Pastoral Identity Through the Lens of Belonging

a few months ago, i participated in a blog series on Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog, pomomusings, on the theme of Pastoral Identity. there were a lot of deep and pithy posts in the series. with a bit of trepidation, i threw in, with this…

As a lifelong youth worker, I have wrestled with framing my understanding of adolescence both in response to research and those who know much more than I do, while still being critical and not simply acquiescing to damaging and biased cultural opinions of teenagers. As a result, I’ve rejected the assumption, held by most, that the teenage years are necessarily a time of ‘storm and stress’ (a phrase used by a dude to describe adolescence back in 1904), unavoidably marked by rebellion, moodiness, volatility, and a host of other negative descriptors.

Instead, I think of adolescence as an overlay of two realities—new cognitive capacity and cultural permission—providing space for the working out of three interwoven tasks. Those are: Identity (“Who am I?”), Autonomy (“How do my choices matter?”), and Affinity (“To whom and where do I belong?”). I believe that the teenage years are the white-hot stage of these tasks.

But those three tasks are not limited to teenagers.

As an adult, I continue to periodically wrestle with those same questions. And as a person in ministry (and all that entails and implies), the working out of those tasks, as we all must do from time to time (particularly when we experience change), gets awkward.

Because we live very public lives. At least we should. We’re either somewhat authentic and, therefore, public; or we’re private and limiting our relational connection and impact. It’s tough to think of another profession that calls for life in a fishbowl to the same extent. Maybe POTUS.

Here’s what I find (both from my own experience, and from watching the lives of the professional youth workers in my year-long coaching program): Pastors are notoriously bad at separating “who I am” from “what I do.”

On one hand, those two are somewhat inseparable. There’s no denying that what I do and who I am are intertwined, informing each other and cuddling. Let’s say they’re spooning, even.

But if “who I am” and “what I do” are one-and-the-same, I’m in trouble. And, frankly, so is whatever ministry I’m a part of.

One of the points I make when I teach on these adolescent tasks is that today’s teenagers use the Affinity task as a lens through which they view (and work out) the other two. In other words: “to whom and where I belong” will give me insight into “how my choices matter” and “who I am.” (This, by the way, is a major shift from previous epochs of youth culture, when the other tasks were the lenses.)

As I think about my own identity, as a minister, maybe I should consider that adolescent lens as not such a bad thing. After all: if I have a healthy and honest (and theologically informed) understanding of my belonging to Christ and to the community of Christ, that could be pretty helpful in developing a healthy identity spooning with “what I do,” but not inverse-twinning into one thing.

Through that lens, “who I am” starts to take on distinct hues of “I am one who is following Christ, now, and through death and resurrection.” And “who I am” starts to take on shades of “I am one part of the body, the bride. I might have a different role; but I exist in authentic relationship with a community.”

Honestly, that sounds SO much better, so much more life-giving, than an identity merely formed by what I do.

Why We Published This: The Amazing Next

when The Youth Cartel first decided to start publishing, my friend brock morgan contacted me about a nonfiction book for teenagers he wanted to write. brock is one of the best youth speakers i’ve ever heard, and is particularly gifted at storytelling (great stories, told very well). in a nutshell, this proposed book was a collection of his best stories with spiritual implications. i was being less picky in those earliest days (we wouldn’t publish this book today, as it doesn’t really fit our publishing direction), and we agreed to move forward with the book. i think we even contracted it; but we didn’t have a timeline, and brock got busy with other stuff, and the book didn’t get written. later that year, brock spoke at the very first Summit on Activating the Hearts of Teenagers Who Don’t See a Need for Jesus; and i immediately knew that talk had to become a book. a year later, that book released as Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World!

fast forward a couple years.

i have always been a little annoyed by graduation gift books. i think the concept is fine; but i’ve felt that most of them feel more like greeting cards. and they tend to either be overly earnest, or too heavy-handed. i wanted the Cartel to publish a grad book that teenagers would actually want to read; one that was honest, encouraging, challenging, and fun to read. i imagined a book with a large scoop of sass, with the silly title This is Your Graduation Gift (that was the working title FAR into the process, until we were in cover design on that title and it came out that no one else–adam, brock, and our managing editor tamara–liked that title at all). i imagined a book with variety — some regular chapters with advice or discipleship stuff, some interviews, some blank pages for interaction, some quotes or poems, some humor, some weird extras.

9781942145097cover-frontso i asked brock if he was up for re-imagining his original book idea into this vision. and he loved it. i knew he was exactly the person to pull this off. and he totally nailed it. The Amazing Next: Waking Up to the Journey Ahead is now real, and i’m super pleased with how youth workers are responding to it.

here’s the official product description:

The new go-to gift for the graduate is not a book of promises or a list of life hacks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s a collection of stories, interviews, and journaling prompts woven together by veteran youth worker Brock Morgan to wake high school seniors up to the world of imagination and wonder—a life of faith lived to the full—that awaits them once the cap and gown have been put away.

and here’s the back cover copy:

So you’re a graduate. And a lot of people who love you are probably itching to tell you how to get this NEXT stage of your life right, maybe some of them are even hoping this book will do it for them. But there’s something you should know right now. This book is not a list of rules for spiritual growth; instructions on how to claim your best life now; or a formula for success.

Instead, this is a safe place to process your fears; read stories about freedom, imagination, and wonder; and consider a calling to live your life with the fullness God intended. Open it up, put your finger on a chapter (any chapter), and awaken the grace and hope you’ll need in the days ahead.

you can check it out here, and even download a sample. we’re offering fantastic discounts on bulk orders.

My Resistance to Excellence as a Value

my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) was published in the current issue. here’s what i wrote:

One of the wonderful tasks that make up my work is a yearlong coaching program for youth workers. In the four years since its launch, we’ve had about 200 people go through this program, in cohorts of 10. I currently have five cohorts at various points in their journey, meeting in various locations around the States.

Central to this coaching program is a focus on leading from values. Participants develop both ministry values and personal vocational values during our time together, and I’ve seen the process be revolutionary in helping people be more intentional.

I see values as the ship’s rudder, providing an ability to steer, hopefully in the direction toward becoming the ministry that God has dreamed of for your context. Values should be spiritually discerned (ideally in a collaborative setting), and should flow out of mission. Mission is the answer to the question: Why do we exist? Values, then, are the answers to the question: What are we called to embody in this season? Once values are in place, we can think about strategy and identify goals. But without values, goals are nothing more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. (For the record, Strategy is the answer to the question: How will we best live into our values? And Goals are simply the measurable action steps toward that end.)

Taking 200 youth workers through the process of developing their ministry values, I’ve regularly seen a particular value pop up that makes me squirm a bit: Excellence. Because I require my coaching group participants to state their values as complete sentences, this value often shows up as something like: We are passionate about doing everything with excellence, or Everything we do will be done with excellence.

I’m not anti-excellence. It’s not that I desire the opposite: everything we do will be done poorly and in the shoddiest manner possible. No, of course I’m not suggesting that. Excellence is a good thing. I’m just not convinced it’s a great thing.

Too often, what I can read between the lines is a commitment to programming excellence. In my mind’s eye, I see a youth worker with that value slaving at her computer to make extra-stunning PowerPoint slides. I imagine a youth worker combing the Internet and spending way too much time assembling the props for games with that extra-special wow-factor. I get a little depressed picturing the youth worker who drools over better technology for a snappier show.

I realize there’s a semantics issue at play here. Sure, we can commit to doing relational ministry with excellence. Of course, we can embody excellence in our listening, and in our encouragement, and in our patience and love. But that’s not usually, from my experience, what those excellence values are meant to imply, if the value-writer is being honest.

I get uncomfortable with excellence as a value because it all-too-often reveals a subtle wrong-headed thinking that our very best programming will change lives. Honestly, the number of teenagers who owned their faith, or deepened their understanding of Jesus, or asked the questions most deeply on their hearts as a direct result of the design quality of a PowerPoint slide has to be pretty close to zero.

I like sharp-looking graphics. And I’m all for technology helping us connect with teenagers. Planning and creativity and thoughtful programming are good things. But as an elevated value–a focus on the excellence of those things–they can quickly become a seductive distraction from our true calling. And at worst, those focuses can supplant the transformative role of the Holy Spirit, working through and around us in the lives of teenagers.

I’m more interested in leaning into a value of being responsive (to the Holy Spirit, to the needs of teenagers) and present. I want to value responsiveness over proactivity, and discernment over planning.

Dream of a ministry approach that lifts up those values, and you just might find yourself on the road to some truly amazing results.

FRIDAY NUGGET: Small Church Youth Ministry

tiny dogsmaller churches have a shorter pathway to excellent youth ministry. the larger you get, the more complex things become, and the greater the temptation to trust in resources, technology, and robust and creative programming to transform lives.

if you’re doing youth ministry in a small(er) church, stop apologizing. and stop envying the resources of larger youth ministries. celebrate the core of great youth ministry: a caring, jesus-y adult spending time with a small-ish group of teenagers.

youth worker story: starting over at 60

i met marvin this past weekend. we chatted after i led a youth leader workshop at a salvation army youth retreat.

IMG_6567marvin is roughly 60 years-old; a handsome african american man with fantastic salt-and-pepper hair, a warm smile, and eyes full of life. i asked him to tell me about the youth ministry he was involved in. he told me this story:

for 30 years, i was involved in different sorts of youth ministry. for 20 years, i worked for the chicago board of education as a disciplinarian. it was tough work, but occasionally very rewarding. so many of the kids i was working with hung out at the same park; so when the park manager position opened up there, i moved over to the parks department and took that role for 10 more years. i spent time with teens from the neighborhood who hung out at the park (they often had less-than-positive activities in mind and motion).

when the salvation army opened up a rehab center in the neighborhood, i decided it was time for a change. they asked me what i wanted to do, and i said, “anything that doesn’t involve teenagers.”

they put me in maintenance. and i hated it.

i didn’t hate it because of the work–maintenance work was just fine with me. i hated it because–as much as i thought i was completely done working with teenagers–i couldn’t escape my calling.

after two years, i shifted jobs again and became the chaplain of the rehab center. and in that role, i’ve also launched a youth ministry. we’re just ninety days into it at this point, and the kids don’t trust me yet. we have about 27 of them coming, but only 2 were willing to join me this weekend. but we’re making progress. and i love it! i’m starting all over again.

as soon as marvin got to the part of his story where he re-engaged his youth ministry calling, he started beaming a massive smile and quite literally radiating energy.

let’s be honest: youth ministry isn’t for everyone. but when you align with your calling–vocationally or avocationally–you are living the best life: a life of congruence. it the glove fits, you must submit.

Hopecasting excerpt: The Happy Police (A Hope Enemy)

a selection from Hopecasting:

As someone who’s spent thirty-three years in youth ministry—the majority of that with middle schoolers—I’ve certainly experienced my share of embarrassing ministry moments.1 But most of them have centered on malapropisms or other verbal blunders. Only a handful of times have I experienced the sort of embarrassment that made me angry.

I was a rookie junior high pastor at a large church in the Midwest. Our aging outreach and evangelism pastor, a wonderful and gracious man, held massive sway in the church due to his history and alignment with the church’s values. So when he told us all about an “opportunity” to host an event to evangelize business leaders in our community, the other pastors went along with it.

The event centered on bringing in a known motivational speaker who happened to be a Jesus-y person in private. Though no one on our leadership would have used the term, we were going to employ
the classic bait and switch approach to evangelism. Youth ministries have done this for decades, so I’m quite familiar with it (“Come for the haunted house! Then we’ll trap you in a room and scare you into heaven!”). Full disclosure: I wasn’t that uncomfortable, at that time in my maturity and spiritual journey, with a bait and switch. But I still felt it should be handled with a bit of finesse.

I’ll call the motivational speaker Bobby W. Clark, which is not his real name. He has long since passed away, so my purpose in telling this story is not to denigrate the name of a dead privately Christian motivational speaker but to illustrate our confusion about Hope and optimism.

The W in his name—whatever it stood for on his birth certificate—was part of his schtick, and he went by Bobby “Wonderful” Clark. As I would come to find out, he was a very minor celebrity who’d been working the corporate pump-’em-up circuit longer than I’d been alive. The plan for our church’s event was this: Host a nice dinner in a hotel ballroom, with the opportunity to hear this Wonderful business speaker. Guilt our church members, particularly those with influential business roles, to invite (persuade) multitudes of business associates to attend. Slip in the gospel. And, BAM, more business leaders in heaven!

I wasn’t in business. I didn’t have business associates. But my wife did. She was a low-level but professional employee at a natural gas trading company (yes, fodder for lots of jokes about “natural gas” in my junior high ministry world). So I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I pressured my wife to pressure her business associates to attend this Wonderful opportunity. And a few of them, very reluctantly, came along.

The food was good enough. But good old Bobby: well, let’s just say the operative word in that phrase was “old.” Seriously, I think he came out of retirement for this gig so he could afford another golf trip to Florida or something.

I have two extremely groan-worthy memories of that night, even though it was well over twenty years ago. The first of those memories was the root of my anger-tinged embarrassment. Bobby’s bait and switch was just the worst I’d ever seen. After offering literally three minutes of business-y clichés (shorter than his introduction by the evening’s emcee), he launched into a horribly hackneyed and manipulative presentation of the gospel complete with a simultaneously high pressure and confusing prayer of salvation. My wife and I were both horrified. Our church had traded on her friendships with colleagues and given them nothing more than a caricature of their worst assumptions of what the night might contain.

But my second memory of that night is the reason I tell this story. Bobby had a signature move. Really. Like, no one else could do that move without someone saying, “Hey, that’s Bobby W. Clark’s move!” I think there’s a little twisted part of me that admires anyone who has a signature move. Except…

Bobby’s signature move went like this: he would say something like, “I’m Bobby Clark, and I’m here to tell you that Life is Wonderful!” When Bobby said this last phrase (which he said multiple times during his talk) he would kick one long leg (he was really tall) high in the air. It was a bit startling the first time you saw it since it’s not a common movement for a man in a business suit.

But remember, Bobby was old. And his signature move required a bit more coordination—even athleticism—than Bobby possessed by that night. The first time he attempted the kick, right after he was
introduced, there was a long pause between “I’m here to tell you that life is…” and “wonderful,” with the leg kick. It was like he had to coax his body into action. On his first attempt, he only got his leg partially up in the air, and stumbled to the side. The audience silently willed him to move on, but he was not going to leave without executing his signature move.

It took him three tries. But he got it. And with newly reinvigorated confidence, Bobby busted out the leg kick three or four more times during his talk, rivaling even the Rockettes.

happy cageMr. Wonderful was selling us a very, very subtle lie that even he likely had no awareness of: pretending you’re happy makes life better. The core of Bobby’s motivational schtick was simple: choose to be happy, select the perky option, pretend that nothing’s wrong, ignore your pain, and you’ll be more productive and garner success.

I like happiness. Nothing wrong with that. And I generally agree with the sentiment that Life is Wonderful. But leg kicks and smiles won’t close the gap between the life I’m living and the life I long for.

Several years ago now, a little book called The Secret sold millions and became a runaway New York Times bestseller. The essence of The Secret was simply this: visualize the positive future you want for yourself, claim it to be true, and it will come to be.

And while Christians might have chafed at that message (for good reasons), we have all too often taught a version of the same. Sure, we spread a little Jesus mayo on that self-actualization sandwich. We say it’s God who brings the blessing, not our own efforts at positive thinking. But really, what we’ve often taught (and thought) is only a tiny shade different: our positive thinking allows God to bless us.

my schedule in new zealand (pray for me!)

i’m flying to new zealand tonight for a crazy-short and insanely full weekend. i love this country and its people, and have great friends there. but i could use your prayers for stamina and impact this weekend; but here’s what it looks like:
nz

  • tuesday night (west coast USA) through thursday afternoon (NZ): fly san diego to los angeles to sydney to auckland
  • thursday afternoon: get driven to hamilton (should be 1.5 hours, but it’s a holiday weekend, and could take twice that)
  • friday: two main session talks to 5500 teenagers at the north eastercamp, and one seminar
  • friday night: immediately following my evening main session talk, get driven 6.5 hours down to wellington, arrive in the middle of the night and sleep a few hours.
  • saturday: two main session talks to 1600 teenagers at the central eastercamp, and one seminar
  • saturday night: overnight at a wellington airport hotel
  • sunday morning: early flight to christchurch
  • sunday: two main session talks to 5000 teenagers at the south eastercamp
  • sunday night: overnight somewhere
  • monday: fly back to hamilton for debriefing and hangout with organizers, then get driven back up to the auckland airport
  • monday night: overnight in auckland airport hotel
  • tuesday morning: fly home, auckland to sydney to san francisco to san diego

whew. i’m winded and jetlagged just typing this!

this kid (reflections on my son leaving for 4 months)

my son max is just over 17 years old. he’s a junior in high school. and i am just blown away by how awesome he is.

i mean, his humor and quirkiness and musical passion and curiosity are all aspects of the joy he brings to our home and to others. but it’s his heart for others–particularly for those in need–that brings me pride and wonder.

i know this could sound like bragging. maybe it is. but i see this all as cause for thankfulness, not cause for self-congratulation. here are a few things he’s been involved in over the past few years:

as a junior higher, max started participating in a ministry loosely connected with our church, called Hope for the Homeless. every friday night, for about a decade (they have never, ever missed a week–and that consistency has been the secret sauce), a group of people from my church make sandwiches, then head downtown to hand them out to homeless people and engage in relationships. because of the consistency, the ministry has been been much more about humanizing people than about the sandwiches. when max started participating, they didn’t have other junior highers involved. it was all high school and college students, and a few adults. max went weekly for years, and still goes occasionally. the result is that max knows homeless people in san diego by name, and they know him. he knows their stories. when we’re downtown, they call out to him.

IMG_5691a little over a year ago, max started a ‘social justice club’ at his tiny private high school. it morphed into something else, and max isn’t currently leading it; but one of his first actions was to get his classmates to join him in sponsoring a World Vision sponsor child. to this day, max collects funds and manages that relationship and support (i have never helped on this at all, financially or otherwise).

when it was time for max to phase out of being the drummer for our church’s preteen ministry, he took it upon himself to raise up replacements. he coached, taught and encouraged a couple young drummers. one of those is now a freshman in high school and max’s back-up as the drummer in the high school ministry worship band.

max has always had a heart for haiti (even before the earthquake). he went with me on a Praying Pelican Missions trip to haiti a couple years ago, which ramped up his passion. last year, max was part of a month-long trip to haiti to put on a music day camp designed to give dignity to restaveks (haitian child slaves). he organized a small benefit concert to raise funds. and he worked to procure dozens of donated instruments.

in light of all this, the tiny nonprofit hosting the music camp–called Gabriel’s Promise–asked max to be their marketing manager. to this end, max has sought out coaching from a friend of ours who’s a marketing consultant.

this year, in preparation for the second music camp, max has seriously ramped it up on the benefit concert. he put together an informational packet about Gabriel’s Promise, met with the manager of one of the top music venues in San Diego (called Soma), and got them to agree to host the benefit. he recruited a half dozen of the top local music acts to perform. he worked with a designer through fivver to get a design and poster, started a facebook event, and recruited a team of high schoolers to be something of a street team, promoting the event. he shot short videos with the bands to promote the event. and he’s working to sell the thing out.

this is where the challenge entered.

with max’s desire to work in global development, he has felt it would be good to get a better handle on spanish (he takes it in school, but is FAR from fluent). so: two weeks ago, an opportunity came up for max to do a 2.5 month foreign exchange in peru. in many ways, it’s perfect: max’s class is going to peru for a class trip (sort of a service trip combined with a trip to machu pichu). the opportunity was to stay after the class returns, attending a sister school of his own. that meant no additional flight costs. but it also meant max would have to miss the benefit concert he has poured himself into. and he would miss the final months of fun with his many friends who are seniors (mostly his church friends). these are big losses for max, understandably. but he’s making the choice (with encouragement from us, but not pressure) to do what’s best for his long-range goals.

as a result: max leaves in a week for four months. the first three weeks will be his class trip; then he’ll stay in peru for 2.5 months of foreign exchange, living in the home of a peruvian classmate who will live with us for three months next fall; then he flies directly from peru to haiti to participate in the music day camp for child slaves. we won’t see him until the very end of july (when he plans on quickly turning around and working at a camp for a couple weeks).

i can barely imagine how much we’re going to miss him (i leave for new zealand tomorrow night, so today and tomorrow are my last days with him). with riley away at college, max is the center of much of what happens in our home. and he brings a significant amount of humor and joy to our daily lives. it’s going to rough for us (and i’m sure, at times, for him). i’m pretty sure that he’ll come back to us quite different (mostly in good ways, but there’s some loss in that for us also).

but, dang, i am so proud of him. godspeed, son. your dad loves you.