The Pastor’s Pastor

Skyscrapers of book boxes teetered nervously in a maze around the cluttered new office; each box grunting under the weight of the heavy reading.  I was grunting too, flopped down in my chair at the desk.

Why do I have so many books?  I ask myself this question every time I have to move them.  And why is my office on the 3rd floor?

First day at a new job.  A new church body.  And my first task is to haul these long-time companions to their new shelves.  My head dropped to the desk just thinking about unpacking them all.

And that’s when I felt the hands on my shoulders.  Big hands.  Broad hands.

Startled, I lifted my head off the desk.  It was my pastor.

No, not the senior pastor.  Not the executive pastor.  Not an associate of men’s ministry or small groups.

It was “Big Al”.  The janitor.

And he was big.  He stood towering over me with a broad build and bald head.  Like a real life Mr. Clean, without the earring. I was pretty sure his hands could crush me and he probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

“Hey, is this your first day?”  he asked.

“Yea, just getting all my books in the door.”

Big Al looks around and smiles, “Has anyone prayed for you yet?”

“Uh no, I guess not.”

“Great then, let me do it right now.”  And before I can even agree, “Big Al” is praying for me to have courage, lead boldly, proclaim Christ clearly, to have passion in my spiritual journey and for my family to be strong and blessed by God.

That’s how I met my pastor.  On my first day as the new youth pastor, he stepped into my office to empty the garbage.  But he wouldn’t leave until he’d made sure my soul wasn’t in the same condition.

I like people like Al.  People who see themselves as part of God’s divine plan to breathe life into every situation.  Even while taking out the trash.

And now several years later, from time to time, Big Al will come strolling into my office to empty the garbage.  And sometimes he’ll stop and look at me.  And ask me a question.

“How are you doing with your relationship with God right now?  Are you feeling passionate or is it becoming just a job for you?”

Yikes!  How about “Hey, Nick.  Nice weather we’ve been having, huh?”  I mean, that’s pretty heavy for first thing Monday morning.

Except almost every time he asks me those questions, they’ve been questions that need to be asked.  Sometimes I can answer that I’m doing really well and other times not.  But, it’s always been a pastoral reminder to me to care more about the relationship I have with God than the job I think I do for him.

And it occurs to me that I can be honest with Al.  As people who are usually looked at to have all the right answers and constantly be the epitome of godliness, it is often hard for pastors to have real discussions of their own spiritual walk.  Those authentic moments of deep honesty are rare.  And even more rare the people that ask it of us.

But the older I get and the longer I’m involved in professional ministry, the more I find it essential to find those rare individuals who will ask the real questions.  It’s too easy to fake it.  Too easy to miss it, while talking lots about it.

After all, it’s often my own soul that needs the most work.  It is my wandering that needs a shepherd. I need a pastor too.

Whoever he or she is, your pastor does too.

Big Al isn’t a janitor.  He’s a pastor that takes out my garbage sometimes.

And the fact that he knows that has made all the difference for me.

So may you see your true identity today. May you remember that you never need a title to fulfill your ministry.  May you discover the people to pastor all around you that you could never have blessed in any other role.  May you find your divine calling in the middle of the moments you label “ordinary.”

And may you be so fortunate as to come across your own Big Al.  Title or not, every pastor needs a pastor.  And he’s about the best there is.

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Top-10 Things Your Youth Pastor Would Like to Say

Shingles. Anxiety. Sleepless nights. High blood pressure. Gun-shy decision-making. Significant loss in self-esteem & confidence. Unhealthy eating habits. Depression. A meager spiritual life.

I’d experienced all of these by my 5th year in youth ministry.

Now, I know many people think youth ministry is just organizing a fun game of dodgeball or sardines. I mean, how hard can it be? But it turns out, it’s pretty tough not just physically or mentally, but on the soul.

Consider the all the roles your youth pastor is expected to be completely proficient in:

– creative event/party planner,
– engaging, funny, and deep teacher/communicator,
– successful publicist,
– charismatic personality,
– bible-knowledge expert,
– teen-culture expert,
– consistent parent liaison,
– media and technology guru,
– data-entry and records keeping professional,
– team-manager and volunteer director,
– student mentor and leadership developer,
– social-media master,
– spiritual and family relationship counselor,
– conflict negotiator in teenage relationship struggles,
– and janitor (cause lets face it, we all know who gets to clean up that messy game from last Wednesday).

Add to these expectations (and more) the countless hours spent hanging-out with students at football games, Starbucks, Denny’s, musicals, and coaching girl’s basketball and you’ve got a pretty full schedule. And while many youth pastors have the ability to delegate some of these responsibilities, most will tell you that they are under-resourced with personal capability, adult personnel, and money to make many of these roles successful.

The expectations are high. The desire is authentic. The reality is slim.

Any given Sunday, there are a bunch of youth pastors on the verge of mental and spiritual breakdown.

Now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve personally found healthier ways to deal with the difficulties of the job, and healthier contexts to do it in.  But today there are many young youth pastors who find themselves where I was a few years ago.  If you aren’t involved in career ministry, it might come as a surprise that the spiritual leaders that care for your students at church are struggling in this way.  And maybe it’s worth a look into the thoughts I’ve heard youth pastors say to each other but rarely to anyone else.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that are being kept inside. These might not all apply to all youth leaders, but chances are they’ve all thought them at some point or another. And it’s worth a look into the real struggles of these committed leaders.

The TOP-10 things your youth pastor would like to say but is usually too scared to:


1) “I’m a normal person, please treat me like one.”

I know I’m the leader of an important ministry, but I’m also a person. When I get a vicious email or nasty criticism, it hurts. Many times I feel like the criticism comes from strangers rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, I’m often amazed at the harsh criticism I receive from people I don’t really know. If you’ve got concerns, could you please let me know while remembering I’m a real person with real feelings.

2) “I’m doing the best I can, please cut me some slack.”

I’m overworked and have a lot of students and their problems on my mind. There are lots of things I’d like to get done in better organization of our group, but the tyranny of what has to get done today and the sudden crisis that pop up in students’ lives rob me of time to deal with it all. I’m doing my best. Please give me some grace. I’ll get the parent newsletter out as soon as I can.

3) “I don’t know all the answers, and neither do you.”

Maybe I didn’t teach something last week that covered everything you’d like. Maybe I asked too many questions and didn’t give enough answers. But, I don’t always know what is going to get through to students. I have to try things. I’m trying to earn their trust and break through their apathy. And most likely, you don’t know what will work either or you’d be doing it yourself instead of expecting me to do it.  Please work with me to find out what works and what doesn’t.

4) “I’m not responsible for your student’s spiritual growth, I’m responsible for mine.”

I know you think that it’s your job to drop your kid off at our program and my job to make sure they grow up “Christian,” but the truth is I’m only responsible for my own spiritual growth. I can encourage, equip and inspire your student to follow Jesus, but parents have more influence in how that practically works out and ultimately it is something each student must choose for himself/herself. If you want more depth for your student, dig deeper with them. Don’t just expect me to do it.

5) “I need more help, not more criticism.”

I realize that youth ministry will always be a lightning rod for criticism. We play messy games, ask disturbing questions and employ controversial strategies all in an effort to reach students for Jesus. And I know you don’t like them all, but you should know that sharp criticism makes me want to engage in these activities more not less. I know I’m not doing everything right, but it’s hard for me to hear “disengaged criticism.” Get involved and start fighting in the trenches with me and I’ll be much more inclined to hear your “suggestive correction.”

6) “I invest in a lot of relationships, but very few invest in me.”

My life is a constant out-pouring of time and energy into people around me. I invite them to coffee, I go to their performances or do any number of other things that aren’t what I’d prefer to do at the moment. Many times I have to risk awkwardness and rejection to try and build relationships. But, almost no one does this for me. I’ve been invited over for lunch or dinner (without an agenda) only a few times. And rarely does anyone check-in on how I’m doing spiritually. I’m constantly giving of myself and very rarely receiving anything back. I feel very alone. I need someone to befriend me and pour into me.

7) “If I really had freedom, I’d probably do this ministry totally different.”

You probably don’t know this, but most of how we do youth ministry today is from the 1950’s and I’m not married to it. In fact, if it was totally up to me, I’d probably blow the whole thing up and re-dream it entirely to fit a new generation. But you have to understand I’m under a lot of pressure from leaders above me to keep a status quo and not “rock the boat too much.” I understand this thing isn’t doing all we hope it will do, but I’m making the most of what I’ve been commissioned to do.

8) “My family is making a huge sacrifice for me to do this, please honor them.”

This job is not for bankers. I don’t work 9-to-5 on Monday through Friday. I work almost every day of the week, doing things you might not consider “hard work” but which nevertheless take me away from my family. A youth retreat is not a vacation for me. It’s a 100-hour work weekend away from my family. Please help me take care of my family. Offer to babysit. Send my wife and I on marriage renewal weekends. Or just check in on my family while I’m gone and see if they need anything. They pay a big price for my interaction with students, so honor them for it.

9) “I’m not a ‘real-pastor’ in training, what I do is already important.”

My job is not a senior-pastor-in-training position. In fact, as hard as this is to believe, I might not ever want to be a senior-pastor. I do what I do because I value students. I’m not trying to climb a corporate church ladder. I care about the teenagers I see each week and I desperately want them to see the reality of the kingdom of God that exists around them. This job is the job I want when I grow up. I just hope I don’t grow up, so I can do this job forever.

10) “I’m the least-paid in my field, with possibly the toughest assignment.”

It’s no surprise that youth pastors are among the least paid on a church staff. I probably get paid half of what your senior-pastor makes, but you should know that it’s one of the most difficult tasks in church. Trust me, no senior-pastor or executive-pastor (as tough as their job is) wants to figure out how to simultaneously entertain, teach and emotionally grab a room full of 16-year-olds. In fact, most are scared to death just thinking about it. It’s a tough job, and we lose more good youth pastors every year because we don’t value what they do enough and they need more to live on.

Is that a tough glimpse into what many youth pastors are feeling? Possibly. But I think it articulates what many have communicated to me or in certain cases what I myself have experienced.

Of course, youth pastors will be quick to tell you, there are a bunch of great benefits to working within the body of Christ. Seeing young people make decisions that change their life, watching leaders grow and become all they can be, and living in the middle of human brokenness and seeing God bring healing is incredibly rewarding.  And most of them find the drawbacks worth the incredible joy of working with students; I know I do.

But giving these hidden struggles a voice is good.  Too many young, good leaders are drowning in them because they don’t want to sound “whiny” or “ungrateful” or “incapable” of doing their job.  And while we care for young people, we should also care about the people-caring-about-young-people.

So next time you see your youth pastor in the church hall, give her a hug or take him to dinner. I promise you that most of them can identify with many of the statements above. And they might be better off if they know you do too.

“Letter from MISSISSIPPI” – (#2)

[Letter #2 from MISSISSIPPI – Part 4  of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hey SEATTLE,

Superb response!!  So good to hear back from you.  I love how much time you spent responding and how thoughtful and helpful to me this is.  I agree with you about the attitude of humility, and this is something I can learn from….of course.

I’m relieved to know that picture wasn’t from the actual protest and wasn’t actually a picture of real Christians protesting.  Putting it in your blog about Hutch is really misleading (I’m glad it wasn’t you) and it illustrates my feelings pretty well.  I do agree that there was likely a better way for him to go about this.  But for the sake of argument, let’s say that he didn’t do this to make himself feel good or hold on to any rights but because he prayed about it and genuinely thought his message needed to be heard by a hurting, lost world.  Maybe more as a prophet. The picture which is not even from a real event, somehow ends up illustrating his message. Fair?  No.  But maybe that is the very picture of what Jesus did, in laying down his personal rights to popularity, to being liked or loved, to not being a target for persecution and murder; I think he had to lay down those rights in order to speak the truth to people who didn’t want to hear it. Yes, he did it lovingly and through sacrifice but his message of repentance was never absent.

I think being persecuted for speaking truth is also a Christ-like way of laying your personal rights down, not keeping silent about the truth so people will look more favorably on you and your beliefs.  I just don’t think we can be caught up in how we might be represented in the media, in a world that is hostile to Christ.  If you’re angry at the picture of Christians that gets portrayed in the media, you should actually be angry with the media.  They ignore all the good that churches and Christians do and focus on the few cases they can find that misrepresent Christ; or they distort the actions of genuine Christians themselves, kind of like that fake protesting picture being shown in the context of Hutch’s protest.  But since Christ was treated no better, maybe we shouldn’t be angry at all—maybe we should expect others to see us this way and continue on faithfully, not bending our message to suit the fancy of those who are convicted by it and don’t wish to be.

I’m not so worried about the slippery slope, or keeping intact a culture that recognizes the moral truths that have produced a wonderful society.  I understand that Christianity has thrived more in cultures that are hostile to it.  My thinking is all about how and what Christians are saying about the truth.  Are we ashamed to be recipients of his grace, to know the One way and the One truth? Are we ashamed of the privilege and blessing of being saved, of telling others they need saving too? Are we ashamed of the material blessings God has given us, as we have lived faithful, generous, disciplined lives, and as we use it to bless others in ways that no other group of people does?  I hear this “Christian guilt” everywhere I turn and have a hard time squaring it with Scripture. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes;” Rom. 1:16

It seems that more often than not especially with Christians our age, there is a public bashing of Christianity, and of those who would preach the Word or call sin what it is, and many of us are changing the message or watering it down because the world sees it as intolerant.  The world feels condemned in the presence of truth, but truth is not the problem.  The world WILL see our message in a very negative way if we are at all true to it.  Jesus promises exactly that.  We have to be true to the Word and let that be seen by the world—as much as they may then hate us, or Jesus for it (He promises us that too).  Only then will the hurting lost people who are actually looking for an answer, see any difference between our message and that of the world’s message of moral relativism.  To do otherwise is to hide our light under a bushel.  Obviously, there are more and less effective ways of doing this but I have to say I am weary of hearing Christians say that we should apologize to non Christians and never ever tell them the truth about their lives.  I’m not saying we should cast stones by any means, but we go so far as to agree with the lies the media is spreading about who we are!  Talk about doing something because it makes us feel good…I’m pretty sure no one is going to want to throw rocks at our heads or crucify us for such statements.

Anyway, that’s my concern and where I’m coming from.  I hear what you’re saying too & have read Miller, Claiborne, Camp, Wallis etc.  I have really enjoyed this dialogue b/c usually people get kind of uptight, over serious or angry and I can almost hear your laughter and smile coming across through cyberspace. God has blessed you with a beautiful compassion for the lost and hurting in our world and no doubt, if all Christians were like you then I do think our message would have a lot more weight.  I do.  So, you have been a really good example and given me a lot to think about with your blog and email.  Thanks so much for taking the time to read all this and respond.  I will be thinking about what you have said and pray about my understanding of these times and our role in them.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

MISSISSIPPI