Youth Faith Formation Happens in Two Directions

Congregation-based youth ministry teaches young people how to participate in rituals of faith. A lot of this teaching is implicit, a truth that hit me in the first church I served as a watched a five year old recite the Lord’s Prayer in worship standing next to her mother. Nobody ever taught it to her; she heard it week after week and gradually learned how to participate.

At the same time, a community of teenagers will develop, sometimes deliberately and sometimes spontaneously, its own treasured habits. From inside jokes to last-night-of-the-mission-trip rituals, these can be powerful elements of youth faith formation.

I’ve seen two things happen on this front that are troubling. 1) youth don’t ever learn the congregation’s grown up habits of discipleship because they don’t spend enough time in the company of the congregation’s grown ups, or 2) youth ministry develops its own rituals that adults have no part in.

There really is no remedy for the first besides leaving time or intentionally programming it for students to be in the adult spaces of congregational life where the grown-up habits are happening. Worship, obviously, but also meetings and coffee hour, help here.

For the second, the adults accompanying youth in ministry, staff and volunteers, can incorporate the rituals that are meaningful to them into the grown up spaces of congregational life where youth may not actually be present. The youth leader at that church I mentioned above used to check in with students each week with what she called “blesses and stresses” from their week. I saw her do it one week, and the next session meeting started the same way.

Youth faith formation happens as teens’ are formed by a congregation and as their life in community forms the church in turn.


Trust The Invitation

The invitations you want are the ones to do work you’re afraid is bigger than you. If an invitation comes and those voices in your head answer back, “I can’t do that; I lack the expertise; I lack the experience; There are others who could do it better,” then take that as a good sign and trust the one inviting you more than those voices in your head. The inviter knows things you don’t perhaps. More importantly, the inviter doesn’t know those voices in your head (she only knows the ones in her own head).

There are simple answers to the voices, too:

You probably can do it; you have time to gather some expertise; this is the experience; and, of course, there are others who might do it better–but you’re the one being invited.

What else do you need to know?



“You’re Too Hard on The Romans”

Somebody told me I was too hard on the Romans in my Good Friday sermon. She noted that there was a paragraph printed in the bulletin denouncing a Christian reading of the passion that would breed hostility toward Judaism by overemphasizing the agency the Jewish people exercised in Jesus’ crucifixion and under emphasizing the agency of the Roman police apparatus. It’s a terrific paragraph that I wish I’d written. It’s in all of our Holy Week bulletins.

“But then your sermon,” she observed, “contradicted that.” She elaborated: I very clearly described Jewish actors doing things that made them culpable in Jesus’ killing. Why, she asked, are we urging people to blame only the Romans?

Two things. 1) 90 % of my sermon was in fact a word-for-word recital of the passion story from the Common English Bible translation of Mark’s gospel. 2) the passion story assigns specific responsibility to particular groups and individuals for what it narrates. Chief priests, the High Priest, the Council, the Sadducees, legal experts, the Sanhedrin, guards, soldiers, Pilate, a crowd, and people walking by. To impute responsibility for Jesus’ execution to “The Romans” or “The Jews” in light of that fact is lazy. Here’s what I said in the 10% of the sermon that contained my own words:

You can’t listen to this story and conclude that any one person or group is responsible for what happens. Because the phrases that carry this story along to its end are all plural. Every actor in the story, from the malicious to the simply scared, needs the support of other actors in order to play their role.

My interlocutor and I had a civil exchange about it, and that’s good. Because I’ll admit I was knocked a little backward by the accusation that I was too hard on the Romans. That’s a first.

I Deactivated My Facebook Account. It’s Already Reactivated

I deactivated my Facebook account yesterday and bought the url of my own name. It’s an experiment in sharing things with my friends outside of a platform that needs my attention more than I need its increasingly sponsored content. This is an idea that has been advanced by Cal Newport. He calls it “the social internet” instead of “social media.”

It’s already been reactivated.

The hangup is Facebook Messenger. I rely pretty heavily on two group Messenger threads, one with family and one with friends, which, despite Facebook’s assurances, I cannot use and retain the deactivated status of my account. Logging in to Messenger generates a “welcome back” email from Facebook and reactivates my account.

So I’m going to keep the account active and try my personal Facebook-free social internet experiment anyway.


Leadership Is Choosing What To Care About

When someone accuses you of caring more about this thing than that thing, the obvious response is, “Well, yes.” It’s an odd accusation to begin with. By alleging that you don’t care enough about their thing, your accuser is actually asserting that you care too much. You care too much about a thing they don’t care about as much, or at all.

I don’t think the challenge of leadership is to care equally about everything. Rather, we need to be deliberate and clear about articulating what we perceive to be the things most deserving of our urgent concern right now. We should be able to defend that perception, and we should feel free to say of other things, “We don’t care as much about that right now.”


Turnover Is Not Just A Pastry

Turnover is a fact of life on a church staff. We’ve witnessed it. We’ve managed it. We’ve caused it. It need not always be viewed negatively–desperate efforts to prevent people moving on can actually be harmful. Our church staff will probably never arrive at that state of stasis where everyone is in place forever, and we probably don’t want it to.

Churches should be places people want to work for a long time. That has been true of all the churches I’ve served, fortunately. My current congregation celebrates service anniversaries every month, and it is not unusual for people to eclipse 15, 20, even 30 years. That is a terrific sign of health, right?

Advancement within the church makes longevity possible and can work wonders, both for staff and for the congregation. I know people who have worked at the same church for over a decade and whose job there has changed and grown to meet emerging programming needs, as well as expanding skills and experience. What’s not great about that?

And yet lots of people will work at a church for five years or less and then move on. This is particularly common for people responsible for youth and children’s programming. This need not always be seen as a bad thing. Regular turnover in church programming roles can be a sign of health and vitality. Churches can intentionally develop staff with the expectation that they will outgrow their position, and then can bless and celebrate them when they get an opportunity somewhere else with a different, or bigger, role.

That won’t make it easy to watch them go, and it shouldn’t; churches are communities, and “roles” are people we love and care about. Blessing and celebrating involve grieving. A sad staff parting is probably a good sign, confirmation that we did good work together and could yet do more. That we’re choosing not to is both sad and promising at the same time.

For me, it matters a lot that churches invest heavily in developing the capacities of people on our staffs with the expectation that we may be developing them for something else, something we will never see.

Note: all of this to say that I’m saying goodbye to my church’s Senior High Coordinator this week. She was here before me and made my transition here easier in big and small ways. She has been personally generous and professionally excellent, and our staff will be diminished without her. What she is moving on to, though, is going to be amazing. I was introduced to one of her new colleagues last month who said to me, “Thanks for getting her ready of us.” I could only answer, “She was ready before I ever met her.”

Go with God, Shelley

He Is Risen (and I Have No Clean Laundry)

He is risen!

Pick up the stray bulletins from the pews. Put away the sound equipment. Turn off the lights.

He is risen!

Get a start on next Sunday’s bulletin (it was due last week, but you forgot about it in your preparations for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter).

He is risen!

Make a plan for what your family will eat this week. Get some laundry started. Clean the kitchen; it was overrun. And that trash! Take it out.

He is risen!

Get to work. Not in spite of the resurrection, but because of it.

I Remember My First Good Friday Sermon

I have been a pastor for 13 Good Fridays, and somehow today, my 14th, is the first Good Friday on which I will preach. How is this possible?

The church I served for the first three years of my ministry did an all-afternoon drop in Stations of The Cross meditation instead of a worship service on Good Friday. The second participated in an ecumenical community Good Friday observation where leadership rotated and the service rarely featured a sermon. I led the service here at my current church last year, but instead of preaching I told the entire passion story from John, which was so long that it didn’t leave time for a sermon.

It’s startling to realize that you’ve gone nearly a decade and a half into ordained ministry without directly preaching on the cross. I’ve preached on the cross, of course; references to it are scattered across years worth of preaching. But before today I have never taken the passion narrative as a main text for preaching all by itself.

I think this says something about me and the churches I’ve served. Sally Brown wrote a great book in which she diagnosed mainline preachers as somewhat allergic to the cross as a homiletical subject. We know our history, how Christian preachers before us have blessed violence and anti-Semitism in crucifixion sermons. We’ve heard the cross employed from pulpits to either imply or assert that victimization is God’s will for good people. We don’t want to repeat those mistakes, so we focus on telling the story or meditation. We fill Good Friday services with stirring music.

We must have something to say about this, though. I expect that whatever I say today will come up short, but, for me at least, it will be a start.

The YMCA Is A Perfect Partner for Church Youth Retreats

Last weekend’s retreat was at a YMCA camp north of the city. Most of our programming was camp programming, run by camp staff: team challenges, high ropes, climbing walls, scavenger hunts. It was perfect for the kind of retreat we were running, because some of the students were from the congregation, but many others were not, and practically none of them knew one another before the weekend.

It was also perfect because the YMCA is really good at recreation. I had planned to do some team building challenges of my own over the weekend, but after an hour with the camp staff I gave that up. They did the activities I had in mind but better, with better equipment and instructions from an expansive written guide.

I made no secret of my interest in that guide, and one of the staff disappeared into the office for a few minutes and returned with one in hand. “Here you go,” he said.


Here’s the last thing that was perfect about being at a YMCA camp, especially for a church youth retreat. The staff are all young adults, and some of them are college interns from places our students have never been, like Texas and Memphis. There are international flags hanging in the dining room representing all the countries that have sent staff to the camp. Being at this camp reminded me of my brief tenure with the Y after college and how international and young the organization is at its core. It’s a perfect partner for churches.