It was my first day working in the local public high school. The teenagers walk into my classroom, 70% listening to their iPods while the other 30% are busy texting. They turn the chairs from their desks and face them towards their friends so they can carry on the conversation they were having on the bus. Trying not to show my inner panic, I calmly walk around the room and keep a stern face while thinking, “I’m sure they will all focus once the final bell rings for class to start.” One minute later the bell rings. It might as well have been their mom asking them to take out the trash…no response. I think, “What have I gotten myself into?”
I had worked at churches and been in youth ministry my whole adult life. I owned the title of “youth pastor” and was pretty good at it. Most little boys want to be baseball players or astronauts when they are little. I wanted to be a youth pastor. Weird? Maybe, but there was some truth to that dream and aspiration. I loved teenagers and being a youth pastor was a great context to serve them.
My time as a youth pastor was full of authentic relationships, generally; the teenagers came to me and I was the guy that was supposed to have all the answers and create a good time. Everything was going smoothly until I started asking myself some hard questions. Is my primary authority held in my position or in my influence? Do I find my identity in holding the position of youth pastor or in who God has created me to be as one who loves teenagers? Has my position become more about politics than relationships?
Asking those questions created a tension within me and I lived in that for some time. After what ended up being a really smooth transition from the church I was working for at the time, I stepped away from my defined role as “youth pastor.” I may have turned in my title of youth pastor, but I never stopped being a youth pastor. In fact, my ministry was just getting warmed up.
I became depressed after stepping away from my youth pastor position. I was having an identity crisis. Not because I didn’t have the opportunity to lead by influence, but because I no longer held the position of authority. My identity had become so wrapped up in being “Jon the Youth Pastor” that I couldn’t clearly see myself outside of that role. I was immediately tempted to step back into that position as I had some opportunities come my way. They would have offered respect and credibility, but they would have also fueled my false identity. I needed to do some self-examination and try to build some relationships with teenagers purely through influence rather than position.
Some of my best ministry as a youth pastor was while I was in the position of school teacher. Back in the classroom full of iPods, text messaging and conversation, I quickly realized that these teenagers weren’t about to offer me their respect because of my position. No, I was going to have to earn that through building relationships of influence. They weren’t coming to me for answers on my turf. I was on their turf and I would have to earn the right to offer insight into their lives. It was terrifying, but it was brilliant and it was exactly where I needed to be.
Now, I am a missionary working in a tough neighborhood. There is a community center here with teenagers that need someone to come along side of them. I will not walk through the doors with positional authority. Instead, I will walk through the doors empowered by the Holy Spirit to love and build relationships of influence without any credentials next to my name. It is scary, but it is awesome and I am so thankful to be a youth pastor.
May we be a people who don’t assume authority because of the position we may hold. Instead, may we honor our calling to love and serve teenagers by building relationships that lead to influential authority. May it be an authority that is rooted in a clear understanding of our identity as disciples of Jesus.