Ministry Journey Blog

Thoughts on Ministry

21 Feb

Online Article-Avoiding the Perils of Fundraising: Five Tips

Posted in Uncategorized on 21.02.12 by Merlyn

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)

Read the online article here

Avoiding the Perils of Fundraising: Five Tips

Most youth workers do not get excited about fundraising. Whether it is for the ministry budget, for the youth trips or to help fund something else, it is not in most youth workers’ nature to enjoy fundraising. Sometimes money can be seen as a necessary evil in ministry and rarely do we ever feel as though we have enough in churches, especially in recent years. Youth workers should not see fundraising as an enemy or a necessary evil. It is not the most meaningful or enjoyable part of my work with youth, but I have learned some things over the years that have helped with this area of youth ministry programming and leadership. These five tips are not the only things that need to be considered as we look at fundraising in youth ministry, but hopefully one or more of them are helpful to you.

Tip #1: Be Organized

Many people do not see youth ministry or youth workers as the organized type. While that can be an unfair characterization, the nature of youth ministry along with the personality of youth workers can tend to lead to more chaos than organization. Pulling off an event or youth group lesson at the last minute is very doable. Pulling off a fundraiser at the last minute is ill advised for many reasons. Chaos is difficult when you are raising money and failing to be organized often creates frustration amongst youth, parents and the congregation. The last thing you want to do when fundraising is to create negative experiences and emotions. Failing to be organized can hurt a fundraiser, but more importantly it ruin relationships as well as future fundraising efforts.

Tip #2: Know your Context

This tip applies to everything in ministry, which should be obvious to us, but I have often forgotten about context when planning fundraisers for youth ministry. For example, a youth auction (for the youth to work) is going to go well in a congregation with a lot of older members, but if most of the people in your church are under 60, it will not go so well. You are not likely to pull off a car wash if your church is located close to a car wash that has great prices and a great reputation, especially if its January and you live in Minnesota. When planning for your fundraisers, think about your church, your community and consider what other fundraisers are happening in the schools before you plan you fundraising efforts. Build fundraising traditions that will last and can best engage your youth, families, church and community.

Tip #3: Diversify

Make sure you have diversity in your fundraising efforts. I write about this in ‘Taking a Balanced Approach to Fundraising’ if you want to know more, but the summary of this tip is that you need to have variety to your fundraising. Offer different types of fundraisers at different times of the year. If you do not have diversity in what you do in fundraising, you will often miss a portion of your youth, church and community who may want to participate. Not everyone is good at selling things, nor is everyone’s life built for giving up a Saturday to work. Some families do not have much money to give, but have plenty of time, while others are just the opposite. If you do all your fundraising inside the church, you will miss out on opportunities to have visibility in your community. If you fundraise only in the community you miss the chance to build support for your ministry in your congregation. Make sure when you think about fundraising to mix things up.

Tip #4: Plan Ahead

This goes along with both tip #1 and #3, but the possible redundancy is worth it because these factors are important in fundraising. When I started at one church, I was asked if I could do a fundraiser that was not in May or June. Apparently all of the fundraising for mission trips that happened in July was done in May and June. Besides being a terrible time for fundraising, the lack of planning caused a lot of stress for everyone due to the lack of planning. Even if you work in a context where money is not an issue for your families, most people need to know ahead of time about costs and fundraising. Make sure to do most of your fundraising so that it is completed at least one month, if not two months, before the event you are trying to fundraise for.

Tip #5: Don’t see Fundraisers as an Enemy, but an Opportunity

If you have an attitude that fundraisers are the enemy or that you should not have to do them, you have already lost. As leaders, how we view things always impacts how well we do them and how well others respond to them. Many of our challenges around fundraising in youth ministry are directly related to our attitude towards them. Everything in life and ministry can be an opportunity. Sure, a mission trip is much more likely to create life change than a car wash, but if we see everything as an opportunity to help our youth and families encounter Christ, then our fundraisers can become meaningful experiences for our youth ministries.

Fundraising is not going away, and we need to consider our approach to this piece of youth ministry often treated as an annoyance when we should see it as an opportunity. Hopefully these tips can help us all to not only be more effective in our fundraising, but also in how we approach the parts of our job and ministry that we are not as passionate about.

Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 13 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (

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07 Feb

Online Article-Relational Fundraising

Posted in Uncategorized on 07.02.12 by Merlyn

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)

Read the online article here

Relational Fundraising

By Rev. Marcus J Carlson

There are countess articles, books and sermons discussing relational youth ministry. Relational youth ministry has become more than a buzz word as church and para-church youth workers have emphasized and practiced some form of relational youth ministry for decades in many cases. While there are multiple definitions and forms of relational youth ministry and it is not without its strengths and weaknesses, there is no question about the importance of this approach to ministry. I recently read a book about youth for teachers that had Harvard influences and much of the thrust of that book was on a relational approach to teaching when working with youth. Recently it struck me that perhaps the relational approach to ministry should be applied to fundraising. As I contemplated this notion, I realized several things that have shaped how I view and approach fundraising in youth ministry.

If I look back on my own ministry career, it is obvious to me that quality of relationship has had an impact on my ability to raise funds. I have also found this is true for many of the youth I know with a couple exceptions. Those exceptions tend to be the youth who are either incredible at selling things or are very hard workers. My most successful fundraising has happened in contexts where I have the best relationships. In church settings where I was not as successful at building relationships with parents, congregation members and the community, I struggled more with fundraising. In contexts where I had more success at building relationships with parents, congregation members and the community, I had significantly more success with fundraising. In ministry settings where I had great relationships, I have found I was able to raise $12,000 when I needed $8,000; I would get at $5,000 donation when I wanted to ask for $500. If I look at all of the youth I have worked with over time, those who had more social capital (more significant adult relationships) had overall better relationships with adults and congregation members and raised more money with greater ease.

It all sounds pretty obvious when you think about it right? It should, but the reality is that many ministry leaders, especially youth workers, struggle to have a complete, healthy, theologically solid approach to money and ministry. Whether it is concern over salary or budget, an inability to manage our own financial resources and our budgets, or give financially to the ministry, youth workers can struggle when it comes to ministry and money. Healthy relationships build trust and ownership. Where there is great relationship, there is trust and ownership; where there is trust and ownership, there is support. Money in ministry is not as much about resources or management as it is about relationship.

I am not suggesting youth workers or youth build relationships for the purpose of raising funds. That would be ineffective and more importantly wrong. One of the fruits of good relationships with parents, congregation members, businesses and other adults is a willingness to share financial resources with those people we love and trust. Thinking about relational fundraising is just another reminder that relationship is at the core of what being a Christ-follower is all about.

As youth workers, relational youth ministry should not be focused solely on our relationship with youth. While should be a priority, our ministries are much more powerful (financially and otherwise) when we focus on relationships with parents, youth, congregation members, and other adults and businesses in the community we serve. Relational fundraising is not about the dollars and cents; rather it is about our ability to build trust and ownership in our communities.


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07 Feb

Published Article-A Good Story

Posted in Uncategorized on 07.02.12 by Merlyn

Published in Connections Magazine (Jan/Feb 2012)

Learn about Connections here

A Good Story

By Rev. Marcus J Carlson

Everyone loves a good story. Whether shared by a family member, friend, stranger or colleague, we all seem to enjoy hearing a good story. Movies, television, books and other media provide us with many stories, ranging from terrible to life changing. There is something about a story that allows us to experience or see something in a way that we cannot without the story. The connection we find creates a unique link, parallel or understanding that enlightens us to our own life story as well.

One of the great tragedies in our culture today is that we do not often take the time to listen to the stories those around us have and need to tell. We all have a story to tell, and we do not often tell our own story. For whatever reason—even in the midst of our great love of stories and our need to connect to others in community—we have neglected to share and listen to the stories of those around us.

While we are willing to consume the stories that can be enjoyed through various media, our individualistic nature has caused us to avoid sharing our stories with each other. It has caused us to forget that those around us have a story they desperately want to share. This is true for people of all ages, but especially for children, youth and emerging adults.

My own two children (ages four and six) are always sharing stories with me. It is one of the ways they seek to connect with their father (notice the parallel with ourselves and God in this). The youth I encounter also have a story they want

to share, and they need adults who invite the sharing of their story without judgment.

We forget that the Bible—often treated like an unneeded, dusty instruction book—is filled with stories. The Bible is a series of stories of God, humanity and the world. The Scriptures tell the larger story, of which we are a part and with which we need to connect. It’s a story that will show us the very heart of God, as well as who we are and all that God has in store for all of creation. We are all a part of God’s story—and the more we connect to that story, the more we are able to recognize that God is writing a story in our lives. The more we engage with the God who loves us unconditionally, the more we are able to see where and how we fit into His story.

There are also a lot of false stories we encounter each day. The culture often has a story for us, as well as for our children and youth, that is far from the story that God desires for us to hear, experience and embrace. The stories our children are being told are causing them deep pain and leaving them feeling abandoned and alone. Our children and youth are constantly being told by individuals, groups and organizations that they are not good enough and that they do not matter.

I read various studies on children and youth; whether the studies are from 1970, 2000 or today, they demonstrate that our children and youth are hurting and have been told a false story. While the circumstances of their lives and the details of the stories they are being told have changed, the stories continue to be painful.

The challenges our children and youth face have and continue to change, but there are truths that have not changed. Our children and youth have always—and will always—need their parents, as well as other positive adult relationships. Parents will always be the most significant and important influence in the lives of their children and youth, especially when it comes to their spiritual lives and their relationship with God and His church. The stories we tell (and do not tell) our children are, and will continue to be, the stories that shape their lives the most.

While we may never have a more entertaining and attractive story than the ones that are told in our culture, we do have access to the most important story, a story that is different, the only story that can lead to abundant life. We have the greatest story ever told—God’s story.

As parents, as adults who are in relationship with children and youth around us and as followers of Jesus, we need to tell His story and our story. Parents and other adults who share their faith and their faith story with children and youth have a powerful impact on the lives of those children and youth.

One of the most significant influences—if not the most significant influence—in the faith of children or youth is the faith of their parents. One of the best things we can do for our children as parents is to grow our own faith, and then share that faith with our children. We rarely share our faith with others, especially with those closest to us. As parents and as adults we must share our faith and our story with not only our own children and youth, but also with all children and youth with whom we have the privilege of having a relationship.

We must allow our children and youth to see our faith, to see our relationship with Jesus Christ, to see that we, too, are trying to understand and experience the great story God desires to write in our lives. We must authentically and honestly live out our faith for the sake of our children and youth. We must allow them to see our victories, our questions, our strengths, our doubts, our failures and our scars. If we as followers of Jesus can share the story God is writing in, around and through us, then they will see the story God is writing in their lives as well.

Our children and youth (along with the world) need to be told a different story, a new story, a story of love, grace, hope and redemption. As followers of Jesus we are called to be a part of the world, but we are also called to give Christ power in our lives, not the world.

As we engage with the greatest story ever told, may we also remember that while we have the great joy of knowing and sharing the story, the most powerful part of God’s story is that we know the storyteller. May we never forget to engage with God’s story, listen to the stories around us and share our story with those we encounter—especially with our children and youth.

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07 Feb

Published Article-Simply Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized on 07.02.12 by Merlyn

Published in Connections Magazine (Nov/Dec 2011)

Learn about Connections here

Simply Christmas

By Rev. Marcus J Carlson

Christmas is certainly one of my favorite times of the year. I would love to be able to say it is only because of the birth of Christ—but if I am honest, while that is the main reason I love Christmas, it is not the only reason. The reality is I love everything about Christmas—well, almost everything. I will admit I am not in love with all of the consumerism, nor do I enjoy shopping with the multitudes. Thankfully, I usually finish early. I enjoy the preparatory and anticipatory nature of Advent. I love Christmas parties, time with friends and family, sending and receiving Christmas cards, and eggnog, to name a few things.

I have a mild obsession with Christmas decorating, aspiring to be a slightly classier Clark Griswold. In fact, last year I had so many decorations inside and outside of the house, we could not have the Christmas lights on and operate our garage door without blowing a breaker. I have since solved the problem with an electrical upgrade rather than a decoration downgrade. Those who love Christmas usually have one thing they hang on to—and maybe take a little further than the average person. For me, that thing is holiday decorating.

The love for Christmas is rooted in my upbringing, even though my parents were not at all churched. While I have continued this love for Christmas, I have also found my love for the holiday has taken its own unique form, especially since I became a father. With children ages four and six, Christmas is filled with a very special magic that reminds me what it really means to celebrate: to anticipate and to have a childlike faith. I love the children’s excitement for Christmas—their inability to sleep Christmas Eve, the looks

on their faces Christmas morning, their joy in receiving gifts. My hope is that their joy is about more than gifts, but I am also realistic about the world in which I live. I, too, love gifts, and each of us—no matter how much we resist the consumer nature of our culture—have stuff we like. Like many men, I love gadgets, especially from a particular store that has a partially- eaten fruit as its logo.

In the midst of all that comes with Christmas—much of which can be a huge distraction from the real meaning of the holiday—there is always a moment where it finally feels like the coming of the Christ is upon me. The singing of Silent Night on Christmas Eve is the moment where I am most aware of the coming of the Christ child. It’s a simple song, full of power and beauty. Christ came to earth in such a unique, humble, powerful, unexpected and simple way. Our North American culture, including the church, has lost sight of much of the real meaning of Christmas, and even the most faithful Christ followers can get caught up in all of the other stuff surrounding Christmas. Our Christmas celebration today looks nothing like the first Christmas.

One of my good friends, a colleague and a brother in Christ I have known since college, once offered me a challenge regarding Christmas. He and his wife had made a decision to try and keep Christmas simple for their children. They decided that each year they would ask their children to find a toy they really liked—not a toy that was junky or never used—and at Christmas time have them give that item away to a charity to be given to a child in need. They also decided to limit the gifts for their children to three gifts to match the number of gifts that the Christ child received.

At first, I thought the idea was noble—but also probably too much for me. Upon further reflection, there was something about the simplicity of this approach that resonated with me. As my wife Jessica and I discussed the thought (and pondered how poorly this idea would land with the grandparents), we realized we wanted a different Christmas experience for our own children. One of our great hopes and dreams as parents is that our children would be raised to know, experience and live out those things that really matter to Jesus. We want our children to be missional, to see the world as Christ does: caring for the least, the last and the lost, and ignoring the world’s values and messages that are sometimes too quickly accepted by the church.

One of the values that we believe is a kingdom value, but not necessarily a cultural value, is simplicity. In the end, we decided to scale down Christmas, not exactly to the extent my friend suggested, but pretty close. It was interesting telling our parents that we were only allowing three gifts from them for each kid, and it has been interesting enforcing it as well. We had to make an exception for clothing, recognizing that most kids don’t see clothing as a “gift”—and without clothing from our parents at Christmas, our children might have to walk around unclothed.

Exceptions and enforcement aside, it has been a great gift to us and to our children. Christmas is cheaper, simpler and more focused on what matters. We explain the number of gifts to our kids, reminding them of what the holiday is all about. We hope that as they grow up, they might enjoy the gifts that come with Christmas, but more importantly to know the One who is the giver of all gifts and has given us the greatest gift of all, Himself.

Like any loving parent, I want my children to have the best life possible, but I must have the strength to remember that the best life is the life Christ has for them, not the life our culture tells me they “need.” In embracing simplicity, we connect in a deeper way to the power of Christmas and teach our children and youth a little bit more about God’s kingdom values.

I love all of the trappings of Christmas just as much, if not more than the next person, but I have also come to realize that as a follower of Jesus, a pastor, a parent and as a human being, I need to embrace a different way of seeing and experiencing Christmas. God sent the Christ child to earth in this unique way for more reasons than we will ever be able to comprehend, and I am convinced that one of those reasons is so we might constantly embrace simplicity in our lives. When we fully embrace our culture’s version of Christmas, we miss out on the abundant experience Christ has for us—and in some ways, we fail to be a light to those who need to experience the Christ child.

May all Christ followers be people who enjoy the gifts of the Christmas season, embracing simplicity and allowing the God of the universe to redeem this holy day for all. Amen.

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07 Feb

Published Article-Legacy

Posted in Uncategorized on 07.02.12 by Merlyn

Published in Connections Magazine (Sept/Oct 2011)

Learn about Connections here


By Rev. Marcus J Carlson

A Christ-centered legacy should be just that—centered on Christ. We are called to change, to be transformed. That is the call to discipleship. That is what it means to follow Jesus. Our everyday life should be put before God. Every decision, everything we do, our relationships, our choices, our decisions, our work, our resources—all should be placed before God as an offering.

It’s not just about what we do—it’s about what God is doing. Legacy comes from God. Who we are is because of who God has created us to be. Embracing what God is doing is the best thing we can do for God. Being attentive to what the spirit of God is doing in our midst is where power and legacy are found. Looking for God’s dream, His kingdom revealed around us. This is truly countercultural. It’s the opposite of what the world says, but to be honest, the world has gone absolutely crazy. Let’s not let the world dictate who we are, what we do and what our legacy is.

Instead, let’s look to the God who created us and become our true selves, to be transformed into the persons that God has created us to be. True and meaningful change—a real and powerful legacy—is impossible without God. We are called to give ourselves and every aspect of our lives completely to God. The more I interact with and minister to children and youth, the more I learn. Certainly as a parent, I feel I often learn more from my children than I teach them, especially about God. As I interact with the various Gospel passages where Jesus has an interaction with or something to say about children, I find that each day I understand a little more of why it is that Jesus valued children so much.

The other day I was tired and overwhelmed with my task list, so I took the chance to lie in my hammock with my iPod on as I read through my sermon for that weekend. My son Micah, who is almost 6, joined me in the hammock with his iPod as well. At one point he poked me to get my attention. Not wanting to be disturbed at the moment (and a bit agitated at the interruption), I was able to catch myself and remember what Jesus did in a moment like this. I took the headphones out of my ear and asked Micah what he needed. He then proceeded to explain the Trinity to me with great passion and excitement. It was an amazing moment. I found his childlike theology of the Trinity to be very powerful and meaningful—in many ways, he had a greater understanding than most in the church.

The Trinity is complicated and requires one to embrace mystery in order to fully accept the concept. Perhaps this is why children have a greater understanding of theological truths, because they are able to embrace mystery with greater ease. Micah ended his theological lesson by exclaiming how great it is that we have the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was a proud and profound moment, and I found that I learned a thing or two.

My sermon that weekend was on this topic of legacy. Unfortunately, I was not able to connect this moment with my son to my sermon as I perhaps should have. After the weekend, I was able to reflect on what God was doing and saying in the moment in the hammock with my son, as well as what God was saying to me as I attempted to bring His Word to the people of our congregation.

As I continue to think about this moment and my own thoughts on legacy, I realize that the issue of legacy is a key issue for our culture today. If we do not start to take legacy seriously, the church is going to suffer greatly—both now and in the future. So much of our legacy is found and lived out by our own children, as well as the children and youth with whom we interact. God does not wait until children are adults to use them, nor does God speak only to adults who can best understand what God says. The story of Samuel is an obvious and powerful illustration of that. The thing that

Samuel got right (as well as Eli, who mentored him) was that Samuel was willing to listen. His first posture, his first response to God was to listen. This may be perhaps one of the most powerful gifts that children can offer to us, and it may be a reason why children have such a genuine and powerful understanding of God.

Legacy starts with listening—listening to God as He speaks in our relationships, our circumstances, through our worship, in creation, in His Word and more. Listening leads us to a place of humility and submission. We cannot have a legacy without listening, and more specifically, listening to God. Listening

leads us to something greater than ourselves. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9). I try to make this my posture for life. I try to think and act on this in each moment, big or small. Listening means hearing something, whether it’s good, strange or hard to hear. Listening in our culture is abnormal, especially listening to God. When we listen to God we are often called to things that might seem strange or even wrong in our culture. Yet, we are called to come to Jesus like a child, willing to listen and go wherever God leads—no matter how strange, difficult, awkward or surprising that calling might be.

Our legacy is not found in what we do, what we have or even what we achieve. Our legacy is found in God, who is the author of all legacy. Our legacy as adults, ministers, parents, grandparents, mentors and followers of Jesus is found in our relationship with the God of the universe, His people (especially His children and youth), as well as His world.

My son Micah, in that simple moment in the hammock, reminded me of the joy of listening to the God of the universe. He also reminded me of what is most important in life. The whole church must come together to bring about God’s dream, His kingdom, to this world. We need all of God’s people to work together to care for the children and youth in our midst—not just for the sake of the future, but because God has called us to love all of those around us in a real, radical and powerful way.

To what kind of legacy is God calling us? What do we want to do to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth? How can we listen to, pour into, and mentor the children and youth around us so that we can leave a powerful legacy that will allow the church to be all Christ has called it to be, both now and in the future?

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02 Feb

Online Article-Using Traditions to add Value to Mission Trips

Posted in Uncategorized on 02.02.12 by Merlyn

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal) January 2012

Foot Washing: A Vision for Mission Trip Leadership

Like many youth workers, one of my favorite parts of doing youth ministry are mission trips. They are powerful, fun, and incredibly effective. It is an amazing opportunity not only to learn and serve, but to have the kind of time with our youth we wish we had all throughout the year. In most of my ministry contexts, mission trips have been one of the most significant programs in the youth ministry. The power that comes in serving others is unquestionable, and the impact and importance of service for children and youth is only increasing. Recently, all significant books in the area of youth ministry discuss about service.

Over the years, the most important image from Scripture that casts a vision for mission trips in my own life in ministry is the story of the foot washing in the Gospel of John. The power and implications of this text are far too deep and wide to fully examine in this article, but it’s a text that all Christ-followers, especially those serving in ministry leadership positions, should carefully examine and reflect upon. Every mission trip under my direction has included a foot-washing service, usually towards the end of the trip. For the majority of those trips, the foot-washing portion of service has been conducted exactly the same way. During the service, I personally go around the room and wash the feet of each and every youth and adult leader from our group. After washing their feet, I take some time to pray for them. It’s a prayer I trust the Holy Spirit to provide, but I also take time all week thinking about how I can best pray for them. After finishing washing the feet and praying for each person on the team, I invite the team to what I call ‘open bucket time.’ I tell the team (youth and adults) they can use the next several moments to continue to pray, but also if they desire to wash one another’s feet. Some of my most meaningful moments as a Christ-follower, a leader, and a youth worker have happened during this time. Whether it is watching youth reconcile with one another by washing each other’s feet, siblings engaging in the intimate act of foot washing with one another, or having youth wash my own feet, the power, humility, and intimacy is overwhelming. I cannot take credit at all for this service or this model, as I (and we), are simply imitating what Christ did in the upper room for His disciples. We are simply honoring his call to ‘wash one another’s feet.’ This moment in the upper room is one of the most intimate moments in Scripture. Foot washing is a powerful imitation of Christ. It is the physical expression of what our lives as Christ-followers should be. It is the image of what missions and service should be all about. Our culture and our youth are perhaps more narcissistic and entitled than ever before, yet we desperately crave community. We need meaning and significance, we need to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves, and we need to know that what we do and who we are makes a difference in the world. In this simple act of foot washing, Jesus has given us an answer to all of these challenges and needs and as long as our heart is focused on the God of the universe who got down on his hands and knees and washed the feet of his disciples, we will find an answer to all these needs and more. We will find a model for discipleship, service and leadership that can and will change the world.

As a Christ-follower, leader, and youth worker, there is no greater act for me than to get down on my hands and knees and wash the feet of those I love, serve with, and lead as we all seek to be imitators of our Lord Jesus Christ. The foot washing is more than just a powerful moment to be imitated; it is a model and vision for missions and leadership in the church and the world.

Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 13 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (

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