Conversations: Mark Yaconelli

January 13th, 2010

Mark Yaconelli is the director of The Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project. He's also the author of Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus and Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry. Mark also holds youth ministry workshops across the country and is a regular speaker at the National Youth Workers Conventions. Mark and his wife, Jill, have two sons—Noah and Joseph and one baby girl, Grace. Hobbies include grape-stomping, fish-wrestling, hooting, and biking. His father, Mike Yaconelli, was the founder of Youth Specialties. Why are you involved in youth ministry?

There are a number of reasons and they change over time. Initially I was involved in youth ministry because I felt it was the only thing I knew how to do. My dad was a youth worker and wrote books and trained people in youth ministry. I was like a carpenter's son who goes into carpentry; it's what I knew. 

After I got my first youth ministry job and had my first identity crisis/spiritual breakdown, I began to discover that this was really about God, about the ways in which I'm broken and stuck and about the many ways that young people (and the Church as a whole) are in bondage. Suddenly I felt like a freedom fighter that was seeking to empower a new generation of young people to bear greater love, creativity, hope and freedom into the world. For about ten years I worked within the mainline church at a national level trying to reform and inspire and change how youth ministry was perceived and practiced.  But my motivation was always this burning passion to free Jesus and free the church from the stifling images and habits. 

Now I'm at a different stage in my life. My eldest son is 11 and my interest in youth ministry is very personal. I want my kids to know God, to know the Body of Christ, to know that there is another way of being in the world…that opens the heart, that's full of relationships and passion. So I'm working here in the small town where I live to create a ministry that would enliven and empower my own kids.

What are the most important priorities for a youth worker to maintain?

You have to tend your soul. If you aren't seeking to deepen and expand your life in God the church will kill you (either spiritually, mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically through stress, etc.). So at some point you have to give yourself permission to become a spiritual leader (not a program director). And to be a spiritual leader you have to spend time in the Spirit. 

You have to pray, spend days in solitude, “wasting time with God.” To tend the soul you also need soul friends–people you can confess your struggles and sins to, people who you can be real to,  people who see your gifts. If you have no friends then get a spiritual director–someone who knows how to listen and companion your spirit into greater life. 

Secondly, you have to tend your family. One of the greatest gifts you can give kids is modeling a person who loves their family.  If the ministry is causing your family to suffer, then something's wrong. Finally, you have to genuinely like to be with kids. You have spend time just enjoying kids, not trying to fix them or manipulate them or get them to do the lesson.  You have to spend time with kids as people. If you stop allowing yourself to just play and enjoy kids, they will become problems or projects instead of persons.

Describe a difficult time in your life or ministry and how your faith changed as a result.

I've had many of these moments. Chapter 2 in Contemplative Youth Ministry is about one of the biggest faith crisis I had.

One shift happened when I was leading a group of seven kids on a mission trip to Portland, Oregon. I was in seminary and working at a church part-time to help put myself through school. My job required one mission trip a year. When it came time for the trip no one in the church was willing to go. Because I was the paid director everyone expected me to lead the trip by myself and I went along with it. 

At the last moment a grandmother at the church asked if her grandson could go. I knew her grandson had been a foster child, had been homeless, had been through drug rehab and was full of anxious energy. He'd come to youth group a few times and was totally ADD–he could not sit still, couldn't stay focused for more then ten seconds. The thing was he was full of smiles and laughter and jokes but he was totally disruptive. Reluctantly I allowed him to come on the trip. 

The first night “John” (pseudonym) was so excited to be traveling that he could not sleep. He ran around the church hooting and hollering.  He kept waking up other kids to make them talk with him. I ended up staying up with him until 5 am. We slept two hours then I had to get everyone up to drive the last leg of the trip to Portland. For the rest of the week, John would be up most of the nights and then would be tired and grumpy and lethargic during the days. I was going crazy. 

On the last night of the trip we stayed in a church six hours away from home. I was deeply exhausted.  Like every other night John was wide awake full of energy. Finally at 1 a.m. I lost it. I put my face inches away in a threatening posture and then screamed at him with demeaning language. Some of the other kids applauded. And their applause destroyed me. I felt totally ashamed and realized I had acted toward John the way he had wanted me to act, they way every adult acted toward him with anger and irritation and shame. 

It was after that weekend that I realized once again how weak and needy I am. I realized that I can't minister or live the Christian life alone. I need other people and the kids need other people as well. That was the last youth event I did on my own. From then on I was much more aware of my frailty and weaknessand that being aware of this weakness actually is where the power of the ministry (the power of God) is to be found.

What five books would your recommend to strengthen a youth workers soul?

Sacred Space by the Jesuit Communication Centre, Ireland. (This is my favorite daily prayer book. A beautiful and gentle guide written by people who trust God.)

The Awakened Heart by Gerald May (Simple, beautiful introduction to the contemplative life)

Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community by Suzanne Farnaham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan M. Ward. (Small book that lays open things like call, discernment, community and ministry)

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (This novel changed my life. A powerful parable of life today. If “Beauty” is a name for God then this book is a powerful testimony for how God changes how we live.)

Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus (This is not self-promotion…I don't need you to buy the book…but there really isn't anything out there like this…especially chapters 2-7. The book was written over ten years and contains the input of many, many praying and practicing youth workers).

What is the greatest joy you have in your ministry?

Listening and talking with broken youth pastors–because, without knowing it, they're getting closer to Jesus and closer to their own calling.

Please share a story about your dad. 

Two weeks before the 2002 world series (SF Giants vs. Anaheim Angels) my dad calls me and says he knows the woman in charge of finding extras for an event that's going to be televised during Game 2 of the series. The event is the “Mastercard Most Memorable Moments”. Basically people across the U.S. were asked to vote for their most memorable moment in baseball. The top ten moments were going to be announced right before the beginning of Game 2 by actors Billy Crystal, Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia. Any living players involved in the memorable moments would also be there on the field. 

So dad calls and tells me he's flying up to San Francisco to be an extra–one of a team of 25 guys who would run out onto the field with a giant 50' x50' sign that had a number (1 through 10) and would be held up vertically for the stadium audience and the TV audience. Dad had to spend two days practicing for this thing. I was leading an important training event and told him I wanted to be involved but couldn't make the practices. He worked it out with the woman in charge (she was a Lutheran and ran the backstage at national Lutheran events; that's how they met) that I could just show up for the event and would still get to go out on the field and would be able to get into the game. 

I showed up two hours before the game and the woman gives my dad and me these little credit-card sized passes to wear around our neck. This was only a year after 9-11 so security was tight, but Dad and I decided that the real challenge was to see how far we could get with these passes. We started sneaking around flashing our passes like rock stars. We got to go into dug outs, to a press interview with Barry Bonds, we stood next to the governor of California and Dad got into a secret room where Pete Rose and other baseball greats were being hidden. We would fall over laughing as each of us tried to act like we were big wigs, trying to impress security. It became a game.

Right before the beginning of the game Dad ran out onto the field with a group of guys and held up his card while I monitored a spotlight on Billy Crystal. Then the game began. We didn't have seats but we had these passes. So we decided to see how close we could get to the field with these stupid rainbow credit cards. It was like a game for us, to see where we could go.

Eventually we ended up with the press photographers about five feet from the field. Once in awhile other people who had friends in the press would come stand by us, sometimes blocking our view.  We decided to see how much power these cards would give us.  We called over security and asked them to remove everyone who wasn't essential. We couldn't believe it when they cleared everyone out, except for us and few photographers (especially when our passes said they were only for “pre-game” festivities). We became so fascinated by the power of our passes that we almost stopped watching the game. This is the kind of thing with Dad; he'd drop everything for a new adventure or experience.  He didn't even follow baseball; it was just the adventure that attracted him.  When we were together it was often playful, risky, humorous, creative. He was a great playmate.

What's the most unique thing you've ever bought on Ebay?

I've never bought anything on Ebay. I don't really like technology….or maybe I'm afraid that I like it too much.

How would you love to see youth ministry change?

I think it's time for youth ministry to take all of it's idealism and creativity and wisdom and give it away to the church. I think it's time for the youth ministry experiment to be over. It's time youth ministry claimed itself as the revolutionary arm of the church and then refuse to be segregated from the rest of the church. Every study in the past 50 years shows that it's an ecology of faithful, intergenerational relationships that best form young people into Christians. So it's time to stop being segregated. It's time for youth ministry to end and the whole church to begin. This may happen by youth ministry joining the church, or by the church joining youth ministry.


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.