Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister: Weariness, Weakness, and Grace
This is the second piece in our ongoing series, “Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister.” While student ministry is often extremely edifying and even a barrel of laughs, it can also be isolating, discouraging, and totally exhausting. Our hope in this series is to offer comfort to those of us deep in the trenches of ministry, through personal stories of God’s goodness and grace in the midst of struggle. The first in our series can be found here.
Have you ever been weary? I don’t mean physically tired and in need of sleep, I mean the kind where your whole being is worn so thin that you feel like you could collapse at any moment. Exhausted completely – or as the NASB says, “weary and heavy-laden” [Matthew 11.28]. Perhaps you have been there before. Perhaps you’re there now.
This spring, I hit that sort of weariness. I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually spent. An incredibly grueling teaching schedule, added responsibilities outside of my classroom, and a home life that was not much of a refuge meant that I was worn to the bone. I was still meeting with students, still praying, still spending time with the Lord, still in church community, but nothing would cure the crippling exhaustion I felt.
As I headed into the summer “off” of teaching, I wondered why God had called me to work at a camp all summer, rather than recuperate at home. When I had accepted the position that fall I was excited, ready to work from before sunrise to after sunset, ready to do ministry in a different context. By May though, I was so run-down that I contemplated calling the camp directors and telling them I couldn’t come. How in the world was I supposed to do ministry like this? I was supposed to mentor college-aged counselors, serve campers, encourage peers! I needed to be strong and ready and capable for them, but all I felt was my complete and total weakness.
This was not a good situation.
Naturally, I lean toward wanting my competency to shine forth. Once I know people think highly of me, then I can let them know I am broken and needy. Once the girls I minister to know that I’m wise, then I can be honest that sometimes I have no idea what to do in my own life. Once I have established a good reputation as someone who is proficient and self-sufficient, then I can reveal some small bits of failure so people know I’m aware of my flaws. First comes giving and then receiving, first comes leading then comes vulnerability, first comes strength and then comes weakness.
The weariness that I endured this spring was exactly what I needed to bring me to the end of my pretending, to the end of my “competency.” I had nothing left to lead with but my emptiness. So I did. What I found there amazed me.
No one ran away from my confusion. I wasn’t fired when I revealed my feelings of inadequacy. The girls I mentored listened to what I had to say, despite knowing the junk I was trying to sort through in my own life. The level of respect others showed me did not diminish at all. Ministry was fruitful. I was able to ask and receive help in completely new ways. Before this summer, I always felt like I could only ask from those “above” me rather than those who were “below” me. Allowing those younger than me to speak boldly into the broken places of my life was deeply restorative to my soul. I even made some friends – real, encouraging, let’s-stay-close-forever friends (something that I hadn’t experienced since my early 20s). It was a shockingly unexpected life-giving summer.
Looking back now at the past few years of ministry, I can see where I went wrong. I told myself that I was keeping good boundaries, that I couldn’t be gut-level honest with my students because that’s not the sort of relationship we had. I think there is some wisdom in that; the girls I minister to are not my peers after all. But most of the time what I claimed as “good boundaries” was really just fearful, idolatrous hiding. I let the wise boundaries I did have with students permeate into every relationship in my life. I began to hide from everyone except people who had known me for years. I shared only a carefully curated version of my brokenness to the world. Perhaps you struggle with the same issue. If so, you need to hear this:
Your credibility in ministry doesn’t come from your ability to have your act together. It comes from the mercy of God [2 Corinthians 4.1]. You aren’t chosen because you’re a pretty package to carry the gospel, but because the cracks in your clay jar are the perfect display of the sufficiency of Christ [2 Corinthians 4.7]. He makes you competent [2 Corinthians 3.6]. It is His strength that shines [2 Corinthians 12.9]. It is His grace alone that bears fruit [John 15.16].
You might feel like I did – like deep honesty would threaten your ministry. But truthfully, your ministry is only as good as the gospel you live out. And the gospel – the true gospel – is all about light shining in broken places [1 John 1.8-9]. It is about the fact that Jesus’ perfect life was sufficient even for frustrated, worn down sinners. It isn’t about us, ever [2 Corinthians 4.5]. So today let’s allow our weariness to lead us deeper and deeper into Jesus-exalting honesty. It is there where we will find rest, true rest for our souls. How unlikely that our ministry could actually flourish during our very darkest of seasons!
Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.