I’m a bit of a crier. In fact, I love a good cry. I thoroughly enjoy a good weep to a film, book or piece of music, and regularly well up at inopportune moments. It’s rare though that an email leaves me sobbing tears of joy.
I was walking back from the train station to my house recently, while reading an email on my phone. (This is very silly. I should have just waited until I had got home to save myself bumping into things / getting run over. Thankfully neither happened on this occasion.) The email was a noticesheet from my old church, where I had worked for a while and spent the best part of my childhood and teenage years. To say that the church had had a significant impact on my faith journey would be an understatement. In this noticesheet was a small picture of a lady called Betty who I remember from the children’s group, many moons ago. After 40 years of service, she was finally retiring, finding herself too elderly to continue (she must be in her 80s by now).
The reason I had tears streaming down my face was the striking realisation that Betty was one of the key factors in bringing my family to that church. I have a vivid memory of walking home from the church on our first Sunday there – having spent the morning in Betty’s children’s group – saying that I wanted to go to ‘the church with the worksheets’. There was nothing spectacular about the morning’s session and it certainly had no whizz or pizzazz, just a few little prizes for people who came every week and a bit of colouring in. But the activities were enough to draw me in, and as my parents were very keen to find somewhere we would feel at home, we stayed.
Betty’s story is not unique; there are many elderly ladies and gents serving in children’s and youth groups across the country. But sadly I feel that my generation (and by my generation, I mean me) is not necessarily good at the hard graft, putting in years and years of faithful service till the end. We also move around a lot more, making this consistent kind of service rarer. I might feel passionate about youth ministry now – but will I still feel the same in ten, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years? As Proverbs 20:6 says – ‘Many a man claims to have unfailing love, but a faithful man who can find?’
This month we are talking about the lifelong calling to youth ministry, and the different stages involved along the way. As David Welch says in ‘Youth ministry is for life’ (p.20), although we may not carry on forever in the hands-on, face-to-face, frontline youth ministry, there is a desperate need for the wise sages of youth work to emerge – those with years of experience and practice who can pass on the lessons learned to the next generation of youth workers. It isn’t arrogant or ‘career-driven’ to seek out opportunities to grow and develop, or to understand that passing through the stages is expected and positive. And, more than most, we realise that young people need interactions with people of all ages, to learn and live alongside the depth and breadth of the Church.
Sticking it out for the long haul is no mean feat. As I know from experience, and from my conversations with youth workers for ‘Help! I love my youth group but not my church’ (p. 28) - working for a church can demand all that you’ve got to give, and maybe even more. As you read their stories, be encouraged that there are others facing the trials and woes you face. I also hope that you might be challenged to put the boundaries and support in place that you need, to keep going through the hard times; to prevent burning out or, worse still, giving up on church entirely.
Betty is a faithful person. And I’m sure there are countless stories like mine where God has used her faithful service for his glory. I hope that I, like Betty, might serve faithfully enough to bring a tear to someone’s eye one day.