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Welcome to ChesterGoad.com!

Thanks for taking the time to drop by!  At ChesterGoad.com I’ve combined my three favorite topics, “Leadership, Learning, and Life”–all in one place.  I’m a leadership junkie. I read about it, I write about it, and I speak about it.  I also can’t stop learning and I’m driven to help others learn too! I’m pretty open and I enjoy sharing about my life and helping others find their purpose and meet their goals.   I can’t wait to share everything with you!  Subscribe or add me to your favorites list and visit often because I’ll be blogging, and adding new features regularly!  And of course remember if you need a speaker, writer, consultant or coach related to leadership, learning, or life, I’m your guy!  You’re going to find lots of cool stuff here. Keep leading. Keep learning. Keep living.

–All my best, all the time –Chester

p.s. Email me at chestergoad@gmail.com  or find me on your favorite social media! 

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17 Ways to Make Your Church More Welcoming

welcome sign

How welcoming is your church?

Is everyone welcome at your church? I know you’re thinking, “That’s crazy. Of course everyone is welcome.” Don’t be defensive my friend. I mean, really, really welcome. Like not just in theory, but in practice. If we want to be welcoming we have to be on the offense. We need to be proactive but we need to go deeper. Sure everyone may be welcome to come through that door, but what happens next? Entry is just the first step.  I’ve been working in the field of disabilities for over 10 years, and I’ve also been a youth pastor. I can tell you that people with disabilities don’t want to be treated like they’re special, in fact some people even hate that word. They just want to be treated like everyone else. So the best approach is working in advance to ensure that guests at your church of all abilities feel welcome.  So aside from guests, what about church members with disabilities? One of the most prominent truths that is pointed out to me by my friends with disabilities is this:  They don’t want to just feel welcome to attend the service, they want to be able to participate in the service. Worshipers of different abilities want to be able to lead or teach, or sing and experience God in as many ways as their non-disabled believing friends.  Below are 17 Tips to make your church more accessible and welcoming.

Resolve to take your disability access to the next level in your church. Church members take their cues from their leadership.  If the leadership makes accessing worship and all the benefits of your church seriously, then the congregation will follow suit. (Well, most of them, but we can pray right?).  Also, some churches may need to adapt or shift their philosophy from simply “providing services for respite” for families touched by disability (which certainly may be important) to finding more ways for them to worship together as a family. Sure, respite ministries for families who have a severely disabled family member unable to attend church, are helpful, but the heavier focus should be on inclusive worship, and giving everyone an opportunity to lead, participate and access the services at your church.

Remember this! Disabled access is more than just accessible parking. After all, it’s getting everyone into the church and then helping them find ways to engage with God that’s most important– but of course improving your grounds and parking access is a great way to start. Make sure you have plenty of “Accessible Parking.” The term “accessible parking” is becoming more common and is the most acceptable term–(“disabled parking” is ok).  Ensure that the designated accessible parking is located closest to the most accessible entrance and that it’s clearly marked.  As an aside, be sure to offer accessible parking for individuals in cars, and for people in vans or larger vehicles as well.

Look for a sign. Signage and directions are important and helpful for everyone.  You really can’t overdo the signage as long as it’s clearly labeled. It’s also not much more expensive to add braille to your church doors inside the building as well for your blind or visually impaired guests—especially on the bathrooms.

Let your people “Go”. Speaking of restrooms. Individuals with a variety of disabilities need the appropriate “sturdy” bars and handles and adequate space. Many churches still don’t have adequate bathroom stalls for disabled members and guests.  Accessible bathroom stalls are non-negotiables really.  Guests won’t be back if a prospective church doesn’t offer a private, adequate space to take care of basic needs. Besides, everyone can benefit from more spacious bathrooms, better signage, grab bars, and appropriately sized sinks, right?  The most intuitive tools are best: example, touch-less faucets that don’t require twisting, towel dispensers or dryers that don’t require pushing or pulling.

Labels! Ok so it’s one goal of the church to avoid labels maybe, but not where food is concerned. It’s really best practice for everyone to label foods and snacks that are made available especially at official church functions like Homecoming Dinners, Christmas, and Thanksgiving feasts. When there are ten bowls of potato salad on the table, it’s always good to know which bowl of potato salad is your favorite, like the one made by your Aunt Ethel, right? Some people have strong food sensitivities and listing a name for the dish, the ingredients, and who prepared it is just another way to make the event, and your church all the more welcoming for everyone. It may be awkward at first, but it’ll soon become a helpful tradition.  Important note: visitors with strong or life-threatening allergies beyond simpler sensitivities may not choose to attend, but just in case they do, at least show that you care by warning about nuts, eggs, and other serious allergens.

Stop cramming! Make the written word accessible. I’m not talking about THE WORD, (that should always be easily accessible), I’m talking about church bulletins, hand-outs, and anything you put into the hands of people in your church.  Big tip—white space is always helpful.  We’ve all seen church bulletins that are crammed so full and the words are so small they’re almost illegible. It’s frustrating for everyone, especially anyone over 40 (Yes, I went there).  White space is not only pleasing, it helps readers visually organize information, and it helps those with visual disabilities as well.  No font should ever be smaller than 12 pt. in a church-wide bulletin, and yes that means, you may have to use more paper. Remember, it’s about being welcoming and accessible. When it comes to font styles and themes, some fonts are better choices than others for people with visual disabilities, and for learning disabilities.  Avoid using curly, squiggly fonts that can be confusing. Times New Roman, Arial, and Verdana are all good choices, but there are many out there.  Also, it’s super helpful to spread the information around. If you offer information in written form on paper, offer it on the web, and project it onto screens. Why not go wild, and add an audio file on your church webpage, too!

Project your welcome too! Much of what was said in number 5 applies to what you project on your worship screens as well.  Add lots of space between what’s written, and remember certain fonts are better than others, while keeping your font-size readable.  It’s easy enough to add more slides.  When it comes to your screen projection, pay attention to color contrasts also. Of course, if you have announcements on your slides, try your best to have those same announcements represented in other places as well. Above all make it a point to encourage speakers and worship leaders to describe what’s on the slide as they’re presenting at any opportunity.two men worshiping arms raised

Caption this! Add captions and transcripts when and where you can. This one can be controversial because of the costs involved. Many churches are on a limited budget and most churches don’t have captionists or transcription experts on staff (or even in the congregation for that matter). Consider this: when something is spoken, whether on a video or in your church service, there’s probably someone present who can’t hear it.  Captioning and transcription helps everyone, not just people with disabilities access and appreciate the information.  There are some very quick and easy captioning services.  Rev.com is a great and quick resource. While sites like Rev may be considered reasonable in the everyday captioning world, captioning is still not cheap (think a dollar a minute on a minimum).  Online services can take your sermon or your church video (with a link or uploaded file) and have it captioned or transcribed literally in a few hours. Captions take your videos and services to another level and everyone can benefit.

Untangle your web. Church websites are becoming increasingly valuable, helpful resources, but many church websites are still not accessible to people with a variety of disabilities– especially those with visual impairments or blindness.  Ask your church web designer to add an accessibility checker widget to your website. Some enhancements are really quite simple.  If you add photos to your website, go in and add a photo description and “alt-tags”. If you upload a PDF, be sure it’s an accessible PDF. Otherwise, a blind person using a screen reader to surf your website will only see a random “image” message rather than the words you intend for them to read.  Also, fancy flashing photos and moving web pages are often inaccessible. Some such effects can even cause seizures. If you have videos or audio on your website it’s always best to caption them. Ask yourself this: Is your website meant to be entertaining or informational? Don’t sacrifice the message for fancy features. You can have a classy, clean or fun site without sacrificing accessibility. It’s about making everyone feel more welcome and letting them know you took the time to make a difference just for them.

Amplify the Word. Many churches are providing headsets, FM systems, or small pocket amplifiers for checkout during service hours. Even a small church can have a couple of those on hand. They don’t have to be expensive. In fact, many have become very reasonable.  It may be as simple as the speaker wearing a transmitter around their neck or pinning it to their lapel which amplifies the message to the person wearing the receiving device. Your church should also have noise reducing disposable earplugs available, and maybe even a set of noise canceling head phones (more pricey) for people who have difficulty with loud noises or loud music.

Adapt Your Curriculum, Programs, and Resources. If you want to be welcoming, look into a variety of adaptable materials. Many are even reasonably low-cost.  For example, people of different abilities and ages may have trouble with small pens, pencils or crayons. It’s best to have a variety of sizes available in the pews and in the classroom. Also, your recreation department may want to have adaptable recreation equipment on hand. It is also thoughtful to have alternative instructional materials, and enlarged print copies of materials or at least the ability to get them.  Assess the needs of students and participants in your classes, courses, and programming. Unfortunately, many people hold back on their needs until they’re asked.

Engage. Most church leaders already try to find ways to engage the congregation more. This is particularly helpful for people with attentional issues, and people who like tactile, hands-on activities. Consider purchasing a clicker system (an automatic audience response system).  These systems are integrated with your projector.  Wanna survey the flock or check for understanding? Do you want to gauge your congregation’s opinions or thoughts on a particular subject or check to see if their views are anywhere close to in-line with the latest research? Clicker response systems will give you immediate feedback that will post results and project onto your screen right as you ask the question. Just be sure to purchase an accessible clicker system so everyone can be involved, and remember to read the results with the congregation, otherwise your visually impaired guests and members won’t be able to participate and that will defeat the purpose right?  Some clicker systems can be easily integrated with your members’ and guests’ cell phones with little to no other equipment needed.

church doors with wreaths

Get Feedback! Speaking of surveys. The best way to know what your congregation needs or wants is to survey them regularly. If there’s something you need to know, take a survey. There are some great free online survey resources. Be sure to offer your survey on paper too.  You might start with topical surveys. “How welcoming is our parking situation?” or you might choose a comprehensive approach about facilities, programs, and services.  Some churches are incorporating online anonymous comments and suggestions.  Be sure to listen, and let people know you used the surveys in your decision-making, and remember some responses should be taken with a grain of salt, and others with expedience. They key is letting them know the feedback matters.

Make your welcome official! Consider making a welcome packet for families with connections related to disabilities or at least make those resources available in your current welcome packet. Sometimes people just need to know they’re welcome, and they need to hear it and see evidence that you really care.

Assume competence! Train your staff to always assume that people with disabilities no matter how seemingly simple or complex the disability, are competent and able to participate, they just may need some adaptations.

Check it out! Church libraries and media centers should provide a variety of materials and resources. It’s great to have plenty of audio resources and books on hand as well or at least a way for members to request or order them. The church library is also a great built-in resource to start a request or check-in/check-out service for assistive technologies or picking up a disposable set of noise reducing ear plugs.

Go team! Start an access team, or dare I suggest, “committee.” An access team or committee can address accessibility in your church and find ways to make your services and programs more accessible. If you initiate a team, it’s great to have some people with differing abilities on the team for perspective.  If your church is larger and has the resources, nothing would say you care about these issues more than adding a paid-staff member to your leadership—maybe a Pastor or Director of Welcome and Access. These teams or individuals can consistently address not only needs of people with varying abilities, but they can also assist in plugging people into the church service and leadership roles and making sure the facility, events, and resources are accessible to everyone.

In the end, the most welcoming aspect of a church is the attitudes, openness, and compassion of its people. Taking action by doing any or all of the tips I’ve listed will begin to send the message that everyone matters at your church and that everyone is not only welcome to attend, but to participate in sharing a message that will impact hearts and ultimately change the world.

*This article first appeared as a guest post on Greg Atkinson’s blog. Greg is founder of Worship Impressions and has a cool new book called Church Mystery Shopper.  You should check it out! 

BIO: Dr. Chester Goad is a university administrator and graduate instructor, a former K12 principal and teacher, former US Congressional staffer, author and blogger.  He is co-author of Tennessee’s “Dyslexia Is Real” law and he has presented on disability and leadership-related topics from Appalachia to Africa.  He sits on nationally recognized disability related boards.  A leader in education, non-profit advocacy, parenting issues, access and policy, Chester has been quoted in major media outlets such as CNBC, Yahoo, the Washington Post, Forbes Leadership, and others. He is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and Edutopia. More importantly, he loves God and is an active member of his local church. You can learn more about Chester by visiting his website at www.chestergoad.com. He and his wife live in Tennessee with their teenage son. 

Twitter: @Chesterwgoad

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Unique Partnership Shines Light and LOVE on American Heroes and You Can Be a Part of It

zach williams performing at grand ole opry

NASHVILLE, TN – MAY 28: Zach Williams performs onstage at the 5th Annual KLOVE Fan Awards at The Grand Ole Opry on May 28, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for KLOVE)

If you missed the 5th Annual K-Love Awards in Nashville this year, the opportunity to catch the event has not fully passed. K-LOVE recently collaborated with the Military Warriors Support Foundation to pull off a star-studded evening honoring military heroes in addition to the many music artists recognized each year. This Tuesday, the entire event may be showing at a theater near you.  In fact, thanks to an additional partnership with Fathom Events, over 500 theaters across the US will be offering “The K-LOVE Fan Awards: Ignite Hope” event.

K-LOVE weekend is an annual event, and this year’s highlight presented two of America’s military families with a newly renovated, mortgage-free home through the Military Warriors Support Foundation.  The event held at Nashville’s Historic Grand Ole Opry, on May 28, was hosted by Emmy award winner, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and four time Grammy nominee, Matthew West.

While it was a fun-filled night jam packed with moving performances by Crowder, Britt Nicole, For King and Country, Mandisa, MercyMe, and others, the most impactful was the honoring of our military and wounded warriors, creating lasting memories for families who have experienced tremendous sacrifice.

Veteran army specialist, Lander Chappell and his family were recipients of one of the free newly renovated homes, and says the event surpassed his expectations.

“The K-LOVE Fan Awards was unlike anything I expected and went above and beyond my expectations.”

Chappell joined the military because he wanted “something better for his life, and wanted to show his family that we make our own destiny.” He was injured in Afghanistan on June 12, 2012, when he stepped onto a pressure plated IED and lost his right leg, as well as some muscle from his left calf, and severely damaged his left ankle.  Chappell credits his family and specifically his wife, Shaquani  also a military veteran, for her patience and for motivating him through all of his happiest and most trying times.  Lander Chappell is also a recipient of the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and several other Army medals. He plans to return to the K-LOVE fan awards in the future.

NASHVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Military Warriors Support Foundation attend the 5th Annual KLOVE Fan Awards at The Grand Ole Opry on May 28, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for KLOVE)

NASHVILLE, TN – MAY 28: Military Warriors Support Foundation attend the 5th Annual KLOVE Fan Awards at The Grand Ole Opry on May 28, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for KLOVE)

“It was truly a blessing to be a part of an amazing event, and I can’t wait for next year.”

Cahin Perez, another wounded Army soldier, and his wife Karen, also recipients of a mortgage free home though the MWSF, echoed those sentiments.  Cahin, whose motto is “Never quit. Never give up,” attended the K-LOVE Fan Awards ceremony with his family. Cahin joined the Army because he “felt the need to serve his country” and that he “always wanted to serve in the infantry.” He was injured in November 2015, when he was involved in a Humvee accident at Fort Campbell, KY as he was returning from a live fire exercise.  The Humvee overturned crushing his leg and his shoulder, and he sustained head injuries resulting from a seat belt malfunction. When he awakened at Vanderbilt Medical Center he learned one leg had been amputated and he could no longer use his arm.  He has since learned to walk again.

Perez family receives key to new home

NASHVILLE, TN – MAY 28: Military Warriors Support Foundation attend the 5th Annual KLOVE Fan Awards at The Grand Ole Opry on May 28, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for KLOVE)

The Military Warriors Support Foundation provides support and programs for America’s combat wounded heroes and Gold Star families and Dave Lieske, Vice President for Military Warriors Support Foundation, looks forward to continuing those efforts—“The outpouring of love and support from K-LOVE, and the fans was deeply moving! We look forward to supporting more Heroes in the future.”

K-LOVE Awards: Ignite Hope is scheduled for one night only on Tuesday, June 13th at 7 p.m. If you want to share the love, check your local movie listings for locations. The K-LOVE Radio Network provides 531 signals in 48 states from New York City, to Philadelphia, Nashville and across the country.

Learn more about the Military Warriors Support Foundation

Find out more about K-LOVE Awards: Ignite Hope

Follow K-LOVE

Follow Military Warriors Support Foundation

Follow Chester

This article first appeared here on HuffPo 

 (All photos used with permission)
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Identity & What Really Matters with Colton Dixon

colton dixon thumbprint album cover for identity

Colton Dixon Identity Cover/ Credit: Jeremy Cowart

Colton Dixon is a man of faith, a husband, and a son, but lately he also seems to have settled into his identity as an artist as well. So as an artist, who happens to be a person of faith with a desire to make great music, he hopes to encourage and help others in their search for their own identity.  These days he’s enjoying life and he’s more confident, in a good way, though he’ll be the first to admit that hasn’t always been the case.

“The first year I tried out for Idol (American Idol), the whole struggle with ego and pride sunk in. Even in how I talked with my family. It wasn’t too serious, and I think everyone in the industry deals with that at some point or another.”

Still the former American Idol finalist, admits that at one time pride was a challenge until he says he realized the platform he’d been given was not his own and that it came with responsibility.

“I think a platform is something that is borrowed, and now it’s something God gives me every night. So putting that into perspective, I think God was waiting on me—and so he opened the door for me again the next year, and that second time I was much more prepared.”

Indeed he was. Dixon placed 7th that season, and has since performed for over a million fans alongside renowned artists like Toby Mac and Third Day. His debut album grabbed the industry’s attention, setting the record for the biggest first week sales by a solo Christian artist, and the number one selling album by a Christian artist that year. His second album, Anchor with hit single “More of You” was the most played adult contemporary single for 2014.  Fast-forward two Dove Awards, and several K-Love nominations later, to his latest album Identity.

Now a more rooted artist and a married man, Colton Dixon is singing about the identity he’s finally established not only in the music industry but with family, and more importantly with his faith.  Dixon, a newly wed, credits his marriage to his wife Annie, for helping him learn to be more selfless.

colton dixon

Colton Dixon/ Credit: Jeremy Cowart

“We love being married.  One of my favorite things is having Annie traveling with me.  It’s so fun. And honestly one of the bigger things I’ve learned is realizing how selfish you can be.  You have to readjust your thinking and learn how to be selfless. For me, that’s an ongoing process and I think Annie would say the same thing. Learning how to serve each other in marriage is something I’m sure we’ll still be learning down the road, but we’re loving it!”

For two, young people, (Colton is 25) the Dixon’s commitment and dedication to faith and one another was already deepened well before their marriage.  They have been outspoken about their personal decision to wait for sex until marriage. And while other well-known people have been criticized for similar stances, they weren’t too worried about that.

“It’s a personal decision.  We’re not trying to force it on anyone. By saying we waited, we’re not trying to condemn those who didn’t.”

Dixon emphasizes the personal nature of the decision and points again to his faith.

“We took it from scripture. We knew that God wanted us to wait and he designed sex for marriage.” But he admits such decisions are harder than they seem.  “We knew that was really important—and with that said, it wasn’t always the easy decision. You really have to set up boundaries, and know where the lines are.”

So they waited and Colton and Annie Dixon wouldn’t change a thing.

“I’m glad we did. It makes it so much more special now that we are married.”

Aside from that, Colton Dixon maintains his marriage to Annie is not much different from anyone else’s, and both value family time and downtime. When they’re not on the road they tend to stick close to their home in the Nashville area.

“Normally, when we get off the road weekends are Monday-Wednesday so Annie and I love to be homebodies. I stay in my sweatpants all day. It’s so much fun, getting that time to rest and relax. We might watch a movie or catch up on a show. It’s really just time for us to chill. We don’t really commit to anything. It’s a good time to get our heads in the right space so we’re ready for the next couple days.”

It is obvious Colton Dixon recognizes that he is fortunate to do what he loves and he emphasizes that while he loves music, for him, everything has a bigger purpose.

“With what I do, it’s not just music entertainment. I have the opportunity to encourage people. And God sometimes uses my songs to radically change people’s lives. That’s such an amazing thing to be a part of. For anyone in life, no matter what they do, if their goal is to do something for themselves they’ll feel empty, but if they have the opportunity to do something bigger than themselves, there is so much more fulfillment in that. I’m glad that God planted this desire in my heart when I was young…Music is just a tool to encourage people and to give people hope and tell people about Jesus. That’s been an amazing journey and I love that I get to do that.”

It is that commitment to purpose and a desire for his music to change lives, that led him to his latest album.  Dixon explains it’s more of a “personal recollection of the journey” he’s been on.

“I realized I was putting my self-worth and identity in things that didn’t matter. I started to re-organize that area of my life. And then I looked at our nation and was like, man, this is a really hot topic right now. People are searching in the wrong places for who they are and why.”

He goes on to explain that the album was purposefully divided into three section representing mind, body and spirit with the hopes of his fans and listeners taking that journey along with him and that it’s essentially about getting people to start thinking, challenging them to be the person God calls them to be, and learning to listen.

“We are busy people, no matter what you do. In this industry, it’s easy to fill your schedule. It’s important to stop and take time to listen. If not, you’re going to miss out on what God has for you.”

While Dixon, is amazed at what he says God is doing in his own life, and he’s proud of the new record, and obviously wants everyone to check it out,  he says the “coolest thing” he’s experiencing right now is witnessing his wife Annie, pour her heart into a project with a close friend.

“I’ve been involved with organizations in the past and continue to support them,” Dixon says, “But Annie is currently working on something with one of her childhood friends called ‘Little Loves’. They’re building an orphanage right now in India for kids who just aren’t able, and I’m so on board.” Dixon is definitely on board, and is wears his “Little Loves” orphanage t-shirt with pride.

“It’s amazing to see her friend Felicity have this dream and this vision and see it start to take place; To see them raise money, to see the orphanage going up, to see their drive, to see their passion, to see the kids become sons and daughters.”

When it comes to his wife’s project, it is obvious Colton Dixon is “all in” but he’s quick to point out that anyone can make a difference, impact their world and make a lasting change, and he says it all starts right where you are.

“Growing up, I was always looking on the other side of the fence thinking the grass would be greener or it would be easier to make a change if I had a bigger platform. While some of those things might be true, I feel like I missed out on some of the opportunities I had right in front of me because I was constantly looking ahead. So, no matter what you want to do, it starts here and now. If you’re responsible with little, God will give you much.”

As an artist who seems to be making his own way toward making lasting change in his world, Dixon’s best advice is for all of us to take notice of the platform we’ve already been given.

“Look around you for the opportunities to make a difference, wherever you are, and that platform will grow and grow and grow. And before you know it, you won’t know what to do with it.”

Colton Dixon is steady and firm in his identity and credits much of that to his former youth pastor, Mark, his parents, his sister, and his grandfather who he describes as spiritually and mentally strong even though he is now battling Parkinson’s.  He’s also been encouraged to learn that many of the Christian industry stalwarts he grew up listening to are “100% authentic” and says he appreciates who they are as people, and that witnessing Tim Tebow’s outspoken faith in the midst of criticism has encouraged him to approach his own fame in the same way.

“It was really encouraging that someone on a public platform was outspoken about his faith. While he may have taken slack for it, people were also commending him. It really just encouraged me to do the same when I was on Idol. I’ve gotten the chance to meet him a couple times, and he’s just the most down-to-earth human being who’s just still figuring it all out, just like I am.”

Colton says that in the end, having God on your side is all that matters and points to his single, “All that Matters” from Identity.

“A lot of people are searching for what matters. Colossians 3:11, says that ‘in this new life, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. If you’ve got God on your side.’ Our definition of success shouldn’t come from what car we drive, or what house we live in, or what we do for a living or what we make. It is all temporary. Truly, the only thing that matters is if you know God or not. And again, that’s another decision that everyone has the opportunity to make or not to make, but I would encourage listeners to give it a fair shake and look into it.”

LEARN MORE:

Check out Colton Dixon’s most recent album, “Identity”

Learn more about the “Little Loves” Project

Follow Colton Dixon on Twitter 

Follow the writer, Chester Goad, on Twitter

This article first appeared here on HuffPo. 

Chester Goad, is a speaker, author, blogger into leadership and social change. He loves making a difference helping others make their difference. You can also check out his podcast, The Leaderbyte Podcast on iTunes, Podbean or at ChesterGoad.com. 

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How a Food Truck, Faith & Community Welcomes the Homeless

welcome sign

A large sign welcomes all people to Community First Village in Austin, Texas/               Courtesy Community First Village

What do you do when you see the homeless on the street? How do you react when you’re stopped at a busy intersection and you see them there?  Not many stop and talk. Hardly anyone gets to know them.

Alan Graham wants us all to remember that each one has a name.  He has been ministering to the homeless population in Austin, Texas and empowering communities for over 19 years.

Graham, a Christian, founded Mobile Loaves and Fishes in 1998 along with four friends. After many successful years in business and real estate, he left all that for what he describes as a greater purpose, after a personal spiritual revelation to minister to the homeless community around him.

“I just began to ask God, “What do you want me to do? What is it I could do to advance the Kingdom?’ Graham explains, ‘I think it became of interest to me because I think God chooses people who are ill-equipped to do something. If I get onto something I’m not walking away from it.  The issue of homelessness is not intractable.”

According to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report, required by HUD and submitted each year by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while the numbers of homeless individuals and families has declined somewhat, the number is still staggering at more than a half-million on any given night, many of those chronically homeless, including a significant of American veterans.

And that number doesn’t include those who are essentially homeless even though they’re living in a house. Graham recalls a time in his own life and describes such a situation.

alan grahm

Alan Graham author of Welcome Homeless, and CEO/ Co-Founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes and Community First Village

“My childhood was pretty dysfunctional. My mother was profoundly mentally ill, my father left us when I was four years old. He didn’t abandon us entirely, but when he left our family and divorced our mom, my brothers and I were alone. So yes, in a lot of ways we were homeless even though we had a house.”

Graham established Mobile Loaves and Fishes, after he says, an image of a catering truck entered came to him as a method of distribution. In a sense, it was a pre-cursor to today’s popular food trucks all across the country, only with a mission of service and outreach.  “Yeah I think we were the first out there on the whole food truck deal.”

“I just couldn’t get that idea out of my brain” and being a self-described serial entrepreneur, Alan Graham couldn’t let it go, but he had some non-negotiables to his vision.  First, Alan wanted to make sure the trucks went to the homeless, rather than herding homeless individuals to a homeless shelter for a meal.  Second he felt strongly that the truck should go out with brand new, store bought, fresh food, and that they would have choices, and thirdly and probably most powerfully, Graham envisioned those serving and those being served on the same side of the counter which he explains “mandates an intimate human-to-human, heart-to-heart connection”.   The overall vision is a paradigm shift that he says is a movement from the “transactional side of trying to mitigate homelessness to a relationship side” Ultimately, empowering communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless.

“It’s an ‘aha moment’ for people, that you can’t just take people and stuff them into some housing somewhere and expect them to be happy.”

Graham chronicles his experiences in his new book Welcome Homeless published by HarperCollins but admits he wasn’t sure about the title initially.

“Because I’m a first-time author, a publisher the magnitude of HarperCollins has a lot of leverage. They came up with the title Welcome Homeless. At first I didn’t cotton to it, but now I look at is pretty brilliant.”

Graham describes the book as a journey through his relationships with a number of men and women, trying to connect the true meaning of home and asserts that “home” has nothing to do with a house.

“If we cease treating these men and women like despised, outcast, vile people…and adopt a welcoming environment for them, that’s what’s going to move the needle on homelessness.”

And that’s what’s happening.  Graham and some friends established Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and then got to work building lasting communities with a purpose, and Community First Village was born.  It’s a 27 acre master-planned community that provides affordable permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled and chronically homeless in Central Texas.  The missions states that it exists to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless.

It’s an amazing idea that seemingly fell perfectly into place, but Alan Graham says that wasn’t always the case.  He found early on his original plan wasn’t all that perfect.

“Originally we were just ill-equipped, Graham admits, “Our understanding of homelessness was completely wrong. Our understanding that you could go and get a job and then come up off the streets, and have an apartment complex in some city, and a car payment— that wasn’t going to happen.”

One of the first things he committed to doing was learning the names of the homeless people in his city.

“I came into it with business skills but I didn’t come into it with an understanding. So, I adopted a philosophy that I wanted to know every man and woman living in Austin on a first name business.”

Alan’s desire to build authentic relationships led him to go to the homeless where they were and spend quality time with them. In order to do that Alan had to spend time with them on the streets.  He began spending the night with them overnight, and at this point has lived over 150 nights with his homeless friends.

“That’s nearly half a year in the past 14 years of sleeping with my friends where they slept. And I began to learn some powerful stuff from them.”

One person who Alan befriended was a homeless man named Houston Flake.  A man with whom he had common ground and shared life experiences.

“Houston was born in 1955 the same year I was born.  He was born to a very impoverished, off and on, homeless mom and dad and was homeless most of his life, was functionally illiterate, and had spent time in prison having been at times, addicted to drugs and alcohol. But he ended up being dusted off, and on staff at my church.”

It was around that time that one of the Alan’s five co-founders for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, suggested bringing Houston on with their endeavors for the homeless to get his perspective and insight.  Alan says it was a brilliant decision to get him involved.

Alan’s book, Welcome Homeless, tells additional stories of some relationships he has built along the journey, and provides distinct insight into what it means to be “home”.  According to Alan Graham, the book emphasizes what it really means to be home, to be rooted in a place and to be loved.

 a man and a woman holding a baby they are friends of community first village

Courtesy Community First Village

Graham wants to the church to be more, and to find more ways to connect deeply with those who are sometimes invisible to the rest of the world.  A devout Christian, Graham believes that no matter what faith tradition you come from, that to encounter it deeply, you most profoundly do that through men and women who have gone through a great deal of suffering.

He encourages churches to “Get out of the pews, and get into the streets, and start loving the intractables. Go find the Risen Christ, (or what you believe in deeply) in those intractables.”

To learn more about Alan Graham, his ministry, his projects for the homeless, and to learn more about what it means to be “home”, you should definitely check out his book Welcome Homeless.  Perhaps with your help, your community will start making a lasting loving change, like Alan Graham is doing in Austin, Texas and around the country. Mobile Loaves and Fishes has planted over 20 trucks in the US and they have served over five and half million meals, and Alan Graham doesn’t plan to stop there.

Learn more:

Get your copy of Alan Graham’s book, Welcome Home

Visit Mobile Loaves and Fishes Website 

Watch the Mobile Loaves and Fishes video 

Follow Mobile Loaves and Fishes on Twitter

Follow Chester Goad on Twitter 

*This article first appeared here on Huffington Post

Chester Goad, is a speaker, author, blogger into leadership and social change. He loves making a difference helping others make their difference. You can also check out his podcast, The Leaderbyte Podcast on iTunes, Podbean or at ChesterGoad.com. 

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What You Do Matters

man in suit works manual laborFriends, be proud of what you do.

We’ve all been placed where we are on purpose no matter what the job or the task for such a time as this. You may be there a week, a day, a year or ten. Not everyone is meant to be on the front lines and not everyone is meant to be in the shadows. Every job we do is important, and it’s crucial that we pour our hearts into it.

Consider this, when we salute and honor those who serve our military, we never ask what job they had when we honor them. We simply honor them. We honor them because they were willing to step up on behalf of a great country. We salute them because in a unique and special way, they faithfully contributed to a great cause. They committed to being ready for battle in season and out and using whatever their skills were to protect the greater good in times of war and peace. Every job matters. Every position is key. If your assignment changes, be faithful until it changes again. Be faithful to the end. Don’t let the world determine that one thing is more important than another.

Respect everyone for their contribution, support them in their positions, encourage, lift up and lead where you can. We’re all in a battle, and when it comes to the unseen, we’re all on active duty for the greatest cause.

Colossians says, “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart as if it’s for the Lord, and not merely for men.”

There’s a plan. You’re part of it. You matter. What you do matters. Just be faithful, and in the end you’ll hear “Well done.” We’re all cheering you on and you will be remembered for your faithfulness.

All the best,

Chester

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Second Act. Class Act. A Conversation with Amy Roloff

amy roloff

Amy Roloff, Reality Star, cook, businesswoman, entrepreneur, and new grandparent

For over 12 years now, the Roloff family has allowed us into their lives giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be a little person in a world that is predominately designed for bigger people.  What we have learned from the Roloffs–and what might just be the greater point of the show is that their lives are essentially no different from any other family.

In their attempt to give us the most authentic view of their lives, we have been there to experience the mundane, the amazing, the exciting, some sadness, and even the deterioration of Matt and Amy’s marriage.  The show could have ended. Many thought it would but it’s still in full swing. Now we’re enjoying watching the kids (all now adults) enjoy their own lives and they’re gracious enough to let us in on it. The 13th season of Little People Big World premieres this fall.

Not long after the realization her marriage was over and she had come to terms, Amy began using the hashtag Second Act (#secondact), with a renewed commitment to living life to the fullest. However, Amy doesn’t seem to discount the importance of her first act or even regret it.  “After you graduate college you start your new job, and that’s like a continuation of the first chapter—I got married, and had my kids and that was a huge chapter of my life. My second act, as I expected it to be, ended. I’m an empty nester, my kids are now living their own lives, it’s not like I am not a mom anymore but I’m a different kind of mom.”

Amy is very open about the fact that things didn’t go as planned but she’s also clear that she knows she’s not the only person who has ever experienced the trials life can bring.

“My married life that I thought was going to continue forever isn’t there anymore and I’m divorced. But other people have faced divorce it’s not as if I am the first. People have faced it in different ways. Until you’re in someone else’s shoes divorce is just this general word, but then it becomes specific to you. I could have allowed it to put me in a place that would not be good, would not be healthy, but would have caused me to get stuck”

She explains she like many others who have faced these sorts of trials before, had to come to grips and to terms on her own, and that meant asking tough questions.

“There were definitely some moments there that I thought, “What am I going to do?” But I asked myself, “Amy what have you been doing all along? Continue to take hold of that and see where that goes and maybe change it. Maybe you go down a different road.  Maybe you get to follow a passion in a different way. So I call it my Second Act. It may be a little more challenging, but does life have to stop?  I think of it and tell myself– “You’ve still got a lot of life to live Amy.”  It’s the same life but it’s different. And I can continue to live it, and it can be good, exciting, adventurous and of course still filled with challenges.”

Amy, a devout Christian, attributes her positive perspective and grounded outlook to her father and her faith. “Your core is what you have to focus on. Ask yourself what your core is and focus on that. What is that one thing that regardless of what life throws at you, no matter the choices you make, what challenges you face, what great adventures you have, what love—what is that one thing? For me, it’s my faith. My dad taught me this back when I was in the first grade and I still hold onto it, “I’m good because I matter. I have value, and I still have a purpose.”

Much of Amy’s approach to overcoming a struggle or surviving a painful time is good advice to anyone really, “There are times in our life.” she says, “when we’re good with the status quo. Whatever we are facing, we just keep doing what we’re doing until we can do something else, but there’s also taking action. You keep moving. You keep waking up in the morning. There’s still something to do until you get out of this funk you’re in, and then suddenly you realize there’s a lot more to do. You don’t have to stay in the status quo anymore.”

She encourages people to get out of their comfort zones and enjoy life.  “A friend gave me this little stick figure drawing and the person is inside this circle.  Just outside that circle is a much bigger circle and it reads ‘This is where life happens, where imagination or creativity begins.’ You’ve got to get outside that comfort zone, take chances, and become vulnerable once in a while.”

Amy readily admits that she never really wanted to do television.  Still she realized early on that she could leverage her “known” (or celebrity) status to pursue greater passions and purpose.

“I didn’t want to do television. For me, it was too much vulnerability and too much exposure, and I didn’t feel I was at a place, or that my family was at a place, that could handle the magnitude of all that would bring into our lives. But eventually I said ‘yes’, and very soon into it I was asked to come and speak at my alma mater.”

Amy attended Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

“I thought to myself, ‘Speak about what? Why would you ask me to speak? How can I contribute?’ And suddenly it hit me that I had been given a platform that might benefit something else out there.”

Amy Roloff’s humble nature takes center stage when she shares about her life.  “I really expected 50 people to show up, and there were over 1800 people there, and that’s the first moment I realized the importance of looking for opportunities to share or give something that can make a difference with the opportunity I’ve been given in the media.”

In 2009, Amy established the Amy Roloff Charity Foundation improving emotional, social, and educational opportunities for kids around the world. The organization is involved in a number of activities ranging from youth soccer after school programs, to resource support for disability related organizations, medical supplies for kids in the Caribbean, to Haiti relief and much more.  She’s also used her platform to help with hunger relief in the Northwest, and around the country through groups like Feeding America, and by supporting food banks in Oregon and Cincinnati, and wherever she can use her celebrity status to give back.

But Amy is not only a philanthropist she’s also a businesswoman with a strong and perceptive entrepreneurial spirit and business sense about her.

“I love cooking.  I have been cooking since I was 14 years old.  If I had a fantasy, it would have been to be a teacher or to be in the culinary world as a chef.  We have the farm, and we’ve been growing pumpkins for years, so I thought why not see what sort of products we can create from our pumpkins.”

Then Roloff Farms products were born. Pumpkin products like Pumpkin Barbecue and Pumpkin Salsa can be ordered online and can be found in grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest.

Amy’s love for food has led her to past appearances on Food Network’s Chopped, celebrity chef charity episode and also on Rachel Ray’s show, and she’s published a cookbook.  She has also passed that entrepreneurial spirit, independence, and business sense on to her children.

Jeremy and Audrey are definitely entrepreneurs.  They have a great online business reaching out and helping people, especially young people in relationships with dating, finance, marriage, and it’s called Beating 50%.  The time and effort they put into that inspires me.  Zach (who is married to Tori and just welcomed a new baby) is coaching competitive teams and looks for opportunities to work with kids and soccer, and he goes out there and makes himself available. Molly is a CPA accountant, and our youngest Jacob is exploring becoming a writer and stays busy blogging and on social media.  I’m hoping with all my kids they saw something in their mother or how I’ve been a part of raising them, and their father has contributed a lot to all that as well. I learn a lot from my kids every day, and they’re all grown up now.”

Like the rest of us, Amy wishes she could have known what she knows now as a teenager, but in the end, she knows success is the culmination of all of our life experiences.  “I wouldn’t be where I am if I had made different choices.  In the end, to me success is making a difference in people’s lives. It doesn’t even have to be a massive amount. Just a difference, and if that’s the case I’m happy.”

That sentiment translates into success for her kids as well.  “Success is also, ‘Are my kids ok?’ Are they in a good place right now?’ I think they are, even though I know they’ll face their own challenges.  If I die tomorrow, was I successful? Well, did I make a difference?  Did I leave some sort of legacy?  I think we have lost a little bit of perspective about the importance of life’s moments with people.  Not the fireworks, not the big vacations, but did you call a friend up you haven’t seen in a while and have a cup of coffee with them? Did you sacrifice some time for someone else? I find sacrificing some time for someone else part of our success. It’s about making connections with people and helping them be the best they can be.”

Amy Roloff is a woman of faith, an entrepreneur, a reality TV star, a parent—and now a grandparent.  If the rest of her Acts play out like the first, and second, she will no doubt leave that legacy of success she dreams of.  By using her very public platform to a make a difference, she has not only become an icon, she is a class act.

Learn more: 

Amy Roloff’s Website

Amy Roloff Charity Foundation

Follow Amy on Twitter

Follow Chester Goad, the author, on Twitter

 

*This article first appeared here at HuffPo. 

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Hearts Still on Fire for Youth Conferences

A wall lined with hearts on fire posters at leconte center

Thirty years of Hearts on Fire posters and memorabilia on display at Hearts on Fire Youth Conference at Leconte Event Center in Pigeon Forge, TN (November 2016). /cgoad

Current research indicates that church membership, and church activity is decreasing.  The latest statistics suggest that millennials are skeptical of churches and the number of young people leaving the church once they hit college is at an all-time high.  But for all the negative and worrisome numbers, there’s a glimmer of hope, a lifeline, a heart-beat—The American faith-based youth conference complete with energetic speakers, concert worship teams and fervent calls to action, still has a pulse.

Evangelical youth conferences for Christian faith groups of all types burst onto the scene in the early eighties, and while some have fallen victim to changing times and culture, many are still thriving and some are expanding.

Barna research suggests that Americans are practicing their faith less within the walls of the physical church, but that doesn’t mean people don’t believe or that they’re not connecting spiritually in other venues.  In fact, the same research shows that the vast majority of Americans (75%) pray regularly, and more than a third still read their Bibles outside their regular church services.

Separate research indicates the top two priorities of youth leaders are discipleship and building relationships.  When asked to list the top five activities essential for building relationships necessary for effective discipleship–outside regular youth group meetings–mission work and camps were the top cited priorities, but 23% listed large youth conferences as effective.

Mission trips may be considered more effective for establishing relationships that connect faith to service, but much of the latest research shows America’s youth have gotten way too busy for them. That trend of general “busyness” is an impediment to both discipleship and relationship building.  In fact, youth leaders overwhelming listed “youth busyness” and “lack of parental involvement” as their two greatest challenges.  So while mission trips, may be ideal opportunities for spiritual growth, and relationship building, youth and families have much less time or willingness to travel long distances to devote a week or more to missions.

Youth conferences on the other hand, remain a viable option for church youth groups and families to get away for short weekends together, and while such conferences have had to evolve in one way or another through the years, their focus is the same.

Such is the case with Hearts on Fire, a mainstay youth conference in Pigeon Forge, TN that has experienced tremendous growth over the last three decades. According to Hearts on Fire Founder, Scott Carter “The message stays the same and will always be the same. God loves us and He sent His Son to draw us into a personal relationship with Him. The methods however have changed, especially in the area of music. Thirty years ago, there just wasn’t a lot of contemporary Christian music like there is today” that appealed to young people.

Carter’s “Hearts on Fire” began in 1986, with 150 attendees, and with Carter serving as speaker and even cook. Through the years HOF attendance has grown to thousands.  The 2016 Hearts on Fire conference drew 12, 049 youth from around the southeast.  Carter who has been involved in faith-based missions around the US believes the success of Hearts on Fire lies in its mission and says he finds no greater joy than watching God touch teenagers’ lives. “Mission work can start right where you are and for Hearts on Fire that’s here in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The whole purpose of Hearts on Fire is to share the Gospel with middle school, high school and college-age young people and challenge them to a dynamic walk and commitment in Christ.”

That mission coupled with Scott Carter’s years of experience has been a formula for continued growth and success.  The growth of the conference has allowed him to bring in some of the top speakers and top artists in the Christian music industry.  The 2016 conference brought a lineup that included speaker Clayton King, For King and Country, Lauren Daigle, and the comedy-drama duo, The Skit Guys.

Though times have definitely changed, Hearts on Fire doesn’t seem to shy away from difficult issues or calls for unity within the church. According to Carter that is purposeful.  “It’s very purpose driven. We live in a time when things seem so divided and polarized. Racism, politics, and such have created a lot of dissension but in Christ we are One. We are family and God’s family loves big!”

Perhaps loving big is what keeps people coming back to Hearts on Fire year after year, and perhaps that’s the reason, they’re able to expand in the coming year.  Hearts on Fire will hold its first student conference in Charleston, West Virginia in August 2017.   An excited Carter believes this expanded vision is all a part of a bigger plan.  “Thirty years ago, I had no idea God was birthing something that would grow like Hearts on Fire has. Each year He expanded my vision and now here we are.”

Youth conferences remain a place where relationships are enriched and built over weekends, and where young people find a spiritual connection that will hopefully burn within them for a lifetime.  Successful Christian conferences around the country are evidence of their staying power, and Scott Carter is not surprised and encourages people to keep up the good work.

“There are a lot of great things taking place among evangelicals.  I’m no expert but I would encourage all believers to keep on keeping on, to never give up, and to love big and love loud. I believe inside the heart of everyone is a place that’s meant to be filled with Gods love.”

scott carter leads worship

Scott Carter Founder of Hearts on Fire and Youth Pastor for First Baptist Church Sevierville, TN.

But Carter, who also serves as Youth Pastor for First Baptist Church of Sevierville, offers a warning to today’s youth leaders. “We must keep our sins confessed, watch out for lust, power and greed and forgive one another and go forward sharing the Good News” He believes prayer is the key to sustaining the work, “In James 5:16 we read that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. I believe prayer has sustained us. God gets all the glory. It’s never about what we can do, but rather what He alone can do.”

For those who attend them, America’s evangelical youth conferences like Hearts on Fire, could mean the difference between lasting relationships and faith, and hearts that wander away church after high school.  It’s more than nostalgia, these conferences offer an opportunity for young people to grow and for many to hear a message they’ve never heard before.

With statistics indicating that today’s youth are struggling with identity, depression, loneliness, and anxiety, opportunities to hear messages of hope and love, and a chance to make a spiritual faith connection, may be why conferences like Hearts on Fire see continued growth.

For Scott Carter, “Nothing is more beautiful than watching this young generation worship with heart and soul…I believe long after I’m gone God will continue to use this conference to draw others to Him.”

Learn More:

Barna Research: The State of the Church

Barna Research: Priorities, Challenges, and Trends in Youth Ministry

Hearts on Fire

Follow Chester Goad on Twitter

 

*This article first appeared here on The Huffington Post.  Chester Goad is an independent contributor.

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