Youth Pastor Ken (or: On Being Uncool in Youth Ministry)

Good morning, Reverend! Is this a busy week, or what?

Here in my neck of the woods, we’re getting ready for Homecoming Sunday. I am hard at work prepping my sermon, trying to recruit that final leader for seventh-grade Sunday school (why is it always the hardest position in the church to fill?!?!), and counting the days until I get to see my beloved high school youth group kids again.

I have two words about high school youth group: GIANT JENGA.

Actually, I also have a little story. Consider it a pep talk as you launch into this crazy time of year, at least if you are resolutely uncool like me.

Back in my early youth ministry days, I had a colleague who did everything better than me.

I first got to know him because he worked at a church down the street from mine. You could have used him as the model for a youth-ministry action figure. Or a new make of Ken doll.

I’ll call him Youth Pastor Ken.*

I could spend days telling you stories about him, but here are the only two things you really need to know:

1) He was still a virgin at age twenty-eight.

2) He made this seem cool.

Youth Pastor Ken was an evangelical Presbyterian, a tradition not known for its love of fun, but he got away with all sorts of outlandish non-Presbyterian behavior because he was so darn charming.

I once caught him skateboarding INSIDE his church.

While I struggled to rally six or seven teenagers for Sunday-morning youth group, Youth Pastor Ken routinely had six dozen kids at his Wednesday-morning prayer breakfast.

At 6:30 AM.

Youth Pastor Ken was always surrounded by kids. He was GREAT with kids. He exuded confidence and cool.

He was dudely, but also sensitive. He was good at drawing and good at sports.

He talked openly about his love for Jesus, and he knew all the lyrics to “Awesome God.”

Even the verses.

He had a soul patch, and he could play the guitar.

Although I was barely out of college myself, I thought he was a little bit “immature,” which was my subtle code word for “cooler than me.”

Nonetheless, it was hard not to like him.

Against a considerable set of odds, we slowly became friends.

Each of us had something to offer the other.

I teased him about his soul patch.

He teased me about being so serious all the time.

When I argued that “virginity” was a complex and highly problematic social construct that had changed considerably over the last several centuries, and asked if he wanted to borrow Hanne Blank’s then-new book on the subject, he rolled his eyes and said, “You are SO SMART.”

When he argued that the Word of God through Scripture and sermon was at least as important as the Eucharist, and complained that my church skimped on preaching, I rolled my eyes and said, “You are SO PRESBYTERIAN.”

And as I got to know him better, I came to respect a fundamental, if obvious, truth:

I am not Youth Pastor Ken.

I am bad at drawing and worse at sports.

My relationship with Jesus has profoundly changed my life, and yet I struggle to describe it, at least in words that will resonate with jaded high-school kids.

I will never be a magnetic draw to a Wednesday prayer breakfast.

I spent a long time beating myself up over things like this.

I had forgotten Paul’s handy directive to the Romans:

As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

At age 20, I did not appreciate these words at all.

I was on board with the whole body-of-Christ thing, but I wanted to be a cool member of the body.

Maybe the soul patch.

Youth Pastor Ken had all kinds of gifts that I did not: Throwing Nerf footballs in perfect spirals, in proportion to hand-eye coordination; talent, in singing; enthusiasm, in working a crowd.

The more we worked together, though, the more I realized something else:

I had some complementary gifts.

You know, according to the grace given to me.

And I came to believe that quiet, unhip types have a place in youth ministry, too.

While Youth Pastor Ken was a magnet for good-looking athletes, I noticed that I had become the favorite of a very different group of teens: The anxious and awkward ones, the loners, the kind who carried around little notebooks and filled them with sad poems.

Kids told him their best funny stories, and found me when they were hurt, scared, or sick.

This is not to say that kids didn’t trust him. To the contrary, plenty of teenagers who were in real trouble — who were facing abuse, or depression, or pregnancy scares — went straight to Youth Pastor Ken.

But you know how I know?

Because when Youth Pastor Ken wasn’t sure how to help them, he came straight to me.

He’d send me one-line text messages:

I have a girl who I think should talk to you.

Can’t get CYS [Children & Youth Services] to call me back.

What do you know about cutting?

I would glance at the words and then call him, because these were the days when text messaging was still a relative novelty, and it drove me crazy to peck out an answer on the flat plastic buttons of my ten-key phone.

Tell me what she said to you.

Let’s find him a place to stay tonight.

Do you know the caseworker’s name?

I didn’t know it at the time, but Youth Pastor Ken was helping me find my calling.

Now, a little older and maybe even a little wiser, I have accepted that no amount of prayer, no sudden insight, no workshop or magazine article or trance state is going to give me a different personality.

I will never be a standout football-thrower or praise band leader.

And I would look silly with a soul patch.

I can, however, cultivate my own little garden of gifts as a problem-solver, thinker, and listener.

I can be a comforting presence on an adolescent psychiatric ward.

I can sit quietly beside a student until they have cried every last tear and are ready to talk.

And I can build the relationships that enable me to do these things just by enjoying the kids in my ministry: playing Giant Jenga with them, laughing at their jokes, and remembering that I don’t have to be entertaining all the time because they bring plenty of entertainment by themselves.

I still have my days when I wish I could ride a skateboard or dominate a pickup football game.

Here’s the thing, though:

The world doesn’t need another Youth Pastor Ken.

It already has one.

And, all things considered, being me is pretty good too.

*Youth Pastor Ken is a composite of many fine youth workers I have known, though each element of this story is true.

Note: This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on The Goodness of God.

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