Think Theologically

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry

Youth workers haven’t always been famous for deep theological reflection.

In fact, youth ministry has been blamed by some for the bigger problem of the church’s lack of theological depth.


But even though youth ministry is more famous for games like “Chubby Bunny” (which, if I’m not mistaken, has been mostly banned) and other strange games involving food, there has been a shift—a “theological turn,” if you will, in youth ministry (see Kenda Creasy Dean and Andrew Root’s The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry).

The Shift

Thinking theologically is more commonplace in youth ministry than ever before in the United States, as more and more youth workers are realizing the theological nature of the task of ministry. It’s not strange anymore for a youth pastor to know something about John Calvin or Paul Tillich or to find youth workers having theological conversations at their conventions and conferences.

But the theological turn in youth ministry is more than just a revival of theological interest. It’s not just about youth workers reading more theology and applying it to their situation. It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

To be a good youth worker is not just to know what Karl Barth’s answer would be to a practical problem, it’s being able to see what God is doing and to participate in it, inviting young people to do the same.

How You Can Think Theologically

So here I want to give you a very basic outline of how, if ministry is theological, youth workers can think theologically about their youth ministry.

(If you’re up for the challenge of reading some more academic material, the stuff I’m about to talk about comes mostly from Richard R. Osmer’s Practical Theology: An Introduction and Andrew Root’s Christopraxis.)

It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

According to Richard Osmer, practical theology—the kind of theological reflection that attends specifically to human experience and practice—includes four movements. Good practical theologians are already in the habit of moving in these four movements, not necessarily always in the same order, and I think that youth workers would do well to get in the habit too. I would encourage you to try thinking through these four movements, or “tasks,” whenever you’re trying to figure out how to handle a situation.

Movement 1: Describe the situation

The first movement is the descriptive movement. Ask the question, What’s the situation? What’s going on?

You can imagine any situation you are facing in youth ministry—conflict between people in the youth group, the overuse of social media among teenagers, a young person with a mental illness, whatever. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a “problem,” per se. It just has to be a situation or an incident worth your attention as a youth worker.

The hard part about this movement is to do your best not to assume too much. In other words, don’t start interpreting the situation just yet (leave your psychology text books at home for this one). Just be a good listener and listen carefully to what’s actually going on.

I should note at this point that this is already a theological movement. When we come to any situation as youth workers, we come with the expectation that God is moving. Our starting point is God… and the conviction that when we listen carefully, we’re listening to the Holy Spirit.

Movement 2: Interpret the situation

After you’ve listened carefully and can describe the situation in a way that would be familiar to the people in it, it’s time to ask the question, “Why did  this happen?” or “Why is this happening?”

This question will lead to the question, “What kind of problem is this?” (Hint: now it’s ok to bring your psychology text book… or your anthropology textbook… or your philosophy book… just depends on the situation).

Maybe it’s a psychological issue. Maybe it’s something you can understand better if you understand culture. Maybe it’s got something to do with how the world perceives truth. Maybe if you knew a little more about the history of the church you’re working in you’d understand why a conflict exists. Trust the situation, and the Holy Spirit in it, to guide you. This is all happening because…???

Movement 3: Name God’s action in the situation.

As I’ve already said, these movement are theological from the start, but this third movement, what Osmer and Root call, “the normative task” is the most explicitly theological task. If I was forced to rank them (I’d resist, but…) I’d say this is the most important movement if ministry’s really what we’re up to.

This is also the task that people are most likely to skip. It’s natural to say, “I know what’s going on, I know why, now I’m gonna fix it!” But before we move to strategizing and fixing things, we’ve got to be clear about what God is doing or wants to do. That means we have to spend some time talking about God.

Osmer says that the question of this movement is, “What ought to be happening?” Andrew Root adds a caveat: “What ought to be happening… now that God has encountered us…” (Christopraxis, p. 26).

This movement is all about figuring out what God’s presence in a situation says about the situation. Although I already said that the theological turn in youth ministry is not about applying theology to things, reading theology and understanding the bible will be really important for this movement—it will help us attend to God’s presence in the experience. The simplest question of this movement, I would say, is, “What theological questions does this situation raise” (tip: it’s helpful to go ahead and name what kind of theological problem we’re facing… is it a Christological problem, an eschatological problem, an ecclesiological problem?… and start from there).

Movement 4: Do something.

Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for (or at least the part that most youth workers are eager to get to)… now do something. The fourth movement is the “pragmatic” or the strategic movement.

Now that we know what’s really happening, why it’s happening, and what ought to be happening, we can make something happen!

You might discover that you need to make a real changes in your youth ministry. You might still decide that food games are the right thing to do in your youth ministry.

You’ll still be doing what you signed up to do, but this time you won’t just be doing it because it sounded fun or because everyone else is doing it. You won’t even being doing it just because it works. You’ll be doing it because it’s what God’s doing. (tip: it might be tempting, but do not forget what you learned from the normative movement!)

Try it!

Next time you’re facing a tough situation (or even an easy or good one), you can still crowd source your favorite youth ministry Facebook page, but also try thinking theologically through these four movements. There aren’t really any rules. You don’t have to do everything in perfect order. In fact, you can enter the process through any of the four movements.

I’d also recommend doing this with a group. It’s a great way to organize your conversations with your youth ministry volunteer leaders. The most important thing is that you’re thinking theologically… you’re looking for God and participating in God’s action, and you’re part of the theological turn in youth ministry.

How to Think Theologically About Youth Ministry

About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.


the worst youth pastor ever

Worst Youth Pastor Ever

I used to think I was the worst youth pastor ever.

the worst youth pastor ever

When I was a young youth worker, fresh out of college, a small church took a chance and hired me as their Director of Youth Ministry. But about two years into the job, I started to feel burnout.

I began to feel like I just wasn’t doing a good job. Though I tried my darnedest, the young people at my church just weren’t developing the way I wanted them to. They didn’t really know a lot about the Bible, they weren’t into doing their “morning devotionals,” and no form of bribery could coerce them into praying out loud. It seemed like all the youth pastors at other churches had young people in their groups who had the Bible memorized and sang Hillsong music in the shower.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches. I figured it was mostly my fault. If I was a better youth pastor, I’d be influencing these kids to become better Christians. So, under the weight of my own standards and under the pressure of what I thought was the “goal” of youth ministry, I was being worn down.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches.

When I was beginning to question my calling to youth ministry, I picked up a book called Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root. I can distinctly remember how deeply Root’s story resonated with me.

He wrote of being a youth worker reared in a tradition that saw influence as the end-goal of youth ministry, desperately trying to influence young people toward participation in the church and its faith. “I didn’t blink twice at the expectation,” Root writes, “…[but] I was clearly failing to get them to commit themselves to the importance of the church and (more significantly) the faith” (p. 14).

What’s the Point?

Root’s big question in the book turned out to be my question: “What is the point of our relationships with kids?”

I’d been trained and educated to believe that the point of relational youth ministry is to influence young people, to develop Christian maturity in them, to make them into better Christians. I thought success in youth ministry was measured by how well young people know the bible, how eager they are to pray, how enthusiastically they engage in evangelism.  In other words, I thought the point of youth ministry was to influence, to get something out of young people. But through deep theological reflection, Root opened a new possibility. Taking his cues from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root suggests that the point of a relationship… is the relationship.

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry. Grounding relational ministry in the incarnation itself, Root suggests that

“…a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death… In this perspective salvation is not being convinced of a certain perspective, but coming to recognize that we have been deeply loved and so are given the power to live as children of God… This means relational youth ministry is not about convincing adolescents by influencing them; rather, it is about loving them by being with them in the messiness of their lives. It is about suffering with them.” (p. 41)

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry.

A Weight Lifted from my Shoulders

As I read these words in my burnout, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered Eric, a young man who was tossed about in the foster system, separated from his sister who’d been adopted without him.

I remembered Samantha, a seventh grader who was cutting and struggling with suicidal thoughts.

I remembered Chris, a bright and clean high school senior who got all the best grades but suffered the stress of believing his life’s value was in what he could achieve.

I remembered Harper, a high school sophomore who came out to me that same summer but confessed she could not come out to her conservative parents for fear that they would reject her.

I remembered all the suffering of the young people in my group. I remembered the hard questions, temptations, and fears they faced. And I remembered all the times I’d sat with them in those questions, temptations, and fears. I remembered honest conversations we’d had, stories I’d been told, and I began to imagine a new “goal” for my ministry.

Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor was not my ability to create mature Christians but my patience and willingness to sit, to “place-share,” with young people just as they are, in “the messiness of their lives.” Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor wasn’t the change I could conjure, but the love that I could give.

All of a sudden, I began to think that, just maybe, I could keep going. Perhaps I wasn’t the worst youth pastor ever.

About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

YM Internship

The Youth Ministry Internship

Experiential Learning

In an age of cyberleaks and the ongoing “millennial” search for authenticity, I think it’s fitting to disclose a timeless youth ministry secret. Cue the lights.

YM Internship

Youth ministers make mistakes.

Yikes. I hate to say it, but most likely you already knew.

It could be because youth ministry tends to be the research and development wing of the church. It might be that we tend to throw some of our most inexperienced (mind you, enthusiastic) leaders into the fire to minister to our young people. It’s also 100% because we’re human, and messing up is kind of our thang (see: human history; every sitcom ever; old diary entries).

Thankfully, grace abounds, and failure leads to innovation. But the beauty is that youth ministry tends to be an area within the church which expects, allows, and sometimes even encourages mistakes to be made. One way this happens is through experiential learning.

Intentional Experiences Transform

Wait. What’s experiential learning? Put simply, it’s learning by doing. You do this instinctively when you engage youth in service and mission trips or when you introduce a topic or Scripture through a game.

At its best, experiential learning is transformational learning. It creates a fundamental change in learners and their worldviews. The ‘doing’ becomes part of the being, as it reorients learners’ sense of self and world.

Judy Steers notes, “At its best, experiential learning is transformational learning. It creates a fundamental change in learners and their worldviews. The ‘doing’ becomes part of the being, as it reorients learners’ sense of self and world.”

According to Steers, experiential learning is marked by the following components: compelling encounters, reflection, agency in response, and community. Although often neglected, Steers advocates the necessity of experiential learning as part of Christian formation since that’s how Jesus engaged his disciples:

The disciples had repeated encounters with the grand narrative of God’s grace and with the small narratives of Jesus’ parables and the lives of people he met. The disciples reflected together on Jesus’ questions, on their own mistakes, and on their life together. Jesus gave them agency, calling them to follow him and sending them out in his name, and he called them together into a community. These followers of the tradition of Jesus were experiential learners. When we engage in experiential education, we follow in their footsteps.

Experiential Learning and Interns

There are countless other ways to engage youth and young adults in experiential learning, but since summer is quickly approaching, and we are entering prime-summer-youth-intern season, let’s focus on Christian formation through youth ministry internships.

The intern-supervisor relationship is holy and powerful: an agreement of mutual benefit and investment.

As Christ-followers, we ought to keep in mind that there are two ways (at least) of viewing an intern. One way to view an intern is a task-driven assistant who makes your job easier (think: gets you coffee, teaches the class you don’t like to teach, etc.). The other way—the way I would advocate you view an intern—is to view them as a partner in ministry; someone who you welcome as a disciple, someone you intentionally form, love, and serve.

I’m not saying an intern shouldn’t do any tasks. Of course they will. But the intern-supervisor relationship is holy and powerful: an agreement of mutual benefit and investment. With that in mind, let’s consider these…

Top Ten Tips to Supervising a Youth Ministry Intern

1) Select wisely.

Develop a clear criteria for evaluation of candidates, and work with your team to find the balance between “how can we hire someone to enhance our ministry?” and “how might this intern grow through this experience?”

2) Commission and set apart.

One of the most meaningful gifts you can give as an intern supervisor is to mark the sacredness of the internship experience: for the intern, for the congregation, and for you. The first summer I spent as an intern in children’s ministry, a commissioning service transformed my summer job into a holy calling.

3) Set expectations.

Like any internship, clear expectations and defined roles help minimize conflict and develop mutual understanding. Make it clear. Put it in writing. Sign it, and refer back to it. (And don’t forget to keep your end of the deal too. If you say you’re going to meet to talk about their progress, meet and talk about their progress.)

4) Involve a team.

It’s tempting to do ministry as a lone wolf… or a lone wolf with a summer lackey. The more congregants that can connect to the intern in support, encouragement, and discipleship, the more you will resource and build the faith of the intern (and that’s the point).

5) Offer time for reflection along the way and at the end.

In Luke 10, when Jesus sends out the 70, the disciples engage in ministry and then return to Jesus who frames their experiences, offers feedback, and affirms their work in proclaiming the authority of God and their place in God’s kingdom. As an intern supervisor, you have the opportunity and the wisdom to frame their experience theologically. In other words, point out God in action through their ministry. Even if the intern isn’t ministry-bound in a vocational sense, all Christians are bound to ministry. Open the door to conversation about how they will serve Jesus in any potential vocation.

6) Play to their strengths.

If we’re not careful, it may be tempting to assign an intern the tasks that you’d rather not do. This is the difference between a good supervisor and a bad supervisor. If you’re a youth minister, you’re in the business of discipleship and formation. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to help someone identify and use their God-given gifts in a meaningful ministry setting just because you don’t feel like doing something for a summer.

7) Coach, encourage, and correct.

Along the way, your intern will need advice. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll give too much freedom or not enough. They’ll flop or under-prepare. The goal is to plant seeds and nurture growth, not demand the flower to bloom.

8) Provide closure and celebration.

Summer has a way of building relationships that stand outside of “real life.” Part of what you can do to prevent this disconnect for your intern and your youth is to mark the end of an era through some kind of celebration or service of blessing. You might ask your intern to preach, to write a closing reflection for the newsletter, or have a send-off party. Goodbyes matter, and supervisors hold the power to initiate some healthy farewells.

9) Pray.

For the months leading up to the internship period, encourage your congregation to pray for the future intern and the committee that will be supporting them. When your intern begins, make a habit of praying for and with them regularly. Praying with someone regularly teaches them how to pray for others.

10) Know that every intern will be different.

Interns do not come one-size-fits-all. Some interns will need different styles of coaching and maybe different responsibilities based upon their giftedness and goals for the future. An internship program should live, breathe, and change with each new intern.

And as always, learn from inevitable mistakes. Have you supervised an intern or been supervised as an intern? What worked for you? What didn’t? Comment below with any tips you have!

About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten is a third year M. Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has served as a minister to children, youth, and adults in American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.

Advent Part Three

From Fear to Hope:
A Shepherd’s Prayer
Luke 2:8-20

 Why me, O God? Why me? Of all the people and of all the places you could have chosen to appear, why did you come to me, tending my sheep, way out in the middle of nowhere? Why should I, a lowly shepherd, have been given the high privilege of a heavenly visitation? Why should I, a lowly shepherd, have been blessed with hearing music that was more beautiful and more glorious than any mere mortal should be allowed to hear? And why should I, a lowly shepherd, have been given an audience with the King of Kings?

Advent Part Three

Maybe it’s because I was watching and waiting. It is simply what shepherds do. Or maybe it’s because only a shepherd could truly understand the heart and the intent of the Good Shepherd; the one who would leave the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost one. Maybe it’s because only someone who takes care of lambs could truly appreciate the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world. Or maybe it’s because people like me—lowly and outcast—hold a special place in your heart, in your affections, and in your kingdom. Maybe it’s simply because I was not so preoccupied with doing a million-and-one “important” things that I was too busy to notice your arrival. Or maybe it’s all of the above. Who really knows?

You saw our struggle, you saw our pain, and you just had to come. I guess that’s why they call you Emmanuel.

What, O God, does your coming tell me about who you are? What does your willingness to step down from your heavenly throne and come into this dark and broken world tell me about your heart and your nature? What does your silent and hidden entry into the hustle and bustle of this chaotic place and time tell me about where, and to whom, you are most likely to show up? What does your birth in a dirty stable, in an obscure village, to a couple of poor teenagers, tell me about your Spirit and your character?A Shepherd's Prayer

And what does your coming say about me? Does it tell me that, in spite of how I feel about myself at times, I am somebody to you? Does it tell me that I am significant enough in your eyes and your estimation that you would come from heaven to earth just to make sure I knew that? Does it tell me that I am loved more than I could ever hope for, or imagine in my wildest dreams? For you, O God, just could not stay away. You saw our struggle, you saw our pain, and you just had to come. I guess that’s why they call you Emmanuel.

About the Author: Jim Branch

Jim Branch Jim is the director of Core Leadership, an organization in Knoxville, TN that focuses on spiritual nurture and soul care, particularly as they relate to leadership. He was on staff with Young Life for 18 years and also spent ten years as a pastor of a local church. He has a wonderful wife named Carol and three grown children; Tim, Michelle, and Hunter.

When Scripture Talks Back

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” There’s a certain simplicity to this sentiment that no doubt adds to its appeal.

Statements like these represent a common strategy for reading the Bible and reveal a perspective that understands that Bible as speaking with one voice, with absolute clarity, on nearly every question we could ever have. This kind of perspective seeks to offer black and white answers to black and white questions, ignoring the world of deep greys in which we live. There are certain questions to which the Bible does not give a black and white answer, and to pretend that it does is dishonest.

Questions such as these complicate the way we think and talk about Scripture; and if we continue to wrestle with these questions we also should assume that our youth do, too. Reading and wrestling with the Bible ought to mean more than simply making the biblical texts “relevant” to their lives. Memorizing the books of the Bible in order and mastery of Bible drill games, while useful, are far less important than discussions of how we read the Bible. 

This is why I suggest moving from seeing the Bible as a monologue delivered from on high, to an understanding of the Bible as a divine dialogue that speaks with multiple voices. The Bible is a vast conversation, often messy and muddled, into which we are invited to listen and to speak, and this is precisely where its beauty is to be found.

Diverse Voices

The primary issue with the way of reading the Bible highlighted above is that is assumes one-way communication from God, to the biblical authors, to us. The Bible essentially becomes one massive monologue, and the whole book is meant to communicate the exact same thing. Again, I understand the power of this perspective, but I also find it deeply problematic. If this our model for teaching the Bible in youth ministry we are teaching unhealthy and unsustainable reading practices.

For starters, this perspective unnecessarily obscures the diversity of voices and perspectives preserved within the biblical witness. When we think of the Bible a single book rather than a collection of books written by distinct people in disparate times and places, we lose something crucial. Our task should not be to smooth out all tensions in the biblical texts, but to grapple with those tensions and hold them up as model for the life of faith.

The Problem of Exile

A number of examples could be raised to highlight the internal dialogue of the Bible, but one that I find particularly helpful is between Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80. Both texts deal with the same basic problem, but in drastically different ways: the problem of exile.

The respective defeats of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and subsequent banishment of many from their homes and land was more than a national disaster; it was a theological catastrophe. The violence of exile rendered God’s covenantal promises dubious. What happened? Why were they being punished so? Were they no longer God’s treasured possession? Or, worse still, had God failed to protect them? Had God been defeated?

These are perhaps some of the questions rattling in the minds of the people as they wrestle with the problem of exile. Indeed, the experience and catastrophe of exile haunts much of the Hebrew Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly, not all biblical authors answer the basic question of exile quite the same way.

Isaiah’s Vineyard

The prophet Isaiah, for instance, offers an allegorical song about a vineyard. The vineyard is called “beloved” and is planted by the vintner with care “on a very fertile hill” (v. 1). Because of the care and precautions taken by the vintner he expects the vineyard to produce a bountiful crop of grapes, but instead “it yielded wild grapes” (v. 2).

Through some clever rhetorical maneuvering the prophet uses the allegory to declare the culpability of the people for their own exile. For Isaiah the answer is simple: the people were disobedient. This is our lot because we were unfaithful. We disobeyed God and this what we deserve.

The Psalmist’s Accusation

The Psalmist, however, has a slightly different take on this question. In Psalm 80, instead of a penitent prophet crying for repentance from the people, we see someone who is deeply troubled at the idea of a God who could allow such an atrocity.

Contrary to Isaiah, the Psalmist does not call for repentance from the people, but instead calls for God to change because, according to him, it is God who broke down the wall. The overarching sense of the Psalm is that the people are being punished unjustly, and that God needs to be stirred to action. The Psalmist even seeks to strike a deal with God, bargaining that if God will again look upon the people, “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life and we will call your name” (v. 18).

When Scripture Talks Back

A Divine Dialogue

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

We could try to harmonize these accounts; we could offer a reading of the Psalm that assumes its author shares the same perspective as Isaiah, but that would seem to do a disservice to the raw honesty and emotion of the Psalm. Or we could pit the perspectives against each other and try to decide which one is right. Which one more accurately represents the God we know?

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

Instead, I think a better, and more fruitful, reading strategy would be to hold both texts side by side, preserving both voices in this divine dialogue. Our goal should not be to decide which one is right, and to present them in perfect harmony, but to highlight the diverse theological perspectives within the biblical witness. This kind of dialogical approach ought to be fundamental to the way read and teach the Bible.

How Now Do We Read Scripture?

Teaching and embodying a dialogical approach can help shift the way youth interact with the Bible for the better in at least three ways:

  1. A dialogical approach allows for richer engagement with the Bible, and helps give a better sense of the diverse voices preserved within our sacred literature. It gives a more honest image of the Bible that doesn’t seek to smooth out every tension, but deals with the texts as they are.
  2. A dialogical approach emphasizes the process rather than the end. Hopefully none of us would claim to have all the answers. While we generally know on some level that faith is a constant wrestling with big issues, we tend to teach that faith is black and white. If we began to care less about the answers and more about the dialogue we might be surprised by the value we find in the process itself.
  3. A dialogical approach better prepares youth to engage the world around them and to be more open to dialogue with folks who think differently. We are so bad at disagreeing, especially in the church. We need to teach our youth the value of listening and learning to disagree more hospitably. A dialogical approach allows them to see diverse perspectives existing side by side while still being invited into the same sacred space.


About the Author: Sheldon Steen


Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.


honest counting - kindred youth ministry

Youth Ministers, Politicians, and Other Liars: Five Tips for Honest Counting

I know a lot about ministers, and a little about politicians, and I know we both lie about numbers.

5 tips for honest counting

We lie about the numbers themselves, and we lie about what they mean. We have learned that data has power, so we game it (just like everyone else). A lot of this has to do with our collective insecurity around numbers.

Where I am from there is a common phrase: “Preacher’s Numbers.” Preacher’s Numbers are numbers that are made up, inflated numbers, fake stuff. Because metrics and data are an important part of ministry, we need to use them in a healthy, honest way. Here are five tips for using numbers well: 

1) You Need More Categories.

You need more than weekly attendance or camp sign-ups. We count what we value, so think creatively about your core values and find ways to quantify them. How many kids are giving money away? How many students graduate and join a church ? How many leaders know the parents of your most difficult kid? What percentage of kids make the transition from fifth grade kids program into sixth grade youth group?

2) Be Accurate, Be Consistent.

Don’t look at the room and guess how many people are there. In fact, you shouldn’t be the counter at all—you’ve got a conflict of interest. Create repeatable systems and stick with them so that when you look back through the years you can compare apples to apples to see what God is doing. Communicate to your mathiest engineer type what you want to count, and let them do their thing!

3) Dig!

Numbers are not value judgments. They don’t tell you anything by themselves—we assign meaning to them. Once you have accurate and consistent data, look hard for meaning. Talk with other youth leaders, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal things. Saying, “We want the graph to go up and to the right” is not enough: if you double your attendance without doubling your volunteer leadership you’ve still got work to do.   Look for the patterns and stories underlying the numbers.

4) Call a Spade a Spade.

So you created categories that reflect your core values, and you found ways to consistently quantify them. Congratulations! If they reveal that you are not meeting your goals, don’t ignore them. The thing about setting goals is that we know if we have failed. And we will. So fail away, then move forward in grace as the beloved of God. Don’t pretend you didn’t fail, and don’t stop improving.

The thing about setting goals is that we know if we have failed. And we will. So fail away, then move forward in grace as the beloved of God.

5) Celebrate!

Look at your accurate, consistent data and find places that God is moving. Fall in love with the categories that define your core values, and relentlessly pursue them. Identify some wins and shout it from the rooftops: I HAVE DATA!

Let us be ministers who don’t play fast and loose with numbers to inflate ourselves. Instead, let us be pastors who know what we value, and use data to pursue it relentlessly.

About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

I’ve been a youth minister now for ten years. A decade—wow, that feels like a long time!

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

I was at one church for eight years, and now I’ve just completed my second year at a new church. As I look back at ten years in ministry, there are too many moments of grace to count and more than a handful of very difficult learning experiences that have shaken both my wife and me to our core.

It seems hard to believe that I’ve been in full-time ministry this long, and even harder to believe that I still get nervous when speaking to new middle school students.

While many things have become easier with age and experience, some things remain as challenging as ever. Looking back through my career thus far, I’ve begun to reflect on my vocation. Despite many moments of looking for other possible careers, I have always found that youth ministry is my home, my true vocation.

Ministry Mistakes

Quite frequently over the years, I have become discouraged by what I see in myself.

More often than I’d like to admit, I have made mistakes. I’ve dropped the ball, I’ve been rude, I’ve been sarcastic and snarky in ways that hurt people. I’ve made some flat out poor decisions.

And the truth is, these moments of selfishness—when I have acted in a manner that could lead others away from Christ instead of toward Him—allow Satan in. When this happens and I listen to the lies, I immediately question my own ability to minister.

Am I called to this? Someone actually called to this ministry would be better at it. Look at those other youth ministers; they are so much more (insert how I’m feeling that day – funnier, professional, culturally relevant, better at x, y or z) than me.

And then I think of every doubt I’ve ever had, and question my own vocation. Maybe I should be a teacher.

One recent example occurred when I got caught in a bad mood, feeling overwhelmed by my agenda and life in general, and I said the wrong thing to a volunteer. Although he was a good volunteer, he had been drinking too much in his daily life, and needed to be corrected. He had just a made a few mistakes and needed true correction with patience, love, and also challenge. But in my tired and flustered state, I said too much and did so in a most insensitive manner. You’d think that after ten years, I would know better and do better. Afterwards, I spent many nights up late, praying, frustrated, unable to sleep, simply because I was relying on myself instead of on God’s grace.

Remembering God’s Power

In light of this situation, my spiritual director asked me to reflect on the words of St. John Paul II: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

In reflecting on this, I realized that I had allowed the griphooks of fear and doubt to sink into my soul and eat away at my confidence in my God-given vocation. I was snuffing out my true calling by God to serve the church through my inability to rely on God’s grace. And that inability sprang from my lack of humility.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God wants to capacitate us—for salvation and for ministry. How easy it is to feel like I can do it myself, to over-trust in my talents and abilities or experience, and forget that it is God’s work I am doing and not my own. But the continual reminder is always there—my humanity. And God’s grace, sufficient and powerful, is ready to spring to life precisely through my weakness, if only I would humble myself and let him work.

…God’s grace, sufficient and powerful, is ready to spring to life precisely through my weakness, if only I would humble myself and let him work.

Ten years feels good. But one of the most important things experience has taught me is that I am human, sinful, flawed, and it is when we recognize and admit our sickness that the Great Physician can do his job. Then—and only then—grace can empower us to do ours.

About the Author: Mike Buckler

Mike graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in History and received the Master of Divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame. Currently, he serves as Director of Youth Ministry at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. Mike has over fifteen years of experience in youth ministry, including ten years in full time ministry, and has taught youth ministry training courses for youth leaders around the state of Florida. He, his wife, and four children live in the greater Tampa area.