A 2000 voice virtual choir.

At a mutual friend’s insistence, I met Thom at the airport last week. We each had a full day of meetings and I was catching him before he flew home. We had a lot in common, and we’ve became fast friends.

Before meeting he asked me to listen to this TED talk about a 2000 voice virtual choir. Let me encourage you to listen to it as well. Put on your earphones and sit back to enjoy this 15 minute talk by composer Eric Whitacre.

Spoiler alert! I took several takeaways from that video, but I’ll only mention two.

1. You can accomplish something incredibly impactful, even from a distance. A woman was told by her husband that she didn’t have the voice for it. But she still found something within to push her to participate. Ephesians 2:10 comes to mind. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” ESV

I know that many don’t like the thought of doing distance ministry. But I wonder how many who might respond to the Gospel, if we would take a step toward initiating with a potential leader on a campus we probably wouldn’t visit.

2. When we put out a call for others to join our efforts, we have no idea what God has done already to prepare them for that moment, nor the impact He intends. Whitacre said, “I just couldn’t believe the poetry of all of it—these souls all on their own desert island, sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.” If a woman in the Alaskan bush would seek to be a part, no distance is too insurmountable.

We might think that the only real ministry is done face to face, but Whitacre said, “People seemed to be experiencing an actual connection…There are people now online that are friends; they’ve never met.” You can have a significant impact with people you’ve never met.

If you want to learn more about distance coaching, here are a couple of beginning tips.

I’ll stop there. But don’t forget to listen to the virtual choir. For you intrigued by the project, there are other videos on the YouTube page highlighting other Virtual Choir projects, including Virtual Choir 4, “Fly to Paradise,” contains 8,409 videos from 5,905 people from 101 different countries.

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Ministry even on snow days.

My brother and sister-in-law left Friday morning from Florida for their home in Pennsylvania. He texted me last night to say he always wanted to see the Blue Ridge Parkway. They drove lots of miles out of the way yesterday to see it. But he said, “I could barely see the car in front of me because the mountain was fogged in, rain and ice. Lucky me! They should rename it Black and Blue Parkway!”

Many of you have had some snow days this year. Does ministry stop on those days? I was going through my archives and came across a tip that a friend, John Mitchell, did several years ago on coaching when the weather doesn’t cooperate. He is now teaching high school science, but at the time coached campuses across New England, mostly when face-to-face ministry was not possible. Here’s what John said:

Distance Ministry Training in Evangelism and Discipleship even works on snow days!

Can you do effective evangelism and discipleship training on a snowbound day while sitting by the fireplace with a hot chocolate?

As I write this, I am sitting on the couch next to my son while he watches Thomas the Tank Engine.  His preschool was cancelled today because of snow and freezing rain.  So I can confidently answer the above question with a definite yes!  When we use distance principles to coach student leaders, we are able to increase both our flexibility and efficiency.

Over the past several years, I have come to appreciate the ease of getting a hold of many students and the more relaxed pace of some students on snow days.  However, distance coaching in evangelism and discipleship works any time of year, whatever the forecast.  Distance coaching is just like face-to-face ministry.  It is just that you are meeting together over the phone instead (or video call if you prefer).

When selecting student leaders to distance coach, 2 Timothy 2:2 offers great insight: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”  This means that the best student leaders for me to coach are reliable.  They return e-mails and/or phone calls and notify me when they can’t keep an appointment.  They are teachable and have the ability to build into others with some training.

There are some things I can do easily over the phone and other things that I do when I am with them face-to-face.

Phone appointments
After selecting a student leader, I try to use my phone appointments to focus on training in evangelism and discipleship.  I typically call them every week or two.  When I call, I take a few minutes to find out how they are and what’s going on in the ministry. Then I take around 15-20 minutes for training, 5-10 minutes for coaching related to ministry activities, and I close our appointments by praying for them and the ministry.

…I usually develop a personalized discipleship plan with the students I mentor each semester.  Each time we meet, we are either discussing a topic related to evangelism or apologetics, how to disciple or build into other students, or how they can personally grow in their walk with God.

It helps to send reminder e-mails about two or three days before my appointments with a link to an article that relates to our topic or a relevant attachment.  This helps both of us take the appointment seriously and we each benefit from these training articles and related discussions.  At times both students and I have practiced sharing the Knowing God Personally booklet to one another over the phone.  Even though this can seem awkward at first, once you have done this a few times, it becomes quite natural.

Campus visits
Each semester I seek to visit the large group meetings at the campuses I coach twice. Campus visits are the perfect time to actually do evangelism with the student leaders you mentor, so it is good to plan for your visit in advance.  (Make sure they have you scheduled to speak, have them set up a table on campus or other outreach, bring Soularium or Perspectives cards with you, set up a special meeting with student leaders for lunch or dinner etc.).  Campus visits like this provide us with a great opportunity to provide training to the ministry as a whole and connect with the whole student leadership team.

During one of my campus visits each semester, I emphasize evangelism and in the other visit the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Usually when I visit a large group meeting on campus I speak on one of these two topics.  Since I can’t go sharing with a student leader while talking on the phone with them, visiting their campus provides me with a great opportunity to do this.  Last fall I used the Soularium and Knowing God Personally booklets while meeting with my student leaders and this semester I also expect to use Perspectives cards with them during visits.

While doing distance ministry, I have noticed that some students and campuses grow quickly and effectively implement coaching and training. However, other students and campuses have struggled more or can be difficult to coach.  This is similar to my experience when I was focused on one campus.  Don’t be surprised if you experience a variety of fruitfulness from your distance ministry endeavors.  Even as you experience some disappointments, I expect that you will receive the rewards of seeing God answering your prayers as He builds new movements on your campus and on other campuses where you didn’t believe it was possible.

John knew that selection of his leaders is key no matter how near or far away that leader is.  And then beyond that, he has a plan for those he coaches.  He is intentional about what he does on the phone and when he visits the campus.  But the biggest benefit in his coaching from a distance is how the leader realizes the importance of what they are doing in seeing God’s Kingdom grow on their campus or in their community.

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“Can I get in on this?”

Several years ago, I was coaching, Brian, a pastor in Canton, in upstate New York. He had students in his congregation from two campuses in town. As time went on, he began to spend more time at SUNY Canton and enjoyed getting more opportunities to minister there.

One day, I received a call from Sean. He introduced himself as a pastor of a sister church in Potsdam, 30 miles away, where there were also two colleges. He said that he had heard about the kinds of input I’d given Brian, and then he asked, “Can I get in on what your are doing with Brian?”

What we offer students, volunteers, and faculty, is incredibly valuable. The ministry training, the personal development, and the model of living missionally that we offer is something that many long to experience. When given the opportunity, I believe that many on campuses where we are not currently working wish they could “get in on what we are doing”.

I can imagine that many of those we are currently working with know friends on other campuses. Why not make a point of asking those who have benefited most from your discipleship and training if they know someone on a campus where we don’t have a ministry?

Just think. What if just one person on each of our current campuses would identify a friend on another campus who longs to live for Christ and make a difference for Him? And what if someone on your team decided to call them and walk through the Key Volunteer Challenge and they accepted? And what if they decided to call them each week with some simple steps for finding other Christian friends and together launch a movement?

Just think how many new movements we could launch before the end of the year. Just think how many others could be exposed to the Gospel? And just think how many others could see something of the purpose God has for them. Just by being intentional about asking about friends. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

In my case, it turned out that Sean actually saw more students take steps to make a difference for Christ at SUNY Potsdam than Brian had seen. It was a case of Henry Blackaby’s principle in Experiencing God, finding where God was at work and joining in by providing some simple coaching.

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Articulating vision.

Good Monday Morning,

A fellow elder in our church recently gave me a copy of a book he has been recommending: ReLaunch: How to Stage an Organizational Comeback by Dr. Mark Rutland. He engineered three significant relaunches in his career, a large church and two Christian colleges.

I found the chapter on “Communicating a Vision” particularly apropos for us. Here are a few of his thoughts:

  • “…real vision casting changes the way people think, see, and feel.” P. 87
  • “That kind of vision and leadership isn’t simply something that you’re born with or not born with. You have it in you; the key is letting it out. Many leaders are afraid to let their visions radiate. They’re afraid of disappointment later.” Pp. 87,88
  •  “Even the most convincing visionaries don’t convince everybody, though. Some people just aren’t going to make the trip with you. That’s okay. The sooner they get off the bus, the better.” P. 90
  • “Speak the vision with enthusiasm and vitality every time, as if it’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever said. If you show the slightest boredom with your own message, that boredom will be more contagious that the Ebola virus.” P. 99

You may not be in a relaunch. But we are all a month into second semester, or just starting after an intersession. We may think that our students and volunteers are still keenly aware of the vision we laid out at the beginning of the year. I can assure you that that is not the case. They may only be seeing the schedule, the meetings, the time involved, etc. But do they see how your strategies and various responsibilities contribute to seeing the vision realized?

If you need help articulating your vision, here are some resources that might help.

And this is bonus! If you are done, you can check out here. But I found this interesting:

“In fascinating slow motion photography, Dr. Mike Wheatland, a professor at the University of Sydney, specializing in solar astrophysics, demonstrated the quite surprising movement of a suspended slinky. Holding the slinky at the top, he let it hang straight down, unfurled as it were. He then let go. The slow motion photography proved that for a time (brief though it was) the bottom did not fall. The slinky collapsed down. The sections at the top began to contract while the bottom stayed where it was.

“This was caused, he explained, because the information that the slinky was no longer held in place of the top took some period of time to reach the bottom. In fact, by the time that information did reach the bottom it was distorted. The very top sections of the slinky contracted straight down, but those nearer the bottom began to twist. The implications for leadership are huge. Leadership is communication…

“When it comes to articulating a vision, you cannot get bored with the sound of your own voice; it doesn’t matter that you’ve said it a thousand times. That doesn’t mean your audience has heard it—really heard it—a thousand times. The vision gets fractured, scattered, and twisted as it goes down through the ranks.” Pp. 97-99.

Let us continue to share our vision of launching and building movements everywhere so that everyone knows someone who truly follows Jesus.

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Ministry as microcosm or ecosystem?

Today’s tip will challenge your thinking. It came about because of a collaboration call last week between high school staff and college LMDs.

During the call, Josh Chen, who serves both on the City Millennials Team in Portland and as LMD for the Western Washington and Western Oregon Cohort, talked about the difference between ministries as microcosms or ecosystems. I asked him if he would elaborate. Here is what he sent me.

Microcosm or Ecosystem

“One of my frustrations in leading the City team was that I felt like our strategies across the city were disjointed. There was no cohesion between the high school strategy, collegiate strategy, the city strategy, and even beyond that, the other churches and ministries in our area. This type of silo-ing is inefficient, what we need is a bridge that can span all the strategies. So this fall, we rolled out a strategic plan that is designed to help staff and volunteers think of their ministry more like an ecosystem than a microcosm. The ecosystem in our case is Cohort 20. On the city side, we have done quite a bit of research on what it will take for students to live out their faith after college, and that’s our goal isn’t it? To reach and develop students to live a life of faith? What we realized is that some of our collegiate strategies were inadvertently keeping them from thriving after they graduated.

“An example of this is that we teach students to find community, in fact we try to create such a great community, that it attracts other students. Well that type of community requires effort and intentionality, maybe even vision and direction. But what we do is we spoon-feed it to college students. After they graduate, a great majority of them find themselves having a hard time finding community. In essence we’ve taught them to be consumers of community and not contributors. So we need to rethink how we develop our middle school, high school and college ministries to prepare people not to find community, but to be able to create spaces of belonging wherever they go. Along those lines, we train students how to reach other students, yet most of our strategies will never be utilized in a work place environment. Even our best leaders in our movement won’t pull out a KGP or Soularium as they are talking to coworkers or neighbors. We need to train students on what it means to be gospel fluent rather than reliant on tools.

“So as an ecosystem, we need to have the end in mind as we develop our win/build/send strategies, ones that will translate into the next season of life. We also need to see what comes before our microcosm and what comes after our microcosm. I asked one of our metro team leaders from the collegiate ministry who their best student leaders were. His response? A handful of high school students in the running start program at a community college. They were faithful, available and teachable. I asked him, why not focus a chunk of their teams time reaching high schools, develop them as leaders, so when they hit college, they’ll be ready to multiply? He thought it was a great idea. But how does a small team that is already struggling to reach scope add more to their plate? They’d need to cultivate the ecosystem. There are volunteers that could come out of our millennial focused ministry and the collegiate ministry that may have a heart to reach college students. So spend 15% of your time raising up these volunteers, and going with them to high schools to get them going and coach them the same way you would coach a circle movement. On the other side, you would have to spend some time (minimal) making sure your college seniors are going to be transitioning well into the work place. Because if they are struggling to keep their head above the water like many of them are, they won’t be thinking about how to be a contributor, they will be trying to get their own needs met.

“So we are trying to develop a curriculum that students would go through in their last semester or quarter that will continue into the first 6 months of whichever city they go to. This is where we have to start thinking of geographic ecosystem. We currently have 5 teams in the Pacific Northwest. My guess is that a majority of our graduating students will stay in the PNW, but many of them will move cities. This is where the larger the ecosystem, the higher percentage we can send well. In the city they move to, they can form a launching community with others that have moved into the city (or already live there). They can meet once a week to go through the curriculum, check out the city together, check out churches together, and encourage each other to be on mission. If there are City staff in those cities, they can help facilitate this group and orienting them to the city, if not, Campus staff can spend some time facilitating.

“In order to create capacity to spend 15% of your time with high school, and another say 5% of your time with grads, we need to become excellent at student-led movements. I think what we will find as we look beyond our scope, is that our ministries will slow down in the short run, but in 3-5 years, they will grow tremendously. But it’s hard to think about long-term gains, unless you own a larger scope than just your microcosm. Which is why with the shift in our organization towards cohorts, we become a team of teams reaching a larger area. So knowing that as we raise up high school leaders, each team will be invested in making sure that high school leader goes to college and becomes a multiplier there. If there is not a movement, maybe the sending team works with the receiving team to launch a movement.

“Initially, I want to test out the ecosystem theory in the Northwest, but I’m hoping if it goes well, that it will become more of a national strategy, because, like I said, the larger the ecosystem, the less people will fall through the cracks…”


Lots to think about!

Have a great week launching and building new movements.

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Removing Hurdles to Volunteer Involvement

A number of years ago, a volunteer, Marybeth, a nursing instructor at Elmira College in upstate New York, led her ministry on campus. She saw steady growth over several years. At its high water mark, 125 were involved (over 10% of the student body), there were Bible studies in all dorms, they led a prayer vigil on campus with 600 attending, 74 attended the winter conference, several went on summer missions with one becoming the student project director, and one came on staff.

We’ve been talking about involving volunteers in our ministry for several years. Oh to have more Marybeths join with us!

But, there are some realities for volunteers that we may not be aware of. And we’ll need to be intentional about removing hurdles to involvement.

Some realities for volunteers

Volunteers have far less discretionary time than students and staff. Most not only work 40+ hour per week, but they have to figure in commute time. They get groceries or run errands between classes or appointments. Instead, much of what they have to do personally, laundry, grocery shopping, errands, etc. take place outside of work and commuting hours, cutting even more into their discretionary time.

For new employees work schedules can change. Different shifts, different supervisors, and even different jobs can impact their availability. It doesn’t mean they’re flakey. It’s simply the reality that they don’t have as much control over their time as we staff do.

They have more primary relationships. She has her job. If she’s married, her spouse is also working, and it’s likely they’re on two different schedules. They naturally will want time together.

Other important relationships may also take precedence.

Relationship building and progress on personal goals is slower than it was when they were on campus. Going deeper quickly is a rarity. That’s often a big surprise for those who were involved as students. Even their own spiritual development and adherence to spiritual disciplines can be challenging. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t spiritual, but life is now more complicated, and even fuzzier.

Often they find they are at a loss as to how to spiritually approach happy hour or board meetings. There is no handbook for connecting with co-workers. They can’t namedrop Jesus with co-workers. So we might wonder if they struggle to have a ministry in the marketplace, why we would take them on as a volunteer with us?

Removing Hurdles

But the truth of the matter is, that we haven’t made it easy for potential volunteers to engage with us.

Some of what we do is not always the most efficient use of time. That’s not bad.  Relational connections often comes at the expense of efficiency. But we must remember that volunteers may not have the luxury of time that we do. If we ask them to commit to a certain number of hours or to do a task a certain way, we might be making the hurdle too high for involvement.

And yet, the wisdom, the experience, the maturity that they bring is invaluable and worth our figuring out how to make it possible for them to be involved.

Volunteers want to make a significant difference. Many just don’t want to bake cookies or give to a scholarship. They can disciple or mentor leaders; they value imparting their lives into others. The lessons they learned during their involvement will guide others as they take on God’s purpose for their lives. We might have to think smarter, and differently if we want to make volunteer involvement easier.

After reading this, you might think it just isn’t worth it to involve volunteers. Please don’t give up yet. Volunteers can help you make an incredible difference in the spiritual development of your leaders. Some of them can do those things that eat our lunch; some would do those things we just love to do ourselves. But it will take intellectual flexibility on our part to involve them.

I watched how Marybeth took time with her student leaders. They loved her, and she loved ministering to them. It was no secret why her ministry flourished under her leadership. Marybeth modeled involvement as a priority in her career that we hope our students will exemplify when they graduate and enter the marketplace. And frankly, she modeled this in a way that we staff cannot model. Figuring out how to involve volunteers will help us see more laborers raised up for the Kingdom. And that’s why we do what we do in the first place.

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Students learning from other student leaders.

Years ago, Sam and Danielle Shellenberger, then team leaders in Central Pennsylvania, hosted gatherings of students every two or three weeks in their home. These students would travel from near the New York and Maryland state lines to Hershey for those “Friday feasts” and a time of VHS, vision, huddle, and skills. (I said it was years ago!)

As Sam and Danielle were the only staff working with all these campuses, Sam would assign responsibilities to the students during the VHS time. He told me once that when a student stepped into leadership on a new campus, he wanted them to hear student leaders in more developed ministries share  what they were doing and how. Students watched other students lead.

The principle: Students are more likely to believe they can do what they see other students doing.

We’ve been talking over the last two weeks about setting up student leaders in the areas of Prayer, Evangelism, Biblical Content, and Community. Last week, we focused on some simple skills and resources in each of these elements of ministry.

For most of us working multiple campuses within a defined geographic scope, Sam’s practice years ago of connecting students together has great promise for us as we seek to increase student ownership and make ministry transferable.

Many of you often gather your students together for a Friday night or all day Saturday mini-retreat or summit. This would be a great time for students to meet as Prayer, Evangelism, Biblical Content, and Community leaders. Obviously you will want them to provide your own specific direction and tools to help them.

For those of you who like to consolidate leadership and have control, this could be challenging. But for those of you who think in terms of involving more students in leadership or you think about giving more students on more campuses an opportunity to say yes to Christ, this could help distribute ministry more.

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