I remember it like it was yesterday. Lying in the tent (my senior pastor claims I was snoring….I tend to think he exaggerates!) when suddenly the wind screams through our open tent and the presence of a storm is so close we can touch it. We rush out (without the proper coverings) and put the tent fly back on and lie back down, hearts pounding, wondering what will happen next. Thoughts race through my mind…
Am I certain we checked for dead tree branches above our tent site?
My senior pastor just ran outside the tent in his underwear!
Are the students okay? After all, I am a youth pastor. Not hearing any commotion, I stay put!
It could be worse; the rain could have started before the wind.
This trip is amazing!
It's incredible that our Senior Pastor is with us.
With that final thought, and as the rain starts pounding, I begin to think about what makes this trip impact lives so dramatically. Admittedly, nature provides a great backdrop for ministry. It displays God's grandeur, creativity, and power. And it serves as a fairly simple way to get all of us out of our comfort zones. But more importantly, at least for this trip, is the relationship that each student builds with our senior pastor.
Some of the individuals that know and understand our senior pastor best are our high school seniors. In a church of almost 7,000 people the challenge of getting to really know people can be daunting. Every year our senior pastor blocks out two weeks of his summer to spend time with our high school seniors walking around in the woods. This time is dedicated to living with our kids in a very intimate setting, the middle of a national forest. It comes down to the fundamental principle of youth ministry—building relationships.
The best opportunity that Senior Stretch provides our students is to have an exclusive window into the life of our senior pastor. We're a traditional church. Our students typically see our senior pastor in his suit and tie addressing and relating to adults. On Senior Stretch, they come to know and understand him as a real person. They experience the “BIFF” together. Well, kind of. (“BIFF” is a Bathroom In The Forest Floor) They participate in all the conversations, jokes, and laughter that surround the training of proper biff usage. While I could pontificate on all of the proper positions for the biff, that might get out of hand.
Each student participates in the transformation of his or her perception of who our senior pastor is into the reality of understanding who he really is and what makes him tick. Throughout the week we have no preconceived expectations of our senior pastor except for him to hang out with kids. And that is exactly what he does!
Prior to Senior Stretch, our students see our senior pastor as their parents' pastor. Within a few short days of walking around in the woods, he transforms into their pastor. In a formal church setting the senior pastor can sometimes be perceived as that guy on stage—not very personal. Senior Stretch tears down walls and builds new bridges of understanding, openness, and honesty. The relationships that are built between each other and with our senior pastor help our kids become more like Christ. Following our first Senior Stretch, the place students wanted to hang out was in the pastor's office! This opened another window on his life. Students asked him about all the memorabilia in his office, thus forming another bridge to open their lives on a different level to his ministry.
Another amazing outcome of Senior Stretch is the amount of time he spends with us. The demands of ministry in a church setting take its toll quickly unless carefully monitored. In any given week, our senior pastor not only has requests to speak to groups within our own church, but also is requested to speak to other ministry organizations as well. He very rarely speaks to outside groups and even has to limit the amount of time he spends speaking and teaching to groups within the church. After returning from Senior Stretch, because of relationships built, he is eager and delighted to share personally and collectively with our kids. Several occasions throughout the year our students request that our senior pastor speak specifically to them. He has gladly made time to come and answer our high school students' questions.
Typically, he sits on a stool in someone's home with students listening and opens up his life one more time in response to questions about him personally, spiritually, doctrinally, and addressing struggles the students are dealing with in their lives as well. This too has proven to be an amazing time with life-changing impact as we build on the relational bridge between our students and our senior pastor.
The Thunder Clap
When I was asked to oversee our student ministries, it needed a shot in the arm. The job of growing this ministry was too overwhelming for me to do on my own. Senior Stretch has given our ministry some much needed visibility. Our senior pastor is so jazzed about hanging out with high school students that each year he builds his sermons following our return from senior stretch to tell the congregation about our experiences. The first year, our students actually met with our senior pastor to help him in laying out his message. He then taught these ideas using illustrations from the trip.
This past year, one of the most memorable components of our Stretch was having each student write their own Psalm. It's amazing to hear their hearts crying out to God after an excruciating day of hiking. Our senior pastor recently introduced his series on prayer by having students read their personal Psalms to the congregation. This gives our students a chance to share their hearts with the congregation, as well as providing an opportunity for the congregation to look under the hood of our student ministries and the spiritual impact we're striving for.
We're very similar to many churches in the country. The staff often becomes so consumed with ministry within their own arena, that interaction between staff members is somewhat limited. During this past summer as our senior pastor and I were exchanging thanks for being part of this week, we both came to the realization that we probably understand each other better than anyone else serving on our staff. We've developed as a team mainly because of the shared experiences while actively ministering together. We not only have come to a better understanding of the ministry that we each individually own, but we also have grown to honestly enjoy working together. The concept of working as a team, when you know that you're ministering with someone who respects you, connects with you, and likes you is powerful. Scripture repeatedly uses examples of teams that God used to accomplish ministry.
As I begin the early planning stages of next summer's trip, I cannot adequately express my excitement as I anticipate how God is going to work through the relationships that will be built. It's a phenomenal experience to sit back and watch our pastor become their pastor in a matter of days. I look forward to jumping in that tent again next year. I'm just hoping that this time I'll get to sleep through the night.
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.