About 12 years ago I innocently walked up to the volunteer table in the lobby of our church and offered to help out with youth group. I thought it would be a fun thing to do for a while – hang out with teenagers, lead group discussions, and maybe have a sleepover or two. I figured I’d do it for a couple years and then try something else. I mean, no one commits 12 years to a ministry right? You’d be INSANE to spend that long in student ministry right? RIGHT?
Here’s the thing about student ministry; you need to be all in if you want it to matter. I’m the type of person who jumps in with both feet. That means that there were times I laughed so hard my sides hurt (and maybe one time I actually choked and threw up.) Conversely, there were times that I cried, was angry, had my feelings hurt, and wanted to quit. You really don’t get one without the other. With the ups and downs, the 12 years I spent as a volunteer and church staff member were the happiest years of my life.
There does come a day, though, when you know it’s time to step down. Contrary to what Def Leppard wants us to believe it’s not, in fact, better to burn out than fade away. You should know when the time is right to let someone else take your place. And, if you don’t know, the people around you do and are probably dropping hints like Acme anvils. I knew it was time for me to go and didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I wanted to be Derek Jeter, not A-Rod (If you’re not a baseball fan you won’t get that but I’m not sorry because you should be a baseball fan)
So, I said good bye and cried a lot and headed off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.
The thing is though, that didn’t happen. Let me tell you what did happen. I led my last mission trip and then unretired like Brett Favre because my students begged me to. Then, I led another trip the next summer, then I hosted a house group. And you know what else, it turns out students, leaders and parents don’t care that I’m retired and still constantly text and call me. I meet for coffee and go to college sporting events and talk parents in off the ledge when everything seems to be falling apart. I run into kids where they work and get quick hugs and I reassure college students that they are smart and strong and are loved by me and their Heavenly Father. I snuggle the babies of leaders when they watch my daughter play volleyball. I attend weddings and funerals and graduations. So much for retirement.
It turns out student ministry is relational…as in relationships…as in with people. And so, I’m still all in and wouldn’t have it any other way. These are my people and I love them and those kids are my kids and if you mess with them I’ll break your face. So, I guess that means I’m semi-retired? To be honest, it feels like trying to retire from the mafia – a good, friendly, spirit-filled mafia. You wouldn’t understand unless, of course, you spent 12 years in student ministry, in which case, well, you know all about it.
Christina Thelen has been serving in student ministry for 12 years. When she isn’t hanging out with students she can usually be found planning epic events or posting photos to her dog’s Instagram account.