5 ways to thrive in a church bureaucracy:

It was finally here! It was the day I had been looking forward to ever since I started looking to be on a church staff as a paid youth worker. It was my first day on the job, and to make the day even better, we were going to have a staff meeting that day! If you have ever participated in a church staff meeting, you know how disappointed and disillusioned I was in just 90 minutes. After just a month on the job I started to come to the realization that being a paid youth worker for a church is much more complicated than I first thought. What I envisioned as a job where I was going to be paid to love students and help them love Jesus was actually a job with expectations, politics, meetings, evaluations, and tasks to be assigned by pastor.

With 15 years of vocational youth ministry under my belt, I have come to realize that the great bureaucracy of the church is not the awful boogieman that is thwarting the advancement of the Kingdom. I have watched many of my colleagues get swallowed up by this bureaucracy and become disillusioned. I have seen others attempt to just survive in spite of the bureaucracy. But I am convinced that a youth worker doesn't have to just survive the inner workings of the Church and attempt to have an impact on students despite all the red tape. Rather if you understand it, the bureaucracy of the church can actually be fertile ground to thrive in.

1) The Church is a Corporation and You Are an Employee:

I know this sounds unspiritual, but it is the truth. There was a budget that was proposed and a committee that was formed just so you could be on staff. From our perspective, we are called by God, himself to minister, pastor, care for students. This is an amazing truth and gives us a larger purpose than a simple paycheck. This calling is the thing that also gives us hope to push through when we get discouraged and doubt our effectiveness. In order to thrive we have to temper this view of calling with our earthly position as employee.

From the church perspective you were hired. There is an organizational chart that you fit into. Since you are a youth worker, I can guarantee that your name is not at the top of that chart. In a bureaucracy you are a piece of the pie, a placeholder in the chart. This means that we have people above us that we are responsible to, people to whom we report and are accountable. When we settle in and realize that we are not God's gift to the entire organization, but a simple member of the body of Christ, we can begin to thrive.

Just as easily as you were hired, you can be fired. This may or may not impact your calling, but it is a truth just the same. We must live by the same standards as our friends with secular jobs. We are to work hard and submit to the people above us and support the people below us. We come to respect the processes and systems that have made the church run long before you got here and will be in place long after you leave. You are an employee, so get to work!

2) Do Your Job Well, Not Your Pastors':

When you were hired you were given a job description. This is your bible, rubric, bench- mark. How you are being measured will depend mostly on this document. There have been many people who worked long and hard to come up with a document that clarifies the needs and desires of the church. When you deviate from this path you will end up in trouble.

If you have passions and visions for ministry that are not included in this document, there is a process to change that. Process is a good thing; it is how the American version of the body of Christ figures things out. The trick to thriving is to do the job you were hired to well. For most youth workers, this is an easy task to accomplish.

What makes it difficult to thrive is when you start to expand your job description. A little bit of trouble happens when you expand it to other versions of student ministry that the church didn't sign up for. This is usually forgivable. But it becomes most dangerous when you expand your description to include your supervisor’s job description.

Most of the angst I feel regarding my job revolves around decisions that aren't even mine to make. What happens in big church, how the pastor preaches, what happens with the budget, other hires, etc, is not our responsibility. We have a heart and passion for the entire church and we even has some power because we are on staff. But we must not mistake our passion and power as position. That is the easiest way end your tour of student ministry prematurely.

3) Politics are Real:

Because we work for the church we assume that we all just do the things we are supposed to with the purest of intentions for the honor and glory of God. While I think this is true in the spirit, we also live in the real world that is tainted by flesh. And this brokenness means that the church, like every other organization, has politics. Pretending they don't exist is a recipe for disaster. Understanding them and living within them allows us to thrive.

Here is a simple crash course. Politics is about power. Power to influence decisions, power to hire and fire, power to make your job amazing or horrible. The trick is knowing who has the power. Here are the people with the power: your pastor and/or supervisor, parents, and certain people in the church. It will serve you well to realize that these people hold real power and should be treated as such. Recognizing power and politics looks differently for everyone, so work hard to understand what makes these people tick and become a blessing to them.

There is one more truth you have to understand when it comes to politics and power. Being the youth worker, you have none. Even if you think you have some, it is best to live as if you don't. At any moment people with real power and influence can crush you. At the same time by being a servant to all you gain support and influence, but it will always be a bottom up influence.

4) Love Your Secretary:

Every church, big or small, has a secretary who is the doorkeeper to the church. They are the point of entry for every piece of information. They know everything about everything. They are often treated as lowly servants, but they wield more power then anyone realizes. With subtle intonations and gestures she clearly communicates what she thinks of you and the job you are doing to everyone who passes by her office. When your secretary doesn't like you, you might as well pack up shop and look for another job.

The inverse is also true. When your secretary loves you, you are golden and should invest in some local real estate. The secretary can highlight your mistakes or smooth them over, hang you out to dry with your budget, or give you a head's up when you are about to go over. It is actually more important for your secretary to know what you are up to more than your pastor. The secretary is the key to success in this bureaucracy.

How do you do it? It is really simple; treat her with dignity and respect. Make some time to check in and say hello when you arrive at the office. Don't expect her to do your administrative tasks. If you need her to do something ask nicely. When she does a great job say thank you. When she goes beyond the call, hook her up with a mocha. In fact buy one of those every month or so. Get your receipts in on time. Let her know where you are going and when you will be back. If you don't come in, call her and let her know. And one more thing, NEVER FORGET SECRETARY'S DAY!

5) Humility and Hard Work Wins the Every Time:

God calls us into student ministry. This is a true statement. But when we let this view blind us to the real relationships and expectations found within a church bureaucracy we find ourselves in big, big trouble. To thrive we must simply be humble and work hard.

Be humble means that we must own our mistakes. Be quick to apologize, fall on our swords often. We are the bottom of the political power structure, so we should live into it. Humility takes all the oxygen out of the room in any conflict or misunderstanding. Christ deserved honor and recognition and yet chose humility, and our attitudes should also become more and more like Christ.

Hard work means just that. Youth workers have a notorious reputation to be slackers and lazy. We love pizza and video games, all on the church's dime. When we work hard, put in real hours of work and communicate those hours with our secretary and supervisor we gain freedom and respect from those around us. The more freedom and respect the more we thrive and the more we thrive the more truly live into the calling that God has put into our lives, to love students and to help them love Jesus.

The photo was used from Creative Commons.

The culture war is over! (And we lost)

white-flag-2 This was such an interesting election to say the least.  Now that there has been time for me and you to collect our whits, I am left with a couple of thoughts that I think are important for the church to come to terms with.  And with the church, I mean the suburban white church that I am a part of.

Here is my take away:  After all the exit polls and post mortem of the election, I see the election as a choice between two cultures:  The Judeo-Christian White Man vs. Those who have been wronged by that culture combined with those who feel bad for those who have been wronged.  And for the first time, ever, the Judeo-Christian suburban culture has been rejected by the majority of Americans.

Before you react, think about it for a second.  Think about who you voted for and what values you were choosing.  Think about all the demographic information we have learned since the election.  Think about who you want to cast your lot with?  For the first time ever the majority cast their lot against the Judeo-Christian, suburban, middle class, married, white man.  And if not him specifically, the culture he represents.

Suburban Christians have lost the Culture War: Now what?

For those of us who do ministry in this suburban context, this movement into the minority culture has some very important implications.  There are huge implications politically, and even more so in how we do ministry.   Here are some of my take-a-ways:

1) We can not legislate morality. It is obvious that the electorate rejects Judeo-Christian morality.  With the legalization of marijuana and marriage equality winning in several states, Pandora's box is now fully open.  There is no putting away this genie.  This is a losing argument politically and we must concede that culturally we have been left in the dust of close minded bigots.  The more we fight this battle, the more we lose any real chance to do ministry in this increasingly post-modern and post-christian context.

2) Let's free up our legislators from our litmus tests so they can work for the "common good."  I know this blog is not about politics and that I have absolutely zero influence or impact politically.  But if I did and could speak a little truth to the right wing political establishment, let the moral issues go.  Embrace marriage equality and quit trying to reverse Roe v Wade.  Be about fiscal responsibility and find an ideology that unites us in a common good and doesn't vilify half the electorate who have different morals that we do.  (Ok, no more politics because . . .)

3) Politics is not our battlefield.  We are the church for crying out loud.  Our hope, our calling, our mission has not one thing to do with the powers that be.  It has everything to do with establishing God's kingdom here as it is in heaven.  The second we sell out to a political party (like what the religious right did and the religious left is now doing) we cut off our nose to spite our face.  In this increasingly post-christian context we find our selves in, we must not soil the name of Jesus by using power and money to crush the opposition.  His kingdom is a tiny mustard seed, it is a mystery, and no matter what, it has more to do with us decreasing than us increasing our influence.

4) Homosexuality and Marijuana are culturally acceptable.  We can not respond politically.  There is no argument in the public square that is going to help the church.  Gone are the days where we could tell our kids to look to the laws of the land and that is how you define morality.  We are Spirit filled people who major on discernment, grace, and love.  We take the planks out of our own eyes and then graciously help our sisters and brothers in distress.  The Christian life is going to have to be less and less about self-righteous moral legalism, and more about helping others find there true identity in Christ as they travel the long and winding road of sanctification.

5) Our hallmarks of Christian maturity need to change.  Being married and going to church while you judge those still do the things you used to do before you cleaned yourself up has not worked for the church's reputation.  Judging the sins that are furthest from your struggles or experience has not worked well for the church either.  We must find a new paradigm in which to engage Christians and the world.  We are going to have to have more grace for others and more truth for ourselves.  We are going to have to focus our discipleship around identity formation and true sanctification.  Having good theology and little to no personal reflection can not be our reputation anymore.  We will be known by how we love one another, by being the fragrance of Christ, and by being a blessing to everyone. We must no longer be known for our politics, our fear, our judgementalism, or our hypocrisy.  We must be true christians, exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ.

I think it might be time to say no to knee jerk reactions and yes to discernment, humility, and grace.  We do this so we can truly build Christian community, not a Christian nation.

There is no place for self-righteousness this election cycle.

Republican-vs-Democrat-500x285 As a true Gen-Xer, I once again find myself angsty as I fully live between two dominant generational movements.  I standing in the middle of the evangelical boomers who are beat down after a dramatic ride as spearheading the religious right and the rising millennial evangelicals who are firmly embracing the religious left.

Back in the good 'ol days the boomer evangelicals realized that they could join forces and become a political powerhouse.  The moral majority or the religious right led by James Dobson and others took shape and has been played a major role in the political world for 20+ years.  And in the predictable pattern of the pendulum, the next generation of evangelicals have pushed back on the way the religious right used their power and influence to crush, belittle, stereotype, and marginalize those who didn't agree with their positions.  Abortion, Darwinism, and homosexuality were the issues that the religious right took up and made a stand for God and used the power of the government to get others to comply.

For a ton of reasons, the moral majority and the religious right have now gone the way of the dinosaur.

They over played their hand and in the process have given the church a black eye in the process.  When the church felt like it had to defend Bush's invasion of Iraq because he was an evangelical Christian, this movement truly jumped the shark.

But what I have noticed over the past four years is that we evangelicals have not forsaken our ways and balanced our views of politics, and the role the church should play in government.  Instead we completely missed the correcting season and have jumped head-long into embracing the other end of the political spectrum.

The religious left is doing the exact same thing:

For as self-righteous as the religious right was and for all they ways they sold out many of their convictions just to have a seat at the table of political power, the religious left has done that in spades.  I am blown away and actually horrified at my "tolerant" and "open-minded" Christian friends who have bought the exact same lie as the religious right did.  This lie is that political power is a dangerous and dirty game of money and power.  And when we has the church jump in with one political party or the other, we lose our God given role of being prophets and priests in our culture.

I can not believe how little we have learned as the church over the last 30-40 years.  I am heart sick to see the political discord of our country be simply about cheap shots and character assassinations.  And as a Gen-Xer living between two great generations expressing their faith in two completely different political expressions, I would love to offer a little nudge of correction.

Political self-righteousness is an anathema!

There is no place for those of us who follow Jesus to be self-righteous in general.  We all know who got blown up in scripture the most, it was the self-righteous pharisees.  But political self-righteousness, in my opinion, is an even worse form of self-righteousness.  Because now you are hitching your faith and convictions to a political system that is fraught with abuse and corruption.  To think that your political allegiances are righteous is an oxymoron.  And to turn a blind eye to them in order to advance your particular passions is exactly what the world does and the church should flee from.

The religious right has been beat over the head with this for years.  And rightly so.  But I hope my friends on the religious left will not turn a blind eye to their just as blatant self-righteousness when it comes too their political preference.

We are ambassadors of another kingdom:

The moment we, as the church, give any political party our allegiance, we have so missed our unique role in ushering in the kingdom of God.  As good citizens we should be in the middle of the public square, we should debate our ideas, we should strive for the common good of all citizens and we should vote!  But we must not buy into the lie that the other side is evil, and make our opponents caricatures.  We see the humanity in all people and we raise the tenor of the discussion and of the debate.

As followers of Christ our hope is not found in the outcome of the election or in the government at all.  Our hope is found in Jesus Christ alone.  We are citizens of his kingdom and work our butts off partnering with him to help usher in his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.  And if we have learned anything from the religious right, it is that thinking politics is our main avenue to accomplish this only hurts the church and the cause of Christ.  My the religious right learn this lesson sooner rather than later so we do not have an entirely new generation become disillusioned with politics and the church.

Debate well, love better, and may grace and humility be the markers of the religious left as well as the religious right.  And my our strongest defense and our most vigorous debate be for Jesus and his bride, not in the politicians who are simply pandering for our vote.  

the top 10 media that shaped my 2010

with 2010 wrapping up, i thought i would add my little nugget to the overwhelming verity of top 10 lists.  unfortunately i am not clever enough to share the top 10 quotes, or savvy enough to share the top 10 youtube videos, or hip enough to share the top 10 songs. thankfully, there are plenty of those people out there in the world.  but it was an interesting exercise to think about the top 10 media that has shaped me this year.  these are the books, movies, commercials, websites, etc, that have actually impacted my thinking and therefore impacted my actions throughout the year.  some of these media have dramatically altered the course of my life, and others have simply  brought joy.  but no matter how significant they are in the grand scheme of things, these are the 10 media that has shaped me over this past year.

1.  outliers: the story of success by malcolm gladwell:  if i could be anyone, other than my handsome self, i think i would choose gladwell.  he is one of the most interesting and thought provoking writers i have ever read.  the unique way he approaches the world is amazing.  he can see the big picture, he understands the systems, and describes culture in a clever and thoughtful way.  outliers is not a new book this year, but it was new to me.  he dismantles the story of success.  our story is that if you work hard and apply yourself you will succeed.  but he unpacks this story and highlights how there are unique cultural stories that shape what success means and then adds historical, social, and economic factors that play into how successful someone can be.   it helped me understand some of my professional angst, as well as helped me come up with a plan for change.  (if one can actually break out of their historical, cultural, and social settings)  we will have to see how this goes in 2011.

2.  sustainable youth ministry by mark devries: i loved this book!  as someone who has been doing youth ministry for 15 years, i wasn't sure how i was going to take another "how to" book for youth ministry.  but for the first time i read a book where the author calls out our profession and the need for real and healthy systems to deliver an impacting message.  in his forward he describes how many books talk about the treasure in the jars of clay, but this book was about developing our jars.  for me, this book came at just the right time and gave me a fresh picture of ministry and challenged some of my systems which both added life and freshness to this calling into student ministry.

3.  harry potter (the movies): i know i am a late comer to this harry potter deal.  but as i have re-engaged my calling to student ministry and challenged to re-engage the ever changing youth culture, i have finally gotten around to watching these movies.  although the movies themselves may not have rocked my world, the refreshing work that god has been doing in me to get to the point of actually wanting to watch them is significant, and therefore worthy of the list.

4.  modern family: this is hands down my favorite television show.  every week i come home from  youth group and laugh out loud and all of the antics in this show.  for the first time in a long time there is a show that represents real life and doesn't take it too seriously.  it is a true situational comedy.  as someone who needs to laugh more, this is a vital part of my media diet.

5.  why we love the church by kevin deyoung and ted kluck: i came across this book last christmas and spent the early part of the year digesting it.  i have spent the last couple of years reading through the many "we are pissed at the church," "we love jesus, but hate the church," and "if only the church didn't screw everything up" books.  this book was a fresh departure from that genre.  this book is a thoughtful, biblical, and theological argument for the institutional church.  and since 99% of the christians i know participate in an institutional church and 100% of the youth workers i know are employed by one, it was nice to read a book that affirms what we all do, and gives hope for moving forward.  say no to angst and bitterness and yes to hope.

6.  affirming the apostles' creed by j.i. packer: as i have come to a re-found respect for the institutional church, i have also come to a re-awaking of some of the history and traditions of our faith that are the foundation of who we are and what we believe.  the apostles' creed is one of the foundational documents for the church, and packer's book on them was a refreshing and convicting devotional.  packer challenges the reader to understand that the continual dilution of the gospel and our history is bad for our faith development and for the church.  at some point we need to step up and do some of the hard intellectual work to understand the deeper things of faith.  and this book, for being a quick read, gave new life to an old document.

7.  realclearpolitics.com: in case you were living under a rock  2010 was an election year.  no matter where you land on the political spectrum, you have to admit that this was the most important election EVER!!  actually, i think that is said about every election.  i think the political process is so interesting.  it seems that politics is less and less about governing, and more about battling for the hearts and minds of the electorate.  it is a grudge match between two opposing teams, who actually hate each other.  it is sad how divided we are and how much weight political party identification shapes our presuppositions.  for the past few election cycles i have enjoyed playing the devil's advocate in discussions and debate.  and i have found this website to give me plenty of ammunition for both sides.

8. rei commercial:


i watch this commercial, and i want to get into my car, drive to yosemite, hike through the wilderness, and even have small, meaningless conversation with people i meet.  rei has captured the longings of this suburban man.  thankfully i have finally gotten the church credit card to be and rei card, and this march i will have almost $500 in dividends to spend, and will be spending this spring and summer using my equipment to live out my less handsome version of this commercial.

9.  All things apple: as you could probably tell from #8, i am weak minded when it comes to the power of advertising.  because of commercials i have bought scarves from gap, speed reading programs from informercials, and even a kriby. i admit it, i have a problem.  but one problem i don't want to be cured from is apple.  their commercials speak to my soul.  i actually stop our tivo just to watch them.  i will sell everything in my garage, save up for a year, whatever it takes to buy the next product.  right now i am saving up  for the april launch of the ipad 2.  let's facetime!

10.  red: this was an amazing film.  the cinematography , the screen play, the special effects, and the acting are all worthy of . . .  ok, the movie red is not worthy of any special honors.  but it did have bruce willis in it.  so how did this movie round out my top 10 list?  one of my favorite rhythms of this year has been to wait until the wife and kids are asleep, grab some guy friends, and go to the movies.  as a man, i like simple movies where things blow up.  i pretend to like the academy award movies so i have things to talk about in social gatherings, but the truth is i want to see action.  this shameful vice has been great for my soul and for my male bonding.  (crying during small groups is great, but awful action movies are need too)

we are shaped by so many things, it was interesting to reflect on what shaped me.  what shaped you?  i wonder what will shape me this next year!  happy new year!