By Timothy Coman
Corinth First United Methodist Church
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Theologian, stated this with such clarity, “Not to speak is TO SPEAK, Not to Act is TO ACT.”
Wow, it’s Friday night, there is this movie you and your spouse have been wanting to see, clearly you are ready for some much needed downtime, and then as you are getting prepared to leave the house, a text comes over your phone and you look down and it’s that kid, that student, the one you oftentimes wonder if they are really engaged in the lesson, and all of a sudden, they need someone to talk to, and it’s YOU!
This student is 13, their life is unraveling, their parents are divorced, and this student has been dealing with a severe form of bullying, and you know if you stop and put them off, you will send a message that yet another adult is less engaged, speaks of caring, but actions reflect something different.
All Youth Pastors, Pastors, and those in ministry understand the scenario I have just painted, for in the real world, it’s a real-life situation which occurs more than those in your congregation are aware of.
I adapted the following from an article which described how teachers give and live sacrificially for their students and oftentimes their friends cannot understand why they do what they do, so bear with me as I share this very dialogue and please understand, those of us who love people, students, congregants, etc, we didn’t come to the ministry or to service among kids for a large salary.
We didn’t trade our nice salaries, company perks and benefits because we were tired of working hard, but we felt our lives were meant for more than the corporate grind. Oftentimes, we have left our careers behind, and this open letter is to simply share with you where our journey has taken us and at times, the pain which accompanies the joys and successes, and yet pain for the families and students we serve is often too real.
“Dear Friends riding the F Train,
I must apologize for starters. It’s all my fault. I was eavesdropping. I tend to do that sitting on the F Train thinking about what I don’t have planned for a Wednesday night or how I now have my summers free. Unlike most folks who keep their earbuds in and their music up loud, I don’t want to miss anything. I’m a chronic people watcher. And lately, I’ve found that paying attention can be a ministry in itself. So, that’s really all I was trying to do.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about you.
I heard you, the one with your tie loosened up wearing the Rolex, yeah you, talking to another church member in the nice suit. Having that church staff member for lunch, and for the sake of conversation, let’s call Him Matt. Your conversation went a little something like this:
“Mike, do you ever notice Matt is 40 and acts like a big kid. Seriously, the guy is way too old to be hanging out with 13- and 14-year-olds.”
“I know, Chris. He acts like His job here at the church is really busy. He preaches to teenagers. His job is so stinking easy, His day ends at like 3, haha”
“Man, I wish he knew what it was like in the real world for a day. He thinks his job is so hard.”
*Insert awkwardly long laughter*
“Ya, and he’s always wearing jeans, what? He can’t afford a suit? I mean the church does pay him a salary right? And probably way too much.”
“Seriously. Matt has the easiest job, hanging out, surfing the web. I mean really, why do we need a full-time youth pastor, and really, is he really a pastor? I mean, it isn’t like he preaches every Sunday, and yet some kid called him Pastor Matt the other day, that irritates me. I mean think about this, he has summers pretty much off, he’ll be off for Thanksgiving and he gets several weeks off at Christmastime, yet he thinks he’s got it rough.”
“If only he knew…”
“Ha.” *Checks phone* “Wanna grab a steak? Taylor just texted me and said they’re going out.”
“Oh ya, man. I’m down.”
Then you guys left the train before I did, and I was left thinking. The more I thought about it and replayed your conversation in my mind, I knew I had to write you.
I don’t know your other friend Matt, but he’s clearly not as cool as you guys going out on a Wednesday night at 7 ‘o clock for beers with Taylor. (Whoever he/she is.)
From what I gathered, you guys are sick of your pastor friend. You’re annoyed at how frugal he is, how he speaks about his students with a deep love and admiration, and how much time off he gets.
The thing is, I wanted to speak up so badly, but I suppressed my thoughts, which were bursting at the seams, and withheld from butting into your conversation.
You see, I wanted to inform you that I was a youth pastor for several years. That I taught students from 6th grade to high school. That I resigned after this past year ended because I couldn’t take it anymore. That I wasn’t cut out for it even though I tried to pray through, that my parents and students loved me, but felt I was alone at times.
I wanted to ask you if you’ve ever had to run on a treadmill for eight hours straight on a speed that’s just a tad too fast because that’s the only way I could describe the physical exhaustion of being a youth pastor at times.
I wanted to correct you in your assumption that Matt’s workday ended around 3 p.m. (As a former youth pastor, I can’t help but offer you a mini-lesson: Youth pastors arrive early for events and stay long after it ends. They spend countless hours in the evenings, on weekends, heading to watch their students play sports, taking 11 p.m. text messages, Instagram chats, responding to parents and at times might not even be a parent of one of your students, working and planning of mystery trips, camps, mission trips, and helping students connect the dots (in an effort to make church meaningful, worshipful, fun and hopes that the kids will love it.) Oftentimes, youth pastors are judged by numbers, and not just how many come on Wednesday nights, but how many parents have joined as a result of their ministry. Meaningful connection takes work, relational ministry can and will drain you, caring for every concern, so I guess it’s not a mini lesson after all. Oops.)
I wanted to challenge you to volunteer to oversee a camp full of nine, 4th grade little boys that when you arrive at camp, you find you were supposed to have an additional counselor, but they didn’t show up, or you work to make a trip extra special and the day before an important event, a driver calls and tells you, he can’t drive, and to stay patient when you have 20-something students in desperate need for your attention and you’re truly trying to give them all a share of your attention.
I wanted to break it down for you so that you could better understand why Matt is frugal. Why, aside from being utterly exhausted, he doesn’t always have a nice suit. For pennies each hour per student, he’s busting his butt to ensure they are not only ministered to, but taught to be bold in their faith and courageous in the face of bullying, and are safe and loved.
I wanted to reminisce on my time in the ministry and share with you about the students whose home lives kept me up at night and the emotional toll this took on me and my marriage.
I wanted to make you ponder the differences of your job and his, but I’m afraid we would’ve run out of time. I’ll just throw this one out there: you can get away with being tired and frustrated, whereas Matt has to be ON from the minute those students arrive until they head home. When the event or camp is over, you can go grab your stuff, jump in your car, take off and Matt is still working, putting the van away, hanging with that last two students who should have been picked up an hour ago, and yet He knows, it’s His responsibility to be there.
I wanted to tell you that, in case you weren’t aware. Youth Pastors don’t fill out expense reports for everything they spend at the end of each week, for you know there is that kid who showed up with holes in her shoes, not enough money or no money at all and the rest of the kids are eating. It all comes out of their pocket. And only a guy like Matt would be cool enough to sacrifice his meal in order for a 14 year old to eat or spend time with that 12 year old whose dad is sometimes non-existent even when they live in the home.
I wanted to give you a hundred ideas for how you could be supportive of Matt and the selfless job he’s chosen.
I wanted to acknowledge that your jobs are probably hard, too, but gently remind you that at least you’re respected and compensated. Youth Pastors rarely earn bonuses or raises. The incentive to be the best boils down to the heart and a strong dose of integrity.
I wanted to let you know that I now work in “the real world” as you put it, and it’s only reaffirmed my once biased belief that youth pastors, pastors, teachers, coaches, counselors and anyone else who works in a service type ministry have one of the hardest, most important, undervalued and underpaid jobs in the world.
The Ex-Youth Pastor On The Train (and an advocate for all Matts in this world)”
The student who needs you is often that student who doesn’t always convey the need, they find it easy to hide behind a smile, they are dealing with pretty complex issues and the realm of Christianity as we know it today will speak empty rhetoric without real answers at times, and as Youth Pastors, we have no ability to control whom God places in our path, and so we carry the burden just as a committed educator carries theirs.
I often use the term “SPACE of GRACE” because it seeks to remind me of the people who are within my sphere of influence, students who are facing uphill battles, giants if you will that seem overwhelming, and so we stand in the gap, we pray through, our words must be chosen carefully, and not always limited to a post or a message of 140 characters or less.
We are the American Youth Pastor, we cannot remain silent when we know students need us to speak real life in the midst of social issues, and no longer is it easy to remain on the side line, but we must engage and take it to the next level.
For this, we covet your prayers,
Grace and Peace,
Tim Coman is the New Youth Minister for First United Methodist Church in Corinth and has been working with youth and families since 1991.
You can reach out to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org