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My Charity Work is More Degrading Than Yours: Lessons on Leadership from the Middle School Fellowship (Part 1)

March 19, 2009

Here’s a valuable tip for those of you thinking about volunteering with your church’s middle-school youth program: have very low expectations. Taking a few mental steps down the staircase of Acceptable Standards for Organizational Behavior proved to be very helpful for an executive manager such as myself in more effectively leading a gangly group of thirteen-year olds at my church.

I found out very early on that the weekly youth meetings of our Middle School “ministry” (please note that I use that term very loosely here) are nothing at all like the corporate management meetings that I am used to presiding over. When running a meeting at work, for instance, one can expect those in attendance will listen to you. Also, you can be pretty sure most of the time the group will show some measure of respect, decency, and collaboration. In the end you can hope for at least a small attempt at productivity, even in the most dysfunctional of teams. However, at the middle school youth group, you are pretty much outnumbered, ignored, and out of control ninety-nine percent of the time. Plus they can be really gross. Well, the boys, anyways.

As this topic of conversation comes up from time to time with friends and colleagues, many respond with a snort of laughter. This is then  followed with a question that asks, in one form or another, “What on earth could have possibly possessed you to dedicate your precious time and astute executive mental acuity on — middle school kids? Blech.” Good question. You may very well share the opinion of my enthusiastic friend from Starbucks, Reece, who, upon hearing of my philanthropic endeavor with those surly church tweens, said to me with a palpable disgust: “No one could ever pay me enough to work with middle school kids!” She put a defining emphasis on the words “ever,” “pay,” and “enough.” Sparks of spittle erupted from her mouth like fireworks as she spoke, especially on the word “pay”. She really meant it.

Another time, while enjoying the fellowship and sophisticated conversation of civil-minded adults at a church potluck function, I found myself cornered by the father of five boys. He had heard about my unfortunate falling-in with the middle school program. “Well, now Brad,” he said with a serpent’s grin, in between bites of celery in ranch dip, “Aren’t you lucky, to get stuck leading the middle school program!”

This is a form of encouragement, right?

“My heart goes out to you. Boys at that age can be…” He was searching for a word – one to replace the word that he intended to say; a word that I think he might have regretted using in mixed company at a church function. Instead, he delivered the following statement to me: “Eighth-grade boys are the lowest form of life on earth.”

Well. Thanks, for that. As the father of five boys, he ought to know better than anyone else, I guess.

That disappointing attitude happens to be the overriding sentiment of many of my professional colleagues, too. People are generally perplexed towards the circumstances surrounding my willing involvement in such a degrading form of charity. The answer is rather simple. I happened to have a middle-school age daughter who was active in our church’s youth program, and as such, at one point I was asked to “help out.” You know very well how these things go. In the parallel universe of congregational volunteer life, this innocent-sounding invitation to “help out” is nothing more than a devious trap. On the surface the request appears so mild and harmless. Sure, I can help out! Why not? But eventually one thing leads to another, and before you know it, no one can remember who is responsible for next week’s lesson, and you did such a great job with the kids when you went on the retreat, and where did you come up with that great game that involved the toothpaste and raw eggs, etc. etc. Gradually, imperceptibly, you are sucked in further and further. Before I knew what had happened, I was the designated leader for our entire middle school fellowship of about forty kids.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2009 3:11 pm

    interesting interactions and responses.

    there has got to be a lot going on there that is unseen or realzed later in time.

  2. donkimrey permalink
    March 20, 2009 10:00 pm

    Ha! “Somewhere in your youth. . . or childhood. . .you musta done somethin’ really, really wrong!
    Seriously, Brad, I admire you for that brave endeavour. You have no way of knowing the impact you’ll have. I belong to a very young Church, with a right small group of young folks. One Sunday morning I saw two of the finest young men in our fellowship (USMC Lt. Col. Phil Pastino, veteran combat pilot) and Colin Laughlin (Sharp, bright, successful young business exec) sitting on the pavement outside the sanctuary. Belatedly, I realized those guys were teaching a Suncay School class for the only twelve year old who showed up that day! Simultaneously I thought about how Jesus said we have to become like little children and it is only in serving that we achieve greatness…And on the other hand, I wondered what an impact the commitment those fine men would make on such an impressionable, eager, young mind. Keep up your good work. ~donkimrey

  3. March 23, 2009 1:43 pm

    You know, when thinking about all those forgotten people groups who need the Gospel across the globe, I can’t think of a more forgotten demographic in the American church than kids 10-14. Sure, they are presented the Gospel with a glancing blow, but we really haven’t a clue as to whether or not we should talk to them more adult-like as we do high schoolers or just keep talking down to them as if they were still 6 or 7.

    Yet I think the war that goes on here is very intentional, as there is so much opportunity to impress the Gospel on these kids that we usually find spiritually starving when we muster enough courage to go talk to them. Plus, the added bonus is that at this impressionable age you’ll likely find these kids are still looking up to you in 5-10 years because of the diligent work you put in, you know, that work you often wondered where it did any good for the Kingdom at all. Well it does.

    Go get ’em Brad.

  4. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    March 23, 2009 6:09 pm

    Hey everyone, glad to see your support for this lost and forgotten demographic group. Brad – you are so right about the kids looking up to you, because I definitely notice now after 3 or 4 years, I still maintain those relationships with those kids as they grow up. Thanks for the encouragement!

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