When you think about it, collaboration is how we get things done in youth ministry. We connect with other youth workers for service ideas. We connect with parents to ensure our group events don’t overlap with important sporting events. We meet with church staff for support and prayer. Collaboration is at the heart of much of we do in youth ministry. Yet, sometimes collaboration is the most difficult thing for us. How do we connect without invading, arguing or stepping on toes? Collaboration can be wonderful when we do it correctly; and if we don’t, sparks fly. Territory feels invaded. Walls are built. Collaboration is an essential skill to get right. It’s important.
So, we’ve gathered a group of youth workers to talk about their ideas for connecting with others in ministry. These people and their amazing ideas will help us dig more deeply into the joys and pitfalls of meeting and connecting with others.
Sara Bailey has been in youth ministry since 1993, serving Episcopal churches. She has been a part of the Ministry Architects team since 2006. She currently spends her time working for Ministry Architects as a lead consultant and search manager, as well as volunteering and being a mom. Butterflies are a significant symbol of her faith journey today. In fact, if you were to visit her home, you’ll find them everywhere. Sara lives in Louisville, Ky., with her husband Geoff, their daughter, Madison, and their dog, Sorcha.
Andrew Larsen has been in full-time youth ministry for the past 11 years and currently is in his fifth year as the director of student ministries at Faith Community Church in Seminole, Florida. He and his wife, Melissa, met as teenagers working at church camp. They now have three preschool-aged boys. Andrew spends a lot of time worrying about the Tampa Bay Rays’ offensive struggles and writing curriculum with his friend Tim for DownloadYouthMinistry.com.
Nate Sams has 10 years of student ministries experience from camp ministry to full-time pastoring junior and senior high students in inner city Phoenix, as well as rural Ohio. He currently is the high school director at Mountain View Church in Arizona. He met his wife, Liz, on a mission trip in Vienna, Austria, and they have three children, ages 2 to 6. He is an adrenaline junkie who loves to do anything crazy fun, as well as graphic design for DownloadYouthMinistry.com, all while eating a delicious slice of French toast with peanut butter and syrup.
Caroline Wood has been in full-time ministry for 27 years, with 18 years experience in youth ministry. She serves at the associate director of discipleship ministry and Mission Pathways for the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. She and her husband, Gary, have three children, three grandchildren, two dogs and two cats.
YWJ: Describe an event or moment when you collaborated with another youth worker, staff member or ministry, and the whole thing went horribly wrong. What did you learn?
Caroline: When I first began working with multiple churches to put on youth events for the conference, I didn’t take the time to learn the traditions and sacred cows in those events. I instituted changes that cut deep for those who had been around a while. They had sweat equity and passion invested. While I was looking for a way to improve things, I overlooked their investments. This proved to drive a wedge in the ministry and relationships. Learning from this, I have found that it is invaluable to begin with relationships, history and stories before diving into the work of ministry collaboration.
Nate: When I first started in youth ministry I was approached with an idea of a benefit concert for Invisible Children Organization. It seemed to be a good idea, so I collaborated with a woman who had the task of putting the bands together, while I oversaw the advertising. Plus, they would be using our youth facility. I made the mistake of not researching the bands and putting complete trust in the woman. The night of the concert, the final band started dropping the F-bomb, and the lead singer kicked over one of our monitor speakers. I pulled the plug—pretty sure they flipped us off and walked off stage. I learned that doing your homework with bands and companies is a good thing.
Andrew: I spent a few years at a good-sized church outside Ft. Worth when I was in seminary. One summer, the family pastor had this idea of canceling all the individual ministry summer programming and getting together with all the family ministries in a park every couple of weeks. He never had been in Texas during the summer. It turned out that no one wanted to be in a bounce house when it was 110 degrees. Instead of bringing our ministries together, the whole thing turned into infighting about who had to set up, who had to tear down, and what exactly we could force the interns to do. The kids and youth ministries lost key volunteers who didn’t agree with the vision, and a lot of fingers were pointed at staff meeting. No fun.
Sara: One of my buddies in youth ministry worked across the street from me at another church. For two years, he invited our youth ministry to collaborate in a middle school service week with them. It was a long-established program at their church, and we worked well together. Our gifts complemented each other, and I was grateful that our youth got to benefit from the experience. The third year, my friend was transitioning out of his position at that church; I worked with his successor, who was also easy to plan with, to implement the service week. While it was a successful week, I offended the new youth pastor with my ego getting in the way. I felt as if I were the one in charge, though the event was at the other church. I made some pretty quick decisions on my own. Needless to say, the invitation to participate the next year was not extended to us.
YWJ: Sometimes the best thing we can do to help our youth ministries is joining with other youth ministries for events, service projects, etc. What are the benefits of collaborating with other youth ministries in your city?
Andrew: Collaboration is always nice on the budget, and it’s a great way to get enough people together for a better group rate or to rent a space and make the event feel more private instead of bringing your students to a crowded venue. Partnering with another ministry exposes your students to other Christian students and other adults who can influence them and speak wisdom and truth into their lives.
Sara: I totally agree with the points Andrew makes and would add two more. Some churches can offer different facilities such as a gym, which the church I worked for didn’t have. In the middle school service week experience that I just shared, we knew the youth from both churches went to school together and often went to each other’s youth programs. So it was a great way for the youth to see that although they were in different denominations, the bottom line was that we were all Christians working together to better God’s world.
Nate: The benefits of collaborating definitely outweigh the negatives, and when you can pull a ton of different resources together, it tends to make for a bigger, better and more rewarding event or project. For me, however, the biggest benefit was Sara’s point that breaking down the denominational walls and realizing we all have the same goal in mind: to help teens see Christ and live for Christ. Every year I was in Ohio, one of the most successful events I was a part of was baccalaureate (an event specifically for graduating seniors and their families). The youth pastoral team was comprised of Baptist, Methodist, Nazarene, non-denominational and vineyard pastors. We always did events together because we put aside minor argumentative beliefs for what really mattered—Christ.
Caroline: I resonate completely with Andrew, Nate and Sara. What we can do together is so much more than we can do solo. The greatest benefit is showing youth how we all can have a seat at the table. Working together with others across denominational lines allows us to put aside differences that drive us apart and instead find common ground to bring us together.
YWJ: How do our own personality styles help or hurt collaborative relationships? What do we need to do to get over ourselves?
Caroline: Partnering in ministry can be a beautiful example of the body of Christ. When we live into our gifts and graces together, while appreciating the different gifts of others, we can accomplish so much more than alone. It’s when we let our own personalities to dominate that we get in trouble. Learning to staff to weakness is one of the greatest lessons when collaborating, meaning: Know your limitations and let others who have those qualities as strengths lead in those areas.
Andrew: I think partnering with people who have different personalities than ours helps us reach people we otherwise would not be able to reach. I have seen firsthand how I gain credibility with students by strategically partnering with people who seem very different from me. Not to sound trite, but the easiest way to get over ourselves is by realizing it is not about us. When my aim is to see students as disciples of Christ instead of disciples of me or my ministry, I do not care if someone else’s personality is different than mine.
Sara: I am so type A that I need types B, C and D in my life. I’ve learned to own my gifts, as well as my shortcomings. Andrew is right on target when he says, it’s not about ourselves but about us as the body of Christ. We all have something to bring to the table in collaboration.
Nate: You definitely need all types of personality styles and backgrounds to collaborate well so you don’t miss any important pieces, meaning there’s a lot I see and understand, as well as a lot I don’t notice or see. We need people around us who can help us with our blind spots and come up with the best plan of action. Also for me, I’m a very dominant, outgoing personality; so, that can come across as arrogance. I’ve had to learn how to respond to people I collaborate with and how to give them support instead of expecting everyone to fall in line behind me and support me. I think we definitely need to walk into any collaborative ministry role with the understanding that we are all humans who make mistakes rather than trying to have all the answers, though we are striving to give and do our best. When we have that mindset, we really have a desire for loving our fellow brothers and sisters as Christ loves us.
YWJ: Give us your top three tips for collaborating with other youth workers or ministries. What do we need to remember?
Nate: The huge one for me definitely is to come prepared. It’s hard to have a planning meeting when someone hasn’t taken the time to consider the event or project. It shows lack of value. Have ideas already brewing in your mind, but realize your ideas don’t have to be the ones that are chosen and used. Don’t assume your idea is the only idea. Humility goes a long way.
Also, don’t hold every event at your church. It’s OK to take your group to another church sometimes. I think we become insecure and assume we are going to lose our students if they go to another church for a collaborated event. Plus, it’s good for teens to be challenged outside their bubbles.
Pray about whom to collaborate with, because not every church or youth leader will mesh with you and your ministry. I’ve had experiences with youth leaders who totally dropped the ball—as if I were in high school doing a team project and got stuck doing it myself at the last minute. Pray about those churches too, and research what they believe. Who knows? They could be completely insane, and you want to save yourself from having a talk with your church leadership afterward.
Sara: Plan way in advance. It’s hard enough to get your own volunteers together for a planning meeting and more difficult to gather volunteers from two (or more) churches together to plan. The earlier you begin, the better.
Be monkey mangers. Have you ever been to a committee meeting where lots of great ideas are shared and everyone is pumped up about them…then nothing happens? In Ministry Architects, we help teams work better together by teaching them to manager their monkeys—the task or next step that will move things forward. So often, a decision will be made during a meeting, but no one claims the responsibility for the next step to move on that decision. A great tool to have at the end of each meeting is a monkey list, including who’s assigned to each monkey. A stuffed monkey on your desk also serves as a reminder!
Communicate, communicate and communicate some more. I also suggest a weekly check-in regardless of whether there’s much to cover. It helps build a trusting relationship.
Andrew: Just because you did it once doesn’t mean you have to do it again. Don’t feel as if you need to add something to your calendar every year just because you did it once (or a dozen times).
It doesn’t need to be about you. Let the other youth pastor have the mic. If your goal in doing an event with other ministries is for more kids to hear you speak, you probably won’t have many groups wanting to partner with you. Set the other guy up to be the hero, especially if you are hosting.
Do your part. Make sure no one has to track you down to get payment for your part. Make sure your students don’t leave a mess at someone else’s church. Make sure you don’t use the event as an opportunity to slack off.
Caroline: Do not make assumptions. Do not assume that just because something needs to be done, someone will pick it up and make it happen. Be specific about who does what by the target date.
Set expectations and limitations at the beginning of collaboration. Make sure everyone is aware of the time commitment to the task/collaboration. Make sure you express your limitations of time and ability to contribute to the group. This will reduce conflict!
Make it safe for others to share their leadings and opinions. You never know when the Holy Spirit is going to show up to speak. The best thing is to listen to all ideas and choose the best for the goal of the group, not just the best for you.
YWJ: What interpersonal strategies help when we work in a multi-staff church? In other words, what are the best ways to play nicely together?
Andrew: Clearly expressing expectations is the place to start. When everyone knows what is expected of them and everyone else, everyone starts on the same page. The question, What can I do to help? is the best way to earn relational capital with coworkers, but it may lead to helping with VBS.
Nate: It can be hard sometimes to play nicely together when communication isn’t clear. When we know we’re all expected to perform but don’t know what are our boundaries and structured plans are, it won’t go well. Make expectations clear of and for everyone, as well as the hierarchy of who’s in charge of what. Also, make sure everyone understands that although someone is gifted (e.g., to work with children), he or she will need help from time to time. Taking time to serve them and allow them to succeed is vital. We need to help support and encourage one another.
Another example inside of a church is to show you like each other. We started a few months back giving high fives and fist bumps every time we saw each other on Sunday mornings and telling each other the wins. It helped a lot.
Sara: I work to be aware of when someone else’s gifts or leadership will serve better than mine and strive to have the humility to step aside to allow that to happen.
Also, play together. Seriously. One rector I worked for made the decision to close the church office for an afternoon and all the staff, including the administrator and bookkeeper, went bowling. We had a blast! That broke down so many walls. I highly recommend it.Caroline: Relationships are key. Once a relationship is established, it’s easier to assume the best, work together and address conflict if necessary. Be interested in those God puts in your path; learn their stories.
YWJ: What do you think prevents more church staffs from working together more cohesively?
Andrew: I think there is a trickledown effect. When staff members see senior leadership only concerned with their spheres of ministry, it is easy to follow suit. When a church culture promotes working together for common goals, it makes it easier for the staff to do the same.
Nate: Two things: The first is that the church doesn’t really have a value of casting the overall vision. When vision isn’t cast, then every ministry leader develops his or her own vision for his or her own ministry, which really creates a silo effect. We are called to be a community that is of one cohesive vision that creates synergy.
The second is that most churches are understaffed or under-volunteered, so leaders are exhausted with their own roles and don’t have time to help or collaborate with other leaders/ministries.
Caroline: Siloed ministry and territorialism can cause division quickly, as well as broken communication. In order to combat this, it’s important to invite others into collaboration and welcome input.
Sara: This touches on the silo ministries we often see in multi-staff churches. For years, churches have hired age-specific staff to meet the needs of the different demographics in their congregations. An unintentional result has been the separation of families—there’s the children’s ministry, youth ministry, adult ministry—with each ministry focused on its own programs and not looking at the overall mission of the church. More and more, we’re seeing staff work together, building on each other’s ministries to form disciples. A cohesive plan makes sense. This way the youth staff knows what the sixth graders have learned and experienced in the children’s ministry when these sixth graders enter the youth ministry. They know right where to pick up and grow on that.