Giving “Always-Online” Kids a Space to Breathe

This fall, we tried something that might seem a bit unusual for an evangelical youth ministry program. We set aside one night a month for high school students centered around a series of spiritual practices, such as Lectio Divina, the Labyrinth, or the Prayer of Examen.

Surprisingly enough, it worked.

Even though “Breathe Night” was largely my idea, I was easily the most surprised of anyone that it worked. And that is because, like many other youth ministry leaders, I often limit my imagination of what is possible to the “chocolate-covered spinach” approach to youth ministry:

Chocolate-covered Spinach

The “chocolate-covered spinach” model looks like this: First, draw the kids in with an exciting game or activity — the chocolate. Then, when you have their attention, follow that up with the teaching or lesson — the spinach that in some sense you believe will be good for their soul.

Fun + content = youth group night.

This “chocolate-covered spinach” model of youth ministry can be quite effective. It was the sort of youth ministry I experienced growing up, and I can’t say it didn’t work. But there are some definite limits to the “chocolate-covered spinach” approach:

First, by dipping our spinach in chocolate, we assume the gospel is not compelling enough to stand on its own. Theology at its finest inspires awe and wonder, rather than boredom or confusion. We patronize our kids when we assume they need the “living water” to be watered down with fun and games in order for them to get it. If there are glazed eyes in the teenage audience, it is probably because there is something wrong with the content, not the context.

Second, chocolate-covered spinach can totally miss the true value of games and other fun group activities. Through teamwork and shared experience, games are a great way of building community. But they often fail as a form of outreach, especially among older kids who have the time and freedom to do whatever they want. There is an element of pride in thinking we can be the “fun place” in the neighborhood; besides, the spiritual seekers who walk by our church everyday are not secretly wondering how good our dodgeball game is.

Third, the chocolate-covered spinach too easily assumes that what kids today need most in their spiritual formation is more information.Growing up as a “Millennial”, I experienced information overload from school, the media, and even from my church. Fortunately (and this was an advantage my generation had over the “Gen-X”ers), the answers to this information flood were a quick Google search away on a dial-up modem. For today’s youth, the “Digitals” who breathe wi-fi as if it was oxygen, the internet has gone from being a place of answers to being yet another information flood. If we want to serve our kids, we need to realize that they have already have a full plate of information to consume. The last thing they need from us is more spinach: what they need is a moment to digest it all.

The “Breathe Night” experiment

Riffing off a resource put out by our denomination, “Breathe Night” opens with worship and centers on a contemplative activity from church tradition.

Curious how the kids were connecting, I asked our two sophomore girls — who are both blessed with the spiritual gift of telling it like it is — what they thought of Breathe Night. The responses I got were a simple “good” and “it reminds me of camp, and I like camp.” Success.

In youth ministry and in life, there is no such thing as a miracle program or even something wholly original. Nonetheless, Breathe Night has been for us one more step away from the limitations of chocolate-covered spinach:

First, it does not patronize the kids. By giving them this space, it puts them in charge of their own spiritual biographies. Theologically speaking, we trust this works because of the influence of the Holy Spirit. If that is a bit too shaky a foundation for our modernist sensibilities, there are plenty of scientific studies supporting the idea of contemplation as good for the brain. Both Christians and non-Christians are welcome to the Breathe Night space, and by extending the invitation to both we underscore the idea that church is a place for all to experience God, not simply a place for fun and games.

Second, by prioritizing spiritual formation we actually put fun and games in their proper place. At the end of each Breathe Night is an informal time of snacks and hanging out, along with an invitation to join us next week for an activity that usually is more on the fun side of the spectrum. Like any meal where the entrée comes before dessert, putting the spinach before the chocolate seems to make more sense. In the merely strategic terms that help us think through how to “grow” a youth ministry, Breathe Night serves as outreach to the spiritual seekers, the low-hanging fruit.

Finally, Breathe Night provides that much needed space kids need to process today’s information overload. In today’s world of constant noise and fractured attention, the idea of pushing pause is subversive. One example: during a recent Breathe Night that utilized a labyrinth, students had space to write and journal while the rest of the group made it through the labyrinth. I have yet to see a sermon move the kids to write down quite this much. We ended up running late and so the leaders had to gently interrupt the sound of mad scribbling on paper.

Of course, the kids are not the only ones getting something out of Breathe Night. As a participant myself I can say each of the spiritual practices has left me feeling inspired and recharged — and I imagine this has been true for the other adult leaders who join in. Even if as a “Millennial” I did not spend my formative years in today’s information flood (I did not get my first smartphone until after college), I am still living in today’s world with all of its challenges. I suspect those of us who are “Generation X-ers”, “Baby Boomers”, or part of the WWII generations are all feeling some sort of fatigue from being always connected all the time.

Kids these days are finding God in the disconnect. Maybe it would be wise for the rest of us to follow their example.

Article cross-posted from Ravenswood Evangelical Covenant Church’s February 2015 newsletter. Also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

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Giving “Always-Online” Kids a Space to Breathe

Church Leadership & Climate Change: a quick guide to action

I work “bi-vocationally” as an evangelical youth minister and as a faith-rooted climate change activist. In the latter, I am mobilizing young Christians to influence our senior church leaders to use their moral authority to support meaningful climate action.

Given this unique role, a number of my sympathetic—but perplexed!—colleagues in ministry have asked me this question:

What can we, as leaders of the church, do about climate change?

They assume I am some sort of a expert on the topic—and for a while I did too, until I opened my mouth and realized that all that was coming out was talking points and sound bites. While these quips have certain value for inspiring large audiences and time-strapped leaders, they are not necessarily helpful for navigating the complexities of church ministry.

Recently, I have been brainstorming how to answer the climate question using the language of ministry—the sort of language that might actually take root within the church leadership imagination and blossom into original ideas and real projects. As an activist, this exercise has given me a fresh and exciting vision of what “climate action” consists of.

And so, as both an activist and a church leader, I want to share some of these ideas with you. To start, I am going to discuss the two modes available to the minister for speaking about climate change: the prophetic voice and the pastoral voice. These two voices will harmonize in three familiar ministries that can be applied to your church context.

The Prophetic Voice

The prophetic voice is a tradition that stretches back to the Old Testament. The prophets were men and women who looked upon their world with godly eyes. With this perspective, the prophets called out the present situation for what it was — and the future for what it might become.

The prophetic voice is a natural fit for talking about climate change. In a rush for cheap energy, we exploit God’s creation to extract the fuels that give us incredible power and speed. The present situation is such that scientific abstractions (e.g. carbon emissions, radiative forcing) are compounding with the rest of the world’s brokenness, as the global poor and marginalized are left most vulnerable to climate disruptions — despite contributing the least to the problem.

If we do not repent and change our ways, we risk a future where our civilization’s existence stands at risk. The planet we neglected to take care of threatens to take revenge on us through plagues like catastrophic flooding and crop failures. It is an ironic twist of justice that seems like it would fit snugly in between the writings of Amos and Obadiah.

While climate change might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, the moral obstacles are as old as the prophets. Human beings continue to succumb to greed, pride, and the false notion that there is nothing that actually can be done. We still act as if God is not real and alive in our time. Because of this, it is imperative that ministers of the Christian gospel reclaim the prophetic voice and speak out boldly against the sins that drive anthropogenic climate change.

The Pastoral Voice

Whether or not our job title includes the term “pastor”, many of us in church leadership embrace the pastoral dimensions of ministry. We hear ourselves in the call of Jesus to Peter: “tend my sheep.” Through projects of compassion and spiritual formation, we speak with the pastoral voice to join Christ in the work of leading people to streams of living water.

If it is prophetic to share the latest United Nations report on our Facebook wall, it is pastoral to join the Facebook group Climate Change: It’s Personal, where members “discuss the subjective, psychological, social, and spiritual experience of climate change.” If there is a climate report that might be of pastoral interest, it is the American Psychological Association’s recent analysis titled “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change”.

The work of pastoral care requires that Christian ministers be in tune to a range of emotional crises and mental distresses — including those wrought by climate change. Not only will the physical impacts of climate change be a driver of stress, trauma and grief in the 21st century, but the mere idea of climate change has important psychological consequences as well. This is evidenced by the depression and hopelessness suffered by many scientists, the so-called “frontliners” who have wrapped their minds around what our civilization is spiraling towards. Within the broader environmentalist community, phenomena like solastalgia and ecoanxiety are not figments of the imagination but very real experiences for a growing number of people. (Trust me, I’m seeing it.)

My prayer for the church is that we can learn to come around all who are suffering, all who are yearning for hope, all whose problems have been trivialized by the rest of the world. In relation to the sheep of the 21st century, this learning can only happen if the shepherds grapple with understanding how climate change is causing the flock to stir.

The Prophetic and Pastoral in Harmony

I’m no choir director, but my understanding is that when two different voices come together in song, the aim is that they somehow make a harmony. When it comes to climate change, the prophetic voice and pastoral voice resonate best in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary and empowerment.

Reconciliation

Sin deforms our relationships into destructive and hateful forms. Accordingly, the ministry of reconciliation is the work of joining God “who reconciled himself to us through Christ” in navigating these relationships back to a place of goodness and wholeness.

When it comes to climate change, one of the most obvious relational fault line is the divide in our political spectrum. By a fluke of history, climate change has become a marker of cultural identity and partisan politics in the United States. The stereotype goes thus: if you’re a Democrat, you “believe” in climate change; if you’re a Republican, you don’t.

In fact, studies show that a person’s view on climate change is more strongly correlated with their political affiliation than their religious identity. This means that the divisions we see in Congress are also likely to be found in our pews.

Partisan politics may seem petty to a minister of the Christian gospel. After all, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. But we are not called to transcend the fray but rather to live among it, building bridges among a humanity prone to division. This works requires the sincerity and objectivity of the prophetic voice, but also the compassion and patience of the pastoral voice.

Sanctuary

The world can be a threatening and dangerous place. For millennia, people have found refuge in spaces meant to house the sacred — in Latin, sanctuarium — so that the word sanctuary has come to mean “a place of safety.” As climate-related natural disasters increase and some parts of our civilization perhaps even destabilize, the ministry of sanctuary is all the more necessary for church leaders to consider.

The ministry of sanctuary is clearly pastoral: it is providing a space for peace and order in the midst of chaos and brokenness. But in a world affected by climate change, sanctuary must also be prophetic: it will require foresight to see the challenges ahead and be ready when disaster strikes, instead of passively waiting until after and too late.

Of course, not every church has a sanctuary building, nor does every church find itself in a community where these sort of climate-related emergencies are a realistic threat. If we expand our imagination, however, we can think of the ministry of sanctuary as directing our financial assets through our missions and international relief agencies, in order to respond to the increase in humanitarian disasters worldwide.

Empowerment

Climate dread is the overwhelming fear many feel when contemplating worst-case climate scenarios. Climate denial, on the other hand, is the categorical rejection of climate change as a reality.

While seemingly opposite, climate dread and climate denial have a common obstacle: the belief that there is nothing that can be done about climate change. Climate dreaders see planet-wide catastrophe as inevitable, either because they think we have already reached the “tipping point” or because they cannot imagine how the political coalition required to halt climate change will ever form.

On the other hand, climate deniers usually are not greedy, inhumane, or dumb — despite the stereotypes. Rather, most climate deniers have not been presented with adequate solutions to the problem. When they realize that their ability to do good is not enough to solve the problem, they mentally convince themselves that the problem is not as big as it seems. (In psychology 101, this is called cognitive dissonance).

Empowerment can play a key role in overcoming this obstacle. By giving people a sense that there is something they can do about climate change, we can help them cope with the problem or perhaps even admit to its reality. The ministry of empowerment requires using the prophetic voice to point the way forward and the pastoral voice to encourage others on that journey.

An urgent call

photo-1413977886085-3bbbf9a7cf6eI have outlined two ways of speaking about climate change — prophetically and pastorally — which intersect in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary, and empowerment. My hope is that these categories are specific enough to give you a vision for your own leadership, yet open enough to apply to any context.

Perhaps, even with this practical way forward, you don’t see climate change action as a priority for your ministry. Let me remind you that climate change is set to be one of the defining issues of the 21st century, shifting the ground we journey on — figuratively and literally. Many institutions, from Wall Street to the Pentagon to subsistence farmers in Malawi, are aware of this and reconsidering their own strategic priorities in light of what is being called the “new normal”.

We as church leaders must begin to think ahead and prepare for the various socio-cultural impacts climate change will bring to our world and our work. Otherwise, we risk being leaders of a church that — much like as we saw in the 20th century — will find itself playing catch-up to the present, struggling to be “relevant” and “contemporary”.

And so I beg you to take these considerations to heart — if not for the sake of the planet, for the sake of your ministry.

May God find us faithful.



Cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn Pulse.

Church Leadership & Climate Change: a quick guide to action

The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management

This post is cross-listed on Medium — check it out!

As a non-profit professional, volunteer management is an integral part of my work — and by corollary, doing volunteer management well is a key ingredient for any success I may ever hope to achieve.

As the part-time youth minister for a neighborhood church on the north side of Chicago, I have a team of nearly a dozen volunteers who help me lead programs, drive the group around to events, and spend time getting to know individual kids so that the kids know they loved and cared for.

As the part-time communications assistant for a network of young adults organizing for climate change action, I consider every activist who signs our “Call to Action” or dons our signature orange t-shirt at a rally as a volunteer. Furthermore, those who contribute content for our website or cover social media on my days off are also active volunteers, even if my only interaction with them is through e-mail.

Since both jobs are simply part-time, I often find myself being “two places at once” by having volunteers do what I physically can’t. Yet, even if either job was full-time, there would still be limits to what I could accomplish on my own, and so in theory effective volunteer management remains critical to unlocking the potential embedded in my organization’s mission/vision and resources.

Although I am far from being a veteran of volunteer management, I would easily rank volunteer management as one of the top skills I have developed and honed while out on the work force. (Apparently, even my colleagues think so — according to LinkedIn, I have received more endorsements for the skill of “volunteer management” than I have for my day jobs of “youth ministry” and “communications” combined).

It was only recently that I took a step back to reflect on my volunteer management style. My education was not in nonprofit management, so instead of following a prescribed set of best practices I have had to rely on my intuition (accompanied by a good dose of trial and error!). The result has been a personal volunteer management style that is simultaneously distinctive yet effective.

So what is my—if I may be so bold as to call it such—“secret sauce” to volunteer management?

Understand the difference between a “volunteer” and a “supporter”

Believe it or not, the “secret sauce” is just semantics. The terms “volunteer” and “supporter” are often used interchangeably, but there is value in learning to distinguish between the two, how they relate to you and your mission/vision.

A supporter is someone who believes in you and your mission/vision and is willing to resource you in order to carry out your mission/vision.

A volunteer is someone who believes in your mission/vision, but needs to be resourced by you in order to carry out that mission/vision.

Supporters will experience your mission/vision in the abstract — they might want give money in response to your annual report, for example. Volunteers will engage with your mission/vision in a “hands-on” way—they want to be in the trenches, at the intersection of noble ideals and nitty-gritty reality.

Some (partially idealized) examples from youth ministry:

Juan is one of my supporters. He has a van that he lets me borrow to transport youth for our off-site excursions. He knows I do not have a car of my own and he often offers me rides so I do not have to trek my way home in inclement weather. Often, when he is driving me home, Juan reminds me that he is praying for me and the work that I do.

Caitlin is one of my volunteers. She is a freshman at the nearby university, majoring in education. She is a leader for our middle school students during our weekly Youth Group night. Like me, she wants the best for the youth of the church and the surrounding neighborhood. She has offered to take students out to Starbucks to get to know them better. Caitlin has once revealed to me that she prays for the students on a regular basis.

See the difference?

Proximity to Mission and Values 2

An obligatory heads-up: you may encounter some people who might straddle both categories. Lars, for example, not only helps lead the weekly Youth Group (categorizing him as a volunteer), but is a financial contributor as well (categorizing him as a supporter). For me, the important thing is not to make Lars conform to predefined boxes of either “volunteer” or “supporter”, but to understand the multiple roles Lars fulfills for my organization.

Applying the Secret Sauce

Consider the secret sauce as a sort of marinade. You have to soak your organization in it before you get cooking. To do so, here are three questions, each to be asked at an almost mantra-like pace as you engage with your volunteers through the seasons.

Question #1 — Is this person a volunteer or a supporter?

For everyone who offers to help, it is up to you to discern whether they are a volunteer or a supporter (or both). Yes, it may take some intentional effort to learn where a person’s true passions and commitments lie — but learning this piece of knowledge upfront will save you from quite the headache down the road.

Because the main difference between a volunteer vs. a supporter is a matter of needing to be resourced vs. being able to resource, it is easy to stereotype volunteers as those who are not financially well off (e.g. students, unemployed) while supporters are those who have some extra money to give. Be careful about making this assumption! Some volunteers are looking to do something meaningful to complement their well-paid but not-so-fulfilling job, while some supporters might be providing forms of informal support that come without a clear price tag (e.g. a home-cooked meal, a consulting conversation, handiwork around the office, a shoulder to lean on).

Scaling up for larger operations, if you have someone in your organization who can help you manage supporters — for example, this might be a director of development or a board member — delegate. (If you are both the volunteer manager and the supporter manager, I’d be curious to hear how you ever get anything else done.)

Question #2 — Is this volunteer being resourced?

I can’t stress this enough: a volunteer needs to be resourced by you.

Too often, we chalk up volunteers as simply a resource for us to use and hopefully not exhaust. “Free labor” — an economic miracle if there ever was one.

Remember, what motivates a volunteer is your organization’s mission/vision. At the end of the day, your organization’s mission/vision is just words on paper, something that can be copied and pasted freely. What keeps a volunteer from going “lone wolf” — and instead, joining forces with you — is acknowledging that you have accumulated the assets, relationships & opportunities needed to make the mission/vision a reality.

Don’t ask this question in the abstract, but drill down to the practical, tangible versions of this question.

Some example questions I try and ask myself in youth ministry:

  • Is this volunteer being properly introduced to kids and co-leaders? Does this volunteer know what to do in case of an emergency?
  • Does this volunteer feel empowered when I am there?
  • Does this volunteer feel empowered when I am *not* there?
  • Is my volunteer team a true community, or just a bunch of names on a roster?
  • Are there any conferences or workshops that might be beneficial for the volunteer team?

More example questions, this time from climate activism:

  • Does this volunteer appreciate the difference between individual and collective action?
  • Do our national campaigns make sense — regarding both 1) how to participate, and 2) what goals may be achieved?
  • Is this volunteer connecting with other activists and organizers, so that they can take local action independent of our own organization?
  • Does the volunteer know how to message climate change appropriately, in a manner that is not too pessimistic nor partisan?

Question #3 — Is this volunteer free to go?

If what keeps your organization humming is an army of unpaid labor, you cannot get upset when a volunteer decides one day to just move on or go on hiatus.

One of the hardest parts about letting a volunteer go from your team is knowing that it falls on you to replace them. Volunteer recruitment could be a whole blog post by itself, but these basic guidelines should suffice: 1) maintain an attractive mission/vision and be able to communicate it effectively; 2) maintain active volunteer recruitment channels; 3) maintain a roster of “substitute” volunteers, perhaps including some of your supporters, who you can readily call on for one-time commitments during a time of transition.

If you have a volunteer who is otherwise unemployed or underemployed, be a partner in their job search when possible. Help them network, add them on LinkedIn, forward them job postings worth investigating. Yes, this might mean their tenure as a volunteer gets cut short, but you’ll have a better sense of timing of when the volunteer’s gig will be up. Further benefits include 1) you potentially get to place an ally at a partner organization, or 2) the outgoing volunteer might reciprocate the favor and help you recruit a replacement.

Granted, in youth ministry, I need some sort of consistency so that the kids don’t feel abandoned. I usually ask volunteers to make commitments only as long as until either winter or summer break, at the end of which they are free either to renew their commitment or simply be done. This gives me some stability in maintaining an active volunteer team, but also gives the volunteer a sense of accomplishment when their time is finally up (as opposed to the endless marathon of an indefinite commitment, where the only way out is to quit).

When the time finally does come for your volunteer to go: celebrate. If you are a healthy organization with a compelling mission/vision, what will take your volunteer out of the picture is likely a task better suited to their skills and ambitions, an opportunity to do something better for the world.

Which, if you ask me, sounds a lot like good news for the world. As a non-profit professional, isn’t that what your whole job is about anyways?

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The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management