Visualizing Ministry (with Special Reference to Student Ministry)

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I’m a youth pastor in Memphis, TN. It’s a job I love and want to do super-well. I’m in charge of pastoring and leading students at one of the absolutely most important stages of life.

We get the kids in 6th-grade and ship them off when they are leaving for college. A ton of change happens in this stage of life. When the boys come to us, they still love playing with toy guns. When they graduate they can legally buy real guns. When the girls come to us, they still kind of like playing with baby dolls. When they graduate they can legally get married and have real babies.

Youth ministry matters.

And, like any endeavor that’s a) incredibly important, and b) incredibly hard, I find myself getting off track around a lot.

To keep centered, I try and come back to the essentials on a weekly basis and track my progress. Sometimes, this is encouraging. Sometimes, not so much.

We have a lot of ways of keeping on track, but for me the most valuable has been this little graph I made. It’s pretty comprehensive for most ministry work, because it gets at the relational, personal, and programmatic dimensions of pastoring.

Here’s the generic version that will be relevant to most pastors:

Excellence in Ministry, Graph 1

Pretty simple. Not that revolutionary. But it is helpful. And the truth is that we often need to be reminded more than we need to be taught.

If you get the graph, you can stop now. But if you’re hungry for more, I’ll explain below.

Investing & Deploying / Relationships & Excellence: The two axes (which, the dictionary tells me, is the plural of axis, though it looks odd in print) are

a) excellence & relationships

and

b) investing & deploying.

The poles of the axes aren’t in fierce opposition to each other. There’s not a bad end to the x or y axis. But you often can’t do both at the same time. And focusing on one end or the other exclusively will probably lead to problems.

Because I think most people will be familiar with the relationships & excellence balance (introverts and extroverts will naturally be pulled in differing directions along that axis), so I’ll talk a bit more about the investing and deploying axis, which often gets neglected.

Investing: Like planting seeds or dropping money in the stock market, investing is never absolutely certain payoff. There will be personal study & prayer time that never really sees the light of day. (In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 6:6 it often shouldn’t see the light of day!) Likewise, relationships often don’t pay off in any tangible way. People you’ll disciple won’t necessarily turn into superstar leaders. Kids you spend extra time on may well flake out and fall away. People you pour into may just expect more and more investment.

But if you never take a risk on stocks you can’t see dividends. (I still kick myself for not buying Marvel Comics stock before Iron Man came out.)

Most pastors get this, but we also forget this.

We all know that we need time to take with the Father like Jesus did, in order to see Jesus-like results in our lives. But then we skip on prayer time to answer emails first thing in the morning.

We all know that Jesus invested in people. We know that Jesus said to make disciples of all nations and then mostly hung out with 12 guys. But then we forget to bring new people into homes for dinner, and instead just go home and crash.

Some of us, though, especially the more spiritual- and relationally-wired among us, don’t forget to invest. For those guys, the more challenging turn is turning around and effectively deploying our investments into the wider life of the church.

Deploying: If we’ve got investment down pat, if we’re natural “developers,” then learning how to consistently ship is the next challenge. This means taking our insights from God and our connections with people and pushing it out for the benefit of the kingdom.

Jesus spent a lot of time alone with the Father. Then he went and preached excellent sermons (Luke 6).

Jesus hung out with 12 guys a lot. Then he made them go out and do stuff (Matthew 10).

Relationally this means a lot of loose undirected time with people, then some harder challenges, directing them toward doing real, kingdom work.

Programmatically this means making the turn from having a sense of security and comfort with the Father, and figuring out how to minister in often difficult and uncomfortable circumstances. This isn’t always easy. It involves an ability to know, on the one hand, that your relationship with God is rock solid, but that your ability to bring others along for the journey is contingent and uncertain.

Natural developers (people who are comfortable in the world of investment) often have a harder time making the shift to the rough-and-tumble world of administration, organization, and measurements of success. (For Myers-Briggs folks, these are likely to be strong NFs.)

The danger for natural deliverers (people who are comfortable in the world of deploying) is likely to be living in the world of programs and recruitment without giving time to personal development. (Again, for Myers-Briggs people, think TJs)

If you aren’t certain which one you are, here’s a simple question: Which is easier for you, counseling someone on a difficult personal problem, or asking someone to do a difficult task?

But anyway, the point of all this is we have to do all four things, no matter what our preference is.

In student ministry, this means balancing time with God and time thinking about permission slips. This means spending time just hanging out and then making the turn and challenging students, parents, and leaders to step up.

Here’s my (very similar) graph applied to student ministries:

Excellence in Student Ministries, Graph 2

Again, not revolutionary, but a good reminder. Ministry isn’t rocket science. It’s basically farming.

Investing is planting and watering. Deploying is harvesting and feeding others.

Till, plant, water, harvest, eat, repeat.

It’s easy to get, but easy to forget.

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Philip Tallon is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, where he is the chair of the Department of Apologetics, and a faculty member of the Honors College. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil:Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy and co-editor of The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes (with David Baggett). He also has a new book coming out from Seedbed, The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. You can find him on Twitter: @philiptallon.

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