What I Want Them To Know

26 05 2013

Prayer request time felt especially heavy tonight.

A local teen killed herself earlier today: the second suicide to rock our community in two weeks. One of our youth’s brothers is on trial for murder this week. Another of our youth will be moving to Mexico on Wednesday. One youth’s dad is being deployed with the Air Force next week. And yet another’s grandmother is in ICU.

I offered up a prayer for all these, and more, wondering if my words could possibly be adequate.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26)

In many ways, tonight was just an ordinary night. We played kickball, ate hot dogs, made homemade Icees, ran around, got sweaty, celebrated summer.

I think that life happens, MINISTRY happens, in the midst of ordinary moments: the spaces in between the silly games and the heartfelt prayers.

As I drove home, I wondered about the spiritual resources we are passing down to our students. How are we equipping them to cope with the stuff of life, both now and for the long term? What have we given them through youth group that will continue to sustain them after they’ve graduated? It isn’t as though there will ever be a prescribed formula for what to do when life gets tough…they need their faith to be strong enough to endure whatever life throws at them, but flexible enough to adapt to their own situation and emotions.

Here’s what I came up with (in no particular order):

1. I want them to know that our God is big. That there is nothing God can’t handle, including our sins, our doubts, our questions, our grief, our pain. That in the midst of all things God is working for the good of those who love him. And that even though he’s big, he is always with us.

2. I want them to be able to pray. We emphasize prayer all the time at church, but all too often we present it as a boring, dead discipline that we do because it’s good for us…like taking medicine or brushing our teeth. But prayer has so much more potential than that; it is our chance to encounter the living God. I want them to be able to offer short prayers in the midst of their daily, busy routines. I want them to be able to throw themselves at the feet of Jesus and express whatever emotion they’re feeling. I want them to know that they can pray even when they can’t find the words.

3. I want them to be able to search Scripture. I have found so much comfort through the words of Scripture as well as through other psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Instead of just waiting passively for us to tell them what story to read, I want them to be able to use the Bible as a resource on their own, so that they can find what they need when they need it.

4. I want them to understand and appreciate the power of community. I say this all the time: this youth group is not an ordinary group of people. You’re joined together because you have the same purpose. You’re here for each other because you love Christ, and that helps you love each other better. I want them to really do life together, and help each other THROUGH the hard times: bear each other’s burdens, laugh with each other, encourage each other, love each other. And I really want them to experience true community now so that they will seek it out in the future.

5. I want them to have hope. Faith, after all, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In non-religious terms, hope is “facilitating creative visions for the future” and developing resilience (Carey, 2007). I want them to know what God’s vision is for his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. I want them to recognize that kingdom breaking into our world, to know that this is just the beginning, and to hope for what God will be doing tomorrow.

This is just a rough beginning. I’d love to hear your thoughts. What spiritual resources can we give our youth for when life gets tough? What resources have most helped you?

Graduation Sunday!

20 05 2012

At the beginning of 2012, we started a Prayer Partner Program, in which I paired each of our high school seniors with an adult Sunday School class, and asked the adults to pray for that student every week between January 1 and May 20.

Now, you never know how programs like this will work and whether people will get on board. But every Sunday School class immediately became invested in “their” senior. All semester long, congregation members have stopped me to say things like, “Can you introduce me to our senior?” or “Do you think it would be okay to send our senior a birthday gift?”

junior boys

snazzy servers at Senior Breakfast! It will be their turn next year! 🙂

Well, May 20 was today: the official end of the Prayer Partner Program. Every year on Graduation Sunday, we host a breakfast for the graduating seniors and give them a gift. But this year, we added a new twist: at the end of the breakfast, we sent the students to their  Sunday School class to meet their Prayer Partners. The adults then got to pray for their seniors in person! It was a neat way to celebrate this milestone Sunday, both for adults and students alike.

me and the Class of 2012

These guys were sophomores when I first became their youth director: including an interim, I was the fourth person in the position in three years. They were old enough to be disillusioned, and you couldn’t have blamed them for keeping their distance. But instead, they took a chance on me, they welcomed me in, and they let me be a part of their lives. And slowly, they taught me how to be a youth minister.

It happened the first Friday night, when he sent me a message that said, “Yo! Did you get your unlimited texting set up yet?” and then proceeded to blow up my phone with text messages.

It happened one Monday afternoon, when he knocked on my office door and asked if he could help me set the futons up after youth group the night before. Somehow along the way, we ended up reading the Book of Ezekiel.

It happened one Thursday, when she turned sixteen and drove herself to the church to show me her license.

It happened one Wednesday afternoon, when four of them arrived to help serve Slushies to the kids walking home from school. We had no idea what lay ahead, but they knew they wanted to be a part of it.

It happened one Wednesday night, when two of them stayed after Bible study to tell me that they just weren’t too sure about this whole faith thing. What if we had made it all up?

Over the past two and a half years, I have laughed with them, cried with them, worried about them, prayed for them, celebrated with them, listened to them, talked them through tough times, cheered them on, studied with them, learned from them, and most of all, loved them unconditionally.

They have changed me…for the better, I think. When I plan my lessons, I think about them: how would they interpret this Scripture? how does this relate to what is going on in their lives? if i say one thing, will they hear another? (I try to think about all my youth, of course, but it was my relationship with their class that taught me how to do this.)

They showed me what it means to walk alongside them in good times and bad…how to express that agape love through the power of just being there. And they reminded me that my calling as a youth minister is more about building relationships than about planning programs.

They have offered their own gifts and perspectives to our church, diving headfirst into roles of leadership and service. They have been willing to ask hard questions and think deeply about their faith, and they have sought earnestly to live out that faith. They have supported and encouraged me, shown me grace when I screwed up, and they will be leaving a powerful legacy in the lives of younger students in our group.

It’s no wonder I’m having a hard time letting them go, but I’m also excited to see them stepping out on their own path, and I can’t wait to find out what God has in store for them!

Congratulations, Class of 2012!

Reflections: On Bygone Interviews

30 04 2012

We moved back to Shreveport nearly two and a half years ago, without any clue of where we would land once we arrived. Youth ministry was barely even on my radar, except for a telephone call I had received a few weeks earlier from a pastor friend. Apparently, there was a church looking for a youth director, and he knew I was moving back…was I interested?

I shrugged my shoulders, sent in my resume, and continued seeking out other job prospects, as well. Before I knew it, I had two job interviews lined up for day after we would be moving into our new apartment. One job entailed coordinating an annual arts festival; the other was that pesky youth director position. I thought I knew which one I wanted, but I decided to keep an open mind.

The first meeting was by far the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had. Sample question:

Interviewer: This job involves a lot of communication. Let’s say you are waiting to hear back from someone, and you’ve emailed them and called them, with no response. But you can’t move forward unless you hear from them. What would you do next?

Me: (clearly this is a test of my creativity and ingenuity in a tough situation) Well, if it was appropriate, I might try to visit them in person. Or if we had a mutual acquaintance, I could see if they might be able to get in touch with that person. Or, depending on what I needed from them, I might be able to talk to someone else instead.

Interviewer: (flatly, disappointed) No. The right answer is to send a fax. After we call and email, our third form of communication is fax.

Me: (brightly) Well, fortunately I do know how to use a fax machine!

I walked out to my car, blinking back tears. That clearly did not go as well as I had hoped. And I only have a an hour to pull myself together in time for the next one! 

The second interview should have been intimidating — the 12-member hiring committee crammed themselves into the pastor’s office and tossed questions to me, firing-squad-style — but all I felt was a sense of intense calm. Peace, you might call it. Sample question:

Interviewer: What is your five-year plan?

Me: I used to think I had one of those, but I don’t anymore. I’m here for the time being, and I guess I’ll see where God leads me from here.

It was an entirely honest answer, and the committee members nodded their heads — if not in approval, then at least in understanding.  I was only 22, after all.

Two and a half years later, that answer still rings true. I’m here for the time being, and I guess I’ll see where God leads me from here. We’ve neared the end of an era, Jordan and I. We thought we’d be preparing to move again at this point … but instead, whenever we have had the chance to move on and do something else, we have made the conscious choice to stay right where we are.  We realized this past weekend that we just might be planting roots…and the more shocking realization was that we’re okay with that.  Though we’re still open to being uprooted, as well.

Yesterday, we attended the very same arts festival that I had once applied to direct … and we enjoyed being able to experience the decorations and the booths and the music without having to stress about any of it.

I wondered about the person who ended up with the job. I hope she’s happy and thriving and planting her own roots. I hope she’s loving her job and her path as much as I’m loving mine. And by golly, I sure do hope she learned how to use the fax machine!

Mission “Because”: Birthdays and Basketball

12 03 2012

(See previous posts here and here)

If we are truly committed to a missional focus that elevates people over causes, then how do we, as church leaders, create opportunities for our congregation to be involved in sustainable, God-honoring ministry and mission? How do we “program” something when our goal is to transcend programming?  And, how do we get beyond the cause of the week into real discussions about the problems…and the solutions?

I don’t have answers, but I do offer up two stories from my corner of the world:

Souper Saturday crew

1. On the last Saturday of each month, our church cooks and delivers soup for more than 200 elderly and disabled residents in our community. Our youth are in charge of one “route,” where we deliver to the residents of a low-income retirement home.  The last apartment on our route belongs to a woman nicknamed “Tootsie,” who always stops our youth and talks to them for about 20 minutes.  They roll their eyes sometimes, but they understand that she’s lonely and probably doesn’t get many visitors.  Last month, Tootsie told them that her 82nd birthday was approaching.  One high schooler in our group put the date in her calendar and arranged for us to go visit on her birthday last Friday.  We brought her a cake, a birthday card, some flowers, and a few extra minutes of company.  It was simple and lovely and wonderful.

2. Our after-school program consists mainly of recreation opportunities and is somewhat separated from the rest of our youth group (although we do our best to invite them to Sunday programs as well).  But for the past two years, the biggest bridge between the “Tuesday” group and the “Sunday” group has been our church’s “spirit-league” basketball team.  We have mixed the two groups up on our basketball team; although the process has not been without its share of headaches and craziness, it’s been amazing to watch the youth form real friendships with each other.  Several of our high school boys have stepped up to the challenge of being role models for the younger boys on the team, both inside and outside of church.

I’m trying to figure out what lessons I’m supposed to be learning…but here’s what stands out to me about these examples right now:

1. Programs are a good start.  I don’t think we can throw out our programmatic models just yet.  We must create opportunities for students to learn, be inspired, and be challenged to go deeper.  Students can absolutely be changed by their experiences in service projects and short-term mission trips … and those of us who are “all fired up” about missions cannot forget how important it is to create “entry-level” opportunities for those who are not quite as comfortable yet.  We can’t end with programs … but it might be okay to begin there.

2. Relationships are essential.  We easily could have asked the retirement facility for a list of all their residents’ birthdays, and we could have started sending cards to each resident on his/her birthday.  That would have been a nice gesture.  But what made our experience last week so meaningful was that the youth took on the responsibility of an actual relationship.  Relationships help us stop thinking about people as “mission projects” and instead as actual human beings, created in the image of God just like we are.  I wonder if relationships are the medium through which we can escape the “program” box? If that’s the case, then we need to recognize what sorts of mission opportunities have the potential for us to build long-term relationships.  (Not that we should stop doing behind-the-scenes, no-contact types of mission projects, like packing food in a food pantry, because those projects are sometimes just what an organization most needs!  But we can recognize that different projects will have different outcomes).

3. Contextualization is also essential. At first I wondered: if we’re doing mission “right,” will our youth even realize that they’re engaged in mission?  After all, at some point, shouldn’t this whole “loving our neighbors” thing start to kick in automatically without our having to call it “mission?”  Well, yes … and no.  This process of “contextualization” must occur on multiple levels, depending on the maturity of the learners involved, but we can’t ever stop trying to understand our experiences within a larger framework.  For example: sometimes the basketball team boys become frustrated by the bad behavior of their teammates.  In those moments, we might talk to them about why their friends may be acting out, and we also re-cast our vision to remind them of both the reasons for the program and the goals we hope to achieve.  And the basketball program has also prompted some of our youth to ask hard questions about poverty, wealth, inequality, and racism.  We can’t shy away from these questions but instead welcome the opportunity to connect their experiences with the larger issues.

These are just my initial thoughts, subject to change at any moment 🙂   What do you think??

Speak Truth in Love!

17 11 2011

This month, I’m encouraging our youth (and adults!) to stop gossipping, stop complaining, and stop talking negatively about other people.  Instead, we have challenged ourselves to speak truth in love, and be the salt and light of our schools and communities by refusing to participate in the drama that surrounds us.

On the first night of youth group this month, we evaluated ourselves based on the criteria given in 1 Corinthians 13, asking ourselves whether we really speak patiently, kindly, selflessly, etc. (Click here to download the evaluation worksheet we used).  And then at the end of the night, I texted them all the above image (which I got from Doulos Clothing) and asked them to set this picture as their phone’s background for the rest of the month, as a reminder of our commitment to speak truth in love.

So far….it seems to be working well.  Several youth who were not at the original meeting asked if I would send them the picture so they could participate.  And one of my youth yesterday said, “This is a lot harder than I thought it would be.  I didn’t realize how much I think negative thoughts and say negative things!”

Crafty Post #2: The Gargantuan Calendar

25 05 2010

So, about a month ago, I decided that our Youth Wing needed some more decoration.  And not just any decoration, either…a gigantic calendar.  This was my inspiration (thanks, Jana!), and we had just enough leftover ribbon from Dinner and Dance to begin!

I had two of my youth help me draw out the squares, which we then covered with blue ribbon.  And it looked…not quite like I had imagined it.  I added on some of the event decals, and it looked…well, tacky.

But then this weekend, we made the date numbers using my mom’s Cricut machine.  This, apparently, was the finishing touch!  I’m about to have to change the calendar out for June, and I’m still looking for more creative ways to post events, but this is certainly a start, and I think it works nicely!

Slumber Party Invitations

25 05 2010

Next month, the youth and children’s ministries are teaming up to host a mother-daughter slumber party for tween girls (incoming grades 4-8).  It’s going to be a super girly night, and even though I’m not the most girly-girl ever, I’m so excited about hanging out with my girls and their moms.  (Plus, my own mom is coming, too!)

I thought this event required something beyond the cursory email announcements and text-message reminders that I sent out every week, so I took it upon myself to design and craft special sleeping-bag invitations for the party:

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most crafty person in the world (that honor goes to either my mother or my sister, who can create literally anything out of paper or fabric).  But every once in a while, I just get the urge to go all out, and this afternoon’s project was the result:

Julie and I sat on the floor of the Fellowship Hall and assembled the invitations.  First, we printed out the text of the invitation on pieces of hot pink cardstock, and we cut them into 3×8 inch rectangles (each invitation consisted of two rectangles: one for the front and one for the back.  We also cut sheets of pink patterned felt in 3-inch squares (2 matching squares perinvitation), and glued the felt to the back of the cardstock rectangles.  We folded the edge of the front back into a triangle shape, to show off the pretty felt on the inside.

Then, we created the little girl heads by cutting out a circle of skin-toned paper and gluing on googly eyes and yarn hair.  We glued the heads to back art of the sleeping bag, and then glued the sleeping bag paper together.

Voila!  In less than an hour, we had created a whole party’s worth of sleeping girls — 19, to be exact.  Hope these invitations make them begin looking forward to the party as much as I am!

The Silly Bandz Post

24 05 2010

This is the story of my Silly Bandz…and about how God works in mysterious, and sometimes downright weird, ways.

If you do not know what a Silly Band is, I feel so sorry for you: either you have been living under a rock lately, or you are a grown-up who lives in the real world.  In either case, I will try to enlighten you: Silly Bandz are the newest craze in fashion.  They are silicone rubber bands that have been molded into various shapes: dollar signs, toucans, magic wands, guitars, etc.  Kids wear them as bracelets, use them as rubber bands, show them off, trade them, etc.  You can buy them at Wal-Mart, dollar stores, online…

My encounter with Silly Bandz began a few weeks ago.  One of my youth counselors had bought the “Holy” set of bandz, and she presented me with two of my very own: a cross and a dove.  I have to admit, my first reaction was one of annoyance: this was yet another example of a cultural fad being co-opted by the Christian-consumerism machine.

But then I wore them around for a few weeks.  And I found that these two little pieces of silicone were the best conversation-starters I could have ever dreamed up.  Every time I met a new middle schooler (at church or outside of church), our conversation began in one of two ways:  1. “Oh, you have Silly Bandz too!” or 2. “Which Silly Bandz do you have?  Look, I’ve got these…”

Yesterday, I taught our high school Sunday School class.  In celebration of Pentecost Sunday, our lesson focused on the Holy Spirit.  However, the five high schoolers who showed up were less than enthused about being awake at 9:30 a.m., much less about having to talk and think about God.  After several minutes of crickets chirping, I took off my orange Silly Band and decided to try something new.

“Look,” I said.  “This Silly band represents the Holy Spirit, for me.  It’s shaped like a dove, which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  But it’s also orange, and it kind of looks like a tongue of fire.  Fire’s another symbol of the Holy Spirit.  I also think it kind of looks like a hat, although I’m not sure how that relates…no wait, yes I do!” (I was getting more excited by the second)  “On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles, so it was like they were wearing a hat of the Holy Spirit!”

My students were smiling now.  Probably they were making fun of my dorkiness, but I like to believe I had given them an image to remember. “What’s your other Silly Band?” asked one of the girls.

I showed them the yellow cross. “Obviously this one represents Jesus.  So it seems I’m just missing one that will be a symbol of God the Father, so if any of you have a Silly Band that might complete my trinity, let me know.”

Believe it or not, that actually led into a mildly interesting discussion about the nature of the Trinity.  (“Is it really one God if there are three different forms?”)  And our Sunday School lesson carried on.

This afternoon, I taught violin lessons up at the Noel Community Arts Program.  Alice, one of my six-year-old students, was wearing about 15 Silly Bandz on one arm.  The first thing she said as she entered her lesson was, “Do you really only have two Silly Bandz?”

She felt sorry for me, apparently, and asked her mom if she could give me one of hers.  Her mom said yes, and so she began the process of picking one to give away.  In the end, she gave me a Silly Band from her “Princess” set; I suspect she chose it because it was gray, and thus the least interesting band on her arm.  Nonetheless, when she handed it to me, I could hardly believe my eyes:

Unwittingly, she had picked the perfect symbol to complete my Trinity.  My mind started racing through the stories of the Bible: from YHWH’s role as the “first king” of Israel, through that wonderful phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  The entire story of our faith, it seems, can be summed up by three colorful silicone bands.  (And two of them glow in the dark!  That’s a whole other good piece of symbolism, for some other day)

I suppose I'm wearing my theology on my wrist now!

Go Ahead, Make My Day!

20 05 2010

In my “Teaching for Biblical Faith” seminary class, we’ve talked a lot about “signs of learning.”  As my professor says, it doesn’t do any good to just get up there and talk, if no one is learning anything.  We’ve mentioned signs like people participating in the discussion, asking questions, taking notes, changing their behavior.  But, as a youth leader, here are a few of the things that just make my day:

1. Overhearing youth talking to each other about the night’s lesson

2. Parents telling me that their kids come home each week from Bible study and explain the story to them

3. Youth who quote the lesson’s Scripture in their facebook statuses

4. Students who call me when they miss Bible study so that they can catch up on what they missed

5. Weeks after I hand out notecards with a “challenge” on it…seeing that a student is still carrying that challenge at the front of their wallet

On the other hand, last night at Bible study, I had students who couldn’t find the book of Acts, and another who learned for the first time that Job is a book of the Bible.

There’s always more work to do!

What DO I do all day?

13 05 2010

I apologize — I haven’t posted regularly at all lately, and all my posts have been about youth ministry.  But, c’est la vie.   I am living and breathing youth ministry in everything I do, it seems.  And so far, at least, I’m loving it!

This morning, I had the opportunity to go help out with the parish-wide honors orchestra.  I got to meet students from five different area middle and high schools…and since I wasn’t their “regular teacher,” I got to be the cool, fun, young violin teacher…or at least, that’s how I’m hoping they saw me 🙂

After all the rehearsals were over, I ate lunch with a group of seventh graders, one of whom is a part of our youth group.  In the midst of our conversation, the following exchange happened:

B: So, do you, like, have a job or something?

Me: Yeah, I work at the church.

B: You work at our church?

Me: Yep…I’m the youth director.  (Just so you know, the student I was talking to is a faithful member of the youth group…comes every week to Bible study, etc.)

B: I knew that.  But…what do you do all day?

Me: Well… not sure whether to be offended or crack up 🙂