What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Youthworker: An Adult Who Relates With Teenagers
By Doug Ranck • Free Methodist Church • Santa Barbara, California
Several summers ago we vacationed with my wife’s extended family. Our family had a great time hanging out, swimming, playing around, and getting to know cousins, aunts, and uncles. I enjoyed being “unplugged” from ministry, sleeping in, and having no schedule. About halfway through the week, I found myself gravitating toward the teenagers within the large extended family. I didn’t realize what had happened until I returned home. Here I was on vacation, taking a break from the life and work of investing in the lives of youth—only to find myself naturally moving toward them again. This told me two things: 1) I really do like teenagers (good thing, huh?); 2) Those of us who love kids abandon our adult relationships too easily.
Every living youth leader experiences the tension of being an adult yet wanting to relate with teenagers. Youth leaders in their young adult years have little problem achieving this goal. By the time one hits the middle adult years, or in some cases the senior adult years, “coolness” is a distant memory. In response to this inevitable reality, all ages of adults will do crazy things to keep youth looking to them as relevant.
As one who is now the oldest youth pastor in my small city and in the top three of my entire denomination, I have had the opportunity to be a youth leader for over thirty years and navigate being an increasingly more “experienced” adult yet still loving and being loved by youth.
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Here are a few realities and healthy strategies to living the life of an adult in the world of the adolescent without turning into one of those people “who never quite grew up.”
We are “cool” for a very short time — As a younger adult we may enjoy the “relevant” life. But, beware: it is short-lived. By the time we reach even our senior year in college we are in a different world than the teenagers we love. Our love for and desire to shepherd our students is sustainable over the long haul. The quicker we embrace our adulthood the better. Let yourself be an adult. It’s okay.
Ministry with youth can be lonely — There are so many parts of youth ministry that I love. But, being a shepherd of teenagers and an adult in their lives, I cannot also be one of them. I must be me, the adult, who is honored to carry the burden of leadership, guidance, and pastoring in the lives of those students. No matter what our age is, no student can fully know our position and adequately care for us. We need other adult friends who ask us the hard questions and challenge our own spiritual growth, who are there when we need comfort or counsel and mentor us further and deeper. Who are those people (beyond youth ministry teammates) in your life?
This is God’s ministry, not ours — When we take care of our own souls as the foundation for all we do in ministry, we realize our need to depend on God. We also realize the important role of adult friendships for keeping us grounded as a child of God first, a lover of our family second, and shepherd of our ministry third.
Take it from an old guy in youth ministry, you really need to develop adult friendships that will balance your relationships with teenagers.