The Stride: My First Youth Ministry Injury: Or, the Day I Realized I Was Old

It happened when I was teaching a group of high school seniors how to sword fight. Now before you call Protective Services on me, I should explain. “Swords” is a game where two people join hands and attempt to skewer the other with the extended index finger. Any appropriate part of the body is fair game except for the wrist of the sword-play hand. Not a strange game when one considers I work as a DCE for youth and families.

To demonstrate “swords” for the group, I chose a young man named Dustin as my assistant. (It’s important to note that Dustin is a 210 muscle who plays starting linebacker for his high school football team!) Things got interesting. During this particular demonstration, which I have done countless times and with, might I add, impressive dexterity, I ended up four feet in the air plummeting towards a cement floor. On the off chance that you have never experienced what goes through one’s mind as they fall towards a rock hard floor, I have chronicled my thoughts:

“The kids are laughing, they love this stuff…. Wait, I didn’t say anything funny (pause)…. Why is Mary’s face sideways?…. Is that the ceiling?…. Are those stars?…. Why can’t I feel my hip?…. Why am I on the ground?…. Man that hurt!…. Okay, gather yourself and don’t let the kids know how death-like this feels…. Be cool, man. Be cool.”

After this less than stellar moment in front of my kids and walking with a serious limp for two weeks, my ego took a bigger blow. For the first time in youth ministry I realized that, physically, I had lost a step.  I was (gasp) older! (Notice the hesitation to just say, “old”, which–let’s be honest–is more the case.)

Aging is part of life. Oh sure, we do what we can to slow its progression. We join health clubs, eat broccoli, sit in the sauna, and drink decaf, but aging happens. Even the psalmist laments, “We finish our years with a moan, the length of our days is 70 years–or 80, if we have the strength, yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:9-10, NIV). Fun times.

And aging still happens for those serving in youth ministry.  Right?

But Older Is Better Than You Think.

Over the course of the last four decades, youth ministry has become a legitimate, professional vocation. Youth ministry is viewed largely as a calling, a mission and a lifetime position for men and women. Youth ministry is taken so seriously that tens of thousands of youth workers across the country attend seminars and conferences dedicated to growth in the profession.

In addition, an academic model for training youth leaders has emerged over the past two decades. Many colleges and seminaries offer bachelors, masters, and even doctoral programs in youth ministry. Courses at the post-graduate level include adolescent development and theory, techniques on counseling youth and families, theology and models of evangelism and discipleship.

However, as with most professions many who enter youth ministry do so as adolescents, as young adults in their early twenties.  There are those who wonder if your 35th birthday shouldn’t also mean a retirement party from youth work.  I suppose if your definition of youth ministry is lock-ins and sleeping in tents on a mission trip, riding in a coach bus for hours on end and an ability to defeat kids in any relay game then sure, you are probably going to “age” yourself out of this job.  If, however, you understand and approach youth ministry as more about the ministry than about the youthfulness of its activities, you stand a good chance of making it for the long haul.

It’s All About the Long Race

Even with a bruised hip, I enjoy running (okay, that’s an overstatement).  It’s become a familiar metaphor that the middle years of ministry are much like running a marathon. It’s a good metaphor and it works. When running a marathon, the middle is the hardest; the beginning is euphoric and the end is pure adrenaline with the finish line in view. Its in the middle that you get tired and discouraged. It’s in the middle that most runners almost give up hope that they have what it takes to finish.

It’s when most of us quit.

If you’re thinking of giving up, if you’re convinced you can’t do it anymore, or if you don’t know if you can finish the race, here are some things you can do to refocus and reenergize; some ideas that can peel you off the hardest concrete floor for the sake of Jesus and His ministry among His kids:

1. Find a Paul, Be a Timothy.

Few youth workers in their mid 30s and 40s have older mentors. Many people who are in their middle 30’s to late 40’s have no clue about how to enter into the middle part of ministry and life. Wisdom is needed in navigating the opportunities ahead; a Paul is needed. Find a wise, older person to walk with you.

2. Be a Paul, Find a Timothy.

Pour yourself into a handful of people in whom you can invest your knowledge. They might be students, they might be volunteers. These are good choices. There might be even better choices: How about “20something” youth workers who need your discernment and experience? Pour yourself into them; it will bring contentment.

3. Discover a Barnabas, a “son of encouragement.”

I talk regularly with two men close to my age who are also in ministry. We are in step with one another and pray for each other, but the majority of our time is spent doing what Barnabas did for Paul–encouraging. We not only focus on going deeper spiritually, we also talk about our marriages, families, ministry, and our tennis game.

4. Don’t Be God.

The need to fix people’s problems and hurts is a sign of youthfulness. Believe and trust that the Holy Spirit is the comforter and helper, not you. That doesn’t mean you don’t care; you do, but it takes a maturity of spirit to get out of the way and let the Spirit have His way.

5. Define “It” and Reframe “It.”

If “it” means hanging out with kids 24-7, you’re right–you can’t do it. If “it” means changing the focus of your ministry, by God’s grace you can do it. You can change your season and style of ministry. It may mean going from program-driven to discipleship-intensive ministry, from “lone rangerism” to more delegation, from peer groups to family-based models. Consider your options: Bob has moved from a “buddy” model of ministry to “shepherd” model; Paul has slowed his driven pace to focus more intently on training adults; Alaina has chosen to delegate; Micah has left church ministry and is doing youth ministry consultation; Terry is moving from a church to start a nonprofit ministry doing youth missions. Define “it,” then reframe “it.”

6. Be a Proactive Learner.

Stephen Covey speaks of being a “lifelong learner.” As American youth workers gain the gray, they need to listen and learn–and look for those opportunities. That’s what mature leadership is all about. Read, ask questions and engage others in dialogue. Too many youth workers never read. Start small–but start soon.

7. Keep It Simple.

Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Do a prayer retreat. Get silent before God. Take the Lord’s Supper. Be in His Word.

8. Don’t Believe the Lie.

Many youth leaders have bought into the lie that you have to be young to be fruitful and effective. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tell that to Bob McKinney, still setting the pace in ministry in California; tell that to Dean Dammann, who was the oldest youth worker honored at the 2004 Youth Gathering, in his seventies and nominated by his kids.  Tell that to yourself! There is something you can do! We don’t age out of a job; the graying and greening of the Church go hand in hand.

9. Be a Team Player.

Youth ministry is a team game. Surround yourself with good people, who embody diverse gifts. Think “we.” People who allow others into their world–weaknesses and all–are rewarded.

Survivors: Finish Well

“Survivor” was a popular television show on CBS. A number of men and women are “stranded” on a deserted island and each week someone is voted off by the group. The last person left wins a million dollars.

Towards the end of his ministry Paul composed his final, powerful words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Even though Paul didn’t get the million dollars, he was a true survivor. I want to be a true survivor, too, and I want you to be one. May you finish well–gray hairs, bruised hips, and all. Your Heavenly Father has been with you from the beginning and will be with you to the finish line.

Run the race.

About the author

Pastoring a congregation of 10,000 members in suburban Milwaukee, the Rev. Leon Jameson has been serving in youth ministry for over 18 years! Jameson draws from his experience leading children, youth, and families to deliver a mix of creative, realistic, and usable ideas that connect with teens and leaders alike. He is happiest role playing Kung Fu Panda with his 8 and 3-year-old daughters. Jameson’s mission is to live for Jesus, leading others to do the same.
View more from Leon

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