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.
To be continued….