Letter of Recommendation Time: It is that most dreaded time of the year for me--letter of reference time. It seems like everyone under the sun needs one: schools, colleges, jobs, camps, even the Boy Scouts. One by one I have the dreaded pleasure of writing a one page letter about how great this student is and what an asset they are going to be to whatever endeavor they are applying. I actually really enjoy the process of pausing and reflecting on the best version of that particular student.
Letters of recommendations are vital to the application process. It is a document that vouches for the validity and competency of that individual. As someone writing the letter, we have the responsibility of using our credibility to either stand behind someone, or throw them under the bus. In this season with our students, we have the upper hand as we are the ones writing these letters. But what I think is amazing is that the reverse is actually true. While we think we are simply writing letters for our students, in fact, our students themselves are our letters of recommendation.
We have spent the last year, 3 years, 5 years, or 7 years, pouring our lives into these particular students. We have invested in their lives, walked with them through their successes and failures. We have intentionally provided opportunities and experiences for them to grow spiritually. And now, in a matter of weeks, they will be flying the coop, heading off into the great blue yonder, without us holding their hands or guiding their decisions. Their faith is now completely their faith, and what happens next is the proof in the pudding for us and our ministry.
The Students Are Our Letter of Recommendation:
What students choose to do or not do with their faith after high school is a direct reflection on us as youth workers. We can have the best program, greatest youth room, even think we are amazing speakers. But all of that is meaningless if our students walk away from their faith, or worse, have a lousy version of it. Unfortunately many youth workers spend most of their time working on their image, their resume, their "brand." But at the end of the day, our letters of recommendation don't come from our peers or even from our bosses, they are lived out in the lives of our students after they graduate.
"The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you." 2 Corinthians 3:2
In a couple of weeks we will be having a service that celebrates our students and what God has done in their lives. Some of them have made significant decisions to follow God and some of them are very open about their struggles to commit to a faith that doesn't seem to have much upside for someone in their late teens. But all of them, when they leave, will have my mark on them. Everyone can read it, and recognize the good work--or the shoddy work--done in them.
It is a humbling thing to think that my credibility as a youth worker rests on the lives of the students I pour into after they graduate. Because of this, I work incredibly hard to present a faith that is compelling, mysterious, relevant, and needed. I want our students to have a faith that is ready to handle the intellectual challenges of college and the new and exciting temptations they'll find there. And I want them to have the view of God and the church that this is always their home, and that we will always be on the lookout, at the edge of our property waiting longingly for their return.
Whether they choose to follow Christ or not is totally out of my control. But their understanding of God, discipleship, and the church, as well as their value of all of that, is on me. My simple letters of recommendation pale in comparison to what my students' lives say about me and the ministry I lead.
I pray that God would continue to use my feeble efforts, as I pour out my guts and life into students, for the sake of the Gospel. I pray that I would, along with my fellow youth workers, present Christianity in a way that makes Jesus a viable choice in adulthood. I will celebrate, with all of God's people, when some of these students choose to honor God and follow him as adults. I'll be broken-hearted by those students who throw in the towel.
In the mystery of faith development, I pray that we would take our role seriously and invest in students in a way that allows us to truly own the mark we have put on their lives, for good or ill. And I also pray that we will take our role less seriously in that, at the end of the day, it is you, and you alone who call students to your son, Jesus. As youth workers all over are sending off their students, we collectively pray that you would use our watering and planting, planting and watering, and cause faith to grow! Amen, and amen!