Teens & Faith: Hard questions about youth ministry

It's not easy to work with youth in the church, but some are gifted for it. We all need to share our experience and work together for the success of the Church.

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Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States

Seeking to follow where God leads, and thankful that grace covers my multitude of errors.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A change of season brings new challenges

Youth ministry can be done in so many ways! I have moved from working in a church setting to being a counselor/teacher at a small private school that works with students that have fallen through the cracks of the public school system.

I'm only three weeks into the school year and I am really glad God has led me to this school. I only left the youth director position because God was making it clear that something else was on the way. I resigned and this job came to me.

Today I had a brief conversation with a student that nearly broke my heart. Our students often feel as though they are at the bottom of the heap. They come to us because they often haven't succeeded anywhere else. After classes, this student asked me if I was going to be like all the other counselors he had known, only lasting a year. He said (feigning pride) that he had personally driven 3 counselors out of his public schools. He then said that he had learned counselor "lingo" in order to aid him in driving counselors crazy. He noted that one counselor had professed that he/she was glad to be able to remove the student from his/her case load. I tried not to appear stunned as I realized the implication of the statement. This student - a bright, energetic, outgoing, sometimes very irritating young man - believed that he had driven off counselors because of who he is, not because he had actually tried to do it. My response was simple. "Keep in mind that I wasn't trained as a counselor. You're not part of a case load to me, your one of my students."

How many students in the education system are berated and shamed by people who use thoughtless language in their presence? I am blessed to work with 25 students, many of whom have faced similar circumstances. They have been bullied by students or made to feel inferior by instructional staff in their previous schools. I wish I could make it better for all the students given to my care, but I must settle for working one lesson at a time, one conversation at a time, one student at a time. I pray that they can at least come to understand that the faculty of our school are here for them. We care deeply that they succeed in life, not just in school. Most of us on the staff are people of faith, although not all of the same religion. Yet all of us have faith that these students are capable of far more than they, or the world in general will give them credit for.

Who in your ministry are begging for positive attention? It is easy to focus on the brightest and most socially well-adjusted students. Consider the spiritual cost/benefit in refocusing on the shy, the poorly adjusted, the mentally challenged students in your midst. Remember that what we do for the least of these, we do for the Lord.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Hot and cold

If you read my previous entry, you may note a few comments left regarding what I had to say. I appreciate all those who comment in good faith as part of a dialogue. You may disagree with my attitude regarding young Mr. Lindberg's decision. Would I apply such admiration to the resolve of Muslim suicide bombers or people like them? I totally disagree with their rationale and their theology and their hatred, but they are standing up for what they believe, however twisted it may be.

In a world where you can't tell the Christians from the non-Christians quite often; when we claim to follow the man/God who gave his life IN LOVE so that we might be forgiven all our sins; I must give credit (not agreement or absolution!!) to anyone who gives everything for what they believe.

In the Book of Revelation the angel says to be hot or cold, but God will spit out those who are lukewarm. Too many Christians have become lukewarm about the Gospel, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We must choose to be the stark contrast to hatred and lies and neglect. We must act and boldly so. I am not perfect. I am too often lukewarm. But I know hot and cold when I see them and I have to admire them even if I won't condone them.

Dying for your faith


Did anybody else catch the news about Dennis Lindberg, a 14 year old who died from leukemia this week? He was a Jehovah's Witness and decided against a blood transfusion that might have helped to cure him because it violated what he felt God asks of believers. The court system was asked to step in, and the judge in the case decided that he was mature enough to make the decision for himself.

How many of our high school students have the conviction of faith to face death rather than violate their faith? It's hard to know that. How many adults would make that decision? Maybe even fewer, if we are honest about it. What part do youth workers play in helping to form such strong faith?

I am sad that he thought God would want him to make the choice that way, but I admire him for sticking to his faith.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When life and ministry collide.

What are you supposed to do when life and ministry collide? Most of the time they are (or can be) complimentary and synergistic. Isn't it always better when things mesh nicely? Then there are the times when the needs of your family really drain your ability to function well in the ministry. What about that?

With my wife undergoing radiation treatments for cancer, we are facing this dilemma. I was gone from town for a month with my family as my wife underwent two surgeries in another state over the summer. This really impeded the ministry as I was pretty much useless for that period. Even once I got back (two weeks ahead of my wife) I was learning to be a temporary single parent and long distance spouse. My body was present, but my heart was badly divided.

The radiation treatments started easily enough. She was able to drive herself and function well, having recovered pretty well from the surgeries. That was then. Now she is wiped out by the treatments and is unable to drive regularly. I missed a few of her doctor appointments when others took her and have decided that I need to be there to help her communicate and to hear exactly what the docs are saying. When I get the report afterwards I don't always get all the information. So I am more and more divided again; giving more and more time to family.

This isn't bad. It is necessary under the circumstances. I am blessed to be a part of a congregation that supports our family very well and tolerates my inability to perform at full power right now. It makes me sad to know that there are many youth workers who would not receive the same support from their church, though. So how can we work this out?

I return to the idea that many hands make light work. The work of ministry is the work of the church, not just the staff. The problem is that we have allowed ourselves too often to believe that we must do it all or be seen as slackers. Then when a situation like mine comes along, the ministry suffers for lack of capable, trained volunteers to carry on when we must step back a bit.

I am looking for key volunteers who are called by God to work with teens and pre-teens. Mark Yaconelli proposes a discernment process to find these folks in our churches. http://www.ymsp.org I think it is different than many of us approach the task of finding adults. I think it is a better way and deserves to be used. I am also refocusing the ministry to guide youth towards Christ and strengthening their faith. I don't have time or energy to be constantly providing an activities based ministry. We will continue to have activities, of course, but with a deeper purpose in mind.

There's a good question: Do any of us really have the time to be doing things that aren't focused on growing our youth in their faith??

I am in a long process of examining the ministry with the goal of reworking all our facets to be the brightest reflector of God's light and love that we can be. It still won't be perfect, but I know we can get better and eliminate things that aren't moving us to the goal. In the meantime, my family gets more of my time and gets more of my attention - the way it should be.

When it comes to running a ministry or fighting cancer, we would all like the quick fix - the magic bullet. It doesn't exist. It all requires prayer and time and energy and faith. Life and ministry will collide. Keep God as firmly in the center as possible and it will work through, albeit slowly.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mother Teresa could have been a youth worker.

Has anyone else out there begun to read the new book containing the personal writings of Mother Teresa? I just started it tonight and already she sounds like the most devoted youth workers I have known. There is going to be a LOT of material here to talk about with students. I'm not sure I can even imagine what it must be like to receive and follow your calling from God and then have to endure decades without being able to sense God's presence. That's a very long, dark night of the soul. I am coming to appreciate the wisdom of the mystics again.

Who Am I?

Some leaders are born that way, others have it thrust upon them, or so I've heard. I don't honestly know which I am. Perhaps there are lots of youth workers who feel the same way. Some things are becoming clearer at this point in my life.

In the eight years or so since I began seminary and leading youth, I have subscribed to some pretty powerful ideas of youth ministry. Mike Nygren and the Joshua Team in Ohio really fostered some great ideas of what youth ministry can look like. The Tentmakers have impacted my organizational style through the Nehemiah Leadership Institute. I believe in the value of a well written action plan, budget and position results description. But I am finding that I may have stifled who God made me to be as a leader for expediency and the acceptance of others.

I am not by nature a really big go-getter. I am not type A, as my fellow staff members could attest. I'm sure my senior pastor and our business manager have been frustrated by this more than once in the last four years of my tenure. I am introverted; I am a slow thinker; I am relational rather than organizational. And yet I still recognize a call to lead.

Is it possible to lead effectively as a relational person without being coopted (sorry, but that's how I feel) by the church as business model. I am being ruined for the business model by some of my latest reads "The Irresistible Revolution," "Contemplative Youth Ministry," and "Growing Souls," for instance. Truly, it seems to me that Jesus might think we were missing the point of church in doing it the business way.

Yes, of course, some things need to be attended to in this manner. We need well planned budgets to work with. We need a goal(s) for which to strive and plans on how to achieve them. Yet our plans sometimes remove the working of the Holy Spirit, in my opinion. We sometimes (generous, I know) don't allow for options that present themselves along the way. Once the plan is in place, we go with it because it's written down.

I follow a shopping list as well as the next person, but church is just different, no?

So now I find myself blogging out my thoughts in the middle of the night prior to Sunday morning. Maybe not a recipe for success in Sunday school, but when God talks I try to listen and process as best I can.

I realize that I have been failing as a leader. As I told my wife before she fell asleep, I am inept at the business model of church leadership and I have been scared to really utilize the relational gifts God has given me. In some ways I don't understand how they can be successful in my current situation, but God definitely brought me to this place so there must be a way.

Imagine a youth group powered (and I do mean powered) by a director who seriously fosters his/her relationships with God and all the adults called to work with the ministry in the congregation. I don't have a clear picture of what it looks like but I like the possibilities that are opened by it.

How many of us as youth leaders are unwilling or unable to grow in leadership using whatever gifts we have been given, out of fear of where it might take us? Are you in that boat? Do the waves of the congregation begin to crash against the ministry's rowboat every time to try to assert your gifts? We all need to remember that Jesus is sleeping in the bow, and he'll calm the storm. We must be faithful to the journey, though. Be who you are. God has you there for a reason. Believe it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Balancing ministry, or flirting with the dark side

I have tried for the last year to make small groups a bigger part of our youth ministry. I attempted to re-balance things with large group meetings only once a month and small group meetings in our Sunday time slot on the other Sundays. After a year of this experiment, two things are clear: we need to go back to large groups on all Sundays, and small groups are ready to go to other days of the week.

I believe each ministry has to find its own balance in this area. No two youth ministries will have the same answer. I would like for our ministry to be the kind that thrives on small groups, but that will take some time (if we ever get there.) In the meantime, we have some solid small groups that will thrive.

How are you doing on this? Is your ministry providing some balance of large group and small group; fellowship and deeper relationships? We all need both in our own way.

Monday, May 07, 2007

How much do you know about alcoholism?

I grew up with alcoholism in my family. I've discovered that as a youth director I do not know enough to be helpful to families struggling with the issue. Don't get me wrong - I understand the signs, I get the concept of co-dependency and I believe in AA and Al Anon and Alateen. However I was faced with a family in need and hadn't yet thought through how I could or should be of help to them. I've done a lot of phone calling in the last two days. I talked to family members who are in recovery about how I could be of help to the practicing alcoholic and the rest of the family. Now I have the phone number for the Alcoholics Anonymous Central office locally so I have somewhere to refer the alcoholic. I know where and when the Al Anon meetings are in my area. I'm ready to help folks get to a meeting and begin to recover.

If you've read this blog before, you know I am not perfect. I'm just trying to get better at being a Christian. Christians make sure they are equipped to help others. As youth directors we must know that 5-10% of our congregations are likely to be alcoholics. What are we ready to do about it? How can we prepare our teens and families ahead of time? Know who to contact. Have someone speak to the group at least annually. Be clear about what you can, will and should do when the situation arises, because it will.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

The dangers of cruise control

Cruise control is a wonderful thing. I had become so used to it in my car. And then my car was stolen. Now I have a car with cruise control but it doesn't work. Ha! I have become very used to a lack of cruise control for driving. Now I am faced with the fact that my ministry has been on cruise control for a while.

Cruise control is not something that everyone notices at first. It's only when you continue to move at the same speed for a period of time that people without it begin to notice. So the fact that those around me have finally (and thankfully) come to me to tell me that they could see it in the youth ministry means that I've been on cruise control for a while. Probably longer than I even realize.

It's sooo easy get into a groove and like it and leave things there. I mean, after a while it almost feels like I deserve it. The problem is that I don't. And neither do those I minister to and with. Cruise control is a disengaged state. No ministry can afford that.

Are you in cruise control in your life? Maybe, like me, you think you have a good reason for it (if you are.) I would now argue that none of us has that right. It means the heart isn't in it. Wouldn't that grieve Jesus? I am repenting. I ask you to do the same if you're where I am.

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