The truth of why I left, and where I’ve been

It’s midnight, and I know I will regret this in the morning, but when you have three kids, personal reflection does not happen very often and when it does you must seize the moment… and so I am writing.

I was inspired tonight; by a movie. The Way Way Back. It was a coming of age film that told the story of an awkward teenage boy who lacks confidence and the summer he finds it by working at a water park. The boy meets the manager of the park, an early thirties “camp counselor” sort of guy who brings the boy to life, gives him confidence, and mentors him through the summer. It was about the boy finding his voice, but more importantly, finding his worth. The film begins with his mom’s boyfriend telling him that he thinks he is a 3 out of 10. The boy himself only gives himself a 6. The first half of the movie the boy is seen mostly with his head down, surrounded by his mom and her boyfriend and their friends, with no friends of his own. Until he finds the water park. Owen, the manager of the park, is a sarcastic, carefree, comedian who sees a boy who just needs someone to give him meaning and significance. And so he does. He provides Duncan (the boy) with a job, but more importantly, experiences that allow him to feel worthy. Significant.

It was a wonderful film.

And it left me in tears. Sure, it was emotional – but I wouldn’t say it was a tear jerker or anything like that. But for me it was very very personal. It struck a nerve in me – so much so that here I am at midnight writing about it. Because my life has taken me down a path – a path that at times I wonder why I am following. And although the answer to why I am here, on this path, has been simmering for quite some time – I have never been able to put it into words. And so, I will try.

Three things happened when I was in high school. I discovered that I was very intuitive and could pick up things very quickly (music, computers, writing poetry, etc.). Which led me to use those talents to find my worth and in turn I fell in love with a girl and began to find my worth in her. And then I got my heart broken by that girl – which destroyed me – but somehow led me to the church where I would find my true worth, and ultimately, to me deciding I wanted to be a youth pastor.

I went to Azusa Pacific University (a mid-size Christian University in Southern California) and I majored in Youth Ministry. I am one to say that the program I was in was one of a kind, truly special, and it gave me the skills I needed to not just become a “youth pastor” – you know – backwards baseball cap, goatee, guitar player, zany, just want to be cool and I wasn’t in high school so I’ll becoming a youth pastor sort of youth pastor – but instead an intelligent, compassionate, culture sensitive counselor who wants to see kids find their meaning and significance way more than I want them to like me, and definitely way more than just preaching the prosperity gospel and feeding them bullshit about how sinful they are and how much they need to repent to save themselves from the fires of hell.

So what am I getting at here? Because I don’t want this to be another history blog “telling my story”. Well, at least not outside of the last 5 years. So let me fast-forward.

Out of college I had a posh job at Christian Church of Thousand Oaks as a youth pastor. It paid fairly decent (as far as youth ministry jobs go) and I had a ton of freedom to run the ministry the way I saw fit. My heart was definitely in it. I felt alive being around the youth – not in a selfish sort of way, like I was finding my coolness in teenagers looking up to me – but in that this is what I was made for. That I had a gift, of making kids feel welcomed. Included. Worthy. God it makes me tear up even just writing this now, because I have always been so passionate about sticking up for the voiceless – bringing those on the outside of the cool circle in and making them feel a part of something. It has always meant to so much to me. And it still does. Anyway, I felt alive doing youth ministry. And even though my faith was changing and I was becoming much more open in my theology, that shift was not what pushed me out of the church (although if I’m honest it probably would have eventually).

What happened in the fall of 2007, is that I had my first child. What happened shortly after that, is that I realized that I needed to get out of the town I was living in. It was the town I grew up in. Rich. Mostly white. Conservative. Mostly older people (because it cost so much to live there). After having traveled to Mexico, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Kenya – and seeing the poverty that most of the world lives in, I had a seriously hard time living in the town I did and working at well-to-do church with well-to-do Christians. And even though I enjoyed mentoring the youth of that town – my heart could not stand to live there anymore. I had to get out.

And so Robin and I did. We left.

Most people don’t leave good things. They leave bad, shitty things. Someone breaks their heart, so they leave. They get fired, so they leave. They lose interest and move on to something better.

None of that was true for Robin and I. We just knew that there was something else out there for us, and we trusted that we were going to be ok. Having an 8 month old child, and moving to a place you’ve never lived (hardly visited for more than a day) and where you know no one, is a huge risk. It was risky. I felt like I was throwing away my dreams – in search for something. Because, the fact of the matter was, my heart was not settled in that town. Maybe there was too much baggage from my childhood. Maybe it was too white and rich. Maybe it was just too boring. Whatever it was, I was not ok. And so we left.

And now, I get to what I really want to write about tonight.

There may have been part of me that was excited to be out of working in the church. We landed in Portland and Robin had a job lined up as a middle school teacher, and so I stayed at home with Amalea for a while. I tried some part time after school program-like jobs, a few were really great, and some were really bad and I barely stayed a day. I was very reluctant to just jump into a church again… knowing the politics of church, and knowing that Oregon could be even more conservative and exclusive (in parts, especially in religious parts) than Southern California.

Let me back up.

Youth Ministry has a few different sides to it. There is the programming side – where you plan fun activities and events, trips and camps. There is the teaching side of it, where you plan lessons and teach kids about the bible and Jesus and love and all that. And then there is the counseling side of it (or the mentoring side of it) – the relational side. The latter two were always what I was best at. Give me a student with a broken spirit, and I saw right into them. Make me teach a lesson – and I could do ok, but it was the connecting with students that made me feel the most alive. Especially the ones who no one paid any attention to…

And so when I thought about going back into Youth Ministry, I was very hesitant. Because of those other sides of it that I am not very good at.

And then something happened. A shift in the way I saw life happened.

I had a daughter, and a wife.
And then we were going to have another child. And then we bought a house.
And then we needed medical insurance.

And so I knew that it was time to get a better job that could provide. It was time to “work” – for the sake of making money. But more specifically, for the sake of raising a family and providing for them. I had a really hard time with it at first, because my heart was in the “important” job of youth ministry, of changing kids lives and giving them meaning and significance – and now all of the sudden I was staring at a computer screen for 8 hours a day and creating websites for companies and corporations. It felt very unimportant. I felt very worthless. Money has never been a convincing factor in my life, in terms of worth, so just because I was making money and providing, did not make me happy. In fact I was very unhappy.

And so I have been working… very, very, very hard… doing something I enjoy – but not something that makes me come alive. And I realized it again tonight, after the movie, that I was made to mentor teenagers. That there are very few people in the world who can respect, enjoy, and truly mentor teenagers. Let’s be honest, there are very few people who actually “like” teenagers. But I do. I always joke with Robin (it’s not really a joke) about how I can’t wait for our girls to be teenagers. And I’ll tell people that sometimes, and they will look at me like – are you f***ing crazy? And then they assume I just don’t know what teenagers are like… but I know exactly what they are like. And it doesn’t bother me in the least.

But back to my point here.

Where have I been these last 5 years.
I have been living, almost exclusively, for my family. For my daughters. I have, literally, given up my dreams and what makes me come alive so that I can provide for my wife and children. My oldest has medical issues, so we are always in need of good medical insurance. And I want to give my kids “freedom” – a safe place to grow up and tools to learn and discover. I want them to learn about art, music, and how to be creative. I’m not trying to be a millionaire, but I am doing what it takes to provide for them a future. And at the same time, the last three years I have been doing all that from home – in an attempt to try and be present for them when they are small and out of school. And it hasn’t been easy. It’s been really, really difficult. And I am really, burnt out.

But what I have learned is that… this is youth ministry. It doesn’t feel the same, and it’s definitely not always as fun as working with teenagers, but these are my kids. And this is what I must do for them right now.

But my heart yearns to get back into mentoring teenagers. There is nothing more valuable in life then noticing those who think no one notices. Nothing more valuable than looking in their eyes and listening to them go on and on about things that barely matter, but which matter so deeply to them, and just the simple act of listening blossoms them into something far more beautiful than they were before. I miss talking about nothing, laughing at silence, finding meaning in the meaningless, sharing meals, music, and stories. I miss adventures and discoveries… adolescence is one big adventure where you discover so many things about yourself. I miss opening those doors, and letting individuals see exactly how wonderful they are. I miss creating a safe place for teenagers to exist where they won’t be judged for their taste in music, their clothing, or the style of their hair, but instead they will be welcomed into an accepting landscape where they discover that they have worth in simple things, like their smiles. God I miss youth ministry. I don’t miss the church, not even a little bit. But I do miss the relationships.

And so I have been sojourning these last 5 years, through sometimes dark and frustrating times… and I am still journeying. I now work nearly 10 hour days Monday through Friday, and it pays well, and it gives us really good medical benefits – and that, right now, is what my family needs. So I will continue to provide. But I hope, and even pray, that this path would lead me to those fields of awkward relationships, where seeds blossom into beautiful flowers and mighty trees.

If you’re reading this – know that this was more for me than you. But thanks for getting this far, and if you get nothing else out of this – go see The Way Way Back… it was really good.

 

3 Replies to “The truth of why I left, and where I’ve been”

  1. Jim,

    Thank you for sharing all of this. It is really refreshing to read and I appreciate your willingness to be transparent and vulnerable.

    I can’t wait for your girls to make more friends, to grow older, and to start bringing more and more people home with them. You may not be involved in youth ministry in the traditional sense now, but I foresee you and Robin being a home with an open door to the friends and peers of your daughters. You will make more of an impact as a stable place for their friends to visit, to hang out, to experience mentorship, and to be loved on than you know.

    That open door is so incredibly vital and meaningful. I know that it is because of families like yours, people with your sense of heart and compassion, that helped save and guide my life.

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