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An Heroic Ministry
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Fuller Youth Institute, US
Sophia Network, UK
Married to the job?
Jon is 28 years old and is a part-time youth worker at his local church. He became a Christian as a teenager and is passionate about seeing young people reached with the gospel. He works 3 days a week in a regular job and 2.5 days a week for the church. Five years ago he married Rachel, an amazing woman, who has a similar passion for youth ministry. While Jon runs all of the youth programmes at their church, Rachel also helped lead a cell of some of the young girls in the youth group. They now have two children under the age of 3, but somehow Rachel has managed to continue leading the cell, while Jon's involvement at church has only increased. Between them, they are so busy that for 6 nights of the week they don't see each other.
Jon feels that for the sake of the spiritual well-being of his youth group, he just can't cut back on his involvement, and believes that as he gets older he will be able to give more time to his family. Rachel agrees with Jon that the young people are important, and feels guilty asking him to drop some of his youth commitments as she knows that God has called Jon to this. On the one night they do have together as a family, they are both so exhausted that they want to watch television and not have to talk. Slowly and surely, as Jon's youth ministry seems to get bigger and more successful, his marriage suffers and his children see less and less of him...
Is this really how God wants us to fulfil our calling as youth workers? Or is there also a calling we need to fulfil also as husbands and wives?
This article aims to start to answer those questions. Whether you're a full-time, part-time, or volunteer youth worker, there is always more work that could be done, and more young people that need your time. The work can become all-consuming, meaning that little time is left over for those closest to you.
This article will specifically address the issue of managing your time as a married person and getting your priorities in order. Of course, we also hope that some of the following principles will be of value to those who aren't married.
1. Prioritise time together
We all know the list of priorities we should have as Christians: number one, God; number two, our spouse and children; number three, our work; number four, our other church activities. But keeping these priorities in order isn't quite as simple as that, especially when it comes to numbers two and three. We want to suggest that for married youth workers, after God of course, our highest priority is our marriages, and that in making them so, we will reap the benefits in the long term in both our marriages and our youth work.
The difficulty for many of us is that it's really easy to see where to put our energy into a youth ministry. We only need to look at the television for a few minutes or walk down the high street to see loads of young people who need Jesus, and we dream up hundreds of ideas about great ways we could help the church to meet that need. It's also measurable, and any change is (relatively) easy to see - we build relationships with young people and we are able to sense when we are beginning to earn their trust and respect. We are sometimes able to see young people change in different ways, and hopefully many become Christians and develop their faith in Christ.
When it comes to our marriages however, the fruit isn't always so easy to see, and it certainly won't be announced in church, praised in the newsletter, or funded by the government. Imagine that - the minister is doing the church notices at the start of the service and says ‘It was great to see this week that Matt Costley bought his wife flowers and took her out for a meal, when it wasn't even their anniversary.’ On the other hand, you may well get praise for running a great youth event, or thanks from a parent for getting alongside their teenager in a time of crisis. It may well feel to us that spending an evening at home with your spouse doesn't seem to add much more to your relationship, whereas you know that had you spent that night with the teenagers on the local estate you could have made a real difference...
Steven Covey, author of 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' writes about dividing tasks into 'the four quadrants'. These quadrants are 1: important and urgent; 2: important and not urgent; 3: urgent and not important; 4: not urgent and not important. Covey suggests that most people invest most of their time into tasks that fall into quadrants 1 and 3 - because they are urgent. It is usually quadrant 2 - the longer-term, invaluable stuff - that gets neglected by people in all walks of life as it is harder to measure in the short term and the benefits won't be noticed until further down the line.
The problem for youth workers is that the pace of youth work is always fast (when was the last time you managed to plan that youth night more than two weeks ahead?) and mostly falls into the 'urgent' category. But when it comes to investing time and energy into our marriages it often falls into quadrant 2 - we know in theory it is important but as our marriages are not falling apart it doesn't seem urgent. We want to underline the importance of those things in your life that might fall into quadrant 2. If you don’t invest in them now there may be no immediate fallout, but the long-term outcomes could be disastrous.
2. Plan time together
Many of us plan ahead for our youth ministries (although many others prefer to be more fluid with their planning!) but don't plan our personal time. In as much as we plan out time for our youth ministry, and arrange social nights, outings, Bible study or discussion nights, or whatever it is that you do, we must make our families and our marriages a priority too. That means planning ahead and marking out time in our diaries for nights out with our spouse, or family nights doing an activity with the children.
A couple of examples from our own marriage: we have an agreed night each week where we will spend time together as a couple, and only as a couple. We both block this night out in our diaries months ahead and will very rarely ever let this night be intruded upon. Before we had a baby we would try to go out for a meal, or to a movie, or on a 'date' as we used to do before we were married, although we must admit that many of these nights were spent chilling out watching a DVD at home! Since having a baby we obviously haven't been out as much but we still make sure we have this night together at home. Of course, this isn't the only night of the week we spend together!
Another important thing for us is planning holidays from work. Matt sits down at the start of the year with his team and the first thing they do is plan their holiday dates. They make sure that they book time off as early as they can, as otherwise the busyness of their jobs will take over every spare day. Many times Matt hasn't used his holiday time, and his body has paid the price. Obviously the team tries to take these at times in the year that suit what’s going on in the youth work (i.e. school holidays) and they also make sure that the team don't all take holidays at the same time if they can help it.
3. Protect your time together
Of course, youth work is never a Monday-Friday, 9-5 job, so it's not as easy as switching off 'work mode' at the end of the day. If a teenager has an emergency at 10pm on a Thursday night, we can't always ask them to delay their crisis until the morning (although sometimes this may be the best course of action!). In some cases we need to make calls or go out at odd times of the day or night. Most spouses will understand this if they know that their husband or wife views it as more the exception than the rule and has their priorities in order.
Teenagers don't understand that youth workers have a life outside of youth work too. We all remember being at school and never imagining that our teachers had a social life, and perhaps being shocked when we saw them out! In the same way, teenagers generally won't consider that you have a spouse or family at home who also wants your attention and time, and even if they do they will assume there is always another time for that.
It's important though, as part of our youth work, that we emphasise how important our marriages are to us, and model good relationships to young people. They may not remember what we said to them at the youth group a year ago, but they will remember when you told them you wouldn't come to see them because you wanted to spend an evening with your wife instead. It will be something they think about and remember later in life.
Thinking again about our own marriage: Kate would often answer our home phone on Saturdays and late at night and it would be some of the youth group, usually just wanting to chat. While she thought that was great, she also wanted to think that there were some times when Matt was able to focus all of his attention on the family, especially with very young children.
Matt is happy to give out his mobile number to anyone and everyone who wants it including his youth group and their parents. But he is much more careful now with the home number as he wants to be sure that, if he has decided to spend an evening in with the family, he doesn't have to answer that phone every five minutes. He can decide to turn his mobile off and pick up any messages later that night. One of the guys in his youth group phoned him last week and said that since Matt had recently moved house he didn't have his new home number, so could he please have it. Matt said 'No, you can't' and he said 'Why not? I had your last one...'. Matt didn't say what he was thinking: 'and that's why I'm not giving you my new one, because you called me every night at 9pm!' - instead he said 'because it's my private number - you've got my office number and my mobile and can leave me a message if you need to'. He didn't immediately like that but then saw my point.
Let's get our priorities right - it is not good enough for us to have flourishing youth groups but floundering marriages. A youth worker who loves their husband or wife and invests in their own marriage sets a great example for the teenagers they work with.
We need to PRIORITISE time with our spouse and make sure they are our priority above our ministries. It's not enough to just let this time just happen - we must PLAN ahead and make time with them (at least one night a week). And we must PROTECT this time and not easily put it aside because of work commitments.
As youth workers, God has called us into youth ministry and that will always be a huge part of our lives. But if He has called us to be married, then we need to make sure that we invest just as much time and energy into this area too.
Matt Costley is the youth pastor at Holy Trinity Brompton. Kate Costley is a full-time mum to Grace and Poppy.
Marriage and youth work: common problems
Nicky and Sila Lee have developed The Marriage Course at Holy Trinity Brompton over the past 10 years and have a passion for seeing marriages grow. They believe strongly in the need for every married couple to be supported and encouraged to invest in their relationship on an ongoing basis. Every couple can be equipped with the practical skills (which are the basis of The Marriage Course – see www.themarriagecourse.org for more details) to see their relationship develop and be renewed over a lifetime, and nowhere is that more important than in the lives of married couples involved in Christian leadership. We spoke to them about how some of the common marriage issues facing youth workers and their spouses can best be handled.
Complaint #1: My spouse's role requires a lot of night time work so we don't get many nights to ourselves...
Nicky and Sila: Take time to connect every day - ask the simple question, 'What would you like me to pray for you today?' and then take a few minutes to pray for each other. It need only take four or five minutes. We have found short and often to be easier to sustain than long and infrequent.
Connect at a deeper level each week - book in special time to have fun together and guard it fiercely. See that time as a 'date' once a week (just like you did when you were going out) and plan it into both your diaries. It could be a special evening at home, a candlelit meal, or an evening out every so often. Be sure to consult your husband or wife if you have to change it. Try taking it in turns to organise this weekly time together and occasionally plan surprises for each other. If evenings don't work, see if you could take two hours or so in the middle of the day (at the weekend if necessary) and do something you both enjoy. Having fun together is what keeps a relationship fresh and exciting.
Plan your holidays - keep some time just for yourselves as a couple (or as a family if you have children). Talk about what you each enjoy doing, where you might go, what your budget is and who is best at making the bookings.
Complaint #2: Most of the youth work happens at weekends so we rarely get a weekend break...
Nicky and Sila: Plan ahead with your youth team and your youth programme to take the occasional weekend off. The youth will survive without you. Your marriage may not if the youth group comes first every weekend. Take a mini-honeymoon once a year - make it romantic. Depending on your employment, you may be able to take two days off midweek more easily. Forty eight hours together in a different environment can work wonders for your relationship. And just having a break like this to look forward to can help you through a busy period.
Complaint #3: My spouse does so much exciting stuff (bowling, ice skating etc) with the youth group that when they get home they just want to lie on the sofa...
Nicky and Sila: Having fun together on a regular basis is a key component of a strong marriage. Jesus' command, 'Love each other as I have loved you' (John 15:12), must start at home. Love (according to the Bible rather than Hollywood) requires us to make sacrifices: putting energy into building our relationship when we don't feel like it; finding out what makes our husband or wife feel loved and then acting on it; showing consideration and kindness to each other on a consistent basis.
God puts youth workers in a position of responsibility and they say more to young people with their lives than with their words. They are, like it or not, role models. A strong marriage will ultimately make more difference to the youth they serve than any amount of ice-skating and bowling.
Complaint #4: There's just too much work to do, and it's all good stuff for the Lord... I feel bad asking my spouse to cut back on that just to spend time with me...
Nicky and Sila: God may well have called us to youth work but, if we are married, he has also called us to marriage. We need to know this if we are to have the confidence to make our marriage a priority over other Christian work that we undertake. God has called us into a partnership with our husband or wife that He wants to use for His purposes. For that to happen we need time together to nurture our marriage: time to find out what each other's real needs are rather than assuming they are the same as last week or last year, time to support each other on a daily basis, time to pray together, recommitting ourselves and our marriage to God and asking him to fill us with his love and power.
The state of our marriage affects not just us (and our children if we have them) but many others around us for good or for bad. Spending time together to invest in our marriage is not selfish or unspiritual - actually it is the opposite. It opens the way for God to work through us, through our family and through our home to show His love to many others.
Nicky and Sila Lee are the creators of The Marriage Course. They have been married since 1976, and have four children.
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