Move from losing to listening

A new leadership posture for a not-so-normal school year

The day an unexpected health problem left me bedridden was a day that changed my ministry forever.

Not long before, I had accepted a new job as team leader for a vibrant parachurch ministry. I spent the summer getting up to speed and planning all my games and talks, and I was ready to ramp up a new ministry year. But before I had the chance to see a single student, a chronic issue that had been dormant for years decided to flare up. I was flat on my back for weeks—and really, really frustrated about that.

After all, there was so much to do: volunteers were waiting for my lead, and students needed relational connection. Parents and donors had a lot of questions. I did not want the ministry to lose momentum while I waited impatiently to heal.

Over the next week I turned to my laptop to work through my anxiety. If the only task I could complete was an article for the ministry’s monthly newsletter, then I decided I’d do it with vigor. I wrote about all the plans I’d made. Then I told readers about my hopes and prayers for the future of the ministry. I explained that I was sorry that things were delayed and not to worry—the situation didn’t represent what they could expect from me.

When I looked back at what I’d written, a distinct pattern emerged:

I, I, I.

Me, me, me.

My frantic attempts to keep programming moving forward “as normal” didn’t sound like ministry when I put them on paper. They sounded more like a line of defense. I wasn’t listening to what this moment of disruption could teach me.

Then it occurred to me that in my new role I hadn’t asked my students what they needed. Or their parents. Or even my volunteers. And I’m ashamed to say I’d spent little time looking to God for guidance either.

“At its core, leadership is a connection between people,” writes Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary’s De Pree Professor of Leadership Development. “We cannot see people as means that allow us to accomplish our goals… If we speak first—without listening—we assume we know where the people are and what they need. But we are likely only seeing them through our own biases and agendas.” Without meaningful connection, the vision I’d formed of successful ministry strayed away from those who were going to be a part of it. Instead I was busy building plans based on how I was going to manage it.

The annoyingly inconvenient matter of my health became a disruptive moment that allowed God to step in and reorient my focus. My ministry wasn’t going to lose momentum because it wasn’t, in fact, my ministry at all. God was still very much at work. But, as it turned out, the ways ministry needed to happen would look very different from those I had planned.

A change in posture from losing to listening on that uncomfortable day opened up new possibilities. I rewrote my article, inviting anyone who was reading it to get in touch, introduce themselves, and tell me about their hopes and dreams for the ministry. Then I called each one of my volunteers and asked them to tell me more about themselves. And then, I threw out all my lesson plans, replacing them with activities that would, one day, create space for listening to one another and seeking God together.

The rest of my convalescence was spent tuning in to parents, volunteers, and trustees, who told me about the young people they deeply cared about, giving me insight to the roadblocks that stood in the way of effective discipleship. Families responded warmly, offering hospitality while I healed and opening doors to friendship. And, for once, I found myself with time for uninterrupted prayer—where I could place control of all the details back in God’s hands, where they belonged. Eventually I was able to gather with students, but ministry never looked “normal” again.

“We Christian leaders don’t have followers; we have people entrusted to our care,” Scott explains in another thoughtful article. “Leadership begins with listening to the people entrusted to our care.” For both ministry leaders and families, this new school year isn’t going to look like the one we’d planned. Perhaps your church has re-opened its doors, but your gathering size is limited, and you’re constantly re-evaluating what is safe. Or maybe, after months and months of Zoom meetings, your ministry must continue fully online for the time being—leaving you feeling isolated and frustrated. Meanwhile, families are figuring out how to make day-to-day life, employment, and finances work as a school year unlike any other looms ahead. We are all grieving losses.

Maybe this fall instead of making a lot of plans, we can let go of them—and spend more time listening to the people entrusted to our care.

Tweet this: Maybe this fall instead of making a lot of plans for our ministries, we can let go of them—and spend more time listening to the people entrusted to our care.

At the Fuller Youth Institute, listening is at the heart of our work. Every resource we create begins with a question ministry leaders and parents are asking. Our research teams spend months and years listening and learning to young people and interpreting trends, turning the data into reliable resources you can use to help you grow in relationship as you disciple young people.

Whether you’ll be connecting with students on screen or face-to-face this fall, here are 5 resources we’ve designed to help your team listen as you lead:
  • Create space for your young people to talk about anxiety, and teach them that they’re not alone with Faith in an Anxious World, a 4-week high school curriculum.
  • Order a set of Pocket Guides to Supporting Parents, and get thoughtful tips to help you and your volunteer leaders have more empathetic conversations with parents.
  • Help parents take their next step on a mutual journey of transformation by gifting families with a copy of Growing With. Or start a parenting small group with the Growing With Small Group Guide.
  • Stock your (digital or on-site) library with our Conversation Toolkits and empower anyone in your church to have more meaningful conversations with young people. Options are available in several culturally-specific editions, and four languages.
  • And this year, we’re excited to announce FYI’s most affordable and easy-to-access cohort yet. Growing Young in a Changing World is a nine-month, fully digital church training experience that will help unleash the potential of your congregation to engage the next generation. Perhaps there’s no better time to give yourself and your team the gift of personalized coaching, listen and learn from ministry experts, and craft a plan for lasting change.

At FYI, it’s our prayer that this unusual new school year will be a season that transforms your ministry. May it be a moment to deeply listen, to place all the details you’re worrying about into God’s hands, and to grow in relationship thoughtfully with the young people and families entrusted to your care.

Tweet this: For both ministry leaders and families, this new school year isn’t going to look like the one we’d planned. Here are 5 resources from Fuller Youth Institute that can help you listen as you lead.

Let us walk hand-in-hand with your team.


New for Fall 2020, we’ve created Growing Young in a Changing World—a digital cohort experience to guide you as you apply the Growing Young core commitments to today’s realities, including:

How can you adapt to a changing ministry landscape?

How can your church navigate the complexities of intercultural ministry with care?

How can your ministry walk with young people struggling with anxiety?

Join by August 15th, and take advantage of our early registration discount!

Find out more