I was honored to be able to be a part of this Contemplative Youth Ministry Grid Blog Tour for Mark Yaconelli’s new book,”Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus.” Over the past few years, I’ve become somewhat familiar with Mark’s work with the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project out of San Francisco Theological Seminary. There are many things that I like about Mark’s book: it’s practical, it’s honest, it shares his struggles along with the things that have worked for him and it tries to share a new vision for what youth ministry might look like.
Please continue to follow the blog tour around for the few weeks. The dates can all be found below. I had the pleasure of asking Mark a few questions via email, and his responses are below. Enjoy and if you are new to this blog, welcome to pomomusings.
Adam: In Chapter 8, you talk about the idea that so many of us have heard before: “You may be the only Jesus they ever know.” I’ve always heard this at conferences, or seminars and responded by nodding thoughtfully and thinking, “Damn. That’s right. “I” may be the only Jesus they’ll ever know. Wow, what a responsibility…” And sure there may be some truth to that, but then after reading your passage on that idea, it got me to start thinking about that differently. And I have to agree with you. That just puts so much pressure on the youth worker (volunteer or full-time), and in a way, it seems to say, “I am going to be your connection to the holy. I am going to be your spiritual guide…” and neglects the fact of the holy found in the world today, and the surprising places God resides. You write about how when we encounter young people, we should instead believe that they may be the only Jesus we will ever encounter. I wonder if you could share a story about a time when you encountered the compassion and love of Christ incarnate in a young person.
Mark: I have many, many examples…most of them very convicting. One of the most powerful examples, however, was in a UCC church in Linton, Indiana. There was a kind, patient man who worked as a farmer and volunteered in the youth ministry. One night he came home and found his wife had packed her bags and left him for another man. Six months later his crops suffered from a rare mite infestation and he lost his crops. Depressed and distraught, he drove into town, got drunk, was pulled over by the cops on the way home and given a DUI. Two weeks later the church council heard about the incident and asked him to step down from his volunteer activities with the youth group. They thought he’d be a bad role model for the kids with the drunk driving citation. He showed up to the youth group and told them that he would no longer be volunteering. He apologized for his behavior and then left the group. After he left the kids started talking. “Wasn’t Jesus all about forgiveness?” “Don’t we all make mistakes?” They decided to go to the leadership council and reinstate the farmer as a youth volunteer. The church agreed with the youth. The youth group showed up at the farmer’s house and told him the news. He wrote me a letter relating the story and said he had never experienced God’s grace and love as much as he did the night the youth group came to his house and celebrated his reinstatement as a ministry volunteer.
Adam: I think it was with sadness that I read the email from Tim on page 134. Partly because I’m sure many other youth pastors have experienced something similar, but primarily because I had almost an identical experience in my small church in Idaho. I loved worship and leading worship, and so, whether or not the students liked it, I was going to lead worship at youth group every week. I loved it. The volunteer youth workers loved it. The high schooler who loved to play drums loved it (only because he got to play drums – he hated leading worship). And hardly any of the kids sang; they all sat there, laughed, joked, talked. We tried everything from picking more contemporary songs to moving it into the sanctuary, then back into the youth room, alternating weeks…I was willing to try ANYTHING – anything but just dropping it. What is your advice to youth workers who begin to see that their ministry is more about them, than the students; more about their own passions and desires, than the students’ desires?
Mark: Well, you have to be radically honest in youth ministry. Remember the ministry is about God and youth…you’re just there to help. So you have to take regular times to stop and pray and listen and ask hard questions like, “What is God really asking of me in this ministry (not the kids not the parents…not the leadership?) What do the youth really need in this ministry (even if they don’t know it)? You have to ask these questions (in prayer) and then give honest responses. And then follow where you’re lead…no matter how painful that is. That’s ministry.
Adam: In Chapter 10 you talk about the liturgy for discernment. I was particularly intrigued by this process, simply because I spent two years working in a small PCUSA church in rural Idaho and our staff meetings were…well, they were interesting. We’d do a time of sharing and a devotional, and some times these were meaningful, other times the sharing would go on, and on, and on…(like you wrote about in the book), and other times it felt like we spent so much time discussing meaningless, trivial, “business” items. I think that the concept and outline for a meeting that is not rooted in the business model is so incredibly needed and desired by many in ministry – there just aren’t many examples of how to do it. So I think your liturgy of discernment is very helpful. The question I have is not so much for myself, but for the many youth pastors and directors who read that chapter and thought “YES! We NEED that” and who will take the book to their senior pastor, who might respond with “Well, that’s nice. But we have a lot of business to cover – we don’t have time for that…” [Now there may be some pastors who would welcome such an approach, but…] I’m wondering what you would suggest to these youth pastors who desperately need something like the liturgy of discernment in their lives, in their weekly staff meetings, but who are experiencing resistance to such an idea from others on the ministry staff.
Mark: This happened often within the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project. We tried to help this along by inviting senior pastors to retreats where we talked about business models versus models grounded in listening to the Spirit. For the youth worker who doesn’t have this support all I can suggest is prayer and frank conversations with the senior staff, and even this may not help. You might even suggest leading a staff meeting one week just to try out a different approach. One of the greatest tragedies in the church is that pastors feel so isolated and pressured to produce that they don’t have the courage or support to be spiritual leaders. Instead they feel like they have to be these “pseudo-counselors” or administrators. In the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project I was surprised how many times youth leaders said, “I feel like you’ve finally given me permission to be a spiritual leader.” Its too bad more pastors don’t feel that same permission giving. This is a spiritual issue and it takes prayer and radical truth telling to break the spell that most churches and pastors are under. Adam: As a final question, what would you tell someone who is just starting off in their first youth pastor position (paid/volunteer, ordained/non-ordained) as far as how to take care of themselves. What are the things that this person needs to do to make sure they are spiritually-centered and balanced?
Mark: You need to begin the struggle to keep a daily time of prayer…preferably thirty minutes to read, to sit in silence, to journal…time in the spirit. Second, you need a spiritual director. Someone you can meet with regularly and share the truth about your own spiritual life, prayer life, doubts etc. This might be a wise person in the church, a close friend or a trained spiritual director. Third you need to create a covenant community of people who will enter the youth ministry with you. Some group of adults who will pray with you, help you solve problems, advise you, etc. Just as Jesus gathered a community before he engaged the ministry so must we.
Adam: Thanks for joining us Mark! If you want to follow along the rest of the tour dates, they are below:
May 8 Jonny Baker
May 9 Gavin Richardson
May 10 Sarah Dylan Breuer
May 11 Jennifer Roach
May 12 Mark Oestreicher
May 15 Dixon Kinser
May 17 Jonathon Norman
May 19 Adam Cleaveland
May 22 Lilly Lewin
May 24 Tim Van Meter
May 26 Lucas Land
May 29 Andy Jack
May 31 Bobbie
June 2 Darren Wright
June 5 Kester Brewin
June 7 Steve Case
June 9 Mike King