Recharge and Accelerate!
With an unwavering commitment to the gospel, Awana reaches nearly five million kids every week in 126 countries, making disciples of children and youth from every background and leading them to know, love and serve Jesus for the rest of their lives.
Valerie brings an extensive leadership background to this role, including having served as producer and part of the broadcast team of The Chapel of the Air radio ministry, a nationally-syndicated daily radio broadcast featured on more than 500 outlets across North America.
A lifelong advocate for children and families, Valerie is an award-winning author who shares her spiritual journey with refreshing honesty, gentle humor, and a hunger for God. She has published numerous books including: A Well-Tended Soul (Zondervan, 2000), Made to Be Loved (Moody Publishers, 1999), Resilient: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church (Awana Clubs International, 2019), An African Awakening: My Journey into AIDS Activism, (World Vision, 2007), Faith-Shaped Kids (Moody Publishers, 2001) and Getting Out of Your Kids Faces and Into Their Hearts (Zondervan, 1995).
Raised in a Christian home, Valerie came to faith as a child and has a strong respect for the spiritual journey of children. Today she serves as the CEO and 2050 vision caster for Awana’s mission to raise up the greatest generation of disciples—a generation prepared to both lead the church and influence the global culture.
As we near the end of a tumultuous 2020 can you share perspective on how in times like these we can thrive instead of just survive as leaders?
One thing we can say about 2020 is that it has been a year of extremes. Some leaders, like one of my sons (who is a psychotherapist and CEO of a large counseling practice), are experiencing a boom right now—an exhausting boom! Others are experiencing the opposite—the funding for their ministries is drying up. So while the effects of COVID are unevenly distributed (whether we are overwhelmed by a sudden boom or scraping to get by) I suspect a lot of leaders today are living with COVID-19 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many of us are so “out there” leading others that we don’t realize we are in a threatened state ourselves. For months we have been trying to make the right decisions in a changing and unknown world. Even though we realize everyone is in the same boat, it is a small comfort when so much depends on us getting it right.
But despite our best efforts, to lead in 2020 probably means we’ve experienced shrinking numbers, financial setbacks, threats to health and well-being, unrealistic expectations from so many directions informed by opinions that may be nothing more than people’s strong emotions. To lead under normal circumstances is stressful. Leading during COVID-19 is more than stressful. It can be utterly and completely depleting.
So first, let’s all agree that expectations for thriving need to be tempered this year. We are living through a life-threatening pandemic, a once-in-a-century global threat that no one seemed to have the answers for! I’d encourage all leaders to be kind to themselves and to each other.
But still, there are also exceptional leaders, those who actually do thrive during COVID. They are the rare leaders who recognize that this crisis should not be wasted. They realize that COVID came bearing exceptional gifts of new insight, remarkable endurance, laser focus and future-oriented thinking.
Personally, one of the gifts I am discovering is that Scripture is coming alive again to me as if it were written in neon.
Personally, one of the gifts I am discovering is that Scripture is coming alive again to me as if it were written in neon. It’s shouting to me. One of the most counterintuitive Scriptures has framed my expectations and personal goals for this year.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Rom. 5:3-4)
Strange as it may seem, hope is growing in the soil of my “COVID suffering” as I learn to be a more resilient disciple, and a leader who is maturing in trust for whatever the future may hold.
Also a huge help for my renewal in this strange year has been the “tried and true” rhythms that have been practiced by Christians for centuries. Through everything this world has thrown at humanity—world wars, displacement, persecutions and pandemics—Christians have found certain soul rhythms to be particularly comforting. I use a devotional book, Celtic Daily Prayer edited by Richard Foster, with an assigned reading for each day with accompanying Scriptures. The readings are both modern and ancient. The centuries-old wisdom in the words of Christian leaders and saints who have “gone before” is priceless. I read the assigned texts from a Bible with wide margins made for handwritten notes. Honestly, I’m praying more—by myself and with others. But these practices are rhythms that are strengthening me to meet the challenges of this year of craziness.
Our edition theme is “Recharge.” What are some insights from your book A Well-Tended Soul that can help leaders to recharge in such times?
I like the theme you’ve chosen: “Recharge.” It speaks to the rhythms of our souls—spiritual disciplines we can practice to nurture our own well-being. Like many leaders, too many times I have taken the crash-and-burn approach to soul care that ignores the symptomology of a life in trouble, a life needing to be recharged, until everything falls apart. Exhaustion, poor nutrition, avoiding exercise, lack of social support (a problem that often comes with the role of leading) can cause us to be crazy “end-zone” thinkers, i.e. quick to go to the worst case scenario!
Leaders need to be resilient; but how do we know if we are resilient or not? Well, what do we think about when we are exhausted, or when we’ve fallen down and failed? What tapes do we play over and over in our heads? What thoughts inhabit the darkest corners of our minds? What are we thinking that invites depression? What negative assumptions do we entertain about how others feel about us? What anxious ideas about the future do we obsess over?
When we bring all the thoughts from those dark corners out into the light, we often discover that our thinking is not actually based in reality. These negative thoughts are exaggerations, the results of exhaustion, social isolation, or nothing but overblown feelings. The feelings are real, but the thoughts are simply lies. Entertaining such thoughts day in and day out, is literally reinforcing hopelessness and draining our own soul’s batteries.
We need to recharge and learn how to be resilient by replacing those patterns of thinking with thoughts like, “God has never deserted me. He won’t now.” Or, “I choose to believe I will lead well through this challenging season. I won’t give up or give in." Or, “God has chosen me to lead through this time and he has gifted me with everything I need to succeed.” Then we can program our minds towards resilience and spiritual health.
Awana’s new book Resilient resonates today. How has resilience shown up as Awana has navigated this COVID crisis? Where have you seen God at work?
There is some irony here. Just a few months before COVID entered our lives, we released Resilient: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. This book is a call to raise up a global generation of Christians who not only know the Bible, but who are trained to be resilient in a world culture that is increasingly oppositional to Christian thought. It describes the need for this generation to be prepared for anything that might come their way. We defined resilience as a quality of spiritual elasticity, a resistant strength that bends and flexes but doesn’t break against the weight of culture.
Little did we know that COVID was right around the corner. Today Resilient is not just a book, but also how Awana is living out its mission. We are bending and flexing, but not breaking under the weight of COVID. With many churches struggling to adapt their children’s ministries to the realities of COVID, we find ourselves facing a year when 45% of our 9,000 churches did not start up their fall programming with us. While this is understandable in a year with so many moving parts, Awana’s concerns are twofold:
- Who is ministering to these kids at a time of great risk in their lives? Who is showing them what faith looks like in crisis? Who is seeing that this is the opportune time when the seeds of resilient discipleship can begin to take root in kids’ lives? Barna recently stated that COVID has the potential to accelerate the loss of faith with the younger generations. The short-term solution of some churches not to reach kids during this pandemic may have long-term, irreversible consequences.
- Then this is obviously a significant financial hit to Awana’s ministry—a financial crisis unlike anything Awana has faced in our 70-year history.
Actually, COVID has been a major accelerator for us.
As daunting as this year has been for Awana, we have seen God working in huge ways despite
Actually, COVID has been a major accelerator for us.
For a couple of years we knew we needed to publish digitally in weekend space. Now, because of COVID, we've quickly pivoted to publish two new curriculums called brite* and brite* for families that aren't for our usual mid-week space. This curriculum is the application for our new ministry philosophy around resilient discipleship. We know churches are hurting so we are also offering scholarships for churches that are currently struggling. Bottom line: there is nothing else like brite*. We are very proud of it.
We also knew we needed to become more donor centric in our income and support. COVID has accelerated that journey as well. We’re making asks as never before. We’re becoming increasingly bold. We’re trusting. We’re prayerful.
Like so many others usually hosting live conferencing, within a few weeks this summer it became clear to us that we needed to convert all of our training conferences to virtual/digital. We did! In a very quick turnaround we equipped and trained more than 10,000 Awana leaders online!
Besides being an accelerator, COVID has not stopped the ministry that is already in progress. Recently, the government of Zimbabwe, so impressed with the character of the children in their country who were Awana clubbers, invited us to bring Awana into all of their public schools! Partnering with Compassion International, Awana will soon be in 7,500 schools, training and equipping 35,000 teachers with the gospel to reach 3.5 million kids. That is a huge mission reach!
I could go on and on with COVID stories from all 126 Awana countries. There would be stories from Vietnam about Awana churches having taken in children abandoned by their families when it became too hard to feed them. And there are stories from here in the States as well. This year, despite COVID, we initiated ministry to two underserved groups in the States—Latino and inner-city churches.
What encouragement would you offer ministry leaders as they seek to lead with courage, vision and resilience today?
Don’t waste this crisis. Don’t let COVID stall you completely. Instead, ask how COVID might accelerate your ministry into the next future-forward pathway. And, oh yes, please take care of yourselves in this pandemic year.
To learn more, please visit www.awana.org.