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.


Calling Partners For Youth Ministry & Beyond: a book review

I have been a part of an effective youth ministry team. I was not the pastoral leader but a team member, so I wasn’t responsible for creating and building the team, but it was great. We met together, did retreats together and did team building exercises.We called ourselves the ‘Youth Support Team’ (insert your favorite jock strap/bra joke here, we made them all). As the Youth Support Team (YST) we planned our weekly youth worship service, we mentored, we prayed with and for kids and planned special events. On a whole, we did effective and fruitful ministry together. I have been part of youth ministry before and since when finding an adequate ministry team was difficult and appreciate resources for building teams.

These days I don’t directly work with youth, but as a solo senior pastor in a small church I am invested in seeing the youth of my church thrive. Mark Devries and Nate Stratman of Ministry Architects have written Building Your Volunteer Team to help youth ministers raise up volunteers for their church. The book is a 30-day Change project for youth ministry and DeVries and Stratman guarantee that if their program is followed, it will build your volunteer team.

DeVries and Stratman organize tasks for each day to help youth leaders to approach recruitment systematically. Much of what they give you to do amounts to calling and follow-up with people in an organized way. The goal isn’t just to get new warm bodies into youth ministry to serve, but to build a team where people are serving in their gifts and passions (the right people on the bus). DeVries augment the practical steps with instructions for prayer partners and weekly sabbath days (AKA reflection days).

Each week begins with a ‘balcony day,’–a day to set the agenda for the week, and ends with a day reflecting on the process. The idea is to approach ministry recruitment systematically, thoughtfully and to follow through for  a month. If you do that, DeVries and Stratman claim that the results are assured.

Because this is a book about ‘recruitment’ more than it is a book about youth ministry, much of what DeVries and Stratman say is applicable to building a volunteer team for any ministry. They offer lots of practical advice and because this is an organized approach, there are practical steps here that will be helpful to leaders. I also appreciate the places where DeVries and Stratman help retool our thinking about raising up volunteers. For example, day three talks about how we are not aiming at getting ‘helpers’ who will jump in where needed, but partners who take ownership in ministry. They also share other phrases to strike from our vocabulary:

  • “It’s just easier to do it myself” (56).
  • “I Called but they Haven’t called me back yet” (59).
  • “I don’t know anyone else!” (62).
  • “What do I say on my fourth message?” (65).

But most of this book isn’t about attitude and vocabulary, it is about working the steps: creating lists of names, calling potential volunteers, interviewing past volunteers, creating documents, organizing, recruiting, crafting a team. The chief value of DeVries and Stratman’s book is how practical and hands on they are.

When I look at the possibility of applying this book to building a youth team for our church, I am not exactly sure how well it will work for our context. I think a lot of their suggestions work better in a mid-to-large congregation. My congregation is less than sixty and predominantly older. I feel like I would have to do some reworking to follow their steps verbatim. But I did gain a practical approach to raising up volunteers and will be looking at how to implement their suggestions faithfully in my context. Team ministry is the way to go and if this book can help get us there, that is great. I give this book four stars: ★★★★

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