In just over a month’s time, the UK will hold its general elections and much of the debate over who will control Parliament is based on the hot issue of Brexit. A quick summary for those of you who are not immersed in European politics is that about a year ago the UK brought forward a vote to the public about a referendum to leave its ties to the European Union. This vote carried with it strong opinions about immigration, economics, trade, travel, environment and government. In the end, the vote came down to a slim margin where the vote to leave beat the vote to remain 52% to 48%. The closeness of this vote has left the political environment of the UK tense as we head into the next elections.
Prime minister Theresa May has announced general elections for June because she believes that since the initial Brexit votes the people have come to support the idea further and that her political party, the Conservative Party who were primarily the force behind Brexit, have enough support from the people to win another election.
This post isn’t about referendums or politics but it’s about the decisions we make, our overconfidence and if those decisions are sending kids away from our youth ministries.
I will be the first to admit that I have made mistakes in my time in youth ministry. Miscalculations have led to budgeting mistakes or not enough pizza at a youth night. Some ideas I’ve had have gone over worse than others (I still think replacing the baptismal font with a hot tub is a solid idea!). And some of my ideas have been downright stupid. Trust falls from church balconies for example.
Then there are some things I have done that ended up downright hurtful to my youth. I have never done anything deliberately to hurt the youth in my care (that would make me a pretty awful youth minister). I find it is not often anything malicious or even deliberate that I do that ends up hurting someone, but rather the things I do overconfidently or without thinking first.
I remember many years ago sitting in Sunday school in the middle of spring getting ready for the day to start. One of the youth, a middle school girl, came in and plopped down on the sofa next to me and proceeded to put her feet up on the couch right in my face. I remember saying something like “Get your stinky feet out of my face!” I will fully admit I have a bit of a foot phobia. I don’t like them in general and proximity to my face is not something I am game for. The truth though is that I was mostly joking. I didn’t by any means smell her feet and they were not directly in my face, just near it. The girl put her feet down and I said, “Thanks, Stinky” and moved into the Sunday school not thinking anything more of it. She sat in Sunday school and for all outward appearances didn’t seem all to phased by the interaction.
After church, her mom pulled me aside. This was a family I knew well and we had previously had a pretty good report. She was livid with me. Almost to the point of not being able to speak. Once she could compose her thoughts she told me how upset her daughter was over the comments I had made. How she was so embarrassed to be called out like that in front of her peers and how she told her mother she never wanted to come back to church. The pit in my stomach was so strong I can swear I feel it still just retelling this story. I apologized deeply and said I only meant it in jest but the damage was irreversible. Though she did come back to church a week later and I did apologize directly to her, my relationship with that student was never the same.
You may say that it was an honest mistake. You may say that was an overreaction on the part of the student or parent. You may even believe the argument that all feet stink and should never be in proximity to a face. The point, however, is no justification on earth matters when you’ve hurt someone and you can never take it back.
Besides the moments in ministry where I have gone and put my foot in my mouth (Pun intended), there are also the moments where I made just as damaging a statement or decision and what makes it even harder to stomach is that I did it confidently.
Hurt from Overconfidence
I remember another time, at the same church, deciding to change the layout of one of the youth rooms. Over the course of a week, I repainted, refurnished and replaced just about every aspect of this tiny side room. I even used some of my own items from my home to redo the room just to give it the right touch. I remember the first youth event after this renovation. Kids came into the room absolutely devastated. What I had taken for beaten up furniture was years of memories for some of those kids. What I had mistaken for insignificant doodles were part of a big youth art night the kids had done just the year before. The point is that I had essentially erased years of nostalgia for these kids because I didn’t bother to think or even ask I just thought I had a good idea and ran with it.
How many of us are overconfident? How many of us think before we speak or decide to do things? The day after the EU referendum passed the number one search on google in the UK was “What is the EU?”. I’m not joking! People admitted in the days, weeks, and months after the vote that they had simply decided and gone with it. Some believed in it, others did it because the party they supported was for it but they hadn’t really looked into what it meant, others still just checked a box not actually knowing what the referendum was, and others simply didn’t vote against it because they never thought it would pass.
We all pay the consequences for our actions but for those of us in ministry we carry the heavy weight of knowing that when we screw up it can mean a lot more than painted over drawings on a wall. It can directly affect the way people view the church and God. In moments like this, I often wonder why God left such an important thing in the hands of people like us. I think it’s because He is ultimately a God of grace and that he can make up for an infinite amount of our screw ups. However, that doesn’t give us any excuse to not do our best.
Can I leave you with a couple of suggestions before you do and say things in your ministry role?
- I’ve never known a youth pastor who got in trouble for not saying/doing the first thing that came to his/her mind. That extra second, minute, hour, day, week, or month could be the difference between a great thing and a great disaster.
- I often like to pretend that what I do is by my own strength and abilities and act like I’m doing God some sort of favor. Prayer is my constant reminder of where my place in the food chain really is.
- Be Humble. It’s not a common trait I have experienced amongst youth workers. I wish I could be accused of being too humble much more often than I am. I’ve often found that humble people get things done just as, if not, more effectively than proud ones. They are as followed by others as proud people are. And they make mistakes just like proud people do, but they often find themselves picked up by graceful friends rather than held down by angry enemies.
Until next time, Cheers.
Denny Burda is the Senior Youth Minister at St. Paul’s Howell Hill in the United Kingdom. After over a decade in youth ministry in the States, Denny, his wife Merina and their cat Elliott followed God on their big adventure of a new life in a new culture.