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.
Relationships do not run on formulas, we have no universal rules or guidelines to follow.Click to tweet
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.
- 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.)
- Slow down. You can’t pay attention to others if you’re moving too fast.
- 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.
- 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.