I was always overweight…had frizzy hair and an awkward mole on my face; loud, opinionated, and a little self-righteous. I didn’t have any problem making new friends, but now that I think about it, I suppose perhaps keeping them was a challenge. Whether the cause was my insides or my outsides or completely in my head, I felt awkward and alone for a good part of my adolescence.

In the Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort I just started, I learned that the general understanding of adolescence has changed over the past century and that it has major implications for youth ministry. Further, Marko’s book Youth Ministry 3.0 (the first book we were required to read as part of this cohort) gave words to what I have experienced in my first decade of ministry – that youth ministry today is (and should be) different than it was in the 80s, but that most churches and youth directors still operate in the framework of what it was.

In my master’s program in conflict resolution at UNC-Greensboro, my favorite class was Dispute System Design. The goal was to improve an organization’s efficiency in resolving conflicts – saving time, energy, and most likely relationships. The method was to get to know the culture REALLY well to figure out how things currently operated (including the organization’s goals/mission/purpose, their intentions vs. what was really done, etc.), and then to design a suggested system, ideally that saved the company money, time, effort, and that fit well with their values.

In Marko’s chapter on how youth ministry should be today, he says that youth ministers should be cultural anthropologists who consider the context they are working in, the people, the culture, and the values, and–through communal discernment–develop a youth ministry that fits within that context…one that is communal (about building community and a sense of belonging as opposed to program-focused and filled with “doing”) and missional (joining up with whatever God is doing in that community).

Being one of the misfit adolescents who never really fit in anywhere, my call has always been to help create a place where all are welcome…and to trust in the Spirit to take care of the rest (the learning, the believing in something, the practicing of our faith, etc.). I’ve had youth groups with a representative from pretty much every “group” that there is in middle/high school, and no lie – it’s tough, but we lived into a sense of community built on the Love of God…and because each of the youth yearned for a space to belong, we worked to make that space together. In a way that made sense for that community…for that particular context.

One of the ways that I do that is through creating a relational covenant. Soon after starting a new youth group or a new school year, I do some teaching on covenant and Christian community and then help the youth create a relational covenant. We consider together how we want the space to be a place where all belong and we develop some practical guidelines to help us co-create that space. It’s a lot better than rules, because the last thing teenagers need is more rules. Instead, it’s saying, hey, this is YOUR space; the intention is that you all feel like you belong here – how does that impact each of us and how we enter into this space? what do we need to do to make sure that everyone belongs? …and we trust the Spirit to take care of the rest. And let me tell you, the Spirit pretty much always comes through.

 

Thank you to Beth Crissman at Plowpoint for the idea of the relational covenant. Thank you to Dr. Hayes for an awesome Dispute System Design class. Thank you to my youth groups who created relational covenants over the years and who taught me a lot about community and belonging. Thank you to Marko and the Western NC Conference of the UMC for helping me participate in the cohort I’m in and the awesomeness that it is. And Praise God for the Spirit that binds us all together in love – may we all seek to live in that love and lean into that love, even when it’s hard.

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