Guess What? It's Not About You!
A call to student ministry is a special and unique thing. We have been called by God to participate in the spiritual development of students. For a very specific and often chaotic season, we get the privilege and honor of being adults who coach, mentor, disciple and journey with adolescents who are exploring their faith and making it their own. What could be greater? As we attempt to live this out in the real world with real students in a real context, this simple and yet profound calling gets blurry.
The students we work with have joys and concerns, victories and losses, growth and set backs. We attempt to be there for every student for every part of the roller coaster ride; and while we work our guts out, pouring our lives into these students, our vision becomes impaired. Because very slowly, without us knowing, the joy that comes from getting to be there for students and walk with them turns and starts to become about us. Instead of being an adult who journeys with students for a season of their lives, we see ourselves as the adult who journeys with them, who advocates for them, who loves them, who will get them through adolescence, who will solve their problems, etc...
It is not a difficult leap to inflate the role we have in the lives of students. We give so much of our selves to them, and in return we are part of such intimate and transforming events and conversations. We get to be a part of genuine transformation. Take these intense moments and add in the already emotionally charged reality of adolescence, and it is easy to see ourselves as the lynchpin holding it all together.
This blurry lens through which I have been viewing my ministry lately has had a refreshing cleansing. This cleaning happened at an unlikely place this spring: graduation.
A Clarifying Event: Graduation
I didn't plan on a graduation ceremony being the place where God was going to do a fresh work in me. In fact, I approached the day with zero expectations. Through the years, I have gotten graduations down to a science. In fact, this year I managed to get in five graduations in a single day. Coming for the beginning, taking pictures, hugging parents, saying hi to kids I hadn't seen in years, giving a nod to the other youth workers doing the same thing, jumping in the car to catch the end of the graduation across town to repeat. As the day unfolded and I listened to speech after speech, student after student progress across the podium, I saw something I'd never seen before.
For the first time, I looked past the students and saw the teachers, principals and administrators; and what I saw was amazing. I saw dozens of faculty sit back and watch the fruit of their labor graduate -- move from one season of life to the next -- with joy and pride. What was unique in this picture for me is that it is not one person or teacher who propels a student to graduation. It is 12 years of teachers, principals, and administrators who have faithfully done their part, which culminates in a graduation. As quickly as graduation started, it ended. The students left empowered and launched to whatever new thing they were going to do. While the students left for graduation parties and new lives, teachers returned to their classrooms to clean up and prepare for a brand new group of students to educate, to faithfully beging the process again.
This is exactly what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 3. In Corinth, there was some grumbling going on about who their true spiritual leader was. Some people thought it was Paul, other Apollos. Paul's focus was on helping the people see that it is not the work of the leader, but the work of God that should be our focus. Paul draws a line in the sand with his confrontational question, "Who is Apollos? Who is Paul?"
How Much Influence Do We Really Have?
This question cuts to the heart of student ministry and confronts some of the false versions of ministry while the rest of the passage actually gives us a healthy view of starting, ending and continuing to do faithful student ministry in a particular context.
Paul's questions strike the heart of one of the most challenging issues in student ministry: the personality-driven ministry. Because many of us use our relational and leadership gifts well, we find success in collecting and gathering students. Without realizing what we have done, we have managed to collect students to us. If this goes unchecked, this version of ministry puts an enormous stumbling block in front of our students.
Students are not the ones trying to pick one person to be their end all be all in life. Students intuitively know there should be a collection of people who have molded and shaped them. If we move from seeing ourselves as adults to seeing ourselves as the adult, we put students in a challenging position.
When we arrive in a new context, we don't need to be intimidated by the history that happened without us, with the jokes and the stories. Shutting those down, belittling the person and program before us, ignoring the parents and volunteers who have served faithfully long before we arrived on the scene actually cheapens what we currently are trying to do. This alienates our older students whose hearts are deeply imbedded with those leaders and staff they have history with, as well as shuts down those leaders and opens the door for grumbling and conflict.
We cannot forget God has been working in the lives of these students long before we showed up and will continue to work in their lives long after we are gone. Are we mature enough to live into the question that Paul poses? "Who is Apollos, and who is Paul?" Paul goes on to remind, encourage and rebuke us:
"My job was to plant the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it; but it was God, not we, who made it grow. The ones who do the planting or watering aren't important, but God is important because He is the One who makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work as a team with the same purpose. Yet they will be rewarded individually, according to their own hard work. We work together as partners who belong to God. You are God's field, God's building, not ours" (1 Cor. 3:6-9).
Our Task is Clear:
What a helpful picture Paul paints for serving in a ministry context. Whether we are new, leaving or staying put, our job is clear. We plant where there has been no seed planted, and we water the work that has been done before us; and we prepare our students to continue to grow when they move past our ministries. There is no glory in the planting and watering. It is the humble task of the youth worker; and this faithful work, partnering with the power and purposes of God, is what causes growth and produces fruit.
Thankfully it is not all about us. Actually it is not about us at all. It is Jesus who is the Author and Perfector of our faith. It is Jesus who has the mysterious power for growth and transformation. These students are God's building, God's field. While God doesn't need us, He invites us into a partnership. Out of His grace and mercy He allows us to participate with what He is doing.
We give all of our hearts to our students. We sacrifice time and money for them. We listen to them, celebrate with them and journey with them. Even the words "our students" are said with affection and the amount of love and care we have for them; but we only do this for a time, and rightly so because these students are not our building or field -- they are God's building and field. The more we can live into that truth, the more we start well, end well and serve faithfully for years to come.
The principles, administrators and teachers at the local high school graduation have it right. Graduation marks the end of part of a journey and the beginning of a new one. They all gather together and celebrate the students. They understand they play an important part in the development of the students, but only a part. Because they understand this, they genuinely are excited for students who are being launched into a new season of life and excited for the new students who will enter their classrooms the following year.
What a great reminder that's available every spring. Instead of racing from graduation to graduation, making sure I am seen and that students and parents know I care for them, I can sit back with pride and watch the fruit of our labor cross the stage. What a great discipline to join with the teachers, principles and administrators and recognize we are only part of the process. Specifically on a spiritual level, we may plant and water, but it is God who causes the growth. For who is Apollos? Who is Paul? Who am I? I am only a small part of each student's life, for a short season. Because of that, I faithfully will do my part for this time and place, finding joy as God causes the growth in students before me, with me and long after me.
This picture was taken from Creative Commons.