Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"God Is In Control . . . Yada, yada, yada" by Lee Evans (and my response)

God Is in Control...Yada... Yada... Yada by Len Evans
I toyed with the idea of writing this anonymously because I was scared that it would come across bitter and angry sincewell, I'm probably bitter and angry.
David wrote about walking through the valley of the shadow of death; well, this past year it seems like we've been camping out in the valley of the shadow of deathand the dangers, toils, and snares have come courtesy of some Christians and some churches.
I've never served in a true mega-church (2000 on a Sunday) or had 200 active students every week, but I've been fortunate and able to do some pretty cool things in youth ministry land. I graduated from a great seminary, pastored thriving youth ministries, spoke at national youth worker conventions, and wrote lots of articles and curriculumeven a recent book.
Despite all these accolades and appearances of success, it's been a rough haul recently. So I thought I'd share some of my recent journey with all of its fear, doubt, and messiness, written in the moment.
The Dark Days 4 months ago
I've been looking for a new ministry position for over six months. I left the church and have been without income for almost three months; my savings will run out soon. I've played back the last church situation in my head hundreds of times. Seems it "wasn't a good fit"which was true in some ways. At the end, my senior pastor told me I didn't fit in well with the church cultureand I agreed, since it seems to be characterized by material affluence that's led to an attitude of entitlement.
I made mistakes and I could've done things better, but I didn't do anything worthy of being asked to leaveer, excuse meI "resigned"of course, it was made clear to me that it'd be easier to provide some severance if I agreed my departure was 100utual.
There were no moral issues, my behavior was above reproach, and I was told that I'd left with grace. (Does telling this storyalbeit truestill qualify me for leaving with grace?)
I believe there's a plan for me, but I just wish God didn't have to use these kinds of people to accomplish it.
The Darkest Night
I've never really considered abandoning youth ministry until tonight. I looked at my wife and told her, "If this church that we're talking to doesn't work out, I'll leave youth ministry. I'll leave any sort of ministry."
I'm tired of my wife being hurt by promises that are broken by church leaders. I'm tired of telling my daughters, "It'll be okay, maybe this next church is where Jesus wants us to be," and "No honey, we're not poor yet. Don't worry about those kinds of things." But most of all, I'm tired of being treated like a corporate employee who's simply there to do the bidding of the higher ups.
This whole experience makes me just want to find a job to pay the bills, focus on loving my family, and go hide in a church rather than serve in one. Then fear kicks in as I wonder who would hire a 35-year-old former youth pastor with no "real world" experience. I still, and always will, love the church; though some churches really tick me off with how they treat people, especially youth workers.
Don't get me wrong. Some youth workers should be fired. Heck, some of us never should have become full-time youth workers in the first place! But right now, it feels like there are a lot more of us out there who should be treated better than we are.
I've had over 20 phone interviews with different churches, and yet not one place has worked out. Four have been very close. One even said, "We can have you here in two weeks," and then the next day called and said, "We're sorry; we think we rushed the process."
Maybe God is telling me that I should get out of ministry or maybe that I should wait. I'm not sure what the answer is, and I'm not sure, at this moment, what I want the answer to be. My theology tells me that God is in control and in the end it'll all be okaybut right now I don't want to hear it, and frankly I'm not sure if I believe it.
The Rest of the Story
It seems that my camping permit to the valley of the shadow of death was a temporary one. It was so dark on some days that I joked with my wife that if it got much worse I was going to take my daughters' Bibles and pitch them, saying, "You won't need those." I didn't really want to, but that's how low I was feelingwow!
As I reviewed what I wrote four months ago as a cathartic exercise at my lowest point in the search process, it's still hard to relive or even recall the extent of the pain I was experiencing.
After interacting with over 40 churches in response to my resume, I'm currently a volunteer youth pastor while working a full-time job somewhere else. Lots of stuff about this church excites me, especially the leadership. They're all on the same page, and they know where they're going. And they're hoping by faith and proper planning to hire me full-time in another 4-5 months.
Meanwhile, a church of 8,000 contacted me last week with the words, "You're at the top of our list." But the truth of the matter is that this church of 350 is such a great fit that I'd rather be here as a volunteer than pursuing that next step up the youth ministry success ladder.
Through this process I learned several things: to trust God more than my resume; that contentment comes from God's plans, not mine: and that it's okay to hurt when life's circumstances go from bad to horrid. Most importantly, I learned that God really is in control, even when I think about pitching the kids' Bibles.

"God Is In Control . . . Yada . . . Yada . . . Yada: The Sequel" by Scooter 4.0

Early in the month of April I read the "original" article by Len Evans. Although it was only a one-page article I only made it half way through it until I burst into tears. The almost strange, surreal feelings that overwhelmed me at the moment was because Len was describing word for word the exact situation that I was going through with my church. Evans writes that "I've played back that last church situation in my head hundreds of times. Seems it 'wasn't a good fit' which was true in some ways . . . I made mistakes and I could've done things better, but I didn't do anything worthy of being asked to leave . . . er, excuse me . . . 'resigned'. I believe that there's a plan for me but I just wish God didn't have to use these people to accomplish it." (Youthworker Journal Mar/Apr 2005, p. 64).

I spent two days prior to reading Len's words agonizing over what just happened at my church and wondering whether or not I was due for a radical career change. I didn't get it. On a ministry level the youth group was on the right track. Once I arrived at this church I discovered that I was the third youth pastor that many of my students have had (first red flag!). They have not had someone stick with them long enough to earn their trust and provide the spiritual foundation that they needed in their life. During my first two years many issues came up with the teens that made it evident that they were in need of the 'milk' of God's Word before we could move onto the meat. Their lives were not far different from their secular counterparts. After two years of nurture and spiritual care we began to see many of the most unlikely students start to blossom spiritually. Many were rising to the challenge to discover their spiritual gifts and implement them within the ministry. Finally, after seeing some encouraging signs of the Holy Spirit moving within the students I get told by the church management team that there isn't the kind of 'youth movement' going on that they would like to see, a.k.a. "numbers!" (the second red flag!).

As I reflect on my college and seminary years I remember hearing my "Student Ministry" professors claim that the typical stay of a youth pastor at a church is anywhere between 6-24 months. As a young, naive student ready to charge the next generation for Christ, I remember thinking "How stupid is THAT! How could you possibly see the fruit of your ministry if you aren't even willing to commit yourself to a church for the long haul! What kind of knuckle-headed youth pastor would quit in less than two years!" But as I have had the chance to befriend many youth pastors over the years I have yet to meet that young, stupid youth pastor that just up and quits in less than 24 months. Instead, all to often, what I seem to always hear about are youth pastors that I admire, respect and are neck-deep in ministry all of a sudden are "let go" by the church management / elders / administration because the student ministry does not look like what they envisioned it to be. Therefore, it is a "BAD MATCH!" The question I want to pose is this: why does there seem to be a break down on an administrative level when it comes to student ministries pastors?

A colleague of mine once describe youth ministry as being just like baseball. Every person at one point in their life has played baseball. As a result, everyone thinks they know the game. Go to any little-league game and you will find a host of adults acting more childish than the very kids out on the field as they want to assertively point out every wrong move that either the coach or the umpire evidently screwed up! In the same way, everyone has been a teenager. Sometimes, us youth pastors even work for people above us that put their time in as a youth pastor or leader back in the 1970's, 1980's, or 1990's. They have memories of the "Youth For Christ" rally-style of ministry that was the model of effective youth ministry decades ago. Or they might remember the bus ministry that seemed to find enough teens to maximize every square inch of the vehicle. There was once a day in which free pizza worked liked a magnet with teens. The times, the culture and the family have changed significantly though these days. And youth ministry is not the same today as it once was when we were growing up.

The Times

The two most significant events that forever change youth ministry occurred on April 20, 1999 and on Sept. 11, 2001. They have been introduced to a culture of violence from within and without. The Columbine shooting is the most notorious to date of violence within the schools that impacted our entire country. The Red Lake High School shooting just recently jolted our national conscience into being reminded of the fact that violence within schools is a very real problem. And as a direct result of the horrific events of 9/11 just about every church has some student on their prayer list that is fighting in a war battling against terrorist and those who sponsor terrorism. The times we are a livin' in are very, very different.

The Culture

As a young, stupid teenager I will confess that I remember the day when my friends and I got really curious about pornography. What was so different back then was that you had to go on a mission to find it. Sneak out to that convenient store on the other side of town, go late at night, look around and make sure that there is not one there that might recognize you, go up to the clerk (DON'T MAKE EYE CONTACT!), mumble what it is you want, fork over the cash, and then scurry away into the night. Today it is so much easier than that for our teens. With the invention of the internet and our sex-saturated culture it is no wonder that most of our teens have been exposed to a great deal of pornography at a much younger age and with materials that make the convenient store bookshelf look tame! And this is just one of many, many issues within our culture that is currently affecting our teens.

The Family

During the days that I grew up in my youth group I had many friends who came from good, solid Christian families (or they were really good at faking it). Many of our parents demonstrated a Christian lifestyle that included making us go to church whether we liked it or not! Not so today. Many, many families are falling apart and are not providing the foundation that many teens need these days. When you factor all of this in, it is no wonder that more and more teens are hurting or abusing themselves just because they are emotionally numb to all of the pain that they have experienced in their short-lived lives! Praise God that we carry the message of a Savior who offers grace and love especially to this generation!

But with all of this in mind now, let's get back to the question at hand: why does there seem to be a break down on an administrative level when it comes to student ministries pastors? Maybe it is because their idea of "successful" youth ministry comes from an out-dated model. Maybe they don't realize that the big, fun, exciting programs of the past really don't work with teens these days. At some point, us youth pastors need to finally admit that we can NOT compete with the entertainment culture. Entertainment is a band-aid to the real problem. It may make us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside when we pull off a big, flashy program, but is this the most effective way to deal with the heart issues of a teenager these days? To change a teenager from the inside-out will take a relationship. And THAT takes time to develop. Unfortunately if a youth group gets a new youth pastor every 2 years the church will be in danger of losing this generation.

If we are to come of age, it is time for us to start educating those above us about why teens are different today and how effective youth ministry might look today as opposed to a decade or two ago. I pray that some of you out there will start a movement that will begin to reach out to those above us to begin educating them so that our jobs can be more effective as they trust us in knowing that the times, methods and ministries are very different today. Let's stop huddling in our own networks and conferences and begin to invade the territory of our administrators and pastors helping them to understand the times, the culture and the family and how that has significantly altered how a "successful" student ministry will look like. In the immortal words of Kip: "Now that's what I'm talkin' about!"

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