Proximity To Proximity To Greatness

My neighbor went to grad school with a famous actress who visits him at his home when she and her family are in town.

My friend plays tennis with an executive for a major league baseball team.

Someone at my church went to high school with the mom of a legitimate rock n’ roller.

Proximity to greatness is one thing. Proximity to proximity to greatness is another.


How Many Fundraisers Is Too Many?

A youth ministry fundraiser has to do more than collect money for the mission trip. It should also give supporters in the church who are not youths’ parents a chance to meet the students they’re supporting, to hear from them about why they’re going on the trip and their hopes for it.

Adding money to the budget is but one small function of a fundraiser.

That means it needs planned with and for student participation. An event planned and run by staff, both paid and volunteer, without leadership from youth, leaves a ton of opportunity on the table. But to plan it that way takes lots of lead time and more than one meeting.

So how many of these events can you realistically do in a given year? I’ve done as many as four, and that is way too many to do well. One, maybe two, is probably the max, if professional fundraiser is not to become your primary job responsibility.

There’s a bigger question underneath the best techniques for fundraising, and that’s the question of how we conceive of and pay for youth ministry, nay, all ministry. That’s not this post. This post only wants to say that one or two youth ministry fundraisers is better than a bunch.


Blogging For Future You

One of the unexpected benefits of blogging is that people sometimes quote you to you. You may not think a blog post worth much when you hit “publish,” but when you hear a piece of it on someone else’s lips months or even years later you may think quite differently about it.

Putting something out there for people to chew on day after day expands the pool of insight we all have to draw on over time. It’s generous, even to our future selves.


Does Ministry Divide Into Three Year Seasons?

Ministry work isn’t a straight line, is it? It’s not a consistent trajectory of growth or decline. Neither “We’ve always done it this way” or”This is a brand new experiment” tell the whole story of life in a context of ministry over the long haul.

February 1st will mark three years for me at my present call, and I’m wondering if a three year cycle isn’t a helpful construct for thinking about ministry, because there are things I took to be a trajectory in 2016 and 2017 and 2018 that are not shaping up to continue into 2019, and when I think back over my previous call (which lasted for eight years) it feels like dominant foci emerged and receded in roughly three year stretches.

If there’s any truth to this, then we should take a provisional view of whatever we’re working on right now. Is it growing and filled with excitement? Give it a few years. Is it on life support? It doesn’t have to live forever. The three year (or six year or nine year or . . . ) mark in a ministry or a call can be a useful moment to dream about the next trio of trips around the sun: what could start? What could end?


Information Is Not The End

I have measured my having-it-together these past three years in communication tools and procedures. If I can put all the information in the right place and send regular, snappy emails full of links pointing people to it, good things are happening, right? Changegrowthtransformationpow!

Pretty dopey. I see it now.

Clear communication of accessible and actionable information is critical to our work, but it’s not the work. It’ll be quite difficult to work well without it, and yet focusing on information for its own sake is a dead end.

The information is for the ministry, not the other way around.


I’m A Talker

Some of us need to talk to relax. For me, the moments before a worship service or a retreat talk or a presentation are filled with the worst kind of dread; my mind runs wild imagining all the things that could go wrong and obsessing over all the things I failed to prepare. But as soon as the my talking part is on and my mouth is free to move, my mind settles down and the knots in my stomach untangle.

For some people, the thought of talking in front of a group is terrifying. For others of us, though, talking is the only solace.


Scrubbing The Toilet While Thinking About The Wedding (And Officiating The Wedding Without Thinking About Scrubbing The Toilet)

I used to imagine that ministers spent all their time thinking spiritual thoughts and having meaningful interpersonal interactions about them, an imagination that caused me to experience great frustration, in my early 20’s, that the pastor of the church I attended wasn’t available to hang out with me and listen to my vocational discernment whenever I wanted. Dude had a family. Oh, and a job. Ministry is a job.

I recalled this frustration on Saturday as I was scrubbing the toilet in my bathroom. I was thinking of the wedding I was to officiate later that afternoon and wondering, “What would the bride and groom think to know that, hours before their wedding, the minister is up to his wrists in toilet bowl cleaner? Would it bother them to realize that their special day, for me, is bathroom cleaning day, and also the day to put away all the Christmas decorations and do the week’s grocery shopping? How would they feel to realize that their wedding is but one item on my list of things to do on The Biggest Day of Their Lives?”

Here’s where that thinking lands for me: the spiritual thoughts and meaningful interpersonal interactions I used to imagine pastors having all the time can either happen at the expense of all the other things that grown up life in the modern world involves (especially life with a family) or in the midst of them. For me it’s the latter; I’m choosing to think about the wedding–or the sermon or the Confirmation lesson or the committee meeting–as I’m cleaning the toilet, not instead of cleaning the toilet.

This means that the frame of mind I’m in at the wedding doesn’t feel very “spiritual” sometimes, and honestly I’m sure people see right through it. I’m fighting back thoughts about dinner preparations during the vows, and I’m sure everyone there can sense it. Doing good work like this demands the ability to be fully present to the significant ministry moment we’re leading even as we are experiencing the mental and emotional pull of responsibilities outside these walls.

Scrub the toilet while you’re thinking about the wedding. Do the wedding as if the toilet doesn’t need scrubbed. You can do both. You don’t have to choose.


New Year’s Resolutions

For all of my adult life I have scoffed at New Year’s Resolutions as things other people needed to use to effect change in their life. “Fine,” I’d say to myself, “If they need the artificial construct of a calendar start date for motivation, that’s fine for them. I don’t need that.”

The other thing I’ve spent my adult life doing is not making effective changes I have repeatedly wanted to make, things like exercising and journaling regularly and eating responsibly, consistently. So what if a January habit commences arbitrarily? All the authenticity I can muster has failed to create habits I know will improve my health and well being and make me a better person to be around.

So New Year’s Resolutions it is.


It Was That Kind of Year, Lucy Dacus Edition

I had never heard Lucy Dacus before “Addictions” was released as a single off her March 2 album, Historian (Matador). Her 2016 debut went right by me, so the restrained voice I was hearing, backed by this subtly grinding lead guitar and hippity-skippity percussion (and were those horns?) was an utter novelty. “Huh,” I thought. “That’s solid.” tells me that I played “Addictions” 30 times in 2018, one of over 150 times I played a song off Historian in my kitchen, in my car, or on the train. I couldn’t stop.

Every song on it is a gem. Elements emerge and then recede, and songs grow inside other songs (the title reference to “Night Shift” doesn’t come until three minutes and 20 seconds into the song, and it’s, like, a whole new thing. The second repetition of it knocks you off your chair). “Nonbeliever” is probably my favorite song of 2018, and its late-verse echo, “everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out” feels like my year’s tagline. For my church music friends, “Pillar of Truth” even has a nod to that ubiquitous praise chorus, “Sanctuary.” I try to avoid hyperbole, but LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT HISTORIAN IS PERFECT.

That’s it, then. The year in music for 2018 ends with the album that dominated what I listened to all year. Here’s to more great music in 2019. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading.


It Was That Kind of Year, Pop Edition

My grown up music wheelhouse is the folk, Americana, and even country of lyrical crooners and brooders. But pop music is my DNA. Synthesizers are in my blood, and big, dramatic vocal hooks are in my bones. Blame it on the top 40 radio countdowns I devoted my weeknights to in junior high.

Here are three albums from 2018 that brought out the aspiring pop star in me.

Death Cab for Cutie fans will resist a “pop” label, but the band is on a major label and gets played on commercial radio. Also (and this didn’t really register for me until I saw them live last month), their gig is shot through with the distortion and despair of mid 80’s new wave that dominated pop radio in the early 80’s. There’s New Order in there, for sure.

Thank You for Today (Atlantic) marks the second consecutive Death Cab album that I’ve flipped for after ignoring their first nine. I think their sound has solidified (or something). Kintsugi was full of heavy guitar riffs, and the vocal distortion was dialed back, and I loved it–all of it. Thank You . . .relies quite heavily on distortion, by contrast, and is more synth-heavy. But the songs are all expertly crafted, lyrically insightful, and deeply enjoyable with repeated listens. “Gold Rush” and “You Moved Away” are the ones I love the most. “60 & Punk” is exactly how to close an album.

Chvrches are Scottish, which puts them even more squarely in the center of my musical panoply. Del Amitri, Frightened Rabbit, The Proclaimers: the Scots do poetic, melodic, angst better than anyone. And while Chvrches, an electronic duo, don’t naturally fit with their guitar strumming countrymen on any kind of list, what they do tickles the same spot, at least for me.

Love Is Dead (Glassnote) is Chvrches third major studio album. It does what its predecessors did, so much so that it took me months to really get around to it. What I mean is that listening to and loving a Chvrches album doesn’t feel like discovery. It’s the leftover pizza you’re saving in the fridge as you experiment with that risotto recipe in the cookbook you got for Christmas. You know it’s going to be satisfying, so you can wait for it.

If you like layered synthesizers and sweeping choruses, Love Is Dead is for you. Start with the refrain-fueled “Never Say Die” and then move to “Graves,” which will make you wonder what you’re doing with your life (“You can look away/while they’re dancing on our graves/but I will stop at nothing”).

In 2014 I fell hard for TV En Francais, a pop rock album by a duo from Claremont, CA (where I was living) called We Are Scientists. They made another album in 2016, but my life was too garbled up with a move to spend any time with it. So when they started releasing singles from a new album in 2018, I made sure to add them to my library. Then the album was released in late April.

I remember taking the scenic route to work that morning to enjoy the early summer Chicago sun and spin all 31 minutes of Megaplex (100% Records). Song after song got added to my “2018 Radio” playlist–songs I want to keep. These soaring choruses and lead guitar riffs, these synthesizers and . . . wait for it . . . claptracks! It starts with the lead track, “One In, One Out,” and marches straight through “Notes In A Bottle” (the guitar solo on that song is 10 bars of Def Leppard-worthy goodness) all the way “Properties of Perception” at the end. When it’s over you naturally start it all over again.

Alright, there’s one more of these music of the year posts to go. It only has one album on it, the one that stood out, out, out for me as the biggest musical revelation of the year. Look for that on Monday.