The Light Touch and the High Road

It was a season of incredible turmoil.

It happened almost 15 years ago, but I can remember it like it was yesterday.  The intensity of the anxiousness was overwhelming.  Sleep was a luxury my body was not afforded.  My mind was running like a lost child through the woods, stuck on the endless loop of trying to “solve” my church’s crisis.

I reached out to many wise friends during this season.  With each one, I rehearsed, in painstaking detail, all the drama, the twists and turns, the multiple failures of leadership.

I was hoping for direction, for clarity, and, if I’m honest, for justification that my indignation was justified.  Most of all, I wanted to fix this thing.

A number of my friends shared my outrage, others gave sympathy, others detailed advice.  But after 15 years, I only remember one response.

One of the wisest friends I have ever had now serves as an executive pastor at a 5000-member church and, curiously, is also an absolutely brilliant spiritual director.  I was sure she would give me some clear guidance, and at the very least, that she would at least be empathetically “on my side.”

After receiving my lengthy, detailed email, she responded with one simple phrase—not even a complete sentence:

The light touch and the high road.”

It was disarmingly simple and unnerving at the same time. This was not a way to calm the turbulence (what I wanted) but a way to ride the rapids with integrity, a way to calm my reactivity enough that I could be present, both to the people who were “on my side” of the conflict as well as to those whom I was convinced were dead wrong.

The details of the conflict faded from my rearview mirror over a decade ago, but my friend’s profound counsel have never been far from me.

Dumbledore Was Right!

I had just begun an early morning two-hour drive when the phone rang.  It was my good friend, a senior pastor, talking so excitedly I was having trouble keeping up.

We had talked the day before.  He had shared how stuck he was feeling in the political dance his church was requiring of him, the church’s inherited unhealthiness weighing heavily on him.  On many days, he felt as if he were being dragged into battles he desperately wanted to avoid.


He had gone to bed the night before, enjoying a little recreational reading.  As he read, he had an undeniable sense that God was speaking–through, of all things, a Harry Potter novel (senior pastors can be weird like that).  The words hit him so hard that he actually woke up his wife, saying “You’ve GOT to hear this!”  Here’s what he read:

“[Harry] understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him.  It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.  Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew–and so do I, thought Harry,…that there was all the difference in the world” (J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE, p. 512).

As youth pastors, we will never be able to control all the surprising anxiousness or toxic dysfunction in our churches.  What we can do, though, is choose the way we enter into our ministries day after day.  We can fall into the all-too-natural stance of helplessness and hand-wringing, staying mired in the trivia-obsession around us.   Or we can choose, choose to bring a different kind of spirit than the one around us…

…bringing the light touch, taking the high road

…trusting that God’s success does not depend on our “winning”

…embracing the most powerful weapon we have—not logic, not argument, not power in any worldly sense of the word—but love alone

…and believing, sometimes against all odds, that love really does win

All of us with a “suffer-calling” (another word for ministry) would do well to internalize Dumbledore’s lesson to Harry.  There really is “all the difference in the world” between being dragged into our impossible callings and willingly embracing them.  It was true for Harry.  It was true for my pastor friend.  And it’s true for every one of us in youth ministry.

An Exercise in Missing the Point

“You and I just have totally different philosophies of youth ministry,” the frustrated intern told his youth pastor boss.

“Really?  Tell me about that,” his boss replied.

“You are all about programs.  For me…it’s all about relationship.  I’d be happy just hanging out with kids one-on-one, without any programs at all.” 

Wouldn’t we all?

Wouldn’t it be great if we, as youth pastors, could go back to a simpler time when all we had to do was hang out with kids and help them discover their faith, one conversation at a time?

The truth is… we can.

All we have to do is shift from being a paid staff person (or the person in charge) to being a volunteer. Once we join the ranks of paid staff or take a point leadership role, our responsibilities shift from simply building our own relationships with kids to creating those opportunities for other adults.

The sentimental fallacy behind the “relationships-only” philosophy of ministry is obvious:

  1. Program-free, relationships-only youth ministry only exists in the imagination of the inexperienced.   Ministries that attempt this approach almost always wind up with the vast majority of the youth leaders “doing relationships” with a select few kids who are easy to be with, eager to grow, or who pursue a relationship with us, ignoring the harder-to-reach kids God has given into our care.
  2. Anarchy is not a philosophy of youth ministry. At first blush, it seems so like Jesus, doesn’t it—just “do relationships”? But take a closer look—Jesus had a very specific, uh, program for exactly how he would make disciples.
  3. Youth ministry is not, first and foremost, about youth workers doing what makes them “happy.” It is often about swimming upstream, doing the things no one else is doing, building like no one else is building, in order to reach the kids no one else is reaching.

I hope you’re as weary as I am with the simplistic polarization between relationships and programs, as if someone can take responsibility for ministry to more than a handful of kids without both. Intentional programs multiply relationships.

Youth ministry is still about one adult investing in one kid at a time. But as youth ministers, we are called not just to build relationships but to create systems (some might call them programs) that allow other adults to have the thrill of investing in one kid at a time.