When I started out in youth ministry, one of my favorite mentors told me that youth ministers really hit our stride after seven years in a congregation – when you’ve seen an entire generation of youth through your entire youth ministry grow into adults, 6th-12th grade, middle school and high school. I see a definite second honeymoon in ministry after four years: when your first crop of freshman have been through four years with you and graduate, heartbreaking as it is. It feels like it’s really your ministry then, whether you were preceded by a DCE or not.
For me, after seven years, I feel like I lost my stride. Youth culture changed. It was time to reinvent.
I don’t think you hit your stride once and stay in stride. My husband is a runner. He has run six marathons. As we approach our forties, he’s slower than he used to be, and he’s found that he’s injury prone at a certain mileage per week, which is a lot fewer miles than he used to be able to run with no problems. If every night he does mobility work, he can run farther, faster and longer. He really wants to have his gait analyzed; he wonders if he has lost his stride.
In my experience in youth ministry, stride isn’t so much about my ministry career, but my connection to the God who is always close, whose ministry this truly is, and about each individual congregation I have served. I only got to stay at my internship church for one year; I loved it, still love those people, and learned so much. But I never hit my stride. My first call was a place I stayed for two years. In many ways, numbers included, those were my most successful two years of ministry. But that may be because I didn’t hit my stride only two years in. I served at my second call for ten and a half years. In many ways, that city and church still feel like my home. I got to settle there, put down roots, hit my stride, lose my stride, hit it again, lose it again, etc. When I first arrived, though I had three years’ experience, I was starting over. Of course I was: it was a new city, new congregation, different culture of teenagers, different group of parents, different staff, different call, different job and different position description. That first year, I was definitely not in stride. I thought that every idea I had was a holy call from God; what a road to burnout! But four years in, I had definitely hit my stride. That’s actually when my mentor told me “just wait three more years…it gets even better.” But three years later, youth culture had totally changed. The super-structured youth ministry program that student leaders and I had put together, that worked so well for so long, was no longer effective. And I wasn’t fresh.
Through prayer, reading, research, planning and teamwork, our youth in leadership and I “killed” the youth ministry and started a new one. I wrote an obituary of our beloved youth ministry program and structure for the church newsletter, and the next month wrote a birth announcement. Fresh again, after a year or so with a new structure, we hit our stride. I hit my stride again.
I’m four years into my current call. I don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet. The kids who confirmed their faith my first month here are seniors. They are deep in my heart, and I’m dreading graduation in May; I hate to see them go. I’m also thrilled to see my current juniors, the first students I taught confirmation class to here, become seniors and stronger leaders in our youth ministry. Maybe then I’ll hit my stride here. Maybe not. I sure hope so.
My husband has to work on staying supple; his tendons will knot up if he doesn’t stretch, foam roll and do therapeutic mobility exercises to stay able to run. I’ll be honest here–I know what hitting my stride means in my faith walk. I’ve been in ministry almost twenty years, but I’ve been a redeemed and believing Christian for almost forty. I know how to hear from God; I know how He speaks to me. When I stay plugged in, I’m much more likely to be in step with God, and able to be in stride in ministry. When I’m not plugged in, not doing my part, God is still working, and He doesn’t let His Word return to Him empty or His ministry to, with and through teenagers fail. But when I rely on myself instead of my roots in Christ, it feels like me; I wing it, I don’t plan and prepare, and though God does work in spite of that and of me, I’ll never hit my stride or stay in step that way.
But practically, I also don’t think you hit your stride and stay there, based on my mass experiment of one person. I think you hit your stride congregationally. And I do believe that I hit, lose and rediscover my stride, correcting my gait, and reinventing. If you’re three years in, wait and see what next year is like. And maybe for you, seven years in will be even better.
For all of us, may we stay plugged in to the source of Life, the source of Ministry, the one we serve. Holy Spirit, help us walk in step with you, and hit our stride in ministry. Amen.