by Don Solin
When my sons were four and six, I was at church on a Sunday morning. (I was at work, I was the youth pastor.) The head usher came up to me after the service and said, “Did you see what your kids were doing during the service?”
I responded that “I had no idea what my kids were doing, they were in their class.” He said, “Your kids--the high school kids.” I said, “They are not my kids, you should talk to them or talk to their parents.”
Have you ever felt that part of job description was to control students? Or do you think that controlling students is part of the job of youth ministry?
I will confess that there was day when I would get a little nuts when students acted inappropriately or behaved badly.
I got a call at 2 a.m. one morning; I answered the phone and was asked “Do you know where my student is?” I thought, you gotta be kidding right, am I the baby sitter? Why would a parent call me? Was this my job? I never liked hearing this “Did you hear about so-and-so getting drunk last night?” Like maybe had I done a better job of youth pastoring this student wouldn't have gone out and gotten plastered.
Or hearing a student give a lame reason for not coming to an event or one of the important meetings I was doing, you know the “I can't come to student ministry this weekend, I have more important things.” Those kinds of things used to make me nuts. If only I could have controlled them or you know, why can't they live life like I would want them to live? Better yet, if I could control them like Jesus, would want them to live. Have you ever felt that struggle?
Control is the issue I'm talking about. Some parents would like youth pastors to control their students. Some senior pastors want their youth pastor to control students.
I once worked for a senior pastor that told me to tell the students that they could not wear shorts to Sunday night services. If I controlled the students, the church would look good. I can't say when I stopped trying to control students, but I know there was a day when I knew full well that controlling students was not part of my job. After all, my wife doesn't control me, my mom hasn't controlled me for over 30 years, my boss doesn't even control me. I learned how to control myself through much pain, experience and just plain living life.
So, how much are you required to control as a mentor, as a disciple maker, as a leader as a youth worker?
When my youngest son was 11 or 12, he came to the dinner table where my wife and I were entertaining friends. He said, “Dad, I want you to know that I don't believe in God.”
Silence over the table. How would the youth pastor respond? “What is dad gonna say about this?” Had I totally lost control of my son? Should I control this? What was I going to do?
I treated my son like I would anyone on this subject. I said, “Son, you can believe whatever you want to believe about God. That is your prerogative. That is your problem. I was not happy about it, but I knew then as I know now that my son needed to pursue, seek, hear from God as God worked on him. I told him this, “just because you say you don't believe in God does not mean that you are allowed to do whatever you want. You are still required to obey us and do right things.”
My son's jaw dropped. He had this look of “now what can I make as an excuse to behave badly?” His cover was blown.
I gave him the freedom to live life within the rules of the house. Obedience would not bring him extra love. Disobedience would not change my love for him. I was not going to control him on his quest for truth and life; I was going to let him know that as his parent I had expectations for him as my son.
As a youth pastor, this kind of stuff happens all the time. I am not doing youth ministry to create clones, perfect students, perfect followers, or students that look and live their faith like I do.
I am the youth pastor to help create an atmosphere to experience, to seek, to find, to grow, to become authentic followers of Christ. I provide opportunities to grapple with truth, to call out sin, to be honest, to help, serve, love and lead. I am not here to control anyone. I ultimately along with my leaders am building ministry, building relationships to mentor, to disciple and provide opportunities.
My #1 goal as a parent has been to prepare my sons to live without me. To fly on their own. To give them every reason to love God, to give them every reason to believe that God is real, is alive and has value. For me personally--value beyond just going to heaven. That a relationship with the living Christ is for every day, every hour and every minute. My sons may reject this whole thing and that would break my heart. My job as a parent is to help them get to the place where they themselves are in control, and ultimately, hopefully that they allow the Holy Spirit the control that the Spirit desires for each follower of Christ.
As a youth pastor/worker, you may find your heart broken many times for all the stupid things, inappropriate behavior, bad attitudes, defiance and all that goes with it. There will be plenty of students that will find you to be a breath of fresh air as you let them make choices, right or wrong. Their behavior will continually point to how well they are doing or not doing in their relationship with Christ. Then you will have opportunities for teachable moments for many students as you show them; teach them the ability to do this thing called following Christ without you someday.
My fellow youth pastors/workers: If you are still under the notion that controlling students is part of your job description, rewrite it. If your senior pastor wants you to have a nice, tidy and neat youth ministry, have a conversation with him about your role in the lives of students. If you are being called on to parent students, have a few meetings with all your parents with an explanation of how you are there to help them as parents to be great parents and that you are part of helping both parents and students to grow in their relationship with Christ, the Church and with one another. You are not in students' lives to control them...period.
Start reworking your philosophy of ministry to allow students to learn to make choices, and when they show their true colors, be prepared to let that be. If you have controllers working with you, you may have to let them go. You know the "hoverer" that hovers over students waiting to pounce on them when the act up. Check your expectations and remember you are in their life to help them in their relationship with Christ, not to live it for them.
Remember, you ultimately desire your students to live their life with Christ without you. Never forget you are doing ministry. You are not the parent. You are the youth pastor/worker. You are not the Holy Spirit. Show them, teach them how to fail, how to grow, how to love how to walk with Christ, so that as they go through life they are dependent on Christ and not their parents or you.