This is not a cautionary tale. This is not some subversive or subconscious plea for affirmation or consolation. This is just me being gut-level honest. The kind of honest that I hope I always am, but this time with maybe a little more edge simply due to the visceral nature of my admission.
I’ve been in fulltime student ministry for nearly 22 years. And yet more often than not, I feel more like I’m failing than progressing.
There are a couple things that lean me toward that failing feeling. The first is outward. Its the sheer lack of visible evidence that ground is being gained. Most of what I see around me in students today is ambivalence and addiction in a myriad of distractions.
I know, I know. There’s nothing new under the Sun. I get it. But don’t write me off as some aged belly-acher just yet.
As a student ministry pastor, my fuel comes from the conviction that I’m called to be in student ministry. On days where I struggle to see light splitting through the fog, I rest on that conviction. You have to. Otherwise, its no wonder why student ministry has the revolving door it has. You step in, you’re used up, you crawl out. And round and round we go.
Another outward evidence I wrestle internally with is the fact that I can’t compete with the latest app. What I mean is I can’t breakthrough the grip modern technology has on young people. And before you start with your tutorial on leveraging social platforms for Kingdom growth, I gotta say that I understand “how”, I just struggle with the “if”. This is probably going to come across as double-speak, but I actually do use social media to a degree in the student ministry I lead. So, don’t think I’m over here sitting in my Cracker Barrel rocker next to my flannelgraph, shaking my fist at all you hipsters. Not at all.
And I also can’t compete with other ministries who are far more with-it than I. Those snappy filters, those high energy promos, those snapshots of your midweek with packed rooms, crazy cool lighting, polished flow, and apparent perfection in every direction. Of course I know we’re not in competition. I get that. I know you’re over there being you and I’m over here being me. But in the brutally comparative part of my gray matter, I wonder things that quietly chip away at my sense of certainty that I’m good enough. Or slick enough. Or organized enough. Or visionary enough. Or ______ enough.
These thoughts, and thoughts like them seem to inevitably lead me to a cerebral fence I seem to be standing inside of. And I wonder to myself: “Can I get there from here? Should I? Where is ‘there’, actually? What is it I’m pining for that I don’t sense I currently have?”
The answers don’t come easy, but those that do come straight from the gifts of experience God has given me over the many years I’ve been in student ministry. So, when I feel I’m failing, these are my go-to thoughts and truths that I fall into, stand on, and shout out. And typing them right now is likely going to be more therapeutic for me than you reading them will be for you.
First, I remember that I’m called. By God, I’m called. I’ve given my entire “career” lifetime to meeting, leading, connecting with, relating to, influencing, welcoming, pushing, teaching, discipling, growing, equipping, listening to, laughing with, serving, praying for, encouraging, correcting, challenging, walking with, and loving students and their families. And for no other reason than that I believe with all I am that God told me to and He hasn’t yet told me not to.
The eternal is invisible. By definition, I can’t see most of the good God is doing. Because of my humanness, I’m tempted to forget what I can’t see. What I do see is teenagers absolutely drowning in information, completely addicted to a 3×5 screen; their window to fantasy, to hyper-connectedness, and an effective escape from their present surrounding, which often includes me. Only history will be able to eventually show us the damage (or benefit) to how we currently live. But when that’s nearly all I can see, I’m prone to think that’s all there is. It isn’t.
Fruit is measured in seasons, not seconds. I find that when I get that failing feeling I have lost sight of the long haul dividends of staying in one direction for the benefit of others. I can get a sinking feeling of non-progress when I forget to maintain an eternal perspective.
Drawing crowds doesn’t make disciples. Now don’t think I’m against big crowds. The ministry I’m helping serve and lead is a larger-than-average student ministry. But I can’t convey to you how much I don’t care about that. Despite my tendency to gaze longingly at other student ministries that draw in crazy numbers, at the heart of it I don’t care.* Jesus drew crowds, but never gave any indication that crowds were the point. I came to my current church nearly 13 years ago from a far smaller church. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought “Oooo, large church student ministry! It’s the big leagues now.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Do you want to know what I care about more than anything else in student ministry? That one teen. And that one. And that other one. And the one over there. The one in the middle of the sea of other teens, and the one who’s alone over in the corner. And that one that won’t ever even show up. My heart beats and breaks for students. All students. Especially that ONE.
(*I’ll save all my thoughts on why churches SHOULD be growing for another time.)
There’s one hand-crafted me. Like many youth leaders who move about in the youth ministry stratosphere, I am tempted to compare myself with student ministry celebrities. But I’m confident in my heart that if we ever had the opportunity to sit down and speak face to face, I’d find that the pedestal I put them on is made up of my own insecurities, not their egos. That being said, I also think we all have different skills sets, schedules, ambitions, giftedness, and visions. So, I’ll learn all I can from those who seem to do it better, but when all is said and done, we’re all on the same field on the same team working for the same outcome. So, being reminded that I’m made by God to be where I am and do what I’m doing isn’t about pride, its about humility. Because we’re ALL hand-crafted.
So, when I feel like I’m failing as a student ministry pastor, (or as a dad, as a friend, as a husband, as a child of God) I have to remember these things. But more than that, I need to rest. God, help me rest. Help me stop compulsively critiquing. Help me do away with thoughts of failure and overwhelm me with thoughts of freedom. Walk me past the wastefulness of comparative living and let me again find my identity in Jesus. Let me experience a renewed mind that is set on who You are, what You’ve said, and where You’re leading.
And as I do, I’ll pray the same for you.