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!

Monday, April 5, 2021

New Staff and New Campuses

This past month we interviewed and selected 19 new apprentices for the 21-22 school year! It's a group I'm really excited about, especially as we are looking to start up as many as 5 new campuses this fall! Our staff is divided into five teams of pastors focusing on different areas: UTD, Dallas, Collin, Arlington, and Denton. Each of these teams is looking to pioneer a new work or a new campus this fall. Much more on all that to come, but be praying for these opportunities! 


Our Showcase fundraiser was a big success! We have come near to meeting our record raised last year, with some donations still coming in. If you didn't get to watch it and would like to, we are working on an "on-demand" option for the second part of this week. Our teams did an amazing job both in front of and behind the camera. Thank you to all of you who donated toward SICM this year. I'll have more to tell in the coming months, but we have an exciting plan in place for 2021!

This was pretty much the whole showcase crew. So many hours into this event!

A couple of behind the scenes shots

And my good buddy and fellow-UTD-pastor Rhett proposed live during the show. She said yes!

Most of my team has been vaccinated now, so we were finally able to take a staff picture. This is my team at UTD for the 2020-21 school year. They've done an amazing job pastoring our community!

Student Testimony

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Entertainment (2 ways)

So first off, in just a little less than a month, we have our annual Showcase fundraiser for SICM (Student Institute of Campus Ministry). We are doing both SICM and Showcase a little differently this year.

We are planning our own SICM at a camp at the end of the summer when, hopefully, everyone will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. We will be inviting a huge group since we have last year's crew plus a new batch from this year. Details on location and price are still being worked out, but with such a large crew, we will be using the money from Showcase last year along with whatever we can raise this year to make this training happen. I'm so excited to get these students pumped up to go out on campus right before the school year begins! Our colleges and universities have already started signaling that they plan to be back to normal, more or less, come fall semester!

Showcase this year will be an online experience, which means those of you in other states can attend for the first time! In addition to music, we have a professional illusionist/mentalist performing. He's amazing! You can look him up and see how many famous people he has performed for over the years. It's going to be a different show for sure! I hope you can join us. You can make an optional donation to watch, or watch for free!

On the flip side of entertainment, Garrett Davis recently taught our spring Pizza Theology on "What Would Jesus Stream" about the theology of entertainment. As we all spend quite a few hours per week (or per day!) entertaining ourselves, I know you would find his balanced reflections on the topic challenging and helpful. Feel free to watch on Youtube! (You can also find the packet and just the audio here.)

Thank you for supporting campus missions. Your gifts and prayers and hard work make a difference!

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Developing Next Level Leaders

A key need for our growing mission is more wise and experienced leaders who are able to think strategically and are skilled at developing the next generation of FOCUS pastors. Mandy Lanciani has been an amazing partner in developing our younger pastors for over a decade, and Garrett Davis has stepped up in that area the past few years. But now, the three of us do not have the time or bandwidth to do the kind of life-on-life mentoring and leadership development that we value with a staff of 40! 

To that end, I've been investing in 13 of our staff ministers over the past year with the goal of helping them take their leadership to the next level. I'm hoping to develop leaders who can mentor younger pastors, pass on our values effectively, and shape the culture of our team and our broader community. Every other week, we meet on Zoom to discuss leadership principles, work through case studies, and talk about how to move FOCUS forward. I love getting to do this! The only thing I don't love is that I don't get to do it with all of our younger staff. They are all so gifted in different ways, but these 13 are the ones I've identified as most poised to step into new leadership opportunities in the next couple of years. 

Our most recent lesson comes from a Habitudes book by Dr. Tim Elmore. He writes, "In the classic story of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy illustrates a new kind of leader. She invites her friends on a journey, helps them discover their gifts, encourages them, and walks with them rather than insisting on being up front. She doesn't have all the answers but she gets them to their goal." That pretty much captures the kind of leaders we want at the helm of our organization! Building leaders for the kingdom is about helping people grow into men and women who can be used by God wherever they go. 

Dr. Elmore thinks the leader of the future will be marked by these qualities:

  1. Highly relational
  2. Interpret culture well
  3. Emotionally secure
  4. Share ownership freely
  5. Empower others
  6. Comfortable with uncertainty
  7. Listen and foster self-discovery
  8. Embrace the role of a mentor
  9. Less formal in structure
  10. Driven by service more than ego
Sounds like Jesus to me! Please be praying that I and those under my leadership will grow in these qualities in the coming year. We have huge opportunities ahead as the schools open back up!

Student Testimony

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Building a Team

One of the passages I've spent a lot of time reflecting on over the years is in Mark 3: "Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out..." Such a simple message, but how did he do it? How did he pick the right 12 guys, 11 of whom would take his message to the world and lay a solid foundation for thousands of years of Christian outreach? Luke adds that he prayed all night before, but he doesn't tell us what he was praying. Paul also gathered a team. Just from the letters we have, we see a group of 40+ talented and Spirit-filled men and women who were his coworkers in the gospel mission. Their impact together was expansive.

This time of year, I'm always thinking and praying about the team of pastors with whom we undertake the mission to make and mature disciples on DFW campuses. Some of our pastors are contemplating whether to commit another one or three or even five years to serving in FOCUS, we're talking with our apprentices to discern whether staying on our staff is the right fit for them and for us, and we will soon have to prayerfully consider another group of applicants to our apprenticeship for the 2021-22 school year. 

In 2002, I was one half-time pastor for FOCUS; now we have over 40 if you include our administrators! Each one brings new strengths and shapes our team in new directions. Each of us also brings our own sin and weaknesses and slightly different values. There's both risk and reward.

For our student leaders, we use a FAITH acronym: Faithful, Available, Initiating, Teachable, Heart for God & People. On top of that, I have long used the "Three C's" for selecting new staff members: Character, Competence, and Chemistry. These are so helpful, but they are very broad, especially for a jack-of-all-trades campus pastor job! Competent at what? Chemistry with whom?

To help answer that, we've added three F's for our pastors: Fire, Fruit, and Fun. Here are some of the questions we're asking right now about potential FOCUS pastors:

  • Are they on fire for the Lord?
  • Do they have a fire in their belly, work hard, do whatever it takes? Are they a self-starter? Do they have momentum?
  • Do they evidence a desire to learn and grow?
  • Can they reach new students and bring them to Jesus?
  • Are they a catalyst for growth, maturity, and decision making in the lives of students? Do they make the people they are around better?
  • Can they make things happen? Do things happen in our community because they are on the team that otherwise wouldn't? 
  • Can they take whatever they are given and go beyond basic expectations?
  • Are they fun to work with? Do we really enjoy having them on the team? Are they net positive in terms of team dynamics?
  • Do students want to be around them?
  • Are they positive and lighthearted? Can they laugh at life and at themselves?

I say all this to say that we have a fantastic team of pastors. It has grown fast, but not because we will just take anyone and throw them out on campus. The Lord is doing powerful work in the lives of young people and raising up a team of pastors I could never afford to hire. They are talented men and women who could do so many other things but choose to serve in FOCUS because they love college students and are deeply committed to the Lord's mission. 

Please pray for me and my team of campus directors, that the Spirit would give us great wisdom and help us to discern who should be on this team for next year. I don't think there's a more important set of decisions we make!

I want to say a big THANK YOU in the Lord's name for all you do for me. Your steadfast love and care, your prayers, and your generosity do not go unnoticed and they are very appreciated!

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...