We return to the daze of my youth ministry position at the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va. Yes, daze. Or, haze. I use those words to describe not a fuzzy memory, but a blurry couple of years for which I was not prepared, or suited.

[I’m writing each day in Lent (2015) about my confessions and celebrations related to the various churches I served when in pastoral ministry. I also issue this reminder: much of my work in ministry was in broadcast media, that is, non-parish ministry.]

Before my call to Grace Covenant, a good-sized congregation near downtown Richmond, I had been a full time staff member of the old Hanover Presbytery (now the Presbytery of the James). When Presbytery priorities (and budget) moved away from supporting my media ministry full time, the Executive Presbyter had suggested that I take on a half-time role as Presbytery’s Youth Ministry Coordinator. I had little choice, really, if I wanted to keep my media work in place, so I accepted the “offer,” and struggled with that role for two years. Just not my thing, for a number of reasons.

Two years passed and the Associate Pastor at Grace Covenant came up with a plan that he thought would help the church fill a perceived need, as well as provide a way for me to plant myself at his church full time. I would continue the Presbytery’s media ministry using the church’s radio production facilities, and also be the director of the church’s youth ministry with middle and high school teens. It wasn’t something I had seen in my future, but I liked the idea of moving from the Presbytery’s administrative position to working directly with one church’s youth groups.

Now we come to the “daze” part. I know that I must have designed and led frequent (not to say weekly) youth group meetings, but I can’t recall more than a handful. I remember some awkwardness associated with (maybe) stepping on the toes of the Director of Christian Education who was already in place when I arrived, and who may have had some youth connections pulled away as a result of my encroachment. The Associate Pastor had engineered the purchase of some video equipment that I was to utilize with the youth, and I do recall a project or two, but all things considered, this position was not a highlight of my ministerial career.

Some “still frames” from my short term there:

  • I have a photo showing me in the church “parlor” in the midst of a circle of senior highs, holding the LP record jackets of a couple of rock groups from that era. My weekly rock radio show (www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com ) brought a slew of invitations to talk about rock music and values with youth groups around the country, so it was natural I’d have some discussions with my own youth group.
  • We used the video equipment  to create some “TV spots” to communicate something about the ministries of our church. This was in the late 1970s, so this was a pioneering effort using portable VHS VCR and camera equipment. The kids had fun with it, and creating those short video messages meant that they had to explore and understand the many ministries in which their church was engaged. Plus they learned how television uses short form productions to communicate. This was a good project on many levels, and today, over 35 years later, it remains a good teaching model when video “equipment” is loaded on teens’ phones!
  • Joan and I still reference one phrase a particular teen girl used when she was disinterested in an idea: “Let’s not and say we did.” We heard that far too many times, and it used to drive me crazy.
  • I’ve already written a full entry on our all night youth “lock-out” experience. Look back through the archive for that recent post.
  • Thanks to Facebook I’m still in touch with some of those teenagers. I remember some of the “kids” with fondness, and enjoyed working also with their parents, wonderful people who were supportive, creative, and caring. I also have very positive memories of two young adult women (Laura and Betsy) who served as “youth advisers” and faithfully guided our shared youth ministry, making for a good team effort.
  • Grace Covenant’s Wednesday night dinners, prepared  in a well-equipped kitchen by the church’s cook, were the epitome of “food and fellowship” events. The room was full of good spirit, intergenerational commotion, and almost always an after-dinner program of some depth for adults, and kids’ activities for the younger crowd. Those were the days!

One not-so-pleasant memory was our senior high trip to the annual denominational Montreat Youth Conference. This was a tradition at Grace Covenant, and when I inherited the assignment, I received contact information about a place to stay in Montreat (NC). Never having claimed to be a good administrator (two strikes: procrastination and introversion), I didn’t act soon enough to rent the right cottage in that mountain retreat community. When we added up the number of teens signed up to go and looked at the smaller cabin I had found, things looked dicey. I’m not recalling exact numbers here, but with two adults, maybe six girls and four boys, we’d be short about 3 beds.

Not to worry, I rationalized. There’s a covered front porch, it’s July (therefore warm), and we guys can kind of camp out, right? When we arrived and saw the cabin and started with room assignments, the guys were not at all excited to be on the porch. One complained that he had paid the same share of the rent that the girls did, so why did he have to spend the night outside on the porch?! Never considered the economic justice issue here. And then, there was some rain one night, and the porch wasn’t that sheltered. Finally, the rebellion broke out. A couple of guys told me they’d be welcome at the home of someone else they knew in Montreat; could they stay there instead?

That broke our sense of community as a youth group, I replied. But as a compromise, I said they’d have to spend all their time with the rest of the group until bedtime; then they could go off to the other place for the night. (Sissies!) I think it was the next day that someone at the conference told me that they had heard that a couple of our guys were staying in an unoccupied summer house without permission. As I look back on this, I realize that I may be mis-remembering the story, and if the guys who broke from the porch to the comforts of someone else’s home ever read this and want to rebut it, there’s that “comment” space below. But I was appalled that two guys from our group had pretty much broken into someone’s home to spend the nights there.  Now, I’ve been to Montreat Youth Conferences many, many times in various roles, including keynote speaker in 1981, but that year as Grace Covenant’s wayward youth pastor was my worst week there. (That said, I think the girls did fine, my companion young adult adviser played her part patiently and endearingly, and I have fond memories of hiking Lookout Mountain that year…so all was not lost.)

I think that the following springtime brought inquiries from the teens about the coming summer’s Montreat Conference and my response was, “Let’s not go and say we did!”

Imagine my surprise when I would later teach the Youth Ministry course at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education — twice — given my background in the field. What were they thinking?

Next: adventures in the art of preaching.