If you ask people in ministry about their “calling” they give you the answer about what they now “do” for Jesus. You know what I mean. We are “called” to be youth pastors. However, I believe that “calling” is a far more transformational experience than any “one thing.”

I remember once having a conversation with the office manager in our ministry, “I don’t really get where this idea of calling comes from?  Everyone is always talking about it.  I can’t really say I know what it is.”  

This got me thinking about how often we categorize this idea. We often site God literally “calling out” to Samuel in the middle of the night to be a prophet or Jesus “calling” the disciples to follow Him as our Biblical examples of the concept. Therefore, it obviously has to do with being in the service of ministry. What is funny is that in both of these examples the “point” was that these men would be willing to be close to the Lord following Him where He goes.  In the process they would have words to speak and tasks to perform.

The problem of course is that we get caught up in the tyranny of the “or” instead of the grace of the “and.”  We think we have to be “called” to be one thing: Pastor OR Homeschooler OR Stay-At-Home Mom OR Missionary. The issue with this way of thinking is there lacks space for any “extras” that the Lord might have for us. We can ONLY be a part of this OR that.

I know what it doesn’t look like:

We wouldn’t be about miracles OR healing OR feeding people OR taking care of the broken. We wouldn’t be preaching in the church OR on the streets. We wouldn’t care about one people group OR another. We wouldn’t decide we have to be an evangelist OR a Mom OR a worker OR a this OR a that.

Instead, in being with Jesus we become willing to move with Him, realizing He uses each experience to transform us more into His likeness.  In my own journey I started out with the Lord showing me a generation of youth who did not know Him.  This led me to be a youth pastor in a rural setting then He brought me to the suburbs.  Then He walked me through the door of an inner city ministry and planted me there.  In the midst of this He sent me a partner in my husband.  He moved me from singly being with him to serving Him with another.  A little while later as we continued on He blessed us with children.  I thought this meant I had to choose my kids OR youth ministry.  Instead, He reminded me that my husband and children are part of the journey with Him.  He showed me how to not focus on them OR others. While this lesson was in process He called my family to move into the community we serve and be neighbors to the hurting and broken. As I reached out to the students He showed me that I couldn’t be about youth without caring about their parents. He showed me that I was believing that only “some” parents would truly engage with their children.  Along the way I realized the power of family ministry.  Now he challenges me with what the definition of family ministry is WHILE being a wife AND raising four kids AND being a part of a local church body AND learning to be closer to Him.  See what He did there?  Embracing my own calling is far more than any one “thing.”

Recently, someone asked me what I want to “do” next.  It was a hard question to answer.  I could tell them about my passions, and the cry of my heart. However, I realized that to fit these ideas into a job description was not my “calling” at all.  It’s about the willingness to be molded by the Lord as I go with Him it includes the word “and” far more often than the word “or.”

What about you?

How do you embrace YOUR calling?






As y’all can see, there is an incredible line-up of speakers, artists, and talent for Simply Youth Ministry Conference 2014! Don’t forget that the deadline for Advanced Registration to save you some $$$ is January 15th, so get on that and tell all your friends!

See you at SYMC!




Transformation, at least the good kind, rarely “just happens.”

  • Marriages don’t just get healthier.
  • Friendships don’t just get stronger.
  • Your eating habits don’t just get better.
  • Your attitude about your boss doesn’t just become more favorable.

 No, none of this stuff “just happens.” It all takes work. In fact, it all takes a fairly significant amount of intentional effort.

When I was in junior high, I played Pop Warner football. I was decent, and one particular season I decided that it wasn’t enough to simply be a two-way starter. I wanted to play every single down-to neverlittlefootball guy leave the field over the course of the game. I told my coach about my goal, and he chuckled then said, “Okay, Johnston, but you gotta want it!” In typical 8th grade guy fashion I replied, “Umm coach, I do want it, that’s why I said I wanted it.”

I had no idea what “wanting it” really meant. I assumed since I was a good football player and the coaches liked me that my transformation into a never-leave-the-field player would sorta “just happen,” because I hoped it would. My coaches had other plans. In their “coachy” way of thinking, I had to put in the work, prepare, and earn the right to never leave the field. I had to become better at punch coverage and staying in my lane on the kickoff team (stuff you football fans understand). I had to run extra wind sprints to ensure that I was fit enough to never need a break. I had no idea it would take such a significant amount of intentional effort!

This isn’t a story about transformation. It’s a story about what it takes to prepare the way for transformation. And regardless of where you hope to see transformation take place this year, it almost certainly won’t happen without a fairly significant amount of intentional effort.

 So here are some simple questions:

  • What area(s) of your life and ministry do you hope to see transformed this year? Are there some areas you have hoped transformation would “just happen”?
  • What do you need to do in order to help the process?
  • Are you willing to do what it takes? Because like my coach said, “You gotta want it!”





Skydiving was one thing I told myself I’d never do; I simply have had no desire. The old saying about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane made sense to me…why would I ever do something like that?

When my friends at Christ In Youth called and asked me if I’d be willing to jump out of an airplane as part of a new set of junior high training videos my first reaction was “HECK NO!” Really good youth ministry training happens all the time WITHOUT jumping from a plane! And then I realized something: I love JH youth workers and want to help people like you feel more confident in your ministry, CIY was inviting me to be part of a training opportunity, and the reality was that they were gonna do this with or without me. IF I DIDN’T WANT TO MISS OUT, I HAD TO JUMP! So yesterday that’s what I did. I was scared. I was certain I hadn’t be trained and equipped well enough. They told us we could back out at the last minute, and I was really tempted to do so (the only thing that kept me from tapping out was that the “flight of shame” back to the ground that would result from not jumping seemed like a far worse fate than actually jumping).

Sooner or later….and probably sooner….you will face a similar situation in your ministry to junior highers. An opportunity will present itself, you’ll like the idea, you’ll be afraid to “jump out of your comfort zone”, and will realize that if you don’t want to miss out, you’ll have to take a chance and JUMP!

- You may be asked to be a counselor at Summer Camp: JUMP!
- You may be asked to lead a 7th grade guys small group: JUMP!
- You may be asked to lead the big fund raiser: JUMP!
- You may be asked to dress up like a chicken and run a game: JUMP!
- You may be asked by a hurting student if you can talk for a minute: JUMP!

It’s permissible to go up in an airplane and NOT jump out of it…millions and millions and millions of people do just that. But it’s not nearly as thrilling as making the decision to jump out of a perfectly good one.

You can play it safe in JH ministry and only do the things you are comfortable with and know you will succeed at. But there will come a time when you are presented with the opportunity to jump….and I hope you will because that’s when junior high ministry gets really exciting!

Some days, ministry has a weight to it that can overwhelm you.

Perhaps this is an odd metaphor, but when God gives me a heavy message to share or significant task to do I feel like I’m like a delivery man who is cautiously transporting nuclear energy. What’s in my hands will either fuel lives with power or poison them with radiation-all based on how I handle it…or if I somehow trip in the process.

This tension only increases when we work alongside people who seem on guard against God or church.

bdos_teamI’ve experienced that sensation while leading three different Big Day of Serving events in Ohio. There’s a sort of dangerous thrill that comes with working with people behind-the-scenes who may or may not know Jesus Christ…all while you set up some powerful service projects for students to serve Jesus Christ.

It all begins with the first cold call and continues into the relationship you form behind-the-scenes. You can usually tell how certain personalities or people will be easier to work with than others. It’s a hurdle common to church environments, youth groups, and more.

This is when we’re tempted to start telling stories of transformation.

Have you ever noticed how when we’re trying to convince someone that something is worth doing, we default to telling the positive stories of life change as a selling point? It’s just as tempting to avoid mentioning the details that didn’t turn out like we wanted them to.

What do you feel like telling your church when you or your ministry are being evaluated? Do you share how your efforts have failed, or at least one story that seems to make it all worthwhile?

bdos_akron2I learned something at the last Big Day of Serving that humbled me on this.

My team was blessed to work with the mayor’s office in Akron, Ohio. They did a phenomenal job of identifying projects we could sink our teeth into and make a huge difference in.

One of those projects came through the passionate suggestions of a local resident who has been a bit of a thorn in the side of the city for years. He often writes letters to the newspaper, criticizing how the city isn’t doing its job like it should.

I don’t know how you’d respond to such a critic, but my temptation would be to fire back some emails on all the things we’re doing right.

(Again, this would be the moment I’d want to amplify “stories of transformation” as a shield to help deflect the impact of what I was hearing.)

A city as large as Akron could do the same thing, telling a critic how “We’re doing what we can,” or “We’ll get around to that sometime in the next budget year.” Instead, the city invited this gentleman to take part in the Big Day of Serving with us as a project leader.

Instead of raising a shield, they let him use his sword to help cut through the problem.

dogI met the man and his three-legged dog (who, incidentally, isn’t named “Lucky”) as we walked around the week before to preview a particular park he wanted cleaned up. It was obvious that this was a guy full of passion who had much to share about how things just weren’t getting done according to his perspective. The City representative not only listened to him, but (while wearing his usual dress clothes) followed the critic into the muddy woods to see things first-hand.

The whole time this was happening, I again felt that tension of whether or not this was going to end up amazing or blow up in our faces. It was a risk putting this critic in charge of a site that we’d be sending youth workers and students to. It didn’t help my fears when he used some loose language that I imagined I’d later read about in the evaluation forms that our work teams fill out after the event.

On the other hand, this man was as much a part of the reason why we were doing the Big Day of Serving work projects themselves. Maybe his soul was the real thing that our students would be “working on.” Could you just imagine the type of passionate, “Peter-like” Christ-follower this man could be if God somehow got hold of his life?

Maybe I should tell you the rest of the story.

There is one, by the way.

Instead, I’m going to end right here for now and dare you to live in this dangerous, nuclear tension I’m outlining.

Thom and Joanie Shultz describe it in their book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore:

  • bdos_workDivine Expectation: Realize that God is actively involved in everything, all the time. He has something dangerously thrilling for you to share and carry into the lives of other people. If you aren’t experiencing some “fear and trembling” in your ministry, quit being such an expert and remember how powerful the One you serve actually is.
  • Fearless Conversation: Make the cold call. Say several bold things in a message. Let others use loose, random language around you without you amplifying or mirroring it. Ask great questions, and let those around you do the same.
  • Genuine Humility: Carry a notebook and write down what you hear, seeking evaluation instead of praise. Be radically relational, honoring how God may be speaking to you through a voice you don’t want to hear.
  • Radical Hospitality: Make everyone feel as important as the world-changer Jesus says they actually are. Seek to understand them through the lens of caring curiosity, and create an on-ramp for them not to just join you…but so that you can also join them.

Carry and deliver whatever wild burden God gives you… hobble forward if that’s the best you can do.

hopeWhich reminds me of one last thing…

the three-legged dog?

Its actual name is “Hope.”

- – - -

I’d love to hear what you’re experiencing or learning in whatever your situation is. Please chime in.

Thank you for loving students!



*Love Tony’s insight on service and youth ministry? Receive his articles every Tuesday when you sign up for the SYM Today Newsletter!*


walter mitty

There are movies that are a great adventure.  Others make you wish you could get those minutes of your life back.  Then there are movies that teach you about yourself. The lead character resonates with you.  They remind you what you believe, who you are and why you have become the person you have. They may even teach us a little bit about ministry.

This is true of Walter Mitty, a 42 year old employee of Life Magazine.

You are on a path to be someone. There are dreams and convictions and passions. Then something happens.

Maybe, like Walter, you are 17 and your father dies.

Whatever it is, It changes everything. Responsibility creeps in, and you don’t take the chances you thought you would. It isn’t a bad life. You have love, family and even a purpose. However, it’s the moment we each realize that we just might not ever be a famous actor, professional athlete, or take the cover of a magazine. We just might be the “normal” we swore we would never be.

This is who Walter Mitty became. Working in the basement of Life Magazine, he is just sort of going through the every day. He loves, and laughs and day dreams. Then something pushes him out of merely existing. Adventure awaits, and he realizes what he has allowed to lay dormant for almost 20 years.

The Secret Life Of Mitty is a poignant, quirky, visually stunning story that unravels a journey that many of us have been through. It’s the moment in which we face the fact that the road we have walked in life may not be the one we desired. It’s the moment we know what we really want out of life is not about adventure at all.

This is not your “typical” Ben Stiller story full of crazy characters or even off-color humor. Instead,there is a part of each of us that deeply resonates with Walter and the world he interacts with. Broken relationships between men and women cause kids to get lost in the shuffle. Not every family deals with loss by becoming dysfunctional. Instead, sometimes we get “stuck.” We interact with trials, negativity and people who are mean.

Like the, The Way Way Back, this is a movie that shows us something about the way we approach life, and ministry. We must decide which “character” we want to be and who we know.

Do we take the journey? Climb over people? Do we just accept this is “how things are”?

Walter Mitty goes on a hunt for a lost picture. I wonder if we will be willing to take to the unknown to be with Jesus in the same way Walter wants to find this negative. In the end will we realize the journey teaches us more than we ever realize?  Will we learn to be present?

Will we realize as Walter did that sometimes it’s not about creating something, but it’s about savoring what’s right in front of us?

This is one of those movies you take your spouse or a friend to, and then you go and talk about it. I think Walter and the people in his path teach us a lot about who we are and who we might want to be.

What is a movie that has taught you about yourself?




The day starts out well—it’s a slow Saturday, and I’ve already spent some quiet time reading, then working out, then prepping for lunch with a bunch of my 10-year-old’s friends. My parents call while I’m in the middle of lunch prep—they want to stop by. I say, “Sure, come on over—after lunch.”

Meanwhile I hear my daughter Emma counting something in the other room—21, 22, 23, 24… Turns out, it’s the number of times the dogbroken flower pot we’re watching for friends has peed on our carpet. We quickly call our friends’ house-sitter to come get the dog. She shows up in the middle of the chaos of our lunch prep, which I had to put on hold so I could clean up some of the pee. My parents, who must not have heard “after lunch,” show up right behind her. And then Emma comes to confess she’s spilled “a little” dirt when the plant in her room fell over. I shoot down the hall to see what “a little dirt” looks like—and, of course, it’s a lot of dirt, along with muddy water staining the floor. A few minutes later Emma comes again to tell me she’s knocked over her glass gumball machine, shattering it all over her room. Shards of glass are mixed into a muddy-water-and-dirt stew on her floor.

Meanwhile, my wife has left to take our dog for a walk before a thunderstorm hits. I tell her to take an umbrella. She doesn’t. Five minutes after she leaves the skies let loose a downpour worthy of Noah. I jump in my car to go find her, but realize I didn’t bring my phone. I drive all over, but return to the house to get my phone. Meanwhile she has dragged herself back home, soaking wet. So we throw the dog in our sink to give her a bath, and I notice the gutters must be clogged because they’re pouring water onto our porch. In the driving downpour I go up the ladder to clear the blockage. Back inside, the dog is finally clean—she shakes off the water, right into the latte that was my one comfort on a terrible day… Inside I have a rage looking for a feasible outlet—there is nothing more infuriating than the relentless loss of control in our life.

The poet Robert Burns said: “The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” Do they ever! And when they do, our addiction to control is exposed… This addiction is, literally, the mother of all our addictions…


The Path of St. Dismas

The man historians often call Dismas is one of two thieves crucified with Jesus on the killing field called Golgotha. Very little is known about Dismas, other than the biblical account of his interchange with Jesus on the cross: “One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: ‘Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!’ But the other one made him shut up: ‘Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43, MSG).

stdismasAncient historians St. John Chrysostom and Pope Saint Gregory the Great say that Dismas likely lived in the desert, robbing or murdering anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. He was suspected of killing even his own brother. As a thief, he’s a primary example of grasping for control in life versus living in an attitude of radical trust—thieves take what they can’t gain lawfully, rather than earn it. And, in the end, the Romans take from thieves the control they have stolen—crucifixion is an extreme example of the loss of control. When you’re crucified your days of controlling things are over…

            Haven’t been crucified lately? Well, it doesn’t take much to expose our own addiction to control, as my “Saturday from hell” reminds me. In Matthew 21 Jesus describes Himself as “the Stone which the builders rejected” who has “become the chief cornerstone.” Here He is naming a truth—He is the Stone. But who are the builders, the people who see themselves as boss, as in charge of things? That would be us. We reject Him because we assume we are the builders, the ones who are really in control of things…

From the time of Adam and Eve until now, the headwaters of all our sin has been this lie: “You can be like God.” It’s a virus in our system that never goes away, just as people who get Chicken Pox as children can get shingles as adults, because the virus has stayed in their system. Control is at the root of all our sin, and it’s at war with our trust in God. As long as we hold onto our control, we can’t/won’t release it to God.


The Person of Paradise

To find our way out, we return to the story of St. Dismas the Bandit. On the cross, one thief gives up and gives in to abuse in the face of his loss of control. The other thief, instead, gives himself in complete trust to Jesus. And in response, Jesus promises that He will be with him in paradise that day. And “Paradise” is just another way of describing our opportunity to be intimately close to Jesus at all times, in all circumstances. To be with Jesus is to be in paradise. To know Him is eternal life. Paradise isn’t a place, it’s a person. And the things that expose and frustrate and steal our control make it possible for us to find the freedom of trust. And, in the end, Jesus is the good thief, because He takes from us what we’re sure we need to give to us what we have to have—Himself.

Like Dismas before us, the path to freedom from our captivity leads to our crucifixion—and on that cross, when control is exposed as a joke, we give over ourselves to an abandoned trust in Jesus. If you’ve never laid down your control and given yourself freely to Him, I invite you to take a little walk with Him to Golgotha, where you will find your life as you’re losing it.




Most of us know that Jesus should be a central part of our marriage.marriage_triangle

We talk to our students about Christ-centered relationships using the image to the right; explaining that as a couple maintains their focus on God and moves closer to Him, they will also move closer to one another. But what does that really mean? How does that look in the daily grind of a marriage with all its ups, downs, joys, struggles, and mediocre moments?

Obviously, none of us will ever measure up to the ideal. God should be first in our hearts and our minds every moment. If this were happening, it would be easier to love our spouses. The love would flow from Christ, and we’d have a wellspring of compassion, forgiveness, patience, and forbearance. We don’t know for sure, but our guess is that you’re just like us—you try real hard, but sin and life just keep getting in the way! This is normal and okay.

A true Jesus-centered marriage is one where both spouses strive to keep Christ as the focus—strive being the key word here. What does striving mean in a practical sense? It means that you should be evaluating yourself and your actions, and taking steps to be closer to God and to each other.

Here are a couple of questions to help you discern where Jesus is in your marriage:

1) Where does your identity come from?

Your full identity should come from Christ—not from your spouse, ministry, children, or wealth (we know you youth pastors have so much wealth!). He is the one that we should be looking to for our sense of worth and belonging. Yes, your spouse can be a great source of encouragement and support, but their love will always fall short of God’s love. What they can tell you about yourself will always be less than what God can affirm about your worthiness in Him. It’s important to keep bringing this to mind over the years and make sure you’re not putting unreasonable expectations on your spouse in this area.

2) Where does your example of love come from?

1 John 3:16 says, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (NLT) In marriage, it is easy to get caught up in a tit-for-tat kind of love—I’ll love you better when you love me more. This is especially true in rough seasons. However, Christ challenges us to love our spouse unconditionally, just as he loves us. This is difficult and will always be a work in-progress, but it is part of the Jesus-centered striving we should be doing in our marriages.

3) Where does your sense of hope come from?

Christ is the ultimate redeemer, rescuer, and rejuvenator. No matter how rough our marriages get, we can always hope in this promise: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God.” (Romans 8:28 NLT) When life gets tough, it is far better to stand with your spouse and look to Christ for rescue, rather than putting pressure on one another to fix whatever isn’t going right. This does not mean that counseling and professional help are to be ignored, but that with a willing heart to seek help, Christ can work miracles.

Thanks for loving each other and your students,

Jake and Melissa Kircher


*Don’t miss another marriage, family, or ministry tip from Jake & Melissa Kircher or Tim & Tasha Levert! Get their posts emailed directly to you every Friday when you subscribe to the SYM Today Newsletter!*