When I changed my major for the seventh time in college, my dad, understandably, was a bit annoyed. My parents had saved money and were generously helping my siblings and I through the collegiate experience. I was a Psychology major then Sociology, History, Communications, Public Relations, Secondary Education, Elementary Education and finally Theology and Philosophy. Yes, you can get a degree with a double major in unemployment.
Christmas break came and my dad sat me down. He asked, “How do you ever expect to get a job studying Theology and Philosophy!” My witty 19 year old self replied…”Dude, you don’t go to college to get a job, you do it to get an education.” “Thomas Aquinas and Socrates had jobs, er, I think?” After my dad recovered from me calling him “dude,” he rolled his eyes and exhaled a breath of disgust. A pretty healthy argument ensued.
Fast forward six years…
My parents helped me move into my second youth ministry position. I am managing a two-hundred person youth group at a thousand plus family parish in Sumner, Wa. My dad asks me, “So when are you going to get a real job?” I responded with a pony tail to the middle of my back and a pair of Birkenstocks on my feet, “Um, not cool dad.” This was actually a pretty good question on my dad’s part at the time.
I am a dreamer and always looking at the pretty grass on the other side. I am generally convinced that there is alway more. In ministry I have never ignored the demands of my current reality, but I certainly seem to stare into the distance longingly a great deal of the time.
Fast forward three more years…
I bring a group of forty teenagers and adults from the the nine parish youth ministry I now manage to my parents little cabin in Newport, WA for a ski retreat. I ask my dad to cook and be patient. If you knew him, you would be giggling right now. A funny thing happens. In the midst of my enjoying the moment, celebrating young people, developing relationships, praying, listening, laughing and just engaging great youth ministry, something clicks. My dad and my mom see joy. They see a career.
Fast forward six more years…
I manage the youth ministry for a Catholic diocese over 55,000 square miles. We serve over 70,000 people in over 60 different faith communities. I am responsible for resourcing, supporting, visioning, engaging, developing and practicing healthy adolescent faith formation for over 12,000 youth. And, I do it from behind a desk (and in a car most of the time) with one administrative assistant and a heck of a lot of prayer and support.
My parents know that I have a real job. I have always known this. When we are young we have a decision to make. Are we going to pursue a salary and the “security” of economic directive or are we going to face plant ourselves into a life of vocation. The difference is in the spiritual life. Are you doing something because you can or are you pursuing something because it is what you were built to do.
My little undergraduate degrees will get me a $2 cup of coffee at Starbucks. That is, of course, a skim milk latte, but you get the picture. My career has gotten me a life of challenges, beauty, innovative people skills, management experience, stress, marketing development, joy and a network of thousands of people all over the country. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The grass may be greener, but I love the field I am in.
Being a father of daughters, I am always taken back by the gasp that exits people’s faces when I tell them that I have one bathroom and five girls. The next assertion is generally concern for me as a parent when my children enter their teenage years. I can certainly empathize with this idea. My children already compete for the one hairbrush of twenty that we own that they claim does not rip their hair out when they brush it. Mornings are like responding to an alarm in a fire station only with more pink, hair ties and drama. I think I hear CBS calling. My girls argue over cereal, noise, eye contact, milk consumption and the weather. They also dispute over shared shoes, some clothes, tooth paste and my attention.
I come from a family of five people. I have a brother and a sister. My mother was a nurse and my father a long haul trucker. My dad recently retired. Reflecting on my childhood, I discovered something fairly astonishing. My dad has been absent half of my life. Allow me to explain.
My dad, a wonderful man and dedicated husband, would drive a long distance every other day. When we lived in Spokane, WA he drove to Bellingham, WA every other day. Years later his route changed to Boise, ID then Billings, MT. Every other day he was in a hotel sleeping before piling back into a truck and returning home. When home, he would sleep, parent, catch up on responsibilities, etc. Quite a life when you really think about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great childhood. Rarely did I ever feel lacking. In my adult years, however, I cannot help feel this deep burning need to catch up on time with my parents, especially my dad. I just want to hang out. Be present. You know?
My oldest is ten and my youngest is two. There is nothing I would rather do than spend time with them. Time is like a precious commodity in a fluctuating market. Some weeks I have a ton of it and its value is modest. Other weeks there is very little of it available and its value is precious. The time I spend with my kids, my wife, my God has to be intentional and disciplined.
In youth ministry we call this the “Ministry of Presence.” The very nature of being present is in itself its own gift. Our presence sends a message of dedication, trust, investment and most of all, comfort. Others our comforted by our desire just to be there. We witness discipleship by the sheer nature of our attendance at family, school and church functions. We are present because we are part of the wholeness and formation of young people
I know this is true with my own kids. When I can just be with them there stems a natural sense of accountability and wholeness. My wife likens it to peace with a little harmony. Of course, harmony in a house of five little girls is akin to a symphony playing on a stage being pulled by a speed boat, but it will have to do.
Be present to family, faith and formation today. You will never regret time dedicated to others. The longings of the generations to come ought to come from their desire to be present to others.
Youth ministry for me growing up was a bit of a let down. The forty-hour per week working moms did the best they could. Volunteers did everything. For me, however, it was more of a source of frustration than formation. Gathering at the church to be lectured at or going on retreats with little content and a whole lot of rules didn’t exactly bring me closer to Jesus. So I thought. The programming seemed contrived or fake. The efforts of those women was lost. Or was it?
When I stumbled into a career in youth ministry I did so out of rebellion. I know, not the best reason for entering into a career of low pay and fickle administration. But, I wanted to be better. With my little undergraduate degrees in theology and philosophy I was certain I held the key to the universe. I wanted to prove that teaching about the Lord to young people didn’t have to be dram and boring. It could be enthusiastic and engaging. It needed to be real. But, I believed it still needed to be about me and my ability to manage the moment. Are you picking up on a theme here?
I am at a loss when I look back on my adolescent experience of ministry. I remember being angry a lot with the lack of quality teaching and engaging content. I remember acting out and intentionally disrupting the efforts of the worn out volunteers for the sake of attention or, better yet, dismissal. I was the kid that asked the hard questions, had high expectations and then quit coming.
Me, me, me, me, me. I sound like a two year old with a messed up mission.
I suppose the value in my experience comes from the fact that I have a memory of it at all. A whole lot of adults put in a whole lot of hours to try to teach me about Jesus. Their personal formation might have been a bit lacking and their teaching style may have resembled a Charlie Brown character, but they were present and they cared enough to try.
My rebellious roots in ministry turned to professional perseverance in my late twenties. I discovered that the world of youth ministry was monstrously large and there a lot of people much more qualified at it than I. When you want to be successful in something, you study people that are successful in that thing. So I did.
Today, youth ministry or any ministry for that matter, is an intentional landscape of opportunity and growth. I approach it with a sense of humility and joy. I focus on fundamental faith development and the pursuit of personal spirituality in young people. I try to let the moment be mastered by Christ. In other words, I know to get out of the way. I have learned to shut up. I have learned to yield to the authority of the Holy Spirit and trust in the power of an open heart. I have learned about the notion of the other.
Service is at the heart of all successful ministry. From service flows discipleship and from their, the rebel in all of us can be used to build a kingdom.
I have two incredible “one up” stories. You know how when you are engaged in a conversation about something totally interesting and the person telling the story really feels that they own the moment. Comedian Brian Regan does a great bit about this on his “Walking on the Moon” DVD. It usually starts with something innocent like, “One time I was on this hike and…” Eventually you hear about how a grizzly bear ate their friend but they narrowly escaped using parachute chord and a Trident gum wrapper as a hang glider whereupon they ran for three days only to discover respite in a tavern outside the ranch town of Augusta. Maybe that is just in Montana.
The first “one up” story I like to drop on folks involves my mother. When somebody starts in on what celebrities they have encountered over the years, I calmly wait with a gem in my pocket and a devious story of unprecedented success.
Here it is.
When my mom was in nursing school at Fullerton Junior College in California in the 1960’s she happend to be doing a rotation in the emergency room at Fullerton Hospital. In walks one John Wayne. The John Wayne. Yes, that one.
We have all heard the legends of his eating habits. Apparently John was tying one on with a hefty meal and some drink when all of a sudden his intestines decided to file a formal protest and lock down until the union could gather before allowing any more work to be done concerning accounts receivable and sent. This is a polite way of saying…his tummy really hurt and he couldn’t go to the bathroom.
Upon examination of Mr. Wayne, the doctor on staff prescribed an enema. Now it is important for everyone to realize that I will not go into hefty detail as to what an enema is. You have Google. Use it. Regardless, the union lines had to be broken! My mother…my wonderful little twenty-something LPN mother was on duty and got the assignment.
My mom gave John Wayne and enema. She has had an encounter with a celebrity like no other. She has placed her hands…okay, I will stop. Isn’t that hilarious?! The best part of the story is that while John Wayne was recovering, putting on his pants and what not, my mom has the wherewithal to ask him for his autograph! And, he gave it to her. I like to think that John said something like, “Here ya are little lady. Like to thank you for letting the herd back out into the pasture for me. Wuhhuuh,” but I am sure he responded more like, “May I go home now?”
Usually I tie my stories into some sort of spiritual theme or advice. I like to look at life as a big teacher and me the lowly defiant student. Maybe there is one here. Perhaps we need to remember in times of desperate need to ask for help or that when are lives come to a halt, there is always a way through it. Not sure I can keep a straight face while typing anymore. This time, however, I think I will just let this story sit on its own, cause I know you have nothing that can “one up” it! Teeheehee.
My second story (another blog post perhaps) has to do with my dad and the Beatles. Seriously.
Over Christmas break my family (my wife and five daughters and I) watched the Sound of Music. This was the first time the kids had seen the film. They love to sing and dance and sometimes I want to ship them to Austria. Perfect fit, right?
The film was a total hit. My kids were spellbound by the antics of the children and the downright colorfulness of the movie. Julie Andrews hypnotized them with her voice and by the fact that she was a rebellious nun. My Catholic kids got a kick out of that.
The part that absolutely left me in stitches was when the Captain finally called off his engagement to the baroness and decided to let his feeling be known for his convent bound governess. They find each other in the garden under the gazebo and begin singing to one another, like you do. Finally, the moment comes when only a kiss can seal the deal. I look over at my 4, 6, 8 and 10 year old sitting on the couch. They are leaning in like they are trying to with a marathon. The kiss happens and all four of them bury themselves under pillows. The 8 year old yells, “Don’t you know she’s a nun!” The 10 year old cries out in terror, “Oh my gosh!!!!” My 6 year old says in a calm voice, “I knew they were going to do it.” 4 year old remains silent. My 1 year old spits up milk on the floor, cause you know, thats what they do.
My wife and I are dying laughing. When they kiss again, I actually yell out, “Boom!” To which my girls are all now giggling and loving every minute. The movie continues. They are now a family and the real drama escalates.
You know the story. The Captain doesn’t want to be a Nazi so he attempts to escape the country. They sing. They hide. They walk to Switzerland. Like you do.
The best part about the experience was at the end of the movie. The family is walking to freedom to start a new life when the captions begin to roll. My 8 year old bellows, “That can’t be the end? What happens next? I want to know how everything turns out!”
I want to know how everything will turn out for my family. I want my girls to be self-confident amazing women. I want them to be wonderful moms, singles, or religious if they are called so by the Lord. The key here is that the real story is in the adventure. It is in the unknown. Just as we all think things couldn’t get any better, we are usually dosed with a big plate of unknown.
The Christian man or woman must be at peace in this environment. Unknown simply means someone else is steering the ship. Isn’t this what we are called to through our baptism?
Thank you Rogers and Hammerstein for illustrating drama and family adventure. Thank you Julie Andrews for making out with a Captain and re-telling the world that love dictates all.