youth ministry seasons

the other day i found an old middle school ministry column i wrote for youthworker journal, published in the january/february 2012 issue, and written shortly after the beginning of the school year in the fall of 2011 (so, a little over a year ago). it’s an interesting time capsule of my mindset about both my ongoing (starting a new lap) middle school volunteer work, and of my parenting:

After 30 years of working with middle schoolers, there are moments—plenty of them—when I wonder how I can keep it up. One of these moments (actually it was two hours) happened two weeks ago.
My moment began an hour prior to the small group kick-off night in my church’s middle school ministry.

“What the heck am I doing?” I asked myself. “And who am I fooling?”

My plate was particularly full that week, and I wasn’t feeling very Jesus-y. Nothing in me—nothing—wanted to spend my evening getting to know a new group of sixth grade boys: stinky, annoying, wired, juvenile boys.

That feeling escalated from the emotional equivalent of low-grade heartburn to full-on ulcers when I walked into the middle school room and tried to herd nine fresh-faced, sugar-buzzed pre-pubescents through the process of naming our group. (They landed on the highly appropriate Atomic Squirrel, by the way).

Call it the grace of God, an inescapable calling or whatever, but I got my feet under me, eventually, and was overflowing with gratitude and joy by the time I left.
However, there’s another newness on the horizon in my world of middle school ministry, and it’s a much bigger deal to me than starting a new sixth grade guys’ small group. It’s that Max, my 14-year-old son, will finish middle school at the end of this year. (Meanwhile, Liesl, my 17-year-old daughter, will finish high school).

I have lived as a passionate middle school guy for so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize myself apart from that calling. When I had children of my own, I felt a little shift; but when my daughter entered middle school, the change was seismic. For these past six and a half years, I’ve loved settling into the beautiful and surprisingly life-giving space of being a middle school guy with middle school kids of his own.

That’s about to change once again. Having all my own children be older than the age group I’ve always worked with is…well…odd. It makes me feel…well…old.
Being a parent of a young teen is the strangest blend of fun, terrifying, expectant, nerve-wracking, second-guessing, thrilling, surprising, painful, hopeful, agonizing, sweet, button-pushing, weakness-exposing and Jesus-clinging experiences one can have. Here’s the hand-on-a-Bible truth: I’ve loved being a dad of a middle schooler even more than being a middle school youth worker, but I’m almost finished.

Of course, I’ll still have those nine squirrelly sixth grade boys, who will then become transforming and mutating seventh grade boys, who will then become eighth grade young-men-in-the-making. Then, I’ll have a new group of squirrelly sixth grade boys.

Here’s the reality we all experience: There are seasons of middle school ministry, seasons of excitement and newness, seasons of weariness and discouragement, seasons of feeling clueless, seasons of feeling you could do this for-ev-er. The unshakable truth: Jesus is with you in every single one of those seasons.

fast forward about 14 months to today:

  1. liesl (my daughter) has graduated from high school and is living in ireland at the moment. talk about a completely new chapter of life.
  2. max (my son) is doing well in high school. i enjoy him more than seems fair.
  3. those guys — the atomic squirrels — are now almost mid-way through 7th grade. that means that i’m about a month away from being at the halfway point in my 3 year journey with them. and that’s insane. it feels like i just met them. due to a bunch of travel (plus halloween), i’ve had to miss the last few weeks of our small group, and i really miss them. sure, i still have plenty of wednesdays, in the late afternoon, when i’m thinking about meeting in a few hours, where i’m mixed about it. but, mostly, i’m in. when i think of each guy — one at a time — benton, devon, evan, mitchell, chris, jacob, jake, ben, sean, noah, tyler, josiah, hunter, and trevor (assuming he returns after whatever sport has taken him out this fall) — yeah, when i think of them one at a time, i’ve got nothing but “i dig these guys” feelings.

i guess what i’m thinking today is this: if this is a season i’m in, i like it.

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