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The Changing Landscape of Youth Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Wisseman

Background
I serve as associate pastor in a suburban church nestled in a neighborhood – the church and neighborhood grew together. Over the past 61 years, the neighborhood has changed and changed again. The church has not kept pace.

When the previous youth director relocated, I was asked if I would add youth to my portfolio. I inherited a ministry in decline. Since then, we have had some failures, and some successes. The good news is that it’s broken, and everyone sees it… which means we get start from a new place. Nonetheless, change is hard!

I requested a meeting this fall with key stakeholders in youth ministry, to be facilitated by a National Capital Presbytery coach. We met, and were fairly successful at deciding on and aligning priorities. One of the changes is a metamorphosis of our previous “Club 456” (an upper elementary youth ministry) to a new pre-teen ministry that will encompass grades 5-8. One of our struggles last year was trying to have a grade 7-12 youth group. (It’s not really surprising that the 12th graders weren’t all that interested in hanging out with the middle school kids on a regular basis.)

Trial and Error
Reinventing youth ministry for a changed context is not for the faint of heart. Once upon a time, the church was filled with families with young children and youth. The youth ministry was of good size and participation – vibrant by any measurement scale. There is a deep yearning for a return to those days.

We still have families, but our demographics are uneven. Many of the kids of youth group age are actively involved in a myriad of other activities… and sometimes church falls to the bottom of the list.

Lack of participation may be due to those activities, different priorities, or lack of relationships with some of the others (because they go to four different high schools)… or the change in culture. I know that our church is not alone in this cultural change!

As we try to discern needs, we’re throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks. Some of things we are trying include:

  • Trying to engage our youth in all aspects of church life.
  • Posting their game schedules, concerts, plays, etc. and encouraging the congregation to go and support our youth in their endeavors (if we can’t always get them to church, we can get the church to go to them).
  • Creating real estate they can “own” – not just on Sundays, but to hang out and do homework, or play games at other times.
  • Offering random opportunities (or pop up events) to gather for lunch, coffee, or ice cream.
  • Increased service opportunities.

Hoped for Outcomes
Not only is it necessary to change how we engage with our youth, we need to develop a new measurement for success that is not about large numbers on a Sunday night.

Success, for me, would be for our church to be a sanctuary – a safe place where every one of our students feels comfortable being their own best self. A place where they know in their hearts they are beloved as the very person God created each one of them to be. That they know that there are adults here who willing to listen (without immediately jumping in to problem solve or judgment). And to know (in their minds and hearts), and trust, that this body of Christ would be greatly diminished without their presence.


Susan Wisseman is associate pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, VA.

Field Guide Preview: Cultivated Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re excited to share the first sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the guide’s introduction, which debuts the concept of “cultivated ministry” and defines its four movements: theology, accountability, learning, and storytelling.


Cultivated Ministry

Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to describe God’s kingdom and our calling to participate in its growth. As anyone who has tried to maintain a garden knows, growing desirable plants requires intentionality and hard work. Growing nothing is easy. Growing weeds is easy. Growing delicious fruits and vegetables and beautiful flowers is much more difficult.

According to the Book of Genesis, from the beginning of human history God has called us to be caretakers and cultivators of our local contexts. The first commandment given to human beings was to be fruitful. This ancient calling provides the guiding metaphor for this field guide.

Cultivated ministry is a third way between toeing the line of traditional metrics and abdicating accountability altogether. Haphazard gardening is irresponsible and ineffective. Fruitful gardening involves mindfulness and discipline. A cultivated garden requires planning, ongoing assessment, learning when confronted with new challenges, and periodic pruning. Likewise, cultivated ministry insists that we undertake our work with a clear and purposeful understanding of how our activities contribute to God’s mission in the world. As practical theologians have long recognized, ministry requires seasons of reflection, evaluation, and evolution. From time to time we must slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.[i] Without this discipline, our practices and methods become stale or out of touch with our rapidly changing cultural contexts. It is far too easy to rest on our laurels and allow existing ministries to outlive their original purposes or effectiveness. Unless we adopt open postures of listening, learning, and intentional discernment, we are prone to miss opportunities for the development of new ministries to meet the needs of new situations.

Cultivated ministry is more than a new set of metrics or a collection of plug-and-play tools. Rather, it is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world. This is not a recipe to adhere to nor a linear process to follow—these four movements happen simultaneously, informing and supporting each other as an organic and coherent whole.

Cultivated ministry begins and ends with theology, with our belief that God is intimately engaged in the world and has called us to bear fruit that will last. In this work to which we are called, we practice mutual accountability to God and to each other. Along the way, we commit ourselves to constant learning and reformation. At every step, we listen for good news of God’s redemptive work through transformative storytelling.

This four-dimensional practice of assessment is neither focused on the past nor fearful of the future. It is time for us to regain control of our own narratives. We are much more than passive players in the unfolding drama of human history. With God’s help, we can shape our own future and tell our own stories. God has placed us in the world and has given us seeds to plant. Now, as stewards of God’s good creation, it’s up to us to step forward in faith. It’s up to us to practice cultivated ministry.

[i] Sarah B. Drummond, Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation (Alban Institute, 2009), 103-122.


Editor’s note: The full field guide is available for free download now! Check it out —

Skipping A Step: Resisting the Quick Fix and Embracing Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Charlie Lee

How can we fix it? This is a question posed in our congregations every day. Common elements of decline such as sagging attendance, diminished donations, or a general lack of excitement can create significant anxiety among church leaders and create a sense of crisis in our congregations. Well-intentioned church leaders who observe these crises are often quick to call for and implement solutions that are designed to directly address these problems.

This is what we did in my own congregation. We observed a decline in giving and attendance, the metrics that have traditionally defined a successful congregation. Therefore, we gathered leaders together to design a solution to our crisis. We started a new worship service, added a new staff member, and even made plans to remodel a portion of our building. While these steps were successful in granting us some temporary gains, in time we learned that our solutions were not lasting ones and eventually we found ourselves right back where we started.

So what went wrong? Why did our well-thought-out solutions not have a lasting effect on our problems? As we wrestled with these questions, we learned that we had skipped a step in our efforts to quickly address our congregational crises. We had moved directly from the observations of our perceived problems to interventions we thought would address them. What we failed to do was to put in place practices that might help us interpret our initial observations so that we might gain new learnings that could then be applied in the design and execution of future interventions.

My guess is that our congregation is not the only one who is skipping this important step as we struggle to adapt in these times of rapid change. However, we can no longer afford to do so if we hope to face the adaptive challenges that lay before us and remain faithful to God’s collective calling on our communities of faith. We must take on the task of developing practices of assessment and evaluation within our congregations, and if we do so they can help our congregations do three things:

  1. Discern: The metrics of attendance and financial giving have for too long defined the success or failure of a congregation. Vital ministry is about so much more than counting “butts and bucks.” It is about faithfully following the calling that God places upon us. Churches by nature are “heliotropic,” meaning that just like a plant leans towards the direction of the sunlight, a church will move towards the source of energy or focus that is present in the system. If we continue to focus on outdated metrics, then this will only continue to produce anxiety and a feeling of continual crisis in our congregations. However, if we utilize tools of assessment and evaluation, then we can better focus on continually discerning the dynamic calling of God upon our congregations, and therefore begin to define success in our ministries with an eye towards fruitfulness rather than fear.
  2. Learn: “You don’t know – that you don’t know – what you don’t know.” This was a favorite line of one of my undergrad college professors. He repeated it often to us in an effort to encourage our curiosity and inspire our learning. His point was that there are always new things to learn and opportunities to go deeper in that learning than we ever thought possible. The same is true in our congregations. Tools of assessment and evaluation are the key to opening up new realms of possibilities in our ministries. They help keep us from moving immediately to towards implementing solutions to problems and instead take a deep dive on the issues behind what we have observed. Often, in this process, we discover that the perceived problem we were so focused on in the beginning is really just a symptom of a much larger issue. It is these new learnings that make it possible for us to address not only the technical challenges of ministry, but the more adaptive and complex issues facing our congregations.
  3. Tell the Story: It has been a few years now since the congregation I serve began experimenting with different practices of assessment and evaluation. The most successful practice by far that we have adopted has been the practice of storytelling. An important part of assessment and evaluation is capturing data; however, if all the data that is captured is merely quantitative, then it will not give a complete picture of all that is occurring within a congregation. Numbers and statistics can only communicate so much. Qualitative data is required in order share those things that cannot be measured but can be observed. The assessment practices we put in place gave us the tools to begin asking our congregation to tell us their stories. As much as possible, we began sharing these stories in worship and through our publications so that all could hear the good news of how lives were being transformed through Christ and how God was at work in and through the ministries of this congregation. The practice of storytelling has changed the conversation within our congregation, enabling us to operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

I am grateful to the leadership of NEXT Church and the individuals who have worked so hard to produce resources for assessment and evaluation. I believe the utilization of these resources can help keep us from looking for the next quick fix and instead provide a consistent way for us to become more attentive to God’s calling.


Charlie Lee is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He received a Doctorate of Ministry Degree in 2015 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His primary focus of study was on the implementation of formative evaluation in congregations.

Adaptive Change for Congregations Caught in the Cultural Tsunami

At the 2016 National Gathering, Jim Kitchens and Susan Rothenburg led a workshop called “The Unglued Church: Adaptive Change for Congregations Caught in the Cultural Tsunami.” Below you will find the description for their workshop and the Slideshare presentation of what they shared.

Is your church “stuck?” A building too big and a membership too small? A nagging feeling that your church must somehow “change” but uncertain about God’s will for that change? Unfortunately, “being church” today looks different from the past. Many churches feel “stuck” but do not know how to change in faithful ways. Learn what Pittsburgh Presbytery discerned by developing practices to become unglued in ways that bring about deep and sustainable change in our communities.

A Balancing Act

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month will focus on the art of coaching and the practice of ministry. Some posts will layout insights or frameworks of coaching and some will be stories of coaching that transformed a pastor or congregation. We hope they will inspire you. We hope that inspiration will turn into actual movement in your own life and ministry so that we might move closer to that vision of the church we long for, closer to the vision of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Margaret Burnett

I love ministry in the church. I love the people, the mission, the theology, the relationships, the privilege of sacred spaces and thin places. I love it, and it totally overwhelms me at times—spiritually, emotionally, and physically. After nearly 20 years in ministry, I’ve learned a lot about the need for balance.

yoga-167062_1280For me the support of good friends, time with an excellent counselor, and much prayer are vital for maintaining healthy life and ministry. Twenty-four outreach ministries to coordinate, sermons to prepare, visits to make, classes to teach, emails to read (and maybe even to reply!), parishioners to meet with, community groups to support—then there’s being a wife, mother, pet owner, and friend. Oh, and I encourage people to take care of themselves, so I really need to do it, too.

When ministry became more of a juggling act than a joy, I decided to try something new. I began to work with a coach. Being coached is very different than being counseled. While counseling is important to face hurt, history, and conflict, coaching is focused on the next steps. Typically coaches work with people who are ready for something new rather than people whose focus needs to be on healing. Coaches enter the relationship believing that the person being coached is naturally creative, resourceful and whole.

My first experience with a coach helped me determine how to best guide the adaptive change of a new system for my church’s outreach ministries. I had the basics and knew the questions, but my coach walked alongside me, asking hard questions, challenging me, helping me gain confidence in newfound gifts, and offering tools that supported my growth and the health of the church. If he had tried to answer all the questions and “fix” the issues, the system would not have changed. Today our 24 outreach ministries are coordinated by a team of six people who are answering God’s call to faithfully use their gifts and skills. And when new ministries are suggested, we have the space and energy to be creative and realistic about adding another program.

My other experiences with coaches have helped me discern my call, discover gifts I never knew I had, work in healthy ways with colleagues, and prioritize my time at church and at home. I set goals with my coach, and he holds me accountable to them—no more resolutions for someday; he checks to see if I am actually moving toward those things I promised myself to do.

I would have never imagined that adding one more thing to my plate—-enlisting the help of a coach—would move my life to become more balanced and whole.


mburnett headshot

Margaret Burnett is Associate Pastor for Outreach Ministries at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN.