Getting Back Into Mail

I was so proud of our digital communication plan. We put flyers and sign ups online, and then we created a weekly e-newsletter filled with links to those flyers and sign ups. We even started sending event-specific emails with compelling “register now” subject lines. We even put a job application on our website.

Everything digital. Nothing in the mail.

It’s working to tell most youth and parents in our orbit what is coming up and how to participate. But it isn’t telling them why they should.

Perfect example: the fall Confirmation retreat. Lots of students knew it was happening and when (they’d received emails galore), but many, many of them did not know what it was. Like, they didn’t know what a retreat was. So they planned to skip it.

We’re pivoting back to sending some things home in the mail. This event is on the website and has already been sent out as an email flyer, but I also wrote a letter about it and sent it home. I did the same thing for our Our Whole Lives retreat.

The resurrection of mail is about explaining why we’re inviting students to retreats and trips, not just what those things are and how to sign up.


The Ski Retreat Was Better This Time

Making things better from one time to the next is the best part of youth ministry, or of any work. In January of 2017 I led a ski retreat for the first time, with the help of a colleague and a great team of leaders. The colleague and I evaluated the experience afterward and identified several ways it could be made better, meaning more focused and aligned with our aims for ministry. One of those was to make it more prayerful.

So for last weekend’s reprise of the ski retreat, I made a prayer book for us to use. There is a unison prayer for before we left, meal graces, morning and evening prayer outlines for the main retreat day, and–my favorite–an order for the dedication of a Christian home that we used upon arrival at our house, before we moved in any bags. We lit a candle and walked through the house room-by-room, saying prayers and reading Scripture as we went.

None of the prayers are original. They are almost all taken from the PC (USA) Book of Common Worship, the special occasions and daily prayer editions.

The ski retreat can be better still. The team of leaders will get to that. But I’m taking a couple of days first to enjoy the feeling of having collaborated with other leaders to make something better.

I Spend A Lot of Time Thinking About Vehicle Rental Costs

Vehicle rental may be the single most erratic youth ministry expense there is. Rent vans for a retreat this summer, budget the same expense for next year’s retreat, then watch the expense double in the intervening 12 months. It’s especially bad in the summer.

I’ve learned that booking vans at least six months out and prepaying for them is almost required.

I rented two vans for last weekend’s ski retreat way back on August 9th, and the cost was $600 more than last year for the exact same weekend.

This. Is. Ministry.

Just To Be Clear

The places some people call “shitholes” are the places churches all over the country will be praying for this Sunday. 

De-Programming Youth Ministry Is So 2014

Facebook reminded me of a post I wrote for the NEXT Church blog in January of 2014 in which I suggested that the future of youth ministry in Presbyterian circles might need to be de-programmed, focusing less on organized activities for church kids and more on spontaneous opportunities to “walk alongside” peer networks of youth in our communities.

I took a break from assembling a shopping list for this weekend’s youth ski retreat to re-read it. In the four years since I wrote the post, my youth ministry work has become way, way more programmatic than ever before.

Time and context matter. There is no single future and no single youth ministry, so beware those who say there is; they still have much to learn.

Pastor Crushes

Pastors have crushes. I don’t mean romantic crushes, although that certainly happens too. That’s a problem. That’s a whole other topic.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

The crushes I’m talking about are strictly platonic. It’s when a pastor’s interest in a parishioner and a parishioner’s interest in a pastor are as personal as churchy. It’s when they become friends.

The former pastor of my parents’ church was my dad’s fishing buddy before he was his pastor. That’s what I’m talking about.

I’ve had pastor crushes too. At a birthday party for a former congregant, we played a game of trivia about his life. I won.

My seminary training equipped me with a healthy respect for boundaries, and so my first response to winning was shame. I feared that my knowledge of my congregant’s life was a result of too much time spent with him socially, doing things we both enjoyed, making beer and playing softball. I was sure I had violated professional boundaries in becoming his (gasp!) friend.

That seems ridiculous to me now.

It is part of the richness of life in a church community that some members feel especial affinity for one another, and that includes the pastor. There are people in our churches who, were we not their pastors, we would seek out socially. We get on well together. We like them. There is no fault in that.

There are faults lying in wait, for sure. Church folk need friends just like anybody, but they also need pastors. A friendly relationship can make it hard to be pastoral in times of crisis or in times that call for relational distance, like when a pastor’s relationship with a congregation ends.

Also, being friends with congregants can make it very difficult for pastors to distinguish between their professional competence and their personal worth; effective pastoring is more than making friends, and you can be a good person and valuable friend while also being a lousy pastor.

Of course, pastors need friends too, and we are routinely urged in seminary and at professional development conferences to find them outside the congregation. This can indeed be a lifesaver. My best friends during my first call were the people in my wife’s medical residency program, people who had no relationship with my church. When one of them visited unexpectedly one Sunday, I felt an acute collapse of contexts, like some important barrier in my life had been breached. He never came back, and I didn’t want him to.

But the people pastors spend most of their time with are in their churches, and so it is unavoidable that some of their friends will be there too. If they are married and have families, then their spouses and kids have friends at church too. Insisting, for the sake of healthy boundaries, that pastors and their families don’t make friends in the churches they serve is not only silly, it’s unhealthy.

Pastors don’t have to be friends with their parishioners, but they certainly can be.

Doing The Thing

Some of us need to be doing the thing to feel at ease about the thing; thinking about the thing makes us fidgety and irritable.

Case in point: Christmas Eve worship. I’m supposed to do a children’s time, which I haven’t done in at least two years, and which will be for kids I mostly don’t know. It’s prepared. I’m ready. I spent plenty of time designing it and sharing it with colleagues for their input. I even have help.

The hours and minutes beforehand, though, I’m a nervous wreck. My stomach hurts and all I can do is imagine ways it goes wrong. I can’t focus on the first several moments of the service for all these jitters.

Then the time comes and all the stress just melts away. Standing before all the people and addressing the fidgety kids actually reduces the tension and puts me at ease. Doing the thing is fun, and, of course, it’s not the disaster I’d scripted it to be.

Nervous energy isn’t super useful, but some of us need a thing to be doing so that we don’t think ourselves into doom.

Involving Youth In Traditional Worship Is About Durable Discipleship

The worship services I went to during my teenage years employed a rock band with a full drum kit, a massive gospel choir, and a preacher who literally would sprint from one side of the stage to the other waving a handheld microphone. He shouted. Worshipers shouted–and waved their arms and leapt up out of their seats at intervals. When prompted, dozens streamed down the aisles toward the front to be saved.

Compared to the staid, pipe organ-fueled affair I now bring teenagers to, the church of my youth would seem like heaven. Filled with energy and urgency, interactive, and deeply personal, that church should have hooked my adolescent soul, but it didn’t. All of its spontaneity felt contrived and predictable, and all the emotion felt offensively manipulative.

I wonder how my students experience the hymns and unison prayers of the church of their youth. When I ask them, some say it’s “fine,” others complain that it’s boring. I’m not bothered by the boring complaint, though, because the church is playing a longer spiritual game with them as disciples, one in which excitement is not the most important play and where the stamina to sit through a 15 minute sermon and to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed is a critical component of a grownup faith.

Studying some of their faces during yesterday’s service, I found myself wondering not only how they are experiencing worship today, as teenagers, but also how this present experience of worship will affect them in their 20’s and in their 30’s. Because it should affect them after today. I want for them to receive something durable here in these readings and litanies, something deeper than the ephemeral emotional charge that did so little for me when I was their age.

I know it’s not an either/or, though.

The Three Phases of Dealing with A Pathological Liar

Phase 1

He says unbelievable things, literally un-believable things, like that he’s the most popular kid at his school, like the ball you just caught was actually dropped, like “I have money stashed in a place where no one will ever find it.” These are lies. You pump virtuous rigor into exposing them.

Phase 2

He says unbelievable things, literally un-believable things, like that he’s moving to where you live, like the mechanic who easily diagnosed your car’s busted clutch doesn’t know what he’s talking about, like “You’re an uncle.” These are lies. You no longer think of them as lies, but rather as distortions of reality that can’t be helped. You repeat them to anyone who will listen in a posture of smug superiority.

Phase 3

He says unbelievable things, literally un-believable things, like that he and his friend, neither of whom have any money and both of whom live their lives in wheelchairs, are going to buy property and build a house on it, like you don’t know how real estate works, like “We have a couple of investors, and they don’t want to make a profit. They just want their money back.” These are lies. You know they can’t be helped. You know they serve a purpose. Repeating them to others doesn’t do for you what it used to. You keep them to yourself.


Notes From A Winter’s Break III

I read a lot last week, because my parents generously gave me three deeply engrossing books for Christmas.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering The Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat is not a cook book. You can’t really read a cookbook, can you? You have to approach it as a reference book to hunt for specific recipes when you want them.

This, though, is a read. I sat on my parents’ couch and read straight through Nosrat’s explanations of how salt, fat, acid, and heat work in cooking followed by her instructions for how to layer them. I’ve been practicing salting by finger wag ever since and asking, “How can I get some acid into this?” about everything I’ve made this week (hint: mustard in mashed potatoes is goooood).

Nosrat did the “I Think You’re Interesting” podcast back in November. Listening to that is a fun point of entry into her book.

Dinner in an Instant: 75 Modern Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker, Multicooker, and Instant Pot by Melissa Clark is a book I coveted the moment I learned of its existence. I’ve subscribed to the New York Times cooking website for over a year now, and Clark’s contributions there have taught me a ton. I prepared Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people last year using her stuff exclusively.

Also, I have an Instant Pot and it is amazing. So when I heard Clark on The Upgrade talking about this book I started dropping hints for the holidays.

I said before that you can’t really read a cookbook. But I read this. At least I turned every single page and scanned every single recipe (there’s barely an introductory material). Every recipe has a pressure cooker and slow cooker option, and the images are gorgeous. I made the chili recipe from it right away when I got home, and it’s going to be my entry in this weekend’s chili cookoff for sure.

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer is another book I’d been eager to get my hands on that my parents gave me for Christmas. I finished it on the plane ride home. It’s not a cookbook.

Foer wrote one of my favorite books of the past decade, How Soccer Explains The World, so when The Washington Post published an excerpt of this book and Jeff Jarvis pummeled it I was deeply intrigued.

There is nothing new to Foer’s anxiety about how digital technology is affecting us, its users. This kind of writing is a genre all its own. But World Without Mind is valuable for its focus on the companies driving most of that tech: Amazon, Facebook, and Google (Apple escapes the most serious charges of spying and monopolizing Foer levels at the other three).

Amazon has destroyed publishing just because it could. Facebook has ruined journalism without a care. Google is deploying all the things it knows about you in increasingly non-search engine ways.

What did I do after reading this? I switched my default search engine to Duckduckgo, put Firefox back on my phone, restarted three paper magazine subscriptions, decided not to replace the Kindle I left in Dallas last month, and started free trials of Fastmail and Zoho Docs, alternatives to Google services on which I am quite dependent.

Reading: one of the best things about vacation.