Doing Too Much

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


A Day in the Life

Alarm goes off. Scroll. Rush through breakfast. Fight with a parent. Fight with a sibling. Forget something, go back inside. Scroll. Text friends. Crack jokes, text crush. Whine, compare, gossip. Text parent. Go to class. Go to practice. Text more. Flirt. Go to band. Text for a ride. Video games. Post. Tweet. Homework. Scroll. Part-time job. Netflix. Get home from the game. Lie about grades. Shoot, we forgot youth group is tonight. Hulu. Do homework. Stress out about homework. Text more. Post. Scroll. Sleep.

The lives of our students can be a big jumble of going from here to there, doing many things that matter and plenty of things that don’t. We know they’re busy but we also really need them to come to Sunday school or pay attention during tonight’s talk. Sometimes we’re not exactly helping.

Too Much Noise

I declare we talk too much. We’re going, doing, making, being, buying, selling, or showing. We’re always talking, with an endless chatter. We text too much, we go out too much, we post too much, we practice and we perform too much. Whatever it is, we do too much.

Our youth especially do too much. Whether activities are good or bad, all of our business is rudely interrupted by the season of Lent. We began this time before Easter by imposing ashes with a refrain about dust as if to say “You’re going to die, here’s a cross so you don’t forget.” Our limits are all put on display with the knowledge that despite our best efforts, ultimately there is nothing we can do. And we all chatter on.

Facing Finitude

Perhaps we do so many activities and errands because of the fact that we will die. Older European philosophers like Heidegger or Kierkegaard, along with Anglo-American thinkers like Ernst Becker, suggest that human action is driven by the “denial of death.” The ways in which we are distracted, anxious, active, controlling, dominating, fearful, proud—or anything, really—are driven by our inevitable end. To an extent, this isn’t wrong. The Christian faith doesn’t deny this truth that people act out in a variety of ways because of their limited time upon the earth.

Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe.

Yet the Bible clearly labels death as a problem. Romans 8:21 says creation is “in bondage to decay,” while in 7:24 Paul cries out to be saved “from this body of death.” Like sin, death is one of the powers that Jesus is openly in conflict with. For in Romans 6:9, Paul claims, “Death no longer has any dominion” over Jesus because of his resurrection. For the New Testament, says Fleming Rutledge, death is “experienced as a condemnation and defeat at the hands of God’s Enemy” (The Crucifixion, 405). Death is a power not only as it claims people at their end, but death is also “an annihilating agency capable of commandeering humans agents to do its work” (The Crucifixion, 203). Co-opted as agents of death, perhaps this brings to mind the more outrageous instances of violence and injustice. It could also be far more mundane.

The Pressure of Performance

Denying death causes busyness and distraction. Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe. If they’re anxious, driven, overly distracting or entertained, it is because we were before them. This is why they do too much.

The closest thing we have to an answer for this constant movement is Sabbath. Not a hard stop, but a rest for a short while. Sabbath plays a large role in our faith and story. In the Exodus story, God hears the cries of the oppressed Israelites and liberates them from Egypt. God not only liberates the Israelites, but in particular God saved them from the cruel amount and conditions of work put on them by Pharaoh and his anxiety (Exodus 5:1–14). When the people are freed and gathered at Sinai, the Lord gives the people the essential commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8–11). This new commandment is a gift they didn’t receive in Egypt. God gives them the Sabbath as a way to stop in order to be “an alternative society that stands outside of the predatory anxiety that requires endless production and performance” (Walter Brueggemann, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas, 272). Our youth are entirely aware of this production and performance in their own lives.

Sitting with God

There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

We are invited to stop and rest in the Sabbath, setting this time aside as holy to spend with God. The Sabbath is a time where we do not have to perform, earn, control, or attempt anything and we stop checking our phones, not worry about grades, refrain from checking ourselves in the mirror. We are invited to no longer curate our Instagram posts for attention, vie for love or respect, be attractive, prove our worth, or struggle to protect ourselves from any vulnerability. We are invited not to be made anxious by death, but to spend time with the Creator of our limited lives. We don’t have to work so hard to keep anxiety at bay. We instead have the chance to be still and realize the Lord our God is there in the silence, caring for us no matter what we do or how long we live. There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

It’s hard for anyone to sit still at first, or to be quiet when we’re used to talking or doing. Whether the need to constantly check the phone, check our looks in the mirror, or constantly try to be the most popular person in the room, there’s a sense of searching. Are these searchings not longings for God? In the Sabbath, in silence and reflection, or prayer, we can rest in the presence of the God who is near, and the God who loves us so much as to undergo death in Christ Jesus.

Sounds of Silence

I practice this in ministry by leading my students in worship through Taizé-style music. After teaching a simple melody, we will sing one or two refrains about our longing for God, over and over again. It’s unhelpful to demand an abrupt silence, so it’s a good practice to get quieter and sparser as the song goes on, winding down with a capella refrains, and ending with a prolonged time of quiet. Some kids understandably struggle at first. I’ve found that the kids who need it the most are the ones who respond most positively.

During Lent, because there’s nothing we can do about death, we’re reminded our death is worth pondering, because this season points towards the time when Christ is going to do something about it. Our anxiety about death could actually be a reminder about our longing for our Creator.

Commenting on this anxiety and our search for God, the poet Christian Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss:

It is as if each us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we give to other things. It is not hard to hear this as music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music. (92)

The anxiety of death could be overplayed by the music of God’s grace seeking us out, and what our youth yearn for. May we all stop and rest in the presence and love of God, the Maker and Sustainer of our limited lives.

 


ogg

Adam Ogg has his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He loves investigating how theology interacts with the world and informs our faith. Adam is particularly passionate about finding a good coffee shop to read in.

Don’t Forget to Oil Your Chain

This post is the final post in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. You can find part one here,  part two here and part three here.


The Business of Ministry

If you have been reading my other posts about organizational leadership and growth, you will have noticed that I include a lot of references to budget numbers, technology, newsletters, databases, and other administrative details. You might wonder what all that stuff has to do with ministry. Isn’t ministry all about relationships with God and people? The church isn’t a business so why should we spend energy on budgets, facilities, and operations? Can’t we just “love on students”?!

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from real ministry.

I get those questions. I resonate with the sense of unease that many in the church and nonprofit world experience when talking about revenue, marketing, investments, and so on. I’ll never forget a confrontation I had a with a church business manager in my first internship where I brashly announced, “The church is not a business!”

While I had no idea what I was talking about back then, and I deeply regret the insult that my comment was to him, I still agree with that basic statement. The church is not a business. Because, yes, ministry is all about relationships. Effective nonprofits are all about fulfilling their mission. The treasures in heaven that we care about are people—not money or buildings or websites. We care about people.

But I have learned during my work as Executive Director and Pastor at Pres House that if we don’t attend to the “business” of ministry, our ministry will not be effective. Put another way, if the business is managed and run well, then the real work of mission is much more fruitful. The business operations of a nonprofit or ministry are its skeleton. If the skeleton is strong, then the flesh that is laid on top of it—the programs, people, relationships—they flourish and the organization succeeds. So yes, we do this work in order to love and serve people. But we have to tend to the business in order for our work with people to… well… work!

Like Bike Maintenance

I hang out with college students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They often use bikes to get around our large campus. Even in the winter! But I am always dismayed by how poorly many students take care of their bikes. They leave them outside, uncovered in the snow for months at a time. They ride to class with totally flat tires. And they almost never, ever oil their chain. You can always tell when a bike needs some oil on its chain by the horrible creaking and grinding sound it makes as it goes by. These same students often wonder why it is so hard to ride to class and are shocked that I ride 60 miles before 9am each Wednesday.

But I treat my chain and bike very differently. I clean and lube my chain almost every day. I pump up my tires every time I take my bike outside. I change my cables, bar tape, brake pads, and tires multiple times per season. If I had an orange rusty chain on my bike, I’d find it hard to ride a mile to class, too. You must take care of a bike if you want it to work well. If the chain is rusty or your tires are full of holes, you won’t make it very far and you’ll end up spending all your time dealing with the problems with the bike rather than riding anywhere. In addition to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with students, I often feel like an evangelist for bike maintenance!

Little Details Matter

The big picture is important. As I’ve written in earlier posts, it is vital to look ahead to where you are going and let go of the brakes so you get moving. But it is also essential to attend to the little details that make a huge difference. To put oil on your chain and pump up your tires. To take care of the “business” of your ministry. If the operation is rusty and the business has holes in it, then the mission will not go anywhere or you’ll end up stopped on the side of the road, changing a flat tire instead of getting on with loving people. I don’t oil the chain on my bike so that I have a shiny chain—I oil the chain so that my bike works well and I can get to where I am going. In the same way, I don’t attend to the business of Pres House just so we run a “well-oiled machine”—I attend to the business so that our mission of transforming the lives of students is successful and we get to where we are going.

Let me share a few examples:

– We try to run the best student housing community on campus with excellent customer service, cleanliness, and amenities so that students want to live with us and will have the opportunity to experience the grace of Jesus Christ as a member of our residential community.

– We send handwritten thank you notes to every donor, every time they donate, because we believe we have a relationship with our donors that extends beyond the online transaction or check they write.

– We produce high quality print publications so that people can clearly see what we are about and be inspired to participate or support our work.

-We are always looking for ways to improve our computer systems, databases, phone systems, sound systems, and facilities so that our people and programs can flourish and do their best work.

– We engage in rigorous financial modeling and budgeting in order to best leverage the gifts that God has given us for our mission today and into the future.

– We take surveys throughout the year and collect data on all our programming to evaluate what we are doing and make changes to be more effective.

Expertise in Community

Often small nonprofits and churches have limited resources, and leaders and pastors do not have all the skills necessary to attend to all this business. Seminary, after all, doesn’t train pastors to do marketing or negotiate legal contracts. Pastors, church leaders, and nonprofit leaders are increasingly asked to be experts on so many things we might as well start trying to walk on water.

I am not suggesting we need to manage everything on our own. Often there are people and resources available that can help. As much as I have enjoyed continuing education in theology and preaching, some of the most useful post-seminary education I’ve done has been in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, human resources, and legal issues. I have leaned on and learned from all the board members I’ve worked with over the years. I ask lots and lots of questions of every attorney, consultant, contractor, and acquaintance I can think of! Give me a call; I’d be happy to share some of what I’ve learned that might be useful in your particular context.

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from “real” ministry. It is a vital part of the ministry and essential to fully realizing the mission and vision of the organization. So, as you get on your bike, look ahead to where you want to go, let go of the brakes, and ride—don’t forget to oil your chain. You’ll be much more likely to get to where you are going and you’ll enjoy the ride a whole lot more along the way.

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

Is it Any Wonder Young People are Confused About Grace?

“It doesn’t matter where you have been…,” the speaker said. “It doesn’t matter what you have done.” On he went. “God loves you, right where you are, and for who you are!”

It was cry night at camp, and I was hooked by a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son. I wanted to be immersed in the grace being advertised that night. No more masks. No more pretending to be someone I wasn’t. No more being ashamed to come to God for fear of what I had or might have done. I could simply be me.

Want to Be Christian?

Then I went home.

To waiting expectations. Adults in the congregation wanted to hear testimonies of how God moved at camp. I was quickly made aware a decision made for God came with new expectations:

– Read the bible, and oh yeah, read it every day.
– Pray daily, even better if you can do it without ceasing whatever that might mean.
– Attend church weekly.
– Listen predominantly, if not only, to Christian music.
– Avoid parties because parties can “only” have drugs and alcohol.
– No R-rated movies.

Want to be a Christian? This was it. I was handed a blueprint of expectations by which I was to achieve discipleship. For a mature disciple is one who can, as quoted from the Bible, “go, and sin no more!”

Gone was the grace I had experienced at camp. Gone was the God who met me where I was in life. God had been replaced by one of those advertisers who acts innocent as he or she asks, “What’s the matter? You didn’t read the fine print?”

Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections.

How was I to add all these expectations to an already overcrowded schedule of school, homework, soccer practices, and other activities they expect to see on a college scholarship application? It didn’t take long to come off the mountain from camp, to question whether the experience was real or all imagined in my head.

Go and Sin No More?

In over fifteen years of youth ministry, I know my experience isn’t unique. I have seen many young people go through the same experience. They encounter this God who, in the midst of grace, encounters them right where they are. And then they lose sight of God in the midst of the expectations of grace.

Is it any wonder young people are often confused by what we mean by grace?

The phrase “go and sin no more” comes from Jesus’ face-off with the religious leaders in the gospel of John. Jesus writes in the dirt as they bring in a woman who was “caught in act of adultery.” The leaders think they have Jesus cornered. Jesus is slow to respond. Perhaps he wants to buy some time to think about his response. Maybe he stalled for dramatic effect. Either way, when Jesus responds, he stuns the crowd. One-by-one they drop their rocks and leave. The story closes with Jesus telling the woman that he will not condemn her either. Or maybe he does.

I am convinced this popular refrain of “go, and sin no more” is one of the most narrowly interpreted passages in all of Scripture. In the church tradition I grew up in, this was seen as the sign of a mature Christian. To walk with God and sin no more. This was the apex of Christian discipleship. No more cursing. No more lewd thoughts. No more selfishness. No more sin.

The problem with this interpretation of sin and the idea that grace sets us free to sin no more is it leaves the woman standing at the end of the story condemned—not by the religious leaders—but by Jesus.

Still don’t buy it?

Rewind and think about this unique story found only in the gospel of John—a story not even found in the earliest manuscripts of John.

Before Jesus told this woman to go and sin no more. Before Jesus and this woman were left alone in the middle of the street. They were surrounded by a group of people who were prepared to stone this woman. That is, until Jesus reminded them of their hypocrisy. There wasn’t one person in the crowd who hadn’t sinned—rephrase: there is not one person in the crowd who won’t sin.

So if Jesus knows this, and the crowd knows this, then there has to be more to what Jesus means at the end of the story when he tells this woman to go and sin no more. Otherwise, this story doesn’t end in grace and redemption. It ends with Jesus casting the stone himself.

So what does Jesus mean when he tells her to go and sin no more?

Embracing Grace

Theologian Rowan Williams offers an understanding of sin which perhaps gets us closer to what Jesus intended at the end of this story. William writes, “To say alleluia for sinners is to say alleluia for the beginnings of honesty.” As Williams goes on to describe, sin isn’t limited to being disobedient or being immoral, it’s better understood as going against our nature—the nature God created. So in effect, with this larger understanding of sin, Jesus isn’t telling the woman to go and never make another mistake. Jesus is inviting her to embrace grace, to embrace herself, to see the value of who she is—fractured self and all.

After one walks into the front doors of a church, it only takes about five minutes to hear grace defined as an underserved gift. I can’t help but wonder if we like to put that tagline on it because we are uncomfortable with what grace’s invitation is really about. Because when I think about what grace really means, it makes me uncomfortable, and really, I want to push it away.

Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections. It’s hard in our culture to embrace grace because it means admitting I am less than perfect. I might not be the success story everyone idolizes. Or the success story which looks good on a college application.

This is grace, it takes the blinders off and encourages me to see the world as it really is and to see myself as I really am—faults and all.

This is the invitation Jesus offered this woman. Jesus was inviting her to see herself as he saw her—a woman of value who didn’t need to sell herself short or let her life’s story be defined by a crowd. A crowd full of imperfect people who were probably thankful grace was not bringing their imperfections into the spotlight that day.

To help flesh this out a little more, I close with a quote from one of my favorite authors— who I am convinced is secretly a theologian—Brené Brown. She writes, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” In churches, too often grace falls into the former category and never gets to the latter.

Ministries and our faith practices are designed to help young people fit in. To be a part of the Church. To be a Christian, you have to read the Bible, pray daily, and sin no more. This is how the Church knows grace has impacted your life.

What if we did the opposite?

Rather than advertise grace as a way to fit in, what if we created ministries that invited young people to see how grace shows them who they are?


 Rev. Seth M. Vopat is an ordained member of the clergy, writer, and 15-year youth ministry veteran who currently serves in the Kansas City area. He has an M.Div. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and a Certificate in Youth and Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. His Twitter feed is @svopat.

Let Go of the Brakes

This post is the third in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. You can find part one here and part two here. Coming soon, Mark will explore the final step: oil your chain.


“Red-Numbers” Christianity?

During the first five years of my first call as Pastor/Executive Director at Pres House we spent $500,000 more than we brought in. That’s right, our Presbyterian campus ministry ran a negative budget every year for more than five years!

I know, this sounds very irresponsible. A non-profit spending more money than it brings in for years is a long-term recipe for disaster. I am about to complete an MBA—I understand the importance of cash flow and budgeting. But in this instance, it was necessary. We were trying to resurrect a dormant ministry and develop a long-term funding plan. We were stepping out in faith and taking a big risk to re-develop the whole organization trusting and hoping that God had something in mind for Pres House. So we had to really go for it—even if that meant running a negative budget for five years. Often church entities and non-profits are too cautious with our efforts and we ensure failure before we even start. There are times when we need to go “all-in,” to commit fully to make a real go of things and get our projects and organizations off the ground.

Balance, Speed, and Trust

This post is my third reflection on the past decade of rebirth and growth that has taken place at the Presbyterian campus ministry center where I serve as Executive Director and Pastor. You can find more background here and here. As an amateur bike racer, I find a lot of commonalities between building a non-profit and riding a bike. Running a negative budget for some period of time is one example of a key practice necessary for both organizational development and bike riding—you have to let go of the brakes.

The temptation when starting out riding is to be cautious, to go slow, to keep one hand on the brake. But doing this makes the likelihood of falling much greater than if you simply let go of the brake and go.

Think back to when you learned to ride a bike or when you watched a child learn to ride a bike. One of the most counter-intuitive aspects of balancing on a bike is that the faster you go the easier it is to balance. The temptation when starting out riding is to be cautious, to go slow, to keep one hand on the brake. But doing this makes the likelihood of falling much greater than if you simply let go of the brake and go. As the bike speeds up it becomes easier to balance. In order to successfully ride you have to take the risk, trust the physics of the bike, release the brake, fully commit, and pedal forward. For most children who have initially mastered two wheels the hardest part of riding becomes the start and the stop—when the bike is moving slowly. This is also why you will see bike commuters slow down at stop signs but not always completely stop. It is hard to get going again, and the chance of falling down is greatest when riding slowly.

Thoughtful Risk Versus Caution

The same is true when leading an organization—especially when leading birth, growth, or change. We cannot expect to launch successful new ministries or rebuild organizations if we have one hand on the brake the whole time. Too often I have seen the church try to start campus ministry on a $1,000 per year grant, insist that the youth program budget be limited to the funds that are raised at an annual pancake breakfast, or avoid trying a new program because something similar failed ten years ago. Yes, careful, prudent planning is vital, but trying to get riding while being so overly cautious dooms the project to crash and fail before it even has a chance to get started.

I have a good friend who recently launched a new company in Silicon Valley that develops digital tools to help people pray. His business, Abide, spent more than $400,000 in their first year of operation. And that was well below the average cost of launching a tech start-up. It takes major investment, and a willingness to take risks, to start something new.

At Pres House we embrace risk. In fact, we have embedded that very language into the primary principles that guide our decision making. We are thoughtful about our risk taking. We run seven-year financial projections to try and anticipate the future. We engage in rigorous program evaluation, fund development, and strategic planning. We recognize that everything we try may not work and some things will fail. But we are committed to letting go of the brake and making a real go of it.

How the Rubber Meets the Road

What does this look like in practice? As I have already mentioned, we spent over half a million dollars more than we brought in during the first five years of our re-birth. We hired the staff we needed to launch a new worshipping community, quadruple our database of donors, and manage a rapidly growing organization. And we paid them competitive wages. We invested in good quality computers, website development, and database software. The biggest risk of all was borrowing $17 million dollars to pay for the construction of a seven-story apartment community for 250 students.

We could have crashed and burned and we came close many times in the past decade. We did fall down at times, and it was (and is) terrifying. But if we hadn’t taken these risks, if we had kept one hand on the brake, we would have certainly failed.

Letting go of the brakes isn’t only about taking financial risks. We took a risk to engage members actively in worship by sitting small clusters of chairs rather than rows of pews. We tried programs that we thought people would love but nobody showed up to. And we tried programs that we thought nobody would show up to but they loved. The truth is that every one of these decisions could have led to failure (and still could today, or in the future). We could have crashed and burned and we came close many times in the past decade. We did fall down at times, and it was (and is) terrifying. But if we hadn’t taken these risks, if we had kept one hand on the brake, we would have certainly failed. A half-hearted effort would have sputtered and died before it had a chance to really thrive. The greatest gift the Board of Directors gave Pres House was a willingness to invest fully in the effort, to take risks, and really go for it. And it worked.

Picking up Speed

Within ten years of our start-up we had fully recovered the $500,000 that was spent initially out of our endowment. In 2004, we were serving zero students at Pres House. Today we reach more than 700 each year and have served more than 4,000 in the last decade. We increased our annual budget 1,500% from $150,000 to $2.2 million per year and the total value of our organization has grown ten-fold.

Perhaps most importantly, we gained momentum. When you let go of the brakes and start to roll faster you pick up speed and momentum. Participants see what is happening and want to be a part of it. Leaders catch on that they can try new things and that energizes them. Donors get excited and want to give to successful programs. In 2004, donors gave $10,000 per year. After letting go of the brakes we have raised almost $4 million in the past 12 years. The bike is really moving now.

The specifics of my context at Pres House are just that—specific. They may not apply to you or your organization. But the principle does: let go of the brakes. Don’t hold back for fear of failure. Doing so will be a self-fulfilling prophesy and your wobbly bike will fall. Go for it! Commit fully. Trust that God will do great things. And if what you try doesn’t work; if your bike gets out of control and you crash—trust that God remains bigger than that too. We don’t serve a God that wants us to bury our talent in the ground and play it safe. We don’t serve a God that punishes risk taking or failure. We serve a God who is so much bigger than even our grandest ideas or dreams. So let go of the brakes and ride!

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

intergenerational-ministry-2

The Eeyore Complex: Miscalculations in Intergenerational Ministry

One of my favorite cartoon characters when I was younger was Eeyore. To be completely honest, he still is. Eeyore is perpetually down in the dumps. He has an incredibly pessimistic view of himself and a gloomy outlook on life in general. He believes no one notices him or wants him around. But there Eeyore is, in the middle of the Hundred Acre Woods, playing an incredibly important part. He has something to add to the story. He is clearly loved and wanted by those around him. The bulk of the negativity concerning Eeyore comes not from others, but from Eeyore himself. In much the same way, the negativity surrounding senior adult relationships with youth finds its origins in the senior adults themselves.

The relational issues between our youth and senior adults was not rooted in the adults’ perception of the youth, but in their perceptions of themselves.

At the outset of our journey into intergenerational ministry, I sat down with six senior adult participants in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of the relationships between the senior adults and the youth of First Baptist Church of St. Albans. The intent of the interviews was to gauge both the quantity and quality of relationships from the perspective of the senior adults and to determine their willingness and desire to develop relationships with youth. It did not take very long to discover that things were not what I had anticipated. The relational issues between our youth and senior adults was not rooted in their perception of the youth, but in their perceptions of themselves. At every turn, the senior adults were underestimating themselves.

Underestimating Existing Relationships

In each and every instance, the senior adults underestimated their existing level of connection and familiarity with youth. Each senior adult was asked to estimate how many relationships they believed they had with youth in the church. In most cases, the numbers were in the single digits. They were then given a photo of the youth group and asked to name as many youth as possible. Without exception, each senior adult estimated significantly fewer relationships with youth than the number of youth they could identify by name. What’s more, as they named various youth, they were able to describe in great detail certain interests and abilities of these youth and interactions they had with them. Most of these connections were just beyond casual acquaintances, but each senior adult was able to identify several youth with whom they had a deeper connection.

Many senior adults have relationships with youth from past interactions. They may not have ever played a formal role in a youth ministry, but they have served in other areas of ministry that have put them in close proximity to young people. These same senior adults who believe they have no relationships with youth have served in the nursery. They have spent time working as children’s Sunday school teachers. They have participated in Vacation Bible Schools. Too often, people forget that the youth of the church were not born as teenagers. They were at one time babies and young children, many times working their way through the various ministries and programs of the church en route to the youth ministry. While the relationships may have gone dormant for a season, the connections remain and have great potential for growth.

Underestimating Their Abilities

Life takes a toll, and as we get older, we are often not able to do all of the things we once could. This fact was not lost on the senior adults. For them, their perceived inability to do things physically was a major factor in why they believed they did not have relationships with youth. Here are a few quotes from some of the interviews:

“Physical limitations are a big issue for us. The mind is willing, but the body isn’t always able.”

“It’s hard for us to keep up with youth.”

 “We just don’t have the energy. Youth are much more active than we are.”

While it is certainly true that youth engage in various activities from time to time that are less than ideal for more mature people, senior adults are more than capable of doing what is necessary to build relationships with people of all ages. Senior adults may not be the best option for chaperoning a lock-in (who is?), counseling summer camp, or full-court basketball, but they are more than capable of sitting across a table from youth and sharing a meal. They are able to send a friendly card or possibly an email.

However, senior adults are often much more physically able than they give themselves credit for. On Saturday, December 10, we held our Third Annual Snow Ball. The Snow Ball is the event that started it all for us at First Baptist Church. It is an intergenerational dance involving music from across the generations. For three hours, senior adults and youth from First Baptist Church come together to eat food and dance together. They may not be able to do it every weekend, but for one Saturday each December the senior adults not only “keep up” with the youth of the church, they set the pace.

Underestimating the Willingness of Youth

It is one thing to underestimate ourselves. It is another thing altogether to underestimate ourselves for someone else. Yet, that is precisely what is happening with many of our senior adults. Over and over again senior adults indicated that they did not pursue relationships with youth because of what they believed the youth thought of them. They believed the youth viewed them as “old fuddy duddies” and didn’t want to talk to them. Others noted that the youth seemed intimidated by the presence of “older people” and probably didn’t want them around. Another assumed that “youth just see old people as elderly.”

None of these assumptions are flattering and none of them came from the mouths of teenagers. These are thoughts that senior adults had about themselves that they attributed to the youth. With such negative thoughts about the perceptions of young people, it is no wonder that senior adults are under the impression that youth are at best disinterested. In the end, senior adults often don’t pursue relationships with youth because they believe such relationships are unwanted.

They need someone to invite them to join the adventure that is ministry with youth. They need us to invite them to be a part of the process of investing in the lives of teenagers.

One senior adult man in our congregation shows that this simply is not the case. He walks around the church with a pocket full of “Jesus Pills.” If you look for them in your local convenience store, you will more readily know them as LifeSavers. It is not uncommon to see this gentleman standing in the front of the sanctuary with several young people gathered around him. He gives out his “Jesus Pills,” hugs several of the kids, and off they go. It seems like a small thing, but those kids love and appreciate that man and he truly loves and appreciates them. Youth are open to relationships with senior adults who are willing to pursue relationships with them.

Let’s think about Eeyore again for a second. He has an incredibly negative view of things, but the Hundred Acre Woods would not be the same without him. In spite of his gloomy outlook, his friends see the value in him and continue to include him in their adventures. He has something to add to the story. We as youth workers have the chance to do the same thing for the senior adults in our church. They have much more to add to the story than they know. They need someone to invite them to join the adventure that is ministry with youth. They need us to invite them to be a part of the process of investing in the lives of teenagers. It’s amazing how telling someone they are wanted and welcome results in them living like they are wanted and welcome.

 


Jeremy MyersJeremy Myers is a 15-year veteran of youth ministry. He and his wife Robyn live in West Virginia with their children Mikayla and JJ. He loves drinking coffee, playing music, and dreaming about what the church could and should be with fellow church nerds. Jeremy has an MA in Ministerial Leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, a D.Min. in Church Missional Renewal from Palmer Theological Seminary, and is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA.