Oh hey, look, another blog series!
I’m going into my third year of working in youth ministry, and let me tell you, there’s nothing like being thrown into a field that you never planned on getting into to help you learn some stuff about yourself. Being a youth minister has been one of the single weirdest adventures of my life, so I wanted to start a branch of my Catholicism category dedicated to exploring that adventure a little bit more. Let’s get started!
As I implied above, I got into youth ministry by total accident. I never saw myself in the field because for the longest time I had convinced myself that I was no good with kids. My first real experience with it, aside from a few retreats I did in high school, was when I took my missionary job in West Virginia two years ago. I took it on a whim, totally unsure of what I was getting myself into, but even in the midst of all my uncertainty, I felt a strange sense of peace about my decision, like it was all going to be okay and maybe, even though I felt ill-equipped, it was where God wanted me.
It felt like a gamble (and it still kind of does, if I’m being honest), but I think I might be on to something with this youth ministry thing. One year in West Virginia became two, after my supervisors encouraged me to consider a second year. When the time came for me to start looking for a job after my time in West Virginia ended, a similar (but more professional) opportunity at a retreat center in Ohio fell into my lap. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the position when I was on the road back from West Virginia, just hours after my soon-to-be boss had done reference calls with my now-former supervisors. My new coworkers have told me numerous times that they’re excited for what I have to offer to our workplace and to the youth ministry there in particular. God seems to want me in this field.
If anything has made me doubtful or self-conscious in youth ministry, it’s my personality. As I’ve shared on the blog, and as most people who know me know, I am an introvert, and I am also a pretty sensitive person. And youth ministry can be a fast-paced, highly-relational field, meaning that it is sometimes overwhelming and exhausting for me. I am not exactly a super-relational person. I’m not inclined to strike up a conversation with just anyone, and that’s an important part of professional youth ministry.
For a long time I resigned myself to the thought that being relational was a matter of the have’s and have-not’s. Some people are gifted in that department, and some aren’t. And because I’m not a natural, that part of youth ministry has been the hardest for me. I don’t have a problem with leading activities, playing music at mass, praying with a group, or even getting up in front of a group to lead campfire songs or to give a witness talk. But mingling with kids who just arrived for a retreat or a session of camp? Managing a small group and fostering an environment of openness in it? Those stumped me throughout my time in West Virginia, and they continued to do so for my first few weeks at my new job. I always felt an almost-disabling sense of awkwardness and anxiety when put into those situations. And that was hard to accept, because when I attended my first few retreats in high school, I was always so impressed by the retreat team members in those roles. The uber-outgoing and hospitable greeters eased the tension I felt as an introvert walking into a new setting, and the small group leaders created a space where I felt safe and comfortable sharing my story. Realizing that I wasn’t just naturally good at replicating those experiences for others was frustrating.
That reality caused me a lot of anxiety and discouragement at moments throughout my time in West Virginia, and when I started my new job. It was enough to make me wonder if I was truly called to youth ministry, or any kind of ministry, for that matter. I wanted to be in a role where I was bringing my faith to others and encouraging them to own theirs, but feeling awkward and uncomfortable in those roles made me feel like a fraud. And that’s terrifying, because I’m not sure I can imagine myself doing much else, at least not on a full-time basis.
I’ve been learning lately, though, that certain jobs do not necessarily exclude introverts. They might just be more challenging for introverts to navigate, or might require a different approach and strategy than those that extroverts might take. In my field of youth ministry, for example, it might mean having to find ways to quickly decompress after particularly overloading experiences, or learning how to be conversational and to foster good group discussions if that doesn’t come easily. Last month, for example, I was a small group leader at an overnight retreat and much of my group’s discussions were awkward and not very deep. This past week, though, I was a small group leader on another such retreat and I made sure that I asked my coworkers for tips on how to make a better small group experience. While it still wasn’t perfect, I felt much more confident this time around, and the evaluations that my group filled out showed that they felt comfortable opening up to each other and got a lot out of the experience.
Learning these things about myself and my ministry has certainly challenged and raised my expectations of myself. It’s showed me that I, as an introvert, am more than capable of a job that is highly-relational and that involves things like giving talks and being semi-loud or goofy in front of a group. Finding this about myself has also challenged my notion of calling and vocation. I always assumed that a calling was something that 1) you loved, and that 2) came easily to you. I do love sharing faith, but putting myself out there for my job has taken a lot of courage, practice, and mental strength. It has been anything but easy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not where I’m supposed to be. I might not spend the rest of my life as a youth minister–in fact I doubt I will–but I believe that I’m in the field because God wants me there. I certainly never would have chosen it for myself. But while I’m in it, I think I have the responsibility to form myself into the best youth minister I can be, not simply sulking that “this is the way I am” when I experience difficulties and challenges.
The saying “God doesn’t call the qualified but qualifies the called” has become glaringly true in the past few weeks. I’m proof of it. And I have an obligation to do what I can to answer the call. If that means stepping out of my introvert bubble for the sake of my work, so be it.