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

 

The Worst Reasons to Believe in God

People, lots of people, believe in God.

Who’s God, you say? Maybe you’ve seen his followers on the corner of Main St and EVERYWHERE. Religion is a fact of life, a fact that some don’t mind and others despise. Like with any issue, opinions abound. Atheism has become more of a force in the world. Even those who believe in God may ridicule various interpretations or religious philosophies. Nevertheless, religion isn’t going anywhere, at least not for a very long time.

I’m not here to suggest we should all agree on the issue, but over the years I have discovered some less-than-rational reasons to believe in “The Man Upstairs”. I don’t mean to imply there is no God (since I’m not personally an “atheist” in any traditional sense), but a bad idea is a bad idea. Here are a few I’ve come across.

Everything is like Soooo Pretty… There like, MUST be a God.

I’ll be the first to admit, I used this logic a lot growing up. There are still moments where I’m so in awe of nature that I am tempted to fall back on this one, but its entire basis is subjective. Beauty is interpreted by the observer. I mean, what if the very waterfall I gaze upon with astonishment also makes someone else want to vomit? My view is no more “accurate” than theirs. The same principle is true for my bewilderment by the complexities of the universe. I can look up at the night sky and be utterly convinced it was set up by an intelligent force, but that only reveals the limits of my own capacity to comprehend the unknown.

But then the Bible has to go and guilt us with shit like this…

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. -Romans 1:20. NIV.

So naturally it’s normal for many believers to take this verse to mean “It’s obvious there is a God… because look at all this cool stuff! Oh, and there’s no excuse for questioning that.” Really? So, a book written by and for people with no knowledge of the scientific method, quantum physics, heliocentrism… is giving us the easy way out: You don’t need faith after all! Just look at that double rainbow. Oh my God! It’s so bright and vivid!

 There has to be a God. It would like, totally suck if there wasn’t one.

This is by far the most prominent reason I’ve heard for a belief in God. People cannot handle the alternative. They cannot imagine their children don’t have immortal souls, or that humanity came about by evolution, or that morality isn’t set in stone (i.e. the Ten Commandments). Death can’t be the end. There is too much pain and suffering in the world. There has to be ultimate justice, vindication, punishment. eradication of evil. This is indicative of a very common theme in Christianity. Answers are often formed based on what Christians refuse to believe. Hell, I once sat through a SENIOR LEVEL THEOLOGY CLASS and heard the following words come out of my professor’s face…

Our text is called “Theology” of the New Testament, not Theologies of the New Testament. There is only one. We know the Bible doesn’t have contradictions or competing theologies. That would mean none of it is trustworthy and we would have no basis to believe in God at all.

The lack of academic integrity was so shocking that it has stuck with me to this day. We have to go where the evidence takes us, not take only the filtered evidence where we are willing to go with it. Similar statements like “I didn’t come from a monkey!” or “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” are just a few more examples of this tendency to pick our own reality.

Why is evolution false? Because it would suck if I came from primates. Those guys are lame.

Why is homosexuality wrong? Because God wouldn’t want guys to make out. That’s disgusting!

Why is it obvious that God exists? I couldn’t imagine dying and that being the end of me!

Sure, the idea of not existing beyond death is a pretty heavy one to cope with. As much as we’d like to live forever, or at least anything slightly more generous than YOLO has to offer, fear of death or yearning for heaven isn’t evidence for God.

Your life will be so much better!

This one is less about evidence and more about a perceived incentive for believing in God. There is this weird logic going around that following God will make your life easier, or better, or… something like that. If you have problems in your marriage, or your job, or if you have addictions or vices… something must not be quite right with your relationship with God. If you serve him though, good stuff is heading your way. Also, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christianity used as the measuring stick for a person’s character. “Oh, she’s dating a nice Christian man. I’m glad her life is turning around.” Or “If he’d just put God first then God would bless him.”

But then there’s all the talk about sacrifice, and suffering, and… martyrdom. Jesus said that stuff. Bad shit is heading your way simply for believing in him. Where do I sign up!?

Frustratingly, this other side of the coin is also used to foster a sense of moral superiority and victimization in the believer. If you suffer, that’s a good thing because Jesus suffered. It’s like… an honor. You are suddenly part of the long lineage of saints and preachers and prophets and Republicans who endure the perils of this fallen world.

So, when good things happen to Christians, it’s proof of God’s blessings and favor (which is evidence God exists).

And when bad things happen to Christians, it’s proof of the validity of their message (or more evidence God exists).

Sounds legit.

Conclusions and stuff.

You or someone else may have deep, personal, intriguing, thought-provoking reasons to believe in something more. It’s not inherently irrational or primitive to live a path of spirituality, of seeking a divine purpose or design of the cosmos. The examples I have mentioned are simply examples, not an exhaustive record of how Christians or theists interpret reality. However, fear and ego and attachment to prejudices and ideologies will inevitably cloud our judgment. Never believe something because you’re unwilling to entertain the alternative. Never be scared to find out the truth.

Well, unless the truth is that we’re asleep in an elaborate computer program while our robot overlords harvest our bodies for energy.

Feel free to take the blue pill.