Nearly twelve years ago, I wrote for YouthWorker magazine regarding Transitions in Youth Ministry. Having a dear friend and colleague recently placed among the unemployed reminded me of this article. It s reprinted with some editorial modifications.
It’s embarrassing to reflect upon it now. I was the rookie on an established staff. The pastor was an alcoholic pastor, the associate was a control-freak. By the end of my first year, every other staff person had resigned. My wife had, in effect, moved home to mother. I finally opted to leave the community too.
In humor that comes from the shadowy side of my personality, I printed up buttons for the staff-only going-away party. They read “Will the last one to leave St. T’s please turn off the lights?”
It is embarrassing because St. T’s was the one-year blemish on my resume. It was where I felt my ministry was most effective. The community was responsive, my faith deepened, and my professional confidence strengthened. In resigning, I turned an opportunity into a mistake. The dust of that error still cakes my feet as I continue on my ministerial journey.
After the Honeymoon
While entering a new ministerial position, our experience must be, as it was for the twelve, of being sent. We remain optimistic in our response to the promise that “the harvest is plentiful.” (Luke 10:2) We move into our new setting ready to serve.
Often, we fail in the next steps of the Lord’s admonition to the seventy-two sent in pairs to prepare the way. We jump in feet first. We busy ourselves in an attempt to meet everyone and remember as many names as possible. We engage in getting programs up and running. We drive ourselves weary in recruiting and training volunteers. Yet, who suggested those should be our first steps in ministry?
After the honeymoon is over, in a matter of weeks or months, we become engaged in the challenging work of professional ministry. We attempt to fight for our budget or defend our numbers. We become enmeshed in the politics or unhealthy games that were in place well before our arrival. We set ourselves up for disillusionment or burn-out by attempting to fulfill unspecified expectations. Yet, no one suggested these were essential steps in our ministry.
After a while, it all gets to be too much. We find ourselves ready to leave. Whatever dysfunctional systems are in place, they all seem beyond our capability to fix. Hurt over petty turf wars or loneliness over the seemingly solitude of our singular situation grows into resentment or anger. The burnt earth tactics of keeping score of victories and losses makes the greener pastures of the next placement much more appealing. Yet, no one ever suggested that these would be the outcomes of our ministry.
Lambs Among Wolves
“Go on your way. See,” said the Lord, “I am sending you our like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:3) It can be a big, bad nasty church out there, young disciple. Youth ministers often are still on the lower part of the church hierarchical food chain. You might risk the possibility of getting consumed and spat out like some one’s bad lunch.
Perhaps, however, the Lord was also evoking the Isaiah 11:6 image: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, with a little child shall lead them.” Perhaps, just perhaps, your ministry and service as the lamb being sent—just as Jesus was the lamb delivered for us—is to serve as a living metaphor for peace and justice, qualities essential for the reign of God.
This does not mean that lambs do not need to have a pasture’s version of street smarts regarding risks. It’s essential to remain within the sound of the good shepherd. And remember, there is safety in packs. The Lord sent out the seventy-two in pairs. Having the assurance of mutual support is essential.
Peace to this House
When the Lord sent the seventy-two by pairs (Luke 10), he encourage them to travel with minimal baggage—no money bag, no sack, and no sandals. Emotionally, it’s best if we also leave behind the psychological luggage from previous situations. Our emotional past may inform us. It is not always demanded that it automatically forms our responses to future situations.
The requisite for the seventy-two was this instruction: “Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace to this house.’” (Luke 10:5) The Lord asserted that the disciples’ first efforts were to bring the Lord’s peace into each setting. Beyond our busy first steps, our post-honeymoon frustrations, or our disposition for departure, come the pre-requisite as disciples to be agents and a presence for peace.
Our primary obligation when facing unpleasant ministerial or personal conditions must always call for an examination of conscience. We must consider our own role in bringing either peace or further disruption into the situation.
Despite our efforts, there are going to be situations where the violent hungers of the wolf will reign. Institutions can assume dysfunctional personalities. These corporate personalities arise when a group of competent, committed, and well-intentioned people operate, consciously or (often) unconsciously, in a system with processes and procedures that lead to destructive outcomes.
The church, which should be a source and setting for the Lord’s peace, is not immune to institutional violence. Secretive processes, unexplained or undefined personnel policies, or economic-based personnel decision making can display church corporate personalities at their brutal worst. We find ourselves in the middle between good people of purpose and bad decisions of indifference with very destructive consequences. It is not easy being frustrated, disillusioned, and even angry with institutions that are staffed by those with whom we’d previously claimed fraternal fellowship.
We might find ourselves facing a board or other church structure that seems not to be pursuing the Gospel mission in a recognizably Christian manner. Impatience, arrogance, envy, vanity, rudeness, self-protectiveness, and gloating can be descriptors for the structures that are violent in its personnel decisions.
The human costs of such institutional violence can be extreme. Quality youth ministers who have extensive experience and are wholly committed to the church and its ministry have lost their positions. In some cases, employment terminations or downsizing has been a less-than-pastoral experience for those affected—imitating the worst of business models. They have been removed from our midst seemingly without compassion.
Today’s litigious society might have some church employers thinking with their liability brains rather than acting with their Christian hearts. We each have choices to make—we can be like the wolves or we can respond to our commission as lambs. “Here we touch the most important quality of Christian Leadership in the future,” wrote Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus. “It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humanity in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”
When to Move Along
When we find that our own efforts towards offering peace to the household of Christ in which we minister are no longer seemingly making an impact, it is then time to move along. “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” (Luke 10:10-11)
You may not be the best person to discern alone the will of the Spirit for your own effectiveness in bringing peace into your setting. Looking back, I believe that was the case at Saint T’s. I was doing good ministry through the grace of the Spirit, but it was difficult and I choose an easier path.
If we decide to go and shake the dust off our feet, then we’ve missed the essential message. If we only shake the dust off our feet, then we remain a people who’ve lost the critical piece of the Christian story. The scripture clearly links the instruction to move along with affirming the impending reign of God—thus to be victorious even in our losses.
Faith moves mountains. Hope springs eternal. Love connects.
As Saint Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, love is patient and kind, it rejoices in the truth. We can remain confident in love’s enduring greatness. Love involves the act of laying down one’s life as a source of connection with others.