Last Sunday was my last at the church I had served for almost three years as their youth and English JDSN for about a dozen teenagers.
There is a part of me that mourns today, just seven days later. I know that this happens to churches all around the country — people leave and people move on, and as one of my youth randomly loved to declare, “things happen”. Indeed, things happen. this church in particular has had a lot of things happen.
Three years ago, I was emailed out of the blue from someone who was merely an acquaintance from college. The associate pastor had left and took the bulk of the church with him. There were even threats that people that had left were going to reclaim some of their “gifts” to the church, things like the projector and the drumset or the PA system. The youth group went from fifty or so, to fifteen. They were desperate. The JDSN at the time was finishing up at seminary and was going to leave Easter Sunday. They needed someone, anyone, to help. Could I be anyone?
I had been married a total of six months at the time and was still seeking full-time employment as a marketer in my brave new world of Atlanta. The pastor and his wife reasoned with me of how much experience I would gain, how much good I could do, and how they’d be willing to support me. But it was a desperate sort of pleading and I was moved. I asked for time to think it over. At the time I was attending one of the larger, “successful” EM congregations in the city, one that my wife and I felt comfortable to be a part of and grow with. But every Sunday since I had found out about this desperate, torn church, the comfortable plush seat and the slick worship band gave me a feeling that I didn’t like. It wasn’t fair and I wasn’t at peace to worship in the luxury of resources and ministries now that I knew.
My wife and I made a big decision to start the Sunday after Easter in 2004. I preached my first sermon on Gideon and how God brought his numbers down to absurd levels, just to show them He was going to win their battles. I was so uncomfortable and scared to stand in front of twelve teenagers and be audacious enough to tell them what God could do. They had seen so much of the ugly side of church and its strange politics, that I wondered if God was even real to them. People began addressing me as JunDoSaNim (JDSN), which I didn’t answer to right away and felt wholly unworthy and uncomfortable with the title. The youth just called me Mister D and that was just fine.
Despite the fact that those who were freshmen in high school when I started are going to graduate this year, I’d have to say I learned and have grown more in the past three years with them than they with me. I made a lot of mistakes. I never felt like I did enough or prepared enough. As I’ve heard said from another pastor friend, the seat of my pants is well worn. I wish I could say that I was leaving a healthy, thriving youth ministry behind me as I step down, but I’m not sure that is true. Balancing a full-time job, a young marriage, and “part-time” youth ministry was very difficult and with so few in numbers, it was always hard to generate momentum or even create the semblance of health. There were times when I would find myself weeping with exhaustion, but happy that I was living out a joy that only God could have given me through this handful of teenagers.
I stepped down this spring because I realized the onus was no longer on me, but on the youth themselves. For the first time, I sensed that maybe it was me who was the biggest obstacle to growth in their lives. And it was time for me to move on too…things happen, but for a good reason. I’m interested how the next chapter begins, I hope they are too.