Surviving Your Calling

Don't try this at home.  Seriously.

I nearly killed a kid with a water balloon once. Seriously. It was the summer after I graduated from Bible College. I had just been hired as a youth pastor at a small church and our first event together was our denomination’s summer camp. I had constructed a homemade water balloon launcher in about 10 minutes with tubing and a funnel from our local hardware store. A couple youth pastors and I were on the ski dock harmlessly lobbing water balloons onto the field about 100 yards away; soaking kids from what we thought was a safe distance. It was great fun, lazily lobbing water balloons at students from so far away. Most students had no idea where the balloons were coming from, some probably wondered if God himself was throwing them. Everything was going great when suddenly, 3 students came running around the cafeteria with another water balloon launcher. They set up on the beach about 20 yds away and began their assault on our position. While we had been lobbing balloons with a high arch so as not to hurt anyone; these students launched their balloons straight at us like heat-seeking missiles. You seriously had 1 second to predict where it was going and make your move.  Their first couple shots sailed past at enormous velocity. We froze; mouths gaping. We yelled, trying to get them to stop. The third balloon hit my friend John in the shin. A purple bruise formed immediately. We yelled frantically for them to quit but there was no stopping them; the students knew they had the upper hand. Their next offering grazed John’s neck; another purple bruise. In retrospect we should have just dove into the water, but honestly that thought never crossed my mind. Instead, we decided to fire back to protect ourselves, and hopefully put an end to the assault. It takes three people to launch a water balloon launcher; and I was the shooter. I took aim at the kid in the middle and let one fly. The teen was half bent over loading another balloon into the funnel when my balloon caught him in the chest. It literally picked him up off the ground and dropped him like a rock.  He wasn’t moving.  Immediately we dove into the water and swam to the beach. We rolled him over onto his back and watched as a giant purple bruise formed across his collarbone.  He was moaning and spitting up blood; we were terrified. My mind raced as people ran to get the nurse. This was bad. This was going to be it. Called into ministry at 15, four years of Bible College, resumes, interviews, finally landing my first youth ministry job; and in one GIANT lapse of judgment, my youth ministry career was going to be finished before it even got started. That was over 25 years ago. I’ve done about everything there is to do in youth ministry since then. And I seriously dodged a bullet that day. The kid was fine; he didn’t even go to the hospital; he just had a MONSTER-bruise and a great story.

The other day I started to list all the people I’ve known personally who’ve left youth ministry over the years. After about 5 minutes I had to quit. It was depressing. Almost everyone I started with was gone, and very few of them left the ministry for good reasons. Some had lost their families, sadly others had even lost their faith. How does this happen? Why is it that I’ve survived all this time? Why do some make it and others don’t? Moral failures, financial indiscretions, marriage problems, issues with pastors, deacon boards, parents; the list is endless. The youth ministry landscape is peppered with land mines. Most rookies enter the game bright-eyed and innocent, with a pure heart and wild dreams of changing the world only to leave after a couple of years; wounded, bitter and disillusioned.  Is this our destiny?  Is this our lot?  To survive the ministry game as long as possible, but eventually succumb to the siren song of selling automobiles or real estate?  Is this the way it’s supposed to be? As a survivor of several youth ministry campaigns, is there something I can share with the next generation of youth ministry plebes to keep them from washing out? As veterans, can we help young youth workers survive their calling? I’m not sure I have a lot of answers, but I feel like I’m finally asking the right questions.

I’ve never been the most talented guy on the field. I grew up short and small. I was 5 ft tall and 90 lbs as I started 9th grade. You could beat me at a lot of levels; but you weren’t going to outwork me. I got a trophy for being the hardest hitter on my football team in Jr. High. I was small, but I was determined and would not quit once I started something. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing well. This quality has both helped me and hurt me over my youth ministry years. Early on, even though I had a youth ministry degree, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. So to avoid the impending criticism I determined to simply work harder than anyone ever expected. Then the critics would at least have to say, “he’s not very good at this, but he sure is trying hard!”  I became the guy you could always count on. And while there were better speakers, and more charismatic leaders; no one tried harder. When times got tough, I wouldn’t run.  At one church we served at, every staff member resigned except for me.  I was the one who would always stick it out. I didn’t clock hours; I stayed till the job was done. The problem with youth ministry is that the job is never finished. It consumes everything you give it, and continually asks for more. It’s like that monster plant from the Little Shop of Horrors… “Feed me Seymour!” It’s appetite is insatiable. For the first decade of youth ministry I was perpetually late for dinner; always trying to squeeze in one more phone call before I had to go home. My wife suffered almost daily because of my lack of balance. One September, after three consecutive 90 hr work weeks; running separate nights for Jr. High and High School; speaking 4x a week; with no administrative help and the prospect of starting another church site where I would also be responsible for the youth ministry there as well… I hit the wall. It took me almost losing everything to regain balance in my life. It was right in the middle of this course correction when my 6 yr old son got hit by a car riding his bike out in front of our house; he wore a body cast for months from his armpits to his ankles. My priorities got readjusted really quickly after that. I started coming home more for dinner. I started keeping a personal Sabbath. I began to reconnect with some old friends. I started to let the music of life breathe again. I had to relearn how to enjoy the pauses between the measures instead of playing life like a Jr. High Band on crack.  I learned to delegate better. I tried to work smarter not harder. But some things just flat out didn’t get done. And I learned to be okay with that, because it was change or die. I chose to morph. I chose my family over my calling. I chose health over burnout. I chose my future over my present. And miraculously the world didn’t collapse. As I coach youth workers today, one of the most common problems I see is this issue; lack of balance. We get the job done, but at what cost? If we burn out, they will replace us with another young hungry kid with a youth pastor haircut and a manbag. Certainly there are busy seasons in youth ministry. They’re unavoidable. It’s when those seasons butt up against each other that you have to start asking yourself some tough questions. Questions like “Is it the job that’s causing all this stress and conflict or is it me?” “Would my schedule be like this no matter what job I had?” This is one of the top three issues I see with youth pastors I’m working with.  I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to coach a youth worker who is running “mach ten with their hair on fire” and watch their life go from chaos to order; to watch their marriage go from the brink of disaster to healthy again; and to watch their spiritual life go from dying to thriving. And usually their youth ministry grows in the process; because healthy things grow.

The evil step-sister of lack of balance is lack of boundaries. And as if this wasn’t hard enough on youth workers before technology burst onto the scene, it’s almost impossible today.  If you have boundary issues at all today, it’s likely you have a BIG problem with it.  It used to just be the telephone that rang during dinner, but these days, it’s text messaging, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter… ad nauseum.… Now there are countless ways to push the boundary envelope.  Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, and I personally spend tons of time in the digital world, but if not for your sake, for the sake of those who love you… learn to set some boundaries! Early on in our family, especially when the kids were little, we learned to let the phone ring when we were home and to be okay with it. If we were watching a DVD or eating together we would let it go to voicemail. Obviously, if it was an emergency we would pick up. But most of the times it was stuff that could wait. People expect us to be available immediately today, but you are not doing yourself any favors by training your students to have that kind of access to you. It’s subtle, but it will come back to bite you; and in the end you undermine your student’s faith. You cannot be on call 24/7; only Jesus is… and there’s only one Savior. Who are you training your students to turn to when they are in need? You or Jesus?  What happens when they grow up and move away? I know, with the digital world today, they never really move away. Everyone is only a mouse-click away; for the rest of your life! You think you have a problem now, better teach those students to grow up in their faith or you will have years of dysfunction to pastor until the day you die!

So, if I could boil down 27 years of youth ministry experience into a couple things that would really make a difference in a young youth workers life; it would be to maintain good balance in your life; set firm boundaries, and most importantly, get a mentor.

We read in 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul is talking to his padawan learner Timothy about how to pass along his faith… “take the things you have heard me say in front of many witnesses and pass the along to other faithful guys who can do it again.” Rinse, Wash, Repeat. This is discipleship. It seems like a bunch of the great men of God have had good mentors. Not all did, but many had them. Joshua had Moses, Elisha had Elijah, Timothy had Paul. I was sitting in a boat with one of my mentors fishing in October and I asked him the chicken or egg question. Do you think we are still in youth ministry because we had someone (or multiple people) who mentored us? Or did we seek out mentors because we wanted to be in youth ministry for the long haul?  Whatever the case, the end result from the guys I coach with is that each one of us credits our mentors with helping us stay in the game.   And while Jesus mentors me from heaven, and Erwin McManus mentors me from his books… there is something incarnate about having a person in the flesh to walk this youth ministry journey with. I remember several times over the years where I was coached through a situation that could have knocked me out of the game for good, but because I had solid relationships with some veterans, they helped me turn roadblocks into speed bumps on multiple occasions.

Sometimes I wonder how many ex-youth pastors there are in the world today. I’ll bet it’s in the hundreds of thousands. Guys and gals who started out with great attitudes and a servant’s heart; who like John the Baptist, got it handed to them on a plate after a short time in prison.

I survived because someone invested in me. Actually multiple guys have invested in me, Mike, Monty and now Bo. All three are still in ministry, two are still doing youth. Now, I’m trying to give back; and be the difference for as many youth workers as I can, and I call on all veteran youth workers to do the same. Like that old illustration about the hundreds of starfish on the beach; you can’t save them all; but you can make a difference for that one.


Originally published in Take 5 in 2008 for National Network of Youth Ministers – revised May 2012


About markmoder

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