Archive for April, 2017


Around Christmas time and the end of the school year, I see a mad, frantic scurry to secure the perfect gift for adult youth ministry volunteers. Which low-cost, high impact, trendy but practical item is going to make that volunteer gush with fulfillment? I am a gift giver by nature, so it’s natural for me to want to buy or make things for the people I appreciate and care about. It’s also a cultural standard to give gifts to people who work for and with us. But, as explored and popularized by Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, not everyone feels the love when it comes to getting gifts. I found that in my own marriage and friendships that the concepts Gary teaches were incredibly helpful, and so I turned those concepts toward volunteer appreciation and came up with the following thoughts and ideas. Gift giving is by far the most common way volunteers are shown appreciation in a ministerial setting. It’s the same for employees, teachers, postal workers, even taxidermists. Gifts run aplenty. “We love the time and effort you are putting in and the initiative you take, here is a $10 gift card to Starbucks!” Don’t get me wrong, I am not devaluing giving gifts; gift giving is my personal Love Language and I enjoyed every single card, trinket and knickknack I’ve ever been given. But, in addition to costing the ministry or myself money, gifts are not always met with the same enthusiastic response by all my volunteers. What this means is that when I consider how I am going to show my volunteers my appreciation, there are four more ways to direct that energy for maximum results.

Quality Time

Quality time, in a professional or ministerial setting, can be hard. Time is a precious resource, in many ways more valuable even than that youth ministry budget. But, for those volunteers that value quality time over gifts, finding the time to spend with them is important to their feelings of being appreciated. Quality time is defined as time where the focus and energy is on another person. This does not mean buying tickets to an expensive show or outrageous outing. Hanging out and giving my undivided attention is enough to show that particular volunteer that I am thankful for them and their contributions. So having get-togethers where leaders can socialize and I can give them that undivided attention is a big part of how I structure my calendar now. No talking shop*, no multi-tasking, no taking work calls while they sit and wait. Instead, I like to meet away from the church and youth rooms, at a home or casual dining restaurant and spend time eating, laughing, relaxing and enjoying my volunteers. This is such an easy and fun way to connect with my volunteers, plus I use it to go to burger places my wife doesn’t like to go to, so it’s a win-win!

*There is also value in working on special projects with a volunteer. If they are teaching, leading or have ideas about the ministry, by all means I will talk shop. I try to make sure I have time to listen to every single idea or proposal my leaders have, because it’s where awesome ideas come from and it makes my volunteers feel valued. But, this does not take the place of time away from the ministry for relational time with my leaders. One does not substitute for the other, so finding time for both is important.

Acts of Service

Some volunteers, after spending all evening sitting next to Billy because otherwise he flicks boogers at the girls, then cleaning up the bathroom after a toilet overflowed, then ran the copies I forgot to run ahead of time, then waited 20 minutes after the end of youth group because Susie’s parents are running late and I can’t be at the church with her alone, just want to be taken care of. Because their love language is acts of service, they are often the hardest workers and the first to volunteer because the love the ministry, the kids and me. So when it comes time to let them know they are rock stars, finding the right way to do that is crucial. Maybe it means having their favorite blend of special coffee available at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s offering to babysit some Saturday night so they can go out to a movie. In the past I have even coordinated a service day with my volunteers once a month to work for an organization that the volunteers are passionate about. In the long run, these volunteers do so much for me and the ministry, to pay them back in a similar fashion doesn’t seem that strange of an idea.

Words of Affirmation

Next to gift giving, I think this is probably the most utilized form of volunteer appreciation. Words of affirmation is explicitly expressing affirmation, so a nice note in a card, a public announcement of achievement or a poetic scrawling on a bathroom stall all (probably) apply. Every year, at the end of the school year, I make time to publicly, usually in a worship service, affirm my volunteers. In my first church, I also installed a small chalk board and designated it a praise board, where youth and volunteers could write nice things about each other, and I made a point of writing something about each volunteer monthly. If this seems tedious or impossible because of limited time, limited wall space or a deep fear of chalk, then commit to emailing leaders weekly, telling them something they are doing well and how much it is appreciated. For someone who’s Love Language is words of affirmation, this small gesture means more than any iTunes or Starbucks gift card ever could, and it’s easy on the budget and a good life habit to get into.

Physical Touch
I saved this one for last, because it’s the easiest to dismiss as inappropriate or weird. Most ministries and churches have specific rules limiting and discouraging physical touch in it’s entirety, especially between the adults. Unfortunately, we have had to discourage the distinction between platonic and sexual touch, because one can easily be misconstrued as the other. So is this a lost cause? Should I skip this section all together? I don’t want to be hasty, so here’s a bit about physical touch as appreciation in an appropriate and professional setting. First, a ministry is not a marriage or romantic relationship, so the expectations are different, so the rules and definitions are different. A high five, outdated and awkward fist bump or a good old fashioned pat on the back can be an acceptable and appreciated gesture. Second, appreciation isn’t something that is a constant; I don’t give my volunteers gifts or throw parties every Sunday. The volume of physical expressions doesn’t have to seem excessive or constant. Use them sparingly enough that they are noticed as appreciative but often enough to express how the appreciation the volunteers have earned.

Knowing your volunteers’ Love Language in a professional and ministerial setting might be too intimate or awkward of an endeavor for some, which is understandable. Sometimes people get weird around the “love” word. But, making sure volunteers are appreciated, affirmed and encouraged is a top priority in a healthy youth ministry. So the good news is you don’t need to know every intimate detail of how volunteers express love to their spouses or friends or pets even, just spread a wide base. Start doing a little of all of these things, because they are all nice things to do, and because it’s an easy way to observe which ways people respond. I challenge myself to find new ways every year to target both my volunteers and youth to make them feel affirmed and encouraged, since I also spend plenty of time challenging them. Or, if why not go a more direct route and just ask them! A simple, “Hey, how is the best way to show you appreciation?” can clear this right up. Even if it feels weird or awkward, it’s really important to know. In a relational ministry, just like in a relationship, these principals are key and will help nurture leaders who will then be more likely to continue to build the Kingdom (and continue to volunteer to work lock-ins).

This article first appeared on the Youth Specialties Blog here:


3 Lies We Tell Ourselves

Posted: April 5, 2017 in Uncategorized


Having spent time working in ministry for as long as I have, there are a number of similarities I’ve found between youth leaders. First, we seem to have a disproportionate amount of pizza in our diets. Second, we seem to own more t-shirts than the average adult. Third, we are a bunch of liars.

We all lie to ourselves as ministry leaders. We probably all lie to ourselves as humans. Maybe it’s because we are good at putting on a brave face for the church and our ministries, or maybe because our passion for what we do clouds the logical part of our brains. Either way, we convince ourselves of things that are not true, and a lot of the time it’s at the expense of our own health or well being. It can be dangerous to our relationships, our faith and our jobs, and it needs to stop. As I said, there is no shortage of examples, but there are a few lies that are particularly unhealthy and seem to be universally believed at one time or another. In hopes of addressing them and moving past them, I’ve picked a few to consider. So here are the three biggest lies we as youth leaders tell ourselves.

  1. I don’t care about numbers. Let me be clear – youth ministry isn’t about the numbers. I know that. Ministry is about relationships and making disciples, focusing on people as individuals, not crowds. So numbers don’t matter to me…except they kind of do. Not because my church or leadership is pressuring me to get bigger numbers; everyone I work with and for is enlightened enough to understand how true ministry works, and that spiritual growth is not quantified by attendance numbers. Not because my budget or resources are tied to attendance; I am blessed to have the support and resources of the community as a whole. It’s not even because of my students; they actually prefer smaller numbers for better conversations and a more intimate feel. No, the pressure of getting big numbers is all my own doing. No matter how how much I tell others and myself that I don’t care about numbers, the truth is that I do care. Deep down I want more youth to come. Part of me gets wrapped up in the if I am supposed to make disciples of all the nations, which sounds like a lot of people to me, more youth at a time is better. It’s just math. Another, much bigger, part of me sees my attendance as a reflection of the job I am doing. I know it’s unhealthy and irrational, but our minds don’t always work in rational or healthy ways. I also think it’s what drives me to do well. I love my job and want to build a great program, and too many years of ministries and churches have pounded into me the perceived connection between numbers and success.

Truth: In our minds, how we choose to view and gauge our own success will trump how others gauge our success every single time, so if we are too wrapped up in numbers, we will stress ourselves out of doing true ministry. I think caring a little bit is inevitable but it’s a slippery slope, so we must keep ourselves in check so we don’t let it run wild. I like to set goals for myself outside of attendance numbers, make a list and review it every 3-6 months. It helps me strategize to meet those goals, which drives the ministry and my passion into new and exciting places and helps me focus on what I should be focusing instead of worrying and stressing out about the nonsense of numbers.

  1. I know enough to do what I do. There are several variations of this one, like “I can learn everything I need to know from Google” or “I read a book once, now I can do perfect ministry” or even “My ministry’s been successful for years now, I can keep just doing what I’m doing.” They are all different lies tied to the same truth: growth is necessary. There is a wide array of positions and a wide array of qualifications to hold those positions in the youth ministry world. My first youth position was as a “Youth Director” and I was hired with no related degree or experience. My only experience in youth ministry at the time was my own youth ministry from when I was in high school, some 4 years previous in a different town, different community demographic and different denomination. Now, over a decade later, with lots of experience under my belt and a resume that makes it look like I know what I am doing, it’s tempting to think that I am doing everything the best way it could be done, or that the past success of my ministry automatically means future success if I keep doing what I have been doing. My first congregation didn’t have funds to send me to conferences or pay for educational opportunities, so for a long time I had gotten into the mindset that I had to figure it out myself. Once I found a way of doing things, I convinced myself that it was the only and best way. It’s a habit I have worked hard to break, and I have to continually work to not revert back there when things are going well.

Truth: There are too many amazing resources out there to think that there’s nothing you could learn. Classes and conferences are a great way to hear and see what’s on the cutting edge of youth ministry. There are unbelievable things that ministries are doing in their churches and communities and there are numerous opportunities to learn all about it. Even peer-to-peer networking can be an amazing resource, if you come into it with an open heart. It’s easy to get into competition with other leaders, but if you can fight that urge, you can learn a ton as well as be a resource for others. Some of the best ideas and programs I have done and still do started with a brainstorming session with my network of youth worker friends or hearing about an event they did and loved. The bottom line is that we don’t have to rely on ourselves and Google to figure out how to invent youth ministry. There are pioneers out there trying new, exciting things that want to tell you and show you how they did it. Youth ministry is a team sport; we get to learn and grow together if we are willing to try.

  1. I am spiritually full. There are times that this is the truth, but I find that those times are few and far between for the average youth worker. There is something deceiving about spending most of my time reading and studying the Bible and sitting in church services. If you look at the data, I should be very spiritually satisfied. When it comes down to time in the Word and in a pew, I am doing really well. My prayer life is astounding; after my personal prayers, staff meeting prayers, youth group prayers, lunch meeting graces, and Sunday morning prayers, it almost feels unceasing! When it comes to being in the church itself, I am doing amazing. In the percentage of conversations that involve God, faith or the Bible, I’ve recently leveled up to Pope-status. I should be brimming with the faith warm fuzzies. The trouble is, I don’t think about it much, with the rest of my life distracting me. Family, friends, money, housework…there are countless things I can choose to focus on instead. And even when I feel the ache of spiritual drought, I usually convince myself that it’s just being tired or busy or stressed.

Truth: My work is not devotion. It’s just not. Leading worship is not the same as worshiping. Sunday mornings at your church is still being work. I am still “on” when I am at church on Sunday. I don’t take the time to be raw or broken, I don’t allow myself to expose myself and break down. I am in the pews, but I am also at my workplace. Spiritual retreats and mission trips that I have to lead are not retreats at all. In fact, they are often the times we have more stress and have less time to focus on God. We need to find time for our own spiritual peace and reflection. We need to find a time and place to worship free from the prying eyes and expectations of our own congregation. Just being in the building is not enough; it may be part of the problem, actually. The church is my office. Separating that work energy and focus on Sunday mornings to worship is nearly impossible, especially the 9 months out of the year that immediately before worship and several hours after worship I am back on the clock to run programming. The spiritual health of a spiritual leader is crucial, and we need to recognize what we do professionally just isn’t enough. So instead of lying to ourselves, what can we do? Be deliberate. Be intentional. Go out and spend time with God completely detached from work, event preparation, teaching and sermon writing. Don’t trick yourself into thinking sermon prep or writing a Bible study is also spiritual time for you, too. Worship, prayer and devotion should never really be a “two birds with one stone” sort of thing, anyway.

The truth in these lies is not unknown to us, but sometimes we need to be called out on our half truths and personal hangups. If we can get our mind around these difficult issues, our ministries will be healthier for it, and more importantly we will be healthier for it. Working in ministry is not for the faint of heart, so remember you are doing something great and that it’s okay to admit you struggle with these issues. I do, too, and I’m working on it. John Wesley says we should always be moving onward toward perfection, so let’s look at these hard truths and move onward together.

This article first appeared in the Youth Specialties Blog: