Water the grass that is growing

This last week I met with a parent who is having a hard time watching her son choose to build friendships with the hoodlum posse in our student ministry. As we talked, I tried to point out that this small circle of students who are consistently getting into trouble, ignoring all the rules, and disrespecting every adult around is not the core of our ministry. There is, in fact, a significant group of students who are pretty serious about their faith and their desire to grow into it. As I began to list name after name of other students who would be great influences on her child, she began to list reason after reason why her child wouldn't be able to connect as well with these students. She struggled with the ability to see the 90% of our ministry due to the 10% who are the "too cool for school" crowd who monopolize her child's circle of friendships.

It was easy to point out how silly it is to be so consumed by the minority of students who are ruining her sons experience at youth group. The solution was quite clear, to simply see the larger group and maybe even build some new, healthy friendships. As soon as these words were coming out of my mouth, the Holy Spirit reminding me of this exact conversation I had with my wife regarding the health of our student ministry.

Her Problem Was Really My Problem: I came home from youth group the other night incredibly discouraged because of the state of our student ministry. Students who I had been investing in were falling off the radar at an alarming rate, our student leaders have lost the will to lead or even participate, and my emotional tank was on empty from a long year of student ministry. After I was all done crying and complaining, my wife simply began to ask about specific students.

Before I realized what she was doing, I noticed my heart to change. Student by student I began to share about the contribution they had made, either within our ministry, during small groups, or the way they had been helping with our Vacation Bible School. And what was surprising was that this was not a short list. The list kept going and going, student after student, evidence of God's gracious hand upon the lives of our kids.

My wife simply reminded me that our ministry is way larger then the small 10% of students who had begun to check out and distance themselves from me and our ministry. There is actually 90% of our student ministry who are super involved and love our community, who are working out their faith and participating in the larger life of the church.

Just like the student whose parent was in my office, I had lost sight of the bigger picture of our ministry. It turns out, I am just as fickle as my students. I get hurt emotionally and my view narrows and I actually miss out on what God is actually doing.

A Simple Proverb: When I was a rookie youth worker, I had a similar emotional temper-tantrum after the end of a rough year in ministry. I remember going over to my pastor's house to debrief the situation. My pastor, boss, mentor and friend, Ed Hart, laid down a nugget of truth that has stayed with me to this day. He simply said, "Water the grass that is growing." Then continued reading his book.

This simple truth has turned out to be a great ministry philosophy. God is always at work, but it is easy to lose sight on the places he doing is business because the dead grass is consuming all of our emotional energy.

(Now, don't read too much into this or extrapolate all possible implications. This statement isn't about writing off students or actually believing that some students are dead grass with no hope of spiritual growth)

Ed's proverb was a simple reminder that God is alive and at work in the lives of our students. But sometimes I am spending so much energy pouring my life and heart into students who could care less and while doing this, I am actually missing the places where God is doing great and exciting things.

This proverb actually worked itself out in a best selling book and workbook. In Henry Blackaby,s book Experience God, his premise was that simple. We don't spend our time and effort working hard at trying to accomplish our plans, we actually work hard at trying to discern the places where God is at work, and get on board with what God is already doing.

Where Are The Places God Is At Work? I have to admit my very human eyes when it comes to student ministry. I work very hard at pouring my heart and soul into students. There are students who are charismatic and who have captured my heart, but after months and months and sometimes even years of chasing some students, I have realized that without even realizing it, I may have missed the places where God is active and at work.

Thankfully, I have my own coach and mentor who helps me change my gaze away from the dead grass and towards the grass where God is alive and at work. My wife has this amazing way of seeing through the masses and can pick up on the still and small voice of God. The people who God's hand is clearly on. Like Samuel at first picking the oldest strongest sons of Jesse, the true king of Israel was the youngest son who was tending sheep.

A couple of years ago, in another one of my temper-tantrums, my wife gently showed me one of our students who needed to have his life poured into. The grass was growing like crazy, but he was totally off my radar. Because of this conversation, I chose to pour the last two years into this student.

As we celebrated Senior Sunday, this student shared about the way that God has been transforming him, healing him, and is now sending him off to college and possibly even into ministry. I am blown away that I had the honor of being a small part of his story. God is actively at work in this student's life, and if I had spent that time running after students who could care less, I would have missed out on an incredible opportunity and honor.

Ministry is challenging. I think a lot of the challenge pouring ourselves out like a drink offering into our students. When those students don't respond it can crush us. But when we slow down and work hard to discern where God is actually moving, we have the opportunity to join with the Creator in the redemption and transformation of our students.

We touch the lives of many students, let's make sure the 10% doesn't limit our view of the 90%. Let us make sure we see where God is at work, and join the adventure.

Water the grass that is growing!

photo from Creative Commons:

An open letter to my pastor

Dear Pastor, I am writing you because I am dying. I know it probably doesn’t look like it but I am alone and withering on the vine.

I came to this job excited about starting in this new ministry position. I showed up on a spiritual high and with high expectations of all the ways that God was going to move in this ministry, and things have been going great. But as these months have started to add up, I have been noticing that things aren’t quite right in my soul.

My initial excitement was great and spurred me to work hard and work with expectations. It pushed me into new relationships and these relationships have been great. I feel like I connect well with students and their parents seem to respect me. But there is still this void.

What I have been realizing is that although I appear to be in the middle of community, I actually have no community. I meet regularly with the youth workers in our area, but there seems to always be turnover and one or two new people show up every meeting, so we are always getting to know each other. I meet regularly students, but I am their pastor. I have good relationships with their parents, but it is within the context of their children. I have gotten to know many people at the church and even have developed some good friendships, but there always seems to be a barrier with them. I am on staff at this church and whether I like it or not, my relationship with people is affected by this fact.

My closest friend at the church has bottomed out in their marriage and all of the sudden I became not just their friend, but also their pastor. The dynamics of our friendship have now changed dramatically. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am truly honored to be welcomed into the darkest parts of people lives and humbled to play a part of the healing process. But this friendship is not community, it is work.

Ministry is a lonely profession. And I know I don’t need to tell you this. You have been a pastor longer than I have been alive. You have seen more tragedy and broken relationships than I could ever imagine. Of all people at our church, I would think that you would feel even more isolated from community than me. Our church is your heard of sheep. You carry emotional and spiritual responsibility for the well being of your flock. How do you do it alone?

I have only been doing this ministry thing for a short amount of time and I am already dying. That is why I am writing this letter.

As I have been reading though the gospels I have noticed again, for the first time how often Jesus left the crowds and his disciples to be alone. Or at least that is what I always thought. He went to spend time in prayer, spend time with the Father. But as I have been thinking about this more and more, he withdrew because the crowds and even the disciples were not his community. They were his ministry. His community is being a part of the Trinity, being united to the Father and the Spirit. It is the community of the Trinity where Jesus received all he needed to continue his ministry on earth. The Trinity at the core of its being is united in love and purpose.

Now not to take this illustration too far, but I think we as a staff could learn something from the Trinity. Our church is not our community, it is our ministry. But we are called to be in community. And what I am proposing is that our community needs to be with each other. We are both working at this church and we both want God’s best for this place, and we are both alone in this job. Bur for this to work, we need to be able to share vision for this church.

I confess that I have probably been more of a thorn in your side than a partner in ministry. It is so easy for me to get excited and be pushy about things I know little about, or to get frustrated when thing move slowly in the larger church, or acknowledge your style of worship is different than mine. I am sorry. I know that we have different ministry styles and probably even different visions for the direction of the church. But God has not called me to be the pastor of this church, he has called you to be. My job is to be your partner in ministry and bring the youth ministry alongside your vision for ministry in this place.

I am willing to submit to your authority and vision for the church. And at the same time I want to be your partner in ministry. But even more than that, I want us to be friends, to be community, to share our joys, our struggles, to complain about those frustrating people at church, to weep for those who have fallen away in their faith, and celebrate the return of the prodigal. I want to be a blessing to you and you to me.

I know this sounds strange, but I am willing to take a stab at it. I know for this to work, I need to be a blessing to you and not a person that you go and complain to your pastor buddies about. Here I am, take me under your wing, and let’s go, let’s do the great things God has for this place, and let’s do it together.

Sincerely,

Your partner, fan, friend