The Surprising Power of Unsustainable Change
by Mark DeVries
The biggest problem with most new initiatives in ministry is that we expect them to work.
Now, as a guy who has a strong preference for all things sustainable, I often suffer from this very problem myself. I expect every change I initiate to work…not just in the near term but in the long term as well. And I can beat myself up a good bit if, after 6 months or so, the new initiative is no longer working.
And that’s where I would be wrong. Though some new solutions absolutely must be sustainable, not all change works that way.
Not all change needs to last forever (or even for very long). Some changes to our ministries will (and I would argue should) have a short shelf life.
Here’s how it hit me right between the eyes this past week…
I was in a meeting with youth leaders, and we were talking about the cliques within our group…again. Kids from certain schools feel isolated and disconnected from the group. My first instinct was, “Again?! I thought we had a plan in place to take care of this problem.”
Then I realized it. We did have a plan in place. A year ago. But plans to address issues like cliques in the group, student leadership, or next year’s kick off event tend to have a maximum shelf life of about six months.
And the quicker we get our heads around that reality, the more prepared we’ll be when our “perishable” plans stop working just months after we launch them.
Try this imperfect metaphor on for size:
Some changes we make are like fruit—they only stay fresh for a short time, but they are very good for us (and our ministries). Other changes are like, well, like Twinkies.
I saw a cool time-lapse photography comparison of a fresh tomato side by side with an unwrapped Twinkie. After a couple months, the tomato was totally shriveled and rotten. The Twinkie looked EXACTLY the same.
In youth ministry, some things are Twinkies. Structures like an annually updated directory, a 1-year planning calendar, and a clear process for recruiting volunteers are imperative, year after year. (Okay, the metaphor breaks down a bit, but I do love me some Twinkies).
With long-term, sustainable structures, we’re not looking for freshness and variation. We’re looking for consistency.
But some of our time must also be spent on perishable solutions…new initiatives that may not last more than six months. When, predictably, the once-fresh fruit is no longer fresh, we don’t have to be surprised. We can launch another solution.
It doesn’t mean that our perishable solution was a bad one; it’s just that some challenges must be addressed again and again, with re-invented, re-contextualized solutions.
So go ahead, get sustainable systems in place. But don’t be afraid (or freaked out or ashamed) when some of your new initiatives turn out to be perishable, unsustainable.
A healthy youth ministry requires both fresh solutions that may not last long as well as sustainable, “permanent” structures that form the foundation of the ministry.
So go ahead. Have your sustainable Twinkie, but don’t forget to throw in a little fresh fruit as well.
Mark DeVries is the founder of Youth Ministry Architects, a hands-on coaching service for churches whose ministries are in transition or who hope to move any of their ministries strategically forward. Mark has trained youth workers across the US, Canada & overseas. He has taught courses & spoken at a dozen colleges & seminaries, across a wide variety of denominations, including Princeton Theological Seminary & Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Mark is the author of several books, including Sustainable Youth Ministry, Family-Based Youth Ministry, Before You Hire a Youth Pastor & The Indispensable Youth Pastor, both co-authored with YMA Vice-President, Jeff Dunn-Rankin. Mark’s articles have been published in magazines, including The Christian Century, Theology Today, Group, Youthworker Journal, Preaching, & Lifelong Faith Journal. Mark has served at 1st Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN since 1986. He & Susan, his wife of over 30 years, have three grown children.
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