BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

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

Passion for the rest of us: a Moderate Manifesto

Somewhere along the way, in a polarized political system, “being passionate” and “having extreme views” have become more and more synonymous. Passionate moderatism sounds nearly as oxymoronic as compassionate conservatism did some years back as a Bush-era slogan. But conservatives can be compassionate, and I want to contend that moderates can be passionate.

A story

My high school US History teacher, the beloved-and-moustached rabble-rouser that he was, repeatedly told our class: “Be conservative. Be liberal. Be whatever, but whatever the case don’t be a boring ol’ moderate.” When former President Bill Clinton came to visit Mac High in order to rally support for Hillary’s presidential candidacy, I remember a number of my politically-minded friends saying how stupid it was to not join either party. “Why would anyone sacrifice their primary vote?”

When I went to register to vote, however, I could not bring myself to join any party. Perhaps I was torn between my conservative evangelical subculture and my liberal Pacific Northwest context. Perhaps it did not help that I was reading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for 12th Grade English Literature. The third parties were even more extreme and even less effective, and I could not register as an Independent because Oregon actually has an Independent Party and so I was, and still am, designated as “Not affiliated with any political party.”

(Interesting tangent: my first jobs out of high school would be helping non-profits use a particular piece of content-publishing software that Independent Party chair Sal Peralta had implemented but could no longer maintain because he was now the Independent Party chair. It just so happened that I had to use that same software for my journalism class.)

I did not feel like I was transcending the fray. Instead, I simply could not find a political ideology, much less a party, that matched my sense of society-level right-and-wrong. When that new-fangled-Myspace-called-Facebook would later ask me for my Political Views, I typed in “Moderate,” and, upon further tongue-in-cheek reflection on my own indecisiveness, added “…sort of.”

Moderate Manifesto

The state of things

It was not that I did not care. It was just that I did not know. My undergrad electives and eventually my major were, in many ways, about figuring out these strange and confusing things for myself. Surprisingly to myself, instead of falling towards either side, I found myself going more firmly to the center. If I was indecisively moderate in 2008, I was decisively moderate in 2012.

Sadly, I also came to realize, moderates are castigated by the Republican party. They do exist, but none of them are in power: Bob Inglis, Colin Powell, Jon Huntsman, Olympia Snowe, and back in the day Mark Hatfield. In 2012, Moderate Mitt was forced into playing a losing charade of being Right-wing Romney. The Democrats don’t have this problem: they welcome moderates, and their current standard-bearer is actually rather moderate himself. I do hope the GOP opens up towards moderates before the next election cycle, not because I am a party loyalist, but because I like having more than one choice at the ballot.

For that to happen, of course, moderates need to start causing a bit more of a ruckus.

Standing up is hard enough. You do not wish to offend anyone. Furthermore, as a moderate, it can often feel like standing up takes place on a tightrope. But if that’s where the common ground is, let’s be fine with that, because if we fall off we’ll end up in the safety net of common sense.

A Moderate Manifesto

There is some substance, I think, to being a moderate that is greater than simply adding up the numbers and finding the average between two sides. For the past many years, I have being trying to work out what being moderate means for me. I publish these ideas, like almost anything else I publish, not because I know I am right but because if I keep these to myself I will never have to face the possibility of being wrong.

With that said:

  1. Government exists because of the reality of public life.

    I don’t buy the liberal vision that we can govern our way into utopia, but neither do I feel comfortable with the conservative claim that government is a necessary evil. My starting point, as far as legitimate government, is this: just as individuals have worries and aspirations, groups also have worries and aspirations. Politics is one (but not the only) way we can address the worries and aspirations as a society-sized group.

  2. Opposed to big government or small government, government in the right amount.

    Government cannot solve all problems, nor would we want it to. But there are some things it does really well. And (take healthcare for example) there are some things it does only slightly better or slightly worse than the private sector, and while we can have a decent conversation about these things we need not go crazy as if it were a life-or-death situation.

  3. Cultural compatibility of government.

    Because the legitimacy of government is based in the reality of public life, the government system should be culturally compatible with the society it represents (i.e. there may be greater distribution of wealth in Sweden than the United States, but the Swedes also value the concept of lagom). In other words: there is no god-given, time-proof, platonic ideal or rationally supreme form of government.

  4. Let ideas be held in tension.

    If we do cultural compatibility in a multicultural society, there are going to be problems. 49%, or even 4.9%, of the population can have a legitimate concern worth listening to. The ideal character of any place, instead of being domination by some, should be participation by all. As much as it possible, a moderate seeks to achieve this.

  5. Delegate and trust.

    We trust doctors with our bodies (despite the reality of malpractice), we should be able to trust politicians with our societies (despite the reality of corruption). That said, being an expert in one area does not make one an expert in all. If the scientists say global warming is happening, or economists say a debt ceiling is a bad idea, or a minority group says some oppressive force is asserting itself upon their people, politicians should shut up and listen.

  6. Live up to our potential as a society.

    This might sound a bit backwards to American ears, but as a nation, we shouldn’t strive to be the “best in the world” but the “best that we can be.”  Competition is a good thing, but reckless comparison is destructive. We can focus on our own problems and potential and still celebrate the victories of others (with a healthy dose of good-hearted jealousy, of course).

  7. Do not find purpose in a political ideology.

    This is much a spiritual issue as a political one. Too many people, I fear, in the fragmentation of vacuous postmodern society, have traded their religions and other good convictions for the half-assed metanarratives that are contemporary political ideologies. As a moderate, I can tolerate (and perhaps even celebrate) the fact that you may be a Tea Partier or a Marxist or anything along those lines. But please, at the end of the day, be something more than that as well.

high wire 3” by Graeme Maclean, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Passion for the rest of us: a Moderate Manifesto

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Save for the Olympics and whatever bowl game the Oregon Ducks get into, I almost never put the effort into working my schedule around televised sports. Just not my jam.

But Monday night, one of the low-key evenings in the life of a fresh college grad, in addition to a few mindless e-mails to send off and a simple word document to create, I figured I might as well catch the Packers versus Seahawks football game. A nice, civilized contest of Midwest brawn versus Pacific Northwest brute, that I would be sure many of my friends would be talking about.

And then this happened:


Unless you somehow missed all the ensuing news coverage, you would know that his not just a matter of game-ending frenzy wrapped up in an ambiguous call. Rather, it came in the midst of a strike on the part of the NFL Referees Association, and the season so far has been carried out by “replacement refs” of dubious credentials.

The NFL reached a deal with the “real refs” just in time for tonight’s game, the Browns versus Ravens. But it got me wondering, what was the big fuss?

There were two sorts of sports pundits in Monday’s post-game coverage. About half were so excited that they had something uniquely interesting to talk about the words just spilled right out of their mouth, the other half were so irked by what had happened that, when it was their turn to speak, they spoke impromptu jeremiads. One pundit, trying to establish how much of a “real deal” this was, said something to the affect of the NFL being a “multi-billion dollar enterprise, with millions of dollars resting on each call like this being made.” Another simply said, “the shield has to defend itself.”

Between the lines, I felt like each of this latter group of men, each of whom have spent years and careers as fans, players, coaches, and now commentators, were saying “my life is wrapped up in something that is looking a lot like a fraud.”

There is a brand-new pigskin hanging around our front room. Recently, when I came back home, exhausted from a solid workout, I laid down on the couch and picked up the this official, composite-leather, not-incredibly-round ball. I realize I speak from my own prejudice as a runner, where the sport is as simple as getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but as I palmed “the Duke” I was struck by how lifeless it seemed.

Lifeless, of course, compared to the fan-packed stadiums, the enthusiastic cheerleaders, the calculating coaches, and the players’ incredible feats of athleticism. Lifeless for something that a third of the country takes as a national holiday one Sunday each February. Lifeless for something that, at least at the high school level, has become a medium for entering into larger social issues – think of the non-sexy parts in Friday Night Lights, the race relations of Remember the Titans, and I have to give a McMinnville shout-out to the self-explanatory Quarterback Princess. With so much energy and passion surrounding the game, it seems strange that the football just by itself can seem so dull and unanimated.

It is easy to become disenchanted.

It is easy to become cynical.

It is easy to want to analytically break everything down to component parts.

The same gamble the NFL is took with replacement refs is the same gamble governments take when politicians act contrary to the law, or the law works contrary to the people. It is the same gamble churches and other religious groups take when betraying the truths they supposedly preach. It is a gamble of legitimacy, that the whole shebang might be exposed as a dirty power-play to manipulate the imagination of the masses.

Which may be true, although I sincerely hope against it in every case. What I want, instead, is to believe that synergy exists, and that synergy can be put to good cause.

I think of the human body as a perfect example of synergy. Our bodies are something like 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, and then a bunch of other trace stuff. But you cannot say that we are nothing but these elements – there is something fundamentally different between a human body and a water puddle with a block of carbon on the side. Rather, these atoms are in relationship to one another in such a way that they create something of greater value (that is, the human body) than what they would have been on their own.

I am currently reading through Christian Smith’s rather dense but apparently important book What is a Person?. In chapter one he makes quite the argument for personhood, saying that the human person is not simply the human body, but rather the formula goes something like person = human body + cultural context + rational thought + a bunch of other things. And there is something about the “person” which is greater than all of these things combined.

Furthermore, I think that when two human persons become united in marriage, the whole process of “two becoming one” is less 1+1=1 and more 1+1=3. That is, neither partner really gives up their individual identity, but now they have created a new, shared identity that exists as a dynamic addition to who they were originally.

(Hm. This may be the most-off topic rant about the whole Seahawks-Packers touchdown debacle.)

Just like how the institution of marriage is synergistic, I think the institutions of sports and politics and religious affairs are synergistic. Imagine that lifeless football laying in my front room, in the hands of a much more skilled player than myself, on a proper field and perhaps even with a proper crowd. The oddly shaped ball, which kind of resembles an uncomfortable turd, becomes a key part of what is not just a multi-billion dollar empire, but a game which (in varying degrees) is a meaningful part of many of our lives.

All the more reason then that the NFL needs qualified refs on the field maintaining order, to keep the football from being lifeless, meaningless leather. All the more reason government need qualified politicians maintaining law and respect, why sacred places need qualified priests to keep sacraments alive and devotees in worship. When all the pieces come together, something magical happens, synergy happens.

Call it all an illusion if you want, but don’t complain when I call you a puddle of hydrogen and oxygen.

The important thing, of course, is not whether or not synergy exists, but what the synergy is directed towards. This is, I think, a test of the true mettle of a leader and their organization – not the component parts of her or his organization, but how they make those component parts work together and for what purpose. Governments can join in unjust wars, churches can become overly judgmental, and football leagues can needlessly sacrifice the beauty of the game for a quick dollar or two.

But, unfortunately, some leaders cannot get to the step of deciding what to direct the synergy towards, because they are stuck making decisions that jeopardize the existence of that very synergy. They get hung up on some details and neglect others. This goes beyond the decision to hire lousy refs in order to minimize expenses, but also what takes place in corrupt politics and cult churches.

I guess what I am getting to is this. If you are a follower, and we all are followers sometimes, accept the reality of synergy. Don’t say “it is nothing but,” because that contributes nothing but cynicism to the discussion. And if you are a leader, and we are all leaders sometimes, accept the responsibility of synergy. Cultivate it, direct it. Do something good with it. Please.

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Dousing “Test of Fire”

Beating up on a political advertisement is a cheap way of looking smart. It is something I usually would not do. The reason I wrote this deconstruction in the first place was because someone wanted to know my personal opinion on this particular ad, and I’ve decided to repost my response for the sake of 1) I think I might of said something of sharable value and 2) it should be no secret that I think healthy politics are an important part of living a healthy public life, and the processes we take to get a candidate elected or a measure passed are as much an important question – if not more so – as the end result.

That said, here’s the 3-minute video, called “Test of Fire: Election 2012”. (There is an evangelical version of the same video, which uses pretty much changes the word “Catholic” for “Christian” and while it uses the same quotes, disguises the fact the speakers are Catholic.)

To start, I wouldn’t say this ad is by the Catholic Church [the e-mail I received asked for my opinion was titled “ad by the Catholic Church”]. The leadership of the group “Catholics Called to Witness” is not widely representative of the American Catholic church (three members, two of whom are married to each other; no priests or theologians, all Floridians). Belonging is different from official representation.

There is something of positive value to this ad. Besides its aesthetic merit and the fact that it a bit more substantial than the typical 3o-second sound byte, the strength of the ad is that it does highlight certain principles of contemporary Catholic social thought and sets them up as rallying points for the American Catholic community. People of faith should be able to express their faith at the voting booth, but sometimes need the sort of direction this ad provides on what that looks like.

But I think there are some significant flaws. First of all, I’m not a fan of language like “Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity” (around 2:12 in the video). That raises unnecessary images of guilt and damnation which stifle alternate points of view.

Also, the words featured prominently at the beginning – “economy”, “jobs”, “taxes”, and “energy” – are irrelevant to the video’s explicit message of “life”, “marriage”, and “freedom”. By narrowly choosing only economic words instead of other important issues (for Catholics!) like “foreign policy” or “immigration” or “healthcare” or “environment”, the ad is blatantly highlighting the perceived weakness of President Obama versus Governor Romney in the 2012 election narrative. If an issues-based political campaign is going to endorse/oppose a candidate or their narrative, I personally believe the ad should be brave enough to come right out and say so.

But perhaps I hope for too much.