Middle-school ministry isn’t easy. And as a 54-year-old who’s been engaged with young teenagers in one role or another for…
I’ve been fired two times from ministry positions.
Well, that’s not fair. I was fired once, and I was laid-off once. But the fearsome inner dialogue that erupted within me—despite 20 years separating the two terminations—was eerily similar. I’d grown and matured in significant ways over those two decades, so my intense reaction to the latest bombshell meant:
A. My interior self hadn’t grown as much as I would’ve hoped, or
B. My experience, while deeply personal, is not uncommon to anyone who’s ever been told, “We don’t want you anymore.”
After walking alongside several fired youth workers over the last few years, my gut tells me both are probably true.
But the focus of this article is not about coping with getting fired. Losing my job was simply the most intense personal experience I’ve had of ongoing and pervasive fear. And the voice of fear has often been the primary tool the evil one has used to keep me frozen—exasperatingly short of the fully transformed life God has dreamed of for me.
In both terminations, I saw it coming. I grasped and positioned and politicked and even begged. I tightened my grip, hoping I could somehow control the situation and distract the approaching monster of loss. Once my control was taken away, I entered a very brief stage of disorientation mixed with relief. The waiting was over. My exerted effort to control (which is tiring!) was no longer necessary.
But quickly on the heels of that moment, the voice of fear started to whisper, then insinuate, then sneer…
“No one will hire you after this.”
“You’ll never again impact the Kingdom.”
“Your family is going to starve.” (Yeah, the voice of fear isn’t always rational.)
◊ ◊ ◊
My second termination was less than four years ago, so it’s fresh in my memory. It’s very easy for me to re-live the volcanic emotions of those unendurable months. Sure, I had other strong feelings: anger, sadness, and even something I can only call curiosity. But the struggle that almost undid me was unequivocally an MMA match with my inner voice of fear.
My youth ministry coaching program (for a video introduction to the program, go to theyouthcartel.com/coaching-2/) has given me a cautious invitation into the deepest places of struggle in the lives of youth workers. And I’ve found, over and over again, that somewhere around half of youth workers struggle with debilitating fear. They might hide it well, even from themselves, but it colors their interactions, nudges their decisions in one direction or another, and limits their freedom and ability to truly be themselves.
I’ll go a step further—we youth workers nurture a collective self-image of fearlessness (“Rawr! I’m a wild one! Get out of my way, ’cause I’m a bundle of Jesus-y action and energy!”). When that vocational stereotype (which is both thrust on us and self-selected) is combined with the spotlight of ministry leadership, it misleads us, telling us that our experiences of fear are not “normal.” And that’s a killer lie.
Enrolling In Theory U
Otto Scharmer is an MIT professor and leader of The Presencing Institute. He’s created a model of transformation called Theory U that blows me away with its accuracy and insight. I use it in all my coaching groups—it not only offers us a language for describing our organizational and personal transformation, but even more, it delivers keen insights into the inner voices that derail that transformation.
Scharmer’s Theory U moves in a U shape from the starting point of our current reality, then moves through three downward stages that include:
1. Suspending, when you acknowledge that the change might be good and needed;
2. Redirecting, when you look at your current reality from a third-person perspective, admitting your own culpability for “the way things are;” and
3. Presencing, which Scharmer describes in slightly new-agey language as “waiting for the future that wants to reveal itself.”
From a Christian perspective, Presencing is the point of spiritual discernment, where we wait on the “still small voice of God.” Once a whiff of new possibility is revealed or discerned, we move through three stages that form the upside of the U:
4. Crystallizing, which is the process of shaping the idea or change;
5. Prototyping, where we’re beta-testing the change, or checking if we’ve correctly understood God’s prompting; and
6. Performing, which is our transformed state of new reality.
These six stages of the “U” are patently helpful, but what has been particularly instructive to me (and helpful both in my own life and in my ministry leadership) are the voices of resistance Scharmer points to.
Voices of Resistance
First, let’s think about this process of transformation in an organizational sense because, frankly, it’s easier. All of us, as youth workers, long to be a part of positive change in our churches and youth ministries. And who hasn’t tried to introduce a change (a new program or a cancellation of a long-standing tradition) that was met with some level of resistance?
So let’s say your weekly youth group meetings just feel stale. You’ve been doing the same thing, in the same format, for a very long time. It’s rote. You’re bored with the format, and have noticed the slow advance of entropy in your students’ responses. They’re still attending, but they’re not engaged, and you don’t see many signs of spiritual growth.
But you’re a savvy and spiritually minded youth worker. And you won’t respond by simply copying some other church’s program or introducing disruptive changes based on a youth ministry fad. What you really long for is to re-imagine your weekly youth group meeting in response to God’s leading. What you really long for is to collectively and collaboratively enter into a process of spiritual discernment. You know in your gut that change is needed, but you’d prefer to follow God rather than simply “tweaking” things.
As soon as word gets out about your intentions, you quickly run into the four voices of resistance:
1. The Voice of Judgment—Quite simply, the Voice of Judgment is represented by the people who say (innocently or, as most of us have experienced, with a threatening, dismissive tone): “Change is not necessary.”
“Why would we change anything?”
“Things are just fine as they are.”
“We’ve always done it this way!”
This sort of change-resistant judgment can shut down the possibility of growth and deep transformation mere seconds after the hint of change has left your lips. What will combat the Voice of Judgment? An Open Mind—a simple willingness to at least consider the possibility of change.
2. The Voice of Cynicism—The best way to define cynicism is, simply, “the opposite of hope.” Cynicism and hope cannot co-exist. While the Voice of Judgment says, “Change isn’t necessary,” the Voice of Cynicism says, “Change isn’t possible.”
“We can’t pull that off.”
“We don’t have the resources to do anything differently.”
“We tried that before and it didn’t work.”
The Voice of Cynicism is a wicked, wicked enemy of transformation. It’s rooted in a low self-image (or a low image of the power of God), and it’s shockingly prevalent in churches. We look at our lousy track record of living into substantive change, or we compare ourselves to the “successful” church across town, and we respond with hopelessness.
The resource we need to overcome the voices of Judgment and Cynicism, in Scharmer’s terms, is an Open Heart. Can you see the beauty of this? When we open our hearts to God’s great goodness and the Holy Spirit’s transforming work, how can we not resonate with the God of Isaiah who said, “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19, or, for older youth workers, DC Talk).
3. The Voice of Fear—If we’re able to move past or through the Voices of Judgment and Cynicism, we get to the real bad boy: The Voice of Fear (cue shivers). While the Voice of Judgment says, “Change isn’t necessary,” and the Voice of Cynicism says, “Change isn’t possible,” the Voice of Fear says, “If change happens, I’ll lose something.”
“That would cause me to lose power.”
“This change might be inconvenient.”
“I’m comfortable with the way things are now, and don’t want to risk that.”
Fear is the trickiest of these voices, as it’s so rarely expressed as a direct statement. I’ve found I can fairly easily spot the first two voices when I’m watching for them. They’re blunt and obvious. But expressions of fear are usually cloaked in other language, because the person (or group) stating the resistance isn’t usually aware of the fear that informs their resistance!
I love that Scharmer tells us the resource we need to overcome the Voice of Fear is an Open Will (which he short-hands as “Spiritual Intelligence”!). Acknowledging and facing our fears really is a matter of will. Now, will alone doesn’t generate much of a solution to fear; but it’s a critical starting point.
Here’s a crazy generalization (but still true more often than not): When you try to introduce change in youth ministry, you’ll likely hear the voices of resistance come at you in these ways…
• Parents will often verbalize (in helpful and unhelpful ways) the Voice of Judgment.
• Volunteer youth workers will often express the Voice of Cynicism.
• And your teenagers will usually be the primary megaphone for the Voice of Fear.
Battling Our Own Inner Voices
Now for the uncomfortable part. It’s one thing to finger those people and their voices of resistance. We’re the change-embracing, risk-taking, Spirit-responsive youth workers, after all! We get this stuff.
Except, I’m also riddled with fears (and plenty of judgment and cynicism, for that matter).
I might be pretty good at keeping my own resistant voices chained up in the basement of my soul and psyche, pretending they don’t exist. But in times of emotional intensity—like the two job losses I mentioned at the beginning of this article—they start howling from their subterranean pen, threatening to rip free of their chains and wreak havoc in my life.
Our God is passionate about transforming your life. God wants a new you, a better you, a more sustainable you, a version of you who more fully embodies who he made you to be—in your personal and ministry lives.
Maybe you’re naturally drawn to the Voice of Judgment (“I don’t need to change!”) or the Voice of Cynicism (“I’m not capable of change”). But here’s what I’ve found: While youth workers are stereotypically cynics when it comes to change in their churches, it’s the subtle, lying Voice of Fear that most often hamstrings change in our own lives.
We fear being “found out.” We fear being exposed as a fraud. We fear losing our job or the security of a salary. We fear having our integrity questioned, or our character accused. We fear not being good enough, or strong enough, or insightful enough, or capable enough. For most of us, our arch-enemy is our own voice, co-opted by the evil one, whose intention is to destroy our potential.
What Do We Do?
After I was terminated a second time, the fears I’d kept at bay in the basement of my soul broke free, and came hunting for me. I retreated to a cabin in the desert—I was in the desert literally and figuratively! I gave a full day to focus on each of the primary emotions I was experiencing: sadness, anger, fear, and joy. As I was honest about my fears, they poured out of me. I typed furiously on my keyboard, filling pages and pages with the most raw and unfiltered ugliness.
That was more than three years ago. And—this is going to sound strange, so stick with me—I now think of those fears almost like friends. Sure, they’re dysfunctional friends that can seriously jack with my life. But my fears have driven me to a more dependent humility in my relationship with God.
Listen: My fears have not gone away. They seem almost like a cross to carry. They’re part of me, like a pet that could scratch my eyes out, but mostly lies innocuously in the corner. Naming them defangs them, disempowers them.
And as I’m present to my fears, I’m able to consciously and consistently hold them up on the palms of my hands, as an offering to Jesus, the one who longs to transform me. I’m not completely sure why Jesus doesn’t totally remove them from me (probably something about keeping me humble, or living into a life of faith), but I’m okay with that.
How about you?
• Can you be honest about the fears that hold you back from experiencing the ongoing transformation and change brought by the Holy Spirit, and leading to the John 10:10 full life God dreams of for you?
• Can you acknowledge those fears—what you risk losing—and hold them out on open palms?
• Can you ask Jesus to take you to a place of risk, of faith, of deep revision?
Oh, I long for that in my own life, and will pray for it in yours. ◊
Mark was, for many years, president of Youth Specialties. He’s now a partner in The Youth Cartel, a youth ministry training and resourcing organization. And he’s the author and co-author of our new five-book series “A Parents’ Guide to Understanding…” (check them out here: www.simplyyouthministry.com/resources-parents—family.html). Mark lives in southern California.
My Journal of Fear
Here’s an actual excerpt from the journal I kept during that time in the desert more than three years ago, while I was facing my deepest fears…
This experience for me is physical. It’s a significant tightening of the muscles in my chest, and a shortness of breath (or, more like a shallowness of breath—little truncated baby-breaths). At the same time, my mind starts to tell stories—negative plausibilities that freight-train into likelihoods. I create fictional reasons for why this particular thing must be happening, and quickly embrace them as the most probable explanation or outcome.
In this space, I’m convinced they’re true, or most likely true, even though I can cognitively ascent to the possibility that they’re not true once the anxiety subsides. But just as often, the tales I tell during those periods become my new reality, and I repeat them, cementing them, until or unless someone or something intervenes to force a new perspective.
• I’m anxious about losing friends, which seems fairly inevitable.
• I’m afraid I won’t find a meaningful job.
• I’m afraid whatever job I find—meaningful or not—will be such a dramatic lowering of income that our family will suffer (which will, as much as I try to convince myself otherwise, totally feel like “my fault”).
• I’m afraid I’ll lose interest in the things I’ve been passionate about, especially if I’m in a role that doesn’t give me cause to think on them and speak about them.
• I’m afraid I’ll have a cool opportunity that will require a move, and a boring opportunity that allows us to stay in San Diego, and that I’ll have to choose, knowing that one seems selfish, and the other feels like death.
• I’m afraid of becoming a shell of myself. I’m afraid that I’ve “peaked,” and nothing else—work-wise—will come close to providing the meaning and fun that I’ve experienced.
• I’m afraid I’ll have to wear a suit and tie, or at least “business casual,” and give up some of my individuality in order to get work.
• I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell thousands of youth workers that they really matter, that they’re not crazy. I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell them they need to change and try new things. I afraid I won’t be able to encourage them or push them or paint a picture of a new reality.
• I’m afraid I’ll have to be normal and boring and conventional and predictable.
• I’m afraid I’ll phone it in…
…have nothing to say,
…and no one to say it to. ◊