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The sweat fell from her forehead as Nadia heaved the last box from the cart into her new office. Sitting down to catch her breath, she wiped her brow and sighed deeply. This was it: Nadia's first full-time youth ministry job, a position that came not only with a livable salary and benefits but also with her own office. As she looked up at the empty walls, she felt both anticipation and fear. "Can I really do this?" she audibly asked herself.
Even though this was her first full-time position, Nadia was no newcomer to youth ministry. She'd grown up in a vibrant youth program in a large church, volunteered with middle-schoolers for three years during college, served as lead counselor at a camp for two summers, and worked part time for a para-church ministry while taking seminary classes immediately after finishing college. But this was her first full-time position. I can't believe I'm actually starting a career, she thought to herself as she rose from the box to start the tedious job of unpacking.
Nadia never thought she'd be a youth pastor. As a biology major, she'd always imagined she would either go to med school (although she began doubting this after the first semester of her sophomore year) or become a biology teacher. But here she was. She had no regrets. Youth ministry had somehow grabbed hold of her; she loved being with young people and felt alive when she entered into spiritual conversations with them. She loved the energy and excitement of the many youth ministry training events she'd gone to. Although she felt a little shocked that this was where her life had led, she knew, as she put each item away, that she was where she was supposed to be.
Nadia had heard about this job from a family friend who was serving on the search committee and suggested she apply. The church had about 500 members, and its youth ministry included 30 high school students and 50 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The church was part of a large mainline denomination, yet its members rarely used that tradition as any kind of identity marker. The congregation was a bit more conservative than others in the denomination, yet it felt little animosity toward the larger body. Even the limited denominational affiliation of this congregation was new for Nadia, since she'd grown up in a very large nondenominational church and had spent the last few years in the parachurch world. She told the search committee she knew very little about the polity and theological commitments of the denomination, but that seemed to be of little concern. "Just love our kids and God—that's all that matters to us," they told her.
As Nadia got to know the church better, she found it to be a relatively functional place. Sure, it had a few idiosyncrasies, but nothing too crazy. She was joining a staff that included a senior pastor, an associate pastor, a half-time children's minister, and a three-quarter-time music director. Nadia found Jerry, the senior pastor, to be incredibly welcoming—a real "people person" who became most alive in conversation with others. But at his core Jerry was a pragmatist with little concern with big theological or philosophical ideas. He wasn't immune to them, just too busy to concern himself with them. He always wanted to know what was next, what was happening, what new strategies would be used to reach the church's goals.
During Nadia's first week, Jerry burst into her office, welcomed her heartily, and then said, "So, are you coming up with any new models of youth ministry? What's new?" A few months later, after attending a pastor's retreat, Jerry rushed into Nadia's office (interrupting her on the phone), threw a flyer on her desk, and said in a loud stage whisper, "You've got to go to this conference, they're on to something, their ministry is exploding!"—and then disappeared just as quickly. Nadia really liked (and even trusted) Jerry, but she often found herself wide-eyed and out of breath after conversations with him.
The real thinker on the staff was Erica, the associate pastor. Jerry was a dynamic preacher, but many in the congregation found Erica's sermons much more thought-provoking. Erica and Jerry worked well together, but they were opposites. Erica always spoke in a measured way while Jerry stirred the church with his frantic energy; it seemed obvious to Nadia that if not for Erica, Jerry would risk propelling the ministry too close to the sun. Erica grounded things in her sensitivity, wisdom, and intellect.
If Jerry wanted the church's youth ministry to be part of the next big thing, Erica gave the youth ministry little thought. It wasn't that she didn't see it as important; she simply wanted nothing to do with it. She and the previous youth pastor, Chad, had both started at the church seven years earlier. Erica and Chad had been seminary classmates, and Jerry convinced the church to hire both of them—one as an associate pastor and the other as youth pastor. Jerry knew Erica would fortify the ministry immensely, providing strength in areas where he was weakest. But previous associates had been involved with the youth ministry, and Erica wanted none of it. Both to secure Erica and to infuse the youth ministry with professional expertise, Jerry pushed for the hiring of Chad as well.
Erica and Chad had worked closely together—even though Chad lived for youth ministry, and Erica couldn't stand it. But Erica could see that Chad was being eaten alive by youth ministry. Not only did Chad feel pressure from Jerry that Erica never experienced, but he also put huge pressure on himself. Chad saw it as his calling to invest in each kid's life, getting every student to understand the love of God and participate deeply in the ministry. He was always rushing from one activity to another. Chad stuck it out for seven years, but when he finally quit, he left ministry altogether to take a job as a manager of his father-in-law's carpet business. So while Jerry presented Nadia with flyers promoting the next big thing, Erica spoke often of her concern that youth ministry, like a caged beast, eats anyone ignorant enough to wrestle with it. Nadia found herself wedged between ambitious Jerry, who hoped the youth ministry would glitter, and skeptical Erica, who was convinced that a lot of the glitter was anything but gold.
In the first few months of her new job, Nadia wasn't concerned about Jerry and Erica's differing perspectives. She had no time to seek the next big thing; she needed to attend to immediate concerns that demanded her attention. As for skepticism, there was no time for that, either. It was time to get going; the church expected her to resurrect the youth ministry from Chad's burnout and move it somewhere different, somewhere beyond where it was now. For some church members, this meant exponential growth in the number of church kids attending ministry events; for others, it meant reaching into the surrounding community to open the youth ministry beyond kids whose parents went to the church. Nadia figured her experience with the parachurch had assured them she knew something about this.
Nadia began to realize that while both groups agreed the youth ministry needed to grow, their ideas of growth set them into two distinct camps. One camp was parents, elders, and congregation members who often said things like, "We want a youth ministry like we had here a few decades ago, when kids loved coming." Soon after Nadia took the job, a couple of parents cornered her and explained how excited they were that she'd joined the staff, adding that they hoped she would make the youth ministry more appealing to their children. "I just loved youth group when I was a kid," said one parent, "but my kids hate it. They say it's boring. The church across town has loads of kids, and they do so many fun things! Are you going to do stuff like that?"
Nadia nodded in response, because she did want to do fun things, and she wanted the youth to enjoy being part of the group. But she could feel hesitation creeping up her spine, because she knew that creating a meaningful youth program was much more complicated than providing lots of fun stuff to do. After all, Chad's ministry corpse was buried under a million fun activities.
The other camp seemed just as passionate, speaking of the need for evangelism and outreach. They weren't as concerned with fun as with significance. They pictured a youth group where kids were growing as disciples both in knowledge and action: "We want kids within the community to come to know Jesus and for those kids as well as the kids in our church to live out their faith in service." Nadia wanted this, too—she'd given the last few years to such activity in the parachurch world. But she knew this was no easy task. As she listened to their concerns, she could feel her own apprehensiveness; in the heat of their zeal, her own questions rose so quickly that Nadia bit the tip of her tongue to keep them from spilling out. She imagined that Chad had drowned trying to navigate these currents, just swimming harder instead of facing the force of these questions.
It soon became clear to Nadia that she'd have to be able to explain the reasons for whatever she was doing. Both camps would want justification for the actions she took. The difficulty was that the justification for the shape of the ministry would have to be anchored to something—something other than "success," because these camps defined success differently.
Nadia knew Chad had joined the church staff right out of seminary. Even though she had not completed seminary, it was clear from her very first job interview that some members of the church really valued her year and a half of seminary experience. Nadia found this both ironic and serendipitous, because she'd gone to seminary only because the parachurch ministry she'd been working with had offered to pay for half of it; she'd found little of it interesting and almost none of it helpful. She was relieved when the church agreed it would be better if she put seminary on hold as she started this new endeavor, although they wanted her to continue in a semester or two. Erica believed seminary was essential (Nadia figured this was because Erica didn't see youth ministry as a final ministerial destination), and Jerry thought seminary was a good idea—he'd read that longevity and depth as a youth minister were correlated with a seminary education. Nadia agreed that continuing seminary made sense, but deep down she hoped the others would forget. It wasn't that Nadia wasn't smart enough; she found seminary very do-able, it just seemed so disconnected from, and irrelevant to, her work with the youth. Even the elements she liked, she found hard to relate to her ministry. Plus, Chad had completed seminary—and now he was selling carpet.
After just eight months on the job, Nadia already felt a real connection to the young people in the ministry. She'd taken the kids on a mission trip, began a weekly Bible study, and gave a talk at each weekly youth group meeting. She'd been told her job was to build a youth ministry, but Nadia felt more moved by the young people themselves than by the task of constructing an infrastructure. When she thought of her ministry, it wasn't the calendar or mission statement that rushed to her mind, but the faces of kids like Jared, the slightly overweight seventh grader who sat quietly against the wall until he was approached. Nadia's heart almost broke in two when she asked Jared how he liked his new school, and he blinked back tears before saying with a choked-up voice, "I don't have many friends there." Nadia thought of Kelsey, the skinny-as-a-rail eighth grader who dressed in black and had issues with food and at home. And Nadia thought about Kelsey's sister Kammie who seemed to be the perfect junior—pretty, outgoing, academically and athletically successful, a leader in every way. She thought of the studious Tim who missed all the group's activities in November to study for his SAT retake. She thought of so many more.
Nadia walked into the room for her first-year evaluation with both confidence and apprehension. Her apprehension revolved around having to face all the distinct people and diverse perspectives in one room. Not only would both Jerry and Erica be present but also representatives from each of the two camps of parents. Their first question caught her completely off guard. It really shouldn't have; anyone could have seen it coming, and she'd even considered it herself. But its verbalization sent her into deep thought, mostly circling around how she could even begin to articulate her answer. She found herself saying something, though it was as if she were standing outside herself listening, even as her mind continued to grasp for what she really meant to say. But she just kept talking.
Apparently, her answer was acceptable. They moved on to another question, but she never did. Her being had grasped on to that very first question and would not let it go. She continued in the conversation, even as the first question continued ringing like a siren in the background of her thoughts.
It was a basic question, a fundamental question, but everything hinged on it. They had asked, "What's the purpose of this youth ministry?" And Nadia knew what the review committee may not have known: She needed to have a clear answer to this question, or she'd be pushed by the winds of everyone else's expectations and desires—or, worse, she'd be eaten up by the same burnout beast that had devoured Chad.
Excerpted from Taking Theology to Youth Ministry by Andrew Root Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Root. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface to a Peculiar Project 9
1 The Chronicles of Nadia 13
2 What's It All About? 21
3 Youth Ministry as Participation in God's Action 37
4 How Youth Ministry Does Theology 53
5 What Is Ministry, Really? 75
6 What Is a Youth Minister? 95
Questions for Reflection and Discussion 107