Church

Planning

The Confirmation curriculum I designed two years ago was an eight month unpacking of the Apostle’s Creed. What do we mean when we say “I believe?” What do we mean when we say “Almighty?” What do we mean when we say “Lord?” It was a useful structure that led students through the major questions of Christian faith.

But it left off a couple things, namely a coherent overview of the Biblical narrative and mature exposure to the life of the church beyond Sunday morning worship and Confirmation class. So I’m building a new curriculum.

This one will have three elements: 1) interaction with the core narratives of the Bible, 2) exposure to several of the church’s ministries and their leaders, and 3) a discussion of church membership, what it is and why it matters.

What about the Creed? I plan to pair the Biblical lessons with an affirmation from either the Apostle’s Creed or another resource from the Book of Confessions.

This is my favorite part of ministry planning, the part where your idea is still pure and unsullied by practical considerations like time and materials.

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Church

Email

A student emailed me yesterday for advice about praying. That’s a rare enough occurrence, and one every pastor who works with youth is eager to answer such inquiries. This one was from a student I’ve known since I first got here but with whom I’ve had less interaction than I’ve had with several other students, due to a busy schedule of demanding commitments. Since March, however, they’ve participated regularly in Zoom youth group.

I’m not sure that email gets sent before Coronavirus and everything that’s come with it.

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Church

Act Like You Know What’s Going On

This tip about performing improv by someone at my church feels like the key to my life and work right now, though I’ve never done improv (nor do I plan to): act like you know what’s going on.

I haven’t really known what’s going on since March. Nobody has. For the first several weeks of stay-at-home, I was quite transparent with the people I’m in ministry with about how uncertain everything felt and how little I knew about what was going to happen next. I designed an entire youth group series around a song called “Til Further Notice” as an expression of that uncertainty.

But we are four months into this thing and many more months from being out of it. It feels like time to start acting like I know what’s going on.

We’re all still improvising, but the scene has unfolded a bit, so we actually have some information to act on. Large gatherings can be superspreader events; masks help; outside is better than inside. We will know more next week and three months from now, but we don’t have to wait for incontestable data to make important decisions.

We can’t wait. We have to act now, and act like we know what’s going on.

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Church

Clunk

Zoom forces the teacher and facilitator to be concrete and specific in ways that can help clarify objectives. Unlike a plan for an in-person session, where you can count on transition time between activities and the serendipity of happenings in physical space, a plan for Zoom has to clearly identify the goal of an activity and specifically prompt its actions and responses. It feels clunky at first, but, as with all skills, this one improves with repetition.

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Church

Fall

I started having serious conversations last week with parents and students about fall youth ministry plans. Our state has progressed in reopening to the point that allows in-person meetings of 50 or fewer people, all masked, who retain six feet of physical distance and who preferably gather outside. So it seemed worth considering: could we gather youth under those conditions?

The conversations revealed persistent anxiety about reopening, even though we’ve slowly been doing it for weeks. Outbreaks in other regions of the country are scary, and the daily case count in our state started moving in the wrong direction last week, too, making any mid-July decisions about September and October feel tentative, if not foolish. The parents of my students are on top of that, for very good reason.

Talking with them also made clear that decisions about church participation will likely follow decisions about school and sports activities. If schools aren’t open, church events won’t see a lot of kids. If schools are, they might see some.

The clearest picture right now is one of continuing online youth ministry. Of course, “continuing” need not mean extending our emergency plans from the spring into the indefinite future. We can iterate on Zoom. We can make the kinds of plans we’ve never made before, not simply because the circumstances don’t permit anything else, but also because they urgently call for this.

Many of us have lamented that we weren’t trained for this. Yes we were.

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Church

Stop Throwing Your Ideas

I’m working on caring enough about the ideas I share to 1) spend sufficient time and energy thinking about them before I share them and 2) argue for them until I’m convinced they’re wrong or limited. I don’t want to “put an idea out there” (much less “throw an idea out there”) anymore. I want to care enough about my ideas to handle them well. Unless it’s a ball or a back handspring, you don’t throw things you care about.

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Church

Urgency

It feels like a measure of maturity, the ability assess the severity of a problem against the severity of other problems, to avoid both diminishing and inflating a problem’s urgency relative to everything else we’re dealing with.

“How urgent is this problem compared to all the other problems?” feels like a critical question, and the leaders who know where and when to ask it make a valuable contribution.

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Online

Our first online Urban Youth Ministry cohort enters its last day today. 11 junior high youth spent Monday and Tuesday morning learning about homelessness in Chicago from social workers and advocates. They’ve worked through a budget to understand why affordable housing in the city with a minimum wage job is such a precarious proposition. They’ve challenged their own perceptions and given voice to the change they think is needed.

Coronavirus laid waste to the work we thought we would be doing with young people this summer, in person, on trains, on site. But it has also opened up a space to try something that, two days in, feels like a meaningful supplement to that in-person youth ministry. We’re going to exercise this muscle for as long as the moment requires, and we will probably keep using it when circumstances change for the better.

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No Video

I spent three hours yesterday with junior high youth on Zoom. At the same time, my soon-to-be 7th grader at home was on a Zoom class of her own. She kept the video camera off for most of it, as did almost all of the youth I was working with. I don’t like it. It feels rude. I suspect it permits students to disengage while they do other things.

But I don’t insist they keep their cameras on. As much as I dislike staring at a black box where a face should be, it also feels like a potential technological disparity and a developmental risk to insist on video. I’ve had at least one young person explain to me that their laptop didn’t have a camera, so “requiring” one introduces an immediate inequity. And early adolescents are experiencing a higher level of negative self-awareness than they will at any other time in their life, and it feels like going dark on video is a protective measure. It feels icky to force it.

Like everything in this moment, I’m sure much of the time that I’m reacting the wrong way. But, for now, I’m fine with being wrong for the right reasons.

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Church

Graveside

It was approaching a muggy 90 degrees by the time the family climbed out of their line-up cars and began the short walk across the grass to the Easy Up at the mouth of the grave that would hold their beloved. This was a full burial graveside service. A dump truck loaded with dirt sat barely 10 yards from several folding chairs neatly arranged under the tent.

As always with these services, the words were few. The family didn’t even sat. They stood in the full sun instead, blocking the dump truck, so that when the talking was done the Funeral Director had to tactfully coach them all in moving to the side to let it through. Only once the cemetery personnel had back-and-forthed the truck into position and begun elevating the bed to release the dirt did people sweatily sit. And sob.

A low flying plane could be heard overhead. Grateful for the momentary distraction, I squinted at the sky to see a red rectangular banner being pulled through the sky overhead: “Keep America Great. Text ‘TRUMP’ to XXXX.”

I could hardly think of anything less great in that moment.

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