I talked for a long time yesterday with someone who is very active in a nonprofit that runs an art exhibition for high school artists. He described the organization’s work as a “scout” for artists. Colleges pay to see the exhibit each year. It turns out art schools need what the nonprofit makes as much as the artists do.

My friend became enrolled in the nonprofit before he’d met anyone in it or even seen their exhibit. He just heard about it, and on the strength of their guiding idea, he took a day off work to attend a planning meeting. He’s a teacher, and he thought, “I want this idea to exist for my students.” Now, four years later, he’s in charge of a major piece of its operation. It’s almost like he was on board before he’d even started.

What’s the big idea behind what we’re doing in the church, in youth ministry? How do we share it in a way that makes people like my friend say, “I want that to exist for people I care about?” How do we invite people to become enrolled in our mission?

People aren’t blank slates who need convincing that a mission is worth their commitment. Most of us are already enrolled in a mission. Convince us, then, that, by joining you in the things you care about, we advance the things we care about.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer Doesn’t Like All My Retreats

Retreats have come to play a significant role in the youth ministry I’m tending. My students are committed to multiple worthy pursuits that claim large blocks of their time during the week, so scheduling gatherings with them on, say, Wednesday nights, is a non-starter. Retreats though? Retreats seem to have found some traction. This year we did six of them.

I like that none of them are the same. Each retreat creates its own unique community just for that weekend. Multiple retreats means multiple points of entry for students into the life of the church. It seems to work, at least for now.

But hold on a minute. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, revered pastor, theologian, and martyr, has a corrective to all of the retreats. Check out this sentence fromĀ Life Together, which I’m reading as part of my planning week.

“Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober [brotherly] fellowship of everyday life.”

The “sound, sober . . . fellowship of everyday life.” Gulp.

First, stimulating the glow of fellowship with young people who largely don’t know one another isn’t all that easy. I mean, it’s not rocket science, but it takes intention and sound strategic planning.

Second, “fatal?”

It’s landing, this mid-20th century European rebuke of a reliance upon retreats to grow Christian community. It’s making me wonder just how much of the energy, the “glow,” of these weekends, produces growth in durable community for the participants. Even if it was, how would I know? The community kind of ends with the retreat.

Time to think of ways to build more continuity between retreats and the “everyday life” of students.

Planning Week

Planning doesn’t happen if you don’t commit time to it, and if you don’t commit time to planning your work will get planned on the fly. That might work for some people for some time, but it eventually leads to exhaustion. Also, it’s hard to do creative, transformative work on the fly over and over again.

So it’s planning week: four days to read, draft calendars, write, and edit curriculum for the next program year. I’ve never done a planning week before. I’m entering it with a mix of anticipation and dread; I’ll be pleased to come out the other end of it with concrete plans in hand, but I’ll enter mission-trip-and-wedding-season an anxious mess if I don’t.

Wish me luck.

Examining Confirmands Is Good for Elders Too

Our session examines Confirmation students at its meeting tonight. This is always a beneficial exercise for Elders and youth alike, and it works best if it’s given clear focus: the conversation is about “the meaning and responsibilities of membership” (Book of Order).

One of the things I suggest Elders do is share with students their own experience of church membership. What is different about your life because you’re a church member? What was your experience of professing faith, and what does membership mean to you?

It’s good for young people to hear that kind of reflection from adults, and it’s good for adults to do it.


Losing Is More Interesting Than Winning: A Theory

Losing teams are more interesting than winning ones. That’s my theory, based entirely on the personal experience of rooting for a historically bad baseball team for sixteen years before it got really, really good, and now is bad again.

What I find is that when the team is bad, debating and theorizing about how it might get better is fun. The team I follow has a surprisingly talented pool of professional and amateur experts that fans engage with about potential trades, minor league prospects, and the amateur draft.

Yet when the team was winning all the time, nobody was talking about those things. It was all, “Hey, these guys are great!” And the readers are like, “Yeah, aren’t they though?!”


Isn’t there something about failure that attracts a potent kind of creativity?

Neutrality Is Not The Point

Neutrality is good for a start, but by itself it’s no good to anyone.

Knowledge is useful. Understanding, insight, wisdom: these are gifts in times of confusion and conflict, and they are available to you whether you’re in the fight or standing by. Remaining neutral does not guarantee a clear view of things.

I lived in Northern Ireland for nine months in 1998-99. I was a neutral American observer to a complex, longstanding conflict. I had friends on both sides of it, and I strenuously protected a neutral point of view. That was a good way for a young, ignorant, outsider to form short-term relationships of good will. Had I stayed there longer and invested in meaningful work, though, my impact would have required some choices that, to someone, would have appeared less-than-neutral.

“Seeing both sides” of an issue is the beginning of resolution, not the end. Shoulder shrugging solves nothing.

Neutrality is a means, not an end. It’s less valuable than truth or compassion. By all means, listen to everyone and try your damndest to understand the range of claims and counterclaims at play, but when the time comes for you to loosen your grip on the safety railing of neutrality, fear not.

Three Ways of Responding When A Bad Leader Wins A Good Outcome

  1. The cause I care about is winning, but I loathe the person in charge, so I must act like it’s not actually winning and continue to fight.
  2. The cause I care about is winning, and even though I loathe the person in charge, I can give credit where credit is due and stop fighting.
  3. The cause I care about is winning, and while I can give proper credit to the person in charge, I also recognize how badly he is damaging all the other causes I care about, so credit will be short-lived and specific. I will continue to fight.

Where are you today?

Kindness Comes in Threes

The barista asked if I wanted my double espresso hot or cold, and I looked at him like he’d asked if I wanted it over mayonnaise. Cold? People drink espresso–straight espresso–cold?

Yeah, he told me. Over ice. You should try it.

Yeah, okay.

When he gave it to me he said, “It’s on me. If you don’t like it you can buy a hot one.”

I liked it.

I went outside and crossed the street, where I spotted a friend enjoying the sunny Chicago afternoon on a restaurant patio. She called me over to share that she’d heard someone say something kind about me, which is both kind of them to say and kind of her to share.

Turning to leave that brief surprise interaction, I was stopped by a woman on the same patio with her young daughter, a woman I recognized as a parent from my young daughter’s school, a mom I have heard on more than one after-school walk home imploring her kindergartner to stop: stop hitting his sister, stop dawdling, stop crying. I’ve taken note because he has the same name as me. I cringe whenever I hear her scold him, and it takes me several minutes to stop feeling ashamed for crying in the street.

Anyway, she stops me to ask me it the name she heard my friend use to address me is really my name, and by the time she gets to the part where she tells me that’s also her son’s name I’m already there. “Oh, you know because you’ve heard me yelling at him?” A laugh laced with understanding passes between us and we shake hands.

Any one of those encounters would have made my day. But for all three of them to cascade into one another like that on a beautiful May afternoon in the city? Come on, nobody’s life is this charmed.

Curriculum Is A Road

Curriculum is a road. The best curricula conduct students to a destination effectively and creatively–effectively in that potholes and roadblocks are removed in advance, and creatively in that fun little twists and turns, climbs and descents, are engineered into the experience. Detours, even fun ones, are not allowed to take students too far from the main road.

When I write curricula, or when I review curricula written by others, these are the things I care about:

Is the destination clearly stated in terms of learning objectives or outcomes? Is the road marked with clear signage about where we’re going and how we’ll get there?

Is it interesting, both in terms of ideas and activities? Nothing turns me off curriculum faster than the verb “discuss” as an activity description.

Is it clear? So many curricula contain very interesting materials like videos and info-graphics that are attractive but unnecessarily complex. I view these as the median of the road, or the shoulder. They should enhance the journey but not block the way.

Life is a highway. So is curriculum

Three Thoughts From A Conversation with Colleagues About Youth Ministry

Yesterday I engaged some colleagues in a conversation about the need for youth ministry to engage students in the life of the congregation as active participants, and not to sequester them in a program of programs and activities only for teenagers. Where is this already happening? I asked. What are the barriers to it?

My colleagues are smart. And experienced. And astute. They offered thoughts that I’ll be chewing on for awhile. Like:

We should do more than simply invite youth to take part in things as they already are, but should look for ways in which students can impact the thing they’re participating in. For example, when youth lead worship, do they simply read from a script they’re not allowed to change, or do they get to choose their own words?

Inter-generational trips are terrific opportunities for youth ministry done this way, because the default youth-as-participants, adults-as-leaders dynamic isn’t operative. Instead, adults and youth are co-participants. Everything is new and shared for everyone.

Engagement in congregational life is more than a youth ministry imperative. Congregations need to invite the participation of everyone in some new ways. Standard church programs like choirs remain vital connecting points for people, but lots of the things churches offer are unfamiliar to new people; I’ve repeatedly heard people say they don’t want to go on a retreat because they have no idea what that is. Youth ministry is a part of a larger congregational culture. It can influence that culture for good.

My colleagues are the best.