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?


The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management

Freeing the Bible from bird cages

I haven’t been publishing much on this blog recently. Many reasons for that, one of which is that I’ve been in a season where the desire to read > the desire to write. Here’s a review, cross-posted from, of one of the books I recently completed.

Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue

Admittedly, I got this book to fulfill a somewhat goofy curiosity. I work as the youth minister for an evangelical church in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. As part of a desire to give my students some sort of group identity, I have been using the images of a raven (see what I did there?). When I saw that the final chapter of Blue’s book would be devoted entirely to the raven, I could not help but buy the book, hoping to see if there was any biblical significance to this symbol I had already been using.

I restrained myself from skipping to the end, reading the whole book one bird (one chapter) at a time. Each of the ten chapters could stand on their own as a self-contained read, although there are also some obvious bird pairs (pigeon-dove and raven, vulture and eagle, cock and hen). The chapters could best be described as “meditations” on each bird, composed almost entirely of the seemingly irrelevant tangents stereotypically associated with liberal arts professors, but masterfully arranged into a sort of full circle under Blue’s artful writing. I often read single chapters as a sort of “morning devotional”, and over the couple of weeks I was reading the book I couldn’t help but discuss some of the more interesting bits at staff meetings or with friends.

Blue’s discussion of the birds overturns common understandings of familiar Bible passages, as the subtitle “a provocative guide” suggests. One way Blue achieves this is through combing over the original Greek and Hebrew (for example, “dove” may be better translated as “pigeon”, while “eagle” may be better translated as “vulture”). Furthermore, Blue also combines historical research with some of her own bird-watching to uncover possible connotations different birds may have carried to the original biblical authors or the historical Christian church, the sort of connotations that modern western Christians may not pick up on reading the next.

I would not recommend this book as an introduction to the Bible or as a guide to Christian living, as it does not address major Biblical themes or even many basic concepts (e.g. salvation, community, etc.). For example, I am not going to be using this book with any of my youth (except for, of course, relevant portions of the raven chapter). Rather, I would recommend this book for someone who has grown familiar with the Bible, and perhaps is either a little bored with Scripture or has grown rigid in their interpretation of the text. For many of us, Blue’s book serves as a reminder that we are not called to put the Bible in (metaphorical) bird cages, but rather be bird watchers as God’s revelation to the world continually shows up and surprises us anew.

(A good complementary read for Consider the Birds would be Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, as both books deal with fresh yet faithful understandings of Scripture, and of course have birds as a symbolic connection).

View Consider the Birds: A Subversive Guide to the Birds of the Bible on

Freeing the Bible from bird cages

On Games

This is a meditation on how games can change our life, or perhaps how games are life itself.

There is quite a bit of text here, so if you don’t have time to read it now, I recommend saving it for later using a web service like Pocket. I also have cross-posted to Medium.

Other posts in this series include On Notifications (!)On Questions (?)On Decisions (/) and On Fantasy (^).


I grew up on an abandoned cow ranch on the leeward side of Oregon’s coastal mountain range. Christened by the previous owners as Mountain Shadow Ranch, what was mediocre habitat for cows turned out to be fantastic for at least three things: first, trail running, as a certain one-mile loop was my primary way of engaging with the luxury of acreage that my family was fortunate enough to have. Second, paintball, which was not really something I enjoyed because it hurt but my younger sister nevertheless bought all the equipment for the two of us so she would have an excuse to cause me pain without getting in trouble.

The third thing Mountain Shadow Ranch was good for was cats. Lots and lots of cats.

When I was young my family adopted a few felines for the fun of it. These domestic cats had the entirety of Mountain Shadow Ranch to themselves. They chased mice and climbed trees and colluded their next scheme from the confines of our (their) ramshackle barn.

And, thanks to the feral cats coming from the nearby county park, our cats had kittens. Lots and lots of kittens. Thanks to the basics of biology, the Nyquist family eventually found itself taking care of thirty-plus cats.

A dark cloud the color of a coyote’s nose and the shape of the Lotka-Volterra equation formed over Mountain Shadow Ranch. I will spare the more gruesome details to simply say that thanks to the basics of ecology, the Nyquist family eventually found itself taking care of zero cats.

Some nights you can hear the coyotes howl at the moon and the cattle laugh from the grave: “Told you so.”


A thought to get your wheels turning:

This suggests a general characteristic of the nature of play that is reflected in playing: all playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players. Even in the case of games in which one tries to perform tasks that one has set oneself, there is a risk that they will not “work,” “succeed” or “succeed again,” which is the attraction of the game. Whoever “tries” is in fact the one who is tried. The real subject of the game (this is shown in precisely those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but instead the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself.

— Hans Georg-Gadamer, Truth & Method, p. 106


After being home to no cats, Mountain Shadow Ranch now again can be called home for one cat.

One cat with the appearance of a dove and the playfulness of a dolphin — so white, so fluffy, so pure, so innocent that neither my parents nor my younger siblings could decide on a name for her. Therefore, in lieu of a proper name, she was christened “Special Kitty”.

Special Kitty is so special that, in the never-ending chess match against the local coyote pack, she is strictly an indoor cat. To potentially put Special Kitty in harm’s way is such a direct violation of her specialness that — well, it can’t ever happen.

The Nyquist family house is Special Kitty’s domain, so much so that when I — a stranger to her — came home for the holidays, I was greeted with a passive-aggressive turf war. It began with Special Kitty swatting at my heel as I sat at the dinner table or worked on the computer. The turf war escalated quickly, as Special Kitty began to sneakily creep into the room I had “moved into” and defecate under the bed.

It did not end there. Some of Special Kitty’s acts of unhospitality were simply so outlandish I just feel uncomfortable broadcasting them over the internet: meow-eww.

At the end of the day, however, Special Kitty is just another housecat. And in the neverending battle between Kaleb and the cat, I have discovered her one true weakness: shiny things.

It was amazing how much a little piece of silver string could turn our resident princess into pure animal. It became prey and predator like — an opportunity to dominate, a threat to exterminate. A simple jangle of this string, and it was Game On.

I was as fascinated by the cat as the cat was by the string, so in a fit of pre-holiday boredom I made a video montage of this phenomenon. (Now, I suppose, I can check off “impulsive cat video” from my Internet bingo card.)


As a youth minister, I am notorious for experimenting with new game ideas. I put a lot of value into the first half hour of our time together, the time spent in the gym before the “discussion” or “lesson” part of the night.

Now that I am in my second year at Ravenswood Covenant Church, there are some games that I have firmly introduced as Ravenswood Student Ministry traditions.

There’s “Save the Queen”, a combination of team dodgeball and Kubb. Another crowd favorite has been “Extreme Bananagrams”, mostly because of that one time it all came down to a single letter tile. We have “the Annual Paper Airplane Challenge”, where the golden airplane is rewarded to the team with that can achieve top scores in speed, distance, accuracy, design and the legendary battle mode.

(The co-champion of the 2nd Annual Paper Airplane Challenge, who I will refer to by her YouTube name dieunko, made a video about her victory. Check it out, and by the way if you subscribed to her channel it would make her day.)

My career as an experimental game designer started my first week as a summer camp counselor, when I was tasked with the responsibility of entertaining eight kids who signed up for “Ninjas.” To fulfill this task, I created a two-hour-long role-play where my rather honorable ninjas were tasked with the singular duty of keeping the camp staff accountable. This duty was achieved by sneaking around the facilities and targeting lone staff members in an abbreviated, martial-arts inspired, flash mob routine. The kids loved it, and in future weeks I found myself not only leading new “ninja” cohorts, but being on the receiving end of some as well.

(“What’s Ninjas?” I had asked the program coordinator. His response: “I dunno. Just go with it, and for bonus points see if you can keep it politically correct.”)

I think many youth ministers fall into what I call the “attractional model” of youth ministry. The “attractional model” sees games merely as candy-coating for the so-called “real stuff” — the theological lesson or discipleship moment. Get the kids in the door with fun, and get them out the door with something substantial. I suppose the logic is valid.

But in my own personal model of youth ministry, the games are more integral to the entire experience. It is within a game like “Extreme Bananagrams” where pre-existing relationships are temporarily suspended, as best friends find themselves dueling each other and complete strangers find themselves now having to communicate with each other in order to win. In a game like “Ninjas”, the youth achieve a fleeting five seconds of role reversal as they swarm an authority figure, accompanied by what is sometimes a precious injection of self-esteem for an eleven-year-old boy who only knows the bottom of the social ladder. In a game like “Save the Queen” I find myself tackling adolescent misogyny as the boys struggle to accept their turn to play as the imaginary Queen, and there is that moment of what I hope is female empowerment when everyone realizes that the fate of the game ultimately rests on the quick wit and agility of what was originally thought to be just another “damsel in distress.”

Games, I believe, transform relationships by scaffolding relationships with a set of laws and values foreign to everyday life.

I am not looking too much into this, I swear.


I live in a house on the north side of Chicago with six other guys. We call our little community “the Cardinal Deux” — which, in turn, is named after the original “the Cardinal” where we lived in the year prior, which in turn was named ad perpetuam memoriam after the cardinal that flew into our window and died soon after impact.

As we later said, “the name just hit us one day.”

I am reminded, by the incessant meowing I hear as I draft this meditation, that I don’t live with just six other guys, but a domestic cat named Esther. A tuxedo cat in appearance only and a tiara cat in spirit, Esther has forsaken all forms of cat etiquette for the sake of manipulating her humans to fulfill even her slightest whim.

Each morning, she interrupts our sleep simply to so she can be fed an hour or two before any of us have even thought about about having breakfast. Each afternoon, she makes it impossible to watch TV until she has been fed again. However generously and frequently we feed her, it simply is not enough for her insatiable appetite.

Esther was once a drug addict as well. Last year, when she sprained her foot, the veterinarian set her up with a prescription of painkillers. Esther’s direct owner (the rest of us are just her roommates or perhaps slaves) was responsible for administering these painkillers, which Esther took a liking to. After three weeks, Esther’s foot was visibly better to us roommate-slaves, but when Esther’s direct owner came home her “limp” would magically reappear, part of a successful scheme to appeal to his sense of sympathy and secure more another dose of painkillers.

Esther may even get a sadistic joy from her manipulation. To make my case, I testify to a scene from last summer, when she caught a grasshopper that was jumping around the backyard. She gnawed on it for a little while, amputating one of it’s legs. What was prey became play, as the grasshopper began to hop around our kitchen with limited mobility, and Esther would chase it down in a rigged “cat-versus-grasshopper” game.


I play games with my youth group in order to scaffold these middle schoolers with a new set of relationships, one that transcends cliches and popularity and the sort of things that divide middle schoolers.

But maybe games don’t work like that.

I mean, look at Russia. It feels like the Sochi Olympics were only the day-before-yesterday. The Olympics are supposed to be the games-to-end-all-games, the ultimate arena of competition, the one time and place the world unites. And Russia was doing a pretty good job of it, with that cool Opening Ceremony and the sense that the last snow of the Cold War had finally melted.

And then, boom, Ukraine.


Given the terrific reputation we have with cardinals, one of our female friends connected the men of the Cardinal Deux with a cardinal who (after being caught in her backyard and playfully gnawed on by her dog) needed a new home.

We accepted, christening this new cardinal with the sort of name that makes “Special Kitty” sound inspired: “Red”. Thanks to the efforts of one roommate in particular, we were able to accommodate Red with a regular diet of seeds and grapes, delivered directly to his cage — a cage furnished with a food bowl, water bowl, perching branch and mirror.

Of course, not every resident of the Cardinal Deux took so well to having a cardinal dwell among us. The mere presence of Red drove Esther absolutely insane, awakening her primal instincts, transforming her spirit from that of mere housecat to wild lioness.

Except Red was in a cage, and as long as he remained in a cage, so was Esther’s spirit. And so Esther just sat in the kitchen all day, staring at Red in the cage, as Red stared at himself in the mirror.


I wrote a mediation a while back about fantasy. I concluded the post with a cliff-hanger, the unsupported claim that fantasy done right is a place where our desires can be restored.

I promised to explain what I meant by that, and here it is:

Fantasy is the experience of our desires playing a game.

Analogous to how games transform relationships by scaffolding relationships with strange rules, fantasy transforms desires by scaffolding desires with a strange world — be it a strange world with boy wizards or the virtual world of video games or the daydreams inside our head.

Desire is a fundamental part of being human. It sometimes gets a bad rap, because people are quick to assume unfulfilled desires should lead to discontentment. I think this is unfair, as it is often the case that unmet desires are what drive us to begin some of the best adventures. Instead, the problems commonly associated with desire is usually not inherent to desire itself but rather with the distortion of desire away from things that are good and in proper portions.

That is philosophical language to describe an idea that may not be philosophically sound, but it is nevertheless how I have begun to see the world over the past many months.


As I’m drafting this little piece of this meditation, it is the evening of Valentine’s Day. I am spending the night solo not necessarily because I am single and alone, but because I am winding down from the first day of a planning retreat for a conference where we are asking the question of how do we educate and empower thousands of high school youth with respect to some of the pressing social justice issues of the day. (If you know me, you know I’m super excited about this opportunity — but it is a sign, I fear, that I might be married to my work).

I am, of course, well aware of number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are celebrating the night with their romantic interest. Some of the dates going down sound so gushy and wonderful and full of horse-pulled carriage rides it all sounds a bit like a fairy-tale. A real life fantasy, one that might seem a bit more like a dream come tomorrow morning.

“Dating”, of course, is often considered a game in it’s own right.

Growing up, I had a friend who managed to live in the liminal space between hipster and bro. He once recommended Neil Strauss’ “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”. I can’t say I actually ever read it, but the title (emblazoned in gold lettering, adorned with silhouettes of women in seductive poses, all on the faux-black leather cover) is pretty telling. Trying to get a date, or at least a hook-up for the night, is a type of game — a game, just like any other game, composed of rules and strategies.

And, ladies, this gaming goes both ways. I’ve seen the cover of your Cosmopolitan magazines: “We found your future boyfriend: 23 great places to meet men!” “50 ways to seduce a man (in 1 minute or less)”. “Drive him crazy: Tips To Make Him Stand Up & Take Notice”.

(…has any other guy out there had nightmares of empowered women, and when I say empowered women I mean empowered by Cosmopolitan tips and tricks, finding us in our secret hiding places, seducing us quicker than the time it takes to properly introduce ourselves, and then using our undivided attention to drive us crazy simply for the sake of it? This sounds like the greatest security threat to the entire man-nation.)

Even among my many roommates, who are (ahem) more gentlemanly than Casanova, dating is still a game. A considerable portion of roommate-bonding is done through talking about how to decode body language, how our latest dates went, how we should best follow-up, and which girls each other is still interested in (and who is off-limits for the time being).

For those of us in more committed relationships, there is still an element of strategy in figuring out how to bring the relationship to the “next level”.

Dating is a game: some of us are masters, some of us are novices; some of us are naturals, some of us could use some practice. This is not to disparage dating, I am just stating the facts and perhaps even celebrating the whole institution a little bit.

But my instinct suggests that there is something that Neil Strauss nor Cosmopolitan nor even my roommates will tell you:

You aren’t just playing “the game”, “the game” is playing you. Before you successfully pick up a single woman, seduce a man in under 60 seconds, or bring it to the next level, you have already been enchanted by the game. You have been driven by a will to win before you have driven someone else into your arms. The thirst for victory is one part your nature that desires a companion, another part a culture that celebrates those who are winning “the game.”

“The game” is one part an actual game, another part fantasy. The setup perhaps begins in early adolescence, when we let our desires run wild with our first run at MASH or our first celebrity crush. “The game” develops further when we watch our first love movie or read our first love story, when we have our first schoolyard crush, when we participate in our first scripted romance such as the prom. Far from lust (the self-defeating desire for a desire), sexual fantasy is the rather innocuous process of experimenting with both relational desires and erotic desires in a safe environment, seeing which desires fit and which desires don’t and which desires need to be modified.

Somehow, even when the rest of you grows up, it feels like “the game” can always bring you back to feeling like a fourteen-year-old.

Probably the most fascinating part of “the game” for strategy nerds is that rarely you will find two players who are playing with the exact same understanding of the rules. There are different ways to win, ranging from a long-term relationship, to a one-night stand, to an ulterior motive, to no set goal at all. There are different expectations of how to communicate, of how far is too far, of how soon is too soon. There are a plethora of possible gender roles and a spectrum of sexual orientation. There are countless strategies of game play, with some eligible singles relying on the “thick market” of a dating website or app; while other people still rely on parents or religious authorities. Apparently, according to how Juan Pablo blew up my news feed last month, not even the reality TV dating shows cannot codify the rules to a single set of rules.

So “the game”, as it were, is not one single game but rather many, many games.


I wanted to write something about the Hunger Games here, but seeing as I have not read the books and only know the plot through the movies that are already out, I decided against talking about how a story — where a game is created that has kids are killing kids as a form of building national pride and distracting the various districts from the very real problems in society — is a great testament to the powers of a game.

Somebody else who has read the books should write that blog post. Please send me a link when you do.


All fantasies may very well be games, but of course not all games are fantasy. Some games are just too real.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, terrorists from the Palestinian group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Worst fears were realized as all 11 hostages were eventually killed, 9 of whom were killed at the Fürstenfeldbruck NATO airbase, as German authorities pretended to agree to Black September’s demands that they be able to escape with the hostages, and the following ambush eventually crumpled over itself, casting a dark shadow over the remainder of the XX Olympiad.

As tragic as this event was, even it could be considered a game. The Munich Massacre has been analyzed through the lens of “game theory”, the study of strategic decision making. What were the motivations of the actors involved? What were the decisions were available to them? What possible outcomes may have been achieved?

One conclusion:

“Both actors [the German government and the Palestinian terrorists] were oblivious to the other’s constraints and were locked in a non-solvable situation from which neither could deviate. Hence, the German government, guided by a zero-sum game strategy, with no communication and information about the terrorists’ strategy and lacking decision-making powers, tried and failed to force a solution at the airport.”

— Reuben Miller, “Game Theory and Hostage-Taking Incidents: A Case Study of the Munich Olympic Games” p.31

Game over.


The epic stalemate that was Esther versus Red ended abruptly one morning, when Red was found dead, his corpse sideways in the food dish.

We, of course, had to investigate whether or not Esther had somehow struck in the night. But there were no signs of violence or trauma. Even if Esther had gotten her claws in the cage, there would have been no way she could have reached as far as the food dish that had become Red’s deathbed.

Esther was acquitted of criminal charges, but I am not so sure she was completely innocent. Red, remember, was a wild animal who one day found himself in the jaws of a curious canine, only to find himself soon thereafter stuck in a cage as another domestic animal salivated over his presence.

My autopsy: with his world confined from sky to cage, his only companion being his reflection in the mirror and the menacing cat who just sat there and stared, Red just lost the will to live.

My prescription, if I may be so bold: with his world growing so small and oppressive, the one thing that could have saved Red would have been a game.


The human resources world is abuzz right now with “gamification” — the process of turning otherwise dull, unattractive work into small, pleasurable games. Wal-Mart, for example, has successfully trained 75,000 of its distribution center workers on safety regulations by turning what would have been a 30-minute webinar into a daily series of 3-minute games.

In an interview with Forbes magazine, Adam Penenberg (author of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking) cited science to explain the allure of the gamification phenomenon:

“A game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback. Every day life is usually anything but. Because games offer clearly articulated rewards for each point players score and new level they achieve, they trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things.”

I do not work in a big office or anything remotely like one. Nor are my tasks routine or even straight-forward. Without human resources breathing down my neck, or co-workers to compare my productivity to, it is pretty easy to slack off and become unaccountable to the work that I do, even if on my better days I really do believe in the mission and vision of the various non-profits I work for.

Therefore, at the beginning of each work week, the first item on my to-do list is to figure out my to-do list. I may spend up to 10% of my working hours each week just figuring out what I have to do in the week ahead.

It feels a bit like unboxing a board game, shuffling the cards and putting all the pieces where they belong, all before the first roll of the dice.

Even my to-do list app has gotten in on the gamification trend. At the upper-right corner of my Todoist screen is a little colored circle signifying my “Todoist Karma” score. Every time I complete a task or otherwise use the app effectively, I get karma points. But every time I postpone a task or leave something incomplete, I begin to lose those hard-earned karma points.

Right now my karma score is 6,974, bestowing upon me the rank of “Expert”. I am on track for in April seeing my score rise to 7,500, levelling me up to the rank of “Master”. The ultimate goal, of course, is 10,000 — the rank of “Enlightened”.


I went for a run on Friday afternoon, the second day of spring and the first day this year the temperature hit the high fifties. The run was a “fartlek” — a speed play — where I threw in short bursts of speed to help blow off some of the rust that my body seems to have accumulated over the winter.

The loop I took circled around Lane Technical High School and the neighborhood parks that straddle the river. I saw kids out and about. Some kids were playing “organized” sports like lacrosse or rowing, under the supervision of coaches who may be more competitive than the kids themselves. I saw multiple games of basketball: the games in the parks were drawing a large and multiethnic crowd of youth, while one other game took place in an alleyway where the basketball hoop was positioned over the garage, the game being played by a small cohort of pale teenagers in collared shirts and dresses, likely the children of a conservative immigrant family looking for a way to connect in spite of the smothering shelter of their home.

Other youth were skateboarding around, the very landscape of the city transformed into a game. As a runner playing a very similar game, these were the ones I related to the most, even if we probably would not hang out any more than a brief moment on the sidewalk.

The sight of all these youth playing games was remarkable, not because it was a new sight but because it had been so long since I had seen last it. Winter had kept so many of these kids indoors, but now that the sun was shining and the entire weekend was before them, they embraced the outdoors in the only way they knew they could that would also keep them out of trouble: playing games.

At the alleyway entrance, about fifty meters away from the Cardinal Deux, there is a little speed limit sign that has been posted by one of our neighbors. LIMIT 15 MPH.

As a runner, I know exactly what 15 MPH is: the legendary 4-minute mile pace. When I was in high school and college, I could run a quarter-mile and almost a half-mile at 15 MPH pace. I would like to think I can still make it close, even though the working world has significantly cut into my leisure time available for working out.

On Friday, like many days, as I ran by the LIMIT 15 MPH sign to finish my run, I hit the lap button on my watch and picked up the speed, shifting gears in rapid succession attempting to make it as close to 4-minute mile pace that I could muster for that day.

When one runs that fast, less oxygen than usual makes it to the brain and rationality is suspended in favor of the more basic mental functions, like breathing and heartbeats.

Is life a game?

Or are games life?

Doesn’t matter the difference, I respond, as I cross the finish line for again one more time.


On Games

Epiphany, 2014 edition

It is Monday, January 6, 2014. Today, we mark the church celebration of Epiphany, the onset of a global warming-induced “polar vortex”, and the reopening of doors at the United States Congress.

Somehow, all of this fits together. But, first, let me break it all down.


Christmas may seem like forever ago, but a partridge in the pear tree has done the math, and “the twelve days of Christmas” only ended just yesterday. Today is the day of Epiphany.

For those of you whose neighbors have yet to take down their obnoxiously bright and colored Christmas decorations, Epiphany is the day you can finally knock on their door with righteous indignation and demand they take down that towering inflatable snowman which floods the street with 8-bit carols and somehow changes color every 37 seconds.

For Catholics and many Protestants, Epiphany marks the day Jesus was visited by the magi (aka, the three wise men). The name comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which we would translate into “manifestation”. Accordingly, Epiphany is a celebration that God the Son was seen to be manifested in the physical form of Jesus.

5584506097_3a62c638e5_oThe story of the magi is recounted in Matthew 2:1-12. Spurred on by a rising star, the magi made a long trek from the far east, travelling potentially thousands of miles by foot/camel. When they arrived to Jerusalem, they asked where the “child who had been born king of the Jews” was. They eventually found Jesus in Bethlehem and presented him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If these gifts strike you as particularly impractical, that’s because they were. The point of bestowing such luxuries was to underscore the royal status of this young child, born to a peasant girl and her carpenter husband.

Matthew 2:16-18 adds a narrative layer. King Herod, who had been appointed by Caesar as “king of the Jews” and rather fancied the title, did not like the idea of some child out there who also was being called “king of the Jews”. In order to secure his position, Herod sent the atrocious order to kill every child in Bethlehem aged two years or younger.

Kill. Every. Child.

Let the sadness of that sit with you for a moment. One man’s egotism caused the death of innocent children, save for the one boy he had targeted in the first place. If only he had been open-minded about the whole thing, Herod might have seen that this one boy apparently posed no immediate threat to his worldly throne. But instead, Herod failed to see light, and the consequences were simply unjustifiable.

Polar vortex

It is brutally cold today. From where I am in Chicago, it’s a high of -5°F (sans wind chill). This is balmy compared to what many other Midwesterners are experiencing, what the National Weather Service is calling “life-threatening” cold.

As the communications assistant for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, I can attest that cold snaps like this are tough climates for talking about global warming.

I can almost hear that perennial sneer: “where’s that global warming now?”

I want to defensively retort, “it’s complicated, you ignoramus.” But just as much as name-calling is not effective for keeping the conversation alive, dismissing something as “complicated” is not a valid argument.

So, in the spirit of making my case, here’s what we know about this particular cold snap: it is part of a “polar vortex”, the icy version of a hurricane. Usually these things like to stay put where they belong — the North Pole.


Why has this polar vortex come to visit us like an unpleasant Santa Claus? In theory, similar to how global warming will strengthen a hurricane, it also weakens the polar vortex. This year, we can attribute above-seasonal temperatures in the far north (think Canada and Greenland) to weakening this particular polar vortex. The particular problem with a polar vortex that has been compromised in such a way is that it splits and spins off in every which direction, as this NASA image (red = polar vortex) of a similar 2009 split helpfully illustrates.

Like I said, its complicated and the scientists still have to crunch their final numbers, but global warming will likely shoulder a significant portion of the blame for today’s bitterly cold weather.

2nd Session of the 113th Congress

If magi and a polar vortex weren’t enough, today marks the convening of the 2nd Session of the 113th Congress in Washington, DC.

The 113th Congress has a mildly ambitious agenda, with the debt ceiling, minimum wage and immigration being the top issues. Many voters are skeptical that the 113th Congress will even get this much done, following a historically unproductive 1st session and worse approval ratings than cockroaches.

I am not an insider, but I pay attention. My best estimation is that the 113th Congress will do little to nothing on the issue of climate change in 2014.

4275907662_fd1c967b7e_oBut, politically speaking, 2014 is far from an insignificant year for climate advocacy. It is, after all, the year of midterm elections, and many of our elected officials are up for job review, while some dark horse candidates are eyeing the title of “Mr. Representative” or “Mrs. Senator.” There just might be a key candidate or two who stakes a claim on the issues surrounding climate change.

These key candidates could come from either party. Building a political coalition is an iterating game of capture the flag, and the Democrats of late have let their guard down on the issue of climate change. It may still be firmly in their possession, but it appears to be free for the taking.

If the 2014 elections produces a handful of legislators who have promised to deliver on climate change, then the 1st session of the 114th Congress in 2015 may see the passage of a significant bill that deals comprehensively with climate change.

This would be doubly significant, for whatever leadership we exert at home we can exert on the international stage as well. Taking place in December 2015 will be the highly anticipated international climate negotiations in Paris, where representatives from all nations will try and patch together some sort of global agreement to a global problem. If the United States has cleaned up our act at home, then (past sins notwithstanding) we can influence the negotiations through a position of moral leadership. Talk about leverage!

Of course, I am not saying this will happen, just that it could.

Epiphany, 2014 edition

As the story of the magi make clear, power and wisdom do not always get along. But when power and wisdom do meet, as I suppose it was always intended they do, the result is a beautiful duet.

The infantcide at the hands of King Herod is an example of power rejecting wisdom. The message of the “wise men” was so unbearable for King Herod that he would go so far as to massacre children in the vain pursuit of proving it false. Power, without wisdom, becomes reckless.

But it could easily go the other way as well. Imagine, for a hypothetical second, that the magi make their thousand-mile trek, only to discover that there was no king to be found. As disappointment set in, the return journey would have been full of finger-pointing and bickering (“Balthasar, I knew you couldn’t be trusted with the star map!”). And so wisdom, without power, becomes jaded.

Yet, what truly happened is that wisdom found power, and power accepted the gifts of wisdom. This is what we celebrate during Epiphany, that nearly magical scene where the magi discover Jesus, who is all at once divine king and child.

The fact that today’s cold snap is somehow related to global warming might strike some as counterintuitive, perhaps as counterintuitive as a child having the power of a king. But, just like magi watching the skies for a sign, hundreds of thousands of scientists worldwide are making measurements and crunching numbers. The conclusion they have reached may at first be discomforting, especially for those of us who benefit from a fossil-fueled status quo.

However, on a day like Epiphany, where we celebrate God manifested into the world, does it make any sense to fear? Why should we fear doing what is right, when righteousness has taken on flesh and has promised to walk beside us? Will the Representatives and Senators currently in power, and the voters who put them into positions of power, be ready to accept the gifts of wisdom? (Here’s a fantastic TED talk from one Republican legislator who did; unfortunately, his constituents did not.)

I hope that I do not come off as someone using the name of God to endorse a particular political policy! In today’s political spectrum, I could see the solution ranging from a “small government” carbon price scheme to a “big government” cap-and-trade. When I speak of “wisdom” I speak not of the nuts and bolts of solving the problem, but of the courage to first, see that there is a problem, and second, strive to do something positive about it.

Global warming is a new and startling reality. Our response should not be to grasp vainly onto the vapor of a status quo, but to embrace the new challenges that come with global warming. These new challenges include (but are not limited to) transitioning into a clean energy economy, reducing the carbon footprint of individuals and communities, and adapting to the effects of global warming that are already here.

We have the power to do this. If we want it, the wisdom is there too.

This is Epiphany, 2014 edition.

Bonus for friends in warmer places: photos of all that darn snow

Granted, snowfall and temperature are not entirely correlated. But you get the gist of it.

Disclaimer: nothing in this post necessarily reflects any official position of any organizations I work for or otherwise am associated with. If you find something disagreeable in what I said, let me know and I’ll take the heat. (Like, literally. It’s cold outside.)

Epiphany, 2014 edition

Your nose looks a little different this new year

These last few months, thanks to all sorts of fun yet time-consuming activities, have not been a blogging season for me. To be sure, there are a number of half-baked drafts on my hard drive; none of them, however, seem worth sharing at this point. Good thing this isn’t my job.

I came across something exciting last night, however, leading me to turn this particular post around in under 24 hours. The thing that excited me was a bit narcissistic, but oh well this is a personal blog and that is bound to happen from time to time.

The exciting thing came from a snippet of a book blending youth ministry practice with social construction theory, one which I have been reading these past few weeks (emphasis added):

Let’s face it: our readings of Scripture are deeply biased. Biases are not necessarily good or bad. They are like noses; we all have them. But just like the noses on our faces, they can be difficult to see. When we do not recognize our biases in reading Scripture and treat them as ultimate truth, we eliminate others’ biases. This limits new forms of understanding and manufactures division that hinders relational growth.

— Brandon McKoy, Youth Ministry from the Outside In, p.156 – 157

This got my attention, because I used the same “nose” metaphor in my senior-thesis-turned-e-book that I published earlier this year, The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (see excerpt below). While this may be a case of wit’s all been done before, I think McKoy and myself are both sufficiently influenced by Gadamer to say that this is a pretty neat case of language being shaped by tradition. Besides, coming up with the same language as someone more learned and experienced than myself is a reassuring sign that I might be on the right track (I had a similar realization last year with Barbara Brown Taylor).

Granted, McKoy talks about biases, while I talk about prejudices, but we are talking about essentially the same thing. For those of us who are card-carrying members of the human race, our understanding of the world is fundamentally finite. Rather than trying to know everything from all possible perspectives, the remedy to this so-called problem is hardly a remedy at all but rather the way the world should have been from the beginning: that we develop trusting relationships with people who see things differently than us — so that we may be corrected, humbled, and inspired.

I don’t like to drum up gloom, but initial reports suggest 2013 has been the year of suspicion. Congress is in deadlock, ethnic tensions seem anachronistically high, and our private lives and personal information feel compromised. In the political economy of 2013, trust has been a more precious resource than gold or oil or even bitcoins.

For Christians, our churches continue to divide, using certain verses as cleaving knives. What sadness.

Emergent problems require innovative solutions, yet tradition (and the corresponding wealth of wisdom) has been held hostage by those who fear change. The guardians of tradition, whoever they may be, need to let go of the false notion that tradition is unchangeable and static. Every belief or ritual or symbol they hold so dear was, after all, an innovation of it’s own back in the day.

I am droning on (I guess that is something else that happened in 2013), so let me get to the point, which is hardly a point but more of a New Year’s challenge.

  • Looking back on 2013, how has your metaphorical nose (your biases, your prejudices, etc.) been changed through experience or through relationship?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of your metaphorical nose — regardless of whether you think it is awkward or perfect or something inbetween?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of others’ metaphorical noses — in a way that does not induce shame or hostility?

While you reflect on those questions, go ahead and read this excerpt from The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (for context, this part of the essay is reflecting on the July 2013 verdict of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial). Afterwards, feel free to share your reflections in the comments section.

It seems shameful to have prejudices, although prejudices are as normal as the noses on our faces. Many are awkward, to be sure, but that is no reason to hide them. Yet, shame is precisely what our culture encourages. We like calling people out: “You’re insensitive!” “That wasn’t politically correct!” “What a moron — I’m going to call out your bigotry on the internet and get a bunch of like-minded people to share my content!”

Calling people out makes us feel enlightened, like we stand on the moral high ground. For the truly oppressed, calling out an oppressor may feel like the only shred of dignity they can get in the fight.

But, if I dare say it, it is when we cover up our prejudices that they are most likely to erupt in violence. Like an algae bloom in stagnant water, our faulty prejudices are most threatening when they are not constantly being exposed and stirred and moved and challenged.

And so, we don’t magically need fewer prejudices. We need more safe places to sound stupid. We need to be compassionate people in both correcting and correction, with whom wrong answers are opportunities to practice humility instead of shame.

By the way: for this weekend only, the gods are letting me offer The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay at the reduced price of FREE. You might as well download it to pad the new e-reader you got for Christmas, or send a copy to that one uncle who wouldn’t shut up about religion or politics during holiday dinner.

For that matter, I’m still reading McKoy’s book, but I can already say I strongly recommend it for any youth minister with a social sciences/philosophy bent. Check it out here.

Your nose looks a little different this new year