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Embracing the Mess of Relational Ministry

Relationships are messy. And relationships are the context for our calling. Put two and two together and you get a “messy calling.”

Because relationships do not run on formulas, we have no universal rules or guidelines to follow. In fact, even the best relational suggestions are often helpful only once or twice. For example, if I buy flowers for my wife, Tasha, this Friday—for no reason other than “I love you”—I’ll score majorly big points. But if I do it again the following Friday, my point total will diminish a little. And if I do it yet again the Friday after that, the graph of my point totals might look like the U.S. economy during a recession.

It’s always a good idea to do loving things for my wife, and she’ll always be thankful. But at some point, it’s natural for her to wonder if I’m buying her flowers out of love or out of habit. Am I paying attention to her, or am I following a formula? The best marriages require an approach that is more art than science.

And friendships work the same way. My best friends are my best friends because we’ve been through tough times together— sometimes caused by a broken world, sometimes caused by others’ mistakes, but mostly caused by my own stupidity. Instead of walking away or turning our backs on each other, we choose to lean in, embrace the mess, and love each other through it.

It’s not surprising that relational ministry, our bread-and-butter at youth workers, requires a similar non-formulaic approach—because there are people involved. In my church, our student ministry is transitioning to student-led, with adult mentors. In our adult training, we reiterate that they should expect messiness (read failure)—we encourage them to embrace it, discuss it, and learn from it. Failure doesn’t have a formula, so we have to respond improvisationally.

What does it mean to lean in, embrace the mess, and make room for imperfect actions and attitudes? Here are a few guiding truths we’ve learned over the years.

  1. Pay attention. Notice what everyone in your youth room is doing, and how they’re interacting. That requires focus, which often is not a strength of youth leaders. (Don’t take offense, I’m writing to myself here.)
  2. Slow down. You can’t pay attention to others if you’re moving too fast.
  3. Go with it. An artistic approach to relational ministry means we hold our ideas loosely and are (humbly) willing to lean into someone else’s idea. Sometimes that means abandoning our ideas altogether. Don’t fight it; go with it.
  4. Put yourself out there. A good stage director will push actors to be bigger, louder, and more. In the theater world, it’s common to hear the phrase, “Over-act until I tell you to stop.” But that’s risky. You might fail, things might get messy, and you might learn a tough lesson. But you might also succeed, things might turn out beautiful, and you might get a glimpse of God’s Kingdom in pleasantly surprising ways.

Good relationships, just like transformational ministry, are messy. There are no formulas to follow or checklists that guarantee success (that would be boring, anyway). We simply roll up our sleeves and wade into the imperfection. The bad news: things might not work out as we’d planned. The good news: Jesus is there waiting for us in the midst of the mess, inviting us to jump in.

 

One thought on “Embracing the Mess of Relational Ministry

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    I am very pleased, even relieved, to have stumbled on your website. Someone must be looking after me out there! It’s always great to have your own ‘hunches’ confirmed! At the mo, I’m writing a piece on youth ministry for the Maryvale Institute [Birmingham, UK] It’s connected with final module ‘Ministering to Young People’ for the Certificate in Parish Pastoral Ministry [CPMM]. It’sveryt challenging ,like the rest of the modules have been. However, the main and particular challenge of this one for me is that I have not worked as any kind of leader in a youth setting since 1987, so, at present, I hold a figurative rusting sword in my hand always ready to do battle with windmills. As it happens, fifty years ago, I qualified as a community education worker. To be truthful ,I’ve participated, since then as a member, not facilitator, in ‘charismatic renewal’ sessions. These, though amazing, do not easily align with what I think Maryvale is looking for from me. The particular word I relate to in your comments is ‘messy’ I get that we have to think relationally. I also get that, in a sense, the process itself is the message . The content grows from our empathetic understanding of the aspirations and needs of the group as a whole and the individuals within it. All well and good ,one might say, but I think you must have read my mind. As soon as I began to consider what to write about concerning session planning, [ as this assignment requests], I found myself thinking, ‘What do I really know about the envisaged target group? How can I honestly plan a relevant session without having a very good idea of the likely participants?’ Can I really risk a prat-fall, flying by the seat of my pants, just hoping that ‘it’ll all be right on the night’? I could argue that in doing that I am trusting in the Spirit to direct affairs on my behalf. I just ‘go with the flow’, so to speak, and let what will happen happen. Planning? What planning? Should I deliberately plan to NOT to plan? A good example of what I believe is very desirable ‘open-endedness’ is the very successful Alpha movement which was initiated in England, as your probably already know, by the Anglican community over twenty years ago.The beauty of it is that it does not presume anything about the entry levels of its participants other than what they choose to share.All I need to do, I suppose, is just write about organising an Alpha session and then risk being subsequently accused of brand theft and plagiarism! My temptation is to say, ‘Stuff all this theorisinig! I need to get directly involved before i can suggest any sort of sessional program [programme] ‘ I am not a quitter, though. I’ve decided to be a fiction writer instead. I’ve invented my ‘dreamboat’ group They are to be undergraduate students , which is cheating a bit because, strictly, they would not be youths, as such, but young adults. I thought, rather wickedly, that there would be less explaining to be done; they would tend to be more receptive to fresh approaches, be more patient of eccentricities and more ready to accept a seminar model than a younger cohort. I have sometimes found, counter-intuitively, that a teen group can feel more threatened, be more change-resistant than an adult group.Such a group will tend to treat your ‘amazing’ insights with a considerable degree of scepticism. I have also found that groups seem to develop a personality of their own. A group may or may not be receptive to an intervention but there’s no way I know of to predict the outcomes. Put another way, I thought they, the ‘undergrads’, that is, would tend to make less ‘mess’ of my well-meant interventions. I could be quite mistaken, of course. I’ll soldier on, nevertheless. Fortune favours the brave, so I’m told. I will submit my assignment and then put my head below the parapet in order to avoid predictable shrapnel subsequently flying in my direction
    I very much appreciate what you’re doing. Keep it going, please!
    Thanks!
    Chris

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