My career in professional ministry was short, unsuccessful, and ended about three years ago. I was an “interim youth pastor” for nine months. When my services were no longer required, I told God, myself, my wife, my pastor, and my friends, “I never want to do that again.” And, considering the matter closed, I proceeded to get on with life.
I found a new church, found a new job, and basically revamped my worldview, (if such a thing can be done basically). So when folks in my new church asked me if I’d start a youth ministry, I declined. “There’s hardly even any teenagers in our church,” I pointed out. It was a handy response, because it had the benefit of being true. I did agree to pray about it, however. I am the sort of person who will give any idea at least some consideration.
They say prayer is not so much about changing God’s mind, but allowing our minds to be changed. Maybe that’s true. I certainly had no expectation at all that my mind would be changed though. See, I had finally figured out that I wasn’t any good at youth ministry. People of a certain group have been telling me that in one way or another for my whole life. But it took me actually doing it professionally to realize that they were right. Why would I say such a disparaging thing about myself?
•I lack what many people call vision, because the only goals I know how to set are small and simple.
•I am terrible at the administration aspect of leading a group. My attempts at setting a budget for the youth group were as successful as my childhood attempts at digging until I reached lava.
•I have absolutely no stomach for the interpersonal conflicts known as “church politics.”
•Most importantly, I don’t have the right sort of personality to lead youth, (this last bit of information was directly stated to me by a superior during my time as a professional youth pastor). I have a quiet, introverted, morose mode of living. But what was needed was an extroverted, excited, exuberant personality.
•I also have an awkward attachment to alliteration.
I knew all these shortcomings about myself before I began professional youth ministry. Yet I still decided to give it a shot. I can change, I told myself, I can pretend to be an extrovert who knows how to do stuff!
The effort drove me back and forth between fragile self-assurance, and stable despair. It was exhausting, confusing, and ultimately doomed. Thus, after a predictable ending to that career, I swore it off. I took a job building non-lethal, blade-based robots that was both interesting, and repetitive. I loved it, loved it, because it was the perfect antithesis of what I had just come from. And then, some months later, came the request to return.
So, yes, I refused. I gave my excuse about how the lack of teenagers showed that there wasn’t really a need. But I also prayed, and I started paying closer attention to how many teenagers came to church every week. One this week, then none, three the week after that. Then four. Then two. I recalled the promise I had made to God many years ago, that I would never, ever turn down an opportunity to teach his Word. That promise bothered me, because I was breaking it. Gears turned in my mind. I found myself planning out what book of the Bible I would start out teaching. I wondered what it would be like. Returning to ministry no longer felt impossible, it felt inevitable.
So, I built a wall that I felt wouldn’t be breached for a long time. I decided that I would start a youth group if six teenagers showed up at church two weeks in a row. Of course, six teenagers showed up two weeks in a row almost immediately. God broke through the barriers I had set up. Still, I hesitated.
The problem was that what God wanted was the opposite of what I wanted. He wanted me to serve, and I wanted to be left alone. We had to come to an understanding. And so, I literally sat down to have a talk with him one night. It was a one-sided conversation, and it went like this:
“Listen, you’ve got the wrong guy for the job. We both know what happened the last time I tried this. I thought we were in agreement that the whole thing had been a mistake. But, I know my place, and I know yours. I’ll do what you tell me to do. And I will fail. So if you want this thing to work, then you have to make it happen. I have nothing good to bring to the table, so I’m not going to bring anything at all. I’ll show up on Sunday mornings and get the youth together. If you don’t come and take over, then it’s not going to go well. This is your idea, not mine. And I’d like the record to show that I think it’s an awful plan.”
Maybe that was arrogant of me to try to dictate terms to God. Maybe that was faithless of me. I’m not proud of that prayer. It was perhaps a new low point in my service to God. But I think that it was necessary for me to reach that low point, because it had the benefit of being true. I’m not good at this. I’m not a natural. I needed to recognize that.
Some of you are wondering how that scenario worked out. Others are asking yourselves, “What the heck? Tom works for a church. His professional career didn’t end three years ago.” Ah, but I make a distinction. I did start teaching again. I have been a youth pastor for about a year and a half now. And I have been getting compensated for it since January. But I am not a professional. It is a fine line that I draw. It’s the difference between getting paid because you do something, and doing something because you get paid. It’s the difference between working, and serving. How do I make sure that I’m on the right side of that line?
For me, the distinction is embodied in the way that I pray now. In the past, I typically said something like this prayer before I preached: “God, help me do this work well. Open up the hearts and minds of the people who will be listening, and make up for my shortcomings.” Nowadays, I don’t leave the house Sunday mornings before saying a prayer that goes more like this: “God, do this work. Bypass me completely, because I am wholly made of shortcomings. If you don’t show up, we’re all wasting our time.”
So far, our arrangement has been working out nicely.
It’s Ray Day again. That means that today is the anniversary of the sudden end of a man’s life. For all the hand wringing and surviver’s guilt I’ve gone through for the last five years, today I feel nothing but gratitude. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel awful that we couldn’t save Ray. But I am thankful that I am still alive, and I am thankful for all the good and bad things that have happened to me since then. Life goes on, at least for some of us. Let’s not waste it, friends.
“Jeeze, Tom! Do you know everybody in this town?” The grocery store bagger asked me this question because I was holding a conversation with the customer behind me while at the same time waving hello to a cashier a few aisles down. It took me off guard, not only because I didn’t actually know the other customer, or because I was surprised that the cashier considered me somebody that she knew enough to wave at, but because I don’t generally consider myself a friendly person.
“No, not everybody,” I replied, “there are still a few people. I’m working on it.” I was playing along, because I could see why he would say that. But his question got me thinking about the four employees of that particular grocery store whom I did know by name. And, oddly enough, there were three customers within my field of view whom I also knew.
It was a surreal moment, because I immediately realized that I knew more than those peoples’ names. I actually knew at least a little about each one of them. That man had his only child late in life, and quite unexpectedly. This guy had once been investigated for gang activity, but had pulled his life back from the brink for the sake of his own unexpected son. I’d gone to youth group with that girl when we were young. I grew up with that guy’s big brother.
I felt strange, as if I’d just realized that I’d grown a mustache without noticing. I paid my bill, said hello to two other people on the way out the door, and pushed my groceries out to the car. When had this happened? How do I actually know so many people? Am I friendly? It might be time to re-evaluate my life.