A Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort starts today at my church. I’m not in it, and I’m not leading it. I just organized it. My church is hosting it.
I’m a big believer in these cohorts. I did one seven years ago, and then I organized one in California three years later that was heavily supported by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. The one beginning today is just as heavily supported by the Synod of Lincoln Trails.
I like this organizer role. I like pitching youth ministry coaching cohorts to synods as an important leadership development investment. I liked partnering with the Presbyterian minister at Fuller Seminary to host one, and I like serving at a church with the space to do it now. I like talking with presbytery leaders, pastors, and youth ministers about participating. I love seeing the group actually come together.
This cohort has people in it from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana. It has five women and five men, people serving large and small congregations, pastors and youth directors, leaders of youth, children, and families. There’s someone in it whose work is hosting mission trips. There’s someone else who leads neighborhood youth on behalf of three different churches. The real kicker: there’s someone in it who was a student in the youth group of a guy in my cohort in 2011.
These cohorts have been as prominent a tool in my youth ministry as anything, and I am grateful for them. Grateful and eager to see what happens next.
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. (Winston in George Orwell’s “1984”)
I heard a terrific sermon yesterday that rattled me a bit near the end. The claim that did it was that silence in the face of un-truth is wrong. The preacher spelled it out in terms of our fears of being “political” in conversations around the water cooler, fears that prevent us from speaking up. My mind extended that application to the Thanksgiving table and to Facebook: I have decided over and over again that countering false claims is not worth the drama that inevitably follows. I have made a grumbling peace with this new normal of everyone having their own sources and sets of facts and the seeming impossibility of reconciling them.
What yesterday’s sermon made me wonder is if saving myself some drama comes at a cost for others. Is it not a kind of cruel indifference to leave one another to our own truths? What must you think of me to allow me to persist in a falsehood because you don’t think convincing me worth the effort? Is not abandonment of our neighbors a very real by-product of a polarized era, not just that we are divided but that we grow resigned to our divisions, even comfortable with them?
Shouting at one another won’t fix this. We know that. Parroting party talking points and snide late night talk show clips won’t either. That, by now, is obvious. But we don’t have to fix the whole problem in every interaction. Small suggestions of veracity add up. Bread crumbs of evidence become a trail that can lead us to a truer destination than where we are now.
Some of us around the watercooler don’t want to hear it, but some of us do. For the ones who care, it’s worth it.
I’m a pastor who works with youth, so I have a small community of teenagers who see me for about an hour once a week. Some of them spend extended periods with me, like for a weekend retreat or a mission trip. But in most of their experience I’m a person they interact with for less than 60 minutes on Sunday morning.
My daughter is 10, and last summer she took up competitive cheer. She spends four hours per week (more during competition season) with her teammates and her coach, a sweet person who, with her jet black hair and cut arms covered in tattoos, makes a parent think twice about asking too many questions. Last night the coach called the team “her babies” to me, a designation I don’t love and that I would never make about the youth in my charge. But it says something about the care she has for the kids she works with.
Many of us in youth ministry are bit players in an ensemble of adults who care about the teenagers we know. That feels like good news.
There are a lot of smart people around waiting to be asked: to read that thing you wrote, to listen to an idea, to join a cohort, to chaperone a youth retreat, to meet up for coffee.
The worst people can (and will) say is “no.” But even that’s not a total loss; even then the ask has added something to the relationship.
Maybe asking is an underrated tool of leadership.
My friends and I were attacked by some older boys while playing baseball in the park in the 9th grade. I knew the lead figure because we’d been on the same baseball team a few years earlier, when I was 11 and he was 12. He seemed much older than 12 at the time.
In the middle of our game a red sedan screeched to a halt along the curb, barely a backstop’s distance from our home plate, and he sprang from the passenger side. He demanded the aluminum bat in my hand. His tone and his posture portended unfriendly intentions, and yet I handed the bat over, whereupon he made as if to club me with it. I fell in a convulsive flinch.
I scrambled to my feet and clumsily walked–no, ran–backwards away from him, too scared to turn my back. My retreat led him straight to my friend, who was dumbly watching from the outfield. He’s a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel today and as tough a person as I know, but on that afternoon he cowered in fear and took a punch to the side of his head.
Other details are fuzzy. Who were the other assailants? How did it end? These I don’t clearly remember, but the identity–the name and the face–of the guy who stole my bat and clocked my friend is as clear in my mind today as it was the moment he lurched from his car that afternoon 27 years ago.
I don’t think I’ve seen him since. I looked him up on Facebook just to test if, as people say can happen, the identity of a figure from an intense emotional encounter has gotten mixed up in my memory.
I had a phone company problem for seven months that I only just this week resolved. It wasn’t a complicated problem. Every person I spoke with at the company knew the fix, and they all assured me it was just about to be fixed. But month-after-month the issue persisted. I called the store so frequently that I was on a first name basis with every staff person there. I went through two store managers during this time. They both said all the right things on the phone. I started keeping notes of our conversations:
“I’m going to get that fixed for you.”
“Yeah, just give me a couple of days to resolve the issue.”
“I’m sorry this has taken so long. I’m going to take care of it.”
What finally solved the problem? I went to the store in person. I walked in on a Friday afternoon and introduced myself politely. Of course, the manager knew who I was right away. I didn’t even need to explain why I was there. He disappeared into the back to “check some emails” about the matter and returned two minutes later to report that it was fixed.
This is a company whose business is the most advanced communications technology the world has ever seen, and yet getting things done with them requires face-to-face, in person interaction.
That technology will always be useful.
Here’s to the kid.
Up at 6:00 on Sunday, on a train by 6:30. Starbucks reward in hand, she’s at church with her pastor dad by 7:15 because he thinks he has to lead worship at 8:00. He doesn’t though. He’s wrong.
She spends the 8:00 playing with the Bell Choir Director’s kid. The 9:30 hour she spends alone in her dad’s office with her phone–he’s in the junior high Sunday School class. When he returns he finds her sleeping on the office couch.
At 10:30 she goes to her own Sunday School for fourth and fifth graders, then immediately following she is dragged to a youth leader meeting where she is plied with pizza. She busies herself during talk of curriculum and scheduling by doing handstands against the wall.
At 1:00 her dad has to meet with a couple about their wedding, so she spends that hour, again, alone in his office with her phone. The battery dies. She reads.
She’ll get a boba tea for her cooperation and patience. That’s not near enough.
Church is a community. In particular it’s a covenant community: women and men of various ages commit to a shared life of worship and service, and they pledge their Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights and a week in July and a percentage of their paycheck to pay a staff and keep the roof on a building.
Sometimes this covenant community enjoys close personal relationships. The experience of deep friendship with high levels of personal sharing: this is what some people mean when they call the church a “community.” That can be enlivening and sustaining when you find it in church.
But I’ve been wondering lately how much community, for church, must involve these close personal friendships. Especially in a large church, especially in a church whose members are blessed with lots of these friendships with people outside of Sunday morning, say in their neighborhood or school or workplace, maybe community-as-intimate-friendships is the wrong lens.
I think a lot about this little book I read over a decade ago called The Search To Belong by Joseph Myers. His argument is that defaulting to intimacy is harmful. Insisting that the right way to belong to a church community is to have lots of intimate friendships there privileges one kind of experience of church over others and ignores the meaning that many people find in church whose involvement is more public and less intimate, say only on Sunday mornings. I think about that argument a lot.
I think about it in light of my interaction with a man whose family used to participate in our church preschool, years ago when his kids were little. They’re grown now, but as he’s telling me about those years he’s getting emotional. They came to a couple of worship services maybe and never joined, certainly never went to a potluck or a Bible study. Yet that church community was profoundly meaningful to him and his family.
Where it happens, close personal friendships strengthen the covenant community of church. But we should be careful to not equate the two.
I’m starting to see how investing in lots of one-on-one meetings with congregants can pay off over time in connections and insight. I hear threads emerging when I talk to people, and little pictures are coming into focus of folks struggling with and yearning for the same things.
It’s rewarding, though it doesn’t come with a programmatic set of instructions. Lots of people feel isolated from meaningful community. Great (not great); you had a hunch that was the case and now you’re hearing it firsthand from person after person. That’s an insight. The insight is not the application though.
So keep having the one-on-ones and keep listening for detail. Resist the urge to propose fixes. Try things. Experiment. But hold every experiment loosely and provisionally, always ready to tweak it in light of more learning from more one-on-ones.
This way of working is not step by step, right? It’s spade work. The stuff you can work with grows when you’re not looking.
There’s leading and there’s implementing, and the difference is about more than creativity or authorship.
You can lead something you didn’t create with purpose and integrity just as well as the project you conceived. Leading is about ownership. How much do you care about this event, this idea, this experiment–and how much have you staked on the outcome? If you care, I will follow you.
Just don’t implement. Someone else’s idea or yours: implementing is just following the steps that are supposed to get you a predetermined outcome. There’s no mystery in implementing and no curiosity.
Martin Luther King didn’t implement the civil rights movement. He led it.