Adventures with Lord B.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


Prayer Walk

In July 2006 I found myself in Niagara Falls, NY, with my middle schoolers for a mission trip. Prior to our trip I was told that the New York side of Niagara Falls was poverty stricken. I was given the statistics that between 70–80% of all buildings in this area were abandoned. Quite honestly, I assumed this statistic was an exaggeration—it wasn’t. I’ve been in a lot of big cities. I’ve come to expect the run-down neighborhoods, the crime-infested sections of the city, etc. What made Niagara Falls so different was that the entire city was run down. There were no nice areas. No thriving areas. Just deserted building after deserted building.

After working in a soup kitchen, my youth group and I went for a prayer walk. The concept of a prayer walk is simple. As you walk, you pray about the things that catch your attention. This was something new for my teenagers, as the majority of them had never even prayed out loud before. Mysteriously, their prayers seemed to reflect their current needs. So with a soaring heat index, the teenagers began to pray, “Please let people here have air conditioning so they’re not so hot.” And as our feet grew tired: “Lord, please give people cars so they don’t have to walk everywhere.”

Lord B.

Ten minutes into our walk, we met Lord B. At least, that’s how he introduced himself. Lord B.

“I’m sorry, what was your name?” I asked.

I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens.

“Lord B.”

“Uh, could you spell that?”

“L-O-R-D space B period,” he said.

“Oh.” I continued, “What does the B stand for?”

“Nothing. It’s Lord B. Just Lord B. L-O-R-D space B period. Lord B.”

“Got it.”

Lord B., a skinny black kid who lived in the neighborhood, claimed to be eleven, though I had a difficult time believing he was older than nine.

“Do you want to walk with us?” I asked him.

“Lord B. doesn’t pass up a chance to hang out with chicks.” He declared with confidence. I took it as a yes.

Unexpected Muscles

Only five feet into our walk Lord B. posed a question: “Do you want to see my muscles?”

“Sure,” the girls giggled. He pulled up his shirt and the laughter stopped. Though he was flexing his abs with abundant force, our eyes were drawn just above his belly button where a thick tube measuring about four inches was protruding from his skin.

“What is that?” one girl asked. He made a face as if she had just asked him what that fuzzy black stuff was on top of his head. “It’s my feeding tube. I used to be sick, but not anymore.”

“Why do you still have it?” she continued.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. They just haven’t taken it out yet.”

And that was that.

An Inconvenient Prayer

The praying and walking continued. And after listening to the students pray for the government and that people would find jobs, Lord B. announced that he wanted to pray. And so he did.

With his eyes wide open he looked to the sky and shouted—I mean shouted—“Dear Lord! Please get rid of all these cars. Get these cars off the street so we don’t ruin the atmosphere. Get rid of cars so we can get rid of the pollution and save our ozone layer…” Lord B. went on and explained to God how pollution worked in a way that would have made Al Gore proud.

After he shouted his “Amen!” we were strangely quiet. The students were a little rattled that this scrawny kid from a shack of a house and a useless feeding tube was praying about the environment.

“Lord (B.), Teach Us to Pray”

That summer of 2006 I was convicted. I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens. There was a reason we called things like earthquakes “acts of God,” right? But something about this boy’s prayer rattled me. I could feel myself getting drawn into this bigger world he was speaking of.

I’m glad all of my prayers don’t get answered. I’m glad that most of my prayers don’t get answered. Because sometimes, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be praying for.

 


Amanda Drury (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) has been in youth ministry for about fifteen years. She serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where she lives with her husband and three children. She is the author of Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Formation, and is currently serving as director of Examen, a summer theological institute for high school students, and The Brain Kitchen, a non-profit organization in Marion, Indiana serving children with after-school mentoring and cooking classes in a trauma-informed environment.

Don’t Forget to Oil Your Chain

This post is the final post in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. You can find part one here,  part two here and part three here.


The Business of Ministry

If you have been reading my other posts about organizational leadership and growth, you will have noticed that I include a lot of references to budget numbers, technology, newsletters, databases, and other administrative details. You might wonder what all that stuff has to do with ministry. Isn’t ministry all about relationships with God and people? The church isn’t a business so why should we spend energy on budgets, facilities, and operations? Can’t we just “love on students”?!

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from real ministry.

I get those questions. I resonate with the sense of unease that many in the church and nonprofit world experience when talking about revenue, marketing, investments, and so on. I’ll never forget a confrontation I had a with a church business manager in my first internship where I brashly announced, “The church is not a business!”

While I had no idea what I was talking about back then, and I deeply regret the insult that my comment was to him, I still agree with that basic statement. The church is not a business. Because, yes, ministry is all about relationships. Effective nonprofits are all about fulfilling their mission. The treasures in heaven that we care about are people—not money or buildings or websites. We care about people.

But I have learned during my work as Executive Director and Pastor at Pres House that if we don’t attend to the “business” of ministry, our ministry will not be effective. Put another way, if the business is managed and run well, then the real work of mission is much more fruitful. The business operations of a nonprofit or ministry are its skeleton. If the skeleton is strong, then the flesh that is laid on top of it—the programs, people, relationships—they flourish and the organization succeeds. So yes, we do this work in order to love and serve people. But we have to tend to the business in order for our work with people to… well… work!

Like Bike Maintenance

I hang out with college students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They often use bikes to get around our large campus. Even in the winter! But I am always dismayed by how poorly many students take care of their bikes. They leave them outside, uncovered in the snow for months at a time. They ride to class with totally flat tires. And they almost never, ever oil their chain. You can always tell when a bike needs some oil on its chain by the horrible creaking and grinding sound it makes as it goes by. These same students often wonder why it is so hard to ride to class and are shocked that I ride 60 miles before 9am each Wednesday.

But I treat my chain and bike very differently. I clean and lube my chain almost every day. I pump up my tires every time I take my bike outside. I change my cables, bar tape, brake pads, and tires multiple times per season. If I had an orange rusty chain on my bike, I’d find it hard to ride a mile to class, too. You must take care of a bike if you want it to work well. If the chain is rusty or your tires are full of holes, you won’t make it very far and you’ll end up spending all your time dealing with the problems with the bike rather than riding anywhere. In addition to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with students, I often feel like an evangelist for bike maintenance!

Little Details Matter

The big picture is important. As I’ve written in earlier posts, it is vital to look ahead to where you are going and let go of the brakes so you get moving. But it is also essential to attend to the little details that make a huge difference. To put oil on your chain and pump up your tires. To take care of the “business” of your ministry. If the operation is rusty and the business has holes in it, then the mission will not go anywhere or you’ll end up stopped on the side of the road, changing a flat tire instead of getting on with loving people. I don’t oil the chain on my bike so that I have a shiny chain—I oil the chain so that my bike works well and I can get to where I am going. In the same way, I don’t attend to the business of Pres House just so we run a “well-oiled machine”—I attend to the business so that our mission of transforming the lives of students is successful and we get to where we are going.

Let me share a few examples:

– We try to run the best student housing community on campus with excellent customer service, cleanliness, and amenities so that students want to live with us and will have the opportunity to experience the grace of Jesus Christ as a member of our residential community.

– We send handwritten thank you notes to every donor, every time they donate, because we believe we have a relationship with our donors that extends beyond the online transaction or check they write.

– We produce high quality print publications so that people can clearly see what we are about and be inspired to participate or support our work.

-We are always looking for ways to improve our computer systems, databases, phone systems, sound systems, and facilities so that our people and programs can flourish and do their best work.

– We engage in rigorous financial modeling and budgeting in order to best leverage the gifts that God has given us for our mission today and into the future.

– We take surveys throughout the year and collect data on all our programming to evaluate what we are doing and make changes to be more effective.

Expertise in Community

Often small nonprofits and churches have limited resources, and leaders and pastors do not have all the skills necessary to attend to all this business. Seminary, after all, doesn’t train pastors to do marketing or negotiate legal contracts. Pastors, church leaders, and nonprofit leaders are increasingly asked to be experts on so many things we might as well start trying to walk on water.

I am not suggesting we need to manage everything on our own. Often there are people and resources available that can help. As much as I have enjoyed continuing education in theology and preaching, some of the most useful post-seminary education I’ve done has been in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, human resources, and legal issues. I have leaned on and learned from all the board members I’ve worked with over the years. I ask lots and lots of questions of every attorney, consultant, contractor, and acquaintance I can think of! Give me a call; I’d be happy to share some of what I’ve learned that might be useful in your particular context.

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from “real” ministry. It is a vital part of the ministry and essential to fully realizing the mission and vision of the organization. So, as you get on your bike, look ahead to where you want to go, let go of the brakes, and ride—don’t forget to oil your chain. You’ll be much more likely to get to where you are going and you’ll enjoy the ride a whole lot more along the way.

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

Let Go of the Brakes

This post is the third in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. You can find part one here and part two here. Coming soon, Mark will explore the final step: oil your chain.


“Red-Numbers” Christianity?

During the first five years of my first call as Pastor/Executive Director at Pres House we spent $500,000 more than we brought in. That’s right, our Presbyterian campus ministry ran a negative budget every year for more than five years!

I know, this sounds very irresponsible. A non-profit spending more money than it brings in for years is a long-term recipe for disaster. I am about to complete an MBA—I understand the importance of cash flow and budgeting. But in this instance, it was necessary. We were trying to resurrect a dormant ministry and develop a long-term funding plan. We were stepping out in faith and taking a big risk to re-develop the whole organization trusting and hoping that God had something in mind for Pres House. So we had to really go for it—even if that meant running a negative budget for five years. Often church entities and non-profits are too cautious with our efforts and we ensure failure before we even start. There are times when we need to go “all-in,” to commit fully to make a real go of things and get our projects and organizations off the ground.

Balance, Speed, and Trust

This post is my third reflection on the past decade of rebirth and growth that has taken place at the Presbyterian campus ministry center where I serve as Executive Director and Pastor. You can find more background here and here. As an amateur bike racer, I find a lot of commonalities between building a non-profit and riding a bike. Running a negative budget for some period of time is one example of a key practice necessary for both organizational development and bike riding—you have to let go of the brakes.

The temptation when starting out riding is to be cautious, to go slow, to keep one hand on the brake. But doing this makes the likelihood of falling much greater than if you simply let go of the brake and go.

Think back to when you learned to ride a bike or when you watched a child learn to ride a bike. One of the most counter-intuitive aspects of balancing on a bike is that the faster you go the easier it is to balance. The temptation when starting out riding is to be cautious, to go slow, to keep one hand on the brake. But doing this makes the likelihood of falling much greater than if you simply let go of the brake and go. As the bike speeds up it becomes easier to balance. In order to successfully ride you have to take the risk, trust the physics of the bike, release the brake, fully commit, and pedal forward. For most children who have initially mastered two wheels the hardest part of riding becomes the start and the stop—when the bike is moving slowly. This is also why you will see bike commuters slow down at stop signs but not always completely stop. It is hard to get going again, and the chance of falling down is greatest when riding slowly.

Thoughtful Risk Versus Caution

The same is true when leading an organization—especially when leading birth, growth, or change. We cannot expect to launch successful new ministries or rebuild organizations if we have one hand on the brake the whole time. Too often I have seen the church try to start campus ministry on a $1,000 per year grant, insist that the youth program budget be limited to the funds that are raised at an annual pancake breakfast, or avoid trying a new program because something similar failed ten years ago. Yes, careful, prudent planning is vital, but trying to get riding while being so overly cautious dooms the project to crash and fail before it even has a chance to get started.

I have a good friend who recently launched a new company in Silicon Valley that develops digital tools to help people pray. His business, Abide, spent more than $400,000 in their first year of operation. And that was well below the average cost of launching a tech start-up. It takes major investment, and a willingness to take risks, to start something new.

At Pres House we embrace risk. In fact, we have embedded that very language into the primary principles that guide our decision making. We are thoughtful about our risk taking. We run seven-year financial projections to try and anticipate the future. We engage in rigorous program evaluation, fund development, and strategic planning. We recognize that everything we try may not work and some things will fail. But we are committed to letting go of the brake and making a real go of it.

How the Rubber Meets the Road

What does this look like in practice? As I have already mentioned, we spent over half a million dollars more than we brought in during the first five years of our re-birth. We hired the staff we needed to launch a new worshipping community, quadruple our database of donors, and manage a rapidly growing organization. And we paid them competitive wages. We invested in good quality computers, website development, and database software. The biggest risk of all was borrowing $17 million dollars to pay for the construction of a seven-story apartment community for 250 students.

We could have crashed and burned and we came close many times in the past decade. We did fall down at times, and it was (and is) terrifying. But if we hadn’t taken these risks, if we had kept one hand on the brake, we would have certainly failed.

Letting go of the brakes isn’t only about taking financial risks. We took a risk to engage members actively in worship by sitting small clusters of chairs rather than rows of pews. We tried programs that we thought people would love but nobody showed up to. And we tried programs that we thought nobody would show up to but they loved. The truth is that every one of these decisions could have led to failure (and still could today, or in the future). We could have crashed and burned and we came close many times in the past decade. We did fall down at times, and it was (and is) terrifying. But if we hadn’t taken these risks, if we had kept one hand on the brake, we would have certainly failed. A half-hearted effort would have sputtered and died before it had a chance to really thrive. The greatest gift the Board of Directors gave Pres House was a willingness to invest fully in the effort, to take risks, and really go for it. And it worked.

Picking up Speed

Within ten years of our start-up we had fully recovered the $500,000 that was spent initially out of our endowment. In 2004, we were serving zero students at Pres House. Today we reach more than 700 each year and have served more than 4,000 in the last decade. We increased our annual budget 1,500% from $150,000 to $2.2 million per year and the total value of our organization has grown ten-fold.

Perhaps most importantly, we gained momentum. When you let go of the brakes and start to roll faster you pick up speed and momentum. Participants see what is happening and want to be a part of it. Leaders catch on that they can try new things and that energizes them. Donors get excited and want to give to successful programs. In 2004, donors gave $10,000 per year. After letting go of the brakes we have raised almost $4 million in the past 12 years. The bike is really moving now.

The specifics of my context at Pres House are just that—specific. They may not apply to you or your organization. But the principle does: let go of the brakes. Don’t hold back for fear of failure. Doing so will be a self-fulfilling prophesy and your wobbly bike will fall. Go for it! Commit fully. Trust that God will do great things. And if what you try doesn’t work; if your bike gets out of control and you crash—trust that God remains bigger than that too. We don’t serve a God that wants us to bury our talent in the ground and play it safe. We don’t serve a God that punishes risk taking or failure. We serve a God who is so much bigger than even our grandest ideas or dreams. So let go of the brakes and ride!

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

Look Ahead to Where You Want to Go

This post is the second in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. You can find part one here. Coming soon, Mark will explore the two remaining steps: let go of the brakes and oil your chain.


Look Up!

Your eyes are two of the most important parts of your body when riding a bike. Yes, your legs turn the pedals, and your heart pumps the blood. But your eyes direct where the bike is going to go. When you watch someone learning to ride a bike you will notice they often look down at their pedals or at the front wheel. I know from experience that does not work well!

If you are looking down you will wobble all over the road. To ride forward, you must look forward. In fact, you need to look at the spot you want to go to. If you look at the curb while riding, you will almost certainly hit the curb. If you look directly at the pothole you want to avoid, there is a good chance you will fall right into it. But if you look up the road at the part of the pavement that is clear, that is where you will go. You will go where you are looking.

There are countless good ideas out there, infinite causes worth supporting, endless options for how to spend energy, time, and money. But many of these ideas are side streets on the road. They are distractions from the real direction you are headed.

The same principle applies when building a ministry or organization. The first and most important step to getting somewhere new is to fix your attention on where you want to be. Not on where you are now, not on the obstacles in the path, but you must fix your attention on where you want to be. You will go where you are looking.

Pedaling in Faith

In 2004, I moved with my wife Erica Liu to take a call as co-pastors at Pres House, the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When we arrived, there were zero students, the building was run-down, and there was not enough funding to pay for our salaries and other expenses. But the board of directors knew where they wanted to go. They wanted to relaunch and grow an active, thriving campus ministry to undergraduate and graduate students, build an apartment community on the parking lot, renovate the 75-year-old chapel building, and develop a funding plan to cover the expenses of a comprehensive campus ministry center into the future. They wanted to completely rebuild and reshape Pres House for decades to come. The vision was bold. It was challenging. Perhaps we were naïve as 20-something-year-old seminary graduates, but we fully bought into this vision. We knew where we wanted to go.

So we fixed our eyes up the road. The first thing I did in my new job was put together a desk from a kit and get the phones working. I fixed the toilet with paperclips. I caught the bats that came in through holes in the roof. I made literally millions of decisions about programs, policies, and construction designs in the first few years. But I tried my hardest to not get distracted by the potholes or the side streets that popped up along the way. I kept my eyes focused on where we wanted to go and looked straight towards that vision.

Speaking the Future Into Reality

In all honesty, when Erica and I were interviewing for the position at Pres House, we had very little idea what we getting ourselves into or what we were going to do to carry out the vision of the board. But we knew one thing for sure—we knew it was going to take some time to realize the vision. We asked the board if they would commit to us and the effort for at least 7 years, and we agreed to do the same. We knew that the destination we had in mind was many miles away and that it would take years of pedaling for us to reach it. We took a long view with our eyes fixed on where we were going.

What did that look like practically? It meant that we thought about and described Pres House, not as it was, but as it would be. We talked about Pres House a full-fledged, thriving campus ministry—even before it actually was. We spoke its future into existence. We put aside the cheap newsletters and brochures made in-house on a small printer and started producing professional-quality publications. Why? Because that is where we were going. That is the level of organization we were becoming. We redesigned the website, cleaned up the building, created a new logo, made new signs—all to signal to ourselves and others that Pres House was going somewhere and was going to be something. And we stayed laser-focused on the vision for the future by saying no to more things than we said yes to.

Letting Your “No” Be No

We have had to say no to some great idea at least once in almost every one of the roughly 650 weeks since we started this work in 2004. For the first year of our ministry, we said no to all programing. Instead of organizing activities or hosting events, we made a commitment to spend an entire year learning about what was happening on campus, getting connected with our board and other leaders in the area, and listening to students and their needs. We said no to partnerships that were no longer moving Pres House in the right direction. We even said no to ideas that board members thought we should try right away. This didn’t make everyone happy, but it is a big part of how we got to where we are today. We kept our eyes on the road ahead and stayed focused on where we were going.

There are always more good and important things to be done. Any pastor or nonprofit leader knows this well. There are countless good ideas out there, infinite causes worth supporting, endless options for how to spend energy, time, and money. But many of these ideas are side streets on the road. They are distractions from the real direction you are headed.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road Ahead

You will go where you are looking. Don’t look down at where you are now. That will leave you wobbling along and not getting very far. Instead look up and ahead to where you want to be. Don’t focus on the obstacles in the way. Obstacles will come up, and you’ll have to ride around them or maybe through them. But if you focus on those potholes, you’ll get stuck in them. Look ahead to where you want to be. Don’t take side streets that pull you off course. Say no to the things are not moving you in the right direction.

Look ahead to where you want to be. Then ride there.

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

Ministry: Just Like Riding a Bike (Sort of)

This post is the first in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. Coming soon, Mark will explore the three remaining steps: keep your eyes on the road, let go of the brakes, and oil your chain.


A little more than twelve years ago, I took my first call as Campus Pastor and Executive Director at Pres House, the Presbyterian campus ministry center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. My wife, Erica Liu, joined me as my partner in life and co-pastor at work. We were fresh out of seminary with lots of ideas to preach and programs to run.

But the ministry to which we were called had zero student members. Pres House had been dormant for several years by the time we arrived. It was our calling to rebuild and resurrect what had in the distant past been a thriving campus church. The first thing I did? I built a desk. To be more precise, I ordered a big box from a big box store that came full of pieces of particle board and screws. I spent a couple of days putting all the parts together into a desk. It is the desk I have written hundreds of sermons on over the years, and it is the desk upon which I write these very words. I built this desk, hooked up the internet, invited one student to join us, and we got started.

You will only learn how to balance, pedal, and move forward as you try and fail and pick yourself up and try again.

Fast forward to today. Today, Pres House serves more than 700 students each year. The building is full every day of the week with people experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ, exploring God’s desire for their lives, and being sent out into the world by the Holy Spirit. We built a seven-story, $17 million student apartment community that is home to 240 student residents. Our annual budget has increased by 1500% from $150,000 to more than $2.2 million. Donors have given almost $4 million in the past decade. There has been rebirth here at Pres House.

People often ask me, “How?” and “What did you do to attract students, raise money, build the infrastructure of a thriving ministry?” and so on. The first thing I say is that God has been faithful and has done a miraculous work in and through Pres House for more than 100 years and is continuing to do so today. The second thing I say is that there have been many incredible people who have contributed to the rebirth of Pres House—board members, donors, volunteers, employees, contractors, and of course, students. The third thing I say is, “I don’t know. We just did it, step-by-step, day-by-day, year-by-year. We just did the next thing, and now here we are.”

The Mechanics of Ministry

A few years ago, I taught my daughters to ride their bikes without training wheels. This was very exciting for me (yes me, not just them!). It was also very difficult. You see, I am an amateur bike racer. I ride and race more than 8,000 miles on my bike each year. So while I was super excited to teach my kids to ride, I soon realized that riding a bike is automatic for me. I just do it.

How do you teach someone to ride a bike? It’s harder than it sounds. You just get on and ride, right? But when I was teaching my daughters, I had to break down each step and really think about what goes into riding a bike. How does it work? How do you get from point A to point B?

This feeling of excitement coupled with a loss for words is a lot like the feeling I get when I am asked how we rebuilt Pres House. I am so excited to hear about campus ministries, youth groups, churches, and non-profits undertaking bold moves to rebuild and grow. But how does this happen? Let’s take a step back and think about what goes into this sort of endeavor. How does it work? How do we get from point A to point B?

Moving Forward

It turns out that there are a lot of similarities between rebuilding a ministry or nonprofit and riding a bike. During this four-part series on the story of Pres House, I will be sharing my reflections on how we put our feet to the pedals and started to move forward. Not everything we have learned here at Pres House can be applied everywhere else, but I hope that many ideas will resonate or spark your own thoughts.

In the end, just like learning to ride a bike, there is only so much that can be described or taught. You cannot learn to ride a bike by reading a book (or blog!) or watching a YouTube video. To ride a bike, you have to get on it and go. You will only learn how to balance, pedal, and move forward as you try and fail and pick yourself up and try again. So let’s go for a little ride.

Tips When Learning to Ride a Bike, Start a Ministry, or Rebuild an Organization:

1. Look ahead to where to want to go: Focus your attention on where you want to be. See Next Post!

2. Let go of the brakes: Commit fully. Coming Soon!

3. Pump up your tires and oil your chain: Pay attention to the details that make a big difference. Coming Soon!

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

Preparing Our Youth for the Path

Preparing Our Youth for the Path

We are revisiting some posts from the last year, in case you missed them. This post was originally published on October 13, 2015, and helps us understand our calling as youth leaders to “prepare our youth for the path.”


If one stood at the base of a section of El Capitan, known as the Dawn Wall, in Yosemite National Park and looked up, one would come face-to-face with almost 3,000 feet of sheer granite cliffs. For most people any thought of climbing it would be swallowed up by fear as they stared at an unforgiving cliff face which offered few handholds to the untrained eye. The Dawn Wall was believed to be an impossible free-climb.

But this didn’t stop Tommy Caldwell.

Tommy is considered to be one of the best all-around climbers in the world. For seven years he studied the Dawn Wall and searched for a route which would allow him and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, to accomplish the impossible. After nineteen days of climbing, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top earlier this year in January.

In August I heard Tommy Caldwell speak at TEDxKC. Briefly, he shared with us his world and life as we got a glimpse of what he experienced through his video and stories of the grueling ordeal.

Tommy is routinely asked how he does it. How does he climb routes and often make what would be difficult for almost anyone else look easy? He attributes his success in part to how he was raised by his dad. Tommy said, “You must prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children.” Tommy’s dad started his son climbing at age three and always encouraged him to face whatever challenges the climb brought.

You must prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children.

Tommy’s words stuck with me.

I began to ponder how often I practice the opposite in youth ministry. How often do I prepare the path for the youth who walk through the church doors on Sundays and Wednesdays instead of preparing youth to walk with God through life? Do I attend to both the paths of joy and success and the darker murkier paths of adversity, pain and suffering?

Tommy’s words coalesced with a book I had read recently by New York Times Op-Ed writer and author David Brooks. The book is entitled The Road To Character. It’s one of those books I keep in a short stack on my desk to reread on a regular basis. It’s quality work.

David Brooks wrestles in his book with our society’s emphasis on personal fulfillment in place of character development. He writes, “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.” As Brooks notes throughout the book, the path to character development is often the opposite of what is encouraged in society. Success for its own sake is not the ultimate goal if one hopes to develop a moral character.

Struggle and adversity are important teachers for both David and Tommy. Character takes time to develop. It requires a willingness to focus and wrestle with one’s weaknesses rather than rely on one’s strengths. Spiritual formation—being formed into the image of Christ—requires the same basic necessities.

We “prepare the path for our youth” when we focus on giving our youth personal spiritual fulfillment without encouraging them to see the long arc of discipleship. This is a tempting option, but ultimately fails to develop character in our youth.

Preparing the path for our youth is easy—so long as we are in control of the path. Youth ministry which “prepares our youth for the path,” however, involves much more risk.

Instead of aiming to entertain, we risk seeing fun as a subversive ministry activity to deconstruct stereotypes and testify to the image of God each of us is made in.

Instead of claiming “spiritual growth” is an activity which can be jammed into one or two hours each week, we risk redefining spiritual growth as a lifetime practice. To cultivate a love for God and others, our neighbors, takes time. I don’t know of any other way to learn how to love well. It can’t be developed over night. Tommy spent seven years studying the Dawn Wall before he found the necessary path to succeed.

Instead of offering theologically unsound ideas about God, we risk challenging popular conceptions of God. How often (in the hope of making Jesus attractive) is Jesus advertised as a God who will bring me personal fulfillment, success, and help me change the world? I believe the inverse is true. Instead of asking how Jesus can help me change the world, I need to ask how I can help Jesus change the world. The answer may shock me in its lack of spectacle, its ordinariness, and everyday mundaneness.

Instead of asking how Jesus can help me change the world, I need to ask how I can help Jesus change the world.

Trust is crucial if we are going to create youth ministries which help prepare our youth for the path with God. It’s through trust youth are willing to slow down, to let go of seeking God out of a desire to be personally satisfied, and open up to a God who invites us to so much more.

In the early years of my vocational calling to youth ministry, I used to panic and begin to sweat inside when a parent came into my office and shared with me their child wasn’t always having fun at youth group. Now I see it as an opportunity to teach. To hopefully engage parents and youth alike into a deeper relationship with Jesus. And if this relationship is to grow, it requires the all too often neglected ingredients of sacrifice, struggle, engagement with our weaknesses, and an eagerness to fail as much as we succeed.

 


VopatRev. Seth M. Vopat is a writer and American Baptist ordained member of the clergy who currently works as an associate pastor in the Kansas City area. He is an M.Div. graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and has a certificate in Youth & Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. His Twitter feed is @svopat.

An Important Question to Ask

Last year, I jumped into a youth director position in the middle of the school year. Trying to get to know this group quickly, I asked each of the kids to anonymously send in their answers to these three questions:

What should I be asking you about?
What should we be talking about?
What do you care about?

(I actually adapted these questions from a finance and stewardship class, of all places!)

These questions might sound like a feedback survey, as if trying to meet and service needs. I was attempting to see if I could get an introductory look into who they were, a small first step in getting to know this group. I don’t really know what I expected, it was just a shot in the dark.

One of the responsibilities of ministry to our kids may very well be sitting with them and asking them questions, so that, sitting beside one another, we can together ask questions about God.

When it came to what they cared about, there were a variety of answers, such as “community,” “friendship,” or “praying.” When asked what we should be talking about, they responded with “current events,” “the issues,” and “being a good Christian.” These were all standard answers, and not completely unexpected.

But without exception, all of the students at this youth group—whether they attended the church this group was a part of, or they were locals who came just for activities and programs, or they went somewhere else Sunday morning—every single one responded to the question “What should I be asking you about?” with “my relationship with God.”

I was actually quite surprised by that. I expected answers like “sports,” “relationships,” “families,” or a generic “how I’m doing.” Nope. These students wanted to talk about their relationship with God.

But… My Students Are Different!

By no means does one small sample of high school students determine the experience of all students, but it was indicative of an incredible opportunity. Perhaps this was a manifestation of Moral Therapeutic Deism with a heavy emphasis on the word “my.Regardless, it’s emblematic of the fact that the students God has entrusted us with very much think God could actually be a real actor in the world. Your meeting with them may be a place to share the Gospel in a way they hunger for it.

Students are hungry to know not only about God, but they want to know God. Maybe they want to get to know the God who will get them nice things and make them happy, but this is a place where we can instead tell them about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They may be searching after the God who will get them what they want and make them successful, but we can instead tell them about another way, through discipleship to the One who is remaking the world through the cross and resurrection.

Seeking God Together

Not all students are able to articulate their desires this well, but maybe they just need a place where they are asked about their relationship with God, even if many might not completely understand what the question truly means. One of the responsibilities of ministry to our kids may very well be sitting with them and asking them questions, so that, sitting beside one another, we can together ask questions about God.

Andy Root discourages people from “doing youth ministry” by attempting to “bring kids into the presence of God.”1 Instead, he advises youth ministers to become a “fellow yearner” who is “inviting kids to seek God from the places of their deep questions and open wounds; for the God who moves, and is active, is found bringing life out of barren places.”2

This question of a young person’s relationship with God isn’t the only question a youth minister should ask, nor should it be asked every day—or even every week for that matter—but there are several reasons to specifically ask about their relationship with God.

Safety

You might provide the only safe opportunity for them to talk about their own personal encounter with something so important and divisive. Whether because of pressure from friends, or dynamics at home, or any other number of reasons, young people may not feel comfortable talking about their relationship with God. You might give them the only place where they feel safe to discuss this relationship. Whether in one-on-one over coffee, or in devotional group activities, they might not have any other place to talk about something so important and vulnerable as who they are before God.

Vulnerability

Whether kids have heard the Gospel message, or they understand God as a pathway to happiness and success, listening to and responding to students’ relationship with God takes their experience seriously. We believe in a God who became one of us in Christ who also took our experience seriously, so that we might know who God is, and to what God is inviting us towards.

This is a practice to subvert a culture that despises vulnerability. Brené Brown identifies our “Culture of Scarcity” as one driven by shame, comparison, and disengagement.3 Ours is a culture in which constant paranoia of any semblance of being seen as weak or imperfect compared to others stifles risk-taking, courage, and connection. Being vulnerable about our understanding and experience of God, for both students and leaders, is a way to combat the constant cultural messages of shame and fear. Rather than attempting to be better than the person next to them, to be the most spiritual, or the most put together and “religious,” through vulnerability, kids can have an opportunity to talk about both their struggles with God as well as their joy and passion for God. Even expressing love and joy is a vulnerable act. When we hear what our students are going through and experiencing, we can respond accordingly with a message of God’s love.

Connection

It can be huge for connection. Vulnerability is constructive if handled delicately. When you ask about their relationship with God, you ask a deep question that can invite a deep answer. If a student struggles with pain or evil in the world, or is having a difficult season of life—whatever their questions are, you can empathize and admit to having asked those questions, too. Or if they ask a difficult question you don’t have an answer for, or they are worried about something that might not be as large an issue as they’re making it, this is a chance to accept their vulnerability of their experience of God with respect and compassion and offer wisdom or a show of compassion.

Gospel

It’s a crucial part of living life in response to the Gospel of Christ. In Luke 14:27, Jesus teaches his disciples to carry their cross and follow him to the cross, too. This is an invitation to a way of living, not just thinking or feeling. When theology or ministry becomes concepts and doctrines, we risk faith becoming a mind-thing, or a church-thing, with the rest of life becoming “the real world.” And if the focus is simply on feelings and experience, our understanding of God is not the ministry of God, but instead a gauge of our own happiness. When we ask kids about their experience of God, we can provide a bridge to connect the story of God with our own story, and see where we find ourselves within God’s work in the world. It can be a time and place where we bridge the theology and Scripture with the experience and reflect on where God is at work in the lives of our kids, and how we can respond.

Asking about a young person’s relationship with God is a hugely personal question to ask, which is what makes it important. When we ask how kids are experiencing God, we bear witness to some of the ways God is at work in the world. Whether kids have heard the Gospel message, or they understand God as a pathway to happiness and success, listening to and responding to students’ relationship with God takes their experience seriously. We believe in a God who became one of us in Christ who also took our experience seriously, so that we might know who God is, and to what God is inviting us towards. In Christ God is calling us to take part in the remaking of all things for God’s good purposes, and our youth and their experiences are part of it.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Andrew Root, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 52.

2. Ibid., 53.

3. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 35.

 


ogg

Adam Ogg has his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He loves investigating how theology interacts with the world and informs our faith. Adam is particularly passionate about finding a good coffee shop to read in.