Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

Youth & Campus Ministry Burnout with Mark DeVries | Podcast Season 05, Episode 04


In today’s episode, we had the pleasure of chatting with Mark DeVries, the co-founder of the Ministry Architects and the Center for Youth Ministry Training. Mark brings a wealth of experience, having served as the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville for 28 years. He joked with us that he is a Youth Minister who is about to enter into Medicare. We are excited to share with you his insights and experiences in youth ministry. 

Reflecting on a pivotal moment in his ministry career, Mark opens up about facing burnout in the early 2000s. He emphasizes the crucial need for ministry leaders to have a coach or spiritual director, saying: “I often say to our staff, if you are a coach and you do not have a coach, you are a hypocrite. You don’t really believe in coaching; you just believe in your job.”

Mark delves into his exploration of systems using the Edwin Friedman Model, highlighting the significance of addressing underlying system issues rather than merely dealing with surface-level content problems.

Drawing on a powerful metaphor, Mark encourages the creation of an “island of viral health” within an organization. He suggests that even in challenging environments, leaders can architect a healthy culture for their ministry.

We are confident that you will discover many, many nuggets of wisdom in this insightful conversation with Mark DeVries.

Each week, we ask our guest to highlight an organization that is doing good work. Mark talks about a local organization in Nashville, the Presbyterian Latinx Ministry Fund, which provides ESL, food pantry, and other support to Nashville’s Latinx community.

Related Resources:

This discussion refers to the Edwin Friedman Model of Family Systems Thinking. You can learn more about that model here.

About our guest:

Ministry Incubators co-founder Mark DeVries is a serial ministry innovator, having founded numerous sustainable ministry enterprises, most notably Ministry Architects, whose team of consultants has worked with over 1,000 ministries around the country.

Mark is also co-founder of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and the founder of Justice Industries. He served as the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville for 28 years. Mark is the author of a dozen books, including Sustainable Youth Ministry and Family-Based Youth Ministry, and the co-author of Sustainable Children’s Ministry and Sustainable Young Adult Ministry.

Mark and Susan have been married since 1979 and make their home in Nashville. They have three grown children, Adam, Debbie, and Leigh, and four grandchildren, Parish, Nealy, Liam, and Jack.

Episode Transcript

Rose: Today, please welcome my guests, Ministry Incubator’s co-founder Mark DeVries, who is a serial ministry innovator, having founded numerous sustainable ministry enterprises, most notably Ministry Architects whose team of consultants has worked with over a thousand ministries around the country. Mark is also the co-founder of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and the founder of Justice Industries. He served as the associate pastor for youth and their families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville for 28 years. Mark is the author of a dozen books, including Sustainable Youth Ministry and Family-based Youth Ministry, and the co-author of Sustainable Children’s Ministry and Sustainable Young Adult Ministry. Mark and Susan have been married since 1979 and make their home in Nashville. They have three grown children, Adam, Debbie, and Lee, and four grandchildren, Parish, Neely, Liam, and Jack. Welcome, Mark. I’ve been looking forward to our conversation.

Mark: Thank you, Rose. Yeah, that was exciting to go down memory lane with you. Thank you.

Rose: I bet. I bet you’ve done a lot. You are a ministry incubator. I love that title for you, that you innovate and you incubate these ministries. So I have been looking forward to our conversation and I’d love to just start out like I do with everyone else so far on this season. Can you just tell us a bit of your story and how did you begin working with youth?

Mark: Well, my dad is a pastor, and so I grew up in the church, found myself at 11 years old with my parents divorcing, and I then moved to Texas across the country to be with my mom. And she of course made sure that I was in church on Sundays and had a wonderful little church in beautiful Waco, Texas, a little Presbyterian church. In Waco, there are more Baptists than there are humans. That’s a population statistic. And so I had my little Presbyterian church there. And then as I was moving into high school, got involved in Young Life and was quite active in Young Life as a high school kid. Then went on to be a Young Life leader for a year, which I assumed would be my vocation for life, that I was just going to be a youth leader. And after a year with Young Life, a church hired me to do youth ministry, which I did for the rest of college. And then, for three years after college, and then the crazy church started raising money for me to go to seminary and thought, I’m just going to be a youth pastor. Why do I need to go to seminary? But next thing I knew, I was pulling up to Farber Road in Princeton, New Jersey, and went to seminary there and led a Young Life club for those three years while I was in New Jersey. Then in 1986, I graduated. First Presbyterian Church of Nashville called me as their youth pastor where I stayed until I retired. 

Rose: As the youth pastor? 

Mark: As the youth pastor.

Rose: Wow. 28 years. 

Mark: Yeah, I left there in 2014 to pursue Ministry Architects, Ministry Incubators, and these other enterprises on a more full-time basis. But in 2002, so about halfway through this journey, we launched, I moved to a part-time role at the church, which was actually one of the secrets about burnout that we’re going to talk about. But what led me to move to that part-time role was a spiritual director who recognized my burnout and how toasty I was. And so went to a part-time role in 2002 and then just did, my first child was going off to college, and so I have half of the salary I had before, and I just assumed I had written a book. Everybody wants to hear me talk because I’ve written a book and I found that other than my mother, there weren’t a lot and she didn’t want to pay. So it was a tough couple years. The piece of this story I love to tell is that for two years I sold my blood at the plasma bank for 70 bucks a week. Twice a week I’d go sell my blood.

Rose: That takes being bi-vocational to a new level. It really does. It does. Okay. But I’ve heard this story from other pastors. So go, yes.

Mark: So by God’s grace, someone invited me to do consulting, and if they’d have said, do you do nuclear physics? I’d have said, sure, I do that. So I got to do some youth ministry consulting at a church in Atlanta. They were wildly gracious, and that led to a longer contract with them, which led to somebody else. And so yeah, as you mentioned, we probably have worked with about a thousand congregations now. So I left First Pres 2014. I formerly retired as a pastor in 2019, and I went from the largest church in the presbytery to a tiny little church where we’ve been doing some crazy experiments with young adults and I, anyway, all that’s to say it’s gotten me to this season. And Rose, I’ll expect a little bit of congratulations on this. In one and a half days I will begin Medicare. So I’m a youth pastor about to step onto Medicare. So anyway, that’s

Rose: Congratulations. Congratulations. 

Mark: Thank you for that encouragement.

Mark: So we’re in that sort of liminal space of living into a new call that is faithful with where God has brought us to this place, but moving out of having to run anything. So I’ve transitioned the leadership of Ministry Architects to Trey Wentz, who is a marvelous leader, and Kenda Dean and I, who was my partner Ministry Incubators. We hope to do a similar transition to someone in the next few years. So I’m in that phase of really when Kenda and I started Ministry Incubators, we said, we’ve gotten to sort of live our dream and get our ideas out there. Now let’s just spend some time getting the ideas, getting the ideas of somebody else out there. So it’s been such a throughout, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kenda, but Kenda is, I am wildly brilliant and one of the most creative humans in the world and absolutely hilarious. And so the Ministry Incubators team has now had close to 350 projects that have gone through this incubation process. They’re just little hair-brained ideas when they come to the beginning of a hackathon, and then by the time they’re done, they give a pitch. It’s kind of like, its not “Shark Tank”, it’s Dolphin Tank. It’s a lot kinder. 

Rose: Okay. Yes. Well, I am so, I’m so impressed, honestly, with just your years of service and so many years spent with youth, and also the fact that you actually were the co-founder for Youth Ministry Training and they are still doing good work today. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that the Center for Youth Ministry Training is doing? 

Mark: Absolutely. It is. Yeah. Deechj Kirk is the executive director, has been from the very beginning, and the Center for Youth Ministry training was really designed to provide master’s level, like a master’s level residency for people doing youth ministry. So rather than going off to school for three years and then doing youth ministry, you take all these master’s level courses and you get paid for working in a church. So you’re actually getting a master’s degree without paying any tuition. And then, there’s a coach outside of your congregation that you’re placed in that’s also providing support. It’s this beautiful full-orbed. You’ve got the congregation, you’ve got the coach, you’ve got the classroom, and all of these sort of work together. And over the last few years, they have received quite a number of significant grants that have allowed them to move into the space of innovation. But that crew, Andrew Zirschky was the academic director. He now is working full-time at Austin Seminary, but Andrew would be a great person to talk to or Deech, but I would say the wrong number. But when Deech tells me how many students have gone through CYMT, it’s usually 20 per class for 15 years, whatever that is. So putting out… 

Rose: I love the components and calling it a residency because that’s what you do in residency. You still maybe have coursework, but you’re on the job learning and you have a mentor. It’s like you’re in the lab, so to speak. And so I think that is wonderful. So you wrote in your book that you have a chapter on systems versus content thinking. Can you tell us about that? I love Systems Thinking, so I want to hear what you think about that in relation to youth ministry.

Mark: Well, probably like you Rose, Ed Friedman plays in the back of my head all the time.

Rose: Yes, yes, yes.

Mark: So the book Failure Nerve is just got to be a standard for, and it’s not a book that you get the content, it’s a book that gives you a lens for seeing the world in that way. It’s kind of like the Enneagram in some way. It just gives you a lens for looking at life, ministry, families, whatever. So content thinking versus systems thinking. We usually think in a congregation, if they’re having a battle, the battle is about something. It’s about the carpet or it’s about we don’t have enough money or how are we going to, we don’t like this pastor, or whatever it is. And almost always, there’s a system problem fueling whatever the content point of conflict is. And so we use that Freidman’s language. It’s an emotional system you can feel when you walk into the room. In youth ministry, there’s a difference between a room of kids that are ready to sing and a group of kids that are not ready to sing or ready to talk and not ready to talk. But we think, oh, it’s just peer pressure. And we try to address the content problem when in fact, the invitation is to get underneath that and address these sort of systems issues. In fact, in our young adult book, we identify 17 systems, which is a little bit more, I mean, we’re actually giving content language devotional process, but so it’s like you go and take your car into the shop for a 39 point diagnostic. So things like your database affects the feel of a group. Things like your recruiting system for volunteers, things like your discipleship path. All of that plays underneath, but it’s, it’s what some people refer to as below the waterline and above the waterline. So system stuff is all below the waterline. And almost always we are trained to do the above the waterline stuff. So which also includes this issues around self-care that I know we’re going to get to here in a minute, but we want to suggest that if, let me use another metaphor if I can. In the children’s book, we talk about tools. So imagine you have a flat tire and you’re just using your fingers to loosen the lug nuts that’s going straight to content thinking, I know we can solve this problem with the carpet or, and often you come in with all this extra anxiety and it just leaves your hands bloody and frustrated. The tool is like, you got the jack, you got the lug wrench, you got all the things that work together in us. So the body is a system of systems. So skeletal system is hundreds of individual bones. And so often we think of those pieces of the system and say, oh, if I can solve that, I got it all. And so where we see this in youth ministry is language around if we can just, oh, I know if we can just get some more cute boys and cute girls, or if we can just get the right curriculum, whatever it is. But those… 

Rose: More programming. more fun. 

Mark: More fun, more discipleship, more fun discipleship. We need more sports. Oh, we need to do it like Young Life, whatever it is. But the whole idea is when you’ve got a healthy system in place, a lousy program works just fine. The above the waterline stuff works just fine when all those other things are in place, because I want to give you another story. I know I’m way off the topic, but I went to, we were working with a church, I won’t say where or what denomination, but they had built a really beautiful system underneath their program. And I was there to observe the youth ministry in the evening. And I was a little concerned. This was a small group for junior high boys. And the topic, the theme they were on was the eight theories of the Atonement one week on each theory of the Atonement. And I thought, this will never work. That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. But these kids were so wildly engaged, it didn’t matter what the topic was, they’d created this culture where we engaged and we asked a lot of questions. And so that just…

Rose: No, that is a good story. Backing up what you said, that if you have a healthy system, even if you have lousy programming, it kind of can work. Not to say that their  eight theories of Atonement was lousy programming. I don’t want to put, I mean, I’m sure, but for middle aged boys, you wouldn’t think that would be the most interesting topic for them to engage. And I just heard you say something like, when we talk about systems, you just actually, we could also talk about what is the culture. So my wondering with you is being a youth pastor for so long, when I talk to some youth pastors today, they can sort of set, I mean if they’re already in an unhealthy system in a church, what they say to me is, I don’t have a lot of power to change what the senior leaders are doing. And this becomes a huge dilemma for some of them because they really would like to have out the system for their youth group. They want to set a healthy culture. That’s another way we could say the culture that they want to have, the culture they’re setting, but they often feel that they have their hands tied behind their back because they don’t get the final say on these things. What do you say to youth pastors in that place?

Mark: I say you get to build an island of viral health.

Rose: I like that.

Mark: It may be very small, but you don’t have to. It’s like… I use the metaphor of the greenhouse. You can architect culture. There are ways of storytelling and showing some results and ritualizing, there are ways of actually crafting culture that’s more like architecture to create this sort of undefinable feel of culture. And a lot of times we put our mind out there on all the things we can’t control. What you can control is every kid in our ministry gets a personal touch from me at least once a month or every time there is a staff meeting, I have someone around that table to thank for something they’ve done in a kid’s life. Right?

Rose: Yes. Say more, say more. This is really good because you’re right, and this goes back to systems theory and managing our anxiety. When you’re in a system that’s anxious, I can’t control the whole system, but I can control my response to the system. That’s what I kind of hear you saying.

Mark: Yeah. And one of the things I can tell you probably love about Friedman as I do is just as emphasis on playfulness.

Rose: Yes.

Mark: Sometimes I call it napping, non-anxious, playful presence.

Rose: Yes. I like that.

Mark: It’s just this, we may not win this thing, but here’s my favorite rule in youth ministry. You don’t have to win for it to win. It doesn’t have to work for it to work. You don’t have to have a great program to create an amazing disciple or be the right word, but you get the idea.

Rose: Yes,

Mark: It, it’s the ecosystem that makes disciples. And so long we’ve depended on these sort of fragmented models like, oh, this curriculum will make disciples. No, the curriculum will not make disciples or this model of the baseball diamond or whatever idea de jour happens to be. But the whole idea is building this ecosystem of where things just grow and healthy things grow because we tend to the whole system. But again, farming, there are things you do. You don’t say, well, I can’t grow. I can’t grow this like they do in China. Well, no, you got to grow what you can grow, but you can create, now here’s the deal, it’s going to take two or three years to move the culture. And part of it is when you trust that process, you’re just smiling and saying, we’re going to get there. My favorite example is when we go into churches and we say, we really feel like you can change your volunteer culture. Well, you don’t understand. People at our church, they don’t volunteer. And we sort of had a tongue in cheek, a hundred dollar bet and said, if you’ll work this process and you don’t have all the volunteers you need, then I’ll give you a hundred bucks. But typically it’s just working the very clear process. And then once people say, oh, that kind of works, and then the culture starts to shift. But all through that process, people are saying, well, it’s just what I told you. People around here don’t volunteer. Nobody here, RSVPs free events. They sign up at the, everybody signs up at all that negativity. So we just get to smile and say, okay, we’re- we’re going to keep working this process and pretty confident it’s going to be okay.

Rose: Yes. And so for when we talk about youth pastors, youth leaders, campus ministry leaders, your advice to them, even if they’re in an unhealthy system, it might be so toxic, they need to get out. That’s a whole other story. But if that’s not the case, but they feel stuck around senior leadership decisions, what you are saying is create your culture. You can create an island of holistic health for you and the kids that you serve, the youth that you serve, the young adults that you serve…

Mark: And their parents and the volunteers.

Rose: Yes, yes. All of the whole system. It’s very holistic thinking. Listen, you mentioned that you had a spiritual director that pointed out that you could be on, tell us, because that’s another thing. You’re speaking my language. We’re trying to say care for youth pastors. Youth leaders, campus ministers. Maybe there might be moments they need a therapist if that’s the issue, but spiritual directors really help them center in on what is happening for them. So will you say a little bit about your experience with that?

Mark: Yes, I’ll need a little runway. Both Incubators and Architects are coaching organizations. And I often say to our staff, if you are a coach and you do not have a coach, you are a hypocrite. You don’t really believe in coaching, you just believe in your job. So I really believe the healthiest people in ministry build a constellation of coaches, directors, therapists. And so some of them are formal and ought to be paid, and some of them are more informal, but everybody needs a financial coach. And most people in ministry think about that, about the time they’re my age, and everybody needs somebody to help ’em take care of their body. And everybody needs somebody to help ’em take care of their primary relationships. So marriages and children and grandchildren, parents, all that stuff, everybody needs somebody to help ’em take care of their vocation. So a ministry coach. Then to take care of their own spiritual life, their own emotional health. You’ve probably seen this, some study said that over 50% of pastors said they didn’t have one friend.

Rose: Yes, yes, yes. No, again, you’re so speaking our language at the Center for Transforming Engagement, we have an offering that’s called mapping your life. And it’s just what you’re saying where you literally map who are your people. Our three streams of resilience are people, practices and purpose. And so who are the people? And again, I want our listeners, especially if you’re a youth pastor, a non-paid youth pastor, a lay youth leader, a campus minister that doesn’t have the money. When you hear us talking like, yeah, in what world do you get to have all those mentors? I would say, and maybe you would say this as well, if you can’t afford it, you can seek out people. Find someone that you respect that has a good marriage, and if you need help for your marriage, go to your boss. Whoever holds the purse strings, ask for an allowance to say, I would like to see a spiritual director once a month for this. My motto is, the answer is always no unless you ask. And so be good at being able to see the people that you think could speak into your life and just ask them. And what would you say if somebody is listening to us going, I’d love to build that constellation, but I don’t get paid for what I do.

Mark: Yeah. All the more, the more there are, when the students are ready, the teacher will come. If we pray for a spiritual director or we pray for a coach, my spiritual director was a 70 year old doctor from my church whom I really respected. And there have been seasons when I said, I’m going through a pretty dramatic change in my life. I need a therapist. So I’d have a therapist for two years or three years. I’m in that season right now as I move through this liminal space. It’s just too important not to be accompanied. We were designed for these, what’s the Celtic word? Adam Cara, the soul friend, right? Designed to have these soul friends that walk with us. So it need not be a financial exchange, though. There will be times when it might need to be. And most people that are being paid for youth ministry also have a continuing ed budget. And now that conferences have shrunk in so many ways, many people are saying, well, what do I do with this? Buy a book? But hiring a coach is, and what’s interesting for people who think, I don’t want to be embarrassed to say, I need a coach.Only, I don’t have a coach for my running because I run a 14 minute mile. I don’t need a coach to run a 14 minute mile, but an Olympian needs a coach any place that we want to be excellent in. And I just want to nuance what you said. You said, if your marriage needs help, I would say don’t wait until then.

Rose: Right. Yes, absolutely.

Mark: Have your ecosystem in place where you’re surrounding yourself with couples that you go, “oh, it just feels normal to live healthily, to love each other and honor each other with our words”. Right? Yeah. So I do think there are lots of great resources, but if I were starting over again, I had a ConEd budget, I would, instead of going to Youth Specialties Conference, which I loved and no longer exist. 

Rose: Yes, I remember those.

Mark: I would, I just have a coach. I’d get a ministry coach that could help me. The beauty of a ministry coach is they sort of function as a spiritual director, a marriage coach. I mean, it’s this sort of 360 degree look at our lives where we get, it’s the one place where you don’t feel this reciprocal responsibility to take care of the person, which most people do all the time, right? 

Rose: That’s right. Wow. When we look around the current environment that our youth pastors, campus ministry ministers are ministering in, it’s hard out there. They are facing very, very unique challenges in this day and age. We don’t have to get into all of that because we know in a post 2020 world, all of the stuff that got exacerbated and uncovered, and so even more so now, just so important for them to, I love your constellation of coaches, constellation of people that fit the needs, what they’re needing today. So I just really, really appreciate your wisdom. I do. And just so honored to hear your story, to hear all of the ways that you think about these things and all the ways that you incubate and innovate, because I think it’s so needed today in so many ways. The world has changed. And so there has to be innovation. So I so appreciate that. And as we sort of wind down, I just want to say we are so grateful for your time that you’re spending with us and want to end by giving you space to give a shout out to an organization that you see doing good work. We’ll make a donation to them, and we’ll ask our listeners too as well.

Mark: Fabulous. Well, I love the sound of that. Well, here in Nashville, it’s just a tiny little localized ministry that has sort of won my heart. It is a ministry to Spanish speaking folks here in Nashville, and it’s through our Presbytery. So it would all go through the Middle Tennessee presbytery. And it’s a combination food bank ESL program. And then we’re relaunching a worship community right there. And the horrible news is the food bank is so wildly necessary, and it’s not uncommon for there to be a parking lot full of people an hour before the food gets distributed. And then I get to go to these graduations from, they do an eight week term of ESL, and they’re just learning a few things specific to their workplace or school or whatever. And it was so dear, it’s just they get a certificate and you think this is the first time since some of these people have been in our country that they have been cheered, that they’ve been celebrated. And so we just call it Latinx Ministry Initiative or something like that at the Presbytery Middle Tennessee. There’s just, God has provided an amazing constellation of staff who work for next to nothing and love this community. And it’s so fledgling. I mean, it’s so fragile. We’re in the first year and a half. It’s very fragile, incubating, but it is, you can tell it kind of got my heart.

Rose: It sounds beautiful. It sounds beautiful. And yes, I can tell, we can hear your heart as you even describe it. So what we’ll do is we’ll get links from you in order for us and others to make a donation. And we’ll make sure that that gets in the show notes of this episode. So we’ll get all of that and any other links we want to put in the show notes, we’ll be sure to put there. But Mark, thank you for all your years of service, and boy do I bless you in this liminal space and what will come next for you. But thank you so, so much for spending this time with us and giving us your wisdom.

Mark: What a delight to be with you. And yeah, I would say our time absolutely flew by. So thank you for your patience with my meandering.  We’re wandering well. Wandering well.