February is here, and we are well into our yearly theme. 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 I Long to Hear
Originally from Chapel Hill, NC, Daniel Potter serves as the Minister of Youth at First Baptist Church in Columbus, GA. He is a recent grad of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. When not doing youth ministry, Daniel enjoys good music, laughter, spending time with his wife Rachel, and cheering on his beloved Tar Heels.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. In fact, I visit it in my memory almost every time I’m with my youth. The moment occurred in the summer of 2013. During that summer, you’ll find me working PASSPORT as the Worship Coordinator for the Missions2 (now Mission Base) team in Dallas and Washington, DC. PASSPORT has been integral in my calling. I first heard the whispers of my calling to vocational ministry as a camper. I dove head first into ministry as a summer staffer. I met my wife while working at camp. Naturally, I have many great memories from my experience with PASSPORT. None remain in my mind as vividly as the one I’m recalling for this blog. It happened during my first full-fledged experience working with youth. And, it represents the story I long to hear most as a youth minister. Go with me, then, to the summer of 2013.
On a warm D.C. night, our summer staff worked quickly to prepare the gym at Calvary Baptist Church for the evening party – a dance. It was an interesting task as we worked to transition our dining/worship/bible study area into a fun, inviting space for the event. The dance fell into my purview, since I was the Worship Coordinator and had the best grasp on our A/V equipment. Just as preparations were ending, the churches came rushing downstairs awaiting the fun that was to follow. We had a great time that night! Somewhere in between the first dance and the last, though, I noticed that a group of middle school aged boys were not participating. Worse than that, they’d created a game for themselves of sprinting up and down the nearby stairwell. So, I went to them and asked them to join in. I thought Parker Palmer would be proud of my continuing to invite them to dance! It seemed that the conversation took root and the issue was resolved. It wasn’t so. Around 10 minutes later, I caught a glimpse of one boy sprinting out the door of the dance. He was headed right back up the stairs as I approached. After giving the group a stronger, more firm directive to stay in the dance, I realized what had happened. I’d caught myself – perhaps, a younger version of me – running up and down those stairs. At the time, I was a 22-year-old prospective seminarian. My discussion with the guys reminded me of who I had been less than 10 years prior.
It was very revealing to look at my own life through the lens of that incident. After it happened, I made it a point to thank my former youth ministers and to apologize for the trouble I’d caused in the youth groups they led. I grew in my understanding of what it meant to minister to or with adolescent boys and in my sense of calling to work with them. You see, I was a rambunctious 7th grader at one point. Ministers, lay and ordained alike, provided safe space for me to grow through that experience. They helped me find God, in the moments where my attention held, with a loving grace that always made me feel welcome at church. The mustard seeds that developed into my vocational calling were planted by hands that cared for me even if I was on their last nerve. This brings me back to the story I so desperately long to hear.
Youth ministers are mustard seed planters. We work hard to develop the traces of faith that might one day be nurtured into a life of faith. Gingerly, we tuck the smallest of seeds into the soil and wait for them to grow. After that, we try to water and fertilize the seeds, but it’s mostly up to God and that youth as to where it leads. Many times youth ministers don’t even get to see the totality of a finished product, one strong and sturdy mustard plant. Yet, every so often, a youth comes back and reminds us of the impact we’re making. I’m still waiting on my first of such moments, as I’ve just begun my first call. But, I long to hear the stories of how youth group made an impact on the lives of my youth. If you’re longing to hear the same story, perhaps mine will do for now. Keep doing what you’re doing because it really matters. As a former youth, I’m so very grateful for the work you do. As a colleague, I understand the struggles. Take heart that eventually a mustard plant can spring forth somewhere in your ministry. Place a keen eye on the rows that are difficult to hoe, within which a future minister might lie.
Thanks be to God for the opportunity to tend the smallest of seeds as it grows into the largest of shrubs.