I have written several posts about how one of the biggest surprises about how we have tried to do youth ministry and social enterprise at my church (other than how hard it is!) is the impact I think it is having on adults. I have felt that doing a mentoring and business based model of youth ministry has drawn out the gifts of numerous adults in my church who probably would not have had anything to do with youth ministry previously. This sense has been affirmed over the last few weeks in particular.
A few weeks back I was in a parking lot in my truck when one of my mentors called. They wanted to clarify a few things about their student and also check in on their paperwork status. While I was trying to make it into my next appointment I found myself getting the chance to do what I enjoy most: Coaching someone in how to do ministry with teenagers. But, really I was coaching them in how to do ministry with their fellow human being. We talked about listening well and about the unique personality of their particular assigned student. We talked about what to do if any particular crisis issue came up and we revisited our abuse prevention protocols. I also assured them that I was just a phone call away.
The best part about the conversation was that this adult had no business doing ministry with teenagers, and I don't mean because of relative age. I have always used older adults more than younger ones in youth ministry. Age is somewhat irrelevant. What I mean is that this particular adult, while a WONDERFUL human being, just doesn't strike you as somebody you would expect to be hanging out with a teenager. They would be one of the last sort of folks I might recruit for a number of the normal elements that make up a youth ministry. This of course is probably more of an indictment of youth ministry than it is a characterization of the individual. The fact that our models couldn't accommodate the gifts and talents of this individual is egregiously bad. When it comes to youth ministry the hand has often been saying to the foot, "I don't need you."
And then this experience with this one adult seemed to repeat itself another three times in the next week.
What had happened in part was that in the 4th year of our program we doubled in size. We now have 23 students in the program and that has meant pulling from a wider crop of adults from our church and beyond for the first time. During the first three years we mostly had adults that had a good deal of experience with teens from our ministry community. They entered the program with a certain sense of confidence and veterancy in what they were doing. But, this year is requiring more encouragement, coaching, and listening. And it's a ton of fun. In many ways, I feel like I am doing exactly what I ought to be doing most of the time.
When we built the initial landscaping company, one of the things we talked about was "windshield time". We meant that while we were driving around we wanted to take advantage of conversations that would happen along the road with students. But, as it turns out adults need windshield time too. They want to help students. They want to do ministry. But, they just need somebody as a kind of reflective backstop. It's funny at times because I am coaching people who are nearly twice my age. In a lot of ways their nervousness reminds me of my experiences of doing hospital chaplaincy in my early 20's. I remember vividly feeling like I didn't know what to say, what to do, or whether I was going to really screw somebody up through ignorance and the sugary additive of good intentions. It's not a fun feeling, but it is a necessary stage of ministry.
This is what my adult mentors are learning.
1. Most of life's problems are not solvable by human beings. They are knots that are just too hard to untangle. This is partially why relationship with God is so powerful. God does the work we cannot. And while that can make us feel futile at times as servants of our neighbors it's also kind of a relief to know that we don't have to solve problems.
2. Ministry and service to one's neighbor always involve getting involved in someone's mess. When you really engage ministry you find out how most of our forms of service are actually designed to keep us distant from the recipient. We serve at arm's length in most contexts. it's safer that way. Real face to face ministry in which you actually have to just listen and walk with somebody through their crap is often messy. You are invited into the story of a neighbor and that is inherently risky. It might cost you some sleep, some money, time, and probably part of your heart.
3. You don't know your neighbor or their experience until you know them. When you engage ministry you quickly find that you don't have clue about other people's experiences. Most of what we live on in life are assumptions about others from a safe distance. Ministry has a way of disrupting our stereotypes and assumptions about people from the outside because it invites you into the inside of their lives. You end up in conversations, homes, and at tables that teach us just how ignorant we are. It's embarrassing and awkward, but it's good work and it is never finished. You are never done learning about the folks to which you minister.
4. Good listening is the best skill you have. People often get frustrated with how church folk and others will offer all kinds of platitudes to people in crisis ("God doesn't give you more than you can handle."). Often they do this because platitudes actually kind of work...when you keep your distance from your neighbor. They make you feel that you have helped your neighbor when in fact they mostly have just reinforced your distance from them. It's only actual ministry that exposes them for what they are: manure. Actual ministry, wading into the life of my neighbor reveals that reflective listening is the best, and often the only, balm we have. Good listening and good questions are the first tool in a pretty limited actual ministry tool bag.
In any event, these conversations have been fun. It's nice to be doing what you are supposed to be doing. It's nice to invite others into the holy mess that God invited me into some years ago.