This year’s theme is “The Story/The Stories.” Each week our blog will focus on a story from a youth minister. We hope these stories help inspire you in the great work you are doing, as well as let you know you aren’t alone in the crazy, sweet, often hard to fathom world of youth ministry. This week we are hearing……
The Story of the Question
Andrew Shaffer is the Minister to Students and Their Families at First Baptist Dalton, GA. He is a graduate of Mississippi State, Samford and Truett Seminary. He has worked in youth ministry one way or another since 2000, and has been bitten by an otter.
“The Story of the question” sounds more like a Jane Austen novel than something I’m used to writing. Not that anything is wrong with Jane Austen, just not my thing. But this particular manner of quesition is unfortunately rare in my experience, so it deserves to be shared.
Not all that long ago, I got word that some people had been talking (as people tend to do). Normally I response to such news with something akin to,<shrug> “ok.” Because I believe that attempted gossip deserves a properly eloquent reception. However from this incident arose a question. This particular question directly involved my ministry, those who participate, and their families. So, I was forced to contemplate how eager I felt to step on a land-mine, and if I could move quickly enough to avoid being dismembered by it.
I contemplated the situation, playing out ways to go Hurt Locker and shut it down before anything got (more) out of hand. All the while in my imagination the question grew and mutated into a sentient monstrosity that would surely dismantle the entirety of the church. As I did, something amazing happened: I heard the familiar “ding” of my email notification. That’s not the amazing part, it happens far too often. But I discovered that one of the families involved in the afforementioned improvised-explosive-discussion had reached out and asked for my stance on the topic, and that was fantastic.
I should mention at this point:
This entire process from beginning to end unfolded in less that a week, despite seeming like years.
Also, the question was specific, but could essentially be any perceived theological issue that creeps into a ministry. It’s not a situation with congregants, nor is it a crisis than can adequately be addressed… or any manner of crisis, really. It’s one of those issues that serves only to expose the “right” or “wrong” answer to the world, making us all feel better that we’ve managed to take sides and point out who’s wrong, while accomplishing absolutely nothing of worth.
Hesitantly opening my email, I braced myself for the worst. However I was not accused of this or that, there was no “I can’t believe so-and-so…” What occupied the screen before me was a well thought-out request simply to talk, to open a dialogue and address the question in a civil manner.
I responded to the email, politely refusing to address anything via email and encouraging face to face conversation, which was then scheduled and executed (I recruited a neutral 3rd party to serve as reference, anchor, and potential mediator). Meeting with the family, we got right to work and dropped the question on the table.
I’ve heard the phrase, “The problem isn’t unanswered questions, it’s unquestioned answers” multiple times over the years, and as we talked I quickly discovered the question was more “Jeopardy!” than “Trivial Pursuit”. Other involved parties (not present, but invited to the conversation) already had their answer, they simply expected the right question from me to prompt said answer. So, the question had taken on quite the little personality.
Rather than offer advice for rooting out who landed in which camp, I sidestepped and dodged like a contestant on American Gladiators, offering a solution rather than an answer to the question: keep having the conversation. Don’t ask for an answer, look for different perspectives and seek to understand those perspectives in the context of the Gospel and the message of Christ. Understand that as a church body, and even a ministry staff, everyone not agreeing is a good thing as long as we can work for the Kingdom of GOD rather than attempting to take sides based on a question.
But, if questions are never asked and answers are assumed (or presumed), the church cannot find that space. So we encourage asking questions. We provide a safe space to talk out issues, fears, and whatever else comes across our paths and understand that we all may disagree on a lot, and that’s ok. Because if we’re truly trying to become more like Christ, who asks that we all come as children (and seriously who asks more questions than kids), then it make sense that we do our best to be more like Christ and invite everyone to the table, especially if it means asking the question.