Monday, March 23, 2015

green envelopes

I started writing notes to students years ago, and found some success with it. it gave me a midweek connection with students, and it was like sending ministry to their houses, something tangible that even their parents could see. some students absolutely loved it- others didn't seem to care much. sometimes I sent letters to students that needed some encouragement- or were there for the first time- but in recent years I've upped that game- and right now at least, I send a handwritten note to every single student (that fills out a card) every single week. is it expensive? it is. is it time consuming? oh yes. does every student care? some really do- and their parents love it too. others, I can't really tell. one student told me that she has kept every one- and receiving a green envelope in the mailbox was the highlight of her week. 

some people have been curious about my correspondence with the middle school students at church- and so I thought I'd share how the whole process goes.

it all begins with these "prayer cards." they sit on the chairs in the youth room, and while I'm talking through the announcements, they fill them out and turn them in. a local print shop prints these for me. I don't use them for attendance- only for praying for the students and sending them letters. the students know that if they give me a prayer card, that I'll send them mail. 

I learn quite a bit from these cards. they tell me the schools that we're reaching, the grades that we're reaching, the zip codes we're reaching, and they help me to associate names with faces. right now, we're reaching a lot of 6th graders- and a lot of students from the almaden area. I also learn the best candy flavors! right now this group is really into blue candy, and really NOT into orange candy.
on the back of the cards, students write prayer requests or a note to me. some are serious, some are silly, some say thank you, some tell me what's going on in their world, but most of them leave this area blank.
the cards get all gathered up and go to my office. I pray for each name on each card. on Thursday mornings I meet with some other youth workers, and we also pray for the students by name.
then I get the green envelopes out. green is our signature color, and when a student sees a green envelope in their mailbox- they know its from me.

each envelope gets a stamp on the front, and a stamp on the back.

be awesome today is our motto- its also on the postcards I send. the same print shop that makes the prayer cards makes the postcards.

each envelope is hand addressed and gets a 70 cent stamp. I have to pay extra because of the stuff I put in the envelopes- more on that later- you have to be careful to write out the address clearly, or the mailman will send it back. I get so annoyed when I go to all of this trouble to send someone a note, only to get it sent back. I am shocked at how many middle school students do not know how to spell their street address or know their zip code.

then there is the notes- I try to make them as personal as I can. I tell students that I enjoyed the conversation that we shared at church, or that they did good at the game, or that they contributed something significant to the sermon time. I comment on whatever they mentioned on the back of their card. I tell them that I am praying for them. if it was their first time, I tell them that I hope they come again soon. but for many of them, its something pretty standard:
some weeks I send over 100 letters. my handwriting can get pretty sloppy as I get to the bottom of the list- but I try to write as clearly as possible.
then I stuff the envelope with something fun. right now I'm using airheads candy- because they are thin. the post office will only let you use a letter that is less than 1/4 inch thick. in the past I have put in stickers; and I used to put in green glitter; but a lot of parents got pretty mad about the mess it made. I also put in little announcement cards. I advertise my camps, events, and give the students memory cards for the serieses that we do. these days every bit of advertising that I do needs to fit into a 4X6 envelope.
then- after its been written, stamped, and stuffed, it all goes to the post office- and I imagine all of my green envelopes going all over the city, sending out little bits of encouragement and blessing carried to homes by the mail man.
I'm an introvert, and I like doing projects by myself- and I enjoy this process. its a way to connect with students that's thoughtful and in a way that fits my temperament. I don't expect every youth worker to send out 100 letters every week, but we could all do better to send more mail. everyone loves mail- not just students, but volunteers and parents too. its good to have a stash of stationary on hand to send out a note when you think of it. I get so many comments from parents saying, "you sent my kid a letter in the mail! they love it! thank you!" and that's a good thing for the student- and its good for me too.
like I said, its expensive. there is a cost to the envelopes, the postcards, the prayer cards, the stamps, and the candy. it is time consuming. it takes several hours- but its mellow time that can be done while watching tv or listening to music. there is a sacrifice- but its worth it. and as long as I can afford it, and can pull it off, I'm going to keep doing it. if there is any "secret" to my "success," I would say this is it.
so do me a favor- write someone a note today. they will be delighted- and the blessing will come back to you too.
God is love.

fred rogers and jeffrey

there are times when I'm tired or frustrated or impatient; and those are not a recipe for good student ministry. sometimes when I feel this way I watch this clip of Fred Rogers connecting with a wheelchair-bound boy named Jeff.

sometimes I like to go through and watch all of the things Fred does RIGHT; and really the things I want to do when I meet with students:

// Fred gives Jeff his full focus.
// Fred refuses to get bored with the conversation or to feel awkward, even when Jeff is not the best conversationalist
// Fred chooses to intentionally bless Jeff
// Fred clearly communicates to Jeff that he likes him- which is the primary question that every middle schooler wants answered from every adult they encounter: "do you like me?"
// Fred smiles, he listens, he encourages and he gives Jeff a moment that he would never forget.

I can't do all of those- and I would never sing a song to a student- but I do want to give them all of these things- and I'm sure you do too-

I want to leave them with a sense that they have had my full attention and concern. I want to leave them with a sense that I like them, and that I believe in them. I want to leave them with a blessing. I was to be the middle-school-pastor version of Fred Rogers. watching this clip puts my head in the game and reminds me to slow down and give students a personal blessing. I saved a photo from this clip and printed it:

I laminated a few and keep one in a few places that i'll see when I'm working with kids. you may not be inspired by fred rogers- but if not him then who? who inspires you to give good ministry to others? maybe you could print their picture and inspire yourself to give it your best in every interaction.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

roverbs: like you vs. need you

the other day I was at lunch with some youth pastors and I was chatting and throwing out ideas and tips and this one friend said, "that's like a wise saying from rob! its a proverb- no, a RO-verb!"
of course I loved it.

here is a roverb for you-
I talk with a lot of youth workers who tell me how they are working so many hours and how they don't see their family much, but they are doing it for the church, and for the Lord, and someday this season will pass- and then  I give them my like you vs. need you speech.

I tell them that at my church, they like me. the students like me, the parents like me, my co-workers like me, the volunteers like me. its nice to be liked. some may tell me that they love me, but really, they just like me. when I'm gone, the church will get a new worker- and they will like him or her too. that worker will be a good worker, and they will likely be an even better worker than me. they might miss me for awhile, but pretty soon, they will be so into the new worker that my memory will be long gone. that's because I'm replaceable. everyone is.

but then there is my wife. she needs me. she can't replace me like the church can. I'm the only husband she has. there is no one else that can do the job of being her husband except me. I wouldn't even want to think of anyone taking my place in being her husband.

and then there is my daughter. she needs me. she can't replace me like the church can. I'm the only dad that she has. there is no one else that can do the job of being her dad except me. and I wouldn't even want to think of someone trying to be her dad except me. that job is on me alone.

and everyone can make a list like this. there are people who like you, and people who need you. so as you think about your life, and the roles in your life, and the legacy that you will eventually leave, where should you spend your BEST time? with the people who like you (and will eventually replace you) or with the people who NEED you (and CAN'T replace you?)

why would I give all of my time and attention and focus to some people who will forget me not long after I'm gone? why would I ignore the roles that only I can fill; and the people that are counting on me? it just doesn't add up.

and when I see youth workers giving away time that belongs to their family, just to keep a group of people happy, it makes me shake my head. of course you need to do your job, and earn the money that you're paid; but there is no amount of money (NO AMOUNT OF MONEY!) or position, or title, that is worth selling out your family. and in the end, when its all said and done, no one will care how hard you worked or the hours you tirelessly put in; but they will remember that you loved Jesus, and your family, and the people you worked with.

so when they ask you to give up your day off (again), and you find yourself promising your family that they will get your time eventually, do everyone a favor and take some time off. look at your family, talk with them. go on a walk. go and get sweaty. have a life! work with your hands. read a book that has nothing to do with your job. eat some delicious food in a quiet setting.
because you are more than what you do.
and your family is way more important than your boss. and your job. and the students. and that one committee. 
and being important is not that important.

God is love.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"do you love me?"

in the 70's, when sesame street was just starting out, they had these little videos of a boy named john-john interacting with their muppets. super-duper-cute videos-

there is one that I often remember, that I have included below:

Grover says, "you know what john-john? I love you."
and John-John says, "you love me? ... Grover? DO YOU LOVE ME?!"
and Grover says, "yes- I love you John-John"
and John-John says, "yeah! count this penny."
and Grover says, "one."

I keep a photo of Grover and John-John on my desk- it reminds me that everyone (especially my middle school friends) have the same basic question that John-John does: "how do you feel about me? do you like me? do I annoy you? do you have time for me? are interested in me? do you care about me? do you love me?"
and when someone feels that you do in fact, like them, then we can start talking, and begin a friendship; but until that question is answered, there is no friendship or trust.

have you ever been around someone and you could tell that they didn't like you? or you could tell that they thought that they were more important than you- or that you bothered them? I know I do! you don't have a relationship with people like that.

is there someone who makes you feel appreciated? special? liked? loved? I certainly do! we trust people like that. we like people like that. we gravitate to people like that; and we need to be people like that.

you don't have to say it with your words- but you need to communicate with the people that you interact with that they are not a nuisance- you're not too busy for them- but you like that they are there- and that you like them.

I know some people that do this instinctively. and I both love them and am jealous of them because of it. some of us are not so instinctive- and we need a little coaching.

how do we do this? here are a couple ideas:
// you need to remember their name- and use it-
// you need to smile when you see them-
// you need to remember things about them and ask them about it-
// use eye-contact when you listen to them
// if its appropriate- you can greet them with a hug
// you can be excited and enthusiastic when you see them-
// you can be focused when you talk to them and not distracted- leave your phone in your pocket- and keep your eyes off of the clock.
(this is one reason why I have clocks posted everywhere- so that no one ever catches me peeking at one).

what are ways that we communicate that we don't like someone?
// talk about yourself only-
// tell them that you don't have any time to talk
// communicate that your phone is more important than the conversation
// interrupt
// sigh.
// roll your eyes.
// have low energy.
// complain about how busy you are. 
// make fun of them.
// be in a hurry to end your conversation.

the list goes on and on.

as Christians, we believe that even though God is busy running the entire cosmos that He has individual time for each of us- and that He is listening to each of us with His undivided attention. that's one of the things I love about Jesus in the gospels- how he could interact with kings and captains, but He could also give blind and mute people His undivided attention. When we ask God, "DO YOU LOVE ME?!" He always answers, "yes- I love you." and when we communicate our care and concern for others, we are being imitators of God.

here is a challenge for you and me: after each interaction with someone you work with (or live with) ask yourself: "what did I communicate to that person? did I communicate that I like them- or did I communicate that I was too important for them?" and grade yourself; and ask yourself how you can do even better the next time.

do this- and your likeability factor will skyrocket-
and so will your influence and impact.

God is love.