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Youth ministry leaders need survival skills, speaker says

1/29/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: A related report, UMNS story #026, and a head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean are available. *Green is news director in United Methodist News Service's Nashville, Tenn., office.

PANAMA CITY BEAC H, Fla. (UMNS) - Youth ministry is like a barren land, and developing survival skills is crucial for leaders who want to stay in it for the long term, according to a scholar on youth, church and culture.

The average stay in youth ministry is 18 months, said the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean, assistant professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary. Numerous factors contribute to the high turnover rate: family conflicts, low pay, low prestige, lack of acknowledgment or respect, lack of time for development, and the treatment of the ministry as an extracurricular activity.

The longer a person is involved in youth ministry, the more likely he or she is to experience the empty places, Dean said. In the barrenness, people have two options: do something else or figure out a way to live with it long term.

"People who are not good at navigating leave, and those who stay are those who have figured out a way to have a sustainable life and a sustainable ministry at the same time," she said.

Dean was a key speaker at Connection 2002, a Jan. 23-27 gathering of nearly 360 adult workers in youth ministry in Panama City Beach. The biannual event, sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, had been called Forum, but its name was changed to emphasize the importance of connection with God, neighbors and selves.

The meeting's theme, "Come to the Water," was reflected throughout the worship services, workshops, Bible study sessions and assemblies. As water trickled through a pump onstage, Dean took her listeners through the desert with a message on lives - and ministries -- gone dry. The title of her message, "God-Barren Life," was a play on words with that of a book she co-wrote, The God-Bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.

The barren life is the result of a consumer approach to spirituality as opposed to a life that faithfully represents Scripture, she said. Using the biblical story of Hannah, Dean showed how emptiness can help teach about Christian spirituality. Hannah, who was barren, begged God for a son and vowed that her child would serve the Lord all his life. She later gave birth to Samuel.

From the story, Dean uncovered four myths of spirituality. Most people, including adult youth ministry workers, think spirituality depends on results, feelings, progress and certainty - four factors upon which the myths are based.

"It doesn't depend on anything," Dean said. "If we think that a relationship with Jesus depends on these things, then we are left high and dry when those things are absent."

The empty places that people encounter in youth ministry result from lack of professional and personal support, she said. However, she noted, studies have indicated that United Methodists perceive higher congregational and pastoral support for their youth ministries than do people of any other mainline denomination.

Youth ministers change jobs more than people in any other profession except for migrant workers, Dean said. "It is exacerbated in part because it is only recently that it has become more legitimized as a call to ministry as opposed to a stepping stone."

Addressing the first myth of spirituality, Dean said Christianity is not about results but about experiencing God. In biblical times, encountering God was such an experience that ancient people hid their faces. They turned to a mediator, a minister, "someone who does what we do-youth ministers," someone who stands in the gap between the people and God and interprets God's message to them, she said.

Each Sunday, Jesus is tossed back and forth like a toy that "can blow us up," she said. "Do we really know what we are asking for when we say we want to experience God or that we want to be filled with God?" Like a game of hide and seek, God hides, knowing that showing up in full power "would blow us up," she said.

Christian spirituality involves conforming to the image of Jesus. "Feeling has nothing to do with it," Dean said, referring to the second myth.

A study suggests that 34 percent of church-going adults have never experienced God in worship, she said, asking, What does this say to youth? Another study revealed that one in seven youth and young adults says that belonging to a church is not necessary to being religious.

"We go to church to feel something ... and this is wrong," she said. Young people confuse faith and feeling all the time and think of faith as a "Jedi belief." "If it feels good, it must be God," she said. "There is nothing wrong with feeling good about God, feeling moved by the Holy Spirit, but Christian spirituality cannot depend upon how we feel."

As with Hannah, sometimes God closes off our means of production as a way to make us empty so that we may make room for God, she said.

The third myth says that Christian spirituality is about progress, but it is not, Dean said. It is not a journey but a pilgrimage that gets one to God. It involves catecheses or the handing down of tradition.

Christian spirituality comes with two lungs for breathing in God's spirit, Dean said. The kataphatic lung is a positive view and the apophatic is the negative way. Apophatic is the cave, kataphatic is the mountain; apophatic goes down; kataphatic goes up; kataphatic is light; apophatic is dark; apophatic is about God's absence, kataphatic is about God's presence; apophatic has to do with passion, kataphatic has to do with glory.

"Most youth events focus on the kataphatic," she said. The apophatic is usually reserved for more mature Christians. Youth events focus on Scriptures such as the Book of John, which deal with light, she said. In reality, however, a spiritual pilgrimage involves the use of both lungs to get the entire story. "Both lungs are dependent on the other. To have one without the other is an artificial presentation to our kids."

The final myth that Dean drew from Hannah's text involves certainty. Mature spirituality does not depend on certainty but on hope, she said.

"God-Barren Life" was one of three messages that Dean delivered during Connection 2002.
In another session, she discussed the Christian prayer life and compared it to watering a garden. "Prayer is like watering a garden," she said. "If you want to see how healthy your garden is, you don't look for water, you look for flowers. You look at the flowers and see how they are doing. You don't look to see if the water is healthy, you look to see if the flowers are healthy," she said.

"If you want to know how your spiritual garden is growing, look at the flowers in your youth, and ask how is their spiritual life doing, how is their faith growing, are they moving on to Christian maturity," Dean said. "Is what we are doing with them worth the cost of our Lord?"

Quoting Teresa of Avia, a nun and theologian, Dean said that it is more important that you water the garden than how you water it. "If you wait around for the water to just come, the garden could die of thirst. The point is to get water to the garden." She challenged the youth ministry leaders to water their gardens well.

Other Connection 2002 speakers included J.F. Lacaria, Charleston, W.Va.; Mariellen Sawada Yoshino, San Jose, Calif.; Mark V. Monk Winstanley, Atlanta; Bishop James King, Louisville, Ky.; and Bishop Larry Goodpaster, Montgomery, Ala.

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