Ok, maybe I should have said, I think I am the best youth pastor ever. Actually, now that I think about it, what I really want to say is that I want to be the best youth pastor ever. But now that I have said it out loud and have revealed what a prideful and pompous jerk I am, I am left with the uncomfortable realization that I am not and will not ever be the best youth pastor.
This line of thinking has plagued me ever since I first started vocational youth ministry back in the late 90's. (You know when DC TALK was still king!) I knew I did a good job and so did my church and so did my students. And after about a year on the job I was pretty impressed with myself. Then I went to my first YS conference and saw 5000 other people just like me. All of us were wearing cargo shorts, polo shirts and had goatees. (Except for the ladies, they didn't have goatees) Most people would be encouraged by the vast numbers of youth workers, but for me I saw a giant ladder with 5000 rungs on it, and ever since I have been trying to move up those rungs so that some day I would be at the top.
Even though I know this pursuit to be totally dumb and impossible (Because Erik Anderson is already at the top, and you are there above me as well) it still seems to shapes my life.
My Sabbatical Epiphany:
As of this post I have been on sabbatical for two months and have one more month to go. In this time my leaders and fellow pastors at our church have picked up the slack and have been leading the ministry I used to lead and caring for the students I used to care for. And the worst part is that they are doing an awesome job! They didn't get the memo that I am the best youth pastor ever and that their lives and faith would be in huge peril without my wisdom, direction, or care.
And in this same time I have been away from my student ministry I have had the opportunity to visit some other churches and other youth groups. What I noticed was the exact same feeling that stirred in me over 15 years ago, that there are so many churches and so many youth workers. So many people just like me caring for their own little posse of students and leaders. But instead of ranking myself and my ministry against theirs, I found myself actually encouraged by the great job they were doing. In this time away, trusting my own leaders and hanging with my colleagues, God has used my time away to remind me of some really important truths about youth ministry, about me, and about my calling.
About Youth Ministry:
We have the best job in the entire world. And as I have gotten to spend time with my colleagues and watch them in action, I am blow away at the excellence in which my peers do ministry. The idea that youth workers are lazy, video game playing, pizza eating, sloppy, man-childs, is simply a straw man used to make blogs sound more interesting. Every youth worker I know and have had the pleasure to watch in action takes their craft and call very seriously. They have earned the respect and authority of their leaders and their students. Every youth ministry I have encountered I have found one or two take-a-ways to improve my own ministry. If you and your own ministry are your only experience of current student ministry then I would encourage you to look around and see what your peers are doing. Be encouraged and be challenged so that you too can continue to improve and refine your own practice and call of ministry.
Again, and again, God has to crush me and humble me. He knows the enormity of my pride and ego. In fact, my pride is so legendary that it seems that God has used my entire ministry career to crush it. Visiting other ministries has been some additional instruction for me about my current rank on the ladder of student ministry bestness. (Is that even a word) What I found humbling, and entirely refreshing was that at these other youth ministries, these students and leaders had no idea who I was. They have never heard of me and didn't know that I was actually really important. Because in that other ministry context, it was my colleague who was the best. He was the one had devoted his life to the care of this particular group of leaders and students. He was the one who sacrificed so much to have the honor to walk with these students in their spiritual development. Every youth ministry at ever church is run by some faithful adult who has given a huge part of their time, money, and heart to a group of students. It doesn't matter if that person is a professional, a pastor, a volunteer, an author, or a grandma. Every youth worker is the best ever for their students, and if that is the case, then in these other contexts, I am not even in the rankings.
About my calling:
All of this leads me into a full circle as I begin to re-engage mentally to my own context and with my own students. I am called by God to love and care for the students and leaders at Marin Covenant Church. I am called to do a great job, to give my heart, my emotions, my time and my resources for the spiritual development and care of this very specific group of students. While I still want to be the best youth pastor ever, the reality is that I already am. I am the the best youth pastor to the students that God has called me to pastor. I will never be better than you, my ministry will never be better than yours. That is because you too are called by God to be the best youth pastor ever to your specific group of students in your specific context.
May we as colleagues in ministry continually spur one another on to do youth ministry that is excellent, where everything is left on the field, where we can celebrate at the end of the day and end of the school year that we have given our all. And may we do it in a way that models the relentless love and grace of our Heavenly Father and points to Jesus Christ as the true hero in our ministry.
While I will forever struggle with my pride and ego and want accolades from my peers and students, today I am finding it easier and easier to settle into the very small, very unique, and still very valuable part of the body of Christ that I am. And may Jesus as the head of his body direct me, direct you, direct us as we are used by him for His purposes and for His glory for now and forever more! Amen.