“But you can’t leave! Teens Undivided won’t survive without you!” High praise coming from a high school student, but words I dreaded to hear. On the one hand, how dare I abandon my teens who faithfully show up to weekly Bible Study, Sunday Life Nights, and any service project we throw out to them? On the other, who am I to walk away from a youth program I’ve both gone through as a teen myself and then expanded for the past four years? For a brief moment, the text message glowing on my screen scared me into not leaving my youth minister position at my parish. I was abandoning my kids and I was the worst person on the face of the planet, obviously. And then I realized how I had arrived at this decision and why I was finally pulling the trigger and stepping away from a position I love and teens I care about…
About four months ago, while driving home from a conference in New Orleans late one Saturday night, I had a minor panic attack at the sudden realization that I had a youth group gathering the next Sunday evening for which I was not prepared. It was our first Life Night back after Christmas break, and I had barely communicated with my volunteers, my talk wasn’t written, the environment wasn’t ready, and the musician didn’t know what to sing. A few quick phone calls (and some frantic prayer) later and it was all taken care of, but a thought crossed my mind as I breathed the long held sigh of relief: what if I were to step away from running youth ministry at OLQH? I shoved the thought out of my mind. How dare I even think that? Not now. Not when we’re probably going to get a new pastor this summer. I can’t possibly leave my teens in the lurch. Not now. Not when the program is thriving and growing and seemingly fine. Not now. Not when we have more volunteers than we’ve ever had and higher ratings of our program from parents than we’ve had in years. Not now. Maybe not ever. I can keep juggling this. I’m fine. I’ve got this under control.
A few weeks went by, and while sitting on a plane flying from Los Angeles to Mobile, Alabama, leaving one conference I’d presented at to go speak at another, I fielded emails from my secretary and parents asking for details about signing teens up for our Diocesan Youth Conference in April. The questions were answered and the crisis was (mostly) averted, but the thought crossed my mind again: Why am I still doing this? I’m currently sitting on an airplane flying across the country from one speaking gig to another, and in the midst of that, attempting to write lesson plans for my classroom, organize registrations for a conference, figure out the lesson for weekly Bible study, type up the outline for our Life Night next week, write keynotes for three more conferences in the next month, and choose table centerpieces for my wedding reception. I shoved the thought out of my mind. Nope. I can’t leave the parish now. They need me. We’re good. I can manage.
In mid-March, while waiting for a flight in Missouri to head home after one of the best conferences I’ve ever had the pleasure of ministering at, my phone went berserk as a dozen text messages, emails, and phone calls came through with frantic questions about why the registrations for our Lake Charles DYC weren’t pouring in from my parish. I did what I could to answer the questions and quell the fear that the conference might be cancelled, but it didn’t stop one teen from blasting to me, “Well maybe if you were around more, we’d have more kids signed up.”
She was right. I hadn’t been around. I hadn’t been hustling to register teens. I hadn’t been reaching out to encourage them to participate. I hadn’t been ministering, plain and simple. Maybe if I was around, we’d have more kids signed up. Maybe if I was around, and present and committed, our Bible studies would be bursting at the seams. Maybe if I was around, the lessons at Life Nights would have more impact. Maybe if I was around, my parish would have the youth minister they needed. Maybe if I was around, my teens would have the youth minister they deserved.
If we truly believe that youth ministry is vitally important and that what we do fosters encounters with the Lord, then we cannot give it anything less than our very best. The teens we minister to need, and want, a youth minister who is present, available, focused, and committed. It took me months to realize it, and it was incredibly difficult to admit, but I was none of those things anymore. I was no longer able to sit with my teens and focus on what they were saying, giving valuable advice about this challenge or that issue. I was no longer leading engaging Bible studies that spoke to my teens’ hearts. I was simply phoning it in and getting through another Wednesday night. I had no idea what was going on in their lives or where they were in their spiritual formation. I was no longer focused on leading them closer to Christ, and so I knew I had to walk away. When the focus is no longer on relationship building with teens and the Lord, it’s time to pull the plug. When the drive is no longer there to create innovative experiences to encounter Christ, it’s time to step away. When the desire to be present and available to your teens is no longer present within your heart, it’s time to call a spade a spade and leave.
I chose to step down not because I wanted to leave my parish due to exhaustion or because I wanted to pursue other avenues of ministry success. I had concluded, after months of discernment and many occasions of the Holy Spirit tapping me on the shoulder, that it was time for me to pass the job on to someone who could be fully dedicated to our teens and uniquely innovative with them in the parish. Those teens deserve nothing less. My teens need nothing less. Those of us in ministry must realize that there is a need for full commitment and genuine focus in a ministry. A cluttered heart, a distracted mind, a blinded vision, or a growing resentment will not, and cannot, lead teens to genuine, transforming, life-giving encounters with the Lord. A prideful attitude of “but they can’t survive without me” will only lead to arrogant ministry that is you-focused rather than Christ-centered. A youth minister drawn in a dozen different ministerial directions will only result in a burned-out minister and left-out, forgotten teens.Ministry requires a need for full commitment and genuine focus.Click To Tweet
Take a few moments this week and ask yourself these three questions: Where is my heart in ministry right now? What is my vision for my ministry right now? How am I keeping my heart focused and living this vision out right now? Perhaps you’ll be able to notice, however slowly, what’s blinding your vision and cluttering your heart, which will allow you to focus and redirect in a fruitful and life-giving way for you and your teens.