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When my dad suddenly and unexpectedly died last May I was overcome with grief. My dad was a strong man with a big life, and to me he seemed untouchable, even from death. The owner and operator of a working cattle ranch in Eastern New Mexico, my dad was the quintessential John Wayne figure. He didn’t say much, but what he said had depth. When he walked, his steps were slow and deliberate. He was wise, and strong, and kind. My dad was always up before the sun and knew the value of hard work. Our ranch has been in the family for 105 years, the last 40 of those in my dad’s care. In an age where ranches and cowboys seem to only be found in books and wild west movies my family lived a life that many will never experience.  

During my time in youth ministry I have found that the uniqueness of my upbringing has given me quite an advantage when it comes to loving kids. My dad’s life, specifically, has taught me so many valuable things that can be applied to my ministry.

Give people second chances.

I can remember an employee of my dad’s one time accidentally letting an ember from his burning trash jump to nearby bales of hay quickly and thoroughly destroying thousands of dollars worth of hay. Many employers would have fired the man on the spot. This employee was certainly corrected for his carelessness, but he kept his job. My dad understood that he had made mistakes in the past and he had received forgiveness. So with his employees he was always willing to offer grace for mistakes, even if it meant a significant loss for the business. This has been such a valuable lesson for me with the teenagers I work with. Teenagers are the best at testing your willingness to give second chances because they seem to always want to push boundaries. If I wasn’t willing to give my students second, third, fourth, even 100th chances, I wouldn’t get to be a part of the positive life changing decisions they make down the road.  

Think about things before you say them.

When my dad would be behind the wheel of his pickup, I could see him rubbing his fingers together slowly around the steering wheel. This meant he was thinking about something as we sat silently. Eventually he would form a well-developed and meaningful thought that accurately and thoroughly summarized the topic at hand. Jesus taught us that words have the power to give life and to destroy. I think my dad understood how something as small as a word could do big things. I have often said hasty things to the students I work with and have had to go back and apologize. At the moment I didn’t weigh the consequences of the things I said to them. I want my words to always give life to my students.  

Don’t let fear hold you back.

I had an old horse named Hardtimes. This was his name because he looked like he had been through some serious hard times. Hardtimes once bucked me off and I landed in a patch of stickers which my mom had to pull from my rear end with tweezers. Once my pride was thoroughly destroyed, my dad came and got me and led me out to the barn where he insisted I get right back on Hardtimes. He did this so that the horse would know he hadn’t gotten the best of me. I tearfully resisted to no avail. Dad slowly led Hardtimes around the corral with me on his back. My dad knew that if I let the fear of getting bucked off keep me from riding again, then I would miss out on many good times with that old horse in the future. This has been the story I have often told the students I work with in an attempt to empower them to live for God no matter how scary or uncertain situations might seem. If they don’t do some scary things every now and then, they may miss out on the blessings that are associated with them. Sharing your faith is scary; having a hard conversation with a friend is scary. Apologizing when you make a mistake is scary. I don’t want fear to hold them back from the good things that come when they dust themselves off and pull the stickers out of their butts.

Neighbor is a verb not a noun.

One time a new family bought the ranch not too far from us and I remember my dad saying that he had heard this particular family didn’t neighbor. That meant if you called to ask them to help you ship your cattle or to brand, they wouldn’t come help. For my dad and our way of life, you depended on your neighbors to help you get big jobs done around the ranch. And likewise, you were always wiling to help your neighbors when the time came for them to require help. The word neighbor was used as a verb where we came from, because it denoted a willingness to help out those who lived nearby. Loving my neighbor as myself has been such a hard-but-valuable lesson in youth ministry. When kids are hurting or parents are frustrated, I must be willing to give them the time and care that I would want if my family or I were in the same circumstances. We are one body…we should neighbor.  

I wish so badly my dad were here to teach me more lessons. I want more memories with him. I pray that God continues to make me aware of the great impact that my dad has had on my life. I know that even though my big strong cowboy is gone, the legacy he left me can endure through the students that God has called me to love. 

Marissa Olson has a Certificate of Youth Ministry from Fuller Seminary and is currently working on her Masters in Christian Leadership from Fuller.  She’s worked in youth ministry for the past 9 years. She and her husband currently minister to youth at First Evangelical Free Church in Las Cruces, NM.

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