Revering the “Mystery” in Youth Ministry

“And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19 

As youth and young adult ministers, we spend a lot of time trying to teach, guide, and positively influence others.  We may sometimes feel very confident in this role, as we see in some of our youth living reflections of different stages of life and development that we passed through ourselves. Other times we might feel completely overwhelmed and insufficient as we walk with a young person whose life and personality are very different from our own.

I think in both cases it’s very important to step back for a moment, and remember that our youth are not problems to be solved or lost sheep to be saved (by us at least!). Rather each person is a unique creation of God, an irreplaceable mystery, with a distinct, transcendent mission that we cannot grasp fully, let alone control. It is important to respect this when we deal with the faith formation or spiritual lives of others – even teens.  

The Advent/Christmas season is a good time to examine ourselves and our ministries, and ask “Am I revering the mystery?” 

It is easy to come to ministry, especially youth ministry, I think, with mixed motives. While all of us are in it to love and serve God and the Church, I think if we are honest, each of us will find a more personal motivation as well. Perhaps you became a youth minister in part to relive your own awesome youth group experience. Perhaps you got into it to live this stage of faith development with and vicariously through, your teens, because it was missed or handled poorly in your own formation. Maybe your campus ministry in college or youth ministry in high school was so great that you got involved to share with others, but also because it provided the opportunity to hold onto it a little longer for yourself. Perhaps you are still discerning/waiting for your vocation, and find that youth ministry fulfills a longing for motherhood/fatherhood, or gives a sense of purpose to an otherwise confusing life. 

None of these “co-motivations” are bad in and of themselves, but all of them need to be purified by the Lord. He desires to help us to be more and more pure of heart in our ministry. His grace will often work through us regardless, but the purer the heart, the more vibrantly He will shine through us. Just as the sun can still get through a window no matter how dirty or clouded it is, God can still pour His light through our brokenness. However, when the window is crystal-clear, the sun can really get in, transforming everything inside. So let us sit before the Lord with some questions and strive to be “pure windows” that give Him more than us.

Here are two such questions that I have often prayed with myself, which I hope help you in continuing to deepen your ministry and sanctify your heart. 

Do I revere the mystery of the Lord’s work in my own life? 

For example, a man who was once in the seminary, and now works in youth ministry, might have a lot of unanswered questions. He might wonder about his time in formation and why he wasn’t called to be a priest. The man might be anxious to “make use of” what he learned in that period. He may want to prove to himself and the Church that it wasn’t all “a waste of time.” Sharing the theology and prayer practices he has learned with searching young people might seem to fill this need in himself and answer his “why”.  His knowledge and experience may even help form a few future priests along the way. All this can occur while building up the body of Christ in a positive way.  This can be a good thing good thing for all involved.

However, if he doesn’t revere the mystery in his own life and learn to trust God with the answers rather than working them out on his own, his rush to prove himself can blind him to realities in the lives of his teens. In his eagerness to share his theology with his youth ministry, he might be forgetful of their stage of development. He could be oblivious to his need to accept an ongoing learning curve to best adapt his knowledge to their condition. 

Are there holes I’m trying to fill or questions I’m trying to answer? 

Similarly, I, as a single woman, have often seen my youth ministry kids as my reason to keep going. They have been my sign that God has a purpose for me. Ministry has even helped fulfill my desires to be a mother to others. These are good desires, but if I do not bring them to the Lord for purification, they can become obstacles in His work. I can be too attached to my teens and my role in their lives, and too set on growing my ministry. This could cause me to become blind to where another group/resource might serve a particular teen/family better than mine. My sense of purpose can rise and fall with the success of my projects; or wax and wane according to the amount of concrete evidence that I have made a difference in the lives of others.

How do these affect my work with youth? 

Focusing too much on my own life has sometimes caused me to continue involving myself in a situation where it would have been best to let go and let God. In these and other scenarios, we are “clearer windows” if we give God the honor of putting Him first and trusting Him for the sometimes invisible meaning of our own lives. Don’t be afraid to go to Him and ask Him to see your “mixed motives.” He will show you with mercy, and help you see hope even in self-knowledge that is painful.

Secondly, do I revere the mystery of God unfolding in each of the lives of the young people I serve? 

It can be easy to categorize our youth, and even somewhat necessary to do so. One would be a good leader, another would not. This one has problems at home, or serious tendencies to self-harm, so I need to refer for professional counseling. That one has a tendency to be a bully, so I need to make sure a core team leader is keeping an eye on him most of the time. This one shows maturity for his/her age, and perhaps should be connected with the pastor/vocation director to go deeper than my general curriculum can take them. These other two are a couple . . . I need to help support them to have a healthy relationship. Every youth minister deals with all of these scenarios and more. But even as we prescribe the best course of action for each one, we must here too, revere the mystery and remember that here and now is only one chapter of this person’s eternal story. 

You might have a future priest/church leader in your group, but it might not be the “good kid” who is well-liked by peers and adults. It might be the “problem kid” who only comes because his parents made him, and argues with everything you say. The one you currently see yourself in, and think you know exactly what to say to them, might not be the one who ends up benefiting from your advice. In the end, “the good soil” for the seed you scatter might be the quiet one in the back who says nothing at the time.  Later in her life, she quotes you for the rest of her life because she found your words meaningful. You just never know. And even as we rely on the gut God gave us to make decisions, keeping the unknown, big picture in mind is important. Don’t rely on stereotypes or stock phrases. Try to let the Spirit move you and work with you. Pray for guidance for the ones you don’t know how to reach but also for the ones you think you do. Watch the mystery unfold and be ready to change gears with God. 

Mary is the perfect mentor in revering the mystery. She probably learned a lot from her saintly parents about how to be a good mother. But there was no playbook for how to parent God Himself. When to nurture the Christ-child in His humanity. . . and when to let go in awe of His divinity. She learned by continually “reflecting in her heart” upon the mystery that had been entrusted to her. That same Child she cared for is present in each of our youth. Let us too reflect and be receptive to the Holy Spirit as we walk with each one. 

What ever our motives for getting involved in ministry are, it is important to make sure they are Christ-centered and pure.  Ask yourself these questions.

Kalynn Webster

Kalynn has been in youth and young adult ministry for six years, and has had a variety of opportunities in that time, at both parish and archdiocesan levels. By day, she is currently the office manager at a small parish in Colorado. By night, she enjoys giving talks for youth groups, doing consults as requested, and writing on a variety of topics. She enjoys swimming, hiking, coffee, and friendships -- both new and old. She loves sharing her faith with others and showing people of all ages what an adventure our walk with God can be!

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