MLB’s Mike Matheny: Servant Leadership

The church is a common context in which to hear the term servant leadership. Pastors are told all the time how important it is to their ministries to be servants first, to lead by serving, and to remain humble in their leadership positions. We hear this so often in the church we’re probably numb to the idea.

Somewhere you might not expect to hear the concept of servant leadership discussed is Major League Baseball. Most of what we hear out of that world revolves around selfishness and greed. Winning and money are the two all-important end goals for most of the people who make their living in Major League Baseball.

But Mike Matheny, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, has adopted a servant-leadership model in his clubhouse rule. Check out this article about him. It’s an interesting perspective you don’t often see coming out of the world of professional sports.

Did you read it? So what do you think? If Major League Baseball can do it, surely the church can view it in a new light to keep an old concept from getting tired. Right?



As a youth ministry professor, I sometimes do consulting for churches. Often what the churches tells me goes something like this: “Our youth group just isn’t reaching students like we think they should be. What are we doing wrong?”

When I meet with the leaders of the youth ministry, invariably they are looking for a specific answer to their problem. They will show me all their programs, have me talk to the youth staff, parents, and maybe even the teenagers, and then we will all sit across the table. All eyes will peer expectantly at me, waiting for me to give them the answer they need to revitalize their ministry. They want me to tell them something like, “Well, it’s apparent that your youth room is the problem. If you will just paint it alternating stripes of neon orange and lime green, and if you will put in a kicking sound system, that should take care of your problem. You’ll soon have teenagers flocking to your church.”

The preceding may stretch the facts just a bit, but only a bit. The truth of the matter is, most of the churches are looking for quick answers to their youth ministry woes. What they aren’t looking for is what I want to help them find—a theological and biblical rationale for their youth ministry. Follow that up with a close examination of how that rationale is played out in their programs and ministries. In other words, I want them to examine why they do youth ministry. Only when they honestly confront that issue is it possible to then examine how to make the ministry more effective in reaching students for Christ.

Why is a biblical and theological rationale important to have? It is important because it allows us to shape our ministries on the very nature of the Godhead. For example, if we believe that God is love, how does our ministry reflect His love in all of its many facets? Similarly, if we believe that God is justice, how does this idea impact what we do and why we do it?

Unfortunately, far too many youth ministries practice the reverse. They allow their ministries and programs to shape what they know and teach about God. For example, one youth ministry I am familiar with routinely does a ritual hazing during its fall retreat with incoming seventh graders. The students are made to feel humiliated during this “ceremony” which officially adopts them into the group. While the youth pastor defends the practice, stating that, “It’s just a fun way to show them just how much we love them,” theologically this experience sends a distorted message to those seventh graders. “If this is love and acceptance,” they inwardly ask, “why should we be a part of it?” These students are experiencing cognitive dissonance because what they hear proclaimed—“love and community”—is not matching up with what is practiced. That is the result when we fail to start with theology and allow it to shape the ministry.

When we start with a theological and scriptural foundation, we can have assurance that what we do in ministry (our practices) appropriately reflects what we believe about God (our theological convictions) rather than just our whims, cultural trends, or the expectations of others.

Another church with which I’m familiar has chosen to allow their ministries to emerge out of their theological and scriptural understanding of God. This church, which does not have a professional youth pastor, takes seriously their theological tradition which is based on grace in its many forms—prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. This concept of grace is married to their understanding that all people (including adolescents) are made in the image of God which gives them unconditional value.

Very few adults in the church could verbalize these concepts, but they are deeply engrained in their very being. They understand that their role is not to convert students but to faithfully proclaim the gospel, creating regular opportunities for students to encounter God’s grace, and ultimately to allow God to do the converting. After students encounter the transforming power of grace, they are shown what it means to live Christlike lives as they in turn show grace to others.

This is one congregation that takes seriously the idea that their children and adolescents are a vital part of their community of faith. Their programs and ministries affirm this by allowing the students to be equal partners in ministry. This church has built its youth ministry on a theological and scriptural foundation. As a result, their ministry to youth is both wholistic and full of integrity.

Truth be told, it’s much easier to build and run a youth ministry that is not built on a biblical and theological foundation. We can go with the latest fad, follow the recent trend, and adopt the philosophy of the current hot speaker. But doing this only ensures that our students will never gain a true understanding of God and what He wants to do in their lives. It’s playing spiritual roulette with the lives of our students, hoping that one of the things we try will eventually work. Why would any youth worker want to follow this fast paced mad gamble of faith? Who would want to found their ministry on a blown-by-the-wind philosophy, that tries to bound from mountain top to mountain top until we are exhausted?

The purpose of this article is not to call you out if you are one of those folk. Rather, it is to encourage you to begin thinking about how your theological tradition and your personal beliefs about God can and should impact your ministry. I believe that through this practice you will discover a new sense of freedom in ministry. More importantly, you will help create a ministry that is faithful to your students and God. May it be so in your ministry.

Going Deeper: If this idea is new to you, here are some ways to get started Thinking Theologically About YOUR Youth Ministry:

  • Get by yourself or with all of your youth staff in a room with a white board. Brainstorm together and write your answers on the board. Start by asking these questions: What is our theology? What do we believe about God? If our youth ministry was to reflect God’s character, what would we change? What would stay the same?
  • When you sit down at any planning meeting, always ask “What is the purpose of this event/program?” “What is the underlying theological foundation?” “What does this event teach our youth about God and community?”
  • Rediscover your own theology. Read some basic or challenging theological works (such as Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, or The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard). As you reflect, ask yourself—how does what I am reading affect the youth ministry I am involved in?

James K. Hampton is an author, speaker and veteran youth worker who serves as Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary.


[Photo credit: matt1125]

Being a Theologian in Youth Ministry

I was nearing the end of a full day of consulting a large church on the state of their youth ministry. I had listened, taken notes, asked questions, and read their materials. I was now feeding back to them what they had said God was asking them to be and do in their youth ministry. I was not selling a specific program or particular philosophy, I was going deeper with them, to the heart of what the church means for kids and families.

The more I reflected with them on some of the specifics I had heard during the day–like God calls us to be a family of families, people are always more important than programs, we are always to seek unity, and our primary mission is to love God, each other, and the world–the more frustrated several of the elders and senior staff became. “Give us the model . . . and . . . find us the person to run it, and we’ll be fine!” When it came down to it, even after a day of dreaming, praying, reflecting on the mission statement of the church and the youth ministry, what the leadership wanted was not a thoughtful, theologically driven vision and strategy of serving the needs of the students and their families. They just wanted a model, and a program that “works”!

What does it mean for a youth ministry program to work? Or, to put it another way, what is the criteria for deciding if a ministry program works, and how does a church therefore measure success, evaluate staff, and plan for the future of the program? The answer lies in how what we do (and are) lines up with our theological convictions and calling. Every one of us has theological convictions, but it is more than common for what we believe and what we do to go in two different directions. The call of the Gospel is that God has invited us into His Kingdom work, and therefore the alignment of what this means with how we do youth ministry is central to our call.

Theologically-driven vision and strategy – When we don’t, When we do!

Theology can be a scary word. It is also such a common one that most people in ministry think they are supposed to know what it means, but when pressed they stumble for a concise definition. Simply put, theology is the process of considering what God thinks. It is bringing our story (work, life) in line with God’s revealed story in Christ’s Kingdom purposes and work. “Doing” theology, as some describe it, is when we go through the process of trying to figure out why and how God speaks to and counsels us toward the most appropriate response to a given situation, need, or circumstance. Thinking theologically means that our first criteria for success is not what “works,” as it is typically defined, but rather how what we do and how we live are in sync with God’s call to ministry and service (which, by the way, includes such issues as what makes sense in a given community, meets both real and felt needs of students, what honors family structures and issues, and yes, works!). “Theological reflection,” then, as Kenda Creasy Dean says, “keeps the practice of youth ministry focused on God instead of on us.”

When We Don’t Think Theologically

When we spend our time trying to be successful, to blindly implement a “successful” model, or to “grow” a ministry (none of which, by the way, are automatically not theologically appropriate) at the exclusion of first asking what God has revealed, thinks, and wants, we may ultimately undercut the very thing we are trying to accomplish. What sets youth ministry apart from other forms of youth work is our commitment to helping adolescents come to trust Christ and assimilate into the church. Concentrating on the looks or observable results of youth ministry before or instead of prayerfully working through a theological grid can sometimes make us look and even feel successful, but we may not be doing youth ministry.

Some things that can happen when we ignore the need to think theologically:

  1. Games are competition, and many kids, discouraged, check out;
  2. Trying to connect we end up spending our energy as a leadership team with those we like more, communicating to the fringe that they don’t matter;
  3. Our events do more damage than good, like announcing an “awesome” Father-daughter night in front of many girls who do not know their fathers.

These and other examples of how ministry can miss our intentions can happen to anyone, but a leader who takes the time to think theologically they will be far less common.

When We Do Think Theologically

Prayerfully seeking God’s intent for our ministry will provide a guide for everything from hiring staff to deciding on a mission trip to giving announcements. Using the above examples, here’s how a theologically committed youth ministry may look:

  1. Not wanting to do anything that excludes kids because of physical differences, games are used that levels the athletic playing field;
  2. A team will strategically assign leaders to kids, and constantly be on the lookout for any student that may be feeling ignored or marginalized;
  3. Exclusive events are advertised with sensitivity and creativity, so every person knows that, regardless of their particular situation, they belong as members of God’s family.

Summing Up – Be a Theologian!

Theology starts with the Bible. As we read it we ask, “What does our experience teach us, what has the Church said, and what is the reality of people’s lives today?” After these questions, theology goes back to the Bible to make sure what we are affirming God says is in fact true.

Step back, ask some hard questions, and give your kids a theologically aligned youth ministry!

[Guest Post by Chap Clark]