What can Graduation teach us about our calling?

What can Graduation teach us about our calling?

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...

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Making relational space for this incoming class of students

Making relational space for this incoming class of students

One of the hardest things about doing student ministry in the same place for so long is saying goodbye to the graduating seniors and making space for the incoming 6th and 9th grade students.

We only have so many relational pegs:

I am sure you have probably heard the term relational pegs or something to that effect.  The basic idea is our hearts only have so many relational pegs in them.  We are one giant (or in my case, small) fall green lego panel.  On this lego panel we can fit a finite number of lego people.  Each lego person takes up two pegs, and once our panel is full so is our heart. Being in one place is good news on so many levels.

But it is pretty difficult to offload students with whom you have given your heart to.  You love all your students, and as they graduate they stay on our panel and when they come back we love to catch up with them, and hear all about their new adult lives.  We work hard to track down our current and former students in an attempt to both maintain relationship as well as check in on our investment.

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What do your graduates' lives say about you and your ministry?

letter of recLetter 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.

My Prayer:

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!



A once in a career letter

A couple of years ago I received a letter from a student who was just about to graduate.  In my 15+ years of student ministry, I have never received a letter this thoughtful from a current student.  Even though they rarely write letters like this, I believe that what is said in this letter is more true than we realize.  This letter could have been written by any student in your ministry.  But on the off chance you haven't gotten this letter yet I wanted to share with you mine.

Dear Ben,

Thank you.

Adults don't get yearbooks, when students move away and leave, we don't really have a chance to say thank you the same way we would with our peers.  We don't have a way to tell you that no onlyhave you made us grow up, but you have grown as well. You are more relaxed about time, and more considerate about others spelling isseus.  you have lead both by word and by example.  you take tie out of your life, more than is required, and run with us, go to starbucks with us, text us, honestly tried to get to know us.

Thank you.

  • Thank you so much for your patience with me.
  • Thank you for encouraging me even when i was a brat.
  • Thank you for allowing us into your home on New Years when we wanted a safe place to hang out.
  • Thank you for helping our group become our community.
  • Thank you for branching out into my group of friends.
  • Thank you for insisting on taking an educated approach to faith.
  • Thank you for providing us with so many resources.
  • Thank you for coming to my graduation.
  • Thank you for coming to MCAL's.
  • Thank you for letting me do my homework at church so I wouldn't have to miss out entirely.
  • Thank you for your consistent reminders that I belong.

Thank you.

Like I said before this could have and should have been written by all of your students to you.  You are making a huge impact in the lives of students.  Just because they are self-absorbed and fickle, it doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter.  It does.  Keep up the good work! And just to bring the point home, here is some old skool Christian Cheese!


Photo taken from Creative Commons.