In my early years of youth ministry, I had been married a few years but was still without kids. My wife worked full-time and so did I. The hours were flexible but plentiful. I could easily pour myself into every invitation extended to me from a student or family. Parent meetings, high school sporting events, junior high sporting events, concerts, recitals, late night excursions, and long conversations with struggling teens were always possible and a lack of boundaries just seemed like good ministry. Every opportunity to connect, support, mentor and encourage a student or family was seized. I could be everything to everyone within my ministry.
Then I had kids and the freedom of time was no longer feasible—nor was it healthy. I was forced into a life of drawing more clear boundaries between ministry life and home life. My wife no longer worked full-time and the justification of “She’s working anyway,” could no longer be stated when a youth ministry opportunity popped up. I now entered the world of “trading time”—to accept the invitation to attend a student’s high school event meant I was taking time away from my family. But if I didn’t carve out appropriate time for flexible ministry, I was also missing critical opportunities to point someone to a new or growing relationship with Jesus, as well as failing to fulfill a key point of my calling to serve the Church.
I found myself questioning whether I was doing as good of a job in my ministry role to youth. My extracurricular attendance decreased, my late-night availability was limited and my points of significant student interaction seemed more programmed and less relational.
In addition to the incredible shift of questioning when and if I was “trading time” or sacrificing one thing for another, I also felt like I was a little less cool to incoming students. I wasn’t quite as crazy as I used to be; I wasn’t as much of a risk-taker, after all I had another life depending on me now and of course I was a little bit older. Whether it was just my perception or whether it was reality, I got the impression that students no longer saw a hip, edgy, exciting “youth guy.” I was heading down the frightening path of becoming more like their parents. In most cases I was a much younger version of them, but I was less of a free-spirited college student and had now become a more responsible young adult with real grown-up issues to face. The distance between students and me as a relevant youth leader seemed further apart than it had ever been before.
My time changed, my commitments changed, my priorities changed, I changed.
I saw through the eyes of a parent for the very first time. Fears that I heard from parents no longer seemed silly and over-protective, but seemed like an expression of protective love over a child. Complaints that I heard from students about their families sounded like a frightening scenario that may come out of my own child’s mouth one day. The burden of raising a child well, guarding them from the perils of the world, and the pursuit of leading them in the way everlasting became so heavy on me that I felt guilt over my severe lack of giving sufficient merit to the concerns of my student’s parents over the previous years.
In many areas, I lack the zeal and happy-fun-guy mentality that I had in my early years of ministry, but I gained a perspective on youth ministry that I could not have comprehended prior to being a parent myself.
Partnerships with parents increased, telling the other side of the story to a student on the burden of parenting was communicated more than ever before. Modeling healthy boundaries to be sure to care for my own family was increased dramatically, and was critical to teaching students what the role of a Christian husband and father is to look like.
I noticed that right around this time there was a growing shift within our church ministry that brought students coming to our church from vastly more difficult family situations than in previous years. It was no longer enough to just show them how to independently live a life of devotion to Jesus, but I was given the responsibility to help reveal the process of how we mend broken relationships, how we seek reconciliation, how we live well together by the grace of God, and what a Christian spouse and parent is actually supposed to look like. Our students needed to know how do we live out our Christian faith as leaders in our families and friendships in such a way that they don’t require as much healing later.
God made me a parent, in just the right time for my ministry. What at first felt like a ministry limitation became a strength. Our students and families needed to see me as a parent just as much as they needed to see me as a youth pastor.
It was no longer just me individually trying to pour into the lives of students, but it was me allowing them to enter into my family’s life.
When I talk with young adults about their faith journey throughout the youth group years they don’t mention the late nights I sat and talked with them, they don’t talk about the time we spent an hour in the drive-through ordering food for 15 people in the church van, they don’t speak of all the great things I did with them. They talk about the time they had dinner at my house with my family. They talk about the time my kids said something silly to them in the car. They talk about the relationship they see between myself and my wife, myself and my kids—that is what comes up more than anything else.
The way I minister as a youth pastor looks very different—sometimes it feels less impactful and sometimes it seems like it is inspiring more lifelong positive changes for students and families than ever before. Is it better or worse? I’m not sure, but for an ever-increasing list of students who have no idea what a God-led family life looks like, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
I may no longer make it to every high school play or sporting event but I am pretty sure I can bring a smile to your face by trading in five youth pastor visits for one family of five coming and cheering for you at your choir concert.