Dean Borgman, (2006) “Calling to Youth Ministry: Biblical & Practical Considerations,” S. Hamilton, MA Center for Youth Studies.
Biblical Examples and Principles
A deep sense of definite calling of God to a specific ministry is commonly affirmed as an important, if not a critical, basis of Christian vocation. And, yet, even in the Bible, that call comes in a variety of ways, with varying degrees of clarity, and with some question marks.
Were Abraham and his family partially obedient in getting to Haran-then fully obedient, after some years, in pressing on to Canaan? Were young Joseph’s dreams a preview or an immediate plan of action? Was Moses called twice: once from the palace and years later from the wilderness?
Samson was called before his conception (Judges 13: 2ff), Gideon later on in life (Judges 6:11ff). Isaiah, quite possibly of noble blood, received a spectacular call in the temple (Isaiah 6: 1ff). Jeremiah may have been called to his prophetic mission while sitting at home as a priest (in the kitchen or back yard since “the pot” and possibly “the rod” were household objects, Jeremiah 1: 11-13). Amos, a laborer who held two jobs, remembered his call coming to him while he tended sheep. And don’t forget, the greatest prophets often questioned their “call” when things got really rough.
The biblical call being referred to here is not a call to conversion or a deeper spiritual life-though both of these stages of growth may be involved. What we are considering is a call to specific service. Dramatic examples of such a call are found in the argument between Yahweh and Moses (Exodus 2) or the sudden flashing appearance of Jesus to Saul (Acts 9). Such calls can radically alter the direction of one’s life.
God’s call can also be dramatically addressed, as was God’s call to Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
Before you were born I set you apart. (Jeremiah 1: 15, NIV)
God’s calling comes in the context of his knowledge of our entire life and heritage. Psalm 139 seems to be a prayer for guidance (note it’s opening and closing verses). In it the writer considers God’s plan from his conception and formation in his mother’s womb. This gives us a clue that our calling and futures are to be seen from God’s sovereignty throughout our entire lives.
Jesus apparently looked for diversity in calling His disciples, and He appreciated their prior lives and experience.
Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile (John 1: 47, RSV) Nathaniel marvels that his past is known.
Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19, RSV) Jesus refers to and builds upon their former careers.
God’s call to ministry also implied a special gift of the Holy Spirit. With the institution of the Church, any call is to be validated by the Body of Christ, the community of faith that surrounds each one of us. The expression of this was often the laying on of hands. See: Acts 6: 1-6, Acts 13: 1-3, 2 Timothy 1: 5-8, Titus 1: 5ff.
A Call to Ministry in General
Can God’s call be a call to secular vocation? Remember Joseph and Esther were both called to political lives of sorts. Moses spent most of his life as an Egyptian court official (maybe 20 years) and then as a shepherd (another 40 years!). As Paul traveled, he may have spent more hours making tents than in preaching and teaching. Your practical situation and the nature of your ministry may be a call to “tent-making ministry.” Don’t see this as a hindrance or curse. If it is God’s will, it may turn out to be a double blessing for you and others.
Does quiet reflection on these biblical passages and examples help you define your own calling? Most of us would agree that a call from God is significant. The question is: how do we determine that call? Here are some further suggestions for determining a life direction or call.
1. Prayer: alone, by others, and with others;
2. Study of Scripture as a personal quest for insight and guidance;
3. Careful examination of your roots and prior experience-especially noting past achievements and successes as you trace your track record.
4. Honest analysis of your interests, values and needs;
5. Validation of your natural talents and strengths and your spiritual gifts by appropriate and qualified members of the Body of Christ;
6. Above all, the singular drive and focus of your heart (see Proverbs 16: 9; Philippians 3: 14 and 2 Timothy 4: 7-8) in determining your life-time goal or mission statement;
7. Less important in determining your life-direction is your current situation, but it may provide some clues. Try to interpret how God is opening or closing doors around you;
8. And once, again, prayer and fasting highlight your spiritual discernment in your faith community.
What we are talking about is the opening of your heart and life before God. God made you, has directed you, will forgive all your mistakes and sins, loves you in particular, watches over you and sees you as beautifully unique to fit some special part of His kingdom and plan.
Calling to Youth Ministry
All the above applies to any Christian ministry. Now, what do you need to consider in determining a special call to youth ministry? This involves discovering certain things about yourself. Do you have:
1. a deep love and concern for young people in general and as individuals?
2. an ability to relate easily to all kinds of young people?
3. an indication that God is giving you gifts in ministering with youth?
4. a record of having led young people in an appropriate direction over a period of some years?
5. a sense that God is saying (and this includes, but goes beyond, the factors of your own needs and disposition): “Do this and nothing else for a good chunk of your life.”
Academic Training for Youth Ministry
We learn best by imitating a master; that’s how Jesus’ disciples learned. Then, by doing it ourselves, in partnership and being critiqued by a mentor-that’s also how Jesus’ followers, sent out two by two, were prepared. Finally, we learn by studying, a less effective method of training but increasingly important in our complex world. A good training program combines these ways to learn and grow.
A calling to under-graduate or professional training in youth ministry, then, must follow and be accompanied by, solid youth work. At the graduate level especially, your studies are mainly not about doing youth work, but about learning a theology and philosophy of youth ministry, about an integration of social science and biblical principles. Beyond working with young people, such education should focus on training others and managing programs. Your call is not only to youth but to adults (colleagues with whom you need to network, parents, resource people, power brokers, etc).
“Professional” (and we’re using this term in a positive sense: one who can avoid amateur mistakes) youth ministers sacrifice some time with youth to recruit and train others for direct ministry as well as supportive ministry, those who serve on a committee or a board. It involves developing trust and relationships with parents, teachers and community leaders, clergy and human service professionals. It demands, then, a sacrifice of time with kids so that others may be with them through your vision, model and administrative skills.
If you are called to youth ministry, you will find yourself called to many personal sacrifices. Youth ministers are being caught in financial squeezes that, for heads of families, affect their spouses and children. Educational debts are mounting at the very time the ability to repay loans is declining. For many, the financial issue is not just a matter of diminished life style but of survival. And the sacrifice may begin in college or seminary while other students are working part-time jobs or socializing.
Sensing a call to youth ministry and its training should raise difficult questions that should be given serious thought:
1. Am I drawn to youth work because I didn’t have a happy high school experience the first time around or had so much fun I don’t want to leave it?
2. Am I considering this direction in life because I don’t want to get trapped in a 9-5 job, don’t enjoy working with adults or am I reacting to the pressures of mainstream middle-class life?
3. Do I have a feeling that I am not quite ready for the pastorate or some other position I’d really like to have?
4. Do I like working with kids out of my own needs-it just makes me feel so good helping them? Do I love them because it’s really difficult for me to love myself or people like me-or adults with aggravating differences?
5. Would I be better off getting a secure job which would allow me to work 15-25 hours a week with youth on my own time and not have to worry about raising my support or feel under the constraints of the church paying me? Would such a ministry as a volunteer be better for me than the hassle of selling, funding and managing a program that allows me only 10-20 hours to merely hang out with young people? In other words, might God be calling me into a “tent-making” or volunteer kind of ministry? If so, how should I best prepare myself for quality service as a volunteer?
6. Why shouldn’t I be getting a Masters in Social Work or Counseling or Teaching instead of being in this college or seminary program?
7. If called to youth ministry, will I serve best within the structure of a church or in my own or some other parachurch organization?
8. Can I see myself working in youth ministry for the next twenty years, married or single? Is there nothing else I’d rather do?
9. Do I believe this training program in youth ministries to be as significant and challenging as going to medical school because I believe the souls of kids are at least as important as their bodies and their eternal life as their present physical lives? Since I also believe youth ministry to be one of the more difficult careers, am I ready for a training program that’s tough?
10. With how much money per month and with how much prayer is the Body of Christ putting me into this training and voting me into the office of youth minister? Are these figures adequate for my needs?
11. Can I then say, “I do believe God is calling (leading or pushing) me into a ministry with youth, and that this calling has been affirmed by those who know me best on the basis of my gifts and track record.”
Ideally, you should enter a graduate program in youth ministry after the following experiences:
1. appropriate undergraduate courses and degree,
2. a year or two of basic training in working with youth,
3. a year or two as a qualified volunteer leader with youth-or as a part-time or fulltime staff worker,
4. a year or two working in some other field of employment.
We are suggesting that reflection on these principles and questions, and sharing your reactions and responses with a supervisor or mentor, can help bring some focus and clarity to your considerations of your life direction.
Concluding Questions and Encouragement
And what if you still don’t hear the call and see the direction? You might be asked if you have diligently accomplished all the above suggestions and steps. You may also be at a stage of growth where God can guide you best through uncertainty (for years and years, I just plowed ahead). There is nothing wrong about not having a clear call at some stages of your life.
There are times in life when one must act “as if.” Better to go for a goal which God may change than to wait around for the right goal-going nowhere.
So, narrow your alternatives, choose a sensible goal to which your heart responds with some excitement, and go for it. We call this making a total commitment to a tentative goal. Too much psychological questioning and theological pondering can lead to practical paralysis. Using the gifts we have on concerns at hand is the best way to grow and the only way to turn what can be a pedantic theological education into dynamic training for ministry.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What biblical characters’ stories do you most relate to in the sense of discerning your calling?
2. What process have you gone through to discern your calling thus far? How would you improve upon it? How many of the steps listed above have you gone through?
3. Who are the support people in your life you can discuss your calling with?
1. Discerning ones calling is an important part of personal development. Too many people go into their vocation without careful thought or soliciting advice. Answering some of the above questions, especially in regards to discerning a call to youth ministry, could be crucial in helping someone find a good fit in their work.
2. More youth ministry programs and job opportunities should counsel their applicants with similar questions to avoid rapid turnover.
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