From 1992 to 2002 I was the worst youth leader in the history of teenagers. Seriously. Our former church had lost its latest youth leader in a string of several and I just felt bad for the kids. I had lots of experience with Sunday School for little ones and nursery duty (having a 3 and 4 year old myself) but had never worked with adolescents. After the last team fled the scene, I told my husband I thought I should step up and fill in until someone else was available, just to give some stability to the kids.
“I can do the teaching if you’ll help me.” says I.
“Uh, I don’t think...” says the Mr.
“Ok, I’m glad we agree! It’ll be great!” says I.
And thus began the worst youth leadership in the history of teenagers.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t like teenagers. I didn’t like teenagery activities. Our church had a youth room slightly smaller than the back of my truck. My husband was reluctant, to say the least.
To this day, I have no idea why God didn’t reign down brimstone or frogs or something to stop this travesty. I walked into that room for our first Sunday School and was met with about a half dozen sets of rolling eyes and blank stares. I felt my face getting red and I realized then and there that I disliked teenagers more than I had realized. My husband sat there saying nothing and looking decidedly unhelpful, unspiritual and terrified. I realized I disliked him more than I had realized as well. The following Sunday morning I brought donuts to class. This became the only redeeming quality of my ministry.
In the meantime, I taught over their heads, around their interests, in spite of their indifference and with varying degrees of preparation and inspiration.
I taught about sex by comparing it to hamburger. I don’t remember exactly what I was trying to prove but that’s what the leader’s book said to say. All these years later I will occasionally run in to one of my “kids” and they will say “Sex is like hamburgers!” and walk away laughing hysterically.
I hated giving up my time for youth outings. I know, that’s terrible but I’m being honest. I hated miniature golf and bowling and Cedar Point. I offered very little in the way of extracurricular spiritually stimulating youth activity.
I saw little impact from my ministry of deep-thinking and spiritual insight. I continued to ply the kids with donuts, they liked Boston Cream best. Most of the kids still went off the path I would’ve chosen for them. A poor reflection on me.
I was honored more than I deserved to have kids share hurts and shame and fear with me. I didn’t know what to tell them, I was no youth leader. But I learned to hurt with them, cry with them and pray for them.
Somewhere in that ten years I learned that I loved teenagers.
I never became a good youth leader, but I became someone who tried to cover her own short-comings with extra doses of love. I hope when it’s all said and done, it meant something.
Some of my kids I haven’t seen in years, and when I do there’s no glimmer of recognition that we ever spent time together in that little room eating donuts. I deserve the cold shoulder, I wasn’t a good youth leader. I’ll admit that hurts. I don’t deserve their love and admiration and I know it; but I love them anyway and it always hurts to love and not be loved back. It also hurts to know I failed them. That’s the worst.
Some of my kids come up and hug me and kiss me on the cheek and tell me they love me; and about what’s happening in their lives today. Some of them make fun of me for comparing sex to hamburger and downright tell me I sucked. They’re right on all counts. I’m glad they’ve forgiven me enough to give me a hug.
A few of my “kids” read my blog. I remain close to some of them. Some of them are now my closest friends, hurting, crying, praying and loving me through life now. What a privilege for me, to count them as my friends.
All of them, all those WWC teenagers; rolling their eyes and making noise and rocking in their chairs and never answering any questions and necking with their boy/girl friends in the church van (yes I saw you!); they all shaped me more than I shaped them.
They shaped me into a better teacher, although they reaped little benefit for their efforts. They taught me to pray because I was truly at the mercy of Jesus every time I walked into that room. They taught me to hurt with hurting people. They honored me with their trust. They kept coming back to that little room with the world’s worst youth leader.
I wasn’t much to write home about guys. I know that. I’m sorry. But in case I didn’t make it clear back in the day, I love you guys. I am proud of every one of you. I am privileged that God let me have some time in your life. I wish I had done better.
Thank you for teaching me to love teenagers.
1 Timothy 4:12 (New International Version)
12Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.