Let me preface by saying that my experience as a youth worker is a part time employee and volunteer, but I have almost 10 years of experience in ministry with teenagers. Also, I am a seminary student and preparing for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. As a part of my schoolwork I’ve done an extensive study on the role of youth in the church and how to better empower them within the community of faith. So that is where I am coming from.
Now, to the topic at hand: I had a stark realization over the past few months that I have spent too much time and energy caring about my job title and how my students view me. I’ve worked at my current church for 2 and a half years as the Youth Ministry Intern. I lead music, small groups, and service projects with these awesome students. Being teenagers, they often give me a hard time about being “just an intern” and are often shocked to learn that I actually receive money for the work I do with the church. I really lost patience with it after about what felt like the 1,000th student asking, “So what do you even do here?” In my response I went as far as asking the full time youth minister to give me some office space and a mail box for some physical validation for my frustration. I am ashamed to admit this, but I even told one of my youth that we had a “teacher and student” relationship, instead of being a family member in the Body of Christ.
Looking back I can see that I had a pretty strong reaction to my students. The full time youth minister I work with told me it was ok to feel annoyed, and that the students have no clue what he does all day either. But I also see a deeper affect of my response. I inadvertently created unnecessary distance between the students and me. Yes, there is a healthy distance needed between adult youth workers and teenage youth members. That is why we have measures such as Safe Sanctuaries in place so that we have healthy boundaries in the relationships within our youth ministries. However, I took those boundaries a step too far by placing my credibility in a job title and the presence of my name on a wall in the building.
My credibility as a youth worker shouldn’t come from my age, life experience, or whether or not I am an employee of the church. What should give our youth ministries credibility is how much grace we have with our students, and how we are helping them encounter God’s love. I chose to rely on credentials to prove how great I was.
Now I am trying to readjust. Now I am trying to love my students and be glad they are part of the community instead of trying to demand respect.
It’s not easy, though. I’m surrounded by a culture that praises education, work experience, and salaries. This is even true in churches where people give respect based on titles, for better or worse. I have to be honest with myself about what is giving me a sense of self worth. Is it my culture, or is it the grace God has for me? The good news is that, no matter what I’ve done or said in the past, through God’s ever-present grace I can change. I can ask forgiveness and begin loving my students as they are and have peace that it is grace that makes my ministry sufficient, not a job title.
Have you struggled with how our title, salary, or education levels impact your ministry? How have you managed these struggles?