Afternoon Afterthoughts on SYMC: “I quit.”

It’s my first day on the job in my new position.  I’m pretty excited but also a wee bit apprehensive.  You see, the last guy (who quit Friday, and who was me) did things a certain way.  Much of it really, really quality stuff.  But I’m not him.  I’m the new guy.

The great news is that I just got back from the 2012 Simply Youth Ministry Conference in Louisville, KY.  In rapid-fire succession, I’d like to share with you some of the things I took away from a phenomenal weekend:

1. I’m a child of God.  I’m not called to youth ministry more than I’m called to simply be in love with Jesus.  In the past, I’ve gotten those two mixed up.  I polished my professional name-tag as if it were what God cared about; as if it were what He died to bring me.  I’m a child of God and student ministry is just the expression of my worship to God, based on how He has gifted me and allowed me to serve students.

2. Since its my first day on the job, I need to look at what the last guy did and ask a few questions like: What was his motivation? What was being accomplished in regards to disciple-making? What needs to be tweaked and what needs to be terminated?

3. I’ve been guilty of deciding for God what He can and can’t do.  How stupid is that?  Sorry, God. I’m done limiting You.  I am who You say I am.  You are who You say You are.  You can do what You say You can do.

4. Ministry takes a backseat to my wife and 4 children.  I will lead, love, and nurture them first. And pray for all parents to do the same.

5. I don’t care if you ever know me, anything I’ve done, written, or said.  If you know, love, and follow Jesus, that’s all I care about.

Waaay more to digest, dissect, and discover after such a great conference experience and you’ll undoubtedly see things peppered throughout subsequent blog posts in the near future. 

SYMC Blog Entry #3: This one’ll be tough.

I woke up this morning 4 hours after falling asleep knowing that today would be a great day.  Have you ever gone to bed at night knowing (or thinking you knew) what tomorrow would hold, and being excited for that?  Before I even get into a recap of my day’s events, I need to hang out right there for a second or two…with the idea that I live my life often times devoid of the God-supplied fervor of what the next day holds.  A prayer I’ve prayed on many mornings is:

“God, I woke up on earth. That means you’ve got something in mind for me here today.  Let’s do it!”

Here’s a thought: It’s impossible to whisper a prayer to yourself.

I knew/suspected that today would be a great day because of my very first agenda item.  I made plans with a former professor of mine and long-time friend Dr. Len Kageler to meet for breakfast.  And because it was with Len, I didn’t even mind paying the exorbitantly outrageous price for the swanky breakfast buffet that awaited us.  The food was unending, the coffee flowed freely, and the conversation and rekindling of our friendship was a sweet gift from God to start my day off.  And since it was a buffet, I obviously ate way too much.  On purpose.

After saying goodbye to Len, I caught the last half of a workshop by Jon Acuff (someone I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post) called “Creativity With Purpose: 3 Essential Steps of Successful Ideas”.  Now, you might know that I have a pretty constant flow of ideas. But as a writer, creator, and developer, I’ve always had an underlying ache to do better with the thoughts that cross my mind.  It’s pretty often that I’ll be somewhere–anywhere; from the shower to the bread aisle at Walmart when a thought hits me that I know I should capture.  But before I do, its fallen victim to my steel trap memory…the one that’s apparently rusted open.

Acuff gave some great tips on how to better develop creative thoughts.  Most of these are self-explanatory and need no elaboration.  Some I’ll just want to elaborate on because this is my blog and I’ll do whatever I please.  Jon shared 6 tips/principles for developing creativity and nurturing brainchildren.  (Just came up with that…not bad.)

1. Make war against distractions.  Okay, confession time.  This conference has gotten me pretty tweetified.  Even more than I was before, which was a lot.  The nature of the surroundings here definitely lend themselves to tweeting.  There’s constantly freebies and contests being announced at all hours via Twitter, there are connections to make, things learned that you want to share, and even tweets being scrolled on the big screen in the main session area before each worship service.  During that half hour or so, tweeting anything and including the hashtag “#symc” resulted in it being displayed on HUGE screens onstage.  And c’mon–how cool is that?!?

Anyway, I’m definitely one that has pretty much worn through my left jeans pocket lining from all the sliding in and out of there that my phone does.  Between Twitter, text messaging, and yes, even email, I’m pretty well hooked on an ongoing distraction that’s always readily available.  But maybe your phone is not your focused attention’s nemesis.  Maybe its something else.  I know I have other distractions, but no matter what they are, I’ve GOT to wage war on them if I have any hope of my brain being able to settle in on one task.

2. Create a place to execute.  This one got my blood pumping.  I like places.  I like things.  I like places for things.  I remember taking a tour of a friend’s workplace where welding and fabrication took place, and I remember seeing the tools each worker used put in its place with a painted outline of the shape of each tool shadowing it; showing what tool went where and clearly showing when a tool was NOT in its place.  Just like that I’ve got to designate a few different places that are dedicated to executing a plan/project/purpose.  For Acuff, one place was the local library.  Being an author and making a living at writing, he has trained his brain to know when his body was in its proper place for getting some writing done.  I’m interested to delve into this because right now, I don’t have much of a clue as to where that place would be for me.

3.  Draw clear distinctions for yourself.  (Boy, that sounds good and I wish I had written more notes under that one.  Apparently I sat there in that workshop nodding my head instead of moving my pen.)

4.  Create fake deadlines.  Acuff made a good observation.  When you’re going to go away on vacation, it typically happens that your last day or two in the office or at work are among your most productive.  You want to tie up loose ends, you want to cover all bases during your absence, and you want to leave your workplace tidy so that you don’t return to a mess.  You fire on all cylinders to make sure you knock out those to-do’s before you head out on vacation.  The principle here is that we benefit when we create for ourselves a bit of pressure.  I noticed that this very blog site sets goals for me.  For example, when I published my 300th post, it congratulated me and set my next goal for 305.  When I reached that, it set the goal at 310.  Along that same concept, I could also set dates for things to be accomplished by.  Had a done that a year ago, the book I am now completing would have likely been done 6 months ago.

5.  Build a bowl for the idea to go in.  This one was something akin to the fact that a captive alligator (like at a zoo) won’t outgrow the area it is contained in.  So, we must make some space for our ideas to expand, wiggle, and grow as they need.  (Again, less nodding and more note taking would have been good here.)

6.  Focus on the right beach.  He kind of lost me here, so I won’t try and not lose you.  You probably already are.  Oh well.

As the workshop came to a close, Jon entertained some questions from the crowd.  It was a sizable room and since Mr. Acuff is quite popular, the room was fairly full.  I had slithered in late as I stated earlier, so I was “the guy in the back”.  I had the chance to ask a question and here’s what I said:

“When I’m working on a project I will sometimes go for a walk in order to get some clarity, some fresh air, and some help in thinking things through.  However, after the walk I usually feel like I’ve completely wasted my time. Should I stop taking walks or should I approach the walk differently?”

For the record, Jon Acuff said, “That’s a good question.”

After the workshop, I met up with a former intern of mine, Chris Coakley.  Chris was my intern for 2 1/2 of my 7 years at Simpson Memorial Church in Nyack, NY.  He’s now a full-time youth pastor in York, PA and founder/president of an amazing relief organization called Grain of Hope, which is providing food, water, and mercy to the impoverished.  Am I proud of him?  You know it.  While Chris and I waited in line for our lunch, I bumped into Andy Blanks and Les Bradford, two guys I really admire from Youthministry360.  YM360 is doing incredible things to resource and encourage youth leaders everywhere with practical help, useful tools, and straight-shot support from those who are doing it.  It was great to reconnect with these guys and Andy again invited me to be a contributor to their substantial arsenal of resources.  Pretty sweet.

After lunch with Chris, where we solved every ministry problem ever, I went to another seminar that I knew I’d have to cut out of early.  It was called “As For Me and My (Crazy) House: Defending Your Heart, Marriage, and Family Against the Demands of Ministry”.  Quite a title, eh? But I’d be dishonest if I told you I didn’t need to hear someone speak reminders to me and throw me a line when it comes to making sure my wife and kids get my best and not whatever is leftover after ministry has had its fill (which never happens).  I enjoyed what I heard and was sad to leave early, so I went straightaway to the SYM bookstore and bought the book of the same title.  Really excited about diving into it.

The reason I had to leave early from that seminar was because I had planned to get together with Andy Brazelton, one of Group Publishing’s main dudes.  Andy and I had never met in person before today.  Our interactions have been confined to a tweet or two, flung back and forth across the cyberspace between VA and CO where he and his family live.  I’ve written so much and have such a desire to do something more with it than I currently know to do, I’d have been a fool to miss a chance to chat with Andy.  And man, as it turned out I’m so very glad I did.

I sat down with Andy and my suspicion is he’s just such an incredibly nice guy that he probably treats every man, woman, and puppy this way, but I immediately felt like I was sitting down with a longtime friend.  He was genuinely interested in me, my background, my interests, and the stuff of my life; let alone anything I’ve written or any possible collaborative between us.  Man, what a refreshing spirit he had and I was so impressed by him.  We also sat and talked about the things that our student ministry has produced over the years; resources that are all but set to go into the hands of those who could potentially use them.  I was excited by what we discussed and when we got up from those chairs, I’d dare say we were mutually encouraged.

Before I go on, I need to say that while I was sitting with Andy, the Skit Guys came by.  

Knowing Andy and working with Andy as they do, they chatted briefly.  *Warning: I’m about to temporarily go “giddy school girl” and it’s not going to be pretty.  I have to admit that meeting the Skit Guys was a huge thrill, especially when Eddie told me we had met before, at Saddleback Church at a PDYM conference in CA and that he remembered me.  I don’t care if he was lying, I wanted to believe him too much not to.  Then Andy mentioned my co-youth pastor Steve Harper and asked if Eddie remembered Steve.  He thought and said, “No, I don’t think so.”  Now, I’m not telling this to be mean; I’m telling it to set up the great thing that happened next.  So, I said to Eddie (with Tommy–the other 1/2 of The Skit Guys standing nearby), “So can I tell Steve that you remembered me and not him?”  And Tommy Woodard laughed at me.  He actually laughed at something I said.  If you know Tommy Woodard, you know that’s pretty cool.

So, Andy and I talked about life, family, ministry, work, and our passions.  It was really a fantastic conversation with someone I can now call “friend”.

After dinner at The Hard Rock Cafe’, we headed into the evening worship service.  Jamie Grace was there to share her testimony and sang her crazyily-popular song “I Love the Way You Hold Me”. So cool.

Then Derwin Gray (former NFL pro-bowler) spoke and the Spirit just blew the place up through that message.  You’ll read these few notes of what he shared and might think, “Yeah…so?”  But that’s only if you weren’t there.  Derwin shared 8 truths, and I’ll go through them quickly:

1. I was not born to be a youth pastor.  This one seemed off at first, because I’ve always thought being a youth pastor is what God wants me to do.  It’s who I am.  It’s what I’m about.  But that’s wrong.  I wasn’t born to be a youth pastor.  I was born to be a child of God.  Being a youth pastor is simply my expression of worship based on the gifts God has given me.  I am not identified by what I do (pastoring students), but rather who I am (child of God).  Whew.

2. My identity is found in being a beloved child of God.  There’s only one God and that one God only made one me.  Any other me is false and any other god is false.  And false gods never have enough.  False me’s do too.  False gods always want more.  And so do false me’s.  But God says that because He made me, that’s enough and because He’s my Creator, He’s enough for me.  As Derwin put it, “Our significance is found in HIS accomplishments.”

3. Your marriage is a priority over your ministry.  I’ve already eluded to it, but let me just say it outright: I can be guilty of focusing more on what I know I’m good at (the skill set of a pastor) than focusing on something I’m filled with doubt about being good at (being a husband and a father).  And my wrong prioritization can reflect that.  But never more let may it be said of me that ANYTHING eclipsed my love, devotion, passion, dedication, and attention for my wife.  Next to my eternal salvation, she is to me the singular greatest gift God has ever given me.

4.  Have a high view of people.  This one made me think of my Father-in-law.  Have you ever been on the highway when some moron goes flying by, weaving in and out of traffic?  And you think and/or say, “Geez, that guy is a moron! Look at him weave in and out of traffic! He’s gonna kill somebody!  Moron!!!”  That’s my typical response when I see moronic behavior on the highway.  By contrast, my Father-in-law can see the same driver and simply say, “Well, I hope he gets where’s he’s going safely.”  Or if you get a parking spot taken from you by some jerk who slid in before you, you’d think and/or say, “Hey, Jerk! What’s your problem!?!  That was MY SPOT!!!  Didn’t you see my blinker???”  By contrast, I’ve heard my Father-in-law in the same situation say, “I’m going to choose to believe that they didn’t see me here.” And he’d happily find a spot at the back of the lot.  This guy is an expert on “having a high view of people”.  It’s about valuing people, it really is.

5.  Have wise people speak into your life.  This one is simple.

6.  Be a learner.  I don’t care how long I live, I just want to keep learning everyday that I’m on earth.  The day I stop having a learning attitude, is the day I pray I breathe my last because I’ve stopped living anyway.

7. Keep short accounts.  This one is all about forgiveness.  Do it quickly and do it fully.  And YOU’RE the one who benefits most from it.

8. Exercise, eat healthy, and rest.  Another straight-forward one that most people will completely ignore.

After Derwin spoke, there was a time of prayer and as youth pastors and leaders, we’re usually the ones praying for and over young people.  But it was a refreshing and poignant scene to see youth leaders being prayed for and prayed over.  Powerful stuff.

The night wrapped up with a great concert by Jeremy Camp.  I bet you know you some of his songs, even if you don’t know its Jeremy Camp.

All in all, I’d say it was a pretty spectacular day.  But as great as it was, I can guarantee you tomorrow will be better, if for no other reason than tomorrow is the day I get to see my wife and kids again.

SYMC Blog Entry 2: A Still Gospel

Well, what a day its been.  Full, busy, and rich with God doing what God does.

It began with a powerful message from Rick Lawrence. The outcome of that message was the still voice of God reminding me that I am His child, not my own, and not anyone else’s. HIS.  And that I am loved as I am, where I am, what I am, and who I am.  I was also reminded that while there are times that I’m tempted to think that God is done with me, “God is NEVER done.”  If I’m willing, He’s working. 

Then I attended a seminar led by Fuller Institute’s Kara Powell.  The seminar was called “Sticky Faith” and the thrust of it was based out of research and study the Institute had done.  One unsurprising fact reported was that parents of teens still remain the #1 influencers in their kids lives.  What did surprise me was that “youth leaders” rank #4.  Good thing I’m a parent before I’m a youth leader.

This evening we heard a powerful message from Jon Acuff from  What an incredible message.  I really couldn’t have cared less if anyone else was in the room but me because as far as I was concerned, it was just for me.  Jon talked about the voices that we hear, and more importantly, the voices that we listen to and give room in our hearts and lives to have a say in who we are and what we do.  As leaders especially, we all struggle to one extent or another to four voices that speak to us.

The voice of criticism.  I can tell you exactly where I was standing and exactly what I was doing for any instance someone gave me a criticism.  Those moments sear themselves in my memory.  And unfairly too, because the words of affirmation, the countless letters, cards, and words spoken to me far outweigh the relatively few times someone has had a harsh word of criticism.  But I give far too much weight and power to the negative words people have spoken.

The voice of fame.  As Jon pointed out, “Celebrity is the biggest drug among Church leaders today.”  In subtle ways and sometimes in blatant ways, we secretly and quietly yearn for fame; to be known, to be renowned, to be recognized.  Jon reminded us that “The Alpha and Omega, the Creator of the universe knows your name, and cares deeply about your life. You ARE famous!”  Why would we strive for the approval and applause of people when we already have the approval and affection of the Creator of all those people we’re trying to impress?

The voice that says, “If anyone knew who you are–who you really are, they’d run in the other direction and you’d be finished.”  You want to know something?  I still find myself standing on the schoolyard playground while teams are being picked for kickball.  In my mind’s eye, I’m still that kid who watches classmate after classmate get chosen until no one is left unpicked but me and the kid with the lazy eye.  I’m not kidding.  More often than I talk about, I’m that kid, feeling that way about myself.

The voice of comparison.  This one is so common, but when we compare ourselves to others, we rarely do it fairly.  We typically compare ourselves to someone who is in a different place, with different gifts, with an entirely different situation than ours and we wonder why we’re not on the same level as they are.  I’ve said before that when I compare myself to others, I’m left with one of two outcomes: pride or pity.  Pride thinks I’m better than they are.  Pity thinks I’m not as good as they are. Neither of those come from God.

Then Jon turned a corner and asked if we had ever been through times when God didn’t seem to speak to us.  As Christians, we usually equate that to something gone wrong, or God being distant, or God for whatever reason withholding His voice as some type of punishment.  In Christian circles, we call these “dry” times in our spiritual lives.  I’ve been there.  But Jon pointed out something that quite honestly I’d never directly thought about.  It’s a reality in what is probably my favorite story in all of Scripture, so you know I’ve read it, studied it, dissected it, taught it, and preached on it.  How this fact missed my attention is confounding to say the least.  The story is that of “the prodigal son”.  Maybe you know the story.  Read the story whether you’ve read it before or not, and notice something: the father (representing God) is never recorded as saying even one thing to the son.  Yet this story, perhaps more than any other in the Bible, exemplifies the love of God for all of His creation.  It displays His steadfast passionate desire for a full restoration and reunion with His beloved children.  Has God seemed silent to you lately? No matter what you don’t think you hear, know beyond any doubt that God the Father is embracing you, honoring you, clothing you, hugging you, and partying over you for no other reason than His love for you.

I believe that for me, today was a day of simply being still so that I could hear the still voice of God.  I clearly heard the still Gospel: the Good News that God made me, God knows me, God loves me, God liberates me, and God defends me.

SYMC Blog Entry 1: Ministry < Jesus

I heard Francis Chan speak tonight.

I quit.

Let me back up a little bit.  I’m at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference in Louisville, KY this weekend.  We arrived this afternoon after a long, but enjoyable ride in a not-too-shabby rented Ford Explorer.  Upon our arrival, we checked into our hotel, checked in at conference registration, grabbed some dinner and hunkered down for a great night of worship in God’s presence and hearing God’s voice through a guy named Francis Chan.

God blew me away through Francis and at one point I quite literally thought to myself, “Okay, I quit.”  Now, let me clarify what I mean by that.  First of all, Francis Chan lives a life of such faith that I’m not sure his feet touch the ground anymore.  He’d say (and I know its true) that he’s simply taking God’s Word literally; reading it, believing it, and living it literally.  What it says to do, he does.  He actually does.  He doesn’t preach dynamic sermons telling anybody to do anything.  He simply relies fully on the power of the Holy Spirit.  Imagine that.

Francis started off talking about his own youth pastor that invested in him as a teen.  It was his youth pastor that showed him how to simply believe God fully and fully do what God says to do, leaving the results up to….you guessed it: God.  A poignant statement Francis made early in the message was this: “I learned everything I needed to know for ministry from my youth pastor.”  That pricked a question in my heart as a youth pastor: What are the students I love and lead learning from me?  Because if its not what I hope it is, I quit.  More on that in a few minutes.

I was also reminded that my sole responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to show other people the life of a follower of Jesus.  That’s it.  That’s all.  There isn’t any more.  I’m not saving anybody, I’m not convincing anybody, I’m not filling any quotas, I’m not striving for ANYTHING but a love relationship with Jesus.  And in doing that I will show young people how to stand on their own two spiritual feet.  As I share passionately what I know as I grow in faith, those students I love will be impacted.  And if they’re not, well, its not up to me to be flashier, to be hipper, to be more relevant, to be more anything.  The question came and created a bit of an indictment for me personally when Francis asked, “What if you were a Spirit-filled person focused on discipling?”  Do you know me?  Then you know (hopefully) that I’m pretty passionate about discipleship.  But can I confess something to you?  Here’s what has happened: Its become more because “discipleship” is in my job title than because I closely follow Jesus.   And because of that, I’ve come to trust in my skills as a “Student Discipleship Pastor” than in my passion for Jesus Christ, my all in all.

But what does anything I do matter if God isn’t in it; guiding, empowering, loving, showing, building, and working?  Nothing, that’s what.

When I was a kid, there were some specific pieces of decor that I recall from our house.  For some reason, these items just stand out in my mind.  One of them was a wooden sconce type of wall hanging in our den that held these dark purple, rubber grapes.  There was a set of purple grapes and another set of green grapes.  I’m not sure what the point of these grapes were.  Clearly my Mom wasn’t fooling anyone.  No one walked into our den and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you had a vineyard. Do you squeeze your own juice? Do you make your own wine?”  No one said that.  Because when you looked closely, you’d see that the grapes were made of rubber.

Now, I’m not trying to be hard on myself as a minister of the Gospel, but I think it warrants asking: Are my grapes rubber?  Don’t laugh.  I mean is the fruit of the ministry I’m leading really authentic, really juicy, really real fruit?  I know that in some ways “only time will tell”, but if its not, I certainly don’t want it to be because I am more in love with ministry than I am with Jesus.

And there it is.  I admit to you that I’m sometimes guilty of being more in love with ministry than I am with Jesus.  But nobody needs an encounter with me.  People need an encounter with God.  With God’s Son, Jesus.  With God’s Spirit speaking directly to their hearts, wooing them into love with Him.  But sometimes the stuff I get preoccupied with stands between me and Jesus.  Yikes.

We can lose our faith, as pastors.  We can lose our focus on Jesus and put it on people.  And if you think there’s nothing wrong with that, you need to either read it again because you misread it, or you need to step away, get alone with Jesus, and realign your life into a passionate love affair with Him.  That’s my heart’s desire this weekend.  Because in the end, I’m defined not by the ministry I perform, but by the Jesus that I love.