February 25, 2010

The Numbers Game

Over the years I have developed a love/hate relationship with numbers.

Back in high school, my favorite subject in school was math. I loved numbers, and problems and equations…and I was good at it too. It was one of the only subjects I got an A in every time (outside of gym, of course) and I even took a teachers aid class my junior year because I was thinking of being a math teacher myself.

When I began in ministry though, my love of numbers slowly began to change. For me, it drives me crazy when I see churches and pastors that have gotten swept up in the corporate America way of evaluating success, which tends to be solely based on numbers.

We’ve all been there before in ministry:
  • Your Senior Pastor or Elders Board regularly asks about your program numbers the previous week.
  • A parent who is new to the church wants to know how many kids come on a weekly basis.
  • You’re home for Christmas, and your aunt wants to know how big your youth group is.
  • When you’re at a ministry conference or retreat, you’re asked over and over again by other pastors how many kids are in your group and you yourself return the favor as we kind of size one another up.
Personally, I have grown really tired of this game that we play with numbers in ministry. It makes me sick. Now, I know that numbers are important but the question that I have been asking a lot is are we using them correctly? I think there is a big problem in the way we evaluate our ministry based on numbers because they can be very misleading about true success.

In my opinion, true success in ministry is about leading youth and their families to a deeper understanding of Christ. Period. This question is not answered by numbers alone. Sometimes the small church with 10 kids can actually make a much bigger impact when in comes to the Kingdom of God than the big church with 150 kids who show up to play games and see their friends. I think for some time we have begun to sacrifice depth and discipleship for the sake of looking good in our jobs.

So how do we use numbers the right way?

First, I think we need to not be afraid or worried if numbers in our youth groups start to drop. Sometimes this can just be something that God is doing to help drive our teens to a deeper place with God. I wrote a little bit about this in one of my previous blogs, It’s the Little Things That Matter.

Second, we have to learn to take pause when numbers change or drop and ask ourselves is this a symptom of the ministry as a whole and our effectiveness as ministers OR is this a sign that a particular program needs to change. This is something that I have been experiencing this year. Our High School ministry from a program standpoint has really struggled. We lost 23 seniors last year who really had carried the program for the last two years. Now, at first reaction someone could conclude that we are failing to reach high school students because of our program numbers. But when you actually evaluate the kids we are reaching in other avenues, we have actually increased this year.

This leads me to my third point. We have to more away from a program based number to a ministry based number to evaluate our effectiveness. In my ministry I call this our “Reach Number.” What this includes is the number of our kids that our church is reaching through a relationship with myself, one of our other leaders, Sunday School and Sunday services. In my opinion, this is true discipleship! Walking through life with kids and being the light of Christ in their lives. I have kids who I have a friendship with who will not likely step foot into one of our programs or church on a Sunday morning for a number of reasons. But this doesn’t change the fact that I am teaching them about Christ and the Bible.

Isn’t this the number that should be more important? How many kids are going deeper in their relationship with Christ? How many kids are exploring and asking questions? How many kids do we have access to in a given week? By asking these questions and reevaluating how we look at our ministries and the numbers attached to them will have a huge impact on the future and the generation we are ministering to.

February 17, 2010

Rest is Good...Really!

So, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The holidays hit as my wife and I headed to her families in Maryland, then we had a big youth retreat in New York City and then…I went on vacation for a week in Orlando.

To be honest, I have been in ministry not for almost 8 1/2 years and this was the first time ever that I have taken a week off in the middle of the school year. In years past, my wife and I have always taken a vacation at the end of August, coinciding with a break to allow for final vacations and heading back to school. Beyond that, we’d take a long weekend here and there but never a full week. But man, did I need it.

In previous years I have come to the conclusion that just one week of vacation each year is not enough. Also, I have noticed that my workaholic tendencies have begun to run away with my life starting in January as I try to recover from the stress of holidays, prep for my upcoming Winter Retreats and then focus on our quickly approaching summer mission trips. It’s too soon to say whether this year is going to be different but I already feel in a different place having had some time to stop and breathe.

I think many in our profession struggle with taking a break. Ministry never stops…there are always kids to call, Facebook or text. Our phones are buzzing at all hours of the day with questions from parents about an upcoming trip. And who wants to live with the guilt of taking a week off from Youth Group and take the risk that a kid misses hearing about Jesus!?!? Ok…maybe a little extreme but I will admit I was there earlier in my career and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

As I’ve gotten older I have learned to set some firm boundaries in order to avoid burn out. Here are my thoughts about rest…some of which I do fairly well with, others of which I am still working on.

1) A Youth Pastor needs one day off a week and one flex day a week.

For me, Monday is my day off and I am pretty hardcore about it. I don’t check my work e-mail, I avoid the office and I even turn my cell phone off…all day! Call me on any Monday and you will hear my voice mail greeting telling you I take the day off from my phone and that I will get back to you on Tuesday. I also try my best to avoid doing errands or paying bills on this day too. Monday, as best as my wife and I can swing it, is our sabbath of resting and not doing any work. As a workaholic, if I am not firm about this, it won’t happen.

Saturday is my flex day. Two to three times a month, Saturdays are a day off from normal work but yet is usually reserved for errands, bill paying, etc. I also keep my phone on and check my e-mail or Facebook occasionally. The other Saturday’s a month are the occasional events or activities with kids.

2) After a weekend event or trip, a Youth Pastor needs two days off.

For me, I try to take Monday and Tuesday off just to recharge my batteries and get some rest. If you are a Youth Pastor and you have figured out how to get two full nights of sleep on a youth retreat without using duct tape, please let me know your secrete.

3) It is not necessary to have internet and e-mail on your cell phone.

I know this one might sound a bit anti-cultural but seriously, if there is something that is serious enough that needs your attention after work hours, they wouldn’t be communicating that in a e-mail. I realized this fact this past summer on our mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico. Having my e-mail on me at all times just prolonged my work day and prevented me from relaxing when I got home. Not to mention the constant vibration or dinging all evening didn’t help with spending time with my wife. When I got back from the trip I canceled internet and I have really loved it ever since. There have really only been once or twice that I can think of that I have actually missed it or been annoyed not having it since August.

4) A Youth Pastor needs at least three weeks vacation.

I have come to learn that I need a week in the summer and a week in the winter in order to stay sane and avoid working myself into a hole. This also helps my relationship with my wife have some very important quality time and allow myself to pause and de-stress. The other week of vacation is for time with family around the holidays, graduations or other special occasions but in most cases those times are not without a bit of stress and shouldn’t take the place of important, de-stressing vacations.

5) On average, a Youth Pastor shouldn’t work more than 50-55 hours a week.

We all know in ministry you have weeks that are well above that and overs that compensate for those weeks by going under. On average though, I don’t think it is healthy to go beyond that on a consistent basis. Seriously, the world only needs one savior and they already have Him…and just to be clear, you’re not him (or her)!