Thursday, September 30, 2021

Our Biggest Prayer Need Right Now

As we move back into a more normal school year, we are seeing more clearly some of the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. Students feel more overwhelmed than ever. I think it is partially due to more activities being added back as things open up, but their stress is amplified by the fact that online classes didn't really require them to keep a schedule last year. We are spending more time than ever teaching basic time management skills. Social anxiety, which was already on the rise, was magnified by months spent alone or with only a handful of others. This means our cores are full but attendance at our Friday Night Fellowship meetings has been mediocre. 

In addition, many of our new student leaders have never seen a normal year of FOCUS at UTD, so we are continually realizing the need to explain what we are doing and why they should take part and lead in those things. It's hard to know what they don't know because in most years that understanding is passed on through community rather than formal teaching.

While I think our team has done an amazing job answering those challenges (and more), there is no doubt that the missing year of campus life will have a ripple effect on student leadership development and on our overall mission for an indeterminant amount of time. As a result, I think our Number One Prayer Need is for wisdom and energy for our pastors as they reengage in the relationally intensive work of reaching out to and mentoring students into the kingdom of God. I can tell you this work is already off to a great start!

Thank you for praying for and resourcing this mission to the campus. It's a pivotal time and what you do matters!

Student Testimony

Fall Camp Photos

The guys who came to camp from one of the cores I oversee. Jackson (on the left) and Tony (2nd from the right) are the leaders. I get to meet up with these great guys weekly!

We did an outdoor worship in the round, reflecting on Eph 5:19 - "Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit."

I got to interview eight students from our community during the sessions, giving them the opportunity to share about key decisions they have made to follow Jesus and the challenges they've faced along the way.

Walk and talks are always a hit!

Playing with the big parachute. I can't believe how tiring it is!

Taylor (on the right) is my apprentice this year, and these are some of the guys from his core this year.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Challenges in Developing Leaders, Part 3

I've mentioned before that I sometimes use the Habitudes books by Dr. Tim Elmore to train young leaders. His habitudes are "images that form leadership habits and attitudes." One that I especially appreciate is Floods and Rivers. He writes, "Floods and rivers are both bodies of water. Floods damage. Rivers are useful in many ways. The difference? Focus."

We've all experienced the multiplication of noise and messaging in our lives. Many have written about smartphones and social media and the reality that most of us no longer simply sit and think anymore; we have no time to be bored! For people of all ages, streaming entertainment eats up not just time, but mental and emotional bandwidth. Students feel busier than they did a decade ago, but when we drill down to look at their schedules, we sometimes realize that Netflix, Youtube, and the like take up as much time as a half- or full-time job!

Beyond that, increased competition for college admissions and employment, alongside helicopter parents' fears of dangers both present and future, has filled young people's weeks with more and more scheduled activities, commitments, and expectations. They have to be involved in many extracurriculars, volunteer, perhaps work a job, do well in classes that assign quite a bit more work than when I went to school, and, somewhere in there, try to figure out faith and how to love and serve God. 

All of this is a huge challenge in trying to develop young leaders. Rivers are effective; floods aren't. But rivers only go certain places--there are many more places that they don't touch at all, at least directly. They have defined borders that focus their flow. You can build something on their banks because they are reliable. Developing young leaders today is less about filling their free time, and more about inviting them to participate in disciplines of subtraction--choosing what they won't do so that they have time and energy to focus on what's more important. Cutting things is almost always hard, sometimes painful. Sometimes they are things we enjoy. Sometimes it will disappoint parents or friends or teachers. But God has set our limits. As Job said, "A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed" (14:5). And he does not expect us to do more than we can do. He wants us to steward well the limited resources he has given us, and invites us to discern what is truly important. 

This isn't something we comprehend in the span of a sermon or class. It's not something that can be taught in a single year. But as we develop young leaders, we would do well to carefully invite them to consider their limits and focus their energies on important things, lest they look back someday and see a life flooded with much activity, but little fruit to show for it.

Student Testimony

Some Pictures from our August SICM

This was the dining hall where we both ate meals and had our teaching times.

It was a beautiful camp!

Our First FNF at UTD in a Year and a Half!

Back in JSOM 1.118. Just like old times!

Monday, August 16, 2021

Challenges in Developing Leaders, Part 2

Last week, we took nearly 200 students and pastors to our very own SICM, Texas Edition! It was a great experience, but we hope to be back to SICM in Bellingham, WA this coming May.

Lunch with a bunch of the campus ministers from various ministries who are reaching out to UT Dallas. This isn't even everyone! The Lord is truly answering our prayers to sent out workers for the harvest. The friendship, unity, and camaraderie in this group are evidence of the Spirit at work.

Last month, I started sharing reflections on some of the challenges in developing young leaders, specifically those that result from the way they see themselves. There are also challenges that stem from the way I see them. The first and most obvious challenge is that my view of someone isn't always accurate! I have my own subjective experience of people, which can be both a strength and a weakness. Sometimes I hold people back because I don't see their true potential. Other times, I push them into positions and opportunities they aren't ready for yet. 

Being older and in a position of power/leadership means people will naturally treat me somewhat differently, and that can hinder my ability to see how they interact with their peers/people they lead. That difference can cut both ways. Years ago, I remember a fellow pastor telling me that a key student leader didn't treat others the way he treated me. I (foolishly) shrugged it off, thinking I knew this kid better than others, but reality came back to bite me. He treated me well because I had something he wanted, but he wasn't kind or selfless toward those with nothing to offer him. On the flip side, I think of a young leader who was hard for me to relate to but was very effective with his peers. I had to be reminded that I didn't appoint him as a leader for me! 

There are people I naturally connect with and people who are harder to connect with, and that can color my perceptions of their leadership skills and potential. The temptation is to recognize and appreciate my own strengths in others and to miss or underappreciate their strengths in areas I'm not as good in. If I give into that, I won't be able to raise up a diverse leadership--I'll only see potential in people who are like me. I've recently found the Strengthsfinder assessment helpful in recognizing strengths in others that I wouldn't pick up on by myself.

Another temptation is to think people are more like me than they actually are. We tend to see other people's actions and assume similar motives to our own. In other words, I ask, "Why would I do that?" and then assume they are doing it for the same reason. This short-circuits true discovery and understanding. That dynamic can also play out in character areas. We tend to see our own strengths and flaws in others. People who are honest and forthright will be naturally trusting, assuming others are honest and forthright. People who are less forthcoming, guarded, or manipulative will assume others are being the same way. But these are often not good assumptions. Wisdom calls us to look deeper and perceive reality in all its complexity. 

There is great power in being humble enough to recognize and admit that our perceptions are limited and that we are always (necessarily) making assumptions that are more or less valid. All of this should drive those who want to invest in others to take an active interest in them, to keep our eyes and ears open for things that don't seem to fit our current views, and to be purposefully inquisitive.

It can be helpful to know our own tendencies so we know in which direction to adjust. Are you more likely to see people as better than they are or to be too critical? Knowing this about yourself can help you know whether you need to practice assuming the best about others or practice asking some extra questions.

Jesus changed the world by developing leaders. He saw something in these men and women that had been overlooked by others. While Martha was frustrated that Mary wasn't in the kitchen, Jesus saw that her heart for learning was just as strong as in any of his apostles. While the crowd saw Zacchaeus as an unlovable traitorous tax collector, Jesus saw someone who would go to embarrasing lengths to get to see Jesus. In fishermen, he saw the potential to be fishers of men. In the gerasene demoniac, he saw a missionary to Gentile cities. I could go on. Only God sees our true potential, but he invites us to join him in empowering a next generation of leaders. It's a challenging and complicated task, but God is at work in the middle of it, blessing and refining everyone involved. Don't get discouraged if you find these things challenging. Just keep learning and growing! 

Student Testimony

I got to start a friendship with Mick last year, and I'm so excited to have him return to UTD and lead core this fall!

Thank you for all you do for the kingdom and all the ways you invest in young people! 

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. - Galatians 6:9

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Time to Pray!

New students will be showing up on campus starting August 17, less than 3 weeks away!

Will you commit along with me to pray daily for 3 weeks for God to use this season to grow our impact on the campus and empower us to reach and bless more students than ever before?

I'm excited to see how He moves in response!

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Challenges in Developing Leaders, Part 1

Our summer programs are going, our pastors are raising funds for the coming year, and we are prepping to bring on new apprentices and host our own Texas SICM in August. It's a pretty standard summer, and we are anticipating things getting back to normal on our campuses this fall!

In the meantime, I'd like to share some reflections on what I see as one of the most important parts of my role in FOCUS: developing young leaders. A lot of good happens just by empowering young people (who have already been gifted and empowered by God's Spirit) to go out and minister to their peers. But there are also a lot of difficulties along the way. The first I want to reflect on are the difficulties caused by the way they see themselves

First off, so many young Christians coming out of churches, even churches with vibrant youth ministries, do not see themselves as leaders and have been given little opportunity to lead in the church. To them, Christian leadership is about expertise and knowledge. They don't feel like they know enough to lead their peers. I think the disconnect is that so many of our ministers receive their training but forget their true calling as leaders in the church--"to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Eph 4:12). Too often ministry is only a matter for professionals. Even on my pastoral staff, I often hear people wanting, as a first step, to refer students to professional counselors. 

There is absolutely a place for extensive training and professionalism (especially for specialized needs), but that place is not making the members of the church into spectators rather than active ministers using their gifts to build others up. When we do empower others, we often provide very little training or higher-level development, or we simply hand out material and say "if you can read, you can lead." Reading the questions aloud in a small group is a very limited form of leadership. Few skills are being developed and very little pastoral thinking is happening. To grow, we have to do things we are not already good at. And to do things we are not already good at, we need someone to tell us that we could be good at them (and not lie to us about being good enough already).

As a leader with more years of experience, I can offer these young people perspective. I've seen people with their same level of skills and knowledge lead in powerful ways, and grow in the process! I've seen people who might not look like our cultural stereotypes of leadership bless people powerfully and move organizations significantly through their leadership. I get to share those stories and invite people into greater responsibility. I get to tell them I see them as a leader even if they don't yet see it in themselves.

Another area of how people see themselves that gets in the way is our understanding of our personalities. We are obsessed with personality tests! Now, I enjoy and use them as well, but here's the danger--we think they tell actually us something about ourselves. But as Brady Bobbink put it, "No, we tell the test something and it just tells us back." Garbage in means garbage out. There are things that I think I'm not good at or don't like that I've actually never really tried. There are things about my self-perception that hold me back. And when a test enshrines that (incomplete) information on paper, I assume it MUST be true. Sometimes as a leader, I get to share the things about another leader that they have not yet seen in themselves.

As Christians, my call is not to become the best version of an Enneagram 8 that I can be, or to fully live out my Myers-Briggs personality type--it's to become like Jesus! I can find out my strengths from the Strengthsfinder assessment, but that doesn't mean I can't learn new skills, and it doesn't mean that God won't have me minister in my areas of weakness, even if it's not fun! As much as God loves me, I don't think anything in the scriptures communicates that his highest priority is me having fun at all times. :)

Jesus ministered in both strength and weakness. He came in power and amazed people with what he could do, but it could be argued that his most important ministry was done at his weakest, on the cross. I know the cross has changed me personally a lot more than the fact that he walked on water or won arguments with teachers of the law.

When Paul was defending himself against the "Super-apostles" in 2 Corinthians 11, notice the defense he gives. He doesn't tell about all the churches he planted, the letters he wrote, the people he converted. Instead, he boasts in his weakness:

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

God wants to use each of us, and as Paul says in the next chapter, God's grace is sufficient and is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:1-10). Weak or strong, God calls each of us to bless others. Skilled or unskilled, God calls each of us to lead, at least by example. Regardless of how much we know, we can all share the stories of what God has done and is doing in our lives.

One of my favorite things about campus ministry is that I get to invite students into leadership and then equip them and support them and help them clean up the messes they inevitably make. God seems to be okay with such messes. They are where his glory shines brighter than ours.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Getting Ready to Pioneer New Campus Ministries!


I love this picture! What are the chances that parents visiting from India would want to take a picture with the FOCUS bulletin board at UTD?! Ignateus came as an international student from India a number of years ago. He already had a rich faith from growing up in the Catholic Church, but transitioning to college in a different country can be risky for a young believer. Thankfully, he found FOCUS and got very involved. He's graduated and lives in another state now. He continues to serve the Lord faithfully, and his faith continues to be an encouragement to me. When his parents recently visited from India, he gave them a tour of UTD and, with no student events happening on campus, made sure to snap this picture of them with the FOCUS board to celebrate his time in our ministry.

Pioneering Workshop

We are preparing to start new ministries at FIVE NEW CAMPUSES this fall! They are all community colleges, which are some of the most underserved campuses (by ministries) in the nation. Part of our preparation was taking our entire staff team (about 50 people including the incoming apprentices) through a two-day pioneering workshop. Paul Austin is the Pioneering Director for Chi Alpha, a national association of campus ministries for the Assemblies of God, and he came to share his many years of wisdom and experience with us. It was SO GOOD! In addition to talking about new campuses, he spent a lot of time helping us see how we can reach new demographics on our existing campuses, so there was so much valuable learning and discussion for every one of us, regardless of experience level.

Our staff team is a big crew now!

Here's a reflection from Austin, who helps lead our ministry at UTA:

"I was impacted by Paul's philosophy of campus evangelism being most effective when we as an organization seek the wellbeing of the University we are on as well as the wellbeing of other organizations on campus. My perspective on our relationship with other student orgs shifted from being primarily competitive, to seeking to be symbiotic with the campus, which I believe to be an approach much more like the heart of Jesus."

Student Testimony

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The End of the Weirdest Year

These are the four student small group leaders I had the privilege of mentoring this school year. They were such a blessing to me! Three of them were graduating seniors, but two of them will be doing the FOCUS apprenticeship this next year!

Parking Lot Graduation Ceremony

We made it through the COVID school year! It was strange debriefing the year, hoping we'd never have to do most of these events again!

But one event that came out of the pandemic that we absolutely want to keep is our Parking Lot Graduation at UTD. In 2020, it was a last-minute idea from Peter Ueng, tacked on to a worship night in a Walmart parking lot for our students whose commencement ceremony had been canceled. But it was a big success, and for 2021 we planned ahead and did it right. After one of our last Friday nights, we lined both sides of a parking lot lane with fellow students, friends, and family, played "Pomp & Circumstance" over a speaker, and announced each FOCUS graduate's name and degree. They got to walk the whole way being cheered for by everyone, and then we celebrated with cake and punch. Students and parents both loved it. They got to skip the boring speeches, skip the hundreds of names of people they don't know, wear whatever they wanted, celebrate with their whole community, and they could invite as many people as they want (UTD only gives each graduate 5 tickets). I've already had multiple students tell me they are planning to do our parking lot graduation instead of commencement when they get their degree. 

Our 2021 UTD Graduates! (At least the ones who could come in person, but note the phone with the one virtual attendee in the bottom left!)

An Encouraging Note

I got this note from Adriana, one of our Collin College pastors, about our ministry at Richland College. Our community college ministries are so rare, but so special and fruitful.

"I am checking out Richland's end-of-year party/TNT. Feels like a family gathering together. I started crying as I saw and heard time over time the way Sandra and Sirak honored each of their students with sweet and specific moments and interactions with them. They are so proud, so so proud, and rightly so. These are students who've had every reason to walk away from God. I've gotten to know one of their students, Sayuri, who's had a hard life and has flourished into this woman who's a fool for God and has left a legacy here with her peers. Sayuri and all of theses students love Sirak and Sandra so so much. I love this team and their faithfulness to God and their students."

That's good news!

Student Testimony & Prayer Requests

Thank you for your faithfulness to prayer and generosity through a challenging year. We are in a great place to make an even bigger impact in fall 2021!

Our Biggest Prayer Need Right Now

As we move back into a more normal school year, we are seeing more clearly some of the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. Students...