The Youth Minister as Midwife

There are many images or metaphors that one can use to think about the role of the youth pastor. One might be a trail guide – one who has traveled the path before and can walk alongside young people on their journey, pointing out areas of beauty to contemplate or difficulty to watch out for, and helping them reach their destination. Another might be a coach – one who pushes young people to reach their fullest potential, helping them train their minds and bodies for the spiritual life the way one trains for a sport. No metaphor is exhaustive or perfectly describes the role, but it can give insight into a youth pastor’s assumptions about youth, themselves, and the life of faith, and illuminate why they do what they do as a youth pastor. What is their goal when they teach? How do they interact with young people? How do they hope they will have shaped or formed young people by the time they leave youth group?

One of my deepest core convictions guiding the way I do youth ministry is that young people have gifts to offer and vocations to live out. Because of that, everything that I do in youth ministry is intended to equip and empower them to live out their God-given vocation to love others and heal the world. I deeply trust the passions of youth, seeing them not as something to be tamed and tamped down, but rather encouraged and resourced. When I teach or lead discussion, I try to do so in such a way as to value their agency, respect their contributions, and help them find their own voice. Because of this, the image of the youth pastor that comes most naturally to me is that of the midwife. I find that it meaningfully describes my philosophy of youth ministry for several reasons.

First, a midwife is someone who assists in the birth of someone else’s child. The midwife had nothing to do with the child growing in the womb – her job is to bring into the world what is already in the world, in nascent form, hidden within the mother and known to her alone. It’s easy to think sometimes that young people are like blank slates, and our job is to write on those slates all the creeds and doctrines of the faith. But I don’t believe young people are blank slates – no matter how young, I believe that God has given them a vocation and gifts that will resource them. I didn’t put it there, and I cannot claim credit for it. And while I may assist in the birth, it is their body that will give birth. I can teach them spiritual practices the way a midwife might teach breathing techniques. I can give them information and resources. I can be at their side, wiping their tears, coaching them to breathe and push as they do the hard part. But at the end of the day, they have done it. They had what it takes all along.

Second, the role of a midwife is to care for the mother as well as the child – it is both healing and purposeful. As a scholar trained in religious education, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role that education plays in youth ministry in relation to other aspects of the work. Ultimately, I find Christian education inextricably intertwined and enmeshed with pastoral care. Teaching should be caring and pastoral, not authoritative and abstract; and pastoral care and the healing it provides should contribute to the growth of the young person. We shouldn’t be attempting to achieve a goal that ignores the young person in front of us and their need for care (delivering a baby without regard for the mother’s health and comfort), but we also shouldn’t deny that our role in their lives is something other than a best friend. There is a purpose and goal to our role as youth pastors, and it is to care for our young people as we help name and resource their own Christian vocation.

Third, the practice of midwifery is rooted in hope and expectation. Jurgen Moltmann’s eschatology reminds us that our hope in the future of Jesus Christ radically changes the way we live here and now. We are always pressing toward, and living into, that future in which everything will be made new. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans 8 – that the world groans in the pains of childbirth as it hopes for what it does not yet see. In Educating Congregations, Christian educator Chuck Foster writes about the implications of this theology for education in the church. Christian education in youth ministry isn’t just about passing down the tradition, but it’s also about pressing toward the future. We don’t just hand on the doctrines and creeds as though they are something to be kept preserved in a glass case, or as though they themselves are the faith. Rather, they are testaments to and resources of the living faith that is always speaking good news into changing contexts. So when we teach, we aim to awaken the theological imagination of young people, so that they can dare to live into God’s future and participate in it. Which brings me to my fourth point…

Fourth, the ultimate goal of the midwife is to deliver life to the world. The work can be painful and messy, but the promise of new life is what keeps us going. And it is life that is the goal – not tithes or attendance or a safe, uneventful transition to adulthood. We should not be preparing our young people to be wealthy and successful by the world’s standards. We should not be teaching a gospel of behavior management so that they can be “good enough Christians.” We should not be passing on a faith that sustains the status quo for the benefit of the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. If we are equipping our young people to be bearers of a gospel that is death-dealing rather than life-giving, it is no gospel at all. No, the youth pastor as midwife loves, works for, bears witness to, and delivers life to a broken and hurting world. And where is evidence of life? Well, it is first in literal life. If young people live out their faith by feeding the hungry, working for a suicide hotline, or studying nursing, there is life. Second, it is in love and human connection. If they love the unlovable, offer hospitality to the stranger, and march for civil rights, there is life. And third, it is in spiritual liberation and healing, offering the hope and abundant life found in Christ.

While these are the four reasons that most get to the core of how I conceive of youth ministry, there are two other meaningful aspects of the midwife image that are more like playful addenda:

  • The midwife image is deeply connected to embodiment. I love the mind and the intellect, I really do. I love helping young people develop the discipline of critical thinking, and it brings me so much joy to watch them get excited about it, to re-animate the love for learning that school so often dulls. But our minds are not the only way we learn and process information. We also learn, know, innovate, and remember through our bodies. So I love pedagogies that lift up the role of the body – sensory stimulation, various forms of drama. So often in our post-Enlightenment culture, we sublimate the intuitive knowing of the body to the “certainty” of the rational mind. In fact, this is one of educator bell hooks’ feminist critiques of critical pedagogy, and one of the ways she builds on it – we tend to neglect the role of the body in emancipatory education. Thus, she focuses on holistic healing in teaching – mind, body, and spirit.
  • To think of youth ministry as midwifery allows for travail – more commonly called “teen angst” – without pathologizing it in the way we tend to. So often we fail to take seriously the suffering of our young people, chalking it up to “raging hormones” or “attitude” instead of taking it seriously as real pain, but pain out of which life can emerge.

So this is my philosophy of youth ministry in a nutshell – to labor alongside young people,  to care for them, to nurture their faith, and to assist them in discovering and living out their Christian vocation to love others and bring life into the world. It’s mostly them and God, this process. God is the creator of life, and they co-create and labor to bring that life into the world. I just get to be there to help deliver it, and to share in their joy.

“I’m Not Racist”: On Scorning Rebuke

“I’m not racist!” The words instinctively leapt from my mouth the way one might throw up their arms to block a punch. Self-defense – as if I could project my protest as a kind of shield to ward off the blame. How could they attack my intentions when my heart was pure? If only they knew me! I felt unfairly typed and misunderstood.

But I’ve since learned that I was the one who misunderstood. I didn’t understand that my words and actions carried implications of which I was ignorant. I didn’t understand that my intentions were not the only piece of the puzzle. I didn’t understand that I am caught up in a system that privileges white skin, and that even if I personally didn’t feel racist, that didn’t absolve me of responsibility for the way my words could wound. I could have learned that sooner if I hadn’t been so quick to protect myself. But the moment I put up that shield with my words, I refused to listen and I refused to learn. And as I closed my heart to wisdom, I took a step down the path of the fool.

Proverbs has a lot to say about discipline and rebuke. And strangely, as it turns out, rebuke isn’t just for the fool. It’s also for the wise, as this proverb reminds us: “Do not rebuke scoffers, otherwise they will hate you; rebuke the wise, and they will love you” (Prov. 9:8). Reflecting on this passage, wisdom scholar William Brown writes, “Here the defining character trait of the wise is the capacity to receive correction with a collegial sense of appreciation. An individual’s willingness to accept correction gratefully is itself a mark of wisdom…Only the wise know most clearly that wisdom is their gain even at the cost of self-certainty and pride” (Brown, Wisdom’s Wonder, 56).

Wisdom isn’t about being right. It’s not about being smart. It’s less about getting an A and more about learning from an F. It’s about being humble and teachable. The wise never “make it” – they are never beyond learning, never beyond correction. The wise are not those who have achieved Wisdom, but rather those who are in constant pursuit of her. In a paradoxical way, the ones who most nearly approach Wisdom are those who know they are not even close.

My natural tendency is to become ashamed, angry, and self-defensive when I receive criticism or rebuke. My foolishness shows. But the one seeking Wisdom embraces criticism as a teacher and is not afraid, because for her, knowledge is about love and growth – not competition. She has no need to hunker down and hide, nor defend herself to preserve her dignity, because she knows Wisdom loves her (Prov. 8:17) and will embrace her even in the embarrassment of the moment of rebuke. Her confidence comes not from her reputation, but from the inner strength that comes from the knowledge that she is growing. As John Dewey wrote, immaturity is not a lack, but rather a positive sign that growth is possible. So the one seeking Wisdom receives rebuke like a plant receives rain, letting it strengthen her roots in love. She embraces it like a beloved mentor that can show her the way. If she can let down her walls and draw close to it, she may find that it lovingly whispers in her ear the secrets of Wisdom.

There is much to learn in a rebuke: about ourselves, about others, about language, about faith, about the wounds of the world and how we can play a part in their healing. There is, first, the action that gave rise to the rebuke. What did we do or say? What was our mood, our tone, our motive? Second, there is the rebuke itself. What does it teach us about ourselves and how we can grow? What does it tell us about the way our action was received? Then there is the person who gave it. Why did they give it? What do we learn about them? How are they hurting – even if we didn’t intend to cause it? And how can we help to heal it? Fourth, there is our knee-jerk reaction to it. What did we feel, and where in our body did we feel it? Why was it so gosh-darn painful – and what does that show us about ourselves, our unmet needs, our deepest fears? These emotional depths – which we prefer to leave unplumbed – have riches to share with us, if we’re brave enough to enter into them.

Most of us don’t want to be thought of as racist. But when someone points out to us that our words or actions had connotations we didn’t intend, we must be careful not to scorn the rebuke and become a fool. To prove that we’re not racist, we want to cry, “I’m not racist!” – but then we’ve turned the focus back on ourselves and missed the point. Insisting on our innocence doesn’t make us innocent; if anything, it shows that we’re more concerned to defend ourselves to our black sisters and brothers, than to defend them against racism. As educator bell hooks reminds us, anti-racism consists in practicing it regardless of whether we receive approval for it. And so, when someone rebukes us for racial insensitivity, the most anti-racist thing to do is not to protest, but rather to listen and learn. It’s also the wise thing to do, because we cannot learn while we are busy protesting our innocence. We can only learn when we make ourselves vulnerable to the educative wound of rebuke.

When we scorn rebuke, we do ourselves no favors. We think that we’re protecting ourselves when we insist on our rightness, on our righteousness. But then we discover that it was no enemy rebuking us – it was Wisdom knocking on our door with a bag of rubies and a bottle of fine wine, inviting us to her feast.

And we turned her away.

A Letter to the Church of Christ

Dear Church of Christ,

I know you’d rather not believe it some days, but I am your daughter. Church of Christ through and through, I was born into your welcoming arms, taught in your Sunday school, and baptized into your family at the age of nine. Some of my earliest memories as a three- and four-year-old are of coloring in Sunday school, playing Mother May I up and down the center aisle of the auditorium, excitedly reciting the books of the Old Testament to anyone who would listen. It was you who raised me, and you to whom I owe my formative upbringing and my love for Christ. It was you who made me who I am today.

It was you who taught me a deep love for the church. I even played church when I was little – my siblings and I called our church “Bellwood Church of Christ,” an amalgamation of the names of the two churches that had been part of our life. I remember copying music from the hymnbook to make my own, filling out attendance cards, serving my siblings crackers and grape juice, as I could not serve in “real church” because I was a little girl and not a little boy. This love for the church is why I am still here – why I still sit in your pews, even though tears stream down my cheeks some Sundays and the anxiety turns my stomach in knots.

It was you who taught me to love Scripture. I participated in Bible Bowl every year, I asked for a new Bible for multiple Christmases, and in middle school I memorized the book of James on my own volition. I remember sitting on the wrought iron bench down by the creek, closing my eyes and reciting it over and over: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” It was that love for Scripture you taught me that led me to study it, to question it, to come to new understandings of it. It was my love for Scripture that led me to study theology and biblical exegesis in college and pull all-nighters writing papers on obscure passages, to minor in Greek so I could read the New Testament in its original language, to move across the country to go to seminary for 3 years, then to go through the rigor of a Ph.D. in religious education to write a dissertation on biblical theology in youth ministry – falling more deeply in love with Scripture all the time. Imagine the shock and confusion I feel when you tell me, over and over, that I disrespect the Word of God and that if I actually read the Bible, I would “get it.”

It was you who taught me of the priesthood of all believers – that one does not need to be ordained to be a minister, that everyone can preach the gospel, and that everyone has equal standing in the body of Christ. It was this doctrine which made me question why I was not included as a full member of the community. I would sit in the pew as a young girl, watching the “young men” lead worship, and wondering why I could not, as I certainly had more enthusiasm for it. You taught me that I did not need to go through anyone to speak to God, which made me wonder why I could not pray in church except through the leadership of a man. It was you who taught me that I am equal in God’s eyes, and when I acted equal, then told me, “Not like that.”

It was you who taught me to seek unity. Isn’t that how the Church of Christ came to be – with Presbyterians, fed up with sectarianism, who wanted to extend an ecumenical hand to all who profess Christ? But when I speak positively of my experience at a Presbyterian seminary or talk about what I learned from my United Methodist friends, you question my commitment to the church. And when my theology or politics differs from yours, you tell me you wish I would “just leave.” But how does one “just leave” their family? How does one “just leave” the only church they’ve ever known?

It was you who taught me to follow the call of Christ even if people mocked me, discouraged me, excluded me, and tried to prevent me. I always thought you were talking about the “worldly others,” so I stepped out boldly in faith, hoping when those worldly others came for me, you’d have my back, you’d be there to catch me. I never expected that you would be the one to mock me, discourage me, exclude me, and call me names. Shameful. Deceived. Modern-day Eve. Satan’s puppet.

I am a daughter of the Church of Christ, through and through, yet somehow, I am an embarrassment to you, the black sheep you can’t claim as your own. I belong so much that somehow, I don’t belong at all.

Why Your Church Should Offer Adulting Classes

A strange phenomenon has popped up across the country in the last five years: adulting classes. A quick Google search reveals that they’ve become more popular since I first heard about them two years ago. Now there have actually been news write-ups about them, like this CBS article: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/adulting-classes-teach-millennials-basic-skills-like-sewing-cooking-and-how-to-deal-with-relationships/.

If you haven’t heard “adult” used as a verb before, it typically refers to the practice of responsibility, or perhaps more specifically, to the household tasks that comprise the daily life of adults. One might say, “I actually made a meal from scratch today! #adulting.”  This is largely a Millennial (and now Gen Z) phenomenon.

The most substantial reason that young adults don’t know how to “adult” is because they haven’t been taught how. In the early 1900’s and before, parents passed on these skills to their children in a home environment. In the 20’s-30’s, public school became more of the norm, but the schools took on the responsibility of preparing students to be productive citizens. Part of that education included basic “adulting” skills: there were Home Economics and Shop classes. But as the education system has expanded – college became the norm, and now a masters degree – the purpose of middle and high school has increasingly become not to prepare for life, but to prepare for more school. So the more practical aspects of education had to be cut – why waste part of the school day teaching 15-year-olds how to cook, when they could be bulking up their college application resume with AP classes and extracurriculars? Yale doesn’t care if you know how to fix your own car. And Yale certainly won’t teach you to do it, either.

So now we have whole generations of people entering “adulthood” without being equipped for its everyday tasks. In light of this, we’re beginning to see young adults seeking out opportunities to learn basic skills – managing money and balancing a budget, cooking a simple healthy meal, changing a tire or oil, doing laundry or ironing. There are youtube videos and online classes and actual classes hosted by libraries or community centers. Don’t make fun of them for it – no one taught them how, and they’re trying to learn. Be part of the solution.

If churches recognize this need and can organize to fill it, hosting adulting classes is a great opportunity to become involved in your community and mentor young adults. I hesitate to suggest it, even as I write this, because of a very important caveat that needs to be made: this idea is not an “outreach opportunity” in the bait-and-switch method of making them “pay” for the classes by sitting and listening to a “message.” Nor should it be a manipulation strategy to guilt young adults into attending your church. Like meeting any need – running a clothing closet or food pantry, for instance – adulting classes can certainly be exploited for the church’s gain, but should not be. Instead, they should be offered freely, with no expectation of ever seeing the young person again, or pressure on them to come back. Instead, view it simply as a way to offer God’s love to a community.

With that said, here are some reasons your church should consider offering adulting classes:

  • It meets a need in the community that empowers people and enables them to flourish. Adulting classes make young people more confident in their skills, it helps them save money by no longer outsourcing basic skills (i.e. cooking instead of eating out), and helps them to be more well-rounded people who engage in activities that are about making a life, not just making a living.
  • It creates the opportunity for intergenerational relationships to form and flourish. How often do 70-year-olds and 25-year-olds spend time together – or think that the other age group has anything to offer them? Young adults need the mentorship of older adults, and if your church doesn’t have any young people ruffling its feathers with their youthful ideas, it could probably use some (if they attend a cooking class and suggest a way to do it more sustainably, like using reusable grocery bags, listen to them and learn from each other!).
    • Also, the loss of life skills isn’t the only thing that has happened with the evolution of schools. Young people have also lost adult interaction (see Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0). I find that teens are starved to hear from adults, even inexperienced ones like myself: How did you know your spouse was “the one”? Have you ever doubted your faith? How do you parent? They don’t have any guidance for navigating these experiences, and they crave it.
  • It makes the church a welcoming community space. Like Divorce Care and AA and literacy classes, it helps the church be something other than a place of worship. How much did your church spend on its building? Shouldn’t it be used more than once a week? How much did it spend on that industrial kitchen? Shouldn’t it be used more than once a quarter? Make it a place that is inclusive of the community, rather than an exclusive space focused solely on Sunday morning activities.

So, what might it look like for a church to host adulting classes? Ideas can easily be sourced from other spaces that have pioneered this work, but I tend to envision Saturday afternoon classes focused on a different skill every week, or month, or however often they’re hosted. Choose the skills you want to teach (basic sewing to fix a button or hem pants, how to make a vegetable soup, how to change a tire, what credit scores mean) and get congregants involved who know how to do (and teach) those things well. Invite high school students from your church, college students and young professionals from your community. Have a 2-hour workshop, perhaps share a meal, and send them home with resources (a small sewing kit, the recipe you taught, a diagram of what’s under the hood of their car) and maybe even your phone number. As my father-in-law suggested when I first mentioned this, “What about an adopt-a-mom-or-dad hotline – when you need to learn to fix a dripping faucet or a running toilet or a dead lawn mower?” As an overwhelmed Millennial myself, I can’t even imagine how it would make me feel for someone to offer such a thing – to call them if I need help with my car?? Unheard of. (But let me say again, if I found out it was bait-and-switch, I wouldn’t feel loved, and I wouldn’t come back.)

So, the idea is out there, the need is out there, and the opportunity is out there. Go love some young adults.

 

The Reflective Youth Pastor

In one of my recent posts, “Why Your Next Youth Minister Might Should Be a Spiritual Director,” I wrote about the importance of holy listening in youth ministry. In this post, I want to build on that idea by focusing on a specific aspect of holy listening: the neglected practice of reflection.

Busy is a status symbol in our culture; we measure how important we are by how many demands we have on our time, and if we don’t have enough on our plate to look sufficiently important, we manufacture more. And as thoroughly enmeshed in culture as our churches are, ministry has not escaped the pressure of workaholism. In Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli writes about the pervasive disease that is “anxiety-driven youth ministry.” Youth pastors are always going, going, going, trying to do more, more, more. We feel guilt and shame if we are not constantly doing something. There are more problems with this mindset than I can address in this post – at the very least, our sense of pride and self-reliance rather than faith, and the way in which our anxiety and insecurity is passed down to our workaholic teens – but here I want to focus on just one: a lack of reflection in youth ministry.

In his book The Skillful Teacher, educator Stephen Brookfield writes that over the course of his career, he has become convinced that “the key” and “the essence” of good teaching is evaluation and reflection. This idea is perhaps counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural: that the essence of good teaching isn’t what happens in the classroom. It’s what happens when you’re by yourself or reflecting with others, scrutinizing why something didn’t work, reading over student evaluations, remembering a comment or question, reflecting on what your students need, remembering the expressions on their faces that betrayed excitement or anxiety. That is the backbone of teaching, what gives your teaching its substance and heart.

The same is true for ministry: at its heart is the discipline of reflection. If you’re always going and going and going, from one thing to the next, you don’t have time to process. But margins are vital to give you time to reflect on the way your student dropped their eyes when you asked a question, or suddenly became silent. To remember a question someone asked, to dwell on it, to perceive how God is working in their lives. To see relationships that are forming, or falling apart. To mull over a seemingly mundane encounter, holding it like a diamond, turning it over in our minds to see how the light illuminates the facets.

Good ministry requires us first to notice, and second to reflect. And to do that, we need space. We need to rest enough to be attentive enough to notice. We need to take time after every ministry experience to jot down some notes, even if it’s just 5 minutes, even if it’s just a sentence. But how can we do that if, in order to feel like we’re doing “enough” ministry, we’re packing our schedules so tightly we can’t breathe?

It is the assumption of many pastors and many churches that good ministry is characterized by constant activity. Instead, I would dare to propose that good ministry is characterized by thoughtful activity. We can put in 80-hour work weeks, but if it’s not guided by the Spirit, what’s the point? We can pull out all the latest attractional ministry fads, but if we never stop to think about the needs of the actual youth we’re serving, what good is it? We can go from one activity to the next and amaze our congregation with our superhuman energy and productivity rate, but why bother if we haven’t even stopped to consider how our youth are responding? Without the disciplined practice of reflection, youth ministry becomes a lot of frenzied, directionless activity.

So the first step toward becoming a reflective youth pastor is to learn to notice – which in itself requires us to slow down. When we’re not actively engaging our skills of observation, we tend to let moments slip by us and disappear – moments that were full of spiritually formative potential, if only we’d reached out to grasp them. The act of noticing is a spiritual discipline, and we can practice it in two ways. 

First, we can stimulate our powers of observation by actively practicing it – by looking up and taking in the world around us, and by lingering on what catches our gaze: people-watching instead of looking at our phone in line at Starbucks, taking 10 seconds to look at a flower that caught our eye to see it in more detail.

But, second, we also need to practice really noticing and holding on to the moments that happen to us by accident. Moments when something sparks anxiety or joy deep inside you, moments when beauty suddenly arrests you, moments when a student’s split-second facial expression struck you – don’t let them go. Pause to feel them, name them, and hold them in your mind as a treasure trove of opportunities for later reflection.

The next step is to make time for reflection. Determine to do less, and do it better. Schedule time for reflection before and after events. When you come into the office, before you check your email, take a moment to breathe, pray, and allow ministry moments from the past week to come to your mind. Choose one and think it over. What was going on in that moment? Reconstruct the scene. Who was there? What were the sights, sounds, smells? How did you feel? Allow yourself to feel it deeply, even it is sorrow or regret. How was God present in that moment? What can you learn from it? Sometimes there’s something very concrete to learn from these moments, and sometimes we can merely appreciate them, wonder about them, enter into the mystery of them.

After your lunch with a student, build in a 10-minute margin before your next meeting to reflect on how the interaction went. Were there moments you felt tense? Why? Allow yourself to explore that feeling. Was it because you weren’t sure what to say? Because there was an awkward silence? What can you learn about yourself as a minister? Reflect on the young person you met with. What is something they said that you found curious? Don’t let it slip away. Think on it. Pray about it.

In the moments before starting youth group, look around. Who is here? How does the room feel? Who is sitting with whom, and who is sitting alone? In the moments after youth group, when the lights are out and everyone is gone, sit for just five minutes and allow yourself to settle. At what point did people seem the most engaged? At what point did they seem the most distanced?

We have to be making time to ask ourselves these kinds of questions and giving ourselves time to reflect if we want to be thoughtful, engaged youth pastors whose ministry is grounded in a life of prayer and contemplation.

If we can learn to do these things – to learn to notice and to make time – we’ll find that there are unplumbed depths in every ministry encounter, if only we made the effort to explore them. And from those depths comes a wisdom that can shape and guide our ministry in a way anxiety-driven activity can never do.

Why You Should Consider Having Parent-Youth Pastor Conferences

Parents have often been considered a perennial “problem” that plagues youth ministry discourse. If our primary ministry is to young people, what sort of relationships do we need to have with their parents? Youth ministers often complain about and try to avoid parents, and youth ministry educators try to convince youth-ministers-in-training that they need to be “partnering with parents.” But the question remains: how? How do we partner with parents? I’ve seen creative strategies from sending parents discussion questions every week, to getting parents to chaperone youth events, both of which are great. But I think the biggest obstacle to having good relationships with parents is that we don’t know how to facilitate one-on-one conversations with them – and, unfortunately, I also think that those conversations we’re not having are a vital part of partnering with parents in their teens’ faith formation.

Typically, our conversations with parents happen in one of three ways: parent meetings, problem meetings, and popcorn interactions. All three of them have their place, but if we’re after relationships in which we work together for the spiritual formation of a young person, all three types of interactions fall short of that goal in vital ways.

Parent meetings are those obligatory quarterly meetings wherein we give parents next month’s calendar and discuss upcoming events. Perhaps we get some feedback on how their teens enjoyed last month’s retreat, or what they would like to see taught in Sunday school. There may also be occasional parent seminars dealing with topics like social media, self-harm, sexuality, etc. These meetings address “youth group parents” as a whole rather than one-on-one, and they deal with topics and events rather than the youth themselves. So while they are a good way to get parents more engaged in the youth ministry, they are not a way to talk to parents about their teens.

Problem meetings are about – well, problems. Either the parent comes to meet with you about worrying behavior from their teen (“I think Michael has been doing ___! What should I do? Can you talk to him about it?”), or you have to make a dreaded phone call about it on your end (“Hi Mrs. Smith, something happened in youth group last week that I think we need to talk about.”). These meetings are important and need to be had. However, they are by nature reactive rather than proactive. Sticking to problem meetings creates the expectation that we only have meetings when they are necessary, and when something bad has happened, making relationships with parents crisis-driven and anxiety-inducing. It drives all the energy toward teens who are obviously in trouble and away from those who are (or appear to be) doing well. These meetings are also more focused on outward behavior rather than on the teen’s inward spiritual development. Managing crises just addresses the outward manifestations of whatever might be going on inwardly, without actually investing the necessary time to care for their souls.

Popcorn interactions are when we run into parents at church and we think to tell them, “By the way, I just wanted to tell you that Ari made some really good comments in Sunday school. You’ve got a great kid, and we love having her in youth group!” This sort of brief interaction is a good habit to have, but because it is casual, often rushed, and rarely private, it keeps us from having a more in-depth conversation. We don’t expound on the positive observations, telling them more specifically that it seems like Ari is thinking really deeply about the meaning of discipleship, or that she seems most engaged when the youth group worships together, or that you’ve been impressed with the ways she’s grown over the past year. While it may encourage a parent, it doesn’t really give them meaningful information to work with.

All three of these parent interactions are important and necessary, but they are not sufficient. If we really want to “partner with parents” in their teens’ spiritual development, we need to be having conversations about their teens’ spiritual development – not youth culture, not our ministry agendas, but about their own children. Youth ministers and parents don’t see their teens in the same way; they see them in different settings, with different friends. Parents and ministers can learn a lot about any given young person from each other, and use that shared knowledge to better nurture the spiritual development of that young person.

So what would happen if we borrowed from public education and modeled our interactions with parents on a (slightly longer) form of the parent-teacher conference? Pick a month or two out of the year to focus on routine annual meetings and really encourage parents and guardians to sign up for a 30-45 minute slot of your office hours. Be prepared to tell them how their teen is interacting in youth group, how you’ve seen them grow over the past year, the kinds of questions they’re asking about faith. Suggest questions and ideas they might want to discuss with their teen. Ask them how things have been going at home or school, and how you can be supporting their family. Pray for them and with them.

Yearly parent-youth pastor conferences are a needed model of parent conversations because:

  • They are proactive, giving you a chance to talk with parents before a crisis arises. And even if you have had problem conversations with parents, ongoing meetings that are focused on something other than the issue show that the young person is more than the issue, and there is more to their spiritual life than their behavior.
  • They occur regularly, so that you are able to talk about progress and development. You can revisit and build upon previous conversations, and track how a young person’s faith has changed over time.
  • They invite everyone to participate, so that all of your teens and parents receive equal attention – not just the ones who are exceptional in some way. It also won’t cause anxiety for parents when you ask, “Hey, can we get together to talk about Meredith?”, because they know that you’re asking everyone.
  • They are specific, focusing on the spiritual life of a particular young person and their needs. Parent seminars on general topics are great, but it’s even better if you can talk to them about their specific teen.
  • They establish a true partner relationship with parents, in which you’re not just trying to keep them up-to-date on activities. Rather, you understand that you are playing different roles in their teen’s life, and that you’re mutually sharing information in a way that can help both of you nurture the spiritual life of their teen.

The parent-youth pastor conference model is of course not without issues. Top among them are the following:

  • Confidentiality is an issue that needs to be treated very sensitively. If your teens think of youth group as a safe space to share their real feelings or ask questions they can’t ask at home, it could be devastating to them to overshare with their parents. Therefore, it is very important to be sensitive to the family dynamics at play, and also to check in with your teens to see if there is anything they specifically don’t want shared.
  • This would be very difficult to do in youth groups larger than 50 teens, unless your small group volunteers were willing to participate and facilitate meetings.
  • It would be difficult to interact with parents who are not very involved, or the parents of teens who don’t attend often. Nevertheless, extending the invitation is an important step.

Another important part of parent-youth pastor conferences is the task of preparation. It requires that we pay attention to our young people, and spend time reflecting on how we see God at work in their lives. Imagine how our ministry with young people might change if, in addition to praying for them, we regularly took time to dwell on our interactions with them, to recall where we saw them most engaged, to meditate on a comment they shared.

And then, imagine how our relationships with parents might change if we shared some of these insights with them; if we asked them for their own insights on their teen’s spiritual life and trusted them as partners in our work of faith formation; if they knew that the care of their child’s soul was important enough to us to make it a priority in our ministry. Perhaps we might even find that parents’ souls could use some pastoral care, too.

 

Why Your Next Youth Minister Should Be a Spiritual Director

It’s past time that churches gave up on the stereotype of the young, cool, Energizer Bunny youth minister. It’s an old trick that Young Life popularized more than fifty years ago – get someone with the “cool factor” who can be an influencer and attract people to the ministry (see Gretchen Schoon Tanis, Making Jesus Attractive: The Ministry and Message of Young Life). So for most of the history of modern youth ministry, search committees have sought that charismatic personality who can plan exciting events that attract a crowd. The only problem is, over the years, research has consistently shown that nearly everyone in the crowd disperses. Youth ministry provided fun and games for the high school years…and little else that would spiritually sustain them beyond those years. We have let thousands of young people come through our churches and have missed the opportunity to nurture their spiritual lives and theological imaginations.

In the years that I have studied and worked in youth ministry thus far, I have become convinced that one of the most important things we can do for the spiritual lives of young people is not to create exciting or fun experiences for them. It is not even to teach them – at least, in the way we often think of teaching. Instead, the most important and transformative thing we can do is to listen to them – to listen attentively to their stories and their lives, to ask perceptive questions that take them deeper, to name how God is at work in their lives, and to help birth their vocation to love others and heal the world. This may seem counter-intuitive, as we tend to assume that spiritual formation occurs when we teach young people biblical stories and doctrinal principles. But what if the deepest formation occurs when we listen first?

On the importance of listening, consider the following quote from youth ministry scholar David White about graduate students conducting research interviews with high schoolers:

“In a recent summer program sponsored by the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory University, sixty youth from around the country gathered to engage in practical forms of Christian discipleship and an elaborate program of study, worship, recreation, music, service, and spiritual direction. To the surprise of the staff the activity that consistently ranked highest on youth evaluations was a one-hour interview with a graduate student for research she was gathering. These interviews were very open-ended and allowed youth to speak about feelings and thoughts they had never spoken about to anyone. These researchers found that creating space for these youth to speak did not simply represent an opportunity for them to say what they knew, but in the process of speaking, they found themselves actively making sense of their lives, speaking themselves into identity. Rarely in this culture do youth experience the full and prolonged attention of a significant adult who wants simply to listen to them – to hear about their loves, hates, gifts, families, hopes, and dreams for the future. Creating such space for listening to youth is vital for them and for us.” (David White, Practicing Discernment with Youth, 112.)

Working at the same program years later, I experienced the same thing. When I asked my group of students during covenant group one evening what had most surprised them about the Youth Theological Initiative so far, they said they were most surprised that the adults actually seemed to want to listen to them – and they thought if parents and teachers and youth pastors listened in that way, maybe fewer youth would feel so alone and maybe the suicide rate would drop.

In their book Lives to Offer, Dori Baker and Joyce Mercer also have a chapter on listening with youth. Based on similar experiences interviewing young people, they note how interviews provided a space for young people to voice aloud some of their deepest fears and hopes, and in the speaking, begin to construct meaning. I have seen this play out in my own interviews with young people, hearing them comment with surprise at their own words, “I guess I’d never thought of it that way before until I said it!” Giving young people space to process their developing beliefs and ideas is crucial for their faith formation (see also Amanda Drury, Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development).

Joyce and Dori refer to this practice in youth ministry as “holy listening” – which is a term often used in spiritual direction. A spiritual director is a wise and contemplative person – who is deeply rooted in their own spirituality and relationship with God – who listens prayerfully and attentively to another person and to the Holy Spirit to discern the work of God in a person’s life. They are different from a counselor or a life coach in that their primary goal is not to give advice, but rather to point to the Holy Spirit. They might suggest a Scripture or a theme for the directee to meditate on, or ask a probing question for them to consider prayerfully.

This kind of holy listening requires a skill set far beyond what we typically want from a youth minister. It requires the following characteristics:

  • A deep relationship with God. A youth minister who is not spiritually deep cannot nurture spiritual depth in your teens. Ask your youth minister candidate about their prayer life, about their spiritual disciplines, about how they make decisions in their life. Ask them how they’ve seen God at work in their life lately and how God was working in their previous ministry. For more on rooting youth ministry in the minister’s own spiritual life, read Mark Yaconelli’s Contemplative Youth Ministry. This book was life-changing for me and still ranks as one of my top two books on youth ministry (the other is David White’s book quoted above).
  • The capacity to listen deeply and attentively. They need to be able to ask good questions and never interrupt; to be comfortable with silence; to listen to what is not said; to self-differentiate and not emotionally react in a way that distracts from the young person’s own sharing.
  • A quality that I can only describe as wisdom – to be able to connect dots in young people’s stories, to meditate on them, to see what themes surface and how they connect to what is going on their life, to hear how God might be speaking to them and be able to name it for them.

The person who embodies these characteristics may be super charismatic and be able to plan an amazing lock-in. But more often than not, the people who are wise and careful listeners move through life without attracting much attention to themselves. If they are interested in youth ministry, they’ll likely be overlooked because they don’t have the “wow” factor in the interview. But my hunch is that few of these people would apply for a youth ministry position because they know they aren’t what a church is looking for; because the stereotype of the “youth ministry personality” is pervasive enough to discourage them; because the job description looks more like an event planner than a spiritual director.

But if it’s true that holy listening is one of the most important things we can do for a young person’s spiritual life, and if cultivating their spiritual life is what will give them resources to tap into after they graduate, perhaps the best youth ministry hire is not a cool 22-year-old camp counselor. Maybe it’s a 56-year-old woman whose career has been in spiritual direction. She’ll be totally out of the loop on youth culture, and although they’ll good-naturedly laugh at her, I guarantee that none of the teens will care. She might not plan the most knockout events, but I truly believe that a young person would trade all of it – the games, the snacks, every single attractional gimmick we can come up with – for the rare chance to be heard, known, and loved by someone who was really gifted in holy listening.

What if we could radically re-envision the way our youth ministry worked? What if we could calm down and slow down enough that the primary task of ministry was listening? Imagine it with me. The youth minister still teaches Sunday school and plans some events, but the bulk of her time is spent in mentoring and spiritual direction relationships with her students. In the afternoons after school, she makes appointments with her youth to come in and spend some time with her. She asks them, “When is a moment in your life lately that really made you come alive?” She watches their eyes light up as they share about their niece’s first steps, and she says, “Wow, that sounds like a really sacred moment. What do you think it was about that that made you feel that way?” Over time, she comes to recognize a theme: for this student, they feel most alive when they see other people learn and grow. She names this for the student, who begins to look for God’s presence for themselves in those moments. Instead of letting those moments fall by the wayside, they begin to remember them, to dwell on them, to see them as sacred. Ultimately, together they discern that perhaps the student’s vocation is in teaching.

She facilitates small groups, using her skills to help young people practice holy listening with each other. They share stories from their lives and discuss together how it reminds them of stories from their faith tradition. They name for each other where they see God at work in each other’s lives. A seemingly mundane story that would have been a passing moment becomes an opportunity for theological reflection. (See Dori Baker, Doing Girlfriend Theology: God-Talk with Young Women.) And in the process, they begin to interpret their lives through the lens of faith.

At the end of each day, instead of quickly moving on to the next project, the youth minister takes some time to really reflect on what she has heard today. She thinks about what John shared in conjunction with a passing comment his mother made last week, and she senses that perhaps there is tension in their family right now. She noticed in Bible study how Hannah grew silent when someone else mentioned sexual assault, and she wonders about it, mentally filing it away to inform future encounters with Hannah. She notices how Deborah kept using the word “alone,” and although Deborah was saying she likes being alone, the frequency of its mention makes her wonder if it’s not true. She takes a mental note to think of a Scripture to give Deborah next time that can remind her that God is with her. She dwells on all these things, wondering about them, praying over them, giving thanks and sitting with the sorrow.

This would be a very different kind of youth ministry than we typically imagine, but everything in my experience and intuition tells me that it’s a kind of different we need.

Young people can play sports at school, go on vacation with their family, and have fun with their friends. But where in their lives can they have adults really listen to them, take them seriously, and reflect on their stories enough to be able to offer the gift of spiritual direction? In our society, young people are isolated from caring adults, and the adults who are in their lives seem more interested in lecturing them than listening to them. We live in a society where social media is increasingly replacing face-to-face encounters, making human interaction a “luxury good” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/23/sunday-review/human-contact-luxury-screens.html). And our hurried pace never leaves us the margin to dwell on the moments of joy and sorrow in each day to hear how God might be speaking to us. In light of this, perhaps hiring someone trained in spiritual direction as a youth minister – or at least someone with the gift of contemplative listening – is the greatest gift your church could offer your young people.

If that’s the case, you’ll need to seek one out, as they likely don’t think of themselves as youth ministers. And you’ll need to change your job description and expectations accordingly. But I have a hunch that having a relationship with a wise and contemplative person could be life-changing for students and revolutionary for the practice of youth ministry. I have a hunch that maybe, just maybe, spiritual directors might make better youth ministers than youth ministers do.