The pathos of adolescence is the raw material of youth ministry. Teenagers feel differently than adults do–more immediately, more intensely, and without the moderating influence of experience and perspective. Their joy is more joyous and the despair more despondent. I know this. I have worked with youth in one capacity or another for almost 20 years. Also, I was one.
Some youth workers match the emotional pitch of teenagers with stunning precision. They seem to be up to their elbows in pathos and possessed of boundless energy. I am grateful for them, even as I recognize that I am not them.
I don’t really do pathos anymore.
Ministry with youth for those of us 20 years or more removed from the adolescent experience doesn’t have to be fueled by the same emotional identification with teenagers as it was earlier in our careers. Our declining gusto for the mountaintops and valleys of the teenage experience is an asset. The challenge for us is to own our age and perspective and not to somehow keep pathos alive. Teenagers need adults with some distance from the intensity of their experience as much as they need adults who can immediately relate to it.
Accompanying teenagers’ discernment of the good and the right is hard work. It takes the courage to lead them into uncomfortable spaces–physically, intellectually, spiritually–and the wisdom to put to them the discomfiting theological question. Being out front in this work means anticipating students’ challenges. It means attending to group dynamics. It means wrestling ambivalence and imprecision, often to a draw.
Youth formation is very difficult work.
None of us do this work alone. In addition to parents and volunteers, a healthy youth ministry connects students to a whole constellation of leaders: retreat speakers and small group leaders, mission partners, camp staff, neighboring pastors and religious leaders. Allowing those leaders to do their work with our students is uniquely challenging and uniquely critical.
Is my pastoral relationship with the 6th-12th graders in my congregation dependent on me as the perpetual speaker and leader? If so, that’s an easy way out. There is a harder body of work for youth ministry, and that is the cultivation of relationships with other adults who get to lead our students without our interference.
This. Is. Tough.
My students are at a youth conference this week, and almost every element of their experience is led by somebody who is not me. Worship, recreation, small group discussion: committed and talented people who love youth are in charge of it all. My job is simply to be with my students in it. It’s great for them. It’s challenging for me, not because I don’t like or don’t agree with the content, but rather because I depend too much on being in charge of everything.
Thanks be to God for a church full of people who are called to lead youth, who have led the students in my care this summer, from Chicago to Detroit to Cuba to North Carolina.
That dog-tired feeling that’s following you around may be about more than the hours you’re putting in. We measure our workload in quantity, and it is certainly true that early mornings and late nights take it out of you. But there’s a fatigue that comes from the quality of work you’re doing, too, and by quality I don’t just mean how good it is.
Work that aims for impact has to stretch our capabilities and deepen our knowledge base. Learning new information and skills, synthesizing novel insights and applying them in unproven ways: these are qualities of work that is exhausting, whether it takes up 60 hours a week or 20.
The good news is the insights and skills won’t always be new. Once you’ve got them, they’re yours to deploy, and deployment is easier than acquisition by far.
The better news is there’s always more to learn. Nobody is keeping you from straining after better all the time.
Is your fatigue due to the quantity of your workload or the quality?
Exit interviews are a great way to learn ways your work can be better. When people who have worked with you move on, always do an exit interview.
I spent yesterday morning in a succession of one-on-one sessions with our outgoing Urban Youth Mission staff, who, as I have said, are awesome. There wasn’t a lot of time allotted to each one, so we had to be direct: what worked for you and what didn’t?
I learned that enlisting congregation members to help support summer staff by inviting them to dinner on their nights off works. Big time. The housing mostly works. All the public transit works. The changes we made to this year’s schedule worked. Including a professional coach from the church community to work with staff individually and as a team works.
Not everything works well now, though. Giving the daily devotional leadership to summer staff didn’t really work, or at least it didn’t work as well as when I or another member of the church’s pastoral staff did that, as last year. “Keynote” addresses that are more facts than faith reflection aren’t really soaring either. The food situation can work better; constant complaints from youth about bland stir fry wear staff down.
Where is the fun in having nothing to improve? That’s why I love doing exit interviews.
Of course, you don’t have to wait until someone leaves to get better.
High quality leaders turn difficult situations into constructive opportunities for learning and growth. That’s one of the purposes of a youth mission trip, isn’t it, subjecting students to difficulty for the sake of transformation? Mission trip leadership is a balancing act between alleviating difficulty and allowing it, between allowing for just enough of the right kind of difficulty that participants will be challenged to change and permitting so much of it that the trip devolves into the Misery Olympics.
Of course, mission trip leadership is shared. On some trips, the Pastor or Youth Director is leading with a team of church member volunteers. On other trips, that team is leading with staff or volunteers from a partnering church or organization on site. In the latter case, your partner’s leadership skills matter a lot. A huge part of students’ experience is affected by it.
Which is why I’m so proud of the staff of the Urban Youth Mission program, the project of the church I serve that welcomes youth mission trips to Chicago all summer. We care about the quality of our staff almost more than anything else in our program, and we invest a lot into equipping them to manage that balancing act of challenge and security, not only with the youth who come, but also with the youth’s leaders. It’s a lot to ask of college students.
You can bet we ask about our staff on the evaluations we give to students and leaders before they return home. All summer long I’ve been reading assessments like, “exceptional” and “terrific” and “mature.”
I texted the program’s Director: “you knocked it out of the park with your staff.”
We were standing side by side in the kitchen as I loaded the dishwasher and she greedily handled her latest batch of slime, passing it from hand to hand and squeezing it between fingers with relish. She was breathless from lecturing me on the merits of “fluffy” versus “crunchy” slime. I was only half interested. That I was paying attention at all I signaled by delivering puns and jokes on the terms in her lecture.
At one point she stopped talking and held the green slime in one hand. “I give up,” she said.
“Give up what?”
“Trying to talk to you.”
Relief at first. I have heard more about slime and its component “activators” over the past month than a person can and keep sane. She has spent hours of her leisure time combining dish soap and saline solution and glue and food coloring, and then storing the product in ziplock bags. It’s a complete mess. I have cleaned slime from floors, tables, counter tops, and even refrigerator handles.
A reprieve, yes.
But then it registers as I finish filling the silverware tray that shes figured something out about her dad and that she doesn’t like it. These dad jokes and puns are a way to not engage, to deflect. She has never, in all her nine years, enjoyed silliness as much as I expect a child should. She finds it irritating instead.
Her mom didn’t like it either, when we were first dating. So I dialed it back and made every effort to project a more serious persona. It never occurred to me that I might have to do the same thing as a parent.
It’s 11:30 on Thursday night and I’m up, tapping a blog post into my phone. Something isn’t right.
The Acer Chromebook that was at last delivered to replace the one I bought last June and subsequently sent for service four separate times has also died. Well, not died exactly. Yesterday morning, the screen suddenly developed an ominous shadow in the lower left corner, and I watched in horror as the shadow swallowed up the entire screen in a matter of seconds. Restarting the computer brought the screen back, but only for a moment before The Shadow returned and victimized the pixels again.
I contacted customer service, eyes fully open. I was advised to send it in for repair and to pay all the packing and shipping myself. Nope. Not doing it. I’m not putting another cent into this or any Acer product.
11:38. I’ve read three chapters of Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, And Other Misadventures in Gascony–France’s Last Best Place, which I picked up at my local library yesterday. This is my new reading discipline: one book at a time from the library. I have a full queue. I don’t allow myself to place a hold on a book until I’ve finished the one I’ve already got checked out.
This one was in my queue because I met the author. His daughter is Baby Girl’s classmate. We met at a playdate in May, and over the course of some small talk he revealed that he was a food writer who had spent a year living in rural France and another year penning a book for Harper Collins about it. I added it to my chipublib.org “for later” shelf that very day.
It’s good. He’s deft with adjectives like “ascetic,” and he describes duck fat in terms that make me want to pour it over cereal. It’s also pertinent to me that he’s telling a story about taking his kid away from her home and the second guessing such a move prompts. No amount of duck fat or crepes will silence those.
11:49. 10 more minutes and I could parrot a Michael Franti song. Another day, if I’m unlucky. Tonight I’ve said enough.
More worship. That’s the third item on my Youth Group Wish List for the coming year.
Sunday mornings are complicated. There are worship services at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00, children’s Sunday School during the latter two services, youth choir rehearsal at 10:00, and three youth programs–Jr. High, Confirmation, and Sr. High–all at 11:00. Church is not the only thing youth and their families are committed to on Sunday mornings, either.
I do not expect that students and their parents will spend both a youth group hour and a worship service hour at church every Sunday. So our youth group activity at 11:00 for several of the Sundays in the upcoming year will be to participate in the worship service.
And I mean participate. Students will be invited to serve as liturgists and ushers during those services, and everybody else will be together though not hidden in back.
Our youth are part of a congregation that worships in a stunning sanctuary with pretty incredible music and compelling preaching. That they would never experience that because they’re always in youth group at the same hour seems like a lost opportunity.
I want to spend more time with parents in the coming program year. I organized a couple of “parent meetings” last year that were well attended, lively, and helpful for me in starting to learn about our youth and their families. But it was not enough.
This year’s calendar has seven parent-specific pieces, although they’re not all get-to-know-you meetings (there are three of those). Several of them are service or learning activities designed for parents and youth to participate together.
I’ve heard it said that ministry with youth is ministry with parents. Item number two on my wishlist for the coming year, then, is to do more ministry with parents.
I want my church’s weekly Sunday morning youth groups to grow in the coming year towards being taught by church members. I want my work and the work of youth ministry staff to focus more on developing curriculum and enabling church members as teachers who are discipling young people.
A few things have to happen for this change to take place. For starters, curriculum resources have to be developed or acquired far enough in advance to teachers to get comfortable with them and plan adjustments as suit them. Writing up a Sunday session on Thursday won’t work anymore.
Also, time has to be committed to review teachers’ experience, to listen to where they feel they are thriving and where they feel stuck, and then to work toward growth, both for the teachers and for program design. It won’t do to heave a curriculum over the wall at teachers with a “Good luck!” in September and then wait for them to ask for help. We need to commit to a year’s worth of review gatherings now.
We’re a couple of months away from the start of youth groups, and I have a list of things I’m hoping for. This is just the first one.