Monday, November 30, 2009

My Journey of Faith: First Steps

Although my journey toward youth ministry began this summer (you can check out my story if you have not heard it yet), my journey in faith began long before, and it is continually obvious to me the ways that the path I have been walking has impacted my decisions, especially recently. My change in careers, from what I see now, has been building for years as God put my in the perfect place to hear is voice and to respond to His call.

I was brought up in the Catholic church, attending weekly Mass and religious education classes like any good Catholic. I never really enjoyed it (what 6-year-old likes getting up early, dressing nice, and sitting through an hour of something she doesn’t understand?) and remember fighting my parents a lot about going as a kid. I don’t think I every felt God in the Church, and definitely didn’t believe in God.

A big transition in my life began in the sixth grade, when I moved from elementary school to middle school. This meant new teachers, new classes, and new potential friends. See, the problem was, I didn’t really anticipate the new friends part of it, and entirely expected to keep the same group of friends I had had in fifth grade. So when those people started branching out and making new groups of friends, I ignored it and hoped it was just a phase and soon everything would be back to normal.

Well, that didn’t happen, and it wasn’t too long before I found my awkward 12-year-old self without a solid group of friends. I got depressed and angry, and my grades dropped, which caused my relationship with my parents to suffer. It became one of those vicious cycles I’d rather not relive. Anyway, when I finished sixth grade I saw no purpose in life, no point in living, and no reason to stay alive. I had no hope. But God was just putting me in a place where I absolutely needed Him, where I needed something bigger than myself, something greater than myself.

The summer after sixth grade I spent a week as Camp Carter, a place I had been to for a few years before and would continue attending a few years longer. I remember being surprised that week when counselors and other campers accepted me for who I was. It seemed that I had spent so long working to be a certain type of person, to behave a certain way, and just being loved for being me was an incredible thing to my 12-year-old mind.

It was probably a month or two later when I was visiting my grandmother in Massachusetts and she took me to see the play “Godspell.” In the version that we saw, teenagers—just a couple years old than me—played all of the parts except Jesus and Judas. The scene that hit me the most was when Jesus had been taken away and the disciples were all gathered together, mourning. Now I realize the teenagers were actors, of course, but when I looked into their eyes and saw such pain, such uncertainty, something changed for me. That these people, so close in age, could feel these things for a Man who had dies 2000 years earlier was unbelievable. In that moment, I wanted to feel that. I wanted to believe in something so deeply that it would be all I would ever need. I wanted to love someone so much that without them, my world crumbled.

This isn’t to say that I had an instant conversion in that little theatre on Cape Cod, but things started to change after that night. I began seventh grade with an entirely new attitude and a fresh outlook on life. I made friends, worked to turn my life around, and was happy for the first time in a long time. It wasn’t all sunshine and blue skies and key lime pie cheesecake after that, but during that summer, God filled me with hope and turned my eyes toward Him.

A lot of things have changed since those first steps of faith. I have seen God in so many different ways and my faith has been transformed by hundereds of people and events. But that is my foundation, that is where I come from. And I continue to walk forward from that day with something I had never really known before: unconditional love.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why I don’t want to be a senior pastor

On occasion, when talking with people about my plans to become a youth minister, I receive some confusion from people who aren’t entirely sure why I am not interesting in becoming an ordained minister, the senior lead pastor at a church. They don’t fully understand that being a youth pastor is my calling.

There are a lot of reasons why I am not interesting in being a head pastor. Although I know that many of these reasons are represented in some way for a youth pastor, it is the degree of responsibility and expectation that has led me to see my life and future in the way I see it now. Perhaps these sentiments will fade in time, but I genuinely do not think I will even decide to become a senior pastor at a church

1. I am not prepared to counsel anyone and everyone: As much as I loved it when youth would come ask me questions about life and God this summer, I don’t feel that I am capable of giving advice and comfort to all of the people who would walk through the doors of my church. It just seems so overwhelming to be a rock for such a wide variety of people, as well as a very emotionally draining task.

2. Giving sermons every week? No, thanks: This seems a bit hypocritical because I genuinely enjoy giving talks in front of people and sharing my thoughts and experiences. I gave five talks a week all summer, I have given reflections at a few Bible studies, I have spoken at a couple retreats, I gave two sermons at my church in high school. It is exciting for me at this point in my life to stand in front of my brothers and sisters and offer some words to reassure, challenge, and hopefully inspire them in some way. But the challenge of thinking of something relevant, practical, and real every week is terrifying. Creating entire sermon series and working to be theologically correct every single Sunday is not something I am interested in. I like the idea of giving a sermon every few months, which is what I have seen in a lot of churches.

3. I don’t want to be concerned with the numbers: I know that this isn’t necessarily a primary concern of all senior pastors, but I know that many church members and boards put pressure on the pastor to be the one bringing more and more people in and increasing or at least maintaining attendance. In my mind, the number of people coming into a church is so much less important than what each of those people is getting out of it. I am not interesting in sacrificing quality for quantity. Although churches also ask that high school pastors bring in larger numbers of youth, there is generally less pressure in that area.

4. Delegation isn’t exactly my favorite thing: My least favorite part of the summer was the one dinner each week that I was in charge of. At 4:30 every Wednesday, 10-15 youth would stroll into my kitchen with the intention of making tacos for 60-70 people. It was a little stressful, to say the least. The hardest part for me was delegating, telling each of them exactly what to do so that the whole meal wouldn’t be screwed up. There had to be enough cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and onions without wasting too much. The meat had to be properly seasoned and not brunt or undercooked. The sour cream couldn’t be taken out of the fridge too much before the meal started, but I better not forget it during crunch time. Suffice it to say, I hated Wednesday nights. As soon as everyone had gotten through the line and everything was replenished for seconds, I would head to the staff sleeping room and lay down for 15 minutes of peace. I only ate the meal a few times during the 9 weeks I prepared it. Basically what I am trying to say is that micromanaging and delegating suck. I hate that pressure of making sure that everyone has a job, that everyone is doing their job, and that everyone is happy. I cannot imagine doing that with a church. Give me a job, but don’t make me make other people do theirs.

5. I’m not good with the elderly: Ok, this one is kind of small and seems easy enough to fix. But I am just not good with old people. I struggle to think of what to say, I lose confidence, I can’t find my humor, and I feel completely awkward. I understand that to fix this just requires some practice, but I feel so confident about my ability to relate to kids and youth that I would much rather devote my time and energy to them. Why frustrate myself when I know that I have been given a gift for working with youth?

Essentially, what I’m saying is that I love the idea of being a youth pastor, and while some people seem to think I should be striving for something higher, I am perfectly content with my call. I don’t want all that responsibility. And no, for me being a youth pastor isn’t a stepping stone to my final career. It is genuinely what I want to do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Encounter Retreat!

I spent this past weekend leading the Encounter With Christ retreat, which takes place once every semester. The retreat is pretty much an intense, action-packed spiritual journey and it was amazing. The setup of the retreat involves multiples talks, lots of small group reflection time, prayer services, and a few other major elements like reconciliation and Mass.

My specific position on the retreat was Assistant Student coordinator, which means that I was in charge of the support team that handles the logistical aspects of the retreat. I also presented a talk titled “In Service of God’s Friendship” that discussed the importance of pouring out our lives for the people around us and working to see Christ in every person, as difficult as that may sometimes be. All in all, I devoted a TON of hours toward this retreat in the weeks and months leading up to it. In the end, it was totally worth it.

I’m bringing this up largely because it brought me back to my calling in amazing and refreshing ways. My mind was focused on God and I got to talk to so many people about my faith and the impact that the Lord has had on my life. I even spoke with my small group about my new vocation and the way that God’s timing is so mysterious and so beautiful. It was absolutely fantastic to be immersed in that mindset again, in a place where I felt so close to God.

As much as this weekend reminded me of the summer, there were a ton of differences as well, which have brought up some interesting questions. Obviously the maturity level difference from high schoolers to college students was super evident. The conversations I had felt more genuine and the people were much more open and willing to share without putting on that mask so many youth struggle with. Also, in giving my talk, I noticed such a difference in posture, eye contact, and understanding than I did giving reflections all summer. It was refreshing to see the way that the participants on Encounter were enthusiastic and thoughtful in so much of what they said.

I truly appreciated the summer and I find so much joy in thinking about being a youth minister, yet at the same time, this weekend was incredibly fulfilling, and the thought of working with young adults or even on a college campus is now something that is turning over in my mind.

I’m not saying, of course, that I have made a decision either way, but I definitely think that this weekend opened the door to a wider variety of possibilities. This is good in that I feel less limited, but it also makes an eventual decision more difficult with more options on the table.

The high school dynamic is so energetic, and youth are at such an important phase of faith development. I feel that God could do great things through me in this setting, and that I would find so much variety in the type of people I would meet.

College students who are looking for a minister or mentor have usually undergone significant changes through faith, and are often looking for something deeper and more real. They can be insightful and sincere in a way that many high school students cannot. I would have the challenging opportunity to go much deeper on a regular basis.

Whatever happens, I am grateful for what took place this weekend and the work that God did in me and so many people. Live the Fourth!

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Vision of my Church: Setting

I’ve been thinking recently about what type of church I would like to work in. Although I cannot fully predict what God has in His plan for my life, I am interested in thinking about what I am looking for in my future employer. At this point, I cannot really count anything out completely (who knows what jobs will be available when that time comes), but it is important for me to have an idea about my personal preferences.

The first aspect that comes to mind is the urban/suburban/rural question. Each of these settings creates a unique background for a church, and the type of people I will meet and the type of work I will do will be influenced by the surrounding area.

In a more rural setting, it is likely that people will travel from farther distances in order to get to my church, so scheduling events will be more difficult. In smaller towns, there is usually one high school, so everyone knows everyone, at least on a basic level. This means that each of my youth will have preconceived notions of one another and that I will need to work to break down the cliques and groups that have developed. Life far from cities also means that outside entertainment would be limited, and my youth might be coming to church just to have something to do when they get bored with rural life. Most rural areas in our country tend to lean more toward the conservative perspective, politically speaking, which isn’t necessarily good or bad, but could be both depending on how things are handled in a given situation.

I once heard someone say that kids in suburban churches often need the most love. It seems strange, but in a lot of ways this is true. In a suburban setting, teenagers are often accustomed to living according to a certain mindset, and they expect others to live up to this. For them, service trips can be a huge culture shock and often a few are resistant to looking beyond their own view of humanity. They usually lean heavily toward what is “cool” and can be quick to judge with rather shallow measurements. If a youth pastor can find a way to make excitement about worship and thoughtful discussions cool, many suburban youth are likely to jump in. In general, activities that require a bit of money (i.e. trips to the bowling alley or Six Flags or a nice restaurant) are a viable option. Parents tend to be rather involved—sometimes too involved, in fact—and are willing to contribute when they can.

Life in a city is a bit more difficult to generalize. Some metropolitan churches draw from wealthy urbanites and therefore thrive, monetarily speaking. Others in the inner city have many lower-class residents. Though many simple portrayals of urban churches don’t work across the board (neither do any of the previous generalizations, by the way), it is evident that cities have certain characteristics particular to them. For example, people tend to be more flexible and adaptable. The pace of life is quick and excitement is often seen as a necessity. One might see youth from seven to ten different high schools, many of whom would never know each other if not for church. Service can be a very significant tool as youth realize the poverty that exists so close to home and find hope through the people they serve. People who live in cities tend to be more politically liberal. Again, this could be good or bad, or perhaps neither depending on circumstances and responses.

Now the question is: where do I see myself?

Some part of me likes the thought of a rural church, of being in a place where there are already solid connections between individuals. However, I fear the tendency towards judgment and cliques because of this closeness and smallness. I also worry about the preconceived notions that the town might have about what a youth minister should do and look like and be. So I am going to say that I probably won’t make a rural church my first choice.

Although I can empathize well with the suburban mindset (I grew up in a pretty wealthy area 20 minutes outside Dallas, Texas), I am hesitant to enter into such a difficult mission field. I’m not sure if I am ready to have the patience that teens in suburban churches need. In another way—and this seems strange considering I just said how difficult it is—a suburban church would almost be too easy because it would be so simple to slip back into my high school attitude and become comfortable with unequal wealth and unjust use of resources. That is exactly the opposite of what I want. Here again, I’m probably going to shy away from the suburban setting.

Yet I am also hesitant about an urban church, at least in the heart of downtown. Regardless of money or location, city life can be complicating and demands a lot of energy. Going anywhere requires a serious game plan and a lot of effort to make sure everyone is on board and no one gets lost. Things can turn on a dime, and although I love change and am frustrated when people cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, I can see myself wishing life was a little more dependable.

I suppose my ideal setting is one of two things: 1) a church that isn’t downtown but isn’t in a suburb. The Gathering is kind of like this, but perhaps a bit too removed from the poverty of a city for what I am looking for. Or, 2) a church in a smaller city, one that has a more homey-feeling downtown, without an insane night life or extensive skyscrapers.

Wherever I end up, I pray that God will teach me amazing things through my church and through my town. I hope that I am able to be a light of His love and that my work might make a difference.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Friday, November 6, 2009


The church I attend in St. Louis, The Gathering UMC, has a six week commitment small group. Every week, those who attend learn about one of the foundational aspects of our church—such as community, service, prayer, etc—and discuss what each one means to us as followers of Christ. After the six classes, each person decides whether or not they are ready to make a formal commitment to The Gathering.

One doesn’t have to be an official member to attend the church, to take communion, to participate in small groups, but being a member of the church makes a statement that one supports the work they are doing and wants to be part of the life and vitality of the church.

When I first began attending this church last August, I thought briefly of joining the commitment class. I knew that the church was right for me and knew I would be attending for the rest of my college career. It seemed to be a good idea to learn more about the church and what it stands for.

However, as I thought about it, I realized that I would only be attending the church for two years, maximum, unless something led me to stay in St. Louis past my undergrad years. I didn’t really want to make a commitment if it didn’t mean something in the long term.

I see a commitment of any kind as a serious matter. If I say that I will be a part of something or that I will do something, I work hard to fulfill this promise. I am frustrated easily when people shrug off their responsibilities or choose one thing over another time and time again. Simply put, I don’t like when people are flaky.

This is not to say that I have never had to miss out on one thing because of a scheduling conflict, but in general I work to stay committed to what I say I will do. This is why I was hesitant to join the commitment small group. I didn’t want to just be part of the church for a couple years and then leave. I do attend the Gathering whenever I can and have joined a few different small groups. I’ve had coffee with the pastor and try to get to know the people I see each week. I feel that in my own way I have made a commitment, but to do so formally would open myself up to disappointment when I find I must leave this town.

This same situation came up in high school as well. My friend first introduced me to United Memorial Christian Church when I was in seventh grade. At that time I was still Catholic and still attended weekly Mass. After ninth grade I decided that my home church was no long right for me, and essentially stopped being Catholic to commit myself to UMCC.

I was really involved there with the youth group and other activities. A few times during my sophomore and junior year, I thought about making a formal commitment. But here again I thought a few years toward the future and knew that I would not be attending college in a place that would allow me to maintain consistent membership at that church.

I don’t really know where the next few years are going to take me, but I look forward to being able to commit to a place, to saying “This is my church. This is my home.” I will so enjoy having that place where I know I belong, where I know I can make a difference, and where I know I will grow immeasurably.

In some ways, thinking about things on such a temporary level has been difficult, but in many ways I think that it has helped me to realize how temporary things in life are and how important it is to focus on what I have now.

Although I am not a member of The Gathering, I have found so much joy and hope there. I have been challenged and encouraged, mystified and uplifted, grounded and elevated. My membership isn’t official, but my participation is. That, I think, is most important.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I mentioned a few posts ago that I want to include games as part of my youth group’s program. Although there are hundreds of awesome games, I thought I would take a moment to discuss a few of my favorites. If you want more information about any of these, let me know and I can answer your questions.

Move Your Butts: Some refer to it as “Scoot Your Boot,” some people call it “Bun Shuffle, some people have another name entirely. Regardless, I love this game as a way of allowing people to share about themselves, come out of their shells, and hopefully get a little goofy. Basically everyone has a spot in a circle (you could sit in chairs or stand on shoes or anything else as long as there are designated spots), except for one person who is in the middle of the circle. The person introduces him or herself and says something about them. For example, “My name is Mary P and I like playing ultimate Frisbee,” or “My name is Francis and I play drums.” Pretty much anything. Then everyone to whom that statement applies (ie anyone who also like Frisbee or also plays drums) will stand up and run to another open spot. You can’t sit in your own seat or the one next to you. Whoever ends up without a seat is the next one to make the statement in the middle. This game can go on for a while or only a little bit, however long you want. It works best with at least 15 people.

Human Knot: Super simple. Split into groups of 6-9 people and have each group stand in a circle. Everyone reaches out and takes someone’s hand. Make sure you don’t have both hands on with the same person. When everyone is connected, it should look like a knot of arms and hands in the middle. Once each group is ready, they all have to try to untangle themselves and get back to a circle with everyone holding hands. The thing is, you can’t let go at any point until the knot is undone. The first group to find their way out of the knot wins. This can be an ice breaker or just something to do with a bit of extra time.

Satan’s Flag: Don’t judge this one by it’s name. This game is played at nights, throughout the church (or whatever building you happen to be in), with the lights off. To begin, everyone gathers together in a certain area (we used the entrance hallway at my church) while a leader goes and hides a “flag”—perhaps a bandana or a shirt or whatever). Then each participant is given a piece of paper. Townspeople look for the flag and try not to get killed. Satan taps people on the shoulder and whispers, “You’re dead.” The Christian runs around, finds dead people, and “saves” them, bringing them back to life. When someone gets killed they die very dramatically and cannot move or talk until they get saved. Once the Christian dies no one can come back to life. If Satan kills everyone, he wins. When someone finds the flag, Satan loses. The idea is that at first no one knows who Satan and the Christian are, so you can’t trust anyone. If you have a lot of people, you can have a Secret Satan who is a townsperson at first but becomes a killer after about ten minutes (the leader would yell an announcement whenever this would take effect). You could also do a Secret Christian, who gets to save people only after he or she has been killed and brought back to life one time. This game is super fun and could go on for hours. Make sure to only use one story of the building and to have at least some small amount of lighting around anything dangerous.

Toilet Paper Hockey: exactly what it sounds like. In a large room, such as a fellowship hall or a gym, set up two plastic chairs at either end as the goal. It works well to use a tournament style, so set up some kind of round robin. Match people up and have them face off. Each person get a broom, you drop a roll of TP in between them, and the first one to get the roll between the legs of the chair wins. Sounds simple, right? Maybe even a little lame? Well things get interesting by the third or fourth game when the toilet paper has unwound itself and been pushed into bunches so that there are times when you lose the roll and can’t figure out which one you are actually playing with and which is just a pile of TP. You’ll need a whole lot of rolls. Once a roll runs out, be sure to pick up the cardboard interior to prevent too much confusion. Expect a broom to get destroyed every once in a while, too. You can keep track of winners if you want, but it is a lot of fun just for everyone to get to play.

I'll probably be throwing out another post of game ideas before too long here, so if you know of anything totally awesome for a youth group, feel free to let me know.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

“Human Vocation”

I recently read Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ by John Kavanaugh, a philosophy professor here at SLU. It was recommended to me as a good resource in preparation for a retreat I am leading where I am presenting a talk regarding service. But toward the end I discovered this chapter (I’ve omitted a few paragraphs for the sake of brevity and relevancy):

“A vocation is a calling-forth of a person, an unfolding of a human career that starts at the earliest moments of our existence. Vocation bears the concreteness of a developing body, the stuff of genes and womb, of time and place, of family and birth. We are called out into this world, and out calling is unavoidably local: this time, this place. Now.

“A vocation is a struggle. It is the labor of becoming, of working out a mission.

“That labor, that mission is love. Paul reminds us in First Corinthians that our adulthood and the fulfillment of all our diverse gifts finds itself in love. This is the highest gift behind all natural talents and specific tasks. If there is not love, there is nothing.

“Love, then, is the core. Created by love, started by love, nurtured by love, we are only real and lasting because of love.

“Thus, a vocation is not something that merely makes us feel good, nor is it necessarily easy. Neither is life or love. For in both life and in love, vocation becomes real only through struggle, purification, and pain.

“Vocations are questioned at moments of vulnerable crisis. But crisis, that wound of choice, that terrible mark of freedom, is often the very moment of deepening life and love in us.

“That is not to say that it is impossible for a profound life choice to be shifted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But I think it is most rare. The long labor of love in crisis is not the dying of a vocation. It may only be the final birth of it.

“Those who are basically happy in their vocations have discovered this truth.

“The only ‘highest’ vocation is love itself, resounding through all our different voices.

“We live out, by the relinquishments of our lives, a wider range of God’s love than could be imagined without us. So it is with all vocations.

“The happiest people, whether single, married, parents, priest, sister, or brother, are happy not only because they have found themselves. They are happy because they have made a singular and irreplaceable divestment.

“Having found themselves, they give themselves away.

“They have been called.”

(Kavanaugh, John F. Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991. Print.)

So much of this speaks to my attitude about my calling. Even though I spent a while running away from what I now realize is my vocation, it is obvious that God spent years laying out this path for me. There are many events that I now see as pivotal to my recent decisions, which at the time I shrugged off or interpreted in different ways.

I know that what I am doing will not be easy, nor has it been easy so far, yet when I look toward my future I am so much more hopeful and so much more happy than I had been before. I look forward to what I will be doing and I know that this is where God wants me to be.

I love how Kavanaugh talks about the “relinquishments of our lives” because this speaks so much to the transformation that occurred in my attitude and my outlook this summer. I had been clinging to this idea of being a teacher, refusing to give it up because I had just put too much work into it to turn around. But when I finally let go of my own will and placed God’s will above all else, I realized how much more fruitful and fulfilling my life would be in His hands

I don’t think I would have called being a teacher my vocation. I definitely consider my life as a youth minister my vocation.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Youth Ministry

I think that it is only natural that as I consider my future in youth ministry, I am constantly wondering what my program will look like. I’ve seen a lot of different setups, some of which I have enjoyed more than others

Obviously what I do specifically—how things will be set up, what areas will be emphasized, etc—will depend on many things, specifically, the number of youth, the philosophy of the church, the existing structure, the denomination, the church’s resources, the preferences of the youth, and more. But there are definitely a few things I know I want to see in one form or another.

Service: Mission trips, weekly service, and even intermittent service activities have vastly altered my perception of what it mans to follow Christ and to live His love. I have learned so much about His hands, myself, society in general, and individual people through volunteer opportunities. I really think it is important for high school students to enter into service as a way of broadening their view of humanity and shaking them out of their routine, stereotyped lives. I want to do service trips every summer, and hopefully monthly service in our community, whether at a consistent site or at different sites.

Prayer: Ideally, every youth activity would begin and end in prayer. Occasionally, though, I would love to introduce the youth to different ways to pray, such as Emmaus walks, the labyrinth, praying through art, fasting, examens, and more. I see prayer as a beautiful opportunity to listen to God’s voice and to discover new things about ourselves, although in high school I didn’t really understand it and was too easily distracted and not directed enough to utilize it.

Small Prayer Groups: Prayer is obviously a huge part of Christian tradition, and I really love the idea of creating small groups of five or six youth to get together outside of the normal youth group time to talk about their lives and pray for one another. Ideally, I would one young adult from the church as a leader for each group, especially at the beginning as they get used to opening up and holding each other accountable.

Discussions: One of my youth pastors in high school used to call them “round tables” whenever we would sit in a circle and discuss some sort of specified topic rather than hearing a particular message or doing small groups. I see immense value in allowing students to share their perspectives, in giving them a chance to discover new aspects of their faith for themselves, and in solidifying the bonds between them. This could be a bit risky—topics would have to be well-chosen, I would have to have a good introduction to the discussion and some solid questions as well, and I would have to find a balance between cutting them off too quickly when things got off topic and allowing them to go too far on circular or repetitive tangents. Yet it is so important to allow them to learn from and through each other. I might do this once a month

Guest Speakers: I am a big fan of expanding horizons, of opening people up to new perspectives, new ideas, and new ways of looking at familiar things. And I recognize that I need that as well. I love the idea of bringing people in to talk to my future youth. Not only does this give them a chance to view topics in different ways, but it also helps liven things up when my own talking get mundane for the youth. This summer I gave 5 talks each week, one per day, and I know that there were times when the youth got tired of hearing my voice. I tried to give the other staff a chance to share their stories as much as possible. I remember being incredulous when if found out that I was going to be the only one presenting messages. So I would love to bring in guest speakers, whether they are church members, friends or acquaintances of mine, or well-know speakers. I like that this could help raise awareness of different issues, solidify beliefs and perspectives (hopefully not in a way that creates close-mindedness, though), and allow youth to find common ground with vastly different people. I’m not saying I would bring in someone every week, but maybe every couple of months or so.

Mini-sermons: That said, I do want to have some straight-up teachings every once in a while. In high school it was helpful to hear about my youth pastors’ experiences and to learn more about what I believed. I don’t want to bore them by just lecturing every week, but on occasion I think it is important to share what I have learned and will continue to learn.

Games: It might not be the most important thing, as far as changing hearts and lives, but I have so many great memories of playing games at youth group. They really bring people together, get them out of their comfort zones, and build community. Toilet paper hockey was a big one at my church, and I still recall the feeling of victory and the joy of watching people unable to play because they were laughing too hard. Although I don’t want such activities to be the focal point of my ministry, I know how beneficial they can be to the group as a whole.

Other aspects will undoubtedly come into play and exactly how often and in what way I implement these ideas won’t be discernable until I am actually in a church and able to feel out their perspective and their expectation. Until then, it’s fun to dream about it.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

If I were to begin college again…

If I were to begin college again, I would do a lot of things differently. Let’s suspend reality and pretend for a minute that I knew for sure I wasn’t going to be a teacher going into college but that I still didn’t know I was called to be a youth minister. A journey into my imagination, if nothing else:

I would still decide to attend Saint Louis University and I would still be part of the Micah House program, because those were really pivotal things for me, and I wouldn’t change them.

I would, however, stick with the English major in its own, no education, and possibly a minor in theology or creative writing. I wouldn’t have to take 18 hours almost every semester, and I would be able to take classes I actually wanted to take (crazy, I know) rather than just a bunch of repetitive education courses. I would have gone farther with Spanish, something I wish I could speak even on a basic level.

I would be able to make room in my schedule to spend a semester abroad, and would hopefully go to El Salvador. I wouldn’t have to take summer classes unless I wanted to in order to be able to take more classes that genuinely interested me.

I would have had more time to get more deeply involved in something service-related without practicum and observations to worry about. I wouldn’t have to call principals every semester begging them to let me spend time every week in their schools. I would have done another extra-curricular and would have gotten to connect with more people, whether students or people I was serving.

Ceramics, guitar, piano, liberation theology, social work intro, and African-American Studies courses might have found a spot in my schedule at some point during my four years.

Sounds pretty good, right?

OK, these things aren’t life and death. I’m satisfied enough with my college decisions and I’m not angry with the way things turned out. I just wish I had had some better direction going into it, that I had realized earlier I didn’t really want to be a teacher, and that I had been able to make all those little things happen that I ended up missing out on.

Also, I trust in God’s timing. He had a plan when He waited until just before my senior year to show me His will for my life, and I am grateful for everything I learned before and everything I have learned since. It might have been easier to know from the beginning, but not nearly as educational and not nearly as challenging and therefore growth-inducing.

I might have been fumbling in the dark for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do and convincing myself I wanted a career that honestly brought me little joy. But because of this I met incredible people, learned a lot about how I view certain perspectives, and grew in innumerable ways. Sure, I wish I hadn’t been an education major, yet I really can’t imagine my life without that period, without that base. Regardless of its frustration, and even through the regret I feel over that decision, I trust that God had a plan in it.

I look back at my life and see times I have struggled and questioned His will, and though they were difficult at the time, I am continuously amazed to see how His hand was there and how those moments defined my life as it is today. It wasn’t always easy, but because of those difficult times, God has brought so much beauty and brokenness into my life. I may not be able to see it now, but I know that God has a plan in His timing.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oh, the memories...

Hello friends!

I just spent the weekend with Alaina, my coworker, roommate, and best friend from the summer in West Virginia. We had a great time hanging out, remembering stories, and talking about our experience together. Since I am feeling so reminiscent, and since the summer played a pivotal role in this journey toward youth ministry, I decided to just post a few pictures from my summer. Perhaps in the upcoming days I will share some more stories about my experiences with YouthWorks.

The four staff members: me, Alaina, Krista, and Adam, singing goodnight to the youth.

Singing at a nursing home, a weekly activity.

A bunch of the Kids Club kids on the steps at our housing site.

Me with some of the awesome youth I was blessed to meet this summer: Landon, Clay, Chandler, Kyle, and Eli.

There were four YouthWorks sites in WV, all within an hour and a half of each other. Here are a bunch of the staff on the Fourth of July.

Our wonderful town of Logan. "The Friendliest Town in West Virginia"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

10 Steps to Youth Ministry

I found this piece in Justice Kindness Humility, a blog with youth ministry-related posts and such. At first I thought this article was serious, and I was getting pretty angry before I realized that the whole thing is satire.

It is so convincing because for many people, this is what youth ministry is all about. You gear everything to what the youth consider cool and what a business-minded budget committee wants. A lot of youth pastors genuinely believe that some of these things are really vital and many implement these in their programs. Even if they wouldn’t state it quite so bluntly, the mentality behind some of these things is a driving force in many of today’s youth groups.

In truth, God calls us to much higher standards than these things, and I know He must be disappointed when He sees His people pointing toward a philosophy rather than pointing toward His face.

Here is the article in its entirety. It’s food for thought if nothing else:

10 Easy Steps to Guarantee a Successful Youth Ministry
By Mike Yaconelli
YWJ and Youth Specialties' late founder

1. Dumb down the gospel.
Employ attractive phrases, such as, "Since I've known Jesus, I'm happier, getting better grades and captain of the football team!" Even better, reduce the complexity of the gospel into group cheers (e.g., "Give me a J!") or simple worship choruses, such as, "God is so good…blah blah blah." Or even better, try out some hip slang (e.g., God is "phat"; Jesus is a "hottie").

2. Count.
Constantly make everyone aware of your group's attendance figures and the increases in attendance. Make numbers an issue by setting attendance goals for each activity and reward the group for reaching those goals. Spend lots of time throwing pies at the leaders if goals are reached.

3. Put your students on display.
As soon as kids become Christians, rededicate their lives or show real growth, put them in front of the group and have them share their testimonies—especially if they're physically attractive. Let young people talk about their faith as much as possible and don't worry about the fact that most young people have no clue how complicated and rough the real world is, with or without Jesus.

4. Don't allow down time.
Hey, kids today are MRV kids! Silence, solitude, prayer, meditation, fasting? All totally lame in the eyes of this generation! Nope, keep 'em busy, active, noisy and shuttling from one Christian rock concert to another. Fill every moment of your program with something to do. Otherwise, you'll lose their attention.

5. Stay on the technological cutting edge.
What would Jesus do? Are you kidding? Jesus would have the best sound system you ever heard, along with a DVD player, the Internet, instant messaging, the coolest Web site and a digital TV. Show your kids that when it comes to the latest technology, Christians are right there!

6. Create celebrities.
Make sure your young people get an earful and an eyeful of the latest Christian music stars, video stars and NFL players who profess their faith in Jesus on national television. Encourage them to worship, idolize and live under the illusion that these people are somehow better, deeper, more Christian, more together and more dedicated than they are.

7. Let youth group take the place of church.
Oh sure, encourage your kids to attend the contemporary service—even though you know most of them never will because church is "boring," filled with "dull, old people," and the music "sucks." Whatever you do, though, don't suggest that worshiping with people they don't like and connecting with people who are older and wiser just might help them when their adolescent view of the world is shattered.

8. Don't make waves.
Whatever you do, don't cause friction with parents by suggesting to their kids that grades, SAT scores, financial security, college degrees and scholarships matter. Just accept the fact that most parents want their children to attend youth group as long as it doesn't interfere with hockey, football, ice-skating, tennis, ballet or baseball practice. Furthermore, don't suggest that students resist their parents' attempts to smother the call of God on their lives. After all, you could get fired!

9. Ignore the arts.
Never encourage painting, dance, sculpture, writing, poetry, ballet or trips to the museum, symphony and opera. Stick with activities that rock! The WWF rules!

10. Live in the now.
Verify the success of your ministry by visible, measurable, observable results you can access now. Don't waste your time worrying about lasting results. Who can wait?! Go for the instant return. Hey, once your kids leave youth group, you aren't responsible for what happens to them anyway, right?

Reactions to My Calling

When I tell people about God calling me to be a youth minister, it’s interesting to see what people say. Reactions naturally vary depending on who I am telling and their experiences with youth pastors.

People told me they were proud of me. I got some enthusiastic high-fives. A few “that’s awesome”-type comments.

Multiple people have told me that they can really see me being a youth minister, that I have some great qualities for it. This is probably my favorite response.

A ton of people tell me how awesome it is that I know what I am doing. Some even seem a bit envious that my plans are now so clear. “What a great feeling!” is a common response to my excitement.

Some people really didn’t understand, and still don’t. They think of youth ministry as a stepping-stone to being an actual pastor, which is not my plan. Or they think of it as something I’m going to do in the meantime before I figure out what I really want to do with my life. Thankfully, these people are few and far-between. I don’t think I could handle it if I got a lot of these types of responses.

A couple people have asked me if I decided not to be a teacher because I wanted to be a youth minister, or if I decided to be a youth minister because I don’t want to be a teacher. The former is correct, meaning that I did not say “Crap, I don’t want to teach anymore. What am I going to do? Oh, I’ll be a youth pastor.” Rather, God called me to youth ministry which necessarily meant that being a teacher was no longer in the plans.

My best friend told me that the more he thought about it, the more right it seemed for me.

I had someone joke, “What does God sound like? What’s his ringtone?” If only you knew.

I have been amazed by the support I’ve received. It’s not every day that you tell people, “Well, my first three years of college were spent going in the wrong direction.” So it’s great when people are so encouraging.

Thank you, to those of you who have been so supportive. I love my call, but above all, I love the people who have been involved in helping me toward it and now as I work through it.

Have a fantastic day! I know I will!

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Extent: A Few Words on Disclosure

It’s interesting to me to look at how I tell people about my calling. Obviously I talk about it in different ways in different situations according to the intent and the audience. Sometimes it is pretty clear how much I should say and not say, but there are times when I am less certain about the details I should share and how much people really want to hear.

An occasional person wants to know the whole story in its entirety (if you are one of those rare few and haven’t heard yet, feel free to check out part 1 and part 2 of my story, written in early September) and that is fantastic. These people are usually the ones I am very close to, and generally I don’t just spout off the story but rather allow their questions and reactions to shape which details I emphasize and the extent to which I allow my enthusiasm to chine through.

And although I love to tell the story and hear what people say based on that, most people don’t press me quite so far. There are people who find out that I have been called and want to know some details, but not really everything. Just enough to curb their curiosity, which is fine and makes sense.

There are times when I just say that I have been called to youth ministry and that is enough. This happened with my advisor, for example. Usually when I keep it to just a sentence it is because I am telling the person for a specific purpose and a few words works to satisfy that need.

And it is not just the length and number of details regarding my calling that come into question when sharing the story. I also feel as if I need to be cautious regarding the excitement, passion, and enthusiasm I show when explaining my new life plans. Sometimes I can be practically jumping up and down, but most people tend to be a little thrown by that. Generally I can appear confident and animated, but not overly so. Sometimes I have to tone it down a whole lot so I’m not overwhelming someone. It was difficult for me to be nonchalant about it at first (once I actually got to the point where I could start telling people), but now that comes more easily.

I continue to tell new people about my calling as I enter into deeper conversations with friends I don’t see very often and as I meet new people who ask about my future when they find out I am a senior. Still, it can be a struggle to figure out just how to explain this sudden about-face in my life plans. The best I can do is just to be honest about my passion and let them determine what they want to hear.

“The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
-Walt Whitman

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hesitancy #5-235,584

Don’t worry, I don’t really have two hundred thousand reasons to be hesitant about youth ministry. Well, if I were to stretch each one out and count each sentence as a hesitancy, maybe I would. But I won’t make you suffer through that.

So here is just a laundry list of the other things that give me pause when I think about my future:

• I’m a girl. Let’s be honest: we live in a male dominated world. If the boys are having fun, the girls will usually follow. I’m not trying to be antifeminist; I’m just saying that at this point that’s how it is. So being a girl means that guys won’t take me quite as seriously. And if guys aren’t on board, girls are less likely to jump in with both feet. So I’m supposed to be a female youth minister?

• I don’t have facial hair. What kind of youth minister doesn’t have at least a goatee?

• I’ve seen the way a few churches do things, but I really can’t envision my own ministry yet. I know some of what I want and don’t want, but the big picture isn’t there yet.

• I hate money. I do not want to work on creating and maintaining a budget. I don’t want to do fundraising and I don’t want to have to be the one to tell parents they have to foot a large part of the bill for the mission trip.

• Also, I’m not into politics at all. You can ask my family. It’s not that I will not stand my ground on important issues and it’s not that I am willing to water down Jesus’ message, but I believe that a church should avoid factions and individualism and division in general. I know it will happen. My prayer is that I can stay out of it as much as possible and that I never end up in the middle. Chances of that are slim, but I really, really, REALLY do not want to have to deal with drama and disagreement in an environment in which I am striving to build stronger relationships with Christ and with one another.

• It’s difficult to get a job when so many churches want someone with experience. So the typical question arises: how do you get experience if you need experience in the first place?

• I’m not super detail-oriented. I’m organized for the most part and can be on top of things, but if there is a choice between building relationships and doing an independent task, it’s not even a question.

• I want to get more kids into the church, but I’m not going to stoop to gags and stunts and gimmicks to bring them in. My hope is that the message, the relationships, and the love will be enough. Not to say I won’t be having fun and playing some games and such, but I want it to be about the deeper stuff, too.

• I don’t speak any other languages. Not necessarily a problem in some parts of the country, but a huge problem in border towns or urban churches in places that end in “-town” (e.i. Chinatown, Germantown) or start with “little” (little Mexico, little Italy) where culture still holds tightly to its language.

I have spent the past 5 posts telling you about why I am not qualified to be a youth minister. Fun, wasn’t it?

And now I could list for you all of the reasons why I am qualified: my skills, my attributes, my personality traits, so on and so forth. But as I am continuously discovering, I have spent too long being an arrogant college student. And what’s worse, I couldn’t even see my own pride. Therefore, I will not make you suffer through that.

Just believe me when I say that for every reason why not, there are at least two reasons why. Maybe I can’t see all of them, but I am putting my faith in God and trusting Him to lead me.

“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen."
-Oscar Romero

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hesitancy #4: Extroversion

Welcome to the first post in October! The year is going so fast already!

We have come to one of my last main hesitancies (there are many more, but this is the last one I will look at with such depth), so let’s plow through it.

Quite a few of my friends will tell you about how I was when they met me. At first, when I’m getting to know people, I tend to be a little quiet, a little awkward, especially when I’m out of my comfort zone. It takes time for me to warm up to people.

But when I have warmed up, I tend to be really outgoing and energetic. I enjoy dancing and singing for any reason, or none at all. I can hold a solid conversation about a lot of things. I’m not afraid to be goofy when the situation allows. I’m really a gregarious person. It just takes me some time to get there.

The thing about youth ministry, though, is that I’m not sure how if that will work out very well. Being shy at first isn’t going to help me—first in the interview and then as I start connecting with the youth.

The first week at YouthWorks, for example, I was definitely not the same person as I was during week 4-8 as far as energy and enthusiasm go. I was hesitant, especially on Sunday when everyone would be arriving. But by the second week I was doing a much better job of getting to know participants and I was much less hesitant about being crazy and sociable.

Although I’m still working to get over my initial awkwardness, I am not nearly as shy as I was as a kid. And my comfort zone is continually expanding, so there are fewer situations in which I feel awkward, and I spend less time working to become outgoing in those situations. A lot of that can be contributed to my college experiences. I came to a university where I knew no one going in, and I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Even with past and recent leaps toward all-around enthusiasm and conversationalism, I wonder if how well I will fair as a youth pastor. First of all, in an interview, the church is going to want someone who is engaging and passionate, so I will need to be able to overcome any shyness starting on the first day I meet these people in order to even obtain a job. And then once I have one, it is important to me that I work from the start to draw the youth out of their shells, that I am willing to be goofy as well as serious, that I can get up in front of them and laugh with them and not be afraid of their judgment of me in all my craziness.

Although this seems like something I can just force myself to get over—and in some ways I have been and can continue to do so—I still second guess my confidence and my gregariousness on occasion. For the most part, though, I know that once I am in that position, God will guide me to where I need to be, and He will give me strength for each day.

My aunt shared this with me the other day, and it completely floors me with its beauty and truth:

“Whatever God asks you to do, God enables you to be.”

So I will put my trust in Him with confidence that He is continuously refining me, polishing me, breaking and remaking me.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hesitancy #3: Guitar

When I was in ninth grade, I made one of my rare New Year’s Resolutions and decided I wanted to learn to play guitar. Seven years later, I’m really not very good at it. I mean, not as good as I should be.

Reasons why (aka my excuses)
• I can’t figure out what strum pattern to use for a song. Once someone else has started, I can usually keep up and do just fine. But I tend to use one of the same two or three for every song, which obviously doesn’t work.
• I can’t strum and sing at the same time. Well, I can for like three songs. But only because I’ve practiced enough. The rest of the time I either screw up the guitar part (usually that one) or sometimes mess up the pitch/pace/words of the song.
• My fingers have trouble reaching anything beyond two frets away. That is a big problem for stuff like F#m, which is in some songs I really love and want to play.
• I’m not a good singer. Ok, this might seem kind of irrelevant to how I am able to play guitar, but when I can’t so one part, I kind of lose confidence, which brings me to the next point…
• I have no confidence on the guitar. When I am up in front of people playing my guitar I usually want to cry or crawl in a hole or occasionally just let every laugh at how much I suck.

This summer, with YouthWorks, I told the guy who interviewed me that I had a little bit of guitar experience, but that I never really play in front of people. I explained to him—as I’ve explained to others before and others since—that I use guitar as a way of communing with God, of putting myself in His presence. I prefer playing in my room with the door closed when as few people are home as possible. I enjoy begin able to just sit before Him and to allow the words to flow through me and impact me. I can’t do that very well in front of people. It’s just not my thing.

Well, in the way that only God can work, I ended up being hired as the lead guitar player for the YouthWorks site in Logan, WV. Sweet. I spent the next few weeks wanting to practice and get better, but not really having the time.

Reasons I didn’t have time (more excuses)
• I play ultimate Frisbee for Saint Louis University (SLU) and we were hoping to qualify for Nationals. Then we did qualify for Nationals. So we were working extra hard to do well there (13th in the nation, not too shabby for a school our size)
• I was taking 18 credit hours and things got hectic there for a while. Projects, papers, and the like.
• I led a spring break mission trip, which meant meetings and prep beforehand and then no actual spring break. It was an awesome experience, but it definitely took up a lot of time.
• I also had to write five talks in preparation for the summer, when I would be giving one a night throughout the week.
• I was involved in Monday night Prayer and Praise, a Women’s Bible study, a small group at church, and intramural sports.

Long story short: I didn’t really practice all that often. I got to training in Philadelphia directly off a plane from Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. The first time all the future worship leaders sat down to play, I became extremely overwhelmed. “These people are all better than me. I’m screwed.” My thought process continued like this throughout that half hour or so. I left the jam session and immediately went into the bathroom to cry it out. Crap.

During prep week in Logan, before the youth arrived, I labored to figure out songs I could handle that were relevant to my talks that the youth would know or at least could follow. I kind of failed. A couple of our adult leader evaluations after the first week of programming talked about how we needed a stronger singer/guitar player to lead worship. Crap again.

Well, things changed drastically when there was an abrupt staff change. Within 24 hours, two out of the four staff left and two new individuals joined us as we began our second week on our own. As always, God knows what He is doing. He sent us Krista, who played guitar.

I was overjoyed. That first week had really broken my spirit in terms of worship. I felt like I had let everyone down, especially the youth, which is the LAST thing I would every want to do. I thought that I was getting in the way of them praising Him instead of opening the door to a stronger connection with Him. Which is what I told my boss’s boss when she informed me that I would still be lead guitar even with Krista there. Well, I kind of told her that between tears of fear, frustration, and uncertainty (here we go again with me crying about guitar).

Eventually, when I professed my undying love for not playing guitar in front of people, it was decided that Krista would take over guitar for at least that week, and then we would go from there.

I spent the week getting over my stupid fear and realizing that I had to just swallow my pride (a theme of the summer and now my life, by the way). By week 4 I was generally back on my feet and started playing backup guitar. And no, that doesn’t mean it was too much easier. It was definitely great to have Krista taking the lead, but the one time she looked at me and said “You lead this one, please” before a song I had never played before, my heart essentially stopped and I couldn’t even remember what a G chord looked like.

All this goes to say: I have no confidence playing guitar in front of people. But a LOT of churches want the youth minister to do some sort of worship for the youth. I’m not ready for that. I might never be.

Sure, I might be able to find a youth to lead worship. That can be really empowering for them. Unless, of course, they’re anything like me. I can’t really count on having an awesome guitar-playing, confident high school student with a decent voice in my youth group.

At this point I’m still playing guitar, though it took me a solid month or more to pick it back up after the summer, that’s how broken I felt. I’m moving forward (I even got roped into playing backup for a retreat commissioning ceremony and I only kind of screwed up), but I’m not ready to sit in an interview and tell them that I play guitar. If this means I don’t get hired, it will be difficult and it will suck. But I’m not ready. And for now, I am working with that and through that because I believe God will lead me to where I need to be.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hesitancy #2: Theology

This one is pretty big. While the previous hesitancy is something that hindered me at first, this is still a huge concern for me, one that I’m sure will be around for a while.

You see, I don’t know a whole lot about theology. My own theology, first of all, is still in the making. My core faith is in Jesus: in His saving love, His unending grace, His beautiful joy, and His promise of peace. A large part of what I believe also comes from my assertion that I need to see Christ in EVERY person and to treat them as such. This involves how I relate to people, how I serve the broken and rejected, and how I treat every person with whom I come into contact. I also believe that we have a God who comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable (thank you, Shane Claiborne).

Other than that, I’m not necessarily the most theologically developed individual in the world. Let’s face it, I find Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, and Voltaire a bit over my head. I’m only mildly interested in John Wesley, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Merton. I really have no idea what systematic theology, exegesis, hypostatic union, or eschatology mean. Alright, I admit that most high school students won’t be concerned with these things, but that’s not the point.

Probably my biggest fear in youth ministry is that I won’t be able to make a difference in the lives of the youth. So what do I do when the big issues come up? When they ask how an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God lets stuff like wars and natural disasters and genocide happen? When they bring up God killing people in the Old Testament? When they ask me about my stance on hell, divorce, drinking, homosexuality, and more? How do I adequately discuss consubstantiation VS transubstantiation, infant VS adult baptism, women in ministry, or the role of church in state? Some of those can be make or break for a high school youth on the edge of finding his or her faith in God. What happens when I don’t have the answer?

Of course I know that I don’t always have to have the answer, that there are tons of resources, that I could talk to my pastor or a mentor if I were questioned, that I could investigate it with the youth by my side. But there are definitely things that I should know that I just don’t. Which is why seminary would be helpful.

As I thought about my calling for those first few days, I had this image of myself in front of a group of fifteen youth, asking if they had any questions about a lesson I had just given. One of them lays out this really relevant and eloquent question, and I don’t know the answer. I’m standing in front of them, and I really have no idea, not even an educated guess. This picture is enough to scare me a little, to make me rethink youth ministry.

There’s not a hard and fast way to get rid of this obstacle. It will take time, energy, and faith to move to the point where I’m not terrified by this image. And I am sure that something like this will happen at some point. For now, I will try to read some of those theologians, if only abbreviated versions. I will try to find the strength to ask myself those deep, difficult questions so that I will not only be ready for the challenge of some curios youth, I will also be ready for my own testing, for my own strengthening of faith.

From "Peanuts" by Charles Schultz

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hesitancy #1: Denomination

As I previously mentioned, when I sat down with Ryan to discuss my calling, I had (I thought) a solid list of reasons why I could not be a youth minister. He pretty much shot them down easily, but I haven’t been able to let go of them quite so flawlessly. Oh, and these are in no particular order. So here goes, with one of the big ones: my denomination.

I was brought up Catholic (a story for another day), but this didn’t really have a big role in the origins of my faith. Quite the opposite, I would say. It was more of an obligatory attendance, with my parents dragging me along each Sunday. What eight-year-old wants to wake up early to get dressed mice to sit and listen to something that is way over her head? Not I.

But in seventh grade, right after I started believing on God for real and having a relationship with Him, a friend invited me to her Protestant church. I kept going back and there was a fading in/fading out process where I went to the Mass less and less and went to United Memorial Christian Church (UMCC) more and more.

UMCC was the place where I first started to realize the importance of community and accountability in a gathering of believers. It was a Disciples of Christ (DOC) Church, a small denomination that tends to be pretty middle of the road, not too liberal but not too conservative, with elements of both in the services and in the way it approaches outreach and ministry. I enjoyed the DOC denomination and it definitely led me to better understand my faith. It also ushered me entirely into Protestantism by the 10th grade.

During my senior year, I also went to a nondenominational church on a weekly basis for their Wednesday night youth group. They had a worship band and a really passionate and dynamic youth minister, and it was a really refreshing experience to see students from a lot of different social groups on fire for Christ.

When I drove ten and a half hours and began going to college in St. Louis, the church searching began again. Freshman year I did not have a car and most of my friends were Catholic, so I ended up going to the church on campus for their weekly Mass, since it felt wrong and out of place not to go to anything on Sundays. But though I felt God more there than I had at Mass as a child, I knew that the Catholic Church wasn’t the place for me.

I spent some time at the beginning of sophomore year (when I had a car again) visiting a few churches. I started with DOC ones, since I had a background there. I spent a few months at one place, but it didn’t really fit my needs, so I hopped around again. At the end of the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I decided to really seek out the right church for me. I visited nondenominational, DOC, Presbyterian, and Methodist before I stumbled upon The Gathering United Methodist Church (UMC).

I have been going to The Gathering for a little over a year now, and I have found the small groups, worship, and community very fulfilling. I really love this church. The pastor is passionate, dynamic, and relevant. The people are kind and involved. The service does a great job integrating the old with the new, particularly in the music and in communion.

The problem with this whole situation is that I don’t really associate myself with any particular denomination. I know some of what I’m not: I’m not Catholic, I’m not Southern Baptist, I’m not Episcopalian, I’m not Lutheran. But know what I’m not doesn’t mean I know what I am. I could be happy at a DOC church, a UMC church, a nondenominational church, or maybe something I haven’t tried yet.

In some ways, not being a particular denomination opens the door to a lot of possibilities. But it also makes it difficult to choose what the next step will be. If eventually I decide to go to seminary, I will need to commit to some sort of denomination for this training. What seminary I go to will likely be determined by where I end up working. So my first job could decide my denomination for the rest of my life. Which is a LOT of pressure.

Not being a denomination also gets in the way of being a youth pastor to begin with, because the average Christian-related job application has a little blank for denomination. If a church wanted to know what church I grew up in, the answer isn’t really cut and dry. I’ve heard that most churches would just want me to commit to attending their services each Sunday to hire me, that they would ask if I agreed with their basic theological doctrines. That is all good and well, but I feel uncomfortable saying that I am ___blank___ when I’m not really sure. You know?

I know that this might seem like a small hesitancy, but I really feel unprepared when it comes to denomination. This was an obstacle to me deciding to be a youth pastor, and now it continues to be a block I have to get over as I spend time reflecting on my future. It’s just something I will have to work with as it comes, but I would like to be a little more prepared. Thoughts? What am I?

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Ten Year Plan

When I was going to be a teacher, I had the next ten or so years of my life pretty well mapped out:
-1 more year to graduate
-2 years of service work abroad (hopefully Africa)
-2-3 years teaching wherever I could find a job
-2 years getting my Masters in English
-teach for the rest of my employed life

That last one was a little less definite, because there’s always the question of how long I would spend at one school. Also affecting the final portion was the fact that in the back of my female mind remained this thought about eventually marriage and how that played into it all.

Regardless, now things have changed significantly. First, I’m not sure I want to dedicate two years to service, and I’m not sure I want to do it internationally. Currently, I’m thinking about a year of domestic service work, possibly with an organization like JVC or something solid and dependable. I’d like to try to do something with youth, maybe prison ministry, homeless shelters, or something for the developmentally challenged. I think that having experiences with youth and in this country would lend itself better to my future career than spending time abroad.

After I do service, I want to find a job somewhere. Anywhere, really. I’ve never been super attached to places, and I can see myself in most parts of the country. Chicago, St. Louis, Georgia, Seattle, Louisiana, Arizona, Ohio, Tennessee, Maine, West Virginia… mostly anywhere except New England. Or really, really cold places, like Wisconsin. I’m from Texas, after all. But really, I’m open to mostly anything, geographically speaking.

Which makes it kind of difficult, to be honest. It might be easier if I could narrow it down to something more specific. The same goes for denominations. I don’t really belong to any one protestant denomination, so I could go a lot of directions with that. We’ll just see were God leads me.

Recently I came across a website called where you can sign up to receive e-mail alerts whenever an employer posts an open position in their site. You can define the specific position, denomination, and part of the country you would like to get notifications for. I signed up, even though I’m not necessarily looking for anything at this point. But I get e-mails pretty much every day, and there are quite a few that have interested me. So many talk about wanting dynamic, energetic, caring people. Quite a few are looking for someone to design a program from the ground up. Even though I’m not ready to apply, just knowing that these options are out there makes me incredibly excited about my future.

Well, my ten years might not be set in stone. Who knows if seminary is in the future at some point. And as the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans. It’s totally up to Him where my life is going to go. So I will trust Him to lead me there.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Degrees: A Few Words Regarding My Major

I have loved reading and writing for many years, so majoring in English was a fairly obvious choice as I began my college career. After a semester at Saint Louis University as an English major, I decided it would be more practical to add secondary education to this so that I would be able to teach English in public high schools once I graduated.

During my first three years, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the education program. Classes were often repetitive, with serious overlaps in subject matter and continuous rehashing of certain methods and strategies. Yet despite the heavy education course load and all of the information we were given, I still spent a good amount of time feeling like I was not really ready to teach at all in a practical sense.

Also, whereas many colleges assign education students to their observation and practicum locations, SLU requires that we find our own. This means at the beginning of nearly every semester, I would be calling around to dozens of local schools trying to find one that would let me into a classroom to watch on a weekly basis or that would even allow me to help teach on occasion. Ninety percent of the time, this was an extremely frustrating and time-consuming process that rarely bore much fruit. Though the observations gave me a better idea of what I wanted my classroom to look like, the frustration was not worth what I got out of my required practicum experiences.

There were also many teachers who did a poor job of transmitting information, and I would frequently spend class periods doodling in my notebooks because I had either heard it before or I knew I wasn’t going to use that particular approach or idea in my class. For example, spending a week learning about how to administer a one-on-one psychological examination seemed fairly useless for me, a future high school English teacher with at least one hundred students. To summarize, I found many aspects of the education department frustrating, yet I always said, “But this is what I want to do,” so I continue to trudge through it, class by class and semester by semester.

When I heard God’s calling, it was apparent that my plans for my life were vastly altered, and this naturally meant that my plans for my final year of college could change as well. With so many courses under my belt, it made no sense to drop out of SLU or even to change degrees. I knew that I needed to have a backup and that having a degree, any degree, made me somewhat qualified to be a youth minister. Based on various conversations, I have come to understand that a career in youth ministry does not require a degree from a seminary. In fact, one person told me that some of the best youth ministers he knows are ones who didn’t go to seminary.

After some serious consideration, I decided to get the English education degree but to go the non-certification route. This means that I would take a few less classes (some of those I have already taken, though now I didn’t really need them), I would not student teach, and once I graduated I would not be technically certified to teach in Missouri. If youth ministry for some reason didn’t work out, it would still not be too difficult to obtain certification using my degree and experience.

I came back to SLU a few days before this semester’s classes began and met with my advisor to talk about my future. I basically told her that I no longer wanted to be a teacher and wanted to switch to non-certification. She seemed to accept this at first, handing me a list of what classes were required and such, but after a bit she decided to play devil’s advocate. She told me that I was so close to certification, and that student teaching and portfolio were the only things standing in my way. “Wouldn’t your student teaching experience be applicable to working with youth?”

Well, Ms. Swatek, they might in some ways be helpful, but I do not believe they would be worth the headache and frustration of giving up my last semester to be a secondary individual in a classroom that wouldn’t really need me. And my hope is that instead of dedicating my time to student teaching, I can transmit it into something more youth ministry-oriented.

So I begin this semester as an English/Education major, non-cert. What a beautiful day!

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Friday, September 11, 2009

To be inspired...

But of course that isn’t the end. And where I began the telling wasn’t really the beginning.

Sure, that was the story of how God called me, but it is undoubtedly interwoven with my past, with other people I have met, places I have been, and experiences I have had. Where I am now is a reflection of my life, both the past and the future, and for this I am immensely grateful.

I suppose that in some ways this is really just the beginning of my journey, and in the same way, my blog really begins here. You have heard the “why,” at least in part, and now it is time to begin to explore the “how”s, “where”s, “when”s, and “what”s.

Before embarking on this path of personal, outward investigation and explanation, I wanted to take a few moments to share some thoughts that have significantly impacted my life and the way I look at the world. I believe that these shed light on who I am, and also on why I do what I do.

The first is from Saint Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours
no hands but yours
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion
looks out
on the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is to
go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to
bless men and women now.”

I really love this because it reminds me that God desires a life of service. Hopefully, this is something I will be able to give Him.

The next quote is from Shane Clairborne:
“Even if the whole world believed in resurrection, little would change until we began to practice it. We can believe in CPR, but people will remain dead until someone breathes new life into them. And we can tell the would that there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death.”

These words remind me so much that I need to live Christ’s message, that I need to be His Word in the world and to allow myself to just be on fire for Him. His love has changed me, challenged me, inspired me, and uplifted me, and it is my prayer that I can be this love for others.

Finally, this comes from Harold Whitman:
“Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I spent a long time convincing myself that being a teacher would make me come alive eventually. Looking back on it, I see how much I was just working to make myself believe that it was so. But the idea of spending my life with youth genuinely brings joy to my heart and I am so excited for the future now. God’s call might have been a terrifying thing, but His plans are making me come alive daily.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Story: Part 2 of 2

After God placed this small, previously unknown desire in my heart, I spent the weekend trying not to think about it because doing so would make my life much more complicated. Sunday afternoon brought in what proved to be another awesome group of youth and their adults. While greeting the church groups, moving them in, playing foursquare, and eating dinner, I observed the adults and looked for someone who I could talk with about this new idea.

YouthWorks calls Sunday and Monday “the first 30 hours,” the time when we make our first impressions and pretty much decide how the week will go. As I watched the groups interact at their first day of service, their first meals, and a trip to the local pool Monday afternoon, I noticed that God had blessed me with some incredible youth, mainly from one church. On Monday night, before we began our time of worship and reflection, I asked the youth minister of this church, Ryan, if he would talk with me for a few minutes after the kids had gone to bed (with a fully scheduled week, this was really the only time to have a deep conversation with someone).

That night, Ryan and I sat in the hall and briefly chatted about the day. After avoiding the actual reason for this meeting for a bit, I decided it was time to get to the point and brought up what the HFN had recommended for my life. “I don’t really know what a calling looks like,” I told him, “but when I read that, something just felt right.”

Well, Ryan pretty much told me that based on what he had seen in me, there was no way I couldn’t be a youth minister. He said that I had all of the necessary skills and personality traits, and that I “ooze” youth ministry. I began to list my hesitancies (which we be discussed in great detail over the next few weeks), and he shot those down one by one.

Throughout this conversation, the obstacles dropped away and God whispered in my heart, “This is right. This is you, Mary P.” Ryan told me that since that spark was in my heart, it was never going to go away. Now that I had heard God’s calling, it would never go away, as hard as I might try to make it. And I knew that God had turned my life plans upside-down.

Ryan and I talked a bit more about logistics, the next steps for me, other reasons why I couldn’t do it, and reasons why I should. I also got a chance to hear about his life leading up to his youth ministry, which was awesome. I always love to hear people tell their stories because God builds us up through one another and every experience impacts humanity.

Our conversation was winding down when Krista and Alaina, my coworkers, came out of our room to brush their teeth and sat down with us. By the time we had finished chatting and had learned that Krista can fit her fist in her mouth, it was almost 1 and the 6:45 wake up was just around the corner. As my head hit the pillow, I was terrified. I mean, everything I had known and planned and depended on had been rocked. What lay ahead was a HUGE mystery and I wasn’t ready for what the future would bring. Yet at the same time, part of me was at peace, because God had placed this so carefully and beautifully in my heart, and I knew that He would be with me every step of the way.

I might have woken up the morning of July 27 a future teacher, but as I drifted into sleep, I knew that God desired for me to be a future youth minister, a change that is continually challenging, encouraging, and thrilling me.

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.

The End

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Story: Part 1 of 2

This summer I was employed by an organization called YouthWorks, which works to connect youth groups with communities around the country through various service works. My time was spent leading mission trips in the incredible town of Logan, West Virginia, about an hour southwest of Charleston, the capital. Every week, 60-70 high school youth and adult leaders from various churches around the country would come to our site to repair homes and to help with a day camp for local kids. The four of us staff members would facilitate and lead their service and reflections and meals and so much more. (I am confident that I will be telling lots of stories throughout, since it was such a pivotal summer; have no fear.) We began a week of training in Philadelphia, had a week in Logan without any groups doing prep work, and then nine weeks of programming.

Throughout my time in Logan, I learned innumerable things about myself and was challenged and stretched in so many indescribable ways. In an environment where I would wake up at 6:45, go to bed after midnight, and was constantly working to ensure that the needs of youth, adults, community members were being met, it was only natural to learn quite a bit about myself. Sometimes this was more than I wanted to know.

But the beginning of my calling doesn’t come until the end of July. Something awesome that all YouthWorks sites do is Happy Fun Notes (HFNs). Each staff member, adult leader, and youth would get a locker at our housing site at orientation on the first day, and then during their week in Logan they could encourage and uplift one another with simple notes. It is a really awesome opportunity for them to be Christ to one another and to allow others to strengthen them. I would get letters ranging from amazingly heartfelt testimonials to warm compliments to minor criticisms, and even once a comment that I have skinny arms and need to work out more (seriously). A lot of times kids would stay up late on Thursday night writing to anyone and everyone before they left Friday morning. Enter the first inkling of my calling.

At the end of week 7, after we had cleaned the building, packed up the kids, bid them farewell, and took our weekly (and very necessary) hour-long nap, I peeked in my locker to discover a note from an adult leader, who was also the trip leader of his church group and just a great guy in general. The note, which I still have along with every other note I received this summer, said this:

“Mary P- Thank you for uplifting messages this week—they were excellent! You should be a youth pastor! The footwashing and prayer meant so much to me! Thank you!

Despite my tiredness and the duties ahead to prepare for the next week, these words hit me like a ton of bricks. All of a sudden something made sense. A youth pastor? Yes. Yes, please. But I really didn’t have time to consider what it meant, and at this point I was way too scared to look into too deeply. I mean, this was not in my life plans. There were about a million obstacles in my way. So no, thank you. Maybe in the next life.

Basically I was thinking that I would really like to work with youth for the rest of my life, but getting to that point involved much more work—physical, emotional, spiritual, etc—than I was prepared to put in. I pretty much decided to just tuck the idea away for a bit, until I could figure it out in a more real-life situation, away from the beauty of West Virginia and the high of living in total service of others. But at the same time, I wanted to talk to someone about this, someone who had a little experience. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hoped that I would be able to find a solid, amiable youth minister the next week and that we would be able to talk with the intention of hopefully getting things a bit more straightened out in my mind.

But again, all of this way tucked away in my mind as I needed to focus on resting up, distressing, and preparing for the second to last week in Logan.

…to be continued…

Today I turn around
Stop running away from Him.

Today I listen
And run toward.