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.

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.

Weird Worship Wednesday: Taylor Swift’s 22

Music.  It just speaks my language.  It doesn’t matter if it’s good, bad, genre-specific, or disdained by the rest of the world.

It always has.  I’m a child of the 80’s – music was a secret code.  And we lived and died by lyrics we couldn’t even sing because they were unintelligible.

Because of that – and the fact that I’m just weird – I find worship in some weird places.  So I’m starting a new Wednesday blog series until I run out of music or something shinier catches my attention.  It’s the first of some…weird worship Wednesday.  Welcome to my world.

I decided to post this one first because I knew how much my boys would despise that I even have this on my iPod.  It’s OK – I can take the scrutiny of my peers AND my children.

I’ve been following Jesus for a long time…long before I turned 22. And every time I hear these lyrics, my heart is overwhelmed with His story of youth ministry and marriage and the long obedience in the same direction that a faith walk usually is. Think about it:

“Everything will be alright if You keep me next to You.” This life. Ugh. There are days when it just feels heavy. Truth be told – sometimes God is so silent, I wonder if He’s stopped speaking to me. But even on those hard days, as long as Jesus is hanging on to me (and more importantly, I’m hanging on to Him), I’m alright. He has me right next to Him – like a Dad crossing the street with His toddler. I have to remember not to wrench myself free from His grasp.

“You look like bad news. I gotta have You.” Choosing to follow Jesus with abandon means completely giving up control over my destiny. That’s a rough day for a control freak – and sometimes it makes the faith walk not the most pleasant trip I’ve ever been on. Some days, that makes Jesus seem like bad news. On more than one occasion, I’ve wanted to pick up my toys and go home. But I just can’t. I’m inexplicably drawn – and even though some of my days are filled with harsh realities – I gotta have Him.”

“It feels like one of those nights – we ditch the whole scene and end up dreamin’ instead of sleepin'” Oh, how I love this line!! One of the most profound joys I have is dreaming about youth ministry with Katie. After 26 years of doing ministry, there have been moments where I was on auto-pilot…getting done what I could do because I knew how to do it. But the BEST times have been stepping outside that realm of ‘ministry sleep’ and dreaming all the ways God could reach His hand into the families we meet!! I still love that part! It’s when the hand of God is most ‘real’ to me.

“Everything will be alright if we just keep dancing like we’re 22.” Twenty-two. I had just married my best friend in this whole world after four long years of chasing her down. We moved cross country with a U-Haul and first month’s rent – no jobs, no emergency fund, no family…no safety net of any kind. We were living on love and faith…and it was decidedly terrifying and terrific. But life started moving and we somehow became distracted by all the things in our peripheral vision. Our strongest, most solid days as a family, have always come when we kept dancing like we were 22. This journey is a faith journey – and most of the steps we take are along a path where the future is unclear. Sometimes, even the next step is a hazy one. And it’s always OK – because though the steps can seem unclear, the future is never uncertain.

“You don’t know about me – but I bet you wanted to.” OK….maybe not. I told you…weird worship Wednesday. Wait ’til next week. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Thanks, Taylor…for pointing me to Jesus in some weird way.

Transformation Tuesday: Mr. Bill

I’m highlighting some youth ministry ‘transformations’ each Tuesday.  (OK – who are we kidding….it doesn’t happen every Tuesday.  Stop judging me.)

I’m sharing this story from my good friend, Bill Freund, with his permission.  Sometimes youth ministry transforms kids.  And sometimes it transforms us!

IMG_6171 (1)Not everyone knows, but leaving our last church really took a toll on me personally.
I went to that church to serve alongside one of my best pastor friends.  Two years in there was a coup because a few families wanted a different style of leadership. He ended up resigning (and not letting me resign with him) and going on the mission field – where his heart is anyway. Our church hired a new pastor who, from day one, wanted a different kind of youth pastor.  Namely…younger.  Obviously, that was an unrecoverable problem for me.  I tried for 4 years to accommodate his requests save moving out of student ministry (which I was asked 3 times to do).  In my final 6 months the relationship deteriorated as I met regularly with one of the elders pleading for them to intercede. After repeated admissions of ‘we have no idea what to do’, the time came to make a change. Finally feeling the Lord’s leading (and without any job lined up), I resigned and almost before I could finish talking they hatched a plan for my departure and severance.  It seemed much easier for them to ‘know what to do’ with that than trying to find a way to help us work through our differences.
This started a period of pretty deep depression for me that I had never experienced before. I kept doing the right things but just feeling numb. To feel unwanted, primarily because of my age; left wondering if God was through with me being in youth ministry;  was I washed up?;  was my resume being tossed aside just because I’m 51?…..
God was in the process of transforming me and I wasn’t really liking it. We kept praying and seeking Him and asking for clear direction – and God answered VERY CLEARLY.  But we didn’t like the answer. God asked us to leave a community we’ve poured 23+ years of our life into (for my wife, Jean, 30+ years)??? Take Jean away from her family for the first time ever? Take our son (with Asperger Syndrome), who needs familiarity and consistency, to a new place with a zero friend base? CLEAR, but clearly not what we wanted. Like Abraham (rather than Jonah), we left our people, our family, our land and went to follow God’s leading to Castle Rock to love on students at a church there. And it came with much pain: financially we have no idea each month how we’re going to make it. Jean had some serious medical issues the first six months we were there. We struggled to find any who would volunteer to help with student ministry.  And our son ran away three times.
In the midst of this, God began doing amazing things in the lives of students – students like Kendra* & Jaqueline* who have come to know Jesus; students like Phillip* & Casey* who had been praying for months for a student ministry for them to grow deeper & wider in;  students like Alex, Brianna, Max, Liddy & JoAnna who had been cutting and are now getting help.  God is transforming and I could go on & on & on & on!~
Transformation means change & reformation.  It’s painful, yet beautiful!~
I feel like this pic depicts my new life excitement after transformation….
What’s your youth ministry story of transformation?  Let me share it!!  Shoot me an e-mail!
And if you’re in need of some transformation – check out this year’s Simply Youth Ministry Conference!  (It’s not too late!)

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!!

 

2013 Review

funny_blog_t-shirt_-_more_people_read_my_blog_tee_shirt_t_shirt_blogger_internet_geek_mens_ladies_womens_youth_kids_69aed43dEveryone’s Called to Youth ministry says Merry Christmas and thanks for reading this year!  All new posts heading your way in 2014!!  Until then, don’t make any resolutions you can’t keep!!   :)   Someone wake me on January 1st – I’m pretty sure I’ll still be in a carb-coma!

Most read posts of 2013:

5)  The Morning After See You at the Pole

4)  Why I Let My Kid Skip SYATP

3)  Youth Ministry Safety Starts With You

2)  10 Things Parents Wish They Heard From Youth Pastors

1)  If I Was Miley’s Youth Pastor

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…..