One of the things that is at the center of our teen jobs program is the idea that jobs are good for teenagers. There is quite a bit that has been written about this. Some folks argue that jobs are bad for teens because it tends to drive down their grades and college perform while others argue that they are key for developing fully mature adults. Obviously, I am in the second group. However, I would argue that work represents for me the crucible around which we can discover our giftedness and call, our connections to other generations, and join in the in-breaking of the Kingdom. It is much more than developmental, it is theological. I think this process all started for me with my first two jobs growing up: Paperboy and Custodian.
My first job was delivering newspapers in Southern California with my older brother. We mostly delivered for a small localized carrier and we woke up at 5:00 a.m. every Tuesday and Saturday to wrap the papers with rubber bands (we purchased our own because the newspaper provided bands stunk and would inevitably lead to angry customers) and load them into our bike bags and deliver. Later, when my brother started driving we used our chevy van to deliver. This job began when I was about 10 years old. When I got to high school, most major carriers were firing all of their newspaper boys and girls because insurance costs were too high. I had also started high school athletics and Saturday mornings were no longer an option. I quit my newspaper job and about a year later a kid from church that was getting ready to graduate asked me if I wanted to take his job as the church custodian. I had my first job interview and got the job for about 15 hours a week. By the time I had finished college I had worked and additional 5 jobs: co-director of a tennis camp, sales associate, head track coach at a Catholic prep-school, warehouse employee, and youth director at a small church.
As I have started this ministry of helping teach teens about faith, life, and work I have often reflected about what those first two jobs meant to me developmentally and even theologically. Here is what I learned about faith, life, and work as a teenager. It is why I continue to believe that faith and work have something to offer the American church.
1. Nothing is Always Fair- I learned very quickly that I couldn't expect everything to go my way. Sometimes the newspaper would screw things up and we would take the blame. Sometimes as church custodian I would get blamed for things that weren't really my fault. I am often shocked at how often students in our youth ministry expect us to provide experiences that feel fulfilling to them. It's kind of of a weird expectation. Life just isn't fair. It almost never works out cleanly and equitably. A lot of times you end up on a cross. Jobs teach you to deal with that pretty quickly.
2. Christian Adults aren't Mature- Numerous times, especially at church, I learned that otherwise dialed in adults could lose their business if things weren't set up properly and they were nervous for an event. As a paperboy I had adults directly lie to my face about receiving our newspaper when I came to collect. It's pretty intimidating to have a door slammed in your face at age 10. So, I think one of the reasons that I have never left the church or my faith was that I always had pretty ordinary expectations of people. My early jobs cured me of any humanistic idealism at a young age. I learned pretty quickly that the church was a mess and so were the people who inhabited her.
3. Problem Solving-Work provides a much more independent environment in which to freely solve problems than school or sports do. One of the ways we learn to problem solve is when we are "under the gun". We HAVE to get something solved because time, money, or personal embarrassment are involved. I learned about how to quickly think through a problem and improvise a solution on job sites more than anywhere else. I would add that learning to improvisational and adaptive thinking is also a remarkable cure for any sort of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism and idealism are close cousins and real world experiences cure you of that kind of rigidity in your thinking and action.
4. Conflict and Reconciliation-One of the keys to any adult job is managing conflict. It's also a huge key to doing ministry well. You have to learn how to faithfully engage rather than avoid your neighbor when they are hurt or dissatisfied. In many instances they aren't even really mad with you! As a teenager I had no spiritual understanding of what the ministry of reconciliation was, but I learned first hand how to admit when I made mistakes and to offer and receive forgiveness when others wronged me. One of the most powerful church experiences I ever had was when and L.A. County judge apologized to me at church after she had blown up at me (I was 15). I knew how much power judges had. To have a judge humble themselves and confess to me was a big deal.
5. Money-Many parents talk about wanting their kids learn to be good stewards of their money. The problem is that they can't do that if they don't earn any money. Allowances might matter, but it's a bit like playing at work. Having a job gave me an immediate sense of the cost of things and helped me to think forward into what I was called to do as an adult. It also gave me money to play around with charitably. I learned about giving to those in need and that sacrificing for one's neighbor actually costs you something.
6. The Least of These- I learned very quickly on the job how people treat those that they regard as doing "menial" tasks. I also learned (as a wealthy white kid) how hard people who had "menial" jobs worked. There is a lot of dignity in small work, but you have to find it for yourself because no one else really respects it. Working jobs as a teen helped me understand more about Jesus' teachings about the unseen neighbor than probably everything else I did growing up. Service and mission trips were great, but they were often focused on people "over there". When you are faced with the social and economic isolation and complexity of someone in your own community you really start to hear Jesus' teaching differently. "Who is my neighbor?" is given new levels of meaning when you listen to a fellow maintenance worker talk about how people in your community treat them.
7. Failure, Grace, and Shame- My household of origin had a huge pattern of avoidance growing up. One of the things that work taught me was the necessity of dealing with problems directly. My faith enabled me to understand that I didn't need to be ashamed of my mistakes, but that grace and forgiveness were there to greet me. If I didn't need to hide from God, then I didn't need to hid from my co-workers, customers, or supervisors. Many of my students bail on conversations, ministry opportunities, and relationships because they feel a sense of embarrassment or shame about the most trivial mistakes. Work was the place where I learned to trust God's grace and then to move forward in relationship with those I had let down. When you work, you inevitably make mistakes. But, you still have to show up the next day and have at it again if you want to get paid. The economic equation forces you out of patterns of avoidance. You learn to fix mistakes when you can and move forward when you can't.
8. Who I Didn't Want To Be- In family based youth ministry these days you run into a lot of language about teens needing multiple adult role models to find life long faith and healthy outcomes. There is a ton of research backing all of this. However, you know what else teens need developmentally? Bad role models. One of the most powerful things I learned as a teen was what kind of adult I didn't want to be. Every adolescent needs to observe other adults apart from their parents, but some of the greatest life lessons I learned were from watching adult train wrecks around me. We can't imagine reading our Bibles with all the nefarious bits edited out. We learn just as much from King David's "Game of Thrones" years as we do from his Godly ones. Why would we deprive our students from watching those kinds of examples in real time?
9. Giftedness- Jobs also revealed very quickly to me what sorts of tasks I was good at...and the ones I stunk at. I always struggled with certain aspects of school growing up. But, you learn as a student to just say things like, "I don't like school." Or, "School just doesn't work for me." Schooling provides a sort of monolithic experience that students can kind of write off. They need multiple experiences that help them discern how God has gifted them. When I started to see what sorts of tasks I struggled with on the job I started to understand why I excelled at some things at school and not at others. In order to find the sort of work calling that will provide students with a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life, they need to learn to understand how God has made them. Work is a great experience to help them see this. Certainly they will need somebody helping them to process that and a personality test or two wouldn't hurt either.