By Carol Harston
Last January, I had to admit to myself what I had been suspecting for over a year — it was time to leave youth ministry. After nine years, I was tired. My passion for working with teenagers had been worn down by the late nights, the week-long summer trips and the weekend commitments. I was an ordained minister, a mother to young children and a spouse to one whose job required long hours and a permanent “on-call” status. I had to wave the white flag.
I loved youth ministry. Youth ministry had been the flesh that made my seminary training mean something more than existential curiosity, exegetical study and pastoral pruning.
Youth ministry taught me to be gentle with visible weakness, to see teenage zeal as the mark of the divine, to translate abstract theology through dry-erase drawings and to facilitate community among diversity. I had grieved with youth as they questioned their worth, battled internal and external critics and lived with scars inflicted by adults in their lives. I had rejoiced with youth as they shed shame’s grip by speaking truth from the pulpit, learned to dance despite all that weighed them down and worked hard to let go of gossip-fueled division to learn the power of forgiveness.
I always told myself that I would not hold onto youth ministry once I knew it had let go of me. After all these years, it was time to leave. I grieved that I was becoming a statistic — yet another clergy who could not last. I had been determined to be a minister, theologian and prophet with youth ministry as my ministerial practice. But I had to admit that though I firmly believed that people could stay in youth ministry all their lives, I would not be one of them.
Yes, I am leaving the practice of youth ministry with its specific rituals, roles and concerns. But I am still serving the Body of Christ that includes youth, for I believe in the interdependent nature of the Body of Christ. After all, “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:19). Inspired by the research of the National Study of Youth and Religion, Kenda Creasy Dean wrote extensively about this in Almost Christian.
“The answer may simply be that most youth ministry is not accomplished by youth ministers. Neither young people nor youth ministry can be extracted from the church as a whole, any more than the musculature of the Body of Christ can be separated from its circulatory system. We have known for some time that youth groups do important things for teenagers, providing moral formation, learned competencies, and social and organizational ties. But they seem less effective as catalysts for consequential faith, which is far more likely to take root in the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and mentor relationships where young people can see what faithful lives look like, and encounter the people who love them enacting a larger story of divine care and hope.” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 11)
I wholeheartedly believe that the Body of Christ is enriched by ministries and ministers that focus on areas that need specialized care, pedagogy, and advocacy. However, I fear that the terms we use for any life stage (child, senior adult, 7th grader, retired, “Baby Boomer,” college student, young professional) become our primary identifier for the person. I fear that naming ministries after these life stages allows us to baptize a hands-off approach towards groups and sanctify segregation in the Body. Youth cannot be contained by their life stage or defined by their grade. They are not “students” any more than adults are their professions.
Therefore, I am leaving a vision of ministry that properly organizes people into categories based on age and life stage. I am leaving “youth ministry” that (explicitly and implicitly) builds a wall within the Body based on the cultural creation of adolescence. I am distancing myself from our tendency to over-emphasize our differences and rely upon cultural perceptions of teenagers rather than engage the real beating hearts and curious minds of the young people in our midst.
I am stepping back but I am holding fast to the Body. In so doing, I will continue to support the crucial work of youth ministers, the incorporation of all people into the larger whole, and the recognition that healthy and thriving faith formation must honor our inter-connectedness rather than fight against it.
Carol Harston is living in Durham, North Carolina, for one year while her husband participates in a Duke Orthopedic Fellowship. While away, Carol is spending time with her three boys, working on her Doctor of Ministry at Duke Divinity, and wrapping up her time serving as president of CBF Youth Ministry Network. Carol will return to Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., in fall 2017 to serve as Associate Pastor of Faith Formation and Congregational Engagement.