Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I'm Switching Roles at Grace Community Church

For nearly 18 years I have worked with teenagers as either a volunteer, part-time person, intern, or full-time staff person.  I have spent the past 11 years serving teenagers at Grace Community Church.  I can honestly say that I am a better person because of it.  Well, my "official" time in youth ministry will be coming to a close this fall as I transition to another role in our church.  

The above picture is me and the 13 kids that were a part of axis in the fall of 2002.  I could still talk to you about each one of them and am thankful to still keep in touch with several of the ones in that picture.  In fact, one of the girls in the picture, Whitney, serves in our youth ministry today and does and amazing job focusing on our freshman girls.  Another girl in the picture, Kelsey, was the first person I met at Grace community 11 years ago.  She was a tiny 7th grade girl and I met her, her mom, and her brother in the church parking lot as I was coming to my first day at the office.  She, her husband, and their daughter are a part of our small group now.  In 11 years I have so many memories ... so many faces of teenagers ... so many stories.

It's not that I'm burnt out on youth ministry or on teenagers.  If anything, this year has increased my love for teenagers and boosted my confidence in them and what God can accomplish through them.  But, I can almost pinpoint the time that I first "felt" God nudging my spirit about this.  It was October 2011 and I can't really explain it but I just felt a "nudge" or a "whisper" in my spirit that God may be leading me in a different direction.  I pretty much kept it to myself.  I wasn't exactly sure what I was hearing from God at the time, but I knew it was something I needed to spend a lot of time praying about.  So, after spending lots of time in prayer and not losing that sense that God wanted me in a different role, I knew it was time to start taking steps in that direction.  

 I was open to anything and anywhere.  I'm incredibly grateful for the grace and patience our staff has shown me during this time.  I'm also thankful to be able to stay at Grace Community and transition to another role here.  I don't know exactly what God has in store for this new chapter, but I'm doing my best to, in the words of Lecrae:  "Take the background" and let God "take the lead."  I don't want to have any agenda here.  I truly want to see the gifts and abilities I have to be used to their fullest potential and that happens when I allow God to place me where He wants me.

All of this has brought with it, though, a roller coaster of emotions.  11 years ago, I was the first full-time youth pastor the church hired.  For 11 years, axis has, in a sense, been my "baby."  I have done my best to love our kids, to provide for them opportunities to know and serve God, to train them up as best as I knew how.  I have laughed with kids, cried with kids, been angry at kids and have had them be angry with me.  I've joked with them, played pranks on them, had my underwear frozen by them, been over to their homes late at night to help with a crisis ... and they've been over to my home late at night to TP my house.  I've gone on trips with them, been to countless school events for them, taught them what God had been teaching me, and I've seen them do things that have completely blown me away and caused me to say "Wow!  God, that was awesome!"  I've written hundreds of letters, have probably sent thousands of texts, and, over 11 years, have waited a total of several hours in the parking lot for that one last student to be picked up.

I will miss my kids.  My prayer is that I can stand before God confident that I have "done some good."  I think I have, but ultimately I am not to be the judge of that.  I trust the teenagers that I've crossed paths with are better people because they were a part of our youth ministry.  I know I am a better person because of working with them.  They have truly been a blessing in my life.  They've helped keep me young and helped make me feel old at the same time.  For 18 years, youth ministry is the only ministry that I have known.  I'm excited about a new chapter and new challenges ... kind of nervous about taking on a new role ... ready to allow God to do through me what I'm incapable of doing on my own ... and saddened because teenagers will no longer be a regular part of my life (until my kids become teenagers and I'm asking our youth pastor all the questions that parents currently ask me!)

I'm sure I'll continue to post some thoughts and reflections as they come to me.  For now, here are just a few of the memories I have from axis:

A picture from our "Mess Fest."  It's amazing how awful the smell of ketchup and mustard can have!  This has always been one of our most fun events, though.

We were introduced to Kalahari a few years ago.  It's been a large part of our ministry since then and such a great time to connect with teenagers and see God work in their lives.

It may surprise you, but if I could have a "secret" job, it would be as an actor on Broadway.  But, since I have no acting talent or ability to sing and dance, that won't be happening any time soon.  But, for 6 years we have done an interactive drama at Halloween and have seen hundreds of people come to know Jesus through it.  This past year was one of our best!  Thankfully, we have a lot of people much more gifted than me at this type of stuff.  I just sort of show up and act like I know what I'm doing.  Hmmm ... maybe I could work on Broadway.  :)

Momentum is our summer conference we go to every year.  I've been a part of Momentum since the 8th grade and, I believe this will be my 25th year going to Momentum.  Always so much fun and I have seen teenagers impacted so powerfully at this conference.  God uses it in their lives.  That's why we go and do all we can to get teenagers there.  And, on a lighter note, I have loved implementing "dress up" days for the teenagers in our group.  This was "mis-match" day last year.  I feel it's important to intentionally look foolish a few times a year.  It helps us not to take ourselves too seriously and just to have some fun.

The above picture is of Dan Cosentino and his fiance Kim.  He will be joining our team this fall as our new youth pastor and I'm totally pumped about it!  Dan is incredibly gifted and I can't wait to see how God uses his gifts here!  I hope that my 4 kids get to grow up under his leadership.  He will be a great addition to our staff.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Some Thoughts on Youth Ministry

I was able to meet with our adult team yesterday.  I love the adults that work with our teenagers and enjoy pouring in to them just as much as I do pouring in to teenagers.  Every time I meet with our adults, I always try to keep the vision of youth ministry in front of them and explain the "why" behind what we do.  Here's just a bit of what I shared with them yesterday.

Our Role as Leaders = INFLUENCE

… There aren’t many who view working with teenagers as an amazing opportunity.
… Most look at it as a challenge or something that simply needs to be done.
… I look at it as an amazing opportunity for INFLUENCE.  We all have an incredible opportunity to be a Godly influence on the lives of teenagers. 
… Think of an adult that has impacted your life.  What did they do that helped make a difference?  I shared a story of an adult at a youth conference I attended in 1986.  I was a freshman in high school.  This adult was my counselor for the week.  Two weeks after the conference, he wrote me a letter with some powerful words in it on how he believed God wanted to use me.  I still have that letter.

Our Environment at Axis = PICTURE OF JESUS

… We communicate more without words than we do with our words
… What we do or don’t do will communicate more to our teenagers than what we say
... Rick Warren said that people will remember how we made them feel far longer than what we said.  
… One of our key roles is to help create an environment that has “IT” … that factor that you can’t explain, but you know it when you see it.
… What would a visitor think when they first came in the doors?  Would they "feel" welcomed?  Would someone greet them?  Would someone be willing to show them around and introduce them to others?  Would they feel like we were expecting them and are THRILLED they are with us?
... Our prayer every time we meet ... let kids feel loved, welcome, and accepted.  Help them get a clear picture of Jesus and walk away wanting to know Him more.


… The focus is not just discussion, but relationship building.  It's OK not to get through all of the discussion questions.  
… The focus can’t just be on Wednesday night, but during the week as well.  Text them.  Call them.  Write them a letter.  Build trust.  The more trust that is developed, the more discussion that will happen.
… Someone is wanting you to invest in them


…Summer looks different in youth ministry.  It provides and opportunity to really focus on key areas.  Our key areas will be serving and relationships.
... We have several events planned that will help kids connect with the adults of our church.  We have several events planned that will help them connect with each other.  In each of these events, the more consistently we show up, the better the opportunity for influence.
…We have several opportunities planned to serve as well.  The more kids serve, the more like Jesus they can become because Jesus took on the "very nature of a servant." Philippians 2:7

I am so thankful to have a team of adults that gets all of this and loves pouring their lives in to teenagers.  I love our adult team and so thankful for each one of them and what they bring to our youth ministry!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

26.2 ... Check

I was able to complete my second marathon this past Sunday in Pittsburgh.  What an amazing experience!  I grew up just south of Pittsburgh, so it felt really nice to go back "home" and run in an area of the country that I really enjoy.  

I've been running fairly seriously for about 5 years now and one thing I've learned during that time is it's a whole lot easier to run with a positive attitude than with a negative one.  So, during the entire race, my theme was "the joy of the Lord is my strength."  (Nehemiah 8:10)  I figured I was going to need a lot of strength to run this marathon, so, I really tried to focus on things that brought joy to my heart.  I spent 4 hours and 24 minutes reflecting on how much God has blessed me in my life.  He has given me so much more than I will ever deserve and has blessed me with so much.  It was really fun to spend a lot of time reflecting on how much joy God has brought to my way.  There were several times during the race that I was starting to get tired.  My body was starting to hurt.  There were several hills on the course and some were really steep.  At times I felt my thoughts starting to drift towards thinking about those things ... the negative stuff ... and when that started to happen I snatched those thoughts up and just started reflecting on all God has done for me.  While running up the hills, I thanked God for the ability to run up the hills.  6 years ago, there's no way I could have done it.  When my legs started to hurt, I would think about my family and tell myself that I'm running to them.  They're at the finish line waiting for me.  I'm running to them.  There were several thousand people along the course cheering for all of the runners.  Well, while running and listening to them cheering, I would just pretend they were all cheering for me.  I would run past waving at them, smiling at them, just soaking in all the cheers.  Silly, yes.  But, it definitely brought a smile to my face and helped me stay positive.    It helped make the race fun, which was the last thing my wife told me to do ... "Have fun."

The picture below is right before I crossed the starting line.  There were thousands of people running this race and the adrenaline rush at the start is, well, a really cool rush!

The above picture is me after the finish.  I had set a goal of 4 hours and 20 minutes.  I was planning to run with a pace team, but was never able to find the 4:20 pace team in my starting coral.  So, I just ran the race and went with what my body was telling me was a good pace.  Well, at mile 25, I looked up and finally saw the 4:20 pace team carrying their sign.  They were a few hundred yards in front of me, so I knew I was pretty close to that pace.  I started to cramp a little bit at the beginning of mile 25 so I had to stop for just a minute or so.  I was able to finish in 4:24.  I felt like that was the best possible race that I was able to run.  

The picture below is how we celebrated.  For dinner we went to a classic Pittsburgh place:  Primanti Brothers.  I loved taking my family there for the first time.  The kids all had a blast and after burning about 3000 calories that day, I had no guilt when I ate one of their amazing sandwiches!

Having my family there was one of the best parts of the weekend.  It's certainly not easy to take 4 kids under 6 on a trip.  And, honestly, my wife is the one who makes this all happen.  I don't know how she does it, but somehow she does.  While I'm running, she's getting all the kids together, getting snacks together, getting drinks together, driving in a city she is not familiar with, finding a place to part and then walking a mile with our 10 month old in a baby bjourn, and our 3 other kids  in the stroller (2 sitting and one standing).  She walked a mile like this to get to the finish line and entertained the kids while waiting for me to finish.  I honestly don't know what is harder ... doing all of that or running a marathon!  She truly is amazing!  She was who I thought of the most during my race.

This picture below is one my son drew the Friday before the race.  It's him running a marathon.  I love the opportunity to hopefully set a good example for my family.  I love that all of my kids are watching me and look to me.  I'm so incredibly humbled at the fact that God trusts me enough to give me the responsibility of raising them.  

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