Look Who’s Talking!

lookwhostalkingI am passionate about small groups. They are the backbone of the youth ministry that I lead. I am not personally leading one of our student small groups at the moment, but I do visit our groups each week and take time to observe and connect with our students and adult leaders. Here’s a principle that I shared with our leaders recently. I call it the “Look Who’s Talking” Principle. 

I am a teacher by gifting. I love standing in front of a group of people and communicating. But when I am leading a small group, I have to remind myself that my role is different. The primary role of a small group leader is not talker, but facilitator. The reason I love small groups is that they give us a chance to help students learn in a more effective way than simply sitting in a chair and listening to an adult talk to them. Ouch! As a teacher, that hurts just a little bit. The truth is, students learn best, not by listening to us talk to them, but through experiences, and in the small group setting, through the experience of sharing what they are processing as it pertains to the topic.

A small group leader is not primarily a sage imparting wisdom, but a miner extracting wisdom from students through asking good, open-ended questions, listens carefully, and gets students involved in the conversation. Yes, adult leaders can share insights and experiences occasionally, but that should be an exception, not the rule. When leaders do all of the talking, students are relegated to the role of passive listeners rather than active participants. As leaders we must ensure that students are engaging in the conversation through sharing their thoughts with the group and listening to their peers. If you think in terms of the old Pareto (80/20) principle, as leaders you should be doing 20% of the talking, and students should be doing 80%.

If you are a small group leader, or if you have a few leaders in your group, take some time after small group to reflect and ask if students were engaging, or if you were doing too much talking. As a principle, remember the title of the 1989 movie, “Look Who’s Talking.” If there were a video recording, or even just an audio recording of your small group meeting, whose voices would you hear? Your goal should be to ensure you hear a whole lot of students’ voices (dare I say, all of your students?) and very little of yours. It’s tough, but it’s the best thing you can do for the spiritual growth of your students.

Planning for Problems vs. A Plan for Problems

When I was in high school there was one class that I looked forward to more than any other: Gym. After lunch, it was my favorite time each day. But, if you’re one of those people (like I am) who won’t let students get away with answering, “What’s your favorite class in school?” with “Lunch” or “Gym,” then I have another answer for you. And I don’t have to think hard. My favorite class in high school was Mr. Moore’s Earth Science. Now, when I say that, please don’t jump to the conclusion that I know much about science. I don’t. What I loved about that class was that half of the time we got to go outside. We got to be in nature. And that was something I loved!

Out of that class I was chosen to be a part of a program called Down to Earth. For one week we got to leave school and go on various adventures. One day we did a low ropes course, another day we did a high ropes course, we went rappelling, and we even did free-fall rappelling off of a train track bridge. And the climax of our week was a hike into the woods, and an overnight camping trip. One of the things I learned through Down to Earth was the principle: Prepare for the worst; hope for the best. 

A number of years ago I was in my first year of ministry at a church when we went on an international mission trip. During the trip I began to hear chatter about “Drama Wednesday.” During the front end of the week, they kept saying things like, “Drama Wednesday is coming,” “You know what happens on Wednesday,” “Save it for Drama Wednesday.” And then, when Wednesday came, sure enough, there was drama. When something negative would happen, or when students would get in an argument, or when students were acting clique-y, they would just say, “Yep. It’s Drama Wednesday.” Based on past experiences, they had resigned themselves to the fact that one day on a mission trip was going to be filled with conflict. It was like they had given themselves a Hall Pass to vent and argue and gossip and gripe on Wednesdays; to get it all out of their systems so the other days would be peaceful and unified.

This was one of those ministry culture things that I knew had to change. And, of course, the way of change itself brought on more drama. But a shift in thinking and attitude was needed. In his book Boundaries for Leaders, author Henry Cloud says, “Put some boundaries on the negative thinking, and you create an environment where negativity [can] no longer live” (p. 108).

Somewhere along the line, this group of students started living with the philosophy: Prepare for the worst, and then expect it as inevitable. My task was to help them shift their mentality to the Down to Earth philosophy I had been taught: Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. It wasn’t easy, but over the next couple of mission trips we raised the bar and eventually the culture changed significantly.

I submit that there is a big difference between planning for problems and having a plan to deal with problems. We understand that problems and challenges are inherent when humans are involved. But rather than expecting the worst as an inevitability, we believe for, pray for, work for, and expect the best. As a youth ministry, we have a philosophy of ministry that guides how we approach people and handle situations. When the best doesn’t happen, we aren’t necessarily surprised or caught off guard. We try not to freak out. Instead, we simply try to work our plan for dealing with drama and challenges as they arise in a biblically-based (Matthew 18:15-17), relationally healthy, God-honoring, restorative, redemptive way. It might seem like a subtle thing, but I believe this shift in thinking makes a big difference in the culture of our ministries.

Discussion Questions:

  • Talk about the statement: “There is a big difference between planning for problems and having a plan to deal with problems.”
  • In what ways have you set the bar too low and simply expect problems? How can you raise the bar and change your ministry culture to expecting the best?
  • What is your plan for dealing with problems in a “biblically-based (Matthew 18:15-17), relationally healthy, God-honoring, restorative, redemptive way”?
  • What is your philosophy of ministry that guides how you interact with people and handle situations? If you don’t have one, set a time to get together with your team and create one.

psssttt-junior-high-called-they-want-their-drama-back-your-5258458

Cleaning Up, Saying Thank You, and Missions Trips

5066267151_8722402a2b_bHave you ever helped out with an exciting event? There are three elements that happen. First is the lead up and preparation. Second is the execution of the event. And third is the clean up. Of those, which do people want to be a part of?

In my experience, people love to be involved on the front end. People love to be involved in the running of the actual event. But when the excitement is over, very few are interested in sticking around for the clean up. After the lights are off and the smoke settles, it’s just not as glorious. But without the cleanup crew the job is not complete, and without them you will never be invited back. Why do I tell you this?

Here’s a personal story.

When I was 15 years old I chose to go on my first international missions trip. 7 weeks in Tanzania, Africa. During the months prior to the trip, my excitement was building, I applied for my first passport, started getting supplies, and I sent out support letters and raised the thousands of dollars needed for the trip. Many wonderful people – family and friends – prayed and sacrificed financially to show me they believed in me and wanted to be a part of seeing the gospel spread around the world. They couldn’t go themselves, but they could pray, and they could give in order to send me.

I went on the trip and had a great time. God moved. He spoke to us and through us. I felt the call of God upon my life … on and on it goes. When I got home I loved telling people about what we did and showing them the cool souvenirs I got from Masai warriors.

Then I went back to school and life moved on. After a few weeks my Dad asked me if I had sent out Thank You letters to all of those who had supported me. I hadn’t. He told me I needed to. A couple of months later he asked me again. I hadn’t. Soon he was getting questions and hearing frustration from our family and friends. “Whatever happened on Kevin’s trip? We were praying and want to know what happened. We gave money to support him and he hasn’t even said Thanks.”

You can imagine how they felt. You can also imagine that if I were to send them another letter asking for support, they would not be inclined to give again. Why? They didn’t feel acknowledged or appreciated. The truth was, they weren’t asking to be thanked for the amount they had given. They were simply pointing out that they had invested themselves into this trip through their prayers and finances, and they wanted to know what happened. They wanted to celebrate with me. I eventually did send out a report of my trip with pics and words of thanks, and it meant the world to people.

If you went on a mission trip this summer, I would encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to send out Thank You letters to those who prayed for you and supported you financially on your trip. You can send a simple card, or better yet, send them pictures and a report of what you did and how God used you and grew you through this trip. If you plan to go on a trip in the future, remember that the clean up – the follow up – is as important as the preparation and the actual going on the trip. Think of it this way: Your trip is not officially over until you have said Thank You.

My grandfather (who, by the way, was the host missionary we worked with on our trip to Tanzania) has some wise sayings. One of them is: “Experience is the best teacher. You can learn from your own experiences, or you can learn from others’. Learning from others’ is better.” Learn from my mistake so you don’t make the same ones.

Thank-you-letter

Courageous Parenting: The Sisterhood Challenge

Two young girls, 15 and 11 years old from suburbia.

On their way to New York City.

Alone.

If you were one of the girls, how would you be feeling? What would you be thinking? Hopefully you hadn’t watched the movie Home Alone 2 recently.

490c642480f02c4987c68a63c22d9779

Looking at this scene as a parent, what would you be thinking? What would you be worried about? What would you think of these girls’ parents?

What if I told you that this was the parents’ idea? What if I told you that this true is story? What if I told you this is exactly what happened two-and-a-half years ago? What if I told you these two girls were Claudia and Natalia, and these parents were Adriana and me?

What if I told you it was one of the greatest parenting moves we ever made?

Before you start freaking out, let me tell you how it all came about.

It was December 20, 2013. It was a Friday. Adriana and I were both off from work. We had tickets to go see the play A Christmas Story in Manhattan. When I woke up that morning I had one of those ideas in which every detail just came together in rapid succession in my mind. But just as quickly as I got excited about it, I started to feel bummed out. There was no way my wife would go for it. I knew it was the kind of thing loaded with the kind of adventure I crave; but Adriana is not as adventurous as I am. Still, the idea was nagging at me because it was loaded with opportunity. While I knew her initial reaction was going to be to reject it, I also thought perhaps there was a slight chance she would go for it if I could get her to hear the whole thing out, and my reasons for wanting to do it. A parenting principle I live by is:

Protection is important.
Nurture is more important.
Equipping is the most important!

To that end, I made Adriana the best cup of coffee imaginable (I may or may not have sweetened the environment with some flowers), and I worked up the courage to share the idea with her, knowing full well that the delicious coffee she was drinking might end up all over me if she reacted with one of those ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!!!! kind of responses. I was about to make a big ask. I was about to ask her to consider doing something that would stretch our whole family. Here’s what I asked her:

What if we create a challenge for our girls to exercise their maturity? What if we head into the city together, and leave Claudia and Natalia to make their way into the city on their own to meet us?

(Insert ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!!!! about here.)

“Wait, wait,” I told her. “Hear me out.”

“We will leave them detailed instructions and resources. I will write out everything they need to do, exactly as they need to do it. I will secure someone to come and pick them up at the house and drive them to the train station. I will leave them money and tell them how to buy train tickets. We will tell them where to meet us. If you stop and think about it, we’re only asking them to listen and follow instructions, and really the only thing they are doing is going from our house to the train station, riding the train directly to Penn Station (which is the last stop, so there is no chance they will miss their stop), and walking up the stairs to find us at the Starbucks in Penn Station. It’s really very straight forward and simple, but for them it will seem like a big adventure, a daunting undertaking, and it will instill in them some very important life principles and confidence. So, what do you think?”

“Who will pick them up? But what if …?” she asked.

I assured her we would get someone they knew to pick them up. Someone safe. And I answered her other questions sufficiently enough that Adriana finally, nervously, a bit hesitantly, said Yes. Like I said, this exercise was going to stretch all of us, not just the girls. And with that, I got to work.

Here is the actual letter I left them:

Welcome to …

The Sisterhood Teamwork Challenge!

  • It should be about 3:20pm
  • Rules:
    • Rule #1: No Whining or complaining!
    • Rule #2: No Fighting!
    • Rule #3: No Phone calls unless it’s a real emergency!
    • Rule #4: No Fear!
    • Rule #5: Work together!
    • Rule #6: Be confident!
    • Rule #7: Stay together at all times!
    • Rule #8: Stay together at all times!
  • We Believe in you!
  • After you finish reading this, get ready. Dress warmly. Warm pants, good walking shoes, coat, hat, gloves, maybe a scarf.
  • Make sure to take the envelop on the table.
  • Don’t forget your phones.
  • A safe car is coming to pick you up at 3:45pm. It will take you to the Manhasset train station.
  • Use the cash provided. Go to the Ticket Machine that accepts cash. (Some only take credit cards.)
    • Select Round Trip – Off Peak from Manhasset to Penn Station. 1 child and 1 adult. Select None. Pay with Cash.
  • Get tickets, and your change.
  • Get on the train when it arrives. The train is scheduled to leave at 4:13pm. Make sure you get on the train to Penn Station.
  • Send a text to us simply saying, “We are on the train.”
  • During the ride use the sheet provided to interview one another.
  • When you arrive at Penn Station, walk upstairs and find Starbucks.
  • Remember, always look confident, not scared!
  • When you arrive at Starbucks you will be greeted by your parents and something special that you will love.
  • Smile & celebrate when you arrive! You did it!

Adriana and I were sitting in Starbucks that afternoon, anxiously checking the time and carefully watching the Starbucks entrance. Finally, we saw them. Two young ladies walking toward Starbucks, wide-eyed, hoping and praying that they would see their parents. They had done it. After the old Why did you do that? We can’t believe you left without us! rant they smiled, realizing they had done it; that it wasn’t as insane or as dangerous as they had imagined it would be, and we laughed and debriefed the experience together over dinner before going to the play. It was awesome!

IMG_8832 IMG_8833 IMG_8886

Our girls are now 17 and (almost) 14. Now Claudia asks us if she can go to the city without us all the time. Natalia isn’t yet asking to go to the city without us, but she does ask if she can venture locally with her friends. I thought of this story last weekend. Both of them came to us asking if they could go to Hillsongs Church in NYC with a few of their friends. There was no unhealthy fear in their voices. They were confident. Because of our little “experiment” a couple of years ago, Adriana and I knew this was not too big a thing for them to do. They knew how to buy train tickets, read the signs in Penn Station, and get around, so we said they could go. When they got home they told us how they ran into one of their friends and her mom in line for church. The mom, who is a good friend of ours, was in amazement that they were there without us.

When we were together the other night after one of our youth events I recounted the above story for this mom, and explained that it was because of little challenges like that through the years that we were able to have confidence in our girls to do bigger things now. He who is faithful with little can be trusted with much.

Remember, parents, give your kids some controlled challenges while they are young. Safety is important. Providing for your kids is more important. But putting them in challenging (not dangerous, but not completely risk-free) situations that will stretch them and help them be able to face the challenges of their lives ahead with knowledge, wisdom, and confidence is the most important thing. Don’t let unhealthy fear set the agenda for your parenting. Be courageous. Your kids will thank you for it one day.

Books I Read in 2014

  1. 7 Ways to Be Her Hero by Doug Fields
  2. 99 Thoughts on Jesus-Centered Living by Rick Lawrence (Read as a family)
  3. After You Believe by N.T. Wright
  4. All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis
  5. An Honest Look at a Mysterious Journey by John and Joanna Stumbo
  6. Bold Parents, Positive Teens by Karen Dockrey
  7. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  8. Compassion by Henri Nouwen, Donald P. Mcneill and Douglas A. Morrison
  9. Creating An Intimate Marriage by Jim Burns
  10. Culture of Honor by Danny Silk
  11. Edgar Allen Poe’s Complete Poetical Works
  12. Everyday I Pray for My Teenager by Eastman Curtis
  13. Francis and Edith Schaeffer
  14. God Space by Doug Pollock
  15. Holiness, Truth and the Presence of God by Francis Frangipane
  16. How to Hit a Curve Ball, Grill the Perfect Steak, and Become a Real Man by Stephen James and David Thomas
  17. How to Introduce Your Jewish Friends to the Messiah by Chosen People Ministries
  18. It’s Friday But Sunday’s Comin’ by Tony Campolo
  19. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  21. People Raising by William P. Dillon
  22. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  23. Poems by Emily Dickenson, Series 2
  24. Prone to Love by Jason Clark
  25. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  26. Running With The Giants by John Maxwell
  27. She Said Yes by Misty Bernall
  28. Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright
  29. Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne
  30. Stories That Feed Your Soul by Tony Campolo
  31. The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God by William B. Miller
  32. The Case for Faith for Kids by Lee Strobel (Read with my daughter)
  33. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  34. The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
  35. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein
  36. The Will to Climb by Ed Viesturs
  37. Vertical Leap by Bill Rieser
  38. Why Nobody Goes to Church Anymore by Thom and Joani Schultz
  39. Youth Ministry in a Multifaith Society by Len Kageler
  40. Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World by Brock Morgan

We’re A Long Way Off

I have been listening to this song for over a year now and contemplating it very regularly. It is my favorite song from Gungor’s album I am Mountain. For me it is such a call to humility and grace. May it encourage, challenge, and bless you as well.