My farewell party is this Sunday afternoon and people will naturally be congratulating me on my 25 years as youth pastor at New Covenant.
But what most people don’t know is that less than 2 years into my job, I almost disqualified myself. I want to tell that story.
When I came to New Covenant in 1992 the youth group was in a state of disillusionment. My predecessor’s departure had been unexpected and the high school group was admittedly in a state of disarray. I came in knowing the youth group needed fixing and that it was my job to do just that! I was going to make this youth group great again!
Armed with my Moody Bible theology degree and 6 years of church ministry experience, I had all the resources I needed to turn things around! It didn’t take me long — just a few months — to come up with just the right programs to develop leaders and make disciples. Several students signed up for my programs and gave me great feedback. I was doing it! Things were really getting fixed!
Or so I thought. One summer day — having been here just a year and a half — I was unexpectedly called in to Pastor Ray’s office, where an elder and one of my few youth volunteers (we call them “sponsors”) were waiting. They relayed the hard news to me that actually the youth group wasn’t fixed. At all. In fact, a high percentage of youth group members felt like they didn’t matter. That it was “Mark’s youth group” not theirs. And that if they didn’t show up, no one would likely even notice. They were unheard and devalued. They were falling through the cracks and my “discipleship kids” were the only ones I seemed to care about.
At first, I was in disbelief and in a state of shock. But as they relayed one account after another of those who had been feeling neglected by me I recognized that they were speaking the truth in love. In my frenzy to run a successful program and quickly turn things around I had completely missed that this youth group was about them, not me and my grandiose solutions that were being imposed on them.
I spent a week wrestling in prayer. I did some fasting, and serious soul-searching. I knew I couldn’t continue to be a shepherd that was actually wounding the sheep by my pride and neglect. I was broken. I either had to completely change my priorities or quit my job. Thankfully, God allowed me to stay and change.
Those who were there will recall that I immediately did several things to demonstrate my change of heart.
- I called a meeting of the whole youth group and in brokenness apologized for making the group about me, not them. I confessed how I had imposed my plans on them rather than serving them.
- I brought in a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, which together we assembled and mounted on the wall to visually remind us all that every single person mattered. We did this for several years.
- I stated that if anyone ever caught me using the phrase “my youth group” I would pay them money on the spot. It was God’s youth group, and their youth group, but I needed it to not be mine.
- I confessed to having developed a “Savior Complex,” trying to run the youth group my way and attempting to shepherd the large group of students all by myself. I committed to begin to pray that God would raise up a large team of youth sponsors, caring adults who would help prevent students from falling through the cracks if possible.
Graciously, the group gave me a second chance. And God miraculously brought us just the sponsor team we needed. In the remaining weeks of that summer 17 sponsors randomly approached me out-of-the-blue, asking to become sponsors. It was remarkable because I had only prayed, never even making the need known to the church. That so many approached me so quickly was a miraculous confirmation from God.
This traumatic experience of almost losing my job altered my life and ministry values — permanently. It taught me the importance of listening to those whom I serve, frequently soliciting their input. I learned to hold my agendas loosely. To be teachable. To be an includer. To give up control. To do things as a team. To let others (students and sponsors) make ministry decisions that may be different than mine. To admit that I can’t shepherd everyone and to be ok with sponsors impacting particular students better than I could.
So as I reflect on the lives of students that may have been impacted over these past 25 years I give the lion’s share of the credit to my wonderful sponsor team. Without them our youth group would have self-destructed long ago! Thank you, thank you to the dozens and dozens of you who served as sponsors over these years. I couldn’t have done much of anything without you. Did we care perfectly for every student? Sadly no. In a big group it’s hard to notice all the needs and direct our attention to the students when they need it most. But looking back, we sure cared for a lot of them!
Here’s one of my favorite sponsor photos from over the years. Mark Eades and I got our sponsors bowling shirts that year!
And now, as I step down from leading the high school group, I’m not at all concerned for the group’s well being. My vacancy has been anticipated and the sponsors are ready. The current team of committed sponsors will make sure that the youth group continues to function without skipping a beat and I am confident that the students will be well cared for moving forward.
I want to express special thanks to the sponsors who have committed to keep the group running smoothly during this time between youth pastors: Stacey, Steve, Melissa, Bryan, Charley, Jennifer, Candace, Sabrina, Jeff, Tim, Brad T, Brad A, Sara, Dawn, Lynn, Ron, & Becky. And I’m thankful for the resourcing and support that they will continue to be given by Mark Eades and Renee Kim. The youth group is indeed in good hands!