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.