Sep 21, 2017

10 Things I Wish I'd Known My First Year in Children's Ministry

I was recently thinking back to my first year as a children's pastor.  It was in a church in Southern California over 28 years ago.  It was a church plant, so I wore other hats as well.

I was young, naive and inexperienced.  Some things you can only learn through making mistakes and from the teacher called time.

Here are 10 things I wish I'd known that first year.

Be confident...even when you are not.  I remember feeling overwhelmed with the task ahead and I informed volunteers and parents of this.  Not a good way to lead.  Over-confidence is being cocky.  Not being confident enough is being too cautious.

I wish I'd known more about walking in Godfidence.  A confidence that is based not on my own abilities, but with confidence in God's call on my life.  I needed to know that where God guides, He provides.  When God enlists you for a job, He equips you for that job.

People need a leader who walks in a confidence that is grounded in trusting God's ability to do an awesome work in spite of his or her lack of ability.

Effective leadership starts with relationship.   Surely people would follow me because I had a title.  Not.  Surely people would listen to what I said because I had a diploma on the wall.  Not.  Surely people would give me respect because I had an office in the church building.  Not. 

I wish I had known that people don't follow someone because of these things.  They follow someone they love and respect.  And that is something that is earned.  I had to first spend time investing in people, caring for people, listening to people and serving people.   Then and only then, would they open their heart to my leadership.

I can't save the world.  I had to save the world, right?  I mean, I was called to take the Gospel to every creature, right?  I should have a burden for the people of the city I was in, right?

Yes.  But, I also needed to know that it wasn't my job to save the world.  That job was already taken.  It was simply my job to share the Gospel with people.  It was simply my job to love the people God brought across my path.

When you think you've got to save the entire world, it becomes a burden that's way too heavy to carry...
especially when you shouldn't be trying to carry it in the first place.

You must balance work and home.   I worked and worked and worked.  I worked some nights when I should have been home.  I skipped some days off when I should have been resting.  I clocked some hours at the church that should have been spent at the park with my son.  There were times when I was on the phone with church members when I should have been talking with my wife.  There were vacation days that I didn't use, that I should have taken.

I wish I had been more balanced.  God.  Family.  Ministry.  That's the order that leads to long-term success in ministry.

People skills is one of the most important things you can learn.  I didn't know how to navigate conflict effectively.  I reacted instead of acting.  I was controlled by my emotions.  I needed to have more empathy.  I should have been more collaborative instead of needing to have things go my way.  I also needed to know how to relate to people who had a different personality than me.  I needed more patience with people.  I need to learn to be more flexible.  I needed to get better at reading people's body language.  

Slow down and celebrate.  I was so busy running to the next thing that I didn't slow down and celebrate the victories.

It's so important to pause and take time to thank God for what He's done and give people the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice.

Be more of an equipper than a doer.  I tried to do too much myself.  My insecurities caused me to keep doing things I should have given away.  I was so intent on things being done with excellence, that I hesitated to trust others with tasks.  Big time mistakes.

I should have looked closer at Ephesians 4 and saw that my primary job description is to equip.  The most effective leaders are empowering leaders.  They equip others and help them succeed.

Children (and adults) learn best by doing, rather than by listening.  When it was class time...I talked and talked and talked to the kids.  I thought the best method was for them to sit still and listen while I taught them the Word of God.  I tried to bribe them to sit still with candy, prizes, etc., but it usually ended with them squirming around in boredom.  It wasn't their fault.  It was my fault.

Eventually I learned that the most effective methods of teaching involve active, hands-on, participatory lessons that engage the senses, tap into kids' learning styles and has the kids talking as much, if not more, than the teacher.

Information without application falls flat.  I focused on teaching Bible facts, having kids memorize lots of verses and making sure they could say all of the books of the Bible in order.  That was a good thing...but I didn't move beyond the facts enough and teach kids how to live out the truth I was sharing with them.

My focus shifted when I discovered that Jesus spend a lot more time teaching application than He did information.  Information is important, but without application, there is no transformation.  In time, I arrived at the conclusion that I would rather a child memorize one verse and know what it means than memorize ten verses with no clue what the verses mean.

Criticism is a gift.  I looked at criticism as a personal attack.  When people questioned my leadership or my decisions, I became defensive and argumentative.  Rather than finding the truth in the criticism, even if it was minuscule, I pushed it away in anger.

One day I heard someone say that criticism is a gift that can help you get better.  It was an eye opener for me and totally changed the way I viewed criticism.  Wish I had grasped that my first year.  I would have learned so many great lessons that I missed.

Concluding thoughts...
If you are reading this and just starting out in ministry, I trust this will help you learn some of these lessons faster than I did.  The truth is, there will also be lessons to learn, now matter how long you are in ministry.  I still at times struggle in some of the areas I've mentioned.  You never arrive completely.  It's all part of the journey.

Your turn.  The floor is yours.

What are some things you wish you'd known when you first started out? 

What are some areas you want to get better at?

What advice would you give to someone who is early in ministry?  

Share your thoughts and insight with everyone in the comment section below.

Sep 20, 2017

Helping Volunteers Find Their Happy Place

He had signed up to serve in children's ministry.  I was meeting with him to determine what role he would be serving in.  I asked him what role he was interested in.  He said "I see there is an opening in 4th grade boys.  I think I'll serve there."

That sounded great to me.  I knew he could make an impact in the 4th grade boys' lives.  I was ready to say, "That's awesome!  Let's put you in that role."

But I knew I couldn't yet.  First, I had to ask him a question.  A question I asked everyone who signs up to serve.  Here's what I asked him.

"What is your volunteer dream job?  What are you really passionate about?"

He paused and then he said, "Well, to be honest, I love working with older teenagers.  But I see you have the 4th grade boys' role open, so that's where I'll serve."

Everything in me wanted to put him in the role with the 4th grade boys.  It's where I needed someone.  But I knew I couldn't.  I looked at him and said, "As much as I would like to have you serve with the 4th grade boys, I can't.  You need to be in the role you are passionate about.  Let me walk you down to student ministry and introduce you to our high school pastor."

Why would I do that?  Because I had made a commitment to help volunteers find their happy place.

A volunteer finds their happy place when you place them in a role that aligns with their passion, spiritual gifts and personality. 

How do you help a volunteer find their happy place?  Take these steps with each new volunteer.

1. Provide them with a list of all of the serving opportunities.  Give them a week to look over the roles and pray about where they should serve.

2. Sit down with them and ask them the following questions before placing them in a role:
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What are your spiritual gifts?
  • What is your personality type?
  • Have you served in children's ministry before?  If so, what did you enjoy doing?
  • What special gifts or talents do you have?
  • What is your dream volunteer job at church?  If you could serve anywhere, where would that be?
3. Place them in a role that aligns with their answers.

4. If their spiritual gifts or talents don't align with their answer, help guide them.  An example would be someone who wants to lead worship, but can't sing in tune.  This is where you lovingly guide them as a shepherd by providing them training or helping them find a role that fits their giftedness.

5. Give them permission to let you know if they get into a role and find it's not their sweet spot.

6. Take the initiative.  Meet with them one month after they start serving and ask them if they are in their happy place.  If they are not, help guide them into another role.  For some people, they may need to try a few roles before finding their happy place.

As we enlist new volunteers, the temptation is to place them where we need them.  Don't succumb to this. 

Don't place volunteers where you need them.  Place volunteers where they need to be.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, they will serve with delight rather than just duty.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, they will go home energized rather than drained.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, they will thrive.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, they will make an impact and bear fruit.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, their motivation comes from the inside rather than from the outside.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, they will be serving with people who have the same passion as they do.

When you place volunteers in their happy place, they will serve for the long haul.

We must remember, serving should be about what we want FOR our volunteers, not what we want FROM our volunteers.

When a volunteer is not placed in their happy place, one of two things happens.  They quit or they continue serving because of their character and commitment...but they serve with little or no joy or fulfillment.  They become demoralized and feel trapped.

Let's be committed to helping volunteers find their happy place.  A happy children's ministry comes from happy volunteers.

You can get more insight and ideas for leading a great volunteer team in my new book "The Formula for Building Great Volunteer Teams."  It is available at this link.

Sep 19, 2017

When (the young) Brad Pitt Asked Hard Questions About God

Brad Pitt is a high profile, A-list actor in Hollywood.  He has been cited as one of the most important and influential people in the entertainment industry.  He has starred in many blockbuster movies and has earned numerous awards such as the Golden Globe, Screen Actor's Guild, Academy Award and People's Choice. 

Brad was married to Angelina Jolie for five years.  Together they formed a power couple nicknamed "Brangelina."  They have six children with three of them being adopted internationally. 

Brad has said that he is an atheist.  What is interesting is this.  He was raised in a Christian home.  Brad was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  His father ran a trucking company and his mother was a school counselor.

Brad grew up in Springfield, Missouri, in a house surrounded by cornfields.  His parents are believers and he was raised in a conservative, Christian, Southern Baptist home.  In a recent interview with GQ magazine,  Brad said he "grew up First Baptist, which is the cleaner, stricter, by-the-book Christianity."

When he was in high school, he says, "my folks jumped to a more charismatic movement, which got into speaking in tongues and raising your hands and some goofy-&%$#.

When asked about speaking tongues, Brad said, "Yeah, come on.  I'm not even an actor yet, but I know… I mean the people, I know they believe it.  I know they're releasing something.  God, we're complicated.  We're complicated creatures."

Brad went on to say, "I remember going to a few concerts, even though we were told rock shows are the Devil, basically.  Our parents let us go, they weren't neo about it.  But I realized that the reverie and the joy and exuberance, even the aggression, I was feeling at the rock show was the same thing at the revival.  One is Jimmy Swaggart and one is Jerry Lee Lewis, you know?  One's God and one's Devil.  But it's the same thing.  It felt like we were being manipulated.  What was clear to me was “You don't know what you're talking about.”

Brad says this caused him, at a young age, to ask some big questions about God.

But apparently he didn't get the answers he was looking for and eventually walked away from the faith.  He is not alone.  Stats show that 78% of people who claim no religion at all actually grew up in church.  I talk more about this in this article.

When asked why they walked away, the biggest majority said they no longer believe.  How did this happen?  In many cases, it's the same story as Brad's.  They asked the hard questions, but didn't get answers that were sufficient to sustain their faith.  Without answers for these hard questions, their faith was rocked and they walked.

I believe if we are going to pass on the faith to the next generation, we must create environments at home and at church where it's okay to ask the hard questions.  In fact, I believe we shouldn't wait for kids to ask the hard questions.  I believe we should bring up the hard questions and help them find the right answers now.  

Questions like...
  • How do we know the Bible is true?  How do we know it wasn't just written by men?
  • Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?
  • Why should we believe that God created everything?
  • If God is a God of love, why would He punish people after they die?
  • How do we know Jesus was the Son of God and that He actually rose from the dead?
If the first time kids face the hard questions is in a college classroom, it may be too late.  If the first time they face the hard questions is on the high school debate team, it may be too late.  If the first time they face the hard questions is at work, it may be too late.

Church and the home should be a place where kids are walked through the hard questions so they can discover the truth.

Brad, the kid, is sitting in your class at church this weekend.  Brad, the kid, will attend VBS this summer at your church.  Brad, the kid, will learn Bible verses at home this year.  Brad, the kid, will be part of small group discussions this month at your church.  Brad, the kid, will participate in prayer time this week at home.  Brad, the kid, will drop his nickels and dimes into the offering this week.

But will we help Brad, the kid, develop a deep faith that will last for a lifetime?  We can.  If we are intentional.

We are commanded in Proverbs to "train up children in the way they should go and when they are old, they will not depart from it."

If we are going to see children walk in faith their entire lives, then we must train them to see the truth.  The 78% that have walked away?  I believe much of it is due to us not doing our part of this Proverbs...that is, training children to be able to answer the hard questions.  If we don't, how can we expect them to serve Jesus for a lifetime?

Let's ask the hard questions.  Let's lead kids to grapple with the hard questions.  Let's help kids find answers to the hard questions.

A great place to start is with the four week teaching series called Pranksters.  This apologetics series helps kids explore critical, hard questions about the Bible and will help them discover why we believe the Bible is God's Word.  You can get more information about the series at this link.

Sep 18, 2017

Children's Ministries Frozen in Time

You can walk into many children's ministries and it feels like you've stepped back in time.  It's like the ministry is frozen in time.

The songs are the same songs they sang in 1975. 

Flannel-graph is still used as a major teaching tool.

The decor hasn't been updated in decades.

Teachers communicate with lectures that far exceed kids' attention spans.

VHS tapes of Bibleman are playing in the background.

There is no check-in and security system.

Volunteers serve without background checks and some even serve alone in a room with kids.

Bulletin boards can be found in the hallways.

The ancient name "Sunday School" is still used to describe what happens on Sunday mornings.

Kids are told to sit quietly in rows of grey metal folding chairs.

It's as if social media hasn't been invented yet.

One-hour teacher meetings are held every week.

VBS is still called VBS.

Kids' choirs are accompanied by an organ.

Guests are asked to fill out forms by hand that are longer than doctor office forms.

The TV's still have large, heavy backs on them.

Curriculum still involves printed student booklets.

Using Captain Kangaroo as an illustration is considered cutting-edge.

There is little to no diversity.

Streaming is only something water does.

The ministry strategy is - the more programs we have and the more events we put on the church calendar, the more effective we will be.

Pre-teens are put in the same room as 1st graders.

It's vital that we be willing to change as needed.
Our message is timeless...but our methods must be timely. 

This means we should constantly be evaluating what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Is our ministry effective?

Is it connecting with the kids?

Are kids excited about being a part of it?  

Are we still reaching unchurched kids and families?

Are we knowledgeable about today's kid culture?

Are we attracting young, Millennial parents?

Don't be frozen in the focused on the future!

An example of this is the Borders chain of bookstores.  Borders was founded in 1971 by the Border brothers.  The company was highly successful through the 1990's.  But then they got stuck.  They developed their website and online sales too late in the game.  They continued to focus on CD's and DVD's while customers were shifting toward digital delivery of content.  In store sales dropped as people began to buy more hard copy books online and ebooks became popular.  Eventually they had to file bankruptcy and close all their stores.

I believe this is one of the biggest dangers of being frozen in time.  Eventually it causes you to become irrelevant and one day you look up and there is no one left.  Empty church buildings across the country are testimony of this.

Learn from the past.  Honor the past.  But don't get stuck in it.

Your best days of ministry are ahead of you!  God is ready to do a new work in you and through you!  Don't become frozen in time!