For most of my childhood, my family moved around every 2 years. Sometimes it was within the same city, and then other times it was to a new city. It was awful. The part that made life easier during each of these moves was the fact that we were always active members of a church. My mother is a church organist, and we were always the first and last people at church for most events. Because we moved so much, the church has always been a safe place in which I felt welcomed and known.
The summer before my junior year in high school we moved from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Detroit, Michigan. It was hard on all accounts, and I was not happy with my parents. I struggled to fit in with teenagers who had been in school together since preschool and did not need a new friend in their last years of high school. The part that made all of this transition bearable was our church. Luckily, we found a wonderful church home not too long after the move. I had 3 previous youth ministers who were all wonderful, but this church was unique in that my youth minister, Gretchen, was (is) a female, and she would prove to be an integral part of my journey and calling.
I was (honestly still am) an introverted and shy teenager, and the move in the middle of my high school years did not help. Gretchen seemed to sense that I was struggling to fit in and listened. Her door was always open, and her office became a sanctuary for me. Over time, she saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. She seemed to sense that maybe ministry might be a good fit for me and offered me leadership opportunities within the youth group. I helped lead the middle school youth group time and she gave me a weekend in which I planned an entire youth retreat. What minister does that? She offered me so much trust. Gretchen saw me. She saw who I was and what I was capable of.
I think this is what youth ministry is. Seeing our students for who they are. Showing up for them with all of who we are so that we can invest deeply. It’s looking them in the eye and genuinely caring about what they are interested in. It’s sending a text checking in on someone, and it’s offering grace to those who have hit a rough patch in their journey. It’s offering time for meaningful conversation and deep belly laughs. It’s building a program that offers opportunities for faith-building, reflection, dreaming, laughing, and fellowship. It’s creating space for calling to be heard and felt. It’s reminding them who they are, who they belong to, and the deep grace God gives to all of us. It is the assurance that they are not alone. God sees them. We see them. God loves them.
Youth Ministry is a lot, and it requires a deep commitment. But moments when youth honestly engage their faith and each other are rewarding. It is my deepest desire that my youth felt seen by me, just as Gretchen did for me, and that they know how deeply they are loved by a God that walks alongside us and does not leave us alone.
Marnie Fisher-Ingram is associate pastor to youth and their families at River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Virginia.