3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Became a Youth Worker
My theological training in seminary has been an adequate foundation for my ministry.
But my experience over the years has taught me a few things that I didn’t read in a text book, I didn’t hear in a class lecture, and I didn’t know until I found myself sinking in the shadows of youth work.
When I find myself in those shadows, God always meets me there to teach me a valuable lesson about my capacity and His grace. When the seasons of struggle turn to brighter days, I ask myself,
“Why didn’t somebody tell me this earlier?”
Some say that wisdom is having the right answer before the question is asked or the opportunity presents itself. Others say wisdom is not having to learn from your own mistakes. Call it wisdom, call it help, call it what you want. But whatever you call it – know that there are things you can only learn from personal experience and there are lessons you can learn from the experience of others.
In other words, you don’t have to go searching for a flashlight during a storm if you know you have one in your pocket.
Don’t be afraid. Open your pocket. Take the flashlight. There will be a storm.
When I got started doing youth work I wish someone told me these 3 things.
“They’re not ‘your’ kids.”
When I first started meeting students I put a lot of effort into building solid relationships. I wanted to invest in their lives, not just their faith journey. That wasn’t the issue. Building solid relationships leads to effective ministry. But solid relationships with a clouded vision can lead to unhealthy expectations.
I remember feeling betrayed when a student told me he was going to a different summer camp with another church. Did he not KNOW I’d been praying for him and his precious summer? I remember being irritated with the other youth pastor, the other church, the other camp. Did they not KNOW he was “my” kid?
God met me in that shadow and reminded me that before he was “my” kid he was His “beloved child.” Before I began building a relationship with him, he was being cared for by a heavenly father. Before I had spent any time with him, God was working in his life. This awakening gave me peace and freedom. After all, he was going to another church camp to hear about God’s love for him. He wasn’t ditching me to go throw rocks at cars. There is freedom having a healthy understanding of our role in the lives of the students we work with.
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.” 1 Peter 5:2
The truth is “our” kids are not “our” kids. They are God’s flock and we have the honor of walking alongside of them for a season of their lives. And if we’re lucky, for many years to come. It is our role to love them well while they are on our watch. We don’t own them. They do not belong to us. In fact, we belong to them and we are blessed to be a part of their lives.
The passage above ends with being eager to serve, which leads me the next thing I wish I was told when I got started on this journey.
“Seek to serve, not to save.”
The salvation of my students is just as important to me today as it was when I started. But my focus has shifted from saving to serving. A successful year of ministry was determined by how many students gave their lives to Jesus. The more students who made that commitment, the better summer camp was.
I am still broken that I was not able to celebrate the students who made movement in the right direction, because I was too focused on wanting a mile when it was a miracle they moved a meter.
When we seek salvation of others before we seek service unto others, we become the cross. We become the savior. Galatians 5:13 tells us to serve one another humbly in love. That is our role. We need to let the savior do the saving and become the servants Jesus calls us to be. 1 Peter 5:3-4 explains we need to lean into our role as an example to our flock and when the “Chief Shepherd” arrives we will receive our crown of glory that will never fade away.
There is freedom and dignity in being the servant and letting Jesus be the savior.
The third thing I wish someone told me when I got started provides the “Why?” behind being a servant and not a savior.
“People are people, not projects.”
We can all tell stories about people trying to fix us and every story we tell will start with a slight shake of our head and an eye roll. Even if a person has good intentions, even if healing is needed in our lives, it is never an uplifting feeling when we know we are someone’s project.
But when people enter into our struggles to understand them, not fix them, their presence helps us pry our fingers off our own lives. When we are treated as people and not projects doors open, chains are loosed, and healing can begin.
I remember being frustrated with a student who was ungrateful that I cared more about his life than he did.
What was his problem? Me.
God met me in that shadow and asked, “If you don’t care about his struggles at school or at home? What is going to make him think you really care about his faith in Me?”
The shift from seeing him as a project to fix and a person to love, led me to a healthier place. I began to talk less and listen more. I had more questions than advice for him. I developed a deeper understanding of who he was and a clearer picture of how to care for him in the midst of his problems.
One phrase that I did hear in my early days of ministry is,
“They don’t care what you know, unless they know that you care.”
When we treat people like people to be loved and not projects to be fixed, healing can happen and it is a beautiful thing.
My prayer is that you shine in the shadows of ministry. My hope is that these 3 phrases help you navigate around obstacles you don’t need to go through. Now go, shine bright, it’s a beautiful mess out there!
Cesar Castillejos is currently serving students and families in Richfield, Minnesota, through collaboration with Young Life and Hope Church. He serves as the Young Life area director and lead teaching pastor of The Well, a faith community that started in a nightclub. Cesar is also the founder of One of One Clothing Company, a mission-focused business that uses creativity to spotlight the uniqueness of every individual.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.