Growing Leaders

Yes. I feed them both my leftover coffee. It's a little cannibalistic, I know.

The bamboo plant in my office used to be the size of the coffee plant on my desk…

So, I have this bamboo plant in my office…

It sat on my desk for several years in a 4” pot. It grew to a certain height and stayed that way forever. Then one day I had an idea. What if I put it in a bigger pot? Would it grow? Would it die? I decided to give it the opportunity to grow. And did it ever!

Today that bamboo plant is too big for my desk. Actually it sits on the floor and is now taller than my desk by a foot or more. All I did was give it room to grow, (and a lot of cold coffee).

In Youth Dynamics (YD), we try to do the same thing with teenagers. It’s easy for people to get stuck.

Teenagers especially get put into a box, told by someone that they are this or that, defined by words that people threw carelessly at them.

In relational youth ministry we give students an opportunity to break out of those molds. As we build relational trust with kids, we challenge them to grow beyond where they find themselves.

Adventure ministry often times gives us a framework for those break-out moments.

It’s so great to see students step outside themselves, to risk failure only to find that they can do way more than they ever thought they could, and grow in the process.

In the 6 years that I’ve been with YD, I’ve seen our YD kids blossom and grow. Some have grown to the point where they’ve become interns, others have joined our summer staff teams and a few even have joined us as full-time missionaries. We try to do the same thing with our staff. Create a culture where they can step outside themselves and grow. We desire to create an atmosphere where it’s okay to make mistakes, to dust yourself off and to try again.

Parents and organizations alike would benefit from creating a culture that provides enough relational security for people to feel safe to step out and try things; to know that their acceptance does not depend on perfection.

One must do this with an open hand however, and a Kingdom mindset.

Your staff may outgrow your job and your organization. Is that okay with you? Your child may grow to become something that you did not have in mind for them to be? Are you alright with that? If you have a Kingdom mindset you will be. You will recognize that Christ has designs and plans for their life that likely differ from your hopes and dreams for their life. Hold them loosely. Develop people anyway. It’s what Christ calls us to do. “Go and make disciples.” And let them go take their place in God’s Kingdom, wherever that may be.



Manhauling and Leadership. Life and Death Leadership Lessons from the Race to the South Pole

scottmanhauling2I just finished a fantastic book about the race to the South Pole that happened over 100 years ago. You may be familiar with Shackleton and his incredible story of survival, but this story is primarily about the other two principal explorers in this  epic battle for adventure supremacy, Roald Admundsun and Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Scott was from England. Scott believed England always did it better. England was perhaps 25-30 years past the peak of it’s colonial power, and was trying to hang on to it’s world dominance. Amundsen in contrast, was from a tiny country, Norway, on the cusp of it’s independence. He believed he could learn from anyone, and spent months with a remote tribe of Eskimos near the North Pole to learn how to survive in the extreme cold. He learned how to dress, build igloos, even how to create a thin layer of ice on the runner blades of sleds by spitting on them, varying the thickness of the ice with the weather. It turns out that one of the most important lessons he learned, was how to use sled dogs. It seems only logical to us today that one would use sled dogs to pull sleds in the extreme cold over ice and snow, but at that time, the use of dogs was new technology (to everyone except the Eskimos). The use of skis for Polar Exploration was in its infancy as well. The old school of thought was to “man-haul.” This meant strapping leather harnesses on men, and having them haul sledges over the ice and snow, up mountains and over crevasses. It seems crazy, but this was the accepted practice for Polar Explorations, especially those from England. In fact, Scott thought there was something glorious in “manhauling.”

“In my mind no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realised when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts…Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won.” -Captain Scott

Somehow Scott thought it was almost cheating to use dogs or skis. It had to be done the way they had always done it, by “man-hauling.” You must understand the scale of this madness. It was nearly 1500 miles to the South Pole and back from their main camp, with over 10,000 ft of elevation gain. Four men to a sledge, pulling 9-10 hours each day, step by step, in subzero temperatures, for months on end. Amazingly, both teams made it to the South Pole, Amundsen arriving more than a full one month ahead of Scott.  Amundsen was meticulous in his planning. Leaving supply depots as he went, Amundsen religiously marked his supply depots with flags pointing to them for miles on either side of each one. He only allowed his team to do cover 15 miles each day, which most days only took 4-5 hours, pacing themselves for the long journey. They took blizzards as a sign from God to hunker down and rest.

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”  -Roald Amundsen

Captain Scott in his arrogance did not plan ahead. He gloried in improvisation. He took only the bare minimum amount of supplies, leaving no margin for error. His dumb luck only encouraged him in his arrogance. His team would manhaul in any weather, manhauling for 10-12 hours on most days, sometimes covering only 1/2 the distance that Amundsen and his team did. They wore ill-equipped English clothing that trapped in the sweat which then froze to their bodies, with boots that froze to their feet, literally. Although Scott and his team eventually made it to the South Pole, on their way home, fatigue and lack of planning finally caught up with them and they could not find one of their supply depots only a few days journey from their home base. They died together in their tent, freezing to death only a few miles from supplies that they could not find.

 Here are a few leadership questions I culled from this story:

  • Am I more like Scott or Amundsen? 
  • Do I take the time to plan well or do I enjoy flying by the seat of my pants?
  • Am I overconfident because of past success? 
  • Am I resistant to new ways of doing things? Am I forcing my team to manhaul, when there are obviously new means to do it? (Work Smarter not Harder) 
  • Do I somehow glory in heavy lifting; in “suffering for Jesus?” 
  • Do I have a teachable spirit? Am I hungry to learn?

Lots of good food for thought here, but I’ll leave you with one final interesting tidbit from the lives of Amundsen and Scott, perhaps the most surprising fact of the story. Both men had the same mentor. That’s right, a man named Fridtjof Nansen. Both men greatly admired this legendary Norwegian explorer and in some ways each wanted to be his successor. The big difference was that Amundsen listened to Nansen whereas Scott, ignored his mentor’s advice to bring “dogs, dogs and more dogs.” And that was perhaps indicative of Scott’s greatest downfall. His arrogance and overconfidence eventually cost him his life and the lives of his team.

Are you listening to the people in your life who are pressing you to change? Or do you continue to manhaul, causing both you and the people around you to suffer needlessly?



The “Be-With” Factor

How many pancakes does it take to make a disciple?

How many pancakes does it take to make a disciple?

A few years ago I was taking a bunch of Middle School boys to play Laser-tag.  As we exited I-90 we came upon a homeless man at the stoplight.  The boys were in a goofy mood like teenage boys are apt to do at times.  One of the boys asked if he could “give the guy a toothpick,” since his sign said “Anything will help.”  The boys were all laughing as we pulled up next to him, and I seized the teachable moment.  I rolled down the window and said, “Hey, I don’t have any cash, but I’ll buy you lunch at Dick’s if you’re hungry.”  His eyes got as wide as saucers as he vigorously shook his head, “yes, please!”  We pulled into the parking lot and I walked over and shook his hand and asked him what he wanted.  “Just a hamburger would be great.”  We ordered our food plus an extra hamburger, shake and fries for our new friend.  The boy who had originally made the toothpick offer was the first to volunteer to take the man his food. The man was very appreciative and we talked for a brief moment before we hopped back in the car. As we started down the road I asked the question, “Why did we do that?” I let them kick it around a bit before landing on the passage in Matthew 24 where Jesus tells us to take care of the poor.  “I was hungry and you fed me…”

As parents and youth workers we must always be on the lookout for teachable moments… they are easily missed. Boys especially are active learners and retain lessons longer when they are brought into the real world. But often we are too hurried to notice those moments and they quickly pass us by, a missed opportunity.  Often times we think of discipleship as a Sunday School class or something similar. But life transfer does not happen in a class. How did Jesus disciple his boys?? Mark 3 says: “After spending the night in prayer he chose those he wanted to “BE WITH’ him.”  Ministry of presence.

As parents and youth workers alike, our greatest desire is to pass on our faith to our kids.  It’s not rocket science; and it’s not as complex as we often make it. To effectively mentor or disciple a student we simply must “BE WITH” them.

We only have a few short years with our children and the rest of our lives to work. The greatest gift we can give teenagers is to “BE WITH” them.

As youth workers many of us have been lulled to sleep by the siren song of technology, incorrectly believing that if we put on a more relevant service with flashy video and a hot band that we will change more kids lives.  It’s not true.

There is no replacement for quantity time.  Not quality time, QUANTITY.

Flashy services aren’t inherently wrong, but they are not the end in itself… they must be the means to an end… which is simply this:


Jesus modeled for us his method of discipleship.  How did he transfer his values to a ragtag group of teenage boys??  He simply hung out with them.  As youth workers or parents our goal must be the same.  To walk the road of life with our kids and to look for teachable moments where they watch us live out our Christian faith.

I heard Jeannie Mayo once say…. “Whoever spends the most time with a teenager… wins.”  

And that’s the truth whether you’re a parent or a youth worker.

 For more on this topic read Bo Boshers book, “The Be-With Factor.” Zondervan.

Pregnant for 2 yrs? You gotta be kidding me.

A few years ago I had a kid from one of my old youth groups track me down through social media. “Hey Mark, this is James, can I buy you a cup of coffee?” I remembered James well. His single mom had drug him to youth group and church every week when he was a teenager. He had a tear drop tattoo near his eye, and fashioned himself as a tough kid. He went with me to Mexico on a missions trip once. He played bass in our little band. I remember the day he brought a huge bag of weed down to the church during lunch because the school was doing locker searches next door. I helped him get rid of it. And no, we didn’t smoke it. 🙂 I hadn’t seen or heard from James for a dozen years. “Sure I’ll let you buy me a cup,” I told him. So, the very next morning he drove 5 hours so that he could talk with me. As we sat down, He began to share his story, “I was a punk a** kid in High School. I only came to youth group because I had to. I’ve been in and out of jail for the last 12 years. I have 3 kids from 2 ladies. I was addicted to drugs. But I want you to know that I’m clean now. I’m in AA. I’m playing on the worship team for 2 churches. And I love Jesus. I felt like I needed to track you down and tell you thanks. Thanks for loving on me when I was a punk, and didn’t want to hear it. Thanks for not giving up on me.”

We talked for a while more, and when we were finished, I gave him a big hug and he drove the 5 hrs home. I haven’t seen him since.

One of the blessings of being in Youth Ministry for over 25 yrs is that stuff like this happens to me every now and again. The problem is it doesn’t happen until years after the fact. Its easy as a youth worker to get frustrated because you don’t see the results you were hoping to see. You wanted to change the world, but nothing seems to change except you. You’re tired and disillusioned, and for good reason, it’s a tough job. The average youth worker only stays 3.9 yrs in this carreer field. And it’s too bad, because the chances are you’re doing a fantastic job, but you won’t know it for years. Galatians 6:9 comes to mind, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (NIV)

The gestation period for a rabbit is 31 days, for a cat it’s 63 days. Horses are 330 days, and elephants are an unbelievable 616 days. Can you imagine being pregnant for almost 2 years before finally giving birth?

The gestation period of faith in teenagers is unpredictable and varies from kid to kid. Don’t give up. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean God isn’t doing something in their life.
Their faith may be germinating somewhere there under the surface.

Discipleship – Yoda style

Now where is that parent that's been bad-mouthing you?

Obi-Wan Moder

I had a rare weekend. I was one of dozens of speakers at a conference in the Seattle area, and was able to be with both men who have influenced my youth ministry journey more than any other. Monty took me under his wing when I was a rookie in my first youth ministry tour. I was 20 and had just taken my first youth pastor job. He was the youth pastor at the big church across town and took me under his wing immediately. He not only helped me early on, but over the years has helped me survive some difficult youth ministry seasons. Monty helped me develop in my leadership capacity as a young leader, and challenges me still today as an example of a guy who NEVER mails it in. He still brings it every time. The other main mentor in my world is Bo. He has been coaching me through Lead222 over much of the last 10 yrs. He brings a football coaches mentality to our relationship. He lives out the verse in 2 Timothy 4:2 that tells us to “correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” When I am with Bo, I feel like he grabs me by the face mask and tells me the hard stuff I need to hear. And I listen.

Bo and Monty shared the stage for a few moments to answer questions about longevity in youth ministry during the conference. And as I sat in the audience, I couldn’t help but think of what a privilege to have, not one, but both of them in my life. What kind of leader would I be today had they not taken the time to invest in me? Would I even be a leader today? Maybe, but then again maybe not. I definitely would be much lesser of a leader without their influence in my life.

It’s for this reason that I continue to invest in young leaders. I hope that I can pay it forward to help other leaders survive the difficult seasons of life. And that they in turn will invest in others, thereby continuing the legacy of investment in others over the years. It’s the charge of one of my life verses: 2 Tim 2:2. “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” This is discipleship. It’s exactly what Bo and Monty have done for me. Who do you have in your life that’s investing in you? Who are you investing in?

Are they Hole-Fillers or Disciple-Makers? Training your volunteers to be Disciple-Making machines.

Now that you have a team of volunteers, what should you do with them? Obviously you want to train them, but how? And what do you train them to do? Most coaches would die for a Peyton Manning to transfer to their team, but that’s not likely going to happen to you. You probably feel like you’ve got a whole bunch of project players instead of the all stars you were hoping for. That’s alright. Because great volunteers are made, not born, but it’s not going to happen by accident. You are the coach. It’s up to you to train and develop them to be successful on the youth ministry playing field.

Here is a short list of the things you should cover in your training times with your volunteers.

#1. Policies & Procedures – this is the boring legal stuff, but your volunteers are acting as an extension of you and your ministry. You can be held liable in a court of law for the actions of your volunteers. If one of them does something wrong, it’s seen as almost the same as if a member of your church staff did it in the eyes of the public and at times the law. Make sure your volunteers both understand and abide by your guidelines.

#2. Hard Knowledge – whatever role you are asking your volunteer to fill has a skill set attached to it. Whether they are driving the van, running sound or leading a small group, there are functional skills that you will want your volunteer to know. Make sure they have both the training they need, and the supplies necessary, to do what you are asking them to do.

#3. Contact Work – Believe it or not most adults are not comfortable around teenagers, and in some cases are out and out intimidated and afraid of them. You should train every leader how to connect with teenagers. Some of this they will learn through trial and error, but every youth worker should be skilled in how to relate to teenagers in engaging and appropriate ways.

Lastly and most importantly:

#4.  Disciple Making – Are your volunteers making disciples or are they just doing a job for you?

Most people have never been discipled and do not know how to disciple anyone else. And yet if there was only one thing that we really want our volunteers to do, this is it. The best way to teach discipleship is to model it. And I don’t mean having your volunteers watch you disciple teenagers, although that can work. I mean YOU should disciple your volunteers, and in turn they will learn how to disciple teenagers. Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho does this better than any church I know. I can’t speak for their youth ministry any longer since I am not involved, but this is the model they use to make disciples throughout the entire congregation.  I remember a specific weekend while I was on staff, when we cheered as a congregation because even though we were running 5,000 in attendance each weekend, and we had more people in small groups that week than we did in our weekend services. Suffice it to say, they take discipleship seriously in that congregation. And that is the purpose of each small group.  At Real Life we used to say, “We create relational environments for the purpose of discipleship.”

You can make disciples in any relational environment. A small group created for the purpose of discipleship can have anything as a hook. Dance, drama, coffee, …. you name it, can be used as a tool around which a volunteer can make disciples. Why should the sound guy only teach the 3 teens on his tech team how to change the slides? Instead have the sound guy create a small group with those 3 kids, start giving them pastoral care and praying together; now he’s making disciples. Why should the kids on worship team also have another group that they have to meet with at another time to get discipled? Instead have the worship leader go deeper relationally with the team and watch what happens to your entire worship culture. Instead of having 2 kids show up with a volunteer to just set up chairs, what if they showed up 30 min earlier and had a small group together?  Of course you can divide up by schools or by area as well; but the purpose isn’t to force teens to go to whatever group their supposed to go to, it’s to put them in a relationship of trust with a caring adult who can invest in their spiritual life. As a leader, I don’t care what they connect around, I just care that they connect.

Even when our security guys would have to remove someone, I’d encourage them to try to not just be a cop but instead to look at it as a ministry opportunity… “So, what’s going on in your world right now that you can’t seem to focus in there?” It very well may be the best ministry that happens in that kid’s world all year.

Challenge those on your youth staff to do more than fill a hole in your leadership flowchart. We are all called and empowered to make disciples one person at a time.  Your volunteers did not volunteer for Boys and Girls Club, or 4-H. They are volunteering at a church, not a secular organization. We need to be much more than a Big Brother or Big Sister to students. It is completely appropriate that our volunteers make the turn to spiritual things in their relationships with students. Train them to make disciples. The Great Commission is not just for you as the youth pastor, it’s for all your volunteers as well, and they all need to be disciple-makers. And it’s your job as the leader to both train and release them to do just that.

You are not the New York Yankees of churches. You cannot just go out and buy a championship team of volunteers. But you can compete and win. But you have to build the team from within your organization. Stop making excuses. Stop waiting for a the big free agent church transfer. If you don’t know how to develop your leaders, go find help. For some reason God has appointed many us to lead beyond our comfort zone… but make no doubt about it, if you are the leader, God has placed you there. Now Lead.


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