At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, it took a few days for us to realize that much of our lives had just come to a screeching halt for no telling how long.

At first, it was not as terrifying as it was curious. We began asking the what questions. What does this mean? What will we be able to do? What will we not be able to do? What will choir look like? What will happen to corporate worship? What about summer mission trips? What about Holy Week?

We’re now asking what about Advent 2020.

Almost intuitively, we all dug deeply into our own personal resources and caches of experience to remember similar times when we needed to pull ministerial rabbits out of hats for unique and challenging chapters. Then it began to dawn on us that any falling back on past smoke and mirrors was not going to be an option; this road has never been walked before, at least not in modern history.

I led YouthCUE to quickly unveil an online course entitled ENHANCED LANDSCAPES 101. In recent retrospect, I think we came upon that title because landscaping has always been of interest to me. As a high-schooler, I worked springs and summers for a landscaper in my hometown. We dug up old shrubs, cleared away aggressive brush, and designed new, clean-looking concepts of gardens, lawns, patios, and terraces for clients who wanted to spruce up their surroundings with new color and more maintenance-free yards. It was hard work, but it never failed to be very fulfilling labor. At the end of the day, we could always tell where we had been and we could see the unmistakable progress of our work. Landscaping is healthy, good-for-the-soul kind of work.

Landscapes (as a concept) have also been of interest to me since my childhood, because I was taught from a young age to intelligently evaluate reality, take a hard look at potentials and possibilities, do some dreaming and fantasizing, and move forward with a sense of purpose and faith. Acting in faith has always come easy for me, not because I’m any kind of spiritual giant but probably because I may actually be a gambler at heart. Faith action is even more enticing to me when I read in Hebrews 11, “without faith, it is impossible to please God.” So, the landscape was always something to study, to analyze, newly discover, dream about, and surmount.

ENHANCED LANDSCAPES 101 was a study in finding new views and across-the-grain vantage points for what we had already been looking at for years. The lessons of Enhanced Landscapes included recognizing the new advantages of green parks, the grandeur of the Scottish countryside, the exhilaration of a dream come true through hard work, and the hidden potential of 1,000 damaged instruments within the Philadelphia public school system. All of this was common, everyday scenery around the world but now, in a new light, some of its exquisiteness is hopefully newly exposed.

As part of YouthCUE’s online courses, we offer not only the articles and some brief “homework assignments,” but we also provide Zoom sessions. During the Zoom collaborations, a dozen or so colleagues can come together from all over the country to discuss what’s going on with us during this “unprecedented time” (a highly overused phrase at this point). The focus of Enhanced Landscapes quickly morphed into quasi counseling sessions where we are encouraged to talk about how we are feeling and what we’re trying to accomplish with those feelings. Turns out we are all feeling about the same way. Disappointed. Sad. Unsure what to do. Uncertain as to whether I have what it takes to lead my choir through this “unprecedented time.” Feeling tired, sad, anxious, depressed, bored, unmotivated, overwhelmed, some days angry, irritated, isolated, lonely, and did I mention sad?

Total, we’ve had a couple of dozen Enhanced Landscapes Zoom classes, and all were well worth the time and effort. As far as we can tell, there was not a downer session in the bunch. Furthermore, probably eight or ten of these sessions were nothing short of stellar. The level of participation, energy, mutual vulnerability, and transparency were highly inspirational and truly encouraging.

The day we completed Lesson 7 in the Zoom sessions, the YouthCUE staff remarked that once again, it had been a great session with colleagues longstanding and new. And then, almost on cue, our staff began looking at each other and saying, “Have we now spent enough time navel-gazing about our feelings … at least for now? Is it possible that we’re about to a hit high center and possibly a point of inertia if we keep talking only about ourselves and our feelings for much longer?”

I am convinced that every session of Enhanced Landscapes was needed, and in some cases and for some participants, desperately needed. And for those of you who have not yet participated in this course, you still have time. We’re going to keep the lessons rotating and the Zoom sessions happening for Enhanced Landscapes as long as there is network-wide interest, because these rudimentary lessons are highly important for each of us. They provide an excellent portal of departure for what is to come.

That being said, we’re now also moving on to a new course entitled MINISTRY DESIGNS 2020. The purpose of MD2020 is to more actively stimulate our creative juices and to actually begin working action plans. We invite you to come and go as you will in these courses, to move in and out of them according to your own needs, schedule, and energy to absorb what we’re presenting. However, those who are the most regular with MD2020 will benefit the most from what we study and what we do.

Welcome aboard!


Here’s what you’ll need (your “textbooks,” so to speak)

All we do in MINISTRY DESIGNS 2020 is aimed at building your ministry both now and in the future. What you see below is NOT REQUIRED. You may come into each Zoom session as prepared or unprepared as you choose. However, those who prepare the most and most faithfully work the assignments will gain the most. And just as importantly, your students and your ministry will be the beneficiaries of your course work.

  1. You will be asked to practice some daily method of introspection and/or meditation. Some in our network practice daily meditation through an app or other means. Others read a daily devotional book or read one online. Others have a system of reading/studying scripture and daily prayer. All of these are good – whatever works for you will be fine. If you don’t have a discipline of this type already, we ask you to begin a daily time of reflection, meditation, prayer, journaling, whatever would work best for you. If you have nothing to draw from at this time, we will begin each lesson with a very brief reading and a short time of introspection and prayer.
  2. Through the website, we will announce Zoom sessions connected to specific lessons. You’ll need to follow instructions and email us to register for the specific Zoom class sessions.
  3. Get your note-writing materials (stationery, stamps, envelopes, address lists) together before class begins. Part of the course is going to involve writing some handwritten notes (or if your handwriting is problematic, they can be done on your laptop, desktop, or iPad and printed to hard copies). This note writing will not be overwhelming at all, but it will happen regularly.
  4. Be willing to, upon assignment, engage in something “organic.” That means doing something with your hands, gardening, cooking a real home-cooked meal, work in the yard, deliver boxes of food, volunteer couple of hours at the food bank, draw or paint an original piece of artwork, write a poem or song.
  5. Be willing to reduce your intake of social media as well as constant news feeds. Be willing to break the cycle of constant noise, opinions, “bombshell headlines,” and political fodder. Unplug completely or moderate your intake.
  6. Be willing to try out of the box thinking. Be willing to fail, to risk something big for something good.
  7. Be prepared to read some assignments online.


How many lessons will there be? At least 15 and not more than 26. A new lesson will appear on the website every Monday morning, the first on July 6.


When does MINISTRY DESIGNS 2020 begin?

Actually it’s already begun with this Course Description … can you tell? The whole thing is a work in progress by design – to demonstrate how your ministry can also be a work in progress – and we’ll all move through it together. You’ll soon see announcements on the website as well as MailChimp communiques, social media, and other notifications. In fact, it was probably one of those avenues that led you to this link to begin with.

Chapters will begin appearing on the website in the next several days, followed by announcements about Zoom class sessions.

It’s going to be fun and informative, and by the time we get to the end of the course together, we hope to be much better prepared in every way for the challenges ahead.

Blessings, colleagues and friends!