My personality is the type that’s always looking ahead. I have vision documents with goals and objectives from four years ago with projections that are almost on the money today. I think it’s just how I’m wired. But I gotta tell ya…there are some things that I just didn’t see coming with growth of our ministry.

Behavioral Challenges are Relentless

For two or three years while we were growing it seemed like the primary topic of conversation at our leaders’ meetings was behavior management. Small group leaders were always asking how to deal with rowdy kids, how to get kids to stop talking off subject, how to get them to engage in the group’s discussion, and so on. There’s always been a tension between the desire to not be a rules-dominated ministry and the unavoidable need for having clear rules. Gradually, we’ve come (or perhaps we’re still coming) to agree on some pretty clear rules but the enforcement of them is always the tricky part.

Most recently, because we’re growing larger, we’re becoming somewhat attractional and are drawing community kids who really have no connection to our kids or small groups. The problem is that they just kind of wander around sometimes. So now we’re having to decide what our philosophy will be here. Do we let them hang out in our indoor courtyard without any expectation of joining the large group, or a small group–perhaps even recruit a volunteer for casual/relational courtyard ministry? Or, do we give them clear options for participation and ask them to leave and not return if they choose to not participate with the rest of the kids? Do we allow ourselves to maintain a loose environment with a come-in-if-you-want approach? Or, do we maintain a fairly controlled environment with clear expectations of participation, thus raising the bar and protecting the integrity of genuine Christian community?

I wish I had more readers. I’d really love to hear your thoughts.

Intense Crises are Far More Frequent

While in a smaller church (~150) & youth ministry (~30-50) most of my pastoral care was given to break-ups, arguments with parents, friendship problems and sports injuries. Some of the more serious issues would have been depression, lust & porn, or a death in the family. On a few occasions over the 9 years there I had to respond to a couple of suicides and deaths in the school, a child abuse case, and a matter of sexual misconduct.

Now, it seems like everything I named above happens each month in our ministry with the really serious matters happening at least once, sometimes twice, per quarter. It can be emotionally exhausting. One obvious thing that I’ve had to release is the idea that I  can, or even need to, respond to every crisis of which I’m aware. However, here are two things I didn’t see coming with change.

1) The emotional guilt. When I choose to not respond to a crisis (even when I inform others and ask someone from our ministry like a small group leader or an intern to respond), I experience a serious amount of guilt, self-doubt, and self-condemning ridicule. I tell myself I’m not being a good youth pastor. I project the voice of the parent as one being saddened by my lack of response. I imagine the critique of youth ministry peers in other churches for my giving into the devil’s schemes with big-church-program-driven-poor-excuses-of-christian-community models of youth ministry!

But I just have to remind myself that it can be no other way. This is how it has to be in our context. My duty is to follow what I believe is God’s call on my life to lead our ministry in the way that I/we feel the Spirit is leading.

2) An eventual philosophical choice. A decision would have to be made regarding the role that a pastor plays in the provision of care. Our other pastors have to make this change as well. It seems like we’re on the verge of having to decide that the pastoral response is limited to only the most extreme cases (particularly those with legal ramifications) while most other responses come from small group leaders, ministry team leads, or interns.

I suppose this seems to be more in line with the biblical model but it also seems really cold.

Plus! This adds another layer of responsibility to the pastoral role…training others on how to respond to crises…which is very difficult to do. There are so many subtleties and nuances in providing care in the midst of crisis. It takes a huge amount of energy and clarity to train others on what comes natural to me.

Well…deep breath….long sigh….May God provide what is needed to accomplish what He is calling us to do.

High-Capacity, Leaders of Leaders are Vital … and Rare

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that a growing ministry needs a new layer of lay leaders. It’s not enough to just have a whole bunch of small group leaders and teachers, an office assistant, and a guitar player to lead some songs. We need leaders of leaders who can support clusters of small group leaders, team leads who can manage a whole slew of logistics, and worship leaders who can lead a fully engaging experience of worship with teens. We’re not just talking about “volunteers” anymore. But neither are we talking about hiring staff.

Large ministries by nature crave high-capacity lay leaders. People who are responding to the call of God with an unquenchable passion, unrelenting commitment, and a God-given giftedness to lead people with no expectation of a paycheck.

Joel Stockstill*, the Baton Rouge based Bethany World Prayer Center Youth Pastor of 7,000 teens, calls these people “trees.” Using the Garden of Eden as an analogy, he points out the differences between three levels of lay people in ministry. Some he calls “grass”, others he calls “shrubs and bushes”, and others still, the high-capacity ones, he calls “trees.” Volunteers who are grass will always be grass–low to the ground, useful for some things in the kingdom, nice to look at, and good for the Church. But in the spiritual battles of real ministry, they’re easy to walk on. The shrubs and bushes, on the other hand, are lay ministers who have potential to bear fruit in ministry. They lead people to Christ, they disciple others into maturity, they are meaningfully engaged in growing the Kingdom. Yet, they are still shrubs, bearing only small fruit–berries, flowers, etc. “Trees” have the capacity to bear large and heavy fruit–bananas, coconuts, etc.–and lots of them over and over. These are the leaders of leaders. These are the high-capacity people who can lead others as they lead people to Christ. These are the people who can teach, give wisdom & direction, make decisions, and provide spiritual guidance to teams of lay leaders ministers.

Without the “shrubs and bushes,” small ministries will not grow larger. And, without large fruit-bearing “trees,” large ministries will not grow larger.

That’s where we are…I think we have some pretty good fruit-bearing shrubs and bushes that have served well in our ministry. We’ve also had a lot of grass, too. But now it’s time to find those trees who are ready to rise above the bushes. It’s time nurture them to maturity and release them into leadership as team leads. They’re hard to find and the search will require a lot of patience. But that is my call for the next stage of growth. I always thought these people would be hired as staff. But, instead, it’ll be lay people and their teams who minister to our students in the next phase of growth.


* This reference to Joel Stockstill, in no way, communicates any endorsement of theology or hermeneutics. It simply references a great insight into what is needed to lead a large ministry.

Author: Jim Murphy

Associate Pastor | NextGen Ministries Covenant Church, Bemidji, MN

One Reply to “Growth Changes Everything (Part 3): What I Didn’t See Coming”

  1. jim,

    it was great meeting you at midwinter and i have really enjoyed your blog. you will have a solid book here in no time. in the section about behavior issues, i thought i would share my thoughts to get the ball rolling 🙂

    the growth you are experiencing and the attractional model you are leaning into will of course have this sort of awkward growing edges. it seems that every youth ministry handles these challenges differently. for some reason we think that by making our expectations clear we will lose kids.

    but i think the opposite is true. when we let “fringe” kids come and go as they please because we don’t want to force them into anything, we actually end up creating an environment that is less safe. what you do best is create an environment where students feel loved and cared for and where they can explore faith. i think you should require these fringe kids to join in small groups and find easy on ramps for them to participate. if your weekly small groups are closed then your group will be divided.

    you are a savage youth pastor and i am sure you have already figured most of it out, but thanks for challenging us / me with your writing and for striving to do excellent ministry.

    rock on!


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