at a recent speaking event, i met the granddaughter of a man–the former choir director of the church i grew up in–who had a huge impact on my life and vocation. it got me thinking about the small handful of significant moments that played out-sized roles in my calling to youth ministry.
i thought of four moments, more than any teaching i ever heard or discipleship program or retreat or any other aspect of youth ministry programming, that i can still clearly remember to this day.
in part 1, i wrote about the choir director who invited me to ride with him and his wife in his car, while on choir tour, and the impact that had on me.
in part 2, i wrote about being invited to lunch at my youth pastors’ apartment, and why that was such a big deal.
both of those were stories of being invited into the world of adults. the third moment has a different learning, about the occasional word of encouragement.
in the mid-1970s, my church was very much living the transition from youth ministry 1.0 to youth ministry 2.0. the church had hired their first youth director, who still reported to the “director of christian education.” and the youth director only worked with high schoolers. the junior highers were still only a part of the christian education programs of the church. for me, as a junior higher, that meant sunday school on sunday morning, and “christian service brigade” on tuesday nights (brigade is a sort-of christian boy scouts).
when i was in 7th grade, i saw the youth director — a guy named terry prisk (who later became a very popular youth speaker around the midwest, and is now the senior pastor of The River in brighton, MI) — as “my older sisters’ youth director,” not mine. i heard about him all the time from my sisters. but i expected that his only and solitary impression of me was that i was lori and lisa’s little brother. and terry had moved on by the time i got to high school. so he was, technically, never my youth director.
so i was quite surprised when, in 7th grade, terry stopped me in the hallway of the church. to this day, i can recreate every tiny detail of the scene. i know exactly where it happened: in the angled hallway just outside the youth director’s office, an office with a split door (open the whole thing, or just the top half!), across from the “fellowship hall,” coat racks with shelves for hats or bibles there and there, the men’s and women’s restrooms just over there, weird brick bay windows, of sorts, looking onto a courtyard around the corners in both directions, the custodians’ office/work area 10 feet in that direction, and just beyond it, the entrance to “the hub,” the basement space where the youth group met. it’s interesting that i remember this level of detail, because i haven’t seen this spot in 30 years. in fact, it doesn’t exist anymore outside of my memory, as the church moved well over a decade ago, and that building, sold to a developer, was leveled and replaced by condos and a strip mall.
it was a busy passing time between services, or between sunday school and church. the hallways in that part of the church were stupidly thin for the quantity of people we had mashing through them. but as terry was passing me (or me him), he said, “oestreicher…”
i just had a thought. i wonder if he called me by my last name (which i distinctly remember) because he didn’t even know my first name?!
he said, “oestreicher, you’d make a great youth pastor one day.”
i have no idea why he said this, or why he picked that moment to say it. but he said it, and i never, ever forgot it (let’s be clear: that was 36 years ago!). i might have still ended up in youth ministry without that 7th grade comment from terry prisk. in fact, i planned on another career (or, many others) until i was partway through my senior year of high school. but i saw myself differently after that passing comment. and i’m 100% confident it played a formative role in the identity work that had just at that point sped up onto the freeway onramp provided by my newly acquired abstract thinking.
yup: being invited into the world of adults, and a simple word of encouragement. these simple moments shaped my life. and as a youth worker, i have tried to follow suit hundreds of times, calling out things i see in teenagers, giving them vision for their lives, encouraging and naming their sheer awesomeness. hopefully, i get to sometimes be a word from god to them. wow, i sure hope i have an impact on some kid like that 9-word comment, 36 years ago, had on me!
thursday i’ll post the final moment/story, which has to do with being shown grace, when i was a 9th grade idiot.