My First Day: A Whimsical Recounting of Memories and Misconceptions from my First Day as a Pastor | Nathan Weselake
With winsome wit and candour, Nathan recounts his first day as a youth pastor, inviting us to reflect not only on the role of the pastor, but how to best to invest in the future generation of Christian leaders today.
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Cyndi is about as awesome a name for a secretary as there can be in 1987.
But this is 2001 and there are some concerns about cultural relevance. These don’t stop me from offering a hearty "Good morning, Cyndi!" and starting things off on the right foot. We will talk about the possibility of changing her name to “Alanis” later, but as a new pastor, I wisely don’t want to make too many changes early on. Cyndi lets me know when the official coffee times are for our staff of four and then nods to my office and invites me to make myself at home.
Since the youth pastor position has been vacant for nearly a year, I’m not inheriting an established schedule and there are no longer many kids in the mix. These two factors, combined with my overall fear of teenagers, push me in a theoretical direction. Indeed, once the busyness of ministry starts, it will be nearly impossible to “zoom out” and assess the situation with any sort of objective lens. Now is the time to reflect on the philosophical and theological foundations of youth ministry.
I ask Cyndi for a notepad.
I write "Who, What, When, Where, Why, How" on the first piece of paper, and the answers flow like new wine—as they do when one has truly cast aside their own ambitions and sought the heart of God for their ministry. "Teens…Youth Group… Evenings… Probably here… Because teens MATTER to GOD!" This last one I whisper with conviction as I write. I’m full of passion and pleasure. It’s all coming together.
Everything that is, except for “How.” The "How" is a real bummer.
Perhaps if I cross out the word “How”?
That feels a little too theoretical. I write “organically” in the “How” column. That feels better but doesn’t easily translate into the next steps I will at some point need. I go grab a coffee well before the established coffee time. Cyndi raises her eyebrows as she gets an early indication of just how out of the box my leadership is going to be.
The coffee is terrible. However, the styrofoam cup and flavoured creamer give it all a very blue collar feel which a man can’t help but appreciate and be motivated by on his first day of work. I am that motivated and appreciative man. I roll up my sleeves in a show of solidarity with working men everywhere. I don’t just feel a part of the pastor guild, I feel a part of the brotherhood of man. Honest work for honest pay, sipping our crappy coffee and just trying to do our best. Whether that is mining coal in Bolivia or re-imagining the very foundations of youth ministry here in Canada... we are in so many ways the same. I raise my cup in a quiet salute to Bolivian coal miners. Cyndi witnesses my gesture and her eyebrows climb to new heights.
Back in my office, the steam rising out of my cup inspires. I write "postmodern" on my notepad and nod in agreement about the culture context I am ministering in. No wonder this is so hard! These poor postmodern kids don't know their butt from their elbow. The weight of the task before me threatens to paralyze me again. Where to begin?
Maybe I'd get farther if I thought first about what I don't want to do.
I know I don't want to play Marco Polo in the Leroys’ pool.
During my interview weekend I had gone to a youth gathering at a home where the students played Marco Polo and then sat in the living room swaying back and forth in towels belting out worship songs with eyes closed. The oldest Leroy boy, a strapping lad of about 17, wanted in the worst way to show me his bedroom. When you are a candidating youth pastor, your desire is to make a good impression with everyone. I went and looked at his bedroom. It was plastered wall to wall, and even ceiling to ceiling, with pictures of very oily and muscular men posing. I felt this might be something to ask questions about later.
There were a few strikes against Marco Polo at the Leroy home in my perspective. I had a strong sense that your “normal” Grade 11 kid wouldn't really enjoy playing Marco Polo in a swimming pool unless there were more attractive people around. Despite my philosophical Day One musings, I was still a realist. I remember thinking to myself during the Marco Polo game, "Not a looker in the bunch." This is not necessarily something you disclose to the Elders Board later when they ask you about your early impressions of the current youth group, but your regular red-blooded 22-year-old youth pastor is aware of the presence or absence of "lookers" even though he may not use 1930s slang to articulate this awareness. Strike One against Marco Polo then, was the absence of jaw-dropping male and female specimens to attract spiritual seekers. Indeed, the more clothing this group was wearing the more appealing it became. Perhaps I would focus on outdoor winter events–dog sled races and such.
Strike Two was the worship time in the living room. It was more a piety contest than anything else. Who can fix the most cherubic look on their face? Who stops singing and opens their Bible with something to share? Who breaks down in tears? Who is the first to feel led to wash someone's feet?
Strike Three was the potential for some poor new kid to find himself in the homo-erotic haven which was Paul Leroy's bedroom. What if Paul got it in his head to wash some feet in his bedroom? This was 1999 and every evangelical on the planet's gaydar was registering even the most minuscule of beeps as a red alert.
So, no Marco Polo: my first ministry decision. Leadership traction forming. I need to communicate this decision. Who to tell? Do I do a newsletter? Email the parents? Bounce it off Cyndi at coffee time? What time is it anyway? 10:30am. An hour and a half until lunch. I could read my Bible for a bit. Actually, I should read my Bible because I need to prepare a lesson for the one thing I have inherited: a youth Sunday School class. As us pastors say, “Sunday is coming!” I better get down to it.
I begin to prepare but I have a strong sense in my spirit I have maybe drifted off the path here. What's going on? Ah… the classic error of the pastor. Always preparing and never actually reading the Bible for themselves. The pressure of the deadline has nearly blinded me to the needs of my soul. I need to still read the Bible for ME! This can't be simply about preparing lessons for others. I need to keep my own spiritual well full so others can drop buckets in it. I will resist the pressure to study with an eye for teaching and discipline myself to read it now for personal edification.
Ten minutes of 1 Thessalonians feels like enough to ensure the well is nicely topped up and I am confident burn-out will be held at bay for another day. I should have lots of gas in the tank later this evening when I go home. I will not be one of those pastors who has nothing left at the end of the day for his wife and baby daughter. I give a sad, empathetic grimace as I think of those with an out-of-control schedule sacrificing family on the altar of ministry. It's so easy to get there.
Oh! What is this? A small mirror in my new office. Just the right size to make sure your sad, empathetic grimace looks like you imagine it might. I lean over to take a peek. My pastoring face is going to need some work. I look way too sexy. Not what that flirty mom I met during our candidating weekend needs to see when asking me what to say to her 14-year-old daughter who, I agree, is way too young to be driving around in a Camaro with an older boy named Steve. She had wondered how the two of us might tackle the Steve issue. She had lamented the absence of a youth pastor these past few months to help her keep her daughter out of this Camaro. She had touched my arm as she did so. I practice in the mirror for a bit and find if I show more teeth and strategically scratch my nose with my wedding ring finger I look decidedly less attractive. I’m better ready to fend her off next time. I say, a little too loudly, “Bring it on flirty mom!” Strange noises are heard from Cyndi’s direction.
Now on my desk sit a styrofoam cup, a notepad, and a Bible, my ministry style developing along simple and clean lines. No room for fluff. Just the basics. A computer also sits off to the side as if aware it will be of no help in this spiritual brainstorming session. It is a mere tool. At some point I will turn it on. But that time is not now. Now, with a tank full of 1 Thessalonians rhema words, I am primed to take this half hour before lunch and prepare for Sunday School. This half hour, it is not mere chronos. No, it is kairos, sacred time. The pastor in his study bringing out of the text treasures both old and new. —
No one has to tell me about the need to balance exegesis and hermeneutics. They go hand in glove. That may not be a bad place to start. I'll explain to the students before the lesson the need for exegesis prior to hermeneutics, possibly bringing a glove as a prop. I can put my hand in it and gesture meaningfully… no! I can have them pass the glove around and each put their hand in it! I have been prepared for this.I write on my notepad a line I remember from professor Gordon Fee, "It can't mean something different to you than it meant to them." This is good. Who knows what Godforsaken (and that is the right term) applications these kids might derive from 1 Thessalonians? Without solid exegesis sliding smoothly into the soft, fur-lined hermeneutical glove we could all find ourselves riding shotgun in Camaros being driven by older men who want to do more than cuddle. What’s worse is we might actually believe it is God's will! When the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep is that darkness? Pretty deep. But not on my watch. These poor kids. I'll help them. Exegesis will help them. Hermeneutics will help them.
After lunch I have a visitor, the father of a junior high kid. He is, by trade, a painter and so is clothed entirely in white. His white pants are too tight. I am acutely aware of this because he puts his foot up on my desk and leans casually on his raised leg. My grandma would buy these pants for me based simply on the Sears catalogue pose being struck here. If I had a chair in my office, he is the sort of guy who would probably sit on it backward to build rapport. Instead, his pants are straining in the wrong places while his shoe rests on the corner of my desk. A second chair has become priority number one.
My pastor sense is tingling. This guy might be the sort of guy who likes to boss the new pastor around—coming in all chummy with his foot on your desk. But that foot might find its way to your throat. Be careful, young pastor. Keep your cards close to your chest. Oh, I will, I say silently to the voice in my head, probably the Holy Spirit.
This may be my first day on the job, but I wasn't born yesterday. Sure enough, he does want something! He is wondering what I think about school buses. He thinks school buses are awesome. So awesome he feels we should get a half dozen and pick kids up to bring them to Sunday School. And drive them home afterward. He knows of churches in the United States of America where this is a thing. Fleets of buses buzzing around Chicago. Could I see us someday having buses? What about vans? Does a person start with a van? Work their way up to a bus? Or do you just freaking go for it and get a bus? Show some faith and trust?
I lean over and write "BUS?" on my notepad, making sure he sees that not only have I written it down but I have nearly an entire sheet of paper on my desk filled with words from 1 Thessalonians. I am no slouch, not a youth pastor easily swayed from pursuing a clearly articulated and well thought through vision by every parent who comes in with tight pants and hoists a friendly foot on my desk. I adjust the angle of my notepad slightly to ensure he sees I have also written "postmodern," "exegesis," “dogsleds?”, "no Marco Polo," and “CHAIR!” I have a lot on my plate is what I hope he is seeing. I’m hoping he understands I can't get on board with the bus thing quite yet given my intellectual wrestling with the very foundations of youth ministry.
He hasn't moved and surely his right hamstring must be ready to snap. I nod slowly, effectively using body language to show my deep appreciation of this man’s—his name is Ron’s—passion. I begin to speak and convey how I am truly excited to meet a very engaged parent who is eager to serve and dream. I find myself citing a study, possibly made up on the spot, about how one of the keys to being a good parent is simply caring. Simply engagement. Simply taking an interest in things, like Ron is doing. As parents we may not get the words right all the time but as long as our kids know we care, everything will be okay. And Ron here today has shown me how much he cares. I have no doubt that Ron is a great dad given this foot on my desk and his desire to see the kingdom grow via fleets of buses. Does Ron know he is the first parent to visit me? This speaks well of Ron—he studies show it! May all parents in this church be as Ron has proven to be on this day. If this does prove to be the case, then there is no power of hell which can hold this youth group back and I, among all youth pastors, am tremendously blessed.
Ron gets a little misty-eyed. I too get a little misty-eyed. Our eyes lock as unspoken understandings shoot back and forth between us at lightning speed. Ron shares how he came into my office wanting to help me—wanting to help me feel comfortable, to offer his services, to dream about buses. But as it turns out, it is I who helped him! I smile, making sure I show a pastorally appropriate amount of teeth, and move to close the deal.
"Ron," I say, "I am usually not much of a hugger but..." And we embrace in an evangelical way complete with a manly pats.
"I think this is going to be good," says Ron.
"It is," I affirm.
When Ron leaves I am not sure what I feel.
I have the sense I could have also sold him my car and this makes me feel half-ashamed and half-proud. I manipulated Ron.
I have no idea what a good pastor would have done.
I feel like Ron might be a bit of a talker. Word will get around about how I helped. This is good.
Or is it? Did anything authentic happen?
What am I doing? These are people, not pawns.
But I think I encouraged an actual person. Is Ron encouraged to be a better dad than he was half an hour ago? I think so.
The questions on the page appear a lot less abstract.
What did I just do? Why did I do it? How do I feel about it? What should I have done?
There is more here than I might have imagined.
I cross everything out and write on a new sheet.
What is my job?