Life In The Youth Hall: Perspectives In Youth Ministry
Wed, 15 Apr 2009 - 11:56 AM CST
Teenagers. The thought of spending 24/7 connected to a bunch of energetic, acne-riddled adolescents who are trying to find themselves may be enough to strike fear into the most confident pastor. That is why it takes someone special to fulfill the calling of youth leader.
A senior pastor might see a student as dramatic, strong-willed, and risk-taking, but the youth leader sees the same student as passionate, purpose-driven, and adventuresome. Whether a youth leader is single, married with children, or a grandparent, leading handfuls or hundreds of students is serious business. The icebreaker games, foosball tournaments and all-nighters culminate into one eternally rewarding purpose — to show students the love of Jesus and help them become disciples and leaders of the church.
Youth leaders Sammy Baez, Jim and Linda Keers, Jeanne Mayo, Bruce Riddle, Elizabeth Covington-Taylor, and Betty Zaldivar agreed to talk to Enrichment journal about what life is like behind the youth hall doors and what it takes to stick it out for the long haul — it is not all fun and games.
TAKING THE LEAD
Mayo was the only woman in her Bible college class to speak in chapel her senior year because of requests from students. “When I started 35 years ago women did not do this. [At that time] women in the nonspoken Assemblies of God culture could be a missionary, sing, play an instrument, or teach children.” After growing mega-sized youth groups, authoring books, and mentoring leaders, she is one of the most well-known faces in youth ministry. At age 54, she is starting over by pouring into the lives of 56 students at The Tabernacle, an Atlanta-based church originally planted by her father-in-law.
Riddle started over at age 32 when he left an 11-year career with the railroad to pursue full-time youth ministry. “All I knew was that I needed to respond to the call and, at that point, it did not matter how old I was. Now I look back and ask, What were my twenties really about — was that all about God? All I know is we responded [to the call] at the time when we sensed we needed to, and so it really was not in my mind that I was too old.”
While responding to God’s call, Covington-Taylor thought she was preparing for an overseas missions appointment when a college internship working with high school students in a church in Pennsylvania temporarily redirected her ministry to a youth group in Idaho. “During the internship I found I really liked the kids and they really liked me. I was surprised at how well it went so I started considering it.” Covington-Taylor did not initially foresee youth ministry as a part of her career when she was in college, but she used that to her advantage. “I did not have a lot of preconceived ideas of how I had to be so that made it kind of fun. I could be a little more creative, and I just talked a lot with other youth pastors to get ideas.”
Baez had plans that did not include students or ministry; he wanted to be an actor. However, he faced a life-changing decision when a crisis hit the church he grew up in — the senior pastor unexpectedly died of a heart murmur. “Our interim pastor approached me about volunteering to take over the youth while they were looking for somebody.”
Because Baez was fighting the call to pursue acting, God gave him a dream one night that changed his direction. Baez remembers, “God told me, ‘The teenagers are hurting.’ So I told my wife I felt God calling us back there to help them out. We went to visit one Sunday, even though we had been gone a month or two. When one girl saw us coming to the church, she started crying and hugged my wife and me, as if we had never left. To me it was a confirmation.”
When husband-wife missionary team Jim and Linda Keers left their ministry working with cannibals in the Indonesian jungles, they had no idea God had been preparing them to operate the Eagle’s Nest, an outreach to Native American students on Red Lake Reservation, in Red Lake, Minnesota. “[The reservation] is under a different spiritual covering than the United States,” says Linda. “It has always been native land. And, you know, the warfare is intense. But working with kids, it is wonderful. What you see is what you get.”
Although they refer to themselves as grandparents in youth ministry, the Keerses know God has given them opportunity to invest in the lives of students who will affect change on the reservation. Jim agrees, “We had not worked with youth before. But we found the kids were the ones who were open to the gospel and really listening.”
It was a grandmother-type who affected change in the life of a 19-year-old new convert. An elderly missionary took Zaldivar under her wing and helped Zaldivar realize her ability to reach students for Christ. “She really opened her arms to me. She believed in me. That built my dream that God could use me.” From that time Zaldivar has dedicated more than 21 years to serving youth and youth leaders in the Southeastern Spanish District Youth Ministries, and in community outreach and counseling with boys and girls clubs and volunteering with the Guardian ad litem program. Because this missionary invested in her, Zaldivar’s primary focus is growing and mentoring youth leaders. “We have a volunteer internship program at the church. As the associate, I personally oversee the youth pastor/intern. We are planning to make him official next spring. My role is to stand behind him and let him guide the youth group. He is doing an awesome job.”
CONNECTING WITH THE PLUGGED-IN GENERATION … STAYING CONNECTED WITH YOUTH CULTURE
With the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and cyber-linked gaming systems, catching the attention of this tech-savvy generation is more challenging for today’s youth leaders than ever before. Students may be making friends across the world through tech-based interaction, but they are suffering in ever-increasing numbers from broken lines of communication and broken relationships in their own homes.
Riddle sees the painful impact of this trend on his students in Lincoln, Nebraska, where 50 percent of his students are either from mixed, broken, or single-parent homes. “It is becoming not the exception, but the norm and so, obviously, the students react.”
Riddle notes that the patterns of acting out in response to painful life situations are much more violent and hurtful than in previous generations with an incredible rise in the number of students involved in cutting and destructive behaviors. “It is more prevalent, it is more out there for the culture to read about and observe.”
The Keerses observe the magnified effects of nonparenting on the reservation; students are starved for the interaction they receive at the Eagle’s Nest. Linda compares the kids with the latchkey generation. “They are throwaway kids because the parents do not give them keys. Sometimes when we take them home they will be locked out and need to find a different place to sleep that night.”
MTV reformats its programming every 3 years to appeal to generation-nexters. Having spent more than three decades in ministry to students, Mayo believes that, although the culture is constantly changing, the underlying aspects of youth ministry seldom change. While many exterior things change, the interior of teenagers has stayed much the same in youth culture.
Developing a sense of family, destiny, militancy, and childhood will help a youth leader stay in the game. “When you focus on that and do the obvious things, you have your kids help you look cool,” Mayo concludes.
Underneath the multiple piercings and tattoos, this generation has laudable resilience. Students endure incredible pain — divorce, abuse, and a history of broken promises — and still maintain enough vulnerability to respond to someone who shows them genuine love and concern.
To make those genuine connections outside the youth group, every Friday Riddle can be found at one of the six public high schools in Lincoln having lunch with the students. “I encourage our kids to bring their friends. I get a chance to meet them and hear what is going on in their lives. Kids are pretty open. They may not know you well, but you know it is an open generation to say what is going on. So I get an ear to the ground on that. I guess that is what has helped me to stay in touch.” Riddle believes interaction helps the message stay relevant and understandable.
Leaders need to take time to encourage and invest in their students. Mayo believes this generation of Christians will be the ones who tell the world about Christ. “If you get them into church and you love on them, they are passionate about their faith and about sharing it with others.”
TOUGH TERRAIN: ADJUSTING YOUR MINISTRY TO REACH THE COMMUNITY GOD CALLS YOU TO
Even though the message of Christ’s love is universal, the demographics across America are diverse. This sometimes makes effective communication of the gospel difficult. When God called these leaders, they responded even though they had some intense learning to do along the way.
In Covington-Taylor’s church community in Meridian, Idaho, Mormon seminaries adjoin every high school campus. Students are released an hour from school each day to study Mormonism.
Even though she lives in what most would consider a conservative town, she has worked with students who have come out of homosexual lifestyles. “This is the new thing on our side of the country,” she explains. “Kids are encouraged to experiment and find out what they are. Experimentation is not taboo. I have had guys and girls who have come out of that. They do not prepare you for that in Bible college.” To troubleshoot some of the issues, Covington-Taylor relies on Internet sources and books for help, as well as input from other youth pastors.
For Baez and Zaldivar, reaching youth in the urban mission field where gangs and drugs have replaced the “Leave It to Beaver” family poses an even greater risk. Baez’s Church of the Revelation is in the Bronx. This area is high gang territory, and the gangs establish a kind of family structure for teens. Baez adds, “Besides the gangs and drugs, we also have a high rate of girls that are either sexually molested or abused, but the number one thing is low self esteem.”
“One of the greatest needs in the Hispanic and inner-city communities is for churches to invest more into their youth and their youth leaders,” Zaldivar says. “A low percentage of youth leaders are full time — salaried. That is a big challenge when you must do both — work and attend to a youth group.”
Because of the wide range of inner-city challenges, including a tight or non-existent budget that is commonplace with youth ministry, Baez enlists the help of student leadership. A couple of years ago he began investing in a core group of students who had fire. Slowly the influence of these leaders spread and now the youth look out for each other. Baez says, “When students come in who are involved in drugs, we isolate them. My leaders know what is going on, and they look out for their own so the other kids will not be influenced.”
On the reservation at Red Lake, the community may be rural, but the daily problems the Keerses deal with resemble the issues in the Bronx. The clothes, music, and addictive behaviors tie into the gang lifestyle, which is glamorized. But this year, the Keerses faced their biggest challenge — to minister and restore healing to the native community after a school shooting that left the reservation angry at the white man’s culture and religion.
Surprisingly, instead of buying into the sentiments of the older generation, the students fell back on the stability of the Eagle’s Nest when the crisis came. “The students know that our doors are open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They know what we do,” Linda explains. “If they cook meals for one another, they clean up. They know that in the [Eagle’s Nest] theater they will get a survival lesson, learn memory verses, and pray — that is quiet time. So when people called us after the shooting and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ John told them, ‘We are going to keep doing what we have been doing.’ ”
KEEPING YOUR GUARD UP: BALANCE MINISTRY AND FAMILY
The balancing act
Youth leaders work hard to invest in their students, and keeping family and personal time in balance can sometimes be challenging. As a newlywed, Baez struggled to keep his home time and ministry time separated. “There was one point my wife said, ‘Look, there is no time being spent here,’ ” Baez admits. “We spoke to our senior pastor and he encouraged us.” Baez resolved to schedule his time more wisely to guard his home time.
Linda credits her husband’s initiative to keep their personal time guarded. “[John] always insisted every day that we had our time together. Even when our children were there, they were not the center of our lives. And I think that helped keep our family on the right course, just because our relationship was fresh.”
As a single leader, Covington-Taylor had to work harder to guard her personal time because people took advantage of the fact she was single. “I was new, and I poured out so much that on my day off I was so tired I would not even want to get out of my pajamas and brush my teeth. Single people have more time to give. Part of the benefit of being single is having the energy to invest — but we still need personal time, and you need to guard it. No one else will guard that for you.” She found setting boundaries and learning to say no was crucial to her keeping in the game for the long haul.
Early in Mayo’s ministry people thought she was not wise to set boundaries that included passing up opportunities to speak at large youth conventions so she could attend her children’s activities and games. “I would get my son’s soccer schedules and refuse to miss a soccer game. I thought, I have got one run at being a parent, and I am going to do this the best I can.”
Riddle believes the lack of mentoring relationships is one key reason youth leaders give up and move on. “They do not have anybody to tell them that feeling discouraged on a Thursday morning after youth service is normal.”
As a youth pastor who did not have a mentor, Riddle felt his learning curve was more extensive. If someone would have shown him the ropes, he may have made fewer elementary-level mistakes. “I wish I could help young pastors today tighten that. It does not mean they are not going to have a learning curve, but it would help if they could learn at a quicker pace instead of my long route of 40 years in the desert trying to figure out where I was going.”
As the first woman youth pastor in her district, Covington-Taylor found it even more difficult to develop a true mentoring relationship. She had people who spoke into her life, but connecting with someone who could relate with a single female youth pastor’s struggles was next to impossible. To compensate, she intentionally plugged into resources and attended youth leader conferences. A few more female leaders are now in her district and finding ways to support them is important to Covington-Taylor. “Most of the women in our district who are doing these ministries now are married, so it is a little different. I am the only full-time one, but I have done my best to be a resource to them when we have coffee together.”
Zaldivar agrees that mentoring moments can be as simple as sitting down for coffee. Her focus is mentoring teen girls. “I usually take a couple of girls with me, and they shadow me all day,” she explains. I tell the girls, “I may be doing errands, laundry, dishes, and then I am going to have some prayer time if you do not mind just shadowing me.”
With more than three decades in youth ministry, Mayo has taken shadowing to a whole new level. In addition to a Web site called “The Source” (http://www.thesource.com), which is full of coaching/mentoring resources and forums, Mayo recently started “The Apprentice” mentoring program. “It is just my way of getting up close to about 20 youth leaders or youth pastors,” she says. Youth leaders across the nation can apply, and Mayo chooses 20 men and women to coach for a year. The interns come to Mayo’s home twice a year to spend 2 1/2 days, do conference calls once a month on different topics, and send questions and correspondence with her via e-mail.
“We are great motivators in the kingdom of God, but we are not great equippers,” Mayo says. “Even the people doing the equipping in youth ministry have not been in youth ministry in the trench for years, and though the principles stay the same, [mentoring] is the other huge part of my world.”
A SURVIVOR’S APPROACH TO YOUTH MINISTRY
Ironically, in an attention-deficit society where students are starved for meaningful, lasting, consistent, and stable relationships, the average stay at a church for a youth leader is 9 months.
The church Covington-Taylor came into was a product of excessive turnover, so the church requested a 3-year commitment. She agreed that a 3-year commitment was a wise request. “I got frustrated at the high turnover because I saw the effects on the kids. They were broken and distrusting. They had not had a stable spiritual influence. It took a year for me to gain one girl’s trust before she would really talk to me.”
Riddle, a veteran youth leader of 20-plus years, knows being effective in youth ministry involves long-term thinking and making leaving not an option. “Scripture says, ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up’ ” (Galatians 6:9). If youth pastors are not careful to see the things they want to see in 2 to 3 years, they believe it is easier to leave than to say ‘Lord, I want to stay with this.’ ”
John Keers encourages young leaders to stick it out and follow their dreams no matter what. “God is not short on talent and ability. We seem to think that He needs us to operate, and we have got young pastors across the country who have vision that is so easily dampened by the traditional church. Stick to your guns, trust the Lord, and do not let others despise you because of your inexperience and youth. God will subsidize that.”