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.


The Pain of Labor and the Birth of Hope: a ★★★★★ book review

Pain marks our journeys. Pain is borne alone. 

Rachel Marie Stone is an English teacher and the celebrated author of Eat with Joy (IVP, 2013), the 40th Anniversary edition of the More With Less Cookbook (Herald Press, 2016), and numerous articles on justice, faith, food, public and maternal health. In her new memoir, Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Lightshe opens up about the ways pain has shaped her journey, alongside risk, anxiety, tenderness, and hope.

4533Stone describes the birth of her children (she is the mother of two boys), her family and personal history with osteogenesis imperfecta (O.I) (a genetic condition, she also passed on to her children), her teenage diagnosis of Scoliosis and the anxieties which have plagued her through life.  She opens up about a painful chapter when she and her husband Tim were in Mawali teaching at a Presbyterian Seminary that was marred by scandal, and the anxiety-ridden weeks after Stone caught the newborn baby of a HIV positive mother with her ungloved, cuticle-chewed and papercut fingers (Stone is an American doula who was in a Mawali hospital to observe).  There were also life-threatening illnesses in Mawali that affected her and her family (e.g. the dehydration that accompanies malaria). Later, she described to a group of beer-drinking-hipster pastors that her whole time in Mawali felt like a miscarriage.

Stone is open and vulnerable about the painful parts of her story, and the particulars of her story are pretty different from my own. As a man, I will never know what it is like to carry a tiny, invasive being inside my own body, much less the pain of labor. I have never gone to Africa or been exposed directly to the threat of HIV. Though I have had my own anxious encounters and painful life chapters that have felt like miscarriages. There are worries I carry and episodes I can’t put a pretty bow on. As different as our stories are, Stone opens up for me a space to reflect on the ways pain and fear have shaped my own journey.

But Stone’s book is not just a book about the pain and anxiety, but about hope. Hurt and joy come intertwined. And so the osteogenesis imperfecta that plagues her family story, also reveals a rootedness—a connection to her mother, grandmother, and great-grandparents. The pain of birth and bearing children is intermingled with the joys (and travails) of motherhood, and the special, physiological and psychological attachment between her and her children. Even the painful feeling of miscarriage in her time in Mawali comes commingled with relationships and connections she and her husband made there. While the pain was hers alone to bear, she was strengthened in her journey by sympathetic guides, a supportive family, and joyful encounters with others.

Hope is born as Stone risks, faces down the pain, endures and emerges. Birthing is a poignant image. I underlined several passages. I particularly loved the “Blood” chapter when Stone describes the messiness of birth, relating it to the incarnation of Christ (calling the often misogynistic Christian tradition to task for the ways they sanitize Christ’s birth).  I also loved how her own experience of pain and bringing life into the world gives her compassion and extend forgiveness toward’s mothers facing hard choices who chose to abort, even those in her own family history.  Perhaps one of the gifts of pain is it gives us empathy and compassion for the painful journeys of others.

This is a great book. Read it. I give it 5 stars. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received an electronic copy of this book from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Directing My Kid’s Spiritual Formation: a book review.

As an erstwhile pastor and a full-time parent, I have a vested interest in my kids’ spiritual formation. So I was excited to dig into Jared Patrick Boyd’s book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide For Your Child’s Spiritual Formation. 

4625Boyd is a Vineyard pastor, spiritual director and founder of The Order of Sustainable Faith (a missional monastic expression). He has previously authored a book on composing a rule of life (Invitations & Commitments: a Rule of Life, The Order of Sustainable Faith,  2014).

In Imaginative PrayerBoyd provides a template for leading your children through a year-long transformative prayer practice (actually 42 weeks).  The book begins with a six-stanza  ‘Imaginative Prayer Creedal Poem (11-12).  Each week has an Ignatian style imaginative prayer designed for kids ages 9-12, reflections for parents and mentors, suggestions for pressing deeper into each theme with your children (through activities, research, and conversation), and suggestions to get your children to journal about. Even seven-week cycle includes a week of review which incorporates questions, activities and memorizing of the section of  Boyd’s creedal poem that corresponds to that section. The 42 weeks cover the topics of God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God.

I read through this book a couple of weeks ago and took an atypical amount of time sitting down to write this review. Part of it is, this book came out in July, so me, or anyone reviewing it now, has not used the book as it was intended (a 42-week spiritual journey with kids). I actually have not used this with my own children, though I spoke with my daughters about it and they are super excited to try this out and I think it is a great way to harness their imagination to deepen their connection to God in Christ.

Essentially what Boyd provides, is a roadmap for us parents to slow down and become spiritual directors for our kids. Boyd tested the material with kids ages 9-12 because children these ages are old enough to grapple with significant questions and abstract concepts but also young enough to have a ‘sense of playfulness’ which makes the material more engaging (303-304). However, I plan to use this with my 8 and my 10-year-old. Having previewed the material, I like Boyd’s sense of the larger Christian story and the way he employs contemplative practices in an engaging way for kids.

On the topic, I have a big problem with a lot of Christian children’s curriculum because they focus almost exclusively on getting kids to behave better, promoting a form of moralism. Or they impart a faith formula that kids ought to believe. What is refreshing about Boyd’s approach is that is a transformative invitation to prayer.

I may revisit this later, but for now, I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars. Now for the practice of prayer. . .

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

A Socratic Interfaith Dialogue: a book review.

It had been a while since I picked up a book by Peter Kreeft. I do have an electronic version of his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (IVP, 1994), which I still refer to from time to time and a dozen years ago I read his How to Win A Culture War (IVP, 2002), but I don’t remember it well enough to tell you if anyone followed his advice (or if we won). Beyond that, I’ve read a couple of his 80’s era apologetic Socratic-style dialogues (Between Heaven and Hell, and Socrates Meets Jesus) and listened to a Barnes & Noble audio book on the history of moral thought and ethics (What Would Socrates Do? 2004). Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College, and a Catholic, Christian apologist.

4510In Between One Faith and Another (IVP, 2017), Kreeft invites us to consider the similarities and differences between the world’s great religious traditions. He presents a fictitious dialogue between two students in a college comparative religious course and their professor.  There is the atheist/agnostic student, Thomas Keptic, and Bea Leaver, an open-hearted religious believer, and Professor Fesser, their objective and even-handed professor.

Beyond their religious affiliation (or the lack thereof), the three interlocutors also represent three approaches to interfaith dialogue. Thomas Keptic, the skeptic, is the exclusivist. He is suspicious of all religions and has some hard-nosed evidentialist assumptions. However, he also loves logic and clings to ‘the law of non-contradiction.’ Any difference between faith means, for Thomas, that both (or either) faiths cannot be true. Bea Leaver on the other hand, is an inclusivist. She will admit with Thomas, that there are differences between the world’s faiths, though she disagrees that these differences are necessarily contradictory. She believes the different religions are all paths up the same mountain and tends to emphasize what different faiths have in common. Professor Fesser is a pluralist, describing each faith tradition in an evenhanded, objective way. He acknowledge’s differences and similarities in the religious traditions, but neither attempts to synthesize or exclude the various faiths.

Their discussion ranges from definitions about religion to explorations of each of the various religious traditions in turn: primitive religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The final chapter, on comparative religion, discusses how to handle religious contradictions and draws together some of the various threads of the conversation they’ve been having.  Because the discussion is premised on the inclusivist/exclusivist/pluralist approaches and pits believer versus skeptic (in respectful dialogue), each chapter explores what we can say and know about the nature of religious truth. The contours of each religious tradition are mentioned and discussed, but Kreeft is more interested in the larger truth question behind religious approaches. If you are looking for an overview of various faiths, this book would need to be supplemented with other resources which presents the World Religions in a more substantive way.

These conversations do not quite read as riveting fiction. This is an academic dialogue about two students and a professor, written by a philosophy professor for the purpose of posing particular questions about religious faith. To that end, it succeeds rather well and has enough good humor to be an enjoyable read. And Kreeft doesn’t have his narrative culminate in some contrived conversion of the pluralist or the atheist, as though this were God Is Not Dead 3. The positions held by Thomas, Bea and Professor Fesser are designed to help readers explore the questions that arise when we put various religious traditions in conversation.  While there is movement in each character, as they think through their positions, none of the characters capitulates to another’s view.

Kreeft is a Christian philosopher and an exclusivist. However, as a believer in Christ (who never spoke of comparative religion) and in the Socratic method, he advocates honest use of reason, intellectual humility and ‘maximally charitable interpretations’ (6). As such, he sees the exclusivism of Thomas, Bea’s open-hearted love of wisdom and Professor Fesser’s objectivity in himself (5).

Personally, Kreeft’s book helped me both appreciate other religious perspectives and articulate some of the differences between them and my own Christian faith. I give this book four stars and recommend it those interested in interfaith dialogue, comparative religion and the nature of religious truth. ★★★★

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>

Open Heart Surgery to Open Heart Life: a book review

Struck is Russ Ramsey’s story of his brush with death. He was struck with a bacterial infection which destroyed his mitral valve, the heart valve which prevents backflow in the left ventricle of the heart. He required open-heart surgery and gained a new perspective through his struggle with sickness, depression, chemical addiction to painkillers, a brush with death and his recovery.  As a father of four, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville and author he reflects on how his brush with mortality affected his family and his faith.

4494Ramsey’s story unfolds in four acts. Part one describes the affliction, his diagnosis, operation and first month of treatment. Part two, Recovery, explores month 2-5, the early days of recovery, depression, and rehabilitation. Part three, Lament (months 6-22) describes Ramsey’s movement back into the ministry of soul care, with fresh insights and empathy from his own struggle. Part 4, Doxology,  shows death and suffering swallowed up in hope and praise, as Ramsey looks ahead to life and resurrection. An afterward, written by Lisa Ramsey, Russ Ramsey’s wife, tells of her journey as she stood by her husband in sickness, diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. There are ways in which her afterward is my favorite part of the book because she refuses to make a ‘life lesson’ out of her husband’s infirmity. She marks the time as significant and is grateful for the ways God sustained them. It is enough.

I love memoirs because they open up the reality of another’s experience. I appreciate Ramsey’s sometimes raw honesty and the way his diagnosis enabled him to forge deep friendships with and offer hope to co-strugglers (like Barbara, a woman he and his wife knew dying of cancer). There is no sentimentality here. There is pain, grief, depression, loss and sadness. There is also an enduring faith. Ramsey opens up about the depths of his experience. He underwent open heart surgery and learned to live open-heartedly.  I give this book four stars.

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

Midlife Mission, Not Midlife Crisis: a book review

I have a confession to make. I’m forty. I aged out in June and I am forced to face the fact that I’m statistically closer to the grave than the cradle. In many ways I don’t feel forty yet. I feel like I’m still becoming who I was meant to be. I don’t feel like I’m established. There is so much I had hoped to accomplish at this point,  there is security which has eluded me, such as a fulfilling job and  life success.

4434Authors Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty both have successful ministry careers.  Greer is the president and CEO of Hope International, a global micro-finance organization. Lafferty is the senior pastor of Willowdale Chapel in Jennersville, Pennsylvania.  Greer watched Lafferty navigate his forties and decided to learn from him about how he could avoid a midlife crisis and be propelled towards meaningful mission (17). 40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in Midlife is Greer and Lafferty’s call for us to reevaluate our lives and press into the things which matter.

Lafferty and Greer share vulnerability about their experience of aging. They also engage a third dialogue partner: Qoheleth. The author of Ecclesiastes provides insights on refocusing our life midstream.  Greer and Lafferty (and Qoheleth) address midlife (ch. 1), the meaninglessness of life (ch. 2), disappointment with our life not going how we had planned (ch.3), the lose of  ‘thrill'(ch. 4), facing mortality (ch. 5), growing in generosity (ch. 6), breaking the addiction to go-go-go (ch. 7), aging well (ch. 8),  deepening our relationships in midlife (ch. 9), relinquishing control (ch. 10), finding meaning outside of ‘a job’ (ch. 11), and living a life with lasting purpose (ch. 12).

In their introduction, Greer and Lafferty write, ” Our hope is that this is not just another self-help book loosely based on Christian principles or a list of ways to ease the symptoms of midlife. Rather, we want to address the underlying questions of midlife through the timeless wisdom fo Ecclesiastes. Although many issues in their forties, others face them in their thirties or fifities” (17-18). Sharing vulnerably from their life experience, they delve into each theme, highlighting the wisdom and insights of Ecclesiaties and exploring what it means to live life on mission in life’s latter half.

This book speaks meaningfully to me in a way I wish it did not. I would rather be young, invincible, and immortal. But the experience of forty means I have to face up to life and press forward knowing that reckoning and resurrection await those who fear God  and keep his commandments (183-184).  Greer and Lafferty’s conversational tone draws you and causes you to reflect on what life could be like moving forward.

I recommend this book for those near forty, those who are forty or fortyish, and those who saw forty a long time ago and still pretend they are forty. Greer and Lafferty show how Ecclesiastes speaks to midlife. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.