Confessions of an Ex-Youth Pastor

This coming June 15th, I will have been out of ministry for three full years. This seems unreal to me. What seems even more strange is that this coming Fall will mark ten years since I enrolled in my ministry undergrad program. I can’t help but look back on the past decade and wonder if it was a mistake. “Was it worth the heartache?” I ask myself that question daily. From a vocational standpoint, the answer is crystal clear; I failed. I was unable and unwilling to continue in my line of work. Simply put, I was fired twice, and I did not wish to try for a third assignment.

Now, here comes the trickiest part in writing such a blog post. I am not here to wallow in the sweet, dirty aroma of martyrdom. I am not here to “bash” the churches and staff members who ever so gently placed me underneath the proverbial bus. I am no rockstar because I have suffered at the hands of church committees. I now understand that being on a church committee is its own punishment, so I wish them a smooth journey through their dark and stormy sea. I also understand that my differences of opinion and my failures to satisfy my job expectations are not marks of superiority. I will now and forever admit that being a youth pastor is not what God, Buddha, Vishnu, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson wants for my life. I will respect their wishes.

However, I am not ready to call it all a wash. I learned some very valuable life lessons that I’d like to pass on to the rest of you. If you sense a bit of sarcasm, don’t worry; it’s just what happens when oxygen flows past my vocal chords.

1. THE YOUTH REALLY ARE WORTH IT ALL

We all like each other so much!

I will begin by stating that if I ever had any regrets about tossing my hat into Youth ministry, the Youth were never one of them. I mean, I was 24 when I graduated from college and took my first position in Warner Robins, GA. (I won’t name the church, but it rhymes with “binity phunited smithodist”). I was practically still a kid myself. I immediately fell in love with the Youth, being reminded constantly of my own teen years with every conversation I had with them. I honestly wasn’t the most outgoing youth pastor, but I soon bonded to them with my own brand of dry humor, mind-stretching questions (like was it a sin to kill Jesus, or did Jesus have fleas?), and random mass-texting trivia games with no correct answers.

When you’re that in-love with a group of youth, you immediately become vulnerable to claims that you’re “too buddy-buddy” and not “adult” enough. There is no getting around this conundrum. There’s just not. If you don’t relate enough to the youth, watch out for parents holding secret meetings with your boss. If you relate too well with the youth, you may not be taking your job “seriously” enough. But you know what? All the bullshit was worth it, because I had an awesome time with those kids. I’ll always remember those life-changing conversations where I really knew I had helped someone get through a dark time. One girl even said I saved her life. What’s more rewarding than that?

 

2. YOU’RE A CRIMINAL UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT.

Did you send a mass text to my daughter?!

Let me begin by saying I don’t make light of the very real presence of sexual abuse in Christianity. I’m simply saying that when you are a male, given the task of overseeing a large group of middle and high schoolers, people are going to think/say a lot of things. Try relating to the half of the group that’s female. You’re expected to delegate that wing of your relational ministry through as many female volunteers as possible. Any texts, phone calls, or conversations happening on the far side of the youth room will set off red flags everywhere. And hey… I get it. We all want safety for our kids. But I’ll always think it’s odd that churches hire the “morally upright” and then assume their calling was actually just their excuse to flirt with teenage girls.

If those parents only knew how many of their own kids were doin’ the dance with no pants. Oh man. They’d leave the Youth pastor alone and start investing in chastity belts.

 

3. DON’T GET HUNG UP ON THE WHOLE “JESUS” THING.

John, I won’t ask you again. Where did you hide the kick-ball?!

I once made the mistake of thinking Church was about Jesus. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Brett, you’re getting petty. You’re just upset that you had a bad experience.” But what I mean is… Church is a business. If you haven’t sat through a finance meeting, try it out. It’ll clear up any doubts you may have. It is a numbers game. Managing metrics. Income. Payroll. Attendance. It’s about money.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s ONLY about money. It’s also about power grabs and politics. Are there good things too? Of course! But at the end of the day, just don’t be naive. I’ve been in a staff meeting where we opened with prayer, listened to the Pastor lie about why a staff member “chose” to step down, and looked across the table at that very staff member fight back tears knowing they were being removed against their will. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I knew a brilliant (and blind) associate pastor voted out of his position while he was in the same room. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I was voted out of my position while I was gone on a mission trip. Jesus wasn’t even in the same hemisphere for that one.

I say this to make a point, not to indict anyone. Businesses do what they feel they have to do. But when you are in the “Jesus Business” …your idealism will take a big hit. Your rose-colored glasses must come off, or the shrapnel will hit you when you least expect it. Don’t blame Jesus. When the coast is clear, grab on to him and jump the prison wall. You’ll finally be able to get some real work down once you get out.

Seriously, all joking aside, don’t take things personally. Assholes are everywhere. Sometimes they just live in parsonages.

 

4. EVERYONE THINKS YOUR IDEAS ARE STUPID

I blame the crowd for encouraging this one.

This one shouldn’t be too shocking. I bet you can name five people you work with right now who have stupid ideas. I’d also bet five is a conservative figure. But when you’re a Youth pastor, your grand visions for the future of the program? Crap. All of them. And hey, maybe they are crap. I’m not going to pretend I had it all figured out. I made my share of dumb moves (e.g. Saturday night youth service. Omg. Even Jesus shook his head at that one). But when you’re 24 years old, and the church has filled your position five times in the past six years, no one is honestly expecting you to have any new, ground-breaking ideas.

I still want to try LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE. Maybe in my next life.

5. THE ENTIRE PREMISE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IS FLAWED

Stop me if I’m wrong, but I have always been told Youth ministry exists to…

“Foster and develop the students’ spiritual identities for the purpose of incorporating them into the life of the church”
(i.e. Let’s grow us some tithing church members)

From a business standpoint, there is nothing illogical about this approach. Obviously they need a long-term plan for sustained growth. And don’t misunderstand, I honestly believe they have the best of intentions and hope the Youth do find a healthy spiritual life, whether in their church or another somewhere out there after college. But you see… there’s a problem. If this is the point of Youth ministry, it’s failing. Big time.

If you do some research you’ll find a lot of figures and studies on the topic, but basically 70% of graduating teens leave the church, and maybe half of that 70% return sometime later in life. This is common across the board. It doesn’t matter if the church sets aside millions of dollars for its youth program. It doesn’t matter if normal Wednesday night attendance breaks 50, 500, or 5000 kids. Only 3 out of 10 youth 18-22 will stay in church, any church.

You see, it has nothing to do with the size of the program, or how well we relate to their interests, or how many community outreach programs we coordinate. When kids are done with youth group, they leave. And the reason why isn’t all that bad! They leave for all sorts of reasons, but a major reason is that they simply feel their life is beginning a new chapter. They’ve graduated. They did the Youth group thing, maybe they loved it (maybe they didn’t), but now it’s time to move on to other things. They may look back on their days in church with fondness. Their choice to leave has little to do with the trips to Malaysia, Third Day concerts, or lock-ins featuring LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE.

The point of youth ministry is that those kids need to be cared for while they ARE in church. Now. It has nothing to do with creating church members. Oh, and if you want some stats on general decline of religion in America, click here (if you dare).

~

In closing: You may look up there^ and see the ramblings of a guy who still cares very much about the youth of Christianity. You might see a bitter, disenfranchised soul who wants to take cheap shots when he can. You might think I’m even being too easy on the Church. When I strike these keys on my laptop I honestly think to myself “Wow, if so-and-so from x-council ever finds what I’m typing, they’ll feel quite vindicated for their decision to vote me out.” My extensive usage of the phrase “bullshit” is enough to confirm their suspicions I was never Christ-like enough.

But at the end of the day, I guess I am thankful I was put on this path filled with the best and worst examples of Jesus’ legacy. I am thankful I didn’t waste any more time in Christianity than I did. I mean, there’s some fabulous believers out there who need to keep fighting the good fight. So, keep it up! But I had to break up with Jesus, or at least the Jesus I was sold so long ago. I still see him on the street, in my friends’ faces, in children’s laughter, in Life of Pi (great movie, people. Just buy the Blu-Ray), lots of places.

I wouldn’t recommend my old job to anyone in good conscience, but if you’re ever looking for a wild 18 month ride, give youthspecialties.com a spin. I hear those churches are always hiring.

…Kinda like Wal-Mart.

The Wisdom of Sophia

I, Wisdom, was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be…before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. -Proverbs 23-29

So, I have a new daughter. Her name is Sophia. Quite frankly, she’s far more beautiful than any of your daughters, so… just wanted to give you the heads up. I’d post a few pictures, but then you’d be so blinded by jealously that you may just unsubscribe from the blog. (Oh, by the way… make sure to subscribe to the blog!)

I almost don’t know where to start when it comes to Sophia’s story. Honestly, she emerged from a series of very unexpected events. The details of those events are saved for my close friends, but the gist of the story is I will be co-parenting with someone who I am no longer in a relationship with. I also have three children from my former marriage, so the grand total is (wait for it)… you guessed it! A lot of kids! But it’s not quite worthy of a reality show, so I think I’ll live.

I’m writing this blog post from the Ronald McDonald House here in Springfield, MO (the city where Sophie’s mom is presently living). I’m here because Sophia had a life-threatening infection that was caught in time for treatment but requires over a week of antibiotics and general monitoring. I’m excited to say that she is getting stronger everyday and I can’t wait to take her home.

I always loved the name Sophia, because I’m a theology nerd. Sophia is Greek for wisdom. Not only that, but (depending on the particular tradition) it can be referring to a goddess, the wisdom of God, a central theme in Platonic thought, and the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity (i.e. Jesus). Some have gone to far as to call her the feminine aspect of God. No matter how you slice it, there can be no mistake…

…her name kicks ass.

sop2

Sorry boys, Father says I can’t date until I’m 37.

But better yet, she is already teaching me her wisdom. She reminds me that yes, there is pain and regret, things we can’t change or do over… but that there are new beginnings, more powerful than any darkness that preceded her. The last year has been excruciating for me personally, and for many others. I honestly had no plans to have more children. But, here she is. She makes me want to fight again, to find strength again. She reminds me that when we are most vulnerable, love can still find us and show us a new way. She is brand new, seeing the world through her blurry eyes for the first time, and she is already infinitely loved. What does that say about us? Why do we feel so alone?

I don’t know if there’s a God. Maybe the cosmos in all its endless splendor linked us together from the beginning. Maybe a truth so grand we ought call it divine was at the helm, steering her to me. Maybe it was fate wrapped up in serendipity, chasing providence through destiny’s door. Maybe she was as the proverbs declare, before the heavens were set in place. Who knows?

Yet she is here… teaching me her wisdom.
(jealousy in 3…2…1…)

sophia

 

Breaking Up With Jesus

bridge

So I used to be a Christian.

It’s such an odd statement for me to make. It makes it sound like I was a Christian long, long ago. Really, the unraveling began several years ago, but the loss of the title was rather recent. There was a struggle inside me to hold on for dear life, to summon the divine intervention I so desperately needed. At the end of the day God didn’t show up. So I did what I had to do.

I had to break up with Jesus.

When I express the aforementioned conclusion, some predictable responses quickly surface. The most common rebuttal goes something like “God did show up. You just didn’t have the eyes to see.” This cliche is insulting to say the least. However, I used to be a Christian, so I understand the mindset of giving God all the benefit of every doubt. He’s right, so any beef you have with him must be wrong, misguided, sinful, or lacking maturity. Your suffering? Hey… Jesus suffered, so that means you can’t complain.

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that it invalidates the human experience. It teaches us to ignore the very real feelings we encounter. If God is silent, we should be patient and wait. When he’s still silent, we should be patient and wait. When he still says nothing, we should take it as an answer. When we lash out in anger (since silence as an answer is obviously bullshit), we should repent. Our anger is unjustified, because God is always just. We feel alone, but we’re the ones not “present” due to our lack of faith. We don’t feel God’s love, so there must be sin in our hearts. The list goes on and on. The story is always the same.

“It’s not you, God… it’s me.”

Imagine you overhear a conversation that goes like this…

“My husband never talks to me. I feel like he’s never even really there, you know? It’s like I do all the talking. I get mad at him but I know deep down it’s really all my fault. But he provides everything for me so I should just be thankful. I’m lucky, really. Some people don’t even have a husband. Sometimes I think about leaving him but then I remember I am nothing without him. He completes me. I took his name and I should honor him by serving him the rest of my life.”

 
Does this sound familiar? Most would describe such a relationship as extremely unhealthy. So why is it that so many depict their relationship with God in a similar light? Why are these qualities grotesque for humans but endearing for God? A few more cliches may attempt to satisfy this accusation. “God’s ways are higher than our ways” or “God is worthy”. Elevating God above any criticism we can muster due to his sheer… um… being-God-ness… is a popular route, however it completely ignores the central Christian theme of having “a personal relationship with God.”

Again, a “relationship with God” asks us to ignore everything we know about healthy human relationships. We are asked to leave our better judgment at the door. All that life experience? Psshht.

You may think I’m just bitter about some narrow-minded group of Christians who falsely represented the true nature of God’s unconditional, radical love. You may be thinking “God isn’t like that!” or “Brett, you know better!”

Well, you see… that’s the thing. I do know better. I know that if God exists, God is good. If divine love is real, it’s not static and lifeless. But honestly, I don’t know if God exists. I only know that we exist. Us. Here and now. While my own experience has led me to leave the title “Christian” behind me, it breaks my heart. Why?

Because Jesus was once very real to me. But then I had to leave him behind, all the while feeling it was my fault. I had failed him by losing my faith. I just wasn’t strong enough, good enough. For those who did not grow up Christian, rejecting Christianity is a matter of differing philosophies. For the rest of us, it’s a death in the family.

My journey has led me here. I make no apologies for that. If your journey has led you to a similar place, don’t despair. Trust the sermon of your own path, the voice that says “You are perfect, broken or not”. The voids we possess, deep down… do not fill them with dogma, with doctrine, with wailing and crying for God’s attention. Fill it with your passions, your aspirations. Do not let the barking dogs disturb your dreams for one more second. You are good enough. You’ve always been good enough. In finding this truth, you find something greater than anything you leave behind.

You find yourself. And damn, you look sexy.

 

 

 

I Am Probably Wrong (and I’ll prove it)…

tibet1

Hello. My name is Brett. I am wrong a lot. And oddly enough, that makes me very happy.

Look back on your life and make a short mental list of those big concepts you outgrew, disproved, or fail to identify with anymore. On the simple end of that spectrum you may recall “Santa Clause” or “The Tooth Fairy”. On the more serious side you may even throw in “Religion” or “God”. Or maybe you’re struggling to think of anything at all. If so, perhaps this post will be more challenging for you, since you have always been right. If this is the case, please leave a comment. I can’t wait to read it.

Being aware of these changes in perspective can be very helpful. If you set out on life’s journey with the goal of finding the answers to everything, you can fall into a few traps along the way.

As is often the case, you can settle into a set of core beliefs early in life, refining them over time to fit most conveniently into your daily routine, circles of influence, purchasing habits, vices, political leanings and all that jazz. New information will naturally be seen as a threat to the “truth”. I really feel sorry for those who travel this road, because there are so many obstacles. If the core beliefs the individual acquired so early on happen to lack a certain depth or richness, it certainly will lose its potency, inspirational elements, and will naturally fall short. In more fundamentalist circles, many will constantly re-emphasize tenants of their worldview over and over, with increasingly combative or defensive rhetoric. Instead of the beliefs bringing peace, joy, etc., now they become divisive. The gaps, holes, and inadequacies are only filled with confusion, frustration, and fear.

On the other hand, many choose to abandon the pursuit of truth or meaningful reflection, instead embracing nihilism since their search for truth was so remarkably futile. Everything can become empty, robbed of its beauty. Your new-found enlightenment starts to carry its own religious tendencies. “Everything is meaningless!” you shout, over and over. You might tell yourself you wish it were different, that things do matter, but you have already built your walls high to protect the “self” from such naiveté. The ego is all that truly exists to you anymore.

Even in the middle there lies problems. You may carry a bitterness that poisons your honest attempts at personal growth. While you might change your beliefs, you feel almost ashamed that you have yet to discover who you truly are. Everyone else has it together, has kids, has a religion, has a hobby, knows who they are. Why are you still thinking about these issues? They have been long settled, right? Just figure it out and go with something, anything! Right? Instead of new revelations giving you new eyes to see, they only hit the replay button on your past. Instead of finding new “rights” you only see the past “wrongs”.

Wow. That stuff up there^… Heavy.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’ve been all three of those people. It sucks. There’s no other way to describe it. But what I can say is that being wrong is all about progress. It’s about awareness. Being aware of your actions, of their consequences, of who you are at any given moment… those are gifts. You cannot be expected by God, (wo)man, demon, angel, or any other being to have life figured out from the start, or by any point in time. Right now, we could all be completely wrong. Every last one of us. But maybe that is a good thing. Maybe something better is on its way. Who wants to cling to something less beautiful, something incomplete? I hope I’m wrong about so many things. My life has proven my wrongness thus far. I assume it will continue to do so.

You may have heard “The journey is the destination” or something else equally hippie. I think there’s a part of us that knows this is the case. But still… how can we know the journey is the destination? We must find out for ourselves. This blog will be a record of me doing exactly that.

And I have a feeling that it’s going to be epic.