Children’s Ministry Without Burnout: a book review

I first became aware of Mark DeVries and the work of his organization Ministry Architects and his books on Youth Ministry like Sustainable Youth Ministry (IVP 2005), Family-Based Youth Ministry (IVP 2004), and Build A Volunteer Team (IVP 2015). I’ve long been convinced that the best practical theology being done anywhere, begins in the youth ministry world and Brandon Mckoy, Andrew Root, Kara Powell, Pamela Erwin, have transformed my thoughts, not only on youth ministry but on ministry and mission in general. Devries work is less theological than some of these other folks, but he’s eminently practical, promoting systems and structures (e.g. a functional database organization, delegation, and systemic plan for volunteer recruitment and management).

8847I’ve often thought that most of what he says about youth ministry is broadly applicable to other ministries. When I read Building Your Volunteer Ministry: A 30 Day Change Project for Youth Ministry, I was pasoring a small church. The most natural application I saw for Devries (and Nate Stratman’s) wisdom was in our children’s ministry. Sustainable Children’s Ministry: From Last-minute Scrambling to Long-Term Solutions. Is essentially the wisdom of Sustainable Youth Ministry adjusted and applied to the realm of children’s ministry. While Mark DeVries is still the headliner, his co-star author, Annette Safstrom, is the children’s ministry consultant for Ministry Architects and the narrative voice throughout the book.  She took Devries ideas, adjusted them, and shows how they work in a children’s ministry context.

The book has 14 chapters. In Chapters 1 and 2, Safstrom tells of her shift to a more systemic approach to children’s ministry. When she first entered the children’s ministry world, she put in lots of hours and lots of ideas but no systems in place. She got burned out by the ministry. Her second foray as a children’s minister had more structure, and when she handed off her children’s director job, she left the church in a good stead.

Chapters 3 through 7 describe the systems approach to children’s ministry.  While many children’s and youth ministries focus on the fun event, like VBS and fun activities, an overemphasis on ‘the icing’ without attention to the whole cake, leaves children’s ministries with nothing but a sticky blob (31-32). Saftstrom and Devries argue that in order for ministry to thrive, Children’s ministers need to be as attentive to maintaining the dancefloor as they are in doing the dance (33).  Chapter 4 describes the staffing, resources, and investment needed for Children’s ministry to thrive. Safstrom and Devries have observed several factors common to  healthy children’s ministries: $1000 annual investment in children’s ministry per child attending, 1 full-time staff person per seventy-five children in the children’s ministry (or the equivalent staff hours), 1 adult volunteer for every 5 children, and a children’s ministry which makes up about 15% of the worshipping congregation. Safstrom notes:

I’m not saying you should spend more money on your children’s minsitry. I’m saying you should match your expectations to your investment. If you’ve only got the fund to faithfully engage ten children, then your church’s leadership needs to be crystal clear that they have decided to have ten children involved (and be happy about it). One surefire way to suck the energy out of a children’s ministry is to invest at one level and expect results that are twice (or ten times) as much as the investment would merit (46).

This is a key insight. Children’s ministry is like any other ministry. You get out what you have invested. Not more.

In chapter 5 and 6, Safstrom and Devries point at the particular ‘machines’ which serve children’s ministry—databases, calendars, volunteer recruiting and equipping plans, communication, attendance tracking, visitor and MIA follow-up, safety and security plans, check-in systems, facilities, and equipment maintenance. Chapter 7 describes creating visioning and mission statements, goals and plans.

Chapters 8 and 9 tackle the practical challenges of delegating tasks, managing a volunteer team and developing a volunteer rotation plan. Chapter’s 10 and 11 help Children’s ministers navigate (and see their role) in the realm of wider church politics, and how to partner with parents and families. Chapters 12 through 14 focus on self-management for children’s ministers (e.g. self-care, support structures and mentoring, maintaining spiritual health, and ways to stay emotionally healthy).

There are also several appendices with helpful plans, checklists and sample statements for putting Devries and Safstrom’s systemic approach to action.

This is a really practical book which will serve Children’s ministers well. Like the Sustainable Youth Ministry counterpart, the principles are broadly applicable, though it is nice to see the attention given to the particular context of children’s ministry. I recommend this book, especially for children’s ministers that are feeling overwhelmed by their ministry and are looking for ways to make this more sustainable. I give this 4½ stars. ★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

A Blind Spot Taxonomy: a ★★★★★book review

In my last major leadership context, I wasn’t a particularly self-aware leader. I mishandled a couple of key relationships, missed some opportunities, and failed to execute some things I tried to do. I’m not beating myself up about it, whatever self-awareness I have has been hard won. Terry Linhart’s The Self-Aware Leader is designed to help leaders like me see where their blind spots are— the gifts, vulnerabilities, and opportunities—so we can lead effectively.

4480Linhart is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in South Bend. He has served in youth ministry, parachurch ministry, as a leadership consultant and has taught at Asbury, North Park, Hunting College, Taylor University and Alliance Graduate School. The Self-Aware Leader is chockfull of practical insights to help ministry leaders reach their full potential.

Self-awareness is a tricky thing.  We all have blind spots because of the demands of ministry and our natural capacity for self-deception. Citing Gordon Smith, Linhart argues that self- discerning people are “Conscious of their own capacity for self-deception and thus of their vital need for the encouragement, support and wisdom of others” (15).  Throughout the book, Linhart names each area he sees that has potential blind spots.

Chapter one invites us to self-reflection in seeing the ‘race before us.’ Linhart’s conclusion reminds us of the end-goal, the telos of the race—a lifetime of faithful service to Jesus. Between these, Linhart describes potential blind spots as we consider ourselves, our past,  our temptations, our emotions, pressures, conflict, and our ‘margins.’

One of the most helpful things about naming these areas of blind spots is how comprehensive it is (though probably not exhaustive). Leaders may be self-aware about one area, but inattentive to another. Linhart does a good job of naming the trees so we can see our way ahead. I also appreciate that he doesn’t see blind spots as wholly negative. “We may have a gift or opportunity that we can’t see that is plain to others” (26). By probing our limited visibility, we may be awakened to new opportunities.

. One insight that I found tremendously helpful was his observation that leaders ought to lead the charge in handling conflict well, in order to foster a community that is ‘warm, inviting and effective’ (143).  Linhart describes conflict as one of his own blind spots (as someone who tends toward conflict-avoidance). He offers sage advice on how to address conflict non-defensively, and communicate effectively.

This book is tremendously helpful. Leaders and leadership teams would benefit from reading this together. I highly recommend it. -★★★★★

<small> Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review </small>

Pastors Prepare For What’s Next!: a book review

I am at the beginning of a pastoral succession process. The church I start leading on Sunday, has had a pastor for the past twelve-and-a-half years who is loved by the church and the wider community. This is a woman who has networked, started ministries which reach out to the community and has prayerfully led the church through difficult circumstances. She has a heart for racial justice, community outreach and mission. She leaves this position to focus more in these areas and she will still be part of the church family.

I am the ‘noob.’ I care about many of the same things as the previous pastor and want to see the church impact the wider community but am still at the beginning of learning how to lead a church. I want to do that well. So I read Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with interest hoping to garner whatever kind of wisdom it had for me at this moment in my pastoral career. Authors William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird have years of experience in helping church leaders lead effectively. In  this book, they research successions that work, successions that fail and how church boards and pastoral leaders can plan for a good succession process.

This book wasn’t written directly to me, but for out-going pastors, search committees and elder boards to help them think ahead. Vanderbloemen and Bird noticed that many successful pastors stay in their role past their prime, with no real plan of succession. As a result, the church looses momentum and when the inevitable switch happens it falls off mission and loses membership. They suggest intentionality about the succession process. After all, every pastoral position (or really any position) is temporary. All pastors are interim pastors who steward the church for a term, and they should be thoughtful about how to prepare the way for their successor.

Because Vanderbloemen and Bird base their findings on qualitative research, this book is full of stories of the succession process at various different kinds of churches (both glorious successes and epic failures). They observe that some of the best succession stories happen when churches groom someone from their staff or membership to take the place of the out-going pastor. This makes sense to me, though I think large mega-churches are more likely to have the pool to draw on for this sort of succession (and I am kind of glad the church I was hired at didn’t follow that route).  Also, they speak highly of father-son successions without any worry about nepotism (i.e. Joel Osteen is one of their ‘success’ stories).

However, they do not have a formula ‘one-right-way’ approach. They assert that if God is in it, successions will work. Three pieces of salient advice I found helpful were: (1) intentionality about the succession process-especially in the first 100 days, (2) help from the out-going senior pastor, (3) new pastor honoring their successor and the church’s past.

I think churches will benefit from reading this book, especially when they are in the midst of a search process. Vanderbloemen and Bird talk about the intentional, good sort of succession, but they also address succession problems when a leader unexpectedly dies, has a moral failure or resigns early. A board with proper foresight can plan for every contingency. Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest creating a succession plan and revisiting annually.

At times I disagreed with their pragmatic bent. They seemed to  measure the success of a succession in terms of congregational attendance.  Organizations go through ebbs and flows and I think a church that shrinks from thousands to hundred when the new pastor comes but is more faithful to the gospel, has had a successful succession even if their metrics do not bear this out. God can be in apparent failures too. This doesn’t mean that new pastors should not strive to bring in new sheep and to bear fruit in their ministry. It means that the picture of what it means to be a good, and faithful pastoral servant is more complicated than the picture that Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest.

But practical advice is important and I think that this book will be read with benefit. My own case is not the typical succession and I am blessed to have the input of the previous pastor, a good and faithful servant, mentor and friend. I give it four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Baker Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.