Leave it up to Marvel’s Thor to put an esoteric concept from ancient Norse mythology on the tongue of every 13-year old within 100 miles of me. In actual Norse legend, Ragnarök is an apocalypse the heroes know is certainly coming – and if they don’t do something, no one will make it out alive. (Of course, whenever I get to the theater, I have no doubt Chris Hemsworth and a certain CGI monster will once again stave off the end of the world.)
Every youth minister has a Ragnarök.
Anyone who’s been in youth work for any length of time knows it’s hard. We often work with more expectation and less support or understanding than any other part of the church. As a result, youth workers can often accumulate a sort of ‘ministry-PTSD,’ a sense that no matter how good things are, the proverbial shoe will drop at any time. For some, this fear takes the form of a secret sin or spiritual doubt being made public, while others recoil at the thought of a certain parent’s damaging criticism or the revelation that church leaders don’t actually have your back the way they always said they would.
A youth minister’s Ragnarök is always there – an unspoken anxiety, a dread that infects how safe you feel, how much you trust, and what you’re willing to risk in ministry. Sometimes I think I’ve accumulated enough scars over the years that even when I find myself in an incredibly healthy ministry situation, I flinch at the slightest hint of conflict or failure. Pray for me. But I think, slowly, I am healing, and part of that journey has been remembering two key things:
1. I can’t stop Ragnarök from coming.
I’m not Jesus, and while victory over sin and death is certain, I’m not presently doing ministry in the New Jerusalem. We deal with some of the most unpredictable beings on the planet, and their parents, on a day-to-day basis. No sized church staff, budget, or ministry model can give us the level of power we require to hold back the Fall in the lives of our students and their families. And this doesn’t even factor in the reality that I am a sinner, and that anything I do in ministry and life is also tinged with the truth that in my selfishness, I don’t want the reign of sin and death to be completely ended – only subdued, minus my own sins that are allowed to trickle through.
All this challenges the ministry idol of control – that if we could put in enough work and preparation, or if we had the resources, the training, the volunteers, or anything else, we’d be able to stop the sin and suffering of those under our care… and ultimately, of ourselves. But we can’t, which means that whatever they are, difficult things will arise in our ministries that will hurt deeply.
I learned this lesson by vowing, each time I moved to start at a new church, that ‘this time’ I would do better. Not only did I exhaust myself trying to prepare for the infinite number of difficulties that could possibly arise, but I would always be blindsided by something I couldn’t prepare for.
Of course, there is wisdom in preparation. I save receipts, craft child protection policies, train volunteers, keep a list of counselors on my computer, and communicate with my senior pastor as much as possible. But rather than manically doing these things in a misguided attempt to limit my own ministry pain, I’m trying to shift my mindset, to prepare for the suffering of ministry, rather than preparing to avoid it.
I’m spending more of my time these days focusing on my own spiritual health. I thinking about getting into counseling before I start drowning, I’m finding a community of friends who can help hold me up, and I’m learning strategies to cope with my anxiety. If I don’t do these things, the stress of fearing that ministry difficulties could descend at any moment wears me down, eroding my trust in my Savior and sometimes even creating the environment – a tired, stressed, overworked, worried, frustrated youth pastor – where disaster actually flourishes.
2. It doesn’t matter if it all burns down anyway.
Wait… what!?! Of course it does. Our ministries are in real places, and made up of real people. Whatever difficulties come, we are tasked with caring for people, and we would be negligent if we didn’t long for God to have mercy on those we love. Again, there is deep wisdom in properly ministering to people in ways that do not give the enemy a foothold (Ephesians 4:27).
Rather, I’m referring to the fact that your sense of identity, worth, and righteousness cannot come from the hypothetical stability of your program, or from your thus-far ability to dodge ministry landmines. I’m sorry to tell you – it’s completely possible up to this point that you have simply had easy kids with easy parents. It doesn’t mean you’re God’s favorite. Rather, regardless of how much chaos you’re swimming in, you are God’s favored child because you are his treasured possession, sharing (because of the grace of Jesus) in His own inheritance (Ephesians 1:11). Whether you work with students for 5 months or 50 years will not change that.
I recently transitioned into a new church, in a different city. Because of the miracle/curse of social media, I am already able to see what aspects of my ‘legacy’ are burning down. If I associate God’s love for me with the size of my castle walls, I’m doomed.
So do me a favor – figure out ways of reminding yourself this. Put a sticky note on your computer. Take a Sabbath day of rest when you know it will mean something will not get done. Call up a fellow youth worker and tell them God loves them no matter what, rather than asking them how their program is doing. Because in some ways, it doesn’t matter.
Ragnarök is coming. But Jesus has come, and will come again. And that makes all the difference.