Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Value of Sticking Around

The University of Pittsburgh's football coach, Todd Graham, resigned yesterday after 11 1/2 months. I have been the youth pastor at Mountain View for 11 1/2 years.

Graham left for what he called his "dream job" at Arizona State University. He says he is a "family man" and he is taking the job to be closer to his wife's family. However, ASU is Graham's fourth job in four years. He resigned without speaking to anyone at Pitt just before boarding a plane to his ASU introductory press conference. He informed his players via a text message, forwarded through an assistant coach, in which he stated that he "loved his players at Pitt and was proud of them." I'm not sure the feeling is mutual. As one of the players tweeted, "Todd Graham's coaching commitments last as long as Kim Kardashian's marriage."

I always likened coaching to youth ministry. Like youth pastors, coaches talk of shaping young men and women, of setting a good example, of creating a legacy of memories and victories. Graham wasn't around long enough to bake a pie, let alone create a legacy. I doubt he knew half the player's names.

His decision causes me to reflect on my life.

When I came to Mountain View in July, 2000, I was 35 years old--a young pup in a sense but fairly old to be a youth pastor for the first time. The stereotypical youth pastor is 25, has a goatee and a pied-piper personality, plays guitar, is a master gamer, wears cool clothes, and uses the word "dude" a lot. Since only the last one is true of me, people probably wondered how long I'd last.

I remember Pastor Guy asking me then, "How long do you think you want to do this?" There exists a common belief that youth pastors are just using youth ministry as a stepping stone to "becoming a real pastor." That was never the case for me. Having already spent ten years as a youth volunteer, including three while in seminary getting a Master's degree in youth ministry, I knew this was my calling. I had no intentions of doing anything else. As I've often said, "Why would I want a demotion?"

I told Guy, "Dude, at least five years."

My promise has expired, but my commitment hasn't.

Not that I haven't wanted to quit on occasion. There have been more than a few nights--lying awake in a bunk bed somewhere, trying to catch some sleep while a cabin full of boys hyped on Monster make my life a dreamless hell--that I've considered stealing the church van and driving to Montana. Who would blame me? The FBI would probably offer me identity protection. I've wondered at my sanity and severely tested my longevity by planning events like all-nighters (never again), back-to-back retreat weekends (kind of like running back-to-back marathons), and parent luncheons ("Tell us, what are you going to do about those kids chatting in the front row?").

But I'm not even talking about those "quitting times." I'm talking about the times I've been so discouraged that quitting seemed like the only option. Many times, actually, I have told Karen, "That's it. I'm done. I'm not doing any good, so why bother?" Too many times I've had to beg students to come to events, even though I knew God was going to be there and change their life. Too many times students walked away from their faith, abandoning the promises they'd made to me, each other, and God for the glitz of the party life and the pursuit of pleasure. Too many times I've wondered why parents think soccer or lacrosse is more important than the moral and spiritual development of their children. Too many times I've gone home from teaching a meaningful lesson, only to find discouraging and raunchy posts from youth group kids on Facebook. Too many times I've felt that nothing I've said or done has made any difference at all.

I've quit more times than Todd Graham. I just never left.

And I'm glad I didn't. I might have, if my dream job had opened up. But even though the Pirates badly need a shortstop, they've never called me. So instead, I've stayed long enough to be able to perform weddings for former students. I've stayed long enough to have students return as volunteers. I've stayed long enough to see our building come into existence, and watch our youth center fill with kids every Sunday and Wednesday. I've stayed long enough to form a deep friendship with other longstanding youth pastors in the area and to feel a little bit like a youth pastor to the whole county. I've stayed long enough to teach my own kids the value of sticking around even when times are hard. I've stayed around long enough so that the people I've influenced over the years--even when I thought I was having no effect--know where to find me.

Two days ago, I received a note from a former student. I had poured myself into him for six years, but he wandered away from the youth ministry and from the faith his senior year, and hardly said goodbye. He was one of those who caused me to question if I was making any difference at all. He was one of the reasons I wanted to quit. This is what he said:

I don't think I ever told you exactly how much of an impact you have had on me as a person. As you know my father wasn't and still isn't a man of faith, a good man but nevertheless not an example of how a honorable Christian man is supposed to live his life. That was left up to you. Whether you knew it at the time or not. I know God is the only one that can eternally save, but he used your love and our relationship to save me. And for that I'm a truly grateful to both you and our Savior!

This summer, I will be quitting--in a sense. I will be taking a 10-week sabbatical. The elders told me I had to, and I'm pretty excited about it. For 10 weeks, I won't have to be anywhere, teach anything, or lead anything related to the youth ministry. But Lord willing, I will be back. I have nowhere else I want to be. I landed my dream job 11 1/2 years ago.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Open for Christmas?

News Flash: Christmas is on December 25th! More specifically, however, Christmas is on a Sunday this year, which raised an interesting question for those of us in leadership at our church. Since we are having two services on Saturday night, Christmas Eve, should we have church on Christmas Day?

Now, before you shout your opinion, let me lay out a few thoughts from the perspective of someone who's life revolves around church activities and services.

Last year on Christmas Eve, the walls of our church nearly exploded. After 13 years of meeting in a high school, it was our first Christmas season in our new building. We naively planned for one Christmas Eve service at 7:00pm. Our auditorium seats 450 people--nearly 800 showed up.

We decided to host two services this year, and put a great emphasis on these services. We are advertising them well and doing everything we can to make them memorable for our congregation and our community. Two full services requires a great deal of work and an angelic host of volunteers. Between the musicians, nursery workers, ushers, sound crew, coffee bar staff, greeters, parking lot attendants, custodians, and yes, pastors, it's going to take over 100 people to run these two services.

Knowing the amount of work it would be, and knowing that many of our wonderful volunteers would be traveling, or hosting their families for celebrations Christmas morning, we wondered if it was wise, kind or necessary to hold another service only a few hours later. After all, we will have just celebrated the birth of Jesus and worshiped together. Many people give great amounts of time and energy to the church; wouldn't it be nice to simplify life a little and allow everyone to stay home Christmas morning? The staff and elders thought the answer was yes, so they decided to have no service on Christmas Day. Instead, we would encourage people to come on Christmas Eve, then worship at home with their families Christmas morning.

As the news broke, the response from the congregation was mixed. Some were relieved to know they didn't have to work in the nursery after being up all night wrapping gifts and assembling boxes of unmarked, miscellaneous parts into a deluxe foosball table that doubles as a blender. And it's hard to enjoy a church service while suppressing the fear that your Christmas ham is burning down the house. But others in our midst raised a principled concern. Isn't worshiping God the whole point of Christmas? How can we cancel church because it's Christmas?

It was an interesting leadership dilemma. Here's a brief list of the pros and cons we considered or heard.

Pro No Service:
*Gives volunteers a break
*Provides opportunities to worship at home without guilt
*Is a nice gift to a busy and hardworking staff
*Are we going to ask someone to clean the church late Christmas Eve, after 800--1000 people have been here?
*The Sabbath starts at sundown anyway...

Pro Service:
*What if somebody shows up to find the doors locked?
*We should always have Sunday services, barring an emergency
*What if we become known as the "the church that wasn't open on Christmas Day?"
*It just doesn't sound right to cancel church because it's Christmas Day.

Paramount to our discussion was the conviction of our senior pastor, who, upon further consideration, began to feel that we should open our doors, even if it's for one shorter and lower-key worship service. So, after some discussion and prayer, we decided to host "Christmas Unplugged," one service at 11:00am in which we simply gather for some Christmas carols, a reading of the Christmas story, and a short message. There will be no nursery care, parking lot attendants, full band or any of those things. The morning will require very few volunteers, and the rest of the staff is not required to attend. Simple and beautiful, just like the first Christmas.

So what do YOU think? I'd love to hear your opinion.

Speaking of Christmas, perhaps this is a good time to ask: What Would Jesus Do? Would Jesus go to church on his birthday? In this case, it's not his choice. He's not even a day old. Having been up all night giving birth and hosting shepherds, it seems likely his mother will want to stay home.