They Loved Me – They Really Loved Me.

springhillI spent a week at 5th and 6th grade camp.  I think I’ve done that almost every year since I WAS a 5th and 6th grader.

As I walked down the hill from my cabin last night, I could hear sponsors trying to call the kids to order; trying to herd those cats into their respective cages. And just like that, I was transported back to Spring Bluff.  The ringing of the bell meant it was time to head to the next thing.  And the flashlight of Brother Bill signaled how much trouble we were in for being out of our cabins!

Brother Bill – a true saint departed – roamed those grounds all night with his flashlight…sometimes masquerading as the pitching mound on the baseball field as the moon reflected from his rotund, white T-shirt clad midsection.  He roamed because he loved us.

Mitch and Cindy – our ‘parents’ in almost every sense of the word – allowed us each a small glimpse of a healthy happy family, whether we needed it or not.  They laughed with us.  They cried with us.  And now that I’m a youth pastor, I know how much they prayed for us.  They prayed because they loved us.

Larry, Julian, Burt, David, and 100 other partners in crime – my youth group ‘posse’ – tolerated, tortured, and sometimes teased….more than any of us ever should have.  And we listened to each other.  We listened because we loved.

And that small, round older lady – our ninja grandma whose name I cannot recall but whose face I still see clearly – made us clean our own tables, do the dishes again if we did a bad job, threatened us with a wooden spoon when we needed it, and treated every condition we ever had with water, band-aids, patience and a fierce kindness.  She bossed because she loved.

I don’t remember a single camp theme.  I no longer have any of the awards I got (not even Mr. Underpants…or whatever it was.)  I can’t even remember how many times I went to church camp as a kid.  What I do remember?  Those people loved me.  THEY changed my life forever.  Because they loved me.  And when you spend a week at camp, you become a lover who changes lives.  Never forget the role you play…it can rewrite legacies.

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Diving Into An Empty Pool

emptypool2So I got some smack talk today for letting my blog sit silent for too long.  Maybe some of you haven’t been hipped to the latest developments in the Sutton Saga.

We moved!  In May, I accepted a ministry opportunity with Cornerstone Church in Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix.)  We watched our oldest son graduate from high school in Texas, my wife quit her job, my kids had multiple ‘good-bye parties’, my senior went to prom, we packed our entire house, left about 1/3 of it on our front porch for scavengers when it wouldn’t fit in the moving truck, and moved to Phoenix in the summer…where our air conditioner didn’t work, none of the hardware for our furniture made the trip, and me and my three sons left for high school camp 14 hours away after two days of not living in our non-air-conditioned house.

And that’s only the half of it.

 

Here’s the truth.  Transitions are hard – it doesn’t matter how smooth or heinous they are.

 

You have students that are about to LEAP into transition head first, possibly with little to no water in the pool.  You can’t stop it – they’re already off the springboard.  Maybe they’re headed off to college.  Possibly their folks are separating.  Or someone has died.  They’re sprinting into rehab, but dragging their feet the whole way.  Perhaps they’re just moving into your high school ministry from junior high.

It doesn’t matter which diving board they’ve leapt from – they’re in the air and concrete awaits their re-acquaintance with gravity.  What do you do?

First, recognize that a crash is imminent.  You can’t handle that disaster alone.  Call in reinforcements.  Find caring adults who will join you in loving and caring for kids in crisis –or transition – you say tomato….

Next, have some first aid readily available.  Take a few of those kids out for a coke.  Have some verses at the ready and write them down on this thing we call a notecard.  Send them some encouragement in a non-traditional, unexpected way.

Finally, remind them that seasons of transition don’t last forever.  Pools get refilled with water and they become fun again.  Just like those weird glasses that turn into sunglasses that go back to being real glasses…adjustment comes.  Light filters back in. Everyone sees more clearly.

Don’t run the risk of thinking ‘well now that they’ve hit the bottom of the pool, it’s over.’  No – it’s not.  Transition takes time.  It’s painful.  It can be revisited.  And, if ignored, it can be deadly.  You’re the life guard.

Spend the Day With Your Kid

1018He’s going to college in a few short months.

I always knew this day was coming.  And it hasn’t taken me by surprise – although I’m sure my checkbook will be hemorrhaging money and consternation in the not-to-distant future.

Today was a normal day….pick up some junk food for a movie party he’s having, order his glasses, grab a quick bite of lunch, head home so he can  finish last-minute homework.

And just like that, the mundane has become precious…and I wonder why these moments were ever ‘average’ in the first place.

The days are fleeting.  That makes them more than mediocre….everyday….all the years….every moment.

 

 

Transformation Tuesday

31864_401918224827_3062487_nYes – I know it’s Wednesday.  Someone doesn’t know how to accurately set his auto-publish feature.

If you read this blog much, you know I love youth ministry.  It was a life changer for me.  I was a kid who was drowning in an ocean of dysfunctional household and awkward hormones.  A youth pastor stepped into my life and God used him to change everything.  My life – my entire life – was transformed because of that relationship.

Tuesdays heretofore (whatever that means) will be dedicated to those stories of transformation.

Your story might be similar to mine – how being in a youth ministry changed you.

Maybe you’re a youth worker, and your story of transformation comes from serving students.

Perhaps you’re a senior pastor or a church janitor – I’m sure you’ll have profound stories of how youth ministry has altered you!   :)

I want to hear it!  EMAIL ME – let me share your stories of transformation.  Here’s mine:

 

My household was crazy.  My dad was pretty mean.  My mom was pretty victimized.  And we grew up seeing all of it.  Because of the impact of my grandmother and her little country church, I decided to be a Christ-follower at a pretty early age.  But as a young teenager, I found myself walking (probably tripping is more accurate – I was clumsy and growing) into a larger church that had a youth ministry – something I had never even heard of.

Most of the kids were jerks (hey – I don’t judge – it was the 80’s).  And I distinctly remember one evening after church calling my dad to see how he wanted me to get home.  He was at Elmer’s Tavern – where he was most nights – and I never thought two things about that.  Unbeknownst to me, some of the church kids had picked up another phone receiver in a different room and heard the barkeeper answer.  They descended like vultures – laughing, teasing, mocking.  It wasn’t uncommon – I was pretty awkward anyway and spent most of my time deflecting the crap my peers slung at me, church-goers or not.  Today, we’d most definitely call it bullying.  Back then, it was just kids being kids.

I left church feeling shamed and dejected.  I had kept my ‘so-called life’ out of the public eye and now everyone knew.  My family was crazy.  A lesser man would not have returned.

But the love and kindness of the youth pastor beckoned me.  I’d love to tell you it was all about Jesus and being holy.  The truth was – the leader was a man who was kind to his children and didn’t beat his wife – and that was a compelling story for me.  So I kept going.  I kept enduring the ‘cool’ kids so that I could get a glimpse of what real life could look like.  And somehow, those kids started being nicer to me.

About six months later, a confession was made.  I don’t remember the circumstances, but I’ll never forget the moment.  One of the students who had been my tireless terrorist had turned soft.  He (along with many of the kids) was befriending me.  And after Bible study one night, the truth came out.  The youth pastor had been ‘in the know’ about the night I called the tavern for my ride.  He had been watching how students were treating me all along.  This teenager confessed, “One night you were gone.  After Bible study, Mitch lambasted us and told us if we didn’t stop harassing you, you might not ever come back.  Then we found out you weren’t half bad.”

Somewhere in there I should have probably been offended.  But all I remember is how it felt to have a grown man advocate for me.  It was the first time in my life that an adult male had tried to create a safe place for me.  My life would never, ever be the same.   And I knew that God’s calling on my life would be creating that same space for teenagers.

I love Mitch Jackson.  He will always be my youth pastor.  And I am so grateful that he showed me (and all of us 80’s, snarky, apathetic, depressed teenagers) how Jesus advocates for us, loves us, holds us.  My life has been transformed.

How has youth ministry transformed your life?  Share your story!  And be a part of SYMC: Stories of Transformation!!

 

10 REAL Secrets to Being an Unforgettable Youth Pastor

????????????????????????????????????????So, yeah, in case you missed it…that list from Monday.  Farce.  Not real.  Don’t do it.  Try these instead.

10.  Invest in parents.  They’re the most important spiritual influence their kids have (good or bad).  And most are desperately trying to hold their heads above water.

9.  Know your pastor.  Chances are, no one is ministering to him/her.  Maybe you are here for such a time as this.

8.  Balance mercy and justice.  Students need grace, but they also need guidelines.  Giving them both, with love, is a non-negotiable.

7.  Set boundaries for your family.  Not everyone will like that – but they’re all watching to see how your family ‘rates’ in your life.  It could be the most teachable moment you ever offer them.

6.  Invest in getting better, not smarter.  Regardless of how you pursue continuing education, make sure it’s sharpening your skills, not just your intellect.  (Nothing worse than a youth leader who knows all the answers, but has no idea how to deliver them!)

5.  Never go over budget.  Period.  We prefer the term frugal over cheap.

4.  Be seen.  The whole world is a red carpet and you are Lady Gaga.  Football games, grocery stores, and the church office.

3.  Guard your heart.  Though most will never know directly the accountability measures you set for your life, they’ll sure find out if you fail to have any.

2.  Sabbath.  Wherever you can for as long as you can.  Which if you’re being unforgettable in a lot of other ways, may not be much…and only in the bathroom.

1.  Love students.  People notice it.  And then they catch it.  And that’s when you truly become most memorable….

Teenagers are More Than Texting

twitter-logo-breakAt some undetermined point, many adults decided that students were little more than texting, tweeting Youtubers with personalities as deep as their abbreviated phrases and problems as serious as trying to fit a thought into 140 characters.

Have you spent some time with them?

That may be what you get on the surface – but if you spend, oh, I don’t know, an hour a week with them for six weeks — by week seven you’re getting all the depth and emotion and hurt and amazing they have to offer.

But many adults won’t go that far.  They’ll have one…maybe two conversations at best.  And then they’ll make a  judgment and walk away.

Worse yet are the adults who don’t walk away – but who never talk any deeper than 140 character thoughts on sports or grades..  And the students who hang out with them week after week after week sit in silence.  Plastic smiles.  Laughter void of joy,  Pain.  And we play another game.  We ask another pointless question.  We slap them on the back and wish them well.

It’s a disgusting indictment worthy of a millstone.  (And yes, I wrote that in less than 140 characters.)

Sometimes Churchy Answers Aren’t Needed

12.9-CompassionSo recently….OK, last night…I was having a crisis of faith.  Actually, not really.  It was more of a pity party.  It’s been a season of hit-after-hit-after-hit….you know the kind I’m talking about.  The weeks where people tell you “God is in control” or ‘All things work together for good” or “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle” or “God will bless your faithfulness”.   And I was just done with it – at least for a short season.  And I wanted to rant and rave and be mad and feel devastated and question God.

I’ve been a pastor for 25 years – and a Christian a lot longer than that.  So I know all the spiritual answers.  Most of them I agree with.  (Except that ‘God won’t give you anything you can’t handle ….not Biblical…and maybe that ‘blessings for faithfulness’ bit….those are posts for another day).  Aaaannnyway….fortunately I have a group of youth ministry friends who embrace it when we are authentically raw.  And none of them….not one….gave me a churchy answer.  They just laughed with me and cried with me and sat with me and prayed for me – albeit virtually – until I was better.  (Maybe because I threatened them if they gave me typical counsel….)

Here’s the thing (and it could be a youth ministry thing, too, I think.)  Sometimes we know the answer BEFORE our heart cries out in pain.  And we aren’t looking for someone to tell us what we already know.  We’re just looking for someone to sit alongside us in our pain, our grief, our crying out, our moment of despair.

I wonder how many teenagers I’ve trod upon with answers when they just needed compassion…..