Immediately after graduating from Pfeiffer University with my B.A. in Christian Education, I started serving a Quaker Meeting as their Christian education director. My youth would sometimes refer to me as their youth director, but I would quickly correct them and say no, “I’m not a youth minister. I’m a Christian education director.”
I had developed an understanding of youth ministers as flashy, dynamic, silly, “salespeople for the gospel.” I felt that I was different than that stereotype because I was a deep thinker, one who cared about structure and meaning-making and who enjoyed the administrative piece of ministry just as much as the relational aspects. I was different. Yet, I was also jealous.
I wanted to be able to be more playful, a more dynamic speaker; I wanted everyone to like me and to have the best games and dramas and to be creative and fun… you know, like those other youth ministers.
As my ministry developed over the years, I realized I needed to stop trying to be like the youth minister down the street with the larger group and embrace my own calling and identity as a minister with youth. I started focusing more on creating a safe place for youth to gather in a community where they could be themselves without judgment, and encouraged personal and communal integrity and identify formation built on the gospel of love and inclusiveness of all people. I told myself that I wouldn’t succumb to using various tactics to attract youth to the ministry, but rather engage youth relationally and draw youth together through a meaningful community built on mutual respect and love. When asked at a job interview how I would “entertain the youth” (#truestory) I responded by saying I will not entertain them, but rather, I will engage them through relationships. I refused to have an entertainment-mindset about ministry with youth. (P.S. I didn’t get the job. And I am more than okay with that.)
Yet, at one of the churches I worked with, I found myself promoting various youth events by saying, “It’s gonna be fun!” Everything was going to be “fun.” The trip to the theme park, the mission project, the worship service we’re leading, the Bible study, even the contemplative prayer stations! “It’s all going to be fun!” I said it so much that my youth started making fun of me, lovingly of course. I realized then that I had turned into a salesperson, trying to promote the various events for attendance/numbers purposes rather than conveying the meaning and purpose of the experience with integrity.
In the midst of struggling with this tension, my husband and I moved across the country so he could begin his PhD studies. I started a ministry position at small United Methodist church, and soon after starting I developed a network of other youth ministers in the area. I quickly learned that the community had suffered a horrible tragedy the summer before when three high school juniors had died, two from suicide. The community was still broken and hurting from the loss, so it was a good thing that we youth ministers could meet and share how we were helping facilitate the healing process.
For the most part, I was developing healthy, meaningful relationships with the youth and expanding the ministry in wonderful ways, but I was having some difficulty connecting with some of the high school seniors, most of whom had been close with the youth who had died. About six months after I started, another youth in the community committed suicide. Our youth minister network met with the interfaith clergy network to discern how we might respond. We decided to host a prayer vigil one Sunday afternoon.
The day of the vigil, I sat down during coffee hour with one of the seniors and asked if he was going.
“Hey, are you going to the prayer vigil this afternoon?” I asked.
“What prayer vigil?” he responded.
“Oh, you haven’t heard of it?” I replied, somewhat offended. I then continued to explain the reason behind the vigil and what it would be like, and added, “There will be a time for people to share their thoughts and feelings about what happened.”
“Okay.” He responded, not seeming to care at all. I quickly assumed, you know, with him being male and all, that perhaps my explanation wasn’t good enough, and perhaps he was turned off by the whole “sharing of feelings” part, so I added, “But, it won’t be too touchy-feely, just, for people that want to stick around and talk more, there will be an opportunity for that.”
Responding with awakened energy and hints of frustration, “Well if it’s not going to be touchy-feely, then what’s the point?” I will never forget the hurt and confusion in his eyes.
Ouch. I was silenced. Well, for a few seconds anyway, then I continued with a quick “save” of explaining the sharing of feelings thing again, and then left it at that.
It turned out he had to work, anyway, so he wouldn’t be able to come.
I would say it was all for nothing, but that conversation marked a monumental shift in resolving the tension of my earlier struggles of how to promote various experiences for my youth. More than that, it challenged the very core of my identity as a youth minister. (Yes, I finally gave in to being okay with the title.) All these years I had been working to get youth to feel comfortable with themselves and to embrace and live out their identity as beloved children of God, yet I was sitting there, trying to be someone I wasn’t. Giving in to what I thought he wanted to hear, rather than being true to the intention and meaning of the event. And promoting an event, rather than simply sitting with him in his pain. With that one question, this youth cut to the core of my ministry and challenged me to be more authentic and practice what I preach.
Shannon is a guest contributor for Youthworker Movement.
photo courtesy of @RabbitEarJones
Rev. Shannon LeMaster-Smith is a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church, serving currently as the Director of Ministries with Children and Youth at Northbrook UMC in Northbrook, IL. She has a Masters of Conflict Resolution from UNC-Greensboro, a B.A. in Music and Christian Education from Pfeiffer University, and completed her Basic Graduate Theological Studies courses through Wesley Theological Seminary. She has been in ministry with youth for eight years, mostly working with small to medium sized groups. Shannon enjoys working with youth, families, and the church to co-create a safe space for youth to explore their faith, belong to a Christian community where they are loved and accepted, and participate in God’s mission in the world. She can be found on Twitter as @breathesinglove and blogs on WordPress: breathesinglove.wordpress.com