What Project Runway Taught Me About Youth Ministry

madewithOver(13)I do not watch a lot of reality TV, but when I do, it’s Project Runway. Despite the show being about fashion and fashion designers and my being a youth pastor (which means my t-shirt, jeans, and Keds wardrobe is a far cry from New York Fashion week), Project Runway has a lot of applications for youth ministry. This post contains only some of the lessons I have learned from Project Runway.

1. Sometimes you have to make it work.

To knotumblr_mq92rizGV21rdkmnho1_500w Tim Gunn is to love Tim Gunn. First of all, he has a signature catchphrase. Second, his catchphrase is one of the most helpful and practical pieces of advice ever uttered: “Make it work.” When a designer is struggling, Tim is always honest with him or her. “Make it work,” Tim will instruct the designers before he leaves the workroom.

Sometimes when I am writing a sermon, I get stuck and nothing sounds right or good. To the preacher in the middle of sermon writing, the whole “it’s Friday, but Sunday is coming” is more of a warning than an encouragement. So you have to pray a lot and make it work.

With youth ministry games, sometimes you do not have what you need or you realize mid-game things are not going well, so you need to adapt. Make it work. You don’t have enough little slips of paper to play Telephone Pictionary? Rip the paper in half. Make it work.

Making it work is relevant for just about every area of life.

2. Don’t make judgments about people.

On the first episode of the season, it is easy to make snap judgments about the designers. I do it all the time. I see the person and judge his or her designs. I judge his or her personality. Is he or she loud? Then I probably do not like him or her. I am put off by him or her at the very least. But what do I really know about this person? Nothing.

As the season progresses and you get to know the person better, your opinion changes. Once you get to know someone’s story, it changes the way you see him or her. Instead of making snap judgments based on appearance or what you perceive to be his or her personality, you should always pause before you let that stop you from getting to know a person. Get to know someone’s background. How have various life experiences impacted someone? How does this change the way he or she responds to a situation?

I originally had this written as “don’t judge someone until you get to know him or her,” but I do not think that is fair either. Getting to know someone does not really give you a right to judge him or her. Instead of judging people, we should get to know them. This is true for Project Runway, it is true for ministry, and it is true for life.

3. If you give someone a second chance, he or she can surprise you.

My favorite moment in Project Runway history happened in Season 12. For the first time in a season of Project Runway, Tim Gunn was allowed something called a “Tim Gunn save” in which he was able to save an eliminated designer. “I believe in your talent, and […] I believe, you need a little more time here,” Tim Gunn told Justin, the designer he chose to save.[1] In youth ministry, not only is it important to believe in our teenagers and encourage them, but we need to have their back.

In another episode in that same season, the designers were given a challenge to redesign a “losing look” (in other words, the design that sent designers to the workroom to pack it up). They were able to select which look to redesign. Justin, having been eliminated and saved, had his “losing look” as one of the options to redesign. If you have not seen this moment, trust me that it was emotional. I have watched this episode twice and cried both times. “It was hideous before,” Heidi said while judging Justin’s redesigned look, “but you’ve made this so sophisticated.”[2]

Instead of looking at a bunch of teenagers and seeing the problems, we need to see the potential. Sometimes we all need a second chance. We need to extend grace because we have been extended grace. We need to give people opportunities to learn from their experiences and grow. There will be times people will let us down, but there will also be times people will surprise us.

4. Inspiration is everywhere.

Fashion designers are known for being creative. They have to be. I know most designers may not appreciate when they are given an unconventional material challenge on Project Runway. Some designers, however, go all out. They find inspiration in unexpected places. They do not look at the challenge parameters as something to limit them but rather they embrace the challenge. In one episode, Sean Kelly designed a dress to change color in the rain, thanks to dye sewn into the seams. It was a risk, but he turned his creative idea into something really great.


Tim Gunn said:

When people would say to me, ‘I don’t know where to find inspiration,’ I’d tell them, ‘Just open your eyes and wake up! It’s there!’ It can be the inside of an elevator or a tiled floor. In my years of teaching, I would say to my students, ‘Movies! Books! Web sites! If it’s summertime, just sit outside and have an iced tea or an iced coffee and watch people go by.’ I mean, really, there should be inspiration everywhere.”[3]

In college, I took a children’s ministry class. We were assigned to read children’s books and write a paper based on what activities and lessons we could use that incorporates the book and its theme. I think we had to read ten children’s books. I loved this assignment because it forced us to draw inspiration from something we would not ordinarily use. One of the things I love about youth ministry is how you can embrace creativity. I am passionate about helping people discover and learn new things (or learn things in a new way), so I look for inspiration everywhere.

5. Stop, Collaborate, and Listen.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking, is this lessons from Project Runway or from Vanilla Ice? I think it is safe to say, yes, because haven’t you been reading? Inspiration is everywhere.

Team challenges on Project Runway are not my favorite. I do not think they are anyone’s favorite. Season 11 where every challenge was a team challenge? Not my favorite. Throughout my entire school career when we are given group projects? Not my jam. However, working in a team speaks to a modern day reality: we need each other.

In fashion, designers and clients need each other, so each must take active responsibility for making a project successful. In the same way, in youth ministry, you need to work with pastoral staff, volunteers, parents, and teenagers. You need to learn how to work with others. You need to learn how to collaborate with other people.

6. Take criticism and learn from it.

tumblr_mx6v2xR4h71ql5yr7o1_500The designers receive feedback from the judges. Sometimes it is harsh. Sometimes the judges make jokes at the expense of the designers. Sometimes the designers snap back. It is a natural reflex when you are feeling defensive. However, being in defense mode does not allow for open ears. You are not willing to listen and learn from the feedback. I appreciate receiving feedback from sermons I have preached. Helpful feedback has included what filler words I use without realizing it and how I trail off at the end of sentences. But, unfortunately, not all feedback is helpful.

Take criticism, learn from it, but also learn what you should listen to and what you should shake off. (My next post will be ministry lessons from T. Swift. Just kidding. Maybe.) In youth ministry, you will hear various critiques–ranging from “you do not look like the typical youth pastor” to “you should do this, this, and this like that successful youth ministry.” There is a difference between constructive criticism and bringing someone down. Do not let the haters throw shade on you. Yet, even as cliché as it sounds, every opportunity in life is something from which we can learn and grow.


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/23/project-runway-tim-gunn-uses-his-save_n_3802087.html

[2] http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/project-runway/blogs/project-runway-blog/butterfly-effect

[3] Tim Gunn quoted in Fierce Style: How to be Your Most Fabulous Self by Christian Siriano.