Monday, October 13, 2008

Alternatives in Youth Ministry Interviews, Volume 2

For the second youth ministry interview, I've chosen my good friend Bill Spangler-Dunning. Bill is a graduate of Culver-Stockton College and Lexington Theological Seminary. He served in youth ministry previously in Kentucky and is now the Associate Regional Minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Upper Midwest, having responsibility over youth and camping ministries in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, as well as the Christian Conference Center in Newton, IA.

Dan--Over the past few decades there’s been a dramatic increase in the "professionalization" of youth ministry. Do you think this trend will continue?

Bill--I remember when I was first entering seminary in 1990 and tried to explain that I had a calling to youth ministry. At every turn I was directed to and encouraged to consider a sole pastorate situation and there were few if any youth ministry courses offered at the time. The advice and nudging I received seemed to be motivated by two basic ideas that were often repeated in the recommendations I was given: 1) A seemingly lack of real professional/paid youth ministry positions available in the church and therefore this was a dead-end career path and 2) Professionally, I was told that I could make more money doing anything but youth ministry. Don’t misunderstand me, I am thankful for the way seminary was then because it helped me train deeply in the standard needs for ministry like theology, education, Bible, counseling, history and preaching. However, starting with my first youth ministry position out of seminary, despite the authentic appreciation for building up the size and strength of their youth ministry, many members often asked when I was planning on moving to "REAL" ministry. So if you asked me then if youth ministry was over "professionalized" in 1990 I was say absolutely not! If anything I was overjoyed when over the next few years it seemed that the churches were beginning to see youth ministry as a specialist in ministry like other fields. This kind of professional understanding brought a real sense of validity to the youth ministry field and actually allowed for youth ministers to stay longer than 3 years in one position before moving on to "REAL" ministry. Or for me it allowed myself to really feel a sense of validation that one could be called to this specific kind of ministry rather than it simply being something you did until you could step up to something else.

However, sometime within my first few years of ministry I began to notice the first installment of "WWJD" commercialization and the many flyers for youth worker training events and curriculum resources for doing youth ministry. I observed the caned youth ministry programs developing in other churches like LOGOS and others. These resources, programs and training events seemed to be helpful at first. However, somewhere along the way it seemed that these resources moved youth ministry away from the relationship model of youth ministry. It seemed to suggest that if you just follow these programs you will grow your youth group. I think in short it became more mechanized and it made it less messy to do youth ministry. I think this help in some ways but the long term effect seemed to create programs and less individual nurturing. This was surely due to the pressure put on the youth ministries to grow numbers with cool programs.

Its hard to stop this cycle so then I noticed that any cool new youth program or idea was marketed to sell. This moved us even farther away from relationship to program as our primary focus in youth ministry. Then it seemed that most youth ministers were suppose to look alike. It was like a dress code and a stereotype had been created for the mold of what youth ministers were supposed to be and even look like. This trend tended to lead to less diversity in the kind of people who were willing to consider youth ministry because the people leading youth ministry were less diverse. The reverse happened when women began to enter ministry. As women saw other women in ministry they were able to see themselves in ministry and the numbers increased. The trend toward less diverse youth ministers moved us farther from a relational model of youth ministry because as great as we youth ministers think we are we all have a limit to the kinds of people we relate too or in turn there ability to relate to us.

Dan--What do you see as some areas where the Church is missing the point in practices of youth ministry and how could we all do a better job of "getting it?"

Bill--When I travel to consult with churches who find their youth program faltering they normally tell me one of two things: 1) They are following a program ministry approach but the kids don’t seem to be as interested or 2) They have schedule all kinds of events but the youth don’t seem to come.

When I ask them to tell me about their own experience as a youth they all tell me stories of people they learned from and people they looked up to who were their youth sponsors. I then suggest that they move back to a relational way of doing youth ministry. Structure is good but the truth is that people remember people not programs or events. I think churches make this issue to complicated and buy into the market driven, coolest new program, VBS style youth group material and think that is what makes youth and youth groups grow. In short, I think we need to help those in youth ministry know that just being yourself and creating space for the youth to be themselves could really go a long way. (I don’t think this is always easy but I don’t think its complicated)

Dan--What do you see as some of the biggest changes in youth ministry currently taking place? What affects do you think we might see?

Bill--See Answer 1. Sorry went on there for a while…

Dan--What model of youth ministry that you’ve seen do you think is most intriguing, and why?

Bill--I don’t know that I am intrigued by any particular model. What I am convinced of is that each person must choose the model that works best for them. This could so because of my own bias of growing up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where diversity is the food we are fed. I cannot preach in the style that my wife does and she cannot preach or does not want to preach in my style. The cool thing is that we are better preachers by not doing so. The same is true with the choice of the varied models of youth ministry. So when consulting I attempt to understand the personality of the youth worker/minister and match the model to the person rather than the other way around.

Dan--If you could see one of your dreams about youth ministry come true for the Church Universal, what would it be, and why?

Bill--I would hope that churches would see this field of ministry to be a specialization in ministry rather than see it as a less important or less trained type of ministry. I believe this would increase the amount of people entering youth ministry because they would see this as a valid ministry and people would be able to stay in this ministry longer because it would be less likely that individuals would see this as a stair-step ministry position. I admit this is a clear bias of my own experience in youth ministry

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