby While Praying for Paris

I awoke Saturday hopeful of a news story that would explain away Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Of course, there was no such explanation. There was only a climbing death toll. But there was also something else, something that first unsettled and then angered me. I spent the remainder of the weekend wrestling with it.

It is the critique of social media-accelerated grieving the attacks in Paris had produced, in light of similar attacks in Beirut and Iraq that produce nothing of the kind. There’s a poem being shared expressing amazement at the response to the attacks and grieving the lack of like responses to attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. There’s a New York Times piece calling Beirut “forgotten.” Rolling Stone has an article saying Beirut is not only forgotten but ignored by the western media.

Journalist Martin Belam is helpfully pushing back against the claim that the media have ignored terrorist attacks outside Paris, writing on Medium, “Search Google News and you will find pages and pages of reports of the attacks in Beirut. Pages and pages and pages. Over 1,286 articles in fact — lots of which pre-date the attacks in Paris.”

But I suspect the perception of a disproportional response has more to do with Facebook than it does CNN. It’s about those bleu, blanc, rouge tinted profile pics (including mine), the safety check feature Facebook employed in Paris, and the #prayforparis hashtag.

I get it. All life is valuable. Murdered Parisians are not inherently more worthy of grief and attention than murdered Syrians or Lebanese. The western media narrative will necessarily dwell overmuch on Paris. I get it.

But I’m recalling a conversation with my friend Toby in seminary. Toby (who is from Michigan) often insisted that his faith was his citizenship, and so he would say, “I’m not an American. I’m a Christian.” To which I would answer, “No. You’re both.” On and on it would go. I’ve replayed that conversation in my mind countless times since Friday.

At stake for me is the contextual nature of our lived experience, including our experience of God, the church, our personal faith, and, in this case, national tragedy. Two things seem true to me at once. A posture of a-contextual religiosity that demands an equal measure of lament for all victims everywhere is distinctly Christian (see the parable of the Good Samaritan). But it strikes me as unhelpful and unhealthy to criticize people for their contextually-conditioned grief and to demand they feel as bad about things outside their context as inside. I think that breeds resentment and a decrease in compassion for all.

Maybe the road to equal appreciation for all life leads through more focused compassion and solidarity, not less. Maybe the only way to pray for the world is to pray for particular places–no, particular people and peoples. And maybe starting with peoples with whom we share bonds of cultural affinity isn’t all wrong.

On Taking A New Call And Moving To Chicago



Last Sunday I was elected by the congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago to be their next Associate Pastor for Youth. I will begin there on February 1st. My last Sunday at my call of the past eight years, Claremont Presbyterian Church, will be January 17th.

There is so much to say about this, and a blog post is not the way to say most of it. Let me try to say a few things, though.

I entered the conversation with the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee of Fourth Church from a position of stability and security at Claremont. I was open to exploring the Fourth opportunity, but not because I was unhappy or unfulfilled in my current call. Fourth Presbyterian Church is a one-of-a-kind congregation that wants to be in ministry with diverse youth in experimental ways. I’m into that. Also, I’m drawn to the challenge to learn and grow in a context very different from the one that has shaped me these past eight years. My months of conversation with the APNC have only increased Fourth’s allure, and now that I have been called, I can’t wait to get to work with that congregation and its staff.

The Claremont Presbyterian Church has made me the envy of my colleagues with the degree of freedom, flexibility, and permission it has granted me in my work. For example, last July the congregation very helpfully voted to amend my terms of call and my job description to allow me to begin a quarter-time post as an Associate for Ministry Development with the Presbytery of San Gabriel. That move on Claremont’s part is a testament to its support of its pastors and its commitment to our connectional denomination. Clearly, two opportunities were presenting themselves to me at the same time, one immediate and one distant (I had yet to actually speak with the Fourth APNC). That the Claremont church so enthusiastically enabled me to seize the former was a great gift to me, one that I’m sorry to say I will not be able to fully honor.

For another example, the youth at Claremont have been a gift from God to my life. They have endured countless puns and honored my every request for openness to something new. They have allowed me to lead them and they have led me. They have taught me, challenged me, and even forgiven me. They have formed my faith; I am not the same person I was when I started, thanks to them.

For another another example, The Rev. Karen Sapio is a generous and wise pastor who has taught me and cheered me on. Whatever happens next in Claremont will be thoughtful, curious, and grounded, because that’s Karen.

We are living through a complex time as the Presbyterian Church (USA). While many of the structures that have defined our life together are eroding, opportunities for new, creative ministry are everywhere around us. I chose awhile ago to chase down those opportunities publicly by blogging about my (and my church’s) experiments in ministry, my growth, and my failures. I am eager to continue that work from my position at Fourth, whose APNC enthusiastically affirmed my blogging in our conversations about their vision for that church’s future.

It’s a dicey proposition for a church to have one of their pastors writing publicly about what goes on in the pews. Yet Claremont has cheered my blogging work. The church has even seen it as an extension of my call there. i hope I have honored that view of what I’ve been trying to do here (we’ve come a long way from the controversy created by this post about my phone interview with the Claremont APNC). Likewise, I hope to honor it at Fourth.

I will do my best to say all the important things in person over the next two months and to begin this next chapter on that same foot come February.

Pick Up The Phone


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Reply All co-host PJ Vogt intoned on a recent episode, “Ugh. Talking on the phone is the worst!” I forget what the episode was about, but I remember the resonance I felt with the sentiment. Talking on the phone. Ugh. Especially in light of the alternatives–texting and emailing–, seriously, a phone call? Ugh.

I knew there was something awry with that resonance at the time, and Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, is helping me to name what that was. The almost-completely-established preference for texting over phone calls (to say nothing of face-to-face conversations) is changing how we talk to one another, and in troubling ways, especially for those of us whose work is to cultivate community, particularly among the young.

Turkle documents case upon case of people in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s who quite literally fear talking on the phone. A college student describes phone calls as, “The absolute worst . . . I instantly become this awkward person. On the phone–I have to have these little scripts in front of me.”

The phone is a synchronous medium. It is not, like its digital successors, biased outside of time (I’m totally cribbing from Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed here). Digital media are asynchronous, so they give us the advantage of conversing without the pressure of responding and reacting in real time. We can compose and edit our contributions to the conversation. It feels safer.

Gone are the days, then, of teenagers hijacking the family telephone for hours on end with inane conversation, like I did. Teenagers and young adults today view the telephone as a terrifying relic that wants nothing more than to expose their un-edited vulnerabilities in real time. So they’re simply not using it.

That’s a problem.

Youth ministry is a vehicle for celebrating the un-edited and the vulnerable in the service of transformative human community. Youth groups and youth retreats should intentionally teach face-to-face conversation. Youth leaders should force teenagers to converse with them over the phone and eschew the text message. Our mission of mediating the acceptance and love of God to adolescents simply can’t be accomplished with emojis; it requires a voice. It requires those awkward silences. It requires the misspoken word and the grace that follows.

Seriously. Pick up the phone.

Make One Choice

“I don’t get to know what will happen. I don’t get to know why it happened, what I did right or wrong, not now. I have to live with that.” (Maggie, The Walking Dead).

Every choice takes away choice. When we say “Yes” to something, we are necessarily saying “No” to something else. We mostly know that.

What I am appreciating more and more, though, is the range of matters over which we forfeit influence with every choice we make. Choosing one direction means more than not choosing another direction; it also means letting that other direction play out on its own, without our input or effort, to outcomes independent of choices we might have made.

This is the only way to live, then: investing our whole being in the opportunities we feel compelled to pursue and entrusting all the other potential projects and relationships to the bright stars who will take them who are not us.

No Cinderellas in Kansas City


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Yes, the Kansas City Royals just won the World Series. Last year they came within 90 feet of winning, and I wrote this to process my disappointment. “Rooting for something is good for the soul,” I urged, and among North American sports fan bases over the past three decades, few can claim better conditioned souls than Royals fans.

But today faces us with a new question: what does it do for your soul when the thing you’ve rooted for actually comes to pass? What is a spirituality of winning? I don’t have an answer for that; rooting for losers is a kind of my thing, and not only in sports (friends will recall my impassioned advocacy of Joe Biden for President in 2008).

The closest thing I have to an answer is a confidence that the slow, incremental manner in which the Royals became winners begs to be understood as an endorsement of a certain kind of longevity of purpose that has spiritual analogues.

The General Manager who constructed this championship roster was hired in the middle of the 2006 season, a season in which KC would lose 100 games and win only 62, and during Dayton Moore’s first two seasons the team improved. They won 69 games in 2007 and 75 games in 2008.

Then they regressed. The 2009 Royals won 10 fewer games than the year before. Those were dark nights of the Royals fan’s soul for sure, and if Moore had been fired by ownership after that season, few fans would have objected. His signature line–“Trust the process”–was firmly established as an empty platitude, just another way losers justify their losing.

But 2010 saw the beginning of a slow, steady march to the top, beginning with a meager two game improvement in 2010 (67 wins). Then this:

2011-71 wins

2012-72 wins

2013-86 wins

2014-89 wins, Wild Card Winner, American League Champs

2015-95 wins, Division Winner, American League Champs, World Series Champs

For six consecutive seasons, the Royals have won more games than the year before. The most dramatic improvement came in 2013, when the team improved its record by 14 games and nearly made the playoffs. But since then the improvement has been modest. Three more wins in 2014; six more wins in 2015.

It’s not a worst-to-first story, is what I’m saying. There are no Cinderallas in Kansas City. And I’m taking a lesson from that.

What is the small improvement I can make today? This week? This year?

And to what end? Sports have an enviably easy-to-assess goal: win the championship. But in the world of jobs, kids, faith, neighbors, school, and relatives, rarely is the objective so obvious. Defining it is important.

Then we can work and live and love in a way that measures “success” not by other peoples’ standards and expectations but by our own sense of improvement. Are we getting better? Are we experiencing sustained transformation?

Maybe growth doesn’t happen by leaps and bounds, but by deliberate, measured improvement over time.


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