Instead of seeing leadership as a hierarchy, we need to see it as a stream. People up stream and people downstream matter, but they have different roles.  The folks upstream may be in charge of decision making, but if they don’t consider those downstream, they can put up dams and stop the river up with rocks.  Those downstream talk to each other and create all sorts of havoc. A guy went to the teller at his bank and he noticed she was standing and fidgeting. She said her feet were hurting. He asked, “Why don’t you sit down and grab a chair?”  She said, “Somebody with a chair upstairs decided we didn’t need a chair.” The folks upstream decided the folks downstream didn’t need chairs, and now there are disgruntled employees. It’s a rule of thumb that the decisions upstream leaders make affect them the least. We need to understand that the collective wisdom of the group makes some of the best decisions. Wendell Berry is quoted as saying, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
  • For discussion: how does this apply to those you lead in ministry, to your staff?  Where have you seen the people you lead put up dams?  What are the benefits of decision making that considers “the collective wisdom of the group?”

Alps from Above is a documentary with aerial views of breath taking mountain ranges in Austria. One scene highlights Regis Borg Castle, a magnificent structure that dates back to the 17th century and perched high on a hill where the mountains run out into the plains. Since the 1980’s the castle has served as a lodging place for birds of prey (falcons, owls, vultures, and eagles).  In the episode, a young intern is interviewed.  He talks about what it’s like to work with birds of prey and describes their wild, undomesticated nature. Each day he follows the same routine, taking one of the magnificent birds onto his arm and releasing it to fly high into the sky.  The amazing thing is that for all of their wildness and the daily opportunity to fly away, the birds always come back. I found his explanation quite intriguing: “They never actually listen to a command.  It only works if you build up trust over time.  It is a great feeling when you’ve won the trust of a bird, and that it keeps coming back to you.” Those words sound a lot like effective ministry:  “trust over time.” They sound like the relationship of a young armor bearer to Jonathan, when Jonathan said to him:
  • “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” “Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul” (1 Samuel 14:6-7).
  • Erwin McManus writes, “This is the essence of influence, to win the heart and soul of another person through the strength of your own character and personhood.  This is why influence is always more powerful than authority.  Authority can [determine] what a person does, but influence shapes what a person becomes.  Influence is born out of trust, and finds its strength in the connection of heart and soul” (Seizing Your Divine Moment).
“Trust over time” sounds a lot like a relationship with Jesus.  His sheep “follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:4-5). Birds of prey do not respond to a command, they respond to influence.  Apparently, according to Jesus, sheep do as well. In working with young people over the years, I’ve learned an important lesson:  when it comes to changing a life, it’s the “heart and soul” connection that really counts. Or, to quote Parker J. Palmer,
  • “The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge” (Let your Life Speak).
One of the blessings of long-term ministry is to visit with students once they have moved on from their adolescent years, graduated and moved away.  During those brief moments when they return, it is most rewarding to hear the stories that are etched into their minds from youth group days.  I’ve never heard a student talk much about “the program.”  It’s the stories of human connection they remember.  So maybe it would be helpful to think about it this way:
  •   “What converted you to Christ?  Was it a person, or a program?”
The temptation of ministry is getting consumed with creating the best programs.  And while programs have value, we must never forget the all-important need for human connection, for loving like Jesus loved, for memories made together, for “trust over time.”

Royal Robbins is a professional mountain climber. Writing in Sports Illustrated, he describes the one great essential of the sport. It is not physical strength or having the safest and best equipment, or even the proper training.  It is the ability to see things as they really are.  He writes:
  • “If we are keenly alert and aware of the rock and what we are doing on it, if we are honest with ourselves and our capabilities and weaknesses, if we avoid committing ourselves beyond what we know is safe, then we will climb safely. For climbing is an exercise in reality.  He who sees it clearly is on safe ground regardless of his experience or skill.  But he who sees reality as he would like it to be may have his illusions rudely stripped away from his eyes as the ground comes up fast.”
Royal Robbins illustrates a crucial leadership principle: Wise leaders resist seeing life as they would like to see it. They are honest with themselves regarding their capabilities and weaknesses. They seek to accurately assess the situation before them. In Leadership is the Key, Herb Miller identifies twelve traits of effective leaders.  One of the traits is “Objectivity:  The ability to accurately assess reality.”  He writes that ministers who frequently “fail to accurately define reality walk up stairs of sand in their journey toward effectiveness.”  He suggests that objectivity does not come from a high IQ or high levels of specialized knowledge, but from a leader’s willingness to be self-aware and sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others. Perhaps we could learn something about perception from Jesus’ extended stay at the temple as a child. After three days, his parents found him in the temple courts, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).  Jesus took time to listen and seek understanding. Based on research, John Savage (Calling and Caring) contends that 90% of the time, when we try to guess why a person dropped out of church, we guess wrong.  He suggests that the only real way to know why is to humbly ask the person.  Unless a person tells you their story, you really do not accurately know. The problem we often have in ministry is the tendency to project our own conclusions into difficult situations based on our insecurities. We have a tendency to attribute one cause to one effect.  To do so is to have an overly simplistic view and live under an illusion of understanding that is not connected to reality. A much better approach is to follow Jesus in the way listening and honest seeking, or even to heed James’ guidance that we be “Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Reverse these, and you have a distorted view of reality, as well as guaranteed conflict.  Put them into practice in ministry and you have understanding and a more accurate perception.  So, if rock climbing is an “exercise in reality,” then ministry (with all of its potential pitfalls) certainly fits that bill.  I believe Stephen Covey has it right: “Seek to understand, then to be understood.”  Seeing reality accurately will make you a more perceptive and effective leader.

Leadership really is about the one.  Not the crowd.  Not the masses.  But about how you treat the one. Jesus repeatedly demonstrated this in his ministry. To those who murmured at Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them, he told this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:4-7). From this parable, Kenneth E. Baily makes a keen observation: “It is the shepherd’s willingness to go after the one that gives the ninety-nine their real security.  If the one is sacrificed in the name of the larger group, then each individual in the group is insecure, knowing that he or she will be left to die.  When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many.”
  • Having been in the secular workplace for the past few years, I have observed this to be true time and time again.  The way management treats the one filters throughout the entire organization.  The treatment of the one becomes the dominate narrative for employees.  It becomes the story of how anyone in the organization will be treated given similar circumstances.  It has the power to create employee trust and allegiance to the company, or dissatisfaction and a desire for greener pastures.
  • I have found this to be true in the classroom.  The way a teacher responds to one honest seeker–or even the critic–communicates to class members whether it is safe to ask questions and engage in the teaching moment.  When a teacher responds to the one, she is really responding to the whole and sending powerful signals to students as they make decisions to engage or not.  (After all, nobody wants to be made to look dumb!)
  • It is true in ministry.  I learned early on as a youth minister how many students vie for your attention, especially after church services.  Often young people are lined up seeking your counsel.  I learned to always focus my eyes on the one who got there first, then focus on the next, and then the next.  I learned that five minutes of focused attention with the person before you is one of the most powerful gifts you can ever offer.  It is the gift of yourself.
Jesus embodied concern for the one. Today we read the stories of Jesus and how he stopped and engaged with men and women.  He fogged out the crowd when the woman in adultery was cast down before him.  Neither do I condemn you!  He gave Nicodemus time and understanding when he could have been sleeping one night.  When a woman with an issue of blood touched him, he set aside his agenda to focus on her physical needs.  He spoke with compassion to the thief on the cross.  Time and again Jesus said, “YOU are the most important thing to me.”  Today we read with delight the stories of Christ’s compassion for those who came into his path. As leaders, the way we treat the one – the broken, the hungry, the critic, the sincere questioner, the thief – communicates a strong message to all those we lead.  “When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many.”  Maybe it’s time we adjusted our ministry glasses to see that the most important person is the one who stands before us at any given time.  Effective leadership always reduces itself to how we treat the one. (Visit our web site. can help you with your leadership training needs.)

Effective youth ministry can be compared to an iceberg–there is much more beneath the surface than is seen with the eye. An iceberg is a massive thing, yet only 1/10 of the total mass of an iceberg is above water. When people look at a ministry, they typically see what’s above the water line.  It’s what happens under the surface, however, that determines the health of a ministry–or to put it another way, it takes a team to build a great ministry. Early in ministry I learned that a healthy, connected team of adults is essential to building a great ministry.  That means many things, but at a minimum, it means spending the time building a sense of team. How can you tell if a team is connected of disconnected (or even a church for that matter)?  Teams that are disconnected display the following traits:
  • Interactions have a high degree of formality and politeness.
  • Disagreements are rarely raised.
  • Team meetings are quiet and interactions seem uncomfortable.
  • Attendance at meetings is inconsistent and sporadic.
The marks of a connected team?
  • Team members demonstrate a high degree of informality when interacting, able to kid around and make jokes with each other.
  • Team members feel comfortable being noisy and random.
  • Disagreements are voiced in a nondefense manner.
  • Team members like spending time with each other outside meetings.
  • Attendance is consistent because the fellowship is just too good to miss.
Oh – one more question you might ask, and it’s true for a church or ministry group:  How long do people stay around when it’s over?  The longer people stay, the healthier the culture. As I shared in last week’s blog, the most important thing you can do for your youth is minister to your adult leaders. will be glad to come to your congregation and do a volunteer worship to help you build a more effective and connected team.  Contact us on our web site and we can discuss a weekend event.

In preparing to launch, I asked scores of youth leaders this question:  “In what area of ministry do you struggle most?”  The overwhelming response?   “How do I build an effective volunteer team to minister to our students?” While the answer to that question requires a longer conversation, here’s a principle that will help:  The health of a youth group will be in direct proportion to the health of the volunteer team. I remember attending a workshop early in ministry that focused on building a sense of community within the adult leadership core.  The following principles stayed with me through the years:
  1. Working with volunteers is more than just assigning and completing tasks.  People don’t join a ministry just to do leadership tasks.  They want to be cared for, they want to have friends, and they want to have fun too.
  2. A leader must become a shepherd to the team (which is much more rewarding than simply doing signup sheets and completing tasks). Pour yourself into the lives of the people with whom you serve.  Then, even if volunteers get tired of doing the task, they will not quit the team because the fellowship is just too good.  When you meet, take time to minister to your team.  If a volunteer leaves a meeting and they’ve done the task, but you don’t know if a team member’s mother just found out she has cancer, you have not ministered to your team.
  3. Teams that are not run well will go through some of the finest people, and leaders will scratch their head and say, “I don’t understand what happened.” Your volunteer did the task, but there was no sense of family connectivity.
So remember that the most important thing you can do for your youth, is minister to your adult team.  As the team goes, so goes the youth group!  Your most important job is to create the right culture! If you would like a longer conversation about your ministry, go to our web site and check out the Youth Ministry Assessment Tool.  It takes 10 minutes.  Ministry Coach will give you a call to share the results and listen to how we can use our experience to help you build a more effective youth ministry culture!

There are observable signs of congregational regression. According to Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve, leaders of a congregation in decline will often look for a “quick fix” and will concentrate their focus on data and numbers, programs and techniques rather than on emotional processes and the leader’s own self. The end result:  the more the congregation advances in one area, the more it will regress in another.  According to Friedman, “The focus on data and technique is itself a characteristic of emotional regression:  namely, avoidance or denial of the fact that it is happening” (55). This may involve a strong determination to highlight numbers as a show of success:  numbers in attendance and “preacher counts” at activities.  The numbers game is often an attempt at self-validation for ministers. In a state of regression, leaders will often look for reasons to justify to themselves and the congregation as to why people are leaving.  It is not uncommon for leaders to attempt to appease their anxiety by negatively labeling those who leave. So here’s a suggestion:  instead of labeling and looking for causes “out there” and “with people,” wouldn’t it be much better to look inward and be honest about the role we are likely playing in the exodus of members? My dad related a story once in which the preacher called a meeting of members and asked, “What do we need to do to make the church grow?”  My father said, “I appreciate what he was trying to accomplish, but wouldn’t a much better question be, ‘What are we doing that is preventing the church from growing?’” In my view, that’s a better way forward. Effective leaders shine the light on themselves instead of others.  They fail to create false narratives. They say accurately and honestly, “How can the reversal of negative trends begin with me?”

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. (John 8:6-8).        What does the posture of Jesus signal about our ability to reach the broken?  Based on Jesus’s willingness to stoop, we can consider three significant response to the broken:
  1. “You are not alone.”
  2. “You are loved.”
Why did Jesus stoop, stand, and stoop again?  We can only speculate, but he may have stood just in case some overzealous young Pharisee missed his point and planned on doing some rock throwing. And what was he drawing on the ground? “For all we know, he was drawing a smiley face.  The powerful revelation is that the God of the universe—the only one who should have been genuinely offended, who could have postured himself as judge and executioner—literally lowers himself to her level and becomes her only friend, protector, and advocate.  Yes, he does challenge her lifestyle and asks her to stop, but not until he has postured himself as an advocate.  This is key.  He addresses her head only after he has her heart” (Halter and Smay, The Tangible Kingdom, 45). This is where I see the church needing a new variety of love in the 21st century.  Jesus told her to go and leave her life of sin.   Perhaps our best approach for those experiencing moral failure is simply to say, “We’re going to stay with you through it. We won’t abandon you.  All I want you to do today is keep trying to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  I’m going to stay with you, but right now I want you to keep pursuing the Lord with all you have.”   When someone is caught in sin, the posture of Jesus says we must take the long view of a person’s life and trust the Spirit to do the work Jesus promised would be done.   Paul reminds us in Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more!”  
  1. “You are welcome in this place!”
  Most of the time it’s not our beliefs that need to be changed (though they may need to be examined), it’s our posture.  Jesus stooped!   Welcoming the broken will always be messy.  But if church isn’t messy, maybe we have to ask if we are a church or not.  When we stop being messy, we have a bigger problem.   Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.”  That tells me that we have to find a way to hold the integrity of the Gospel while at the same time pursuing the broken.   The posture of caring and listening are the best resources at our disposal to build ministries that help the broken find healing and forgiveness.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. (John 8:6-8).

The occasion was quite scandalous.  A woman “caught in the very act” was drug by her accusers to face the consequences for her sin.  She was treated as an issue, and yet for most of us something deep within the human heart says that people should never be treated as an issue. What does the posture of Jesus signal about our ability to reach the broken? At the conclusion of a recent group bible study on this text, I asked group members to share one takeaway from the story.  One observed, “It is the point where Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground.”  She continued, “As a teacher in training, I’ve been studying how to discipline children appropriately.  One of the things you are encouraged to do in dealing with conflict is make yourself small and get down on the level of a child.”  She said, “In conflict, we usually try to make ourselves BIG – we stand taller, raise our voices, get louder.  But Jesus diffused the situation by making himself small.” Not only did Jesus teach humility, he demonstrated it through his body language.  When he stooped to write on the ground, he gave pause to a tense moment.  He gave the emotionally charged crowd time to consider their actions.  As a result, they dropped their stones from the oldest to the youngest. Jesus had enough confidence, even in sordid human nature, to believe if given the choice, those in the crowd would make the right decision. Jesus gave them the pause to consider their actions before doing the inexcusable.  It’s amazing how completely, Jesus was filled with truth and grace, even for these accusers. I love how Jesus deescalated the conflict with the pause, the stoop.  In so doing, he became an advocate for the broken woman.  Based on Jesus’s willingness to stoop, we can consider three significant response to the broken.
  1. “You are not alone.”
When someone is caught up in sin, the emotion that is most commonly felt is shame.  Shame is a powerfully debilitating emotion.  There is an agony all its own connected with shame. It’s far worse than guilt.  Guilt is a private thing.  You keep guilt to yourself, you swallow it like you do your pride though it eats you up inside.  You say nothing and go on. With shame, you can’t go on.  Sometimes it comes from a family member or those you trusted who won’t let you live it down.  It comes from accusers who says, “Remember what you did?” and constantly try to tether you to your broken past. It comes to the child struggling with an identity crisis who prays intensely, “Please don’t let me be like this.” Shame is a powerful emotion.  It’s expressed in the words of a young adult who said, ““I’m 31 years old and divorced, though I fought divorce bitterly.  I feel as if I’m going to have to sit out the rest of my life in the penalty box.” The first thing we need to say to the broken is, “You are not alone!”

We have heard it over and over – ministry leaders need help! Therefore, we are excited to share with the you the launch of After more than two years of listening, praying and planning, we are ready to begin the journey of helping leaders with the tools and guidance to propel your leadership and ministry forward. Having surveyed a sizable number of leaders through deep conversations and listening groups, we have heard the cry for help. Quite frankly, we wondered what to do. Though it was tempting to say, “Here is a program that has worked for us, and we will come and teach it to you,” that approach proved to be the wrong one. Instead, we began to ask new questions instead of giving answers . . . questions such as, “What is the one thing in ministry that you struggle with the most, and where do you most need help?” We found out that help was needed in a variety of areas: personal spiritual development, dealing with difficult people, resolving conflict, working more productively with elderships and boards, effectively leading a team of volunteers, and much more . . . DB Ministry Coach is designed to do three things: help you assess the state of ministry where you serve, provide one-on-one mentoring and coaching, and provide help with your congregational or organizational needs. Weekend training events, retreats, and speaking events can be tailored to meet your needs. Our team is made up of leaders who have a proven track record of leadership effectiveness. We look forward to partnering with you to provide the help you need. Please contact us if you have questions, or complete our online assessment, and we will give you a call to consider a journey forward together. David In addition – we will share ministry and leadership insights through our weekly blog posts. Stay tuned for more.