Friday, March 8, 2013

Youth Ministry as Lab for Vocational Discernment: Make Room to Discern Their Calling

[A supplemental read to a column I published within Immerse Journal, "They Pay Me to Do This?" Nov/Dec 2012]

We were driving home from a service day in Philly when one of the youth shared about his dinner conversation with a homeless veteran and the ins and outs of war that lead this man to become an avid peacemaker. "I think I can be more creative than violence," Alex said.

This remark would be powerful on its own, but it was particularly beautiful when it came from the mouth of a young man who had expressed earlier that evening that he longed to pursue a career as an Army Ranger. The remainder of the car ride was filled with reflections on alternative “careers” whereby he could live into his vocation as a disciple of Jesus and utilize his gifts of creativity, ingenuity, film, and social advocacy to pursue peace and justice.

We talked about everything from the Peace Corps, International Justice Mission, and denominational programs that can be engaged post-high school. What Alex experienced that night was an opportunity for vocational discernment. Space was created among homeless vets and car rides down 95 South to explore how God may call Alex to love God and love neighbor with the very gifts he had been given.

Then there was Christina. Our youth ministry hosted a Sunday Morning class called, “College. Career. Calling.” The course was intended to be a conversation with youth as they contemplated how to live into their discipleship and discern God’s leading post-high school. Christina chimed in, “I am going to school for fashion design. It is a pretty materialistic field. How in the world am I supposed to live out my calling and vocation in this industry? I am kind of ashamed.”

There with about eight other students we began to consider that very question. We spoke about the variety of injustices and exploitative working conditions that are associated with fashion and design. We underscored how the industry is often known for how it objectifies women and turns beauty into a commodity. Together we came to the conclusion that Christina was not only a very creative and gifted young lady, but also had a conscience that was concerned for the weak. We then asked, what would it look like for her to work towards transformation and kingdom ethics within the fashion industry? How could Christina not retreat from a popular industry she was drawn to but instead pursue the industry’s reformation and reconciliation? We introduced her to a great read, Where Am I Wearing? (Kelsey Timmerman, Wiley 2008) and encouraged her to think outside the box.

It was indeed possible, actually probable, that Christina could love God and love neighbor by being called to fashion design. Yes, Christina was also experiencing a moment of vocational discernment.

​Youth are incredibly intuitive, creative, risky, outside-the-box thinkers, who are encouraged to use these gifts for a variety of youth activities, liturgical expressions, and missional partnerships while in middle and high school. Then, after graduation, they are tragically roped into get-a-good-job and make-good-money narratives that determine their next 40 years. They are capable of so much more. They thirst for so much more. The world longs for so much more. The church is called for this purpose of vocational discovery:

"A primary purpose of the Church is to help us discover and develop our gifts and, in the face of our fears, to hold us accountable for them so that we can enter into the joy of creating. The major obligation of the Church to children is to enjoy them and to listen to them so that each can grow according to the design which is written into the being of each and emerges only under the care and warmth of another." ---Elizabeth O'Connor, Eighth Day of Creation, Washington, D.C.: Potter’s House Books, 2007. p.16

One of the lost arts of youth ministry is the ability to uncover the gifts of youth so to facilitate vocational discernment beyond their teen years as they explore Christian life post weekend retreats and Sunday night worship. One can only imagine what it would look like to challenge youth within our congregations not to do whatever they can to get paid, but to explore radically new possibilities to utilize their gifts in cahoots with God's work of redemption and liberation. Actually, many of them are already having these vocational conversations with one another. Maybe, then, the calling of the church is to begin to listen and encourage youth like Alex and Christina.

I recently stumbled upon these words within the PCUSA Book of Order:

“As the church ministers to people who are discovering Christian vocation, so it offers nurture to those who are living out Christian vocation in public, active life” (W-6.2003).

This is nowhere more important than within the field of youth ministry. Youth pastors are there to nurture youth not only in their personal formation as young disciples on The Way, but also in the “living out” of their Christian vocation in public, active life during and after adolescence. Youth ministries must create space for these conversations and foster environments where they can explore what it would look like to live into their discipleship in public places and professional careers. Our youth curriculums must make room for students to discern how their unique gifts, deepest passions, biblical reflections, and social consciences can be used by God for kingdom incarnations beyond the walls of the church and in their neighborhoods, campuses, work places, and careers.

I remind youth over and again upon graduation that their callings are greater than or equal to their pending careers; their vocations supersede their professions. Some of the youth may incarnate their vocations as pastors and preachers. Yet most are not called to wear the collar or dawn the stole. And that's a good thing! Can you imagine a world, or a church, made up solely of pastors and preachers? Actually, don't do that. Instead, invite youth to dream bigger, to take risks, and to live life for more than the 15th and end-of-month.

Make room for youth like Alex and Christina to consider how they can be more creative than violence, transformative within trend-setting industries, and innovative in loving God and loving neighbor. May we send students from our youth ministries and equip them to live out their Christian vocation and callings in their public, active lives.