Saturday, June 30, 2012

Forgiveness, Jesus Style!

I used to tell students that I only needed forgiveness for two things in my life- the things I do and the things I don't do!  With that in mind...

In case you missed this while reading your Bible, Jesus was big into forgiveness.  His mission statement- "I came to save the world, not to condemn it"- is all about offering us grace and forgiveness, because God knows wedeserve to be condemned.  Jesuscame and died on the cross so we wouldn't get what we deserve.  He told the following parable in Matthew 18:21-35 (The Message).

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, "Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?"   Jesus replied, "Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.  The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn't pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.  The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.'  Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt. 

The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, 'Pay up. Now!'  The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' But he wouldn't do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?' The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt.  And that's exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy." 

Over the past few years I have encountered both the king and the servant from this story.  The kings- of which there are many- have seen the sin and failure (the debt) in my life and have forgiven me anyway.  Paul writes that sin will always be with us on this side of heaven.  My past sins serve as a reminder of how much I need Jesus, but the debt has been erased by the sacrifice of Jesus and these "kings" I have encountered along the road.  The servants- of which, thankfully, I have encountered but a few- have seen the sin and failure in my life, and they seem determined to make sure those things are never forgotten.  They feel hurt and betrayed by my actions (and I don't blame them) and they simply can't let it go.  My sin seems to effect them more than their own.  And if I am not careful, their actions and attitudes can cause me to sin again- because they make me want to not forgive them.  But I must.  I cannot experience the abundant life that Jesus came to bring unless I can forgive myself and others.  People who are otherwise faithful Christians seem to carry around an unhealthy bitterness and resentment that one would think should be absent from the body of Christ.  And that is their prerogative- as long as they never need forgiveness themselves.  This parable is not the only scripture that makes this point very clear.  In the LORD's Prayer, we are told to pray for God to "forgive our trespasses (debts)  as we forgive those who trespass against us."  Jesus said "Judge not at all, or you will be judged."  He said "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."  In other words, Jesus makes it clear that we will all be held to the same standard that we hold others to.  If we forgive and offer grace and mercy to the people who wrong us, then that is what we shall receive from God.  If we don't- well, I'd prefer not to find out what refusing God's grace feels like.  

We all seek forgiveness in our lives, and those of us who call ourselves Christ-followers know that we can repent and ask for grace, and that it is a gift given freely by our God.  Far too many people, however, struggle when it comes to personal grace; we want forgiveness from God but are not willing to offer it to those around us.  I hope that this parable will inspire us all to be like the King- both the one in parable and the One we worship.  He understood the debt, he hated the debt- but he erased the debt.  Many of you have been "human erasers" in my life, and I thank God everyday for your mercy- and His.  Have a blessed day, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Youth Ministry ICU

Early ICU planning meeting from Springfield Friends
This week I was blessed to have 4 talented youth pastors share some thoughts on things they might do differently if they were starting over in student ministry.  While there are many things I would change about my own years in ministry, there is one thing that would remain constant- Relationships would remain Job #1, the most important part of the job.  Over my many years as a youth pastor there was one program I kept trying to initiate (with mixed success) that was/would have been a great help in keeping relationships on the front burner of ever every ministry I served.  That program was the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

I had been doing student leadership retreats and thinking about leadership training for several years when I first read about the ICU in J. David Stone's brilliant little book Spiritual Growth in Youth Ministry (Group Publishing, 1985).  The idea was not new, but it was in a format that intrigued me.  Dave suggested that you invite a group of student leaders to be a care unit for the other students in your ministry.  In later years I opened it up to anyone willing to make the commitment.  This involved training sessions and a covenant commitment to both the ICU and the youth ministry in general.  The primary focus of the ICU was on building relationships and making students feel significant, wanted, needed and prayed for.  Here's an actual copy of the list of responsibilities I put together for one of the churches where we used this program:

The "Love Lists" were just our way of splitting students into small groups (6-8) that were then assigned to an ICU member for care.  These lists included active and inactive members, and anyone who showed up at youth group even once was immediately added.  Membership in the ICU came with no power or privileges, only responsibilities.  We wanted to help those who wanted to be student leaders understand sacrificial ministry.  Among the things they agreed to with the covenant they signed were:

  • Being faithful in attendance to our youth programs and our church.
  • Attending a monthly ICU meeting.
  • Praying for our ministries.
  • Getting to know students who were not in their usual circle of friends.
  • Praying daily for the 6-8 students on their "Love List."
  • Taking seriously the assignments given to them by the ICU.
  • Keeping the youth pastor up-to-date on all issues and problems encountered.
  • Keeping anything discussed at ICU meeting private and confidential.
I started using the idea in the late 1980s, and used it for the rest of my career.  To be honest, it was very hit or miss, depending on the students in the group.  Some years the ICU was a very important part of what we were able to accomplish. Other years it was just a monthly meeting to report on how things were going.  And some years it just didn't work at all.  But when it worked, it was amazing.

So if I were starting over again, one thing I would do would be to make the ICU an ongoing priority in my youth ministry.  Look again at the lists of responsibilities and commitments.  How much better would your ministry be (and this would be true in the church as a whole, too!) if everyone got a weekly phone call or text from another student?  How much more connected would they feel if their special occasions were always remembered and recognized?  How strong could relationships be if everyone knew they were being prayed for every single day?  And how much better would your ministry be if you were training your teens to be ministers among their peers, not by giving them power but by teaching them to serve?  If I had it to do over again, I would have put much more of my energy and prayer into the idea of the ICU.  I think it could have changed lives if we had just been a little more consistent.  I have lots of other information on ICU training and covenants that I would be glad to share with anyone who is interested.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on the idea and ways you could use the ICU in your setting.  Thanks for reading!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Daniel Griswold: If I Were Starting Over...

The final guest post in my series If I Were Starting Over in Youth Ministry comes form another Twitter buddy, Daniel Griswold. Daniel is a youth pastor in Hilton Head, SC. It's a tough gig, but somebody has to do it!  Thanks so much for sharing with us, Daniel!

Growing Pains and Stretching in the 
Pioneering Phase of a Youth Ministry

By Daniel Griswold
Youth Director at Saint Andrew By-The-Sea UMC
Hilton Head Island, SC   Twitter:  @Dannonhill     Email:

Coming into the church, I was the new guy – but I was the new Youth Director.  There was a clean slate, and I had been told that I was able to paint what was necessary.   This was true, and it was exciting – and terrifying at the same time.  I had a general youth ministry philosophy in hand that I had developed when working in High School Youth Ministry in the Lexington, MA area during the seminary years.  From the previous four years of outreach work and program success at the previous church, I was confident that God would do a new work with this new church and myself.  I met the staff, projected my plans and goals to the ministry staff, and talked to as many committees as I could, just to let the church get to know me. 
And at some point, after some consultation with those who had previously led youth meetings and also with some of the students who were available, I looked at a calendar (with very confusing school calendars – 3 Middle Schools?) and began planning when Middle School and High School Groups would take place.  It was a thrust of necessity and I admit, personal haste, because I had been an August hire, only having one month to prep, think, plan, communicate and enact new programs for the youth of our church – I prepped to roll out quick.
The first two youth meetings for both grade groups were enormous successes, especially if we were to consider only numbers.  I had a handful of parent volunteers who helped with the crowd in the gym (we had not developed a youth space, so we commandeered what we could, found tables here and there, wired a projector to a random laptop, and put some powerpoint games and series slides together).   In assessment, through the explosion of activity, I will note that we survived.  And despite my positive reports, I knew that there were some big issues that needed addressing, some that could have been mitigated.  Here is a snapshot of the pioneering moments of ministry:
(1  )  We had numbers, but we had no relational leaders at the time.  My wife and I’s main task, to relate to the kids, build meaningful moments and establish rapport, could not happen because we were running a preset program.  The huge amount of kids, many of whom were likely checking out the new guy, did not allow for depth on a lot of levels, especially since we could not break the group down into smaller groups without trained leaders.
(2)  I was there, but I did not understand the cultural context/matrix that effected the youth.  It was like we spoke different languages.  I felt the missionary feeling that I was not in Kansas anymore.  The different schools and different groups did not particularly meld well at first, and large group and small group talk fell flat – there was not trust.  Because I was not yet a central figure, I could not glue together the varying groups, and I could see young people like oil and water separating to different corners at any chance they got.
(3)  I had not fully understood that the youth program prior had been very different from my own approach to ministry.  I was ready to launch into a discipleship oriented program heavy in discussion of the Bible and group prayer with a few games, it would have been better to plan more games at first, just have fun, and let the kids come along.  Instead I think I made the kids feel a bit uncomfortable by imposing a new culture on them rather than let an organic culture rise and I felt a bit inflexible until a bit down the road.
(4)  Over time, I would have to relearn Middle School Ministry, having been in High School for so long.  The basic patterns of discipleship are the same, but the delivery has a totally different methodology.  They’re excited, they’re bored, they are pushing, they want a friend, they don’t want to play, they want to jump up and down, they want quiet, they want to be loud.  Over the last three years, I’ve grown deeply in love with Middle School Ministry, and have found great delight in ministering to my awesome young people at this phase of life, but I think in the beginning of pioneering a new MS group, I was a bit scared of the explosive energy.  That is what I love about Middle School now.  And in High School, they already had role models and people who had guided their faith.  It was clear that they didn’t want a “new guy” and they didn’t feel they had the time (one or two years) to see if I’d stick around.

I look back at this period and call it the pioneering phase of the ministry.  I’ve done the same in ministries before and I’ve noticed some guiding principles that help a lot.  One on one contact work are important at first and built the framework for the future success of our ministry.  Also, finding ways to break through the mundane and get people laughing has a huge impact.  Humor is like glue, and often games and recreation get people laughing and enjoying life together.  If I could start over, I would forget a lot of the program.  I would have planned more unplanned time.  Though that is hard when nobody really knows you and the question on your reliability and trustworthiness are at issue.  A solid 6 months of just volunteering in other ministries, in the community, and planning sessions for the eventual launch of the youth ministry likely would have been a better route.  Our congregation was so supportive of all the work that we did to launch, and I think that the pressure to build program was self imposed.  I needed a talking point and a rally, and that is how I went about it.

All in all, God has blessed our ministry.  Our Middle School shrunk for a while, and after several years of learning and growing with our youth (who are now acting more as leaders), a culture has developed and we’ve busted at the seams.  We have built youth rooms that the young people have ownership of, we laugh and play games, and we learn about Jesus every week.  The High School actually dried up for a whole year, and that frustrated a lot of people.  I continued to tell folks that the High School students need to want to have a youth group.  After one missions trip with younger HS kids, they wanted a youth group, they helped plan it, they picked a name, eeked out an identity, and they are growing outward and inward in discipleship.  We even have a parent help team, and some volunteers that are consistent and want to contribute to the ministry.  God is good.

I think that in Youth Ministry, regardless of how you go about building, there is a pioneering phase that is going to be hard no matter what.  Your leadership will be tested, your learning and understanding of culture will be stretched, but those who keep going will see God’s work over the course of time.  Feeling a bit Ecclesiastes like right now.  There is a time for everything underneath the sun, including the blessings that God brings when you are faithful.  I could change a lot, but I would never change the reasons and the passions that brought God’s work about. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Robb Hand: "If I Were Starting Over..."

Today's guest post comes from Robb Hand. Robb is transitioning from Student Minister in Kansas City, KS to Student Minister in Emporia, KS.  He loves coffee, hates cats.  He has been married to a wonderful woman for 20 years, with whom he shares the blessing of raising their two wonderful children.  His hardly ever updated blog is restoredhand.comHe is available for church camps, retreats, or a cup of coffee. 

This is a funky weird time in life and in ministry for my family and me.  In the next month I will begin a new student ministry position about 100 miles from our home town.  At the same time, one of my children will be getting ready to head out to college while the other is child is two years away from doing the same thing.

In many ways, life is being reset.  The reset has given me a lot of time to reflect on student ministry and parenting.  What could I have done to be a better student minister where I am?  What can I do better where I am going?  What could I have done better as a parent?

Oh, did you notice that the last question only asks in the past tense?  It is because my kids will only grow up once.  I won't get to reset with them the way I can the student ministry.

If I were starting over, here is what I would do.

1. Realize that some things can be redone, some things cannot.
I'm not real big on the whole #YOLO thing.  Mainly because it is usually a hip way of saying, "Go be stupid!".  But, it is true that you only live once.  You can change ministry settings and get a fresh start.  When you have successes or failures, journal them so that you know what to repeat and what to avoid. 

Family is different. You cannot start over with your family. Realize this.  Your first ministry is to God.  Serve Him first.  Your second ministry is to your family.  Your church ministry will be healthier and you will be happier if you place it third and enjoy the time that you have with your family.*  

2. Read more. 
Experience is a great teacher.  In fact she is one of the best.  Her methods often leave lasting impressions.  They leave your ego hurt, a student deflated, or a parent angry.  It is true that you should learn from mistakes, but why not learn from someone else's mistakes.  Read everything you can get your hands on that is student ministry related.  Read journals.  Read books.  Read daily emails.  Read Twitter updates.   As much as I like to read, I would go back in time and read more.  If a person is reading a wide variety of authors and subjects, it is nearly impossible for them to learn too much.

3. Slow down and be accessible.
People are more important than programs and PowerPoints.  Sadly, no kid has ever come up to me after a youth meeting and said, "I really like the background you had, and your transitions were AWESOME!"  I did have a student once tell me that I was hard to get ahold of at times.  That still stings and makes me feel that I failed.  There are few good excuses for showing up unprepared.  But as I am still learning, there are fewer excuses for not taking the time to listen to a kid.

I left this blank.  The reason I did this was because I don't know everything.  In all likelihood, there is more that I would do differently.  But I don't know it all, so I am leaving it blank.  That is probably a good idea for others, too.  Realize you don’t know it all.  There is so much to learn. 

And now, I must circle back to item one.  I have a wife who is waiting for me to have dinner with her.  As I close my laptop, maybe you should do the same with yours.

*As a side note, even though you can't reset with your family, you can improve. If you are human and sometimes fail to give them the love and attention they need, listen to them, make changes, apologize, and do better. I am thankful for Erlinda, Bri, and Bobby who have loved me even when I have been terrible at one or more of my ministries. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Eric Hendrickson: "If I Were Starting Over..."

Today's guest post comes from my buddy Eric Hendrickson.  I met Eric through Twitter, and he has been a blessing in my life ever since.  He is a youth pastor in Columbia, SC, and has served several churches in that capacity.  He is also a huge fan of the University of South Carolina.  Thanks, Eric, for being willing to share with us today!

If I were starting over in youth ministry...

“Billy Graham was asked the question, “If you had to start over your ministry would you do it the same way again?” He answered, “No! I would do it like Jesus. I would look for 12 men and spend time with them, hoping that each one will become who I am and that each one will then find 12 men and do the same”

If I were starting over in youth ministry I would do several things differently.  I know that life is not about regrets and wanting to relive the past, but I have had several things that I would change or be more aware of in my career in youth ministry.  Looking at Billy Graham's response to the question, I feel the same.  I would go back to my early years in youth ministry and spend more time on discipleship.  Being part of the generation of youth workers that spent a lot of time in the late 90s and early 2000's doing many great events and outings, but failing to do as much follow-up.  I had some great adults then, but did not train them in the ways of followup.  I only could follow up on a few after each big great event, retreat, or fun outing.  There were many students left in the shadow with no followup.  But in the last year, with the great use of Facebook, I have been following up with these old students to check up on them and try to disciple where I failed to do so over a decade ago.  But in my defense, I had no clue that I wasn't doing this.  I was not taught that at the workshops and training I went to back then.  Instead I learned how to make bigger and better retreats and events!  It wasn't until I was in grad school and the last couple NYWC and Simply Youth Conference that I really understood the importance of raising leaders to help with discipling.  During the past year I have been working on getting my adults and students in more of discipleship mode of thinking and away from event based with no follow-up.  

If I were to start back over with this process of thinking, I think many problems and frustrations would have disappeared.  It hurts to write this, but I knew no other way of doing it.  I thought it would just "happen" after these events.  I thought that if we put on a great retreat or great big event, that the students would just get it.  What can I say...I was young and clueless.

But I can't go back, I can only change how I do things now and teach other young youth workers not fall into the same cycle that me and many youth workers have done for so long.  It takes commitment to training your adults, but also training your student leaders who are ready to take the step in growing.  

During this past year I have had the chance to put this in place and it has been amazing to see how things have changed.  It was a slow change at first, because it has never been viewed like that here with me or any other youth worker.

Take the chance and start over in how you disciple your students.  Make Disciples of all!  Still do the big events, but have all your pieces in place to continue discipling when the event is over!

"I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
-Jeremiah 29:11

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Tom Zalatnai: "If I Were Starting Over..."

Today begins a 5 day series of guest posts from youth pastors on the theme, "If I Were Starting Over in Youth Ministry."  Today's comes from one of my Canadian Twitter friends, Tom Zalatnai.  I hope this series will help us each focus on lessons learned from our time in ministry.  Enjoy!  And thanks for kicking us off in style, Tom!

I lead a small youth group at an Anglican church in Montreal, Quebec. That's in Canada, for those of you who are out of the know ;) Montreal is a city that has been bitten by the Church in the past, and its metropolitan, urban setting makes it one of the more secular places in North America. That being said, our youth group is small, by our standards, but probably sounds infinitesimal compared to some of you guys' ministries haha. We have about ten to fifteen kids. They're the same ones, and they're a super tight group, but yeah, things are small, and that's the flock that God has given us to tend! They're amazing, and we've been so blessed to get to lead them and build real, meaningful relationships with them in a setting that encourages them to go deeper into their relationships with God and with each other.
With such a small group, and with my having actually been a member of the group until a couple of years ago, my philosophy of leadership has always been to be as self-sacrificing as possible and to try really hard to foster deep, personal relationships with the people I'm leading. It's always been my belief that if we are close with the people we work with, that enables us to lead them in a greater capacity and also has the added bonus of making things even more fun. However, and this is where I start to answer Carl's question, it also leaves us open to some snares and pitfalls, and only in the last little while have I been able to figure out how to work around those and what was missing from my ministry.

The problem with a relationship-based approach to ministry is professionalism. It's really hard to seem like you're being a professional when the teens see you as a friend more than they see you as a leader. It's also hard to lead when that happens, because they start to see you as a peer and those who feel so inclined will treat you as one and ignore your given authority. It also leaves you open to forgetting that you are their leader, and actually starting to feel and act like you are another of their peers. That's a dangerous road to go down haha.

That being said, if there was one thing I'd change about the way I have lead my youth ministry, it would be adding a little bit more professionalism to my leadership. I still think it's super important to build meaningful relationships with the teens, but it's equally important to establish that line between "bro" and "leader who you get along with really well."

I'm going to leave you with some scripture to consider (I know, I've been talking for awhile haha)- I recently came across a passage that I think is a really fantastic guideline for people leading ministries to follow. The passage is 1 Timothy 3. This is a great list of qualities to adhere to as much as possible, and since I found it I have been trying to push myself into it more and more.

Anyways, that's all I've got for today! Thanks for much for reading, check out my blog, follow me on Twitter @tomzalatnai and make sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series!


Thomas Zalatnai
Co-Coordinator Emmaus Youth Group

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Day To Remember

Every now and then I have a day that reminds that my 52 years have been filled with amazing people and many blessings.  Yesterday was one such day. Here's a recap...

Marilyn, Will and I began our journey to Kissimmee around 9:45 am.  We arrived early and drove down 192, seeing once again all of the remarkable changes that have taken place there since we moved away in 2000.  It seems every motel has a new name.  Many of our favorite restaurants are gone, replaced by new ones.  We drove by the house FUMC-K provided us for the 6 years we lived there, the house where Will lived his first years. We drove by the church itself.  The memories were coming at me in waves.  All this time the excitement was building over the reunion planning meeting we were heading to attend, and Teresa Tysinger was reminding me by text of all the possibilities such a reunion would bring and how many people were excited by the idea.  By the time we arrived at the Broadway Pizza Bar just before noon, I was ready!

Quite a few of the people we thought were coming to the meeting wound up not making it, but Jill Watson, Cindy Martin and the Jones clan had a grand old time reliving old stories and making plans. As Jill said, we picked up right where we left off 12 years ago.  Interested people can read and respond to our reunion proposals by clicking here- and please do, because we desperately want your input!  But we had too much fun and laughed way too hard, and 2 hours went by in the blink of an eye.  We left not only excited about the possible reunion, but also about planning more planning meetings!

In the midst of all of this, our dear friend Lisa Jewett was kind enough to stop by our Tampa home and let Conner the Dog out to stretch his legs and relieve his bladder.  Not just any friend will do that for you.especially when the dog is as crazy as Conner, but Lisa was glad to do it.  We do have such amazing friends...

The came reunion #2 of the day, as we ventured over to Downtown Disney to catch up with the Farlow clan from NC, who were just arriving in Orlando.  The group included Todd Farlow (a Hall of Fame student from my days at Springfield Friends Meeting), his wife Meleah and their 2 kids, as well as Todd's mom and dad, Brenda and Lewis.  Also with him them were Todd's older sister Amy, her hubby David Logan and their 2 daughters.  We had thought we were not going to get to see Amy's family, and so when I wrote about seeing the Farlow's in yesterday's post I neglected to mention them.  By the time we arrived in Kissimmee, Amy had made it known on Facebook that I was in trouble for leaving them out!  We had a good laugh about it.  We wound up just meeting them at Disney's All-Star Sports Resort and having dinner there.  It had been at least 8 years since we had seen any of them, but once again it was immediately like old times.  Brenda abused me for my gray hair; Lewis was making me laugh hysterically; Marilyn and Amy were cracking each other up; and Will was simply soaking it in.  Such great people who were so very important in my life- and still are.  I just love that family. Again, 2 hours went by in a blink.

The blessings of the day (and the weekend) were not quite done.  I got a message from my Twitter Sis, telling me she and her family were coming to WDW in October and hoping to catch up with me.  That would be so awesome! Marilyn got a call from my old friend (and fellow Banana Split!) Ray Luther, who followed me as the youth pastor at Springfield and is now the senior pastor there. He is here is central Florida with his wife Katie.  We are hoping to meet them for dinner tonight, unless we have to build an ark this afternoon.  And finally, we got word through Facebook that my old NYWC buddy (and another of Banana Splits!) Tim Vestal and his wife Sarah welcomed a baby boy into the world yesterday.  Simply put, it was an AWESOME day!!!

It was indeed a day to remember, both in the sense that it was a wonderful day, and in the sense that I remembered so many of the people who have so blessed my life.  Thanks to everyone who made it so special.  Have a blessed Sunday, dear readers!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Shout Outs!

YO, friends and neighbors, and welcome to yet another edition of Saturday Shout Outs!  There has been a lot of activity in my world over the past couple of weeks, and today is going to be absolutely amazing!!!  Curious?  Then read on my friends!

*  Today at 12 noon Marilyn, Will and I will be gathering with some dear old friends at the Broadway Pizza Bar in downtown Kissimmee to begin some initial planning on a reunion of the FUMC-K group from the years I was there (1994-2000).  I have heard from so many people who are so excited about the possibility of a reunion actually happening.  Most cannot join us today but are anxious to hear what we are planning. I will recap today's discussion on tomorrow's post.
*  Then later today we are going to catch-up with our dear old friends The Farlows (Springfield Friends Meeting) over at Walt Disney World for dinner.  Can't wait to see Todd & Meleah, but just as psyched to see Todd's parents, Lewis & Brenda.  Some of my favorite people ever!!!
*  I had a long visit yesterday afternoon with Todd Willis (FUMC-K) at my favorite Applebees in Plant City.  Todd wanted to be at the reunion meeting today but has to fly back to DC.  We managed to solve most of the world's problems AND get in a lot of baseball discussion as well.  So great to see another of my all-time favorite people!
*  Will Jones came home from a week at my Mom's house with a Save Ferris t-shirt that has a huge picture of Cameron on it.  Later, we watched Airplane together and laughed our butts off.  He listens to Springsteen on vinyl. I may have the coolest 16 year old ever.  And as you go about life these next weeks, remember the lesson of Ferris Bueller's Day Off- "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."  Not a bad thought to start every day with...
*  In the comments yesterday, Teresa Reep Tysinger (FUMC-K) mentioned her flashbacks and nightmares from her shared experience with Jerry Hanbery inside the Statue of Liberty.  I had to look long and hard, but here is proof of what haunts her...

*  Got confirmation this week that Ashley Goad Broadhurst (Springfield) will be spending a few days here at Chez Jones in late July.  Woooo-hooo!  We do love when "family" visits!!!
*  I continue to remember my old friends Lisa Ramos Moran (New Garden Friends Meeting) and Alan Brown (Quaker Lake Camp) in prayer.  Their moms passes away this past week.
*  We are coming down the homestretch in the fundraising effort for Sally Hollingsed (FUMC-K) in her battle with cancer.  You can read her story and make a donation by clicking here!
*  There are few things in life that make me smile more and laugh harder than trying to teach my dear friend Lisa Jewett (Wesley Memorial UMC) about baseball.  Plus, if you haven't heard, she has cute grandkids.  Just ask her!  :)  Love you, Lisa!
*  So many of my youth pastor friends on Twitter are in the midst of very busy summers, taking trips and reaching students in the name of Jesus.  Please keep them in your prayers.
* In addition to my regular prayer times (in which many of you are often mentioned!) I have been praying extra prayers this past week for two very special people.  Heather Beggs Varner (Springfield) continues her work as the Camp Director at Quaker Lake, where she has transformed the camp in some amazing ways.  They are in the midst of camping season, and I know how stressful that can be- even as you are having a blast!  So join me in praying for Heather.  And Cyndi Reep Browning had a very rough week.  Cyndi, we love you and we know God has big things ahead for you!  Keep the faith!!!

That's it for now!  I am ready to get off and running on a very busy day.  I hope you all have a great day today and a blessed day tomorrow. Let me hear from you!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, June 22, 2012

Flashback Friday: Top 10 Trips

With our FUMC-Kissimmee reunion planning meeting coming up tomorrow, as well as a get together with the Todd Farlow family after that, I am feeling very nostalgic!  And nothing brings back great memories faster than talking about some of the amazing trips my groups tool over the years.  Today I remember 10 of my favorites!

10)  Walt Disney World, 1990-  The middle of our three Disney trips from Springfield Friends Meeting (also known as Floridays '90) was a great adventure.  There are lots of great stories from the trip already posted here, but it will always be memorable to me for three reasons:  losing Jeff Byrd, losing Jill Gilbreth and riding Mr. Toad's Wild Ride with Jeremy Godwin.  And those amazing root beer floats at the A&W across the OBT from the Gold Key Inn...

  9)  Night of Joy, 2003-  This was the first time I ever took a group to Disney's weekend of great Christian bands and stayed for the entire weekend.  A huge group from Wesley Memorial UMC in Tampa made the trek to Orlando and stayed on-property at Disney's All-Star Sports Resort.  We took in both nights of concerts, had great times in the pool, and just generally had a spectacular weekend.  I took lots of pictures, but lost my camera bag at some point while we were loading up to go home.  This group shot you see here is the only evidence I have of this great weekend!

  8)  Ski Trip, 1997-  The stories of this FUMC-K trip to Winterplace are endless, and most have been told here already.  The frozen bus, Vern Watson peeing by the roadside, Erin Augenblick seeing flames shooting out the tailpipeDr. Jill forcing me to buy her chocolate cobbler at the Cracker Barrel and Jessica Overstreet sleeping in the bath tub are just a few of the moments that made this the only ski trip to make my list.

  7)  New York, 1999-  Another FUMC-K trip, this was another huge group (see picture at top) that had an amazing time together.  Great memories include Jill Souther on crutches; Kay Hill and Debbie Rogers getting thier hair hair done by real New York stylists; Jerry Hanbery repeatedly saying "Get some monkey, work that dum dum (I still have no idea what that means);"  and seeing Les Miz and The Scarlet Pimpernel.  It was also the week of the most fabulous meal ever, dinner for 60 at Carmine's.  All of my New York trips were great, but this one was especially special!!!

  6)  Chicago, 2004-  On this mission trip taken by Graceland, the student ministry of Wesley Memorial UMC, we worked hard, played hard and worshipped hard.  I wrote about this adventure recently in a post on mission trip memories, but I have to say again, the worship service we shared in a small room one night on that trip is among the most significant and meaningful I have ever been a part of...  

  5)  Live To Tell, 1996-  This FUMC-K mystery weekend in Myrtle Beach was memorable for so many reasons, not the least of which was the incredible amount of time we spent driving to and from our destination.  We had a great time and some awesome group building experiences.  We ate lots of seafood.  We had Sunday morning worship on the beach.  And we did not kill Kendall Crotty... (see Live to Tell for details!).

  4)  New York, 1982-  This was my final New York trip with my New Garden Friends Meeting group, and we took almost everyone!  It was an amazing group, featuring superstars such as Marshall Ratledge, Ling Lee, Michael Garrett, Kim Winters, David Cannady, Kathy Fountain, Marnee Larkins, Linc Dewar and Darek Newby, and Quaker Lake friends like Ronnie Osborne and Carla Garrett.   We had one of the best seminars that the Methodist Center at the United Nations ever did for us.  Lots of great memories, lots of great people.

3)  Myrtle Beach, 1989-  The second appearance on this countdown for a week at the Betsy B, this Springfield Friends Meeting trip featured so many memorable moments- and I have many of them on a video that I hope to share someday!  Among the classic moments were Shelley Godwin getting everyone talking about Total BabesRussell Farlow and the Big K cola;  Heather Beggs trying desperately to belch on camera;  early morning wake up calls for the females, and then later the males, using pots and pans;  Laurie Rees and Cecily Livengood meeting their very own Mike and Mike on the beach; Judy Rees and Brockie Farlow imitating Heather and Keri Vinson; the big KISS concert featuring Jon Moran, Mike Mercadante, Patrick Tillman and Danny McCorquodale; and of course, everyone taking every opportunity to rag on Todd Farlow for not being there!  An amazing week!

  2)  Spanish Wells, 1997-  You can read all about this great FUMC-K trip by clicking here.  But seriously, how can a trip (even a supposed working trip) to the Bahamas NOT make this list?  One of the great weeks on my life, no doubt about it!

  1)  Walt Disney World, 1993-  The Magic Tour was just that- a week full of magical adventures at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort for the youth of Springfield Friends Meeting.  It took me 19 posts to this blog to cover this trip, so to read all about it just look to the LABELS box at the lower right hand side and click on Magic Tour.  From the Polynesian Luau to The Comedy Warehouse to the Hoop-de-doo Musical Revue, this trip simply rocked.  For me, it will always be the standard against which all other youth group trips are measured.

So there you have it- my list of favorite trips.  Which trips would make your list?  Did I leave out your favorite New York or Myrtle Beach trip?  I would love to hear from you (hint, hint!) and discover what you remember- and who you remember.  Have a blessed weekend!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Random Thought For Thursday

Yesterday I was reminded of a little song I have known most of my life, but had not thought of in a very long time.  It was on a New Christy Minstrels album of my Dad's, and he taught it to me when I was little. I used to sing it to anyone who would listen.  I share it today because I think it uses a humorous scenario to make a good point.  I just can't decide what that point is.  Maybe it is a warning against being judgmental. Maybe it is reminding us that who we hang out with does matter.  Maybe it is just silly.  Or maybe...just is a warning to always sleep it off at home!  In any case, here it is...

It was early last September as near as I can remember
And I was strolling down a lane in Tipsy Pride (hiccup)
Not a word did I utter as I lay down in the gutter
When this pig come up and lay down by my side
Not a soul was I disturbing as I lay there by the curbing
When this high-toned lady stopped and I heard her say:
"You can tell someone who boozes, by the company he chooses..."
And the pig got up and slowly walked away!

So what do you think?  Is there a moral to the story? I look forward to your interpretations! 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Frosty Memory

Lauren, Big C and Marilyn
Last night I had a brief text conversation with my old friend Lauren Carr Cacciatore, one of my students back in my days at FUMC-Kissimmee (1994-2000).  She and her husband Brad had been to Tennessee and gone rafting on the Ocoee River, a trip we made several times during those youth group days. Lauren said she saw some familiar sights that brought back fond memories.  She also said that at no time during the trip did she have a Frosty from Wendy's.  Why would she mention such an odd and seemingly random fact?  Witness the following account in this vintage post, first shared back in June of 2010.

Lauren Carr was one of my favorite youth from the first day I met her.  There was just something about Lauren that was special.  She is pictured at right with Amber Herrick and Chrissy Weaver, who often referred to themselves as Carl's Angels.  I have many memories of the three of them, including a lunch at Friendly's after I moved to Chicago and came back for Lisa Kraus's wedding that I will NEVER forget!  But there is one Lauren story that stands above all the rest...

I already knew before the Mid-High Adventure Trip of 1995 that Lauren required a specific diet.  Her favorite food- in fact, the ONLY real food she would eat- was macaroni and cheese.  And not just any mac and cheese; it had to be Kraft!  I do have some memory of riding around Atlanta trying to find her some KFC so she could eat the skin off of the chicken, but for the most part it was Kraft mac and cheese or bust.  Upon reaching the Ocoee Inn on the trip we ate in their restaurant, where they had mac and cheese, but alas it was not Kraft.  Lauren would eat junk food when we stopped for gas, but for the most part she just did not eat much on our trips.  

We were coming back through Atlanta on our way home to Kissimmee when we stopped at a Wendy's, and Lauren got a Frosty.  This was back in the day when every Frosty was chocolate.  We proceeded on down the highway, and for the second time in my life (see A Waste of Good Cookies) I had someone tell me, in the midst of Atlanta rush hour traffic, that they might need to stop because of a stomach issue.  And before we knew what was happening, Lauren was sick.  And there was Frosty everywhere.  Inside the white van.  Outside the white van.  ALL OVER the white van!   I cannot fully express to you how unpleasant it was to see this Frosty for the second time.  We pulled off the interstate as hundreds of cars went flying by, and we tried to clean up.  

It was at this point that one of our Youth CounselorsMike Mangan, performed a historic act of bravery.  Mike was helping clean up the mess (which was significant!) and we didn't have nearly enough napkins or paper towels.  Mike was wearing a gray Georgetown University t-shirt, and in a great act of personal sacrifice he took off the shirt and began to use it to soak up the secondhand Frosty.  He mopped up the puke until his shirt was completely saturated.  As we finished our clean-up and were getting back in the van, Mike stood by the roadside, starring at his shirt.  It was almost as if he was saying good-bye.  He then turned and tossed the Frosty stained t-shirt into some bushes by the highway and returned to then van.  Seldom has one man sacrificed so much so that others could ride in a barf-free van...

 The group that lived through the event loved to tell the story, and were in fact bound together by the experience.  It was just another example of how a shared history brings groups closer together than any lesson, program or event ever could.  Lauren survived.  Mike survived, although his shirt did not.  And the poor white van was never the same again...inside or out!  Used Frosty will never be a popular color for vans...

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

7 Warning Signs For Youth Ministries

I have been out of student ministry for over 5 years now.  In youth ministry, 5 years is often a lifetime.  The large, big-budget church my family attends has completely reorganized its student ministry 3 times in those 5 years.  Some of my youth pastor friends have changed jobs 3 times in those 5 years.  So I have missed a lot of changes.  I have always been suspicious of people who try to teach youth ministry when they are not doing it- and that is me now.  But lately, I have been noticing some scary stuff.  I read lots of blogs written by youth pastors, and I tweet with a couple of hundred youth workers each week.  And I can't help but notice that there are some things they seem to be quite proud of that my 28 years of service in youth ministry cause me to see as red flags- warning signs that a storm is coming!  My purpose today is not to say anyone is wrong.  I do not know your students or your situations.  My purpose is to ask you to step back and make sure your ministry is doing all it can to build relationships between the students you serve and the Jesus you worship.  Here are 7 questions I hope you will consider...

  1. Has your ministry become lopsided?  Ministry to students should cover many areas.  We need to teach them to be disciples. We need to show them what it means to have the heart of a servant and how to share the gospel with others.  We need to give them opportunities to worship. We need to offer them a place where they feel loved and included, and where they experience true fellowship.  Has your ministry become a place that focuses almost exclusively on one or two of those things?  Lopsided ministries often begin to exclude those on the fringe, or to become social clubs that have no heart for Jesus.  Neither of those is acceptable...
  2. Do you preach to your students each week?  We have known for years that lectures and sermons are the least effective ways to communicate with young people, yet I read each week of all the time youth pastors are spending on sermon preparation.  We think our words inspire and convict them, but often they are rolling off teenagers like rain off of a freshly waxed car.  There are so many better, more creative ways to teach and engage students with the Word of God- but they require much more planning, work and risk.  We ask better of school teachers. We should demand better of ourselves.
  3. Do parents like you too much?  If parents are on board with everything you do, you may have a problem.  Yes, we should work with parents (the ones who care and love their teenagers, never forgetting that we also serve students who get zero parental support), partner with them and be supportive of them, never seeking to undercut them as the primary models for the students we serve.  But who is it we have been called to serve?  If you never have to explain yourself to parents, then chances are you are not challenging your students.  The radical Jesus of the gospels makes adults uncomfortable; your ministry should too. You know teenagers.  If adults are approving of all of your exotic lessons, weird games, strange meeting times and loud music, then perhaps they are not exotic, weird, strange or loud enough!  Occasionally it is a good and holy thing to scare some parents...  :)
  4. When you start planning a new year of ministry, do you begin with last year's calendar?  If you know what you will be doing September 22 of this year because you know what you did September 23 of last year, then get help. You are in a rut, and your creativity is dying. Start from scratch.  Brainstorm brand new ideas! You may wind up doing similar things, but don't make what you HAVE done the starting point for what you NEED to do!  Lameness alert!!!
  5. When was the last time you tried something that failed miserably?  If it has been a while, then you may be playing it too safe.  Challenging and engaging students requires a little craziness and a lot of outside-the-box thinking. Those things lead to ideas whose times have not yet come- and abject failure. God will use those failures to make a difference.  I once lost $8000 on a concert where nearly 100 people gave their lives to Christ.  Failure...or not?  If you aren't failing a couple of times a year, then you aren't risking enough in the name of Jesus.  
  6. Is your group too homogeneous?  I am not talking about ethnic or racial diversity; those are important issues that deserve more space than I can give them here.  I am talking about the caste system that exists in our schools. I am talking about cliques.  Are you actively seeking to help break down barriers?  Do you seek to reach all types of students, or just those who fit some predetermined profile set forth by your church?  Are you only accepting of teenagers who have already cleaned up their act?  You know- clean language, proper attire, no tattoos or piercings? Too many youth pastors are drawn only to students who are like them.  Beware of this.  Paul wrote we should be all things to all people so that they might know Jesus.  As a youth pastor, I would have loved to have been described with the same words Grace the school secretary used to describe Ferris Bueller:  "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, ****heads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude."  Jesus is for everyone... 
  7. Is spontaneous a dirty word in your ministry?   Some of the very best lessons, worship times and fellowship events I was ever a part of were NOT the things I had planned for that day.  I heard from a youth pastor a few weeks back who almost had a stroke when his guest speaker didn't show up.  Come on, people!  We are supposed to be the "Masters of Disaster," the queens and kings of improvisation!  Sometimes I think in our desire to appear "professional" we have cut out a big part of the heart of youth ministry- spontaneity.  Be willing to go with the flow.  Be willing to endure a little holy chaos. In fact, be willing to CREATE a little holy chaos!  And above all, be willing to let the Holy Spirit take you places you didn't plan to go.  Tameness, sameness and lameness will always be the enemy when it comes to reaching the hearts of students, because none of those words describe Jesus.
I could go on, but I will stop now. This feels like a sermon, and I am sure most of you quit reading back around #3!  It is my prayer that these words may rattle a few cages.  I may be way off base here- but I don't think so.  I gave much of my life to doing student ministry, and I believe with all of my heart that it still has a huge role to play in the future of the church- if we go about it with passion and creativity!   Let me know what you think!

Because of Jesus,

Monday, June 18, 2012

Jerks For Jesus

The following contains sarcasm, and lots of it.  Read at your own risk.

Matthew Hartsfield, our pastor at Van Dyke Church here in Tampa, is a wonderful preacher who always makes me think.  He once mentioned a group that he is seeing more and more of in our nation these days.  This group is called Jerks for Jesus.  I have done a bit of research and would like to share with you three ways that you can become a card-carrying member of this special club!  You don't have to do all three; any one of these will qualify you for membership.
  1. Remember that Christianity is all about YOU.  Your belief system, your spiritual practices, your interpretation of scripture and your value system are the only ones that count!  If someone disagrees with you on methods of baptism or the theology of social justice, simply acknowledge that they are wrong and move along.  If you are a warmonger and another "christian" is a pacifist, simply remind them that Jesus once cut off a guard's ear in the Garden.  What if they say that was Peter...and Jesus healed the guard's ear?  Just tell them, "Not in my Bible!"  Your faith demands that you never back down from the things you believe in, even if scripture proves you wrong.  Otherwise you might as well be a (GASP) liberal...
  2. Even a perfect Christian like you needs to mingle on occasion with other like-minded believers (although there is no one quite like you!).  1 Corinthians 12 refers to this group as the "Body of Christ."  Different members of the body have different responsibilities.  As a Jerk for Jesus, you play a special part.  You are the Pointing Finger!  It is your job to point out the sins and failures of your fellow Christians. Let someone else be the hands and feet that serve others in Jesus' name.  Let others be the tongues who share the Good News with a devastated world.  It is up to you to remind society of it's moral decay- such as rap music, Reality TV and a willingness to vote for Democrats on occasion.  You are the one who points out who is to blame when things go wrong.  You are the one to identify which sinful church members are no longer worthy of serving on the Finance Committee.  And remember, the Pointing Finger never points back at you, because only you understand what Jesus really wants this world to be like.   You are the keeper of truth- and you can use Twitter and Facebook to condemn those who disagree with you!
  3. Concentrate on God's law as found in the Old Testament.  Obey these and you are far less likely to need to be fooled by concepts like Grace and Unconditional Love.  They are for the weak.  As a true Jerk for Jesus, you will know that Jesus didn't have to die for your sins, because you are doing just fine without him.  Anyone who has sinned and needs to be forgiven clearly is not a good American (and one of our Pointing Fingers will be more than happy to point out their shortcomings!).  If you need a good biblical role model, check out the Pharisees.  They followed the law, were important people, and didn't need Jesus to explain anything to them. Plus they had money and almost certainly voted a straight Republican ticket.   Indeed, the Pharisees are the patron saints of the Jerks for Jesus.
Some of you may wish to avoid being a Jerk for Jesus.  Leonard Sweet, in his book SoulTsunami, points out the best way to steer clear of this group.  He calls it The Platinum Rule- an upgrade from The Golden Rule we all grew up with. The Golden Rule says "do to others as you would have them do to you."   Jesus knew The Golden Rule and quoted it in Matthew 7:12.  But He also said that "I come to give us a new covenant."  It would no longer be about treating others as we want to be treated.  It was about Jesus saying "just as I have loved you, so should you love one another (John 13:35)."  Jesus loved us so much He died for us.  Talk about taking it to another level!  The Platinum Rule said it was no longer about what is good for me; it was now about being willing to sacrifice everything for those around you.  It was no longer about loving "your kind of people;" it was now all about loving everyone, even those you don't like.  It is about giving up things that are important to you for the good of the Kingdom of God.  It is about understanding that we all need grace and forgiveness, we all need love, and most importantly, we all need Jesus.  It is Jesus, crucified and resurrected, that we need to be sharing with our nation.  And we need to- no, we MUST- share Him in love, not with a condemning wag of our fingers.  As the song says, "They will know we are Christians by our love."  And the world needs that love- even the jerks...

Because of Jesus,