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.
part 3 was the story of my older sister’s youth director telling me i’d be a great youth pastor someday, when i was in 7th grade. 9 little words that were potent stuff, apparently.
the first two moments were stories of being invited into the world of adults. the third moment was about word of encouragement.
i’m sure there were a hundred or a thousand other moments and words and teachings and appropriate touches and listening ears that had am impact on me. but from my almost-50 perch, i remember four.
when i was in 9th grade, we had a sunday school teacher named fred. nothing about fred was cool. he looked strikingly like the dead guy in weekend a bernies (though that movie was more than a decade away from its release). he was a somewhat boring teacher, and he used a over-arching device to get compliance out of us that, even as a 9th grader, i could see as horribly manipulative: we got points for all sorts of things, and those with at least a modicum of points at some point in the winter got to go to fred’s cabin in northern michigan for a snowmobiling weekend. when i spot manipulation, particularly by a boring, uncool sunday school teacher, i’m prone to rebellion, apparently.
i took a couple friends with me and made an appointment with the Director of Christian Education (our church had a youth director by this point, but he wasn’t over the sunday school program. crazy, huh? welcome to the 70s in churchland). we sat down and told the DCE that fred was weird and boring, and that we demanded to start our own sunday school class, an alternative for 9th graders. amazingly: he said yes (i have no idea if he was giving us rope to fail, skeptical that we’d even follow through, or if he was a pushover, or some other reason).
we started our own alternative 9th grade sunday school class, and actively recruited all our peers to leave fred’s class and join ours. a handful did; but most were slaves to the manipulation of the promised snowmobile trip! (or maybe they knew we were being idiots.)
we lasted three weeks.
then we shuffled back into fred’s class with our tails between our legs, sure he was going to be mean to us by being more weird and more boring, or more likely, to shame us privately or in front of the entire class of peers. but he never once mentioned it. he was — we noticed! — as gracious and friendly and warm and inclusive as ever. in fact, it wasn’t until we came back that we noticed he’d been those things all along.
did i mention that fred was also my dentist? at my next appointment, he informed my parents that i really needed braces. but, because he knew that my missionary parents really couldn’t afford it, he offered to do my braces for a total out-of-pocket expense of fifty bucks. really.
fred was not a brilliant sunday school teacher. but he showed me grace and forgiveness when i least deserved it. that experience didn’t as directly point me to youth ministry as much as the other three moments i’ve shared in this blog series. but it left an indelible mark on me, one that altered the trajectory of my life just as much as the other three. that mark has, i hope, colored my practice of youth ministry for these 30 years.
youth workers: once again the “moral” is obvious, right? any adult — even those of us who are weird (and/or boring) can impact the lives of teenagers with grace and forgiveness.