Voices from the Past: Searching for Affirmation and Motivation

October 5th, 2009

A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from Allen. He's a former student who was active in my high school youth program until he graduated from my youth ministry six years ago. He called me to talk about his upcoming wedding plans, but mostly, he wanted to bring me up-to-date regarding several life-changing events of the past several years.

It was one of those out-of-the-blue kind of calls when you hear, “guess who this is?” from the other end of the phone. You stumble around in a panic, feeling embarrassed because you know you ought to know, but you just can't connect a name with the voice. Eventually he said something that triggered my memory, and we had an excellent conversation about his life.

As he recounted his past six years, I admit I was impressed. He'd completed a bachelor's degree majoring in physics in only three years; it took me three years to compete one physics course. He then enlisted in the U.S. Navy and is now training as a jet fighter pilot. He's engaged to a young, Christian woman, and he's still actively attending a local evangelical church. Allen's life after youth group is shaping up to be a wonderful success story.

After an hour-plus on the phone, we hung up. I continued thinking about Allen's apparent successes as I glanced at an old photograph of him and the classes of '94, '95, and '96. I'd often wondered what became of Allen after he graduated from high school. For four years, I had the privilege to care for him in a pastoral role, then poof!—he graduated. A few years later, I'd moved on to a new youth ministry. I count it a real blessing that I was involved in that chapter of his life, and it was terrific to hear what God had been doing in his life after high school.

Replicating Results

Allen is only one of the hundreds of students who've graduated from the youth groups I've served over the last 20 years. He's one of several who've taken the time to contact me after graduation. He's one of the few I know of who is actively living out his faith as a young adult.

What does it do for my ministerial motivation when students like Allen contact me with stories of personal success? How do I cope when I don't know the rest of the story for most former students? How do I evaluate my current program when I don't know how my past ministry influenced most of my students? And a vital question: What in the world did I do, intentionally or accidentally, to produce such a successful young Christian adult like Allen?

Seeking Proper Motivation

In regards to the first question, I must confess that I appreciate hearing from former students who are doing well. It provides me with feelings of satisfaction when I think that my pastoral efforts of prayer, teaching, and discipling accomplished their purposes. It motivates me to keep fighting the good fight. I don't think it's wrong for me to look for this type of confirmation for ministry motivation, but there is something askew when I seek personal affirmation in this way.

When I seek affirmation from positive ministry results, it represents a serious deficit in my motivation. It demonstrates an emotional and spiritual emptiness. When I seek my personal significance in meeting a student's needs (or feel emotionally destroyed when I fail to do so), I'm using my students—exploiting them to validate my own self-worth. At best, this is unethical; at worst, it's a form of idolatry.

So, where should I go to discover a proper motivation for ministry if not from successful models? In Abnormal Psychology, psychologists Davison and Neale suggest that a counselor's “own needs and fears must be recognized for what they are: the analyst should have enough understanding of his or her motivations to be able to see the client clearly.” This is also true for the youth pastor. I must allow the person of Jesus Christ and his genuine love, acceptance, grace, and forgiveness to be the source and substance of my self-worth rather than my role as youth pastor. I must allow Jesus Christ—and Jesus Christ alone—to meet my need for significance and to console any fears of inadequacy.

How can I let Jesus do this? For me, when my devotional life is active, I'm growing—in faith in God and love for people. I then (and only then) have something valuable to give to students. Ministry motivation grows out of this active devotional life. I don't offer ministries or pastoral care for students so that I might feel significant as a person; rather, as a significant person who is loved by Jesus Christ, I feel compelled to care for students.

Keeping in Touch

What should I do when I don't know, or ever learn, the rest of a student's story? What if I never see or hear from students once they graduate? I feel that I could do one of two things: I could take the active role and make a point to seek them out a few years after graduation rather than waiting for them to report back, or I could learn to cope with the reality of incomplete life-stories. Maybe the answer lies in doing a little of both.

I could provide a better parting situation for graduates as they take their natural places in the adult world. If the high school ministry still met needs in students' lives during their graduation seasons, and if students and adult leaders carry a close pastoral relationship through graduation, then they'll be more likely to report what they're doing over the subsequent years.

In addition, to learn more about graduates I must take advantage of my current line of resources—students' extended families and my associations with their moms and dads. Parents are a rich source of information. They love to talk about their kids. If I used e-mails, post-cards, phone calls, candy-grams, and letters, it'd help me gather relevant information and I'd better understand the role the high school ministry played in the rest of the students' stories. I could spend my time doing those kinds of things—but should I? Yes, because what I learn from a student five or 10 years down the road helps me evaluate the current youth program.

However, increasing the percentage of students who report to me after graduation won't answer all of my ministry-minded questions or even completely satisfy my idle curiosity. After all, despite my best efforts some students still won't respond. I don't blame them. Life becomes very busy after high school. There are students who just want to move-on and close that chapter of their lives. They want to move on even if that means ending past relationships, regardless of quality.

As caring pastors, we need to admit that the relationships we worked so hard to build with students were historic relationships designed for a season of time. Sometimes in a relational youth ministry, a relationship meant and means more to us than to the student. I'd imagine that in most cases this is true.

Planting and Watering

If we can turn our attention away from student's stories and toward our call to youth ministry, we can cope better with incomplete life-stories. This change of focus is a good way to resolve incompleteness. As a growing believer, mature in Christ, God called me to work with youth for a season of their lives as well as a season of my own life. As a youth leader, I have the privilege to partner with God in working in the lives of young people.

The Apostle Paul reminds us of this attitude toward ministry in 1 Corinthians 3:5-11. As I actively minister with high school students, I need to see myself as Paul did. He understood that he and Apollos were merely servants of God fulfilling their calls to ministry. Paul mentions that for the church in Corinth, he was the one who planted seeds of discipleship and Apollos watered them, but the one who was ultimately responsible for the results of their watered seeds was God.

In a similar manner, youth workers play a part in the lives of students. In their life stories other people will play parts about which we'll never know anything. The responsibility for the long-term results of our pastoral care must be given to the only one who is able to adequately care for them—God.

The Rest of the Story

So, what did I do in the youth program with Allen that worked so well for him but not others who graduated the same year? I don't know. But I do know this—the results I see in his life now had very little to do with me, our other high school leaders, the church worship services, or any special youth program we offered. The youth ministry opportunities Allen accepted, designed to mature his faith during his high school years, were the same programs (more or less) for each student. Allen wasn't involved during a particularly magical year when everything we planned worked well. I do remember that during his tenure, our leaders were re-tooling various approaches to the youth program, and work-shopping several ideas and styles of ministry designed to win, build, and send students into ministry.

His success as a young adult is less about me and so much more about God's intervention in his life. God used the bits and pieces offered by the youth program to accomplish something amazing in Allen's life. What can I say regarding my part? Just that I tried to be faithful to my pastoral responsibilities. I loved Allen during his high school years as I love all the students involved in my youth program.

Of course, Allen himself must be given credit for his own success. He had to invest himself into the ministry. He was active in Bible studies, he attended summer camps, he served as a middle school worker, and he did a host of other things. He was open to God working in his life. I know that God is the one who helped Allen invest in the programs we offered during one season in his life so that he could become a successful young adult.

Allen's successes so far confirm (but not affirm some unmet need in my life) to me that our style of ministry (win, build, send) is effective. I'm motivated in my ministry program having learned about his life. In this life, I have the joy to participate with the God of all creation in ministering in the lives of students. In that truth alone, I find motivation.


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