Fifteen years ago this month I took my first paid youth ministry job. I was anything but qualified and, at the ripe old age of 17, I’m still trying to figure out why on earth anyone would pay me money to run a youth group.
I’ve been getting a little sentimental about it all month. It prompted two nostalgic-slash-practical blog posts over at Rookie Pastor, which you can read here and here. It has also prompted by persistent feelings that I am getting old, at least in youth ministry years. Admittedly, this may be magnified by the fact that I got home at 11:30 last night from a Jr. High retreat–at which I slept on the floor of a church building for the one zillionth time and ate far too much grease in a 24 hour period.
I’m humbled by the fact that if my ministry were a person it couldn’t even drive yet, much less be considered grown up. I’m astonished by the fact that youth ministry has been a part of my life longer than my wife has. I’m acutely aware of the fact that in just two more years my ministry will have been a part of half my life.
Youth ministry over the long haul is like sprinting a marathon. The race is long, but you aren’t often afforded the luxury of slowing down. Students are changing, trends are changing, culture is changing, you are changing (I wasn’t even out of adolescence when I took my first gig).
The thing that has made the time fly by, of course, are the people– “Our Kids” we call them when all us youth ministers get together. Far too many to even attempt naming, it is the transformed lives that makes it all worth it. There was one summer when I travelled around to church camps where I saw over 300 decisions made for Christ. There was the time at a conference when hundreds of students came up to commit to preaching the Gospel even when it hurt. We were commissioned to pass out duct tape (long story) to them as a reminder to keep walking when the going got tough. I couldn’t pull the tape off fast enough. How many kids have I had the chance to preach the Gospel to? How many testimonies have my name in it?
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not the point. I know that. But it does feel good knowing I’ve spent fifteen years preaching my guts out and doing my best to point teenagers toward Jesus.
It’s hard to believe, but it all started at a table in my preacher’s house with he and his wife and an elder or two and the question I wasn’t expecting at all that night. We had gathered to talk about hiring a youth minister. I came to contribute what I thought was in the best interests of my fellow students. I did not know I was on the short list of candidates. Looking back now, I think I was the short list of candidates.
“Titus, how would you like to do it?”
Since then, I’ve preached sermons and drove church vans and gone to camp and to conferences and to float trips and to all-nighters. I’ve prayed prayers and been exhausted and shaved my head because we raised money for missions and done a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t make sense outside of the youth ministry subculture.
I’ve met a lot of great people–guys and gals who have been at this way longer than fifteen years–that inspire me along the way. I’ve met students who inspire me, too, even though I’m supposed to be inspiring them. Teenagers make pretty great teachers if you’re paying attention.
In the youth ministry world there’s much made of being a “lifer.” I don’t know if that’s me. Someday the hard floors and constant meals of pizza and french fries and time away from my biological children will no longer be my thing. It is not my goal in life to die a youth minister.
But I’ve grown quite the youth ministry family over the years, and I’m not quite finished.
So to all the students I’ve ever had the privilege to serve, to all the families I’ve been blessed to know, to all the volunteers I’ve had the honor of going to battle with, and to all the staff members I’ve had the fun of doing life alongside:
Thank you. I’ve sure made a ton of friends along the way.
I don’t know what I’ll be doing fifteen years in the future. What I do know is that I’ll be a better man then because of the fifteen I’ve lived so far.