Stages: The Life of a Youth Worker

At age 25, after teaching in a public school (grades 7-12 vocal music), I entered college again to be DCE (Director of Christian Education) certified with a youth ministry and music emphasis. Rather than working full time and taking classes on the side, I chose to go back to school as a full time student. The dynamics alone of being a single 25/26-year-old woman with real “life” experience and sitting in a room full of traditional 18-20 year olds (who were the same age as some of the students that I had just taught in high school) was quite unique.

By the time internship came around I was able to approach ministry at a much different level. I had already gone through four years of working through some of the first year professional glitches, so although starting a new position as a DCE was a bit of a learning curve, it wasn’t quite as intense as it could have been.

Because I had already received my teaching certificate and gone through all of my methods classes I did not have to go through all of the steps that a traditional DCE/youth ministry student had gone through, which meant that the year following internship (I went to Concordia-St. Paul where they have DCE students return after their internship year for a fifth year of debriefing) I did not have to come back for the entire year. My internship church chose to hire me for the six months following internship and then I went back to CSP for three months to finish up certification. My internship church then extended a call to me and I was there as a DCE Youth Ministry Professional for six years (including internship).

As I look back at the first few years in DCE/youth ministry I remember working through some intense personal issues. I was searching for who I was to be as a called minister to young people. I had never really thought that through. I knew that the Lord called me into ministry in an amazing miracle kind of way (that’s another story in itself) but I was still trying to figure out what I was supposed to be and how I was to perform. You see, all my life I knew that I was going to be a performer and teacher so I prepared and trained myself for that. Being a DCE/youth ministry professional was a whole new place. As a school teacher I loved the Lord and I loved teaching but I never thought of it as a ministry… I don’t even know if I knew what that really meant. But as a DCE I knew that God was calling me to a different level.

I was also wrestling with not only what it meant to be a youth minister, but also what this ministry thing really meant. For the first time in my life I realized that I was a tool, a vessel to connect young people to a deeper relationship with Jesus. I knew that for the first time I had to figure out what it meant to connect kids to Christ rather than to me. I really loved that they loved me, and that I was young and cool. It was a constant ego wrestling match with myself to put that part of me aside in order to help them see the Christ that was in me. And better yet, to equip other adults to be a part of the team to help connect the young people to Christ.

Six years later I took another call and went into that call completely riding on the wave of the relationships and reputation that I had built at the first church I had served. By this time I was in my 30s. I had, at the first congregation, built a youth program from scratch. This one was more established. The youth at this congregation were also much more affluent (much more affluent) and so starting out the first few years was quite intense. What I mean by that is that it was very messy. I completely forgot about the journey that God and I had taken together in growing to become a DCE/youth minister who helps young people connect to Christ. I immediately went into “prove to them that I’m a good DCE/youth minister” mode. I will say that during those first few years it was like I lost all boundaries of time. I began to pull out every bell and whistle that I knew (I didn’t care at all whether it had vision or purpose or even direction); I was determined to show them big dynamic youth ministry. I got into this sick cycle of working and proving and working and proving. I didn’t care how many hours or energy it took. I was going to make this thing happen. I worked every daytime hour building relationships and ministering one on one, every chance I could find. I went to every basketball, theatre, music presentation that I could possibly go to. I was burning the candle at both ends and the harder I worked the more I got caught up in this tornado.

You may wonder what my family was thinking about all of this. Family?… What family? Well, I was a single person at that time and Satan had convinced me that “You don’t have family if you’re single. After all, God has given you all these gifts, if you don’t use them to serve Him then you are wasting what God gave you.” Or another one was, “God has already built an amazing ministry staff here. You’ve got to show them that you can keep up the pace girl…no slacking…you’re falling way short.” Or even better yet, Satan convinced me that “These kids don’t want whoosy youth ministry. After all, their money can buy them whatever they want. You can no longer rely on your youthfulness or dynamic personality. You have to show them you’re worth the money they are paying you.” Through those times it felt like I was walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” and that everyone was watching whether I was going to fail or succeed.

Throw into that mix all the challenges that youth ministry brings. And I added a husband to the mix. I’ll bet you’re wondering how I had time to date? That’s a whole other article in itself. During that time it felt like I was in some Chuck Norris film and spinning in circles using every karate move I knew to fend off things that came my way. Or to attack situations. Or to juggle marriage.

The more I focused on those phrases, the more I stepped away from my personal devotion and reflection time. And the more I pulled away from my personal devotion/reflection time, the more I felt ill-equipped and lonely and wondering if I even was doing the right thing. My expectations for myself to succeed were so high. They certainly weren’t from God, and every time I failed. Every time. I know I had people all around me wanting to help but I couldn’t even give them anything to do knowing that what I wanted them to do was to work just as long and hard as I was working, and I just couldn’t do that to them.

I wish that I could say I pulled out of this in a year, but sadly I must confess that it took me about seven years and a burnt out soul to admit I needed help. Actually I told another DCE friend of mine that I was going to quit. I just didn’t feel like I connected anymore with youth. I figured I must be too old (although every time I said that I got this little tug in my gut from the Holy Spirit). I figured I was no longer effective. I figured I had somehow thought I’d be good at this Youth Ministry thing and the stage of burnt out that I was in was telling me, “You gave it your all, you failed, you need to get out.”

This DCE friend convinced me to try KINDLE, which I did, and which I found was a lifesaving tool for me. It was like a spiritual rehab. The journey to reverse the cycle and heal my burnt-out soul isn’t happening over night. It has taken small steps to change. But most importantly, it has taken the Word of God to change me and fill me. God didn’t remove the Red Sea from the Israelites–He made a way through it. And the Israelites saw clearly as they made their way through that path that God was the one who made it happen.

What I have found as I’ve grown older in ministry is that the cycle I was in was definitely not from God. The more I’m away from the Word in my personal reflection time, the less I am able to discern and hear God’s voice telling me that He has called me to do His work. The further I’m away from time with the Savior, it’s harder to hear God affirming me and lifting me up in the name of Jesus.

He has given me an incredible gift of loving adolescents deeply in the name of Jesus. When I am in the Word I am better at shining God’s light on a truth or a lie. Not only for myself but for helping young people see truth as well. When I am in the Word on a daily basis I’ve found that Christ draws those beautiful young hearts to the Christ in me. He draws them for love and grace and sitting at the well with Him.

I have found that wherever I have gone (and I’m at my third call now and in my early 40s) that it doesn’t matter how old I am or how young-looking or how cool. It’s how Christ works through me. And the more Christ works through me–not my doing at all–the more I am “real” to them. They see to the heart of Jesus as the Word of God penetrates through me, and it’s raw and it’s real and it’s powerful to see.

I remember some of my most favorite teachers in High School, the ones I went to not only for learning but for talking through life. Those were the teachers who had no age to my eyes; I don’t even remember thinking about their age at all. I remember that they were real. They were raw. As I’ve grown as a DCE/youth minister I realize that through the waters of Baptism Jesus lives in me…Jesus incarnate through me. It’s a little overwhelming to take in, but my, what an honor! Being “real” to young people and drawing them closer to Christ is not my doing but Christ living in me, and He lives in me best as I let His Word change and mold me.

I still have to work through ego issues. I still have to work through “proving” issues. I still have to work through overachieving workaholic issues and balancing family and work issues. I still have to work through “not being cool anymore” issues. And I still have to work through the fact that I’m now “old enough to be their mom” issues. But through all of those “working throughs” God has shown me, through His Word, that He does powerful things through my heart and hands and voice, and it’s His power and it’s to Him that He draws them, not me.

When I was interviewed for this third call, someone on the call committee asked me, “What do you see yourself doing in five or even ten years?” I said without hesitation, “Well…um…youth ministry, of course. I love them with all my heart.” I then smiled because I knew that was indeed from God.

About the author

Audrey Duensing-Werner, DCE, was a music teacher for four years before becoming certified as a director of Christian education. She has served as a DCE in various settings and congregations since 1991 and is currently the Director of Child and Family Ministries at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Mo. She is a nationally certified spiritual director, has served as a speaker, author and presenter on numerous occasions at youth ministry and education-related events and is involved in the National Association of DCEs and Lutheran Education Association.
View more from Audrey

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