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.

Spiritual Strengths Inventory (for when your faith is down in the dumps)

Hey there, Reverend! I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. If you ever choose to go public with your thoughts about sexual harassment or sexual violence in the church, I suggest building in several months off afterward to deal with all the mail.

On a not wholly unrelated note: I don’t know about you, but I found my seminary training to be a bit lacking in the pastoral counseling department. I did take one class on something called “spiritual care,” during which I learned a great deal about the love lives of my classmates and very little else. If I am ever again in a position to counsel someone who is heartbroken after desertion by a paramour from the back row of Old Testament II: Histories & Prophets, I will be ready to roll.

Somehow, though, I had a feeling that my friends in the mental health field were developing skills a bit more sophisticated than “mirroring” and “active listening.” They were learning to notice their clients’ thinking errors and challenge them, directly but kindly. They were learning how to help people name their struggles and — even more important — start to imagine being able to overcome or endure them.

I wanted to be able to do those things too. So, this year, I started reading the books they were reading and trying out some new strategies in pastoral counseling. What captured my imagination the most was the work of Dennis Saleebey, a social work professor who popularized the model now known as strengths-based practice. You can read all about this in a surprisingly interesting book called The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice. (Alas, I cannot do anything about the price. Get it from the library or borrow it from a social worker friend.)

Saleebey’s idea, no doubt shared by many others, was simple and brilliant:

If you want to help people make positive changes, help them build on positive things.

If someone’s goal is to stop drinking, it’s easy to focus on the problem of drinking. But what if we shift our focus to the desired solution of non-drinking? Has this person had a time in her life when she was drinking less? What was different then? Where was she living? Who was she hanging out with? Would it be possible to grab onto any of those protective factors now and put them to work again?

If someone’s goal is to stop losing his temper and hitting his toddler, the problems are violence and anger. But the solutions we want are nonviolence and calm. Does this person ever react to frustration more calmly or nonviolently than he is doing right now? What is special about those moments? If the answer is “quiet” or “getting a break” or “my kid being less of a pill,” could we work together on finding some noise-canceling headphones or some respite care or some new behavior strategies to help?

It’s usually not too hard to see the patterns in our destructive behaviors: We get cranky when we’re tired or eat too much when we’re sad. Saleebey’s insight was that positive behaviors also follow patterns, and if you can coach people in learning to spot those patterns for themselves, they might just start to trust in their own power to change.

I’ve been thinking about how pastors can put this philosophy to work in our own approach to counseling. I am a parish priest, so the problems people bring to me are most often spiritual in nature: How can I trust that God really loves me? Why can’t I concentrate when I pray? What should I do if the wellspring of my faith is all dried up?

Saleebey came up with different types of questions that can help people identify their own strengths — support (who has helped you?), esteem (what makes you feel good about yourself?), motivation (why do you want to change?), exception (what was different when things were better?), and more. I cribbed shamelessly from his secular work to come up with the following list of questions. I’ve since been trying them out in pastoral care settings, to startlingly good effect. Lest you think I am trying to nose around in everyone else’s spiritual life without tending to my own, I’ve been working through them in my prayer journal too.

SPIRITUAL STRENGTHS INVENTORY

Click here for a printable PDF of the Spiritual Strengths Inventory.

Support Questions

  • Which people have supported or inspired you in your faith?
  • What places, objects, songs, or experiences have made you feel especially close to God?
  • Who are the people upon whom you can depend within your faith community?
  • How do these people support you? What do they do that makes you feel cared for and loved?
  • What faith communities have been especially helpful to you in the past?
  • What was special about these communities? Is there a way for you to find a similar community now?

Esteem Questions

  • When God looks at you, what do you think God delights in most?
  • What is it about your life and accomplishments that gives glory to God?
  • How do you seek to do God’s will?
  • What gives you a genuine sense of peace?

Meaning Questions

  • How do you find meaning in your vocation or daily work?
  • What are the sources of transcendence in your life?
  • When do you feel most fulfilled?
  • What do you think God is calling you to do?

Motivation Questions

  • How do you want your prayer life or your relationship with God to change?
  • How do you want your relationship with your faith community to change?
  • What steps do you think you need to take to begin these changes?
  • What is the smallest step you could take to initiate one of these changes?
  • How can the people in your support network help you with these changes?
  • How can God help you with these changes?

Survival Questions

  • How have you managed to hold onto your faith thus far, given all the challenges you have encountered?
  • How has your faith helped you rise to the challenges set before you?
  • What was your relationship with God like as you faced these challenges?
  • What have you learned about yourself during your struggles with faith or vocation?
  • How have the challenges in your faith journey given you special strength, insight, or skill?
  • What are the qualities of God upon which you can rely?

Exception Questions

  • When your relationship with God was stronger, what was different?
  • When your spirit felt more nourished, what about your life, beliefs, relationships, or community was different?
  • What parts of your faith would you like to recapture, reinvent, or relive?
  • What moments or incidents in your life have given you special understanding or guidance from God?

Possibility Questions

  • What do you want your relationship with God to look like now?
  • How do you like to pray? How do you know when you are connecting to God through prayer?
  • What are your special talents and abilities? How have you already used them in service to God? How could you use them in service to God in the future?
  • How will you know when your relationship with God is stronger? How will you feel, think, and act?

I’m all about the strengths perspective these days, so do let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for further reading. And I would love to hear if you get any use out of these questions yourself.

Rock That Collar: Featured on Beauty Tips for Ministers!

I’m a longtime fan of Beauty Tips for Ministers, a blog by PeaceBang, otherwise known as my fellow Massachusetts clergywoman the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein. She writes about clergy image and style, offering plenty of beauty tips but also so much more:

So you can only imagine my pure giddiness at being featured on BTFM.

Read the post here.

And don’t worry … Vestment Shopping for the Liturgically Challenged: Part 2 is on its way. I have a LOT of thoughts about how you should look in a cassock.