Saturday, January 16, 2016

i'm not going to tennessee today.



Today is the day we leave for Tennessee...except we're NOT.

Because I don't live in Florida anymore. Because the kids who I poured into and traveled with for five years aren't mine anymore. Because I'm not their youth pastor anymore.

This reality is hard on a daily basis. It's been almost a year and I still miss them with all my heart. But it's a reality made even harder on special days, like this one. The day we're not going to Tennessee.


I spent seven years with the same kids, five as their youth pastor, and in those five years we traveled...A LOT. Seventeen times, to be exact. And those are just the out-of-state, more-than-one-night trips. We also went camping and to camp, overnight beach and concert trips, and trips with just leaders. Some trips were with organizations and some we organized. Five of those trips were a high-school only conference* in Pigeon Forge this third weekend of January, when the kids have an extra day or two off of school.We went from traveling with ten students and leaders in 2011 to forty by 2013. That's just shy of 100% of our high school students. Amazing. Tennessee became THE trip of the year.

Traveling with the kids was no doubt my favorite part of the job. It's not a surprise, really. As a kid, my favorite computer "game" was my dad's Rand McNally Map Maker CD-ROM. It was basically MapQuest or Google Maps before the internet was a thing. My favorite Christmas gift was a kid's atlas that I highlighted, marked up, and paged through until the glossy red cover fell off. My dad traveled a lot for work and I grew up in a family that took a lot of vacations together. As a young adult I moved across the country, ensuring much travel back and forth. Somehow travel became part of my DNA, a core value, and though it was subconscious at first, that DNA also became part of my youth group.

At first it might seem selfish, because gallivanting across the country costs time and money and the camp-high lasts about a week. It's so much prep work, time off work, coordinating of schedules and meals and drivers and rooms. Is it really worth it?

YES.

It is so worth it.

I have this "theology of travel" that I've been thinking through the last couple months. It's dawned on me that so many youth pastors DON'T travel much with their students. A "big" trip is heading an hour away for a weekend. When I tell them I took forty people on a fourteen-hour roadtrip, they look at me in panic. (I don't even tell them about the time we took two days and drove all the way from Florida to Michigan). It has caused me to ask: why the panic?

In talking with some of my students ministry friends, I've discovered three common reasons** why youth pastors don't travel:

1) They're lazy. Planning a trip is a TON of work. Repeat: A TON OF WORK. It is a daunting task! From picking a trip to setting payment deadlines to coordinating schedules and planning every detail, it really is overwhelming. But since when is it okay to be scared of a ton of work?! Recruit volunteers and leaders to help with the details. Make a timeline of when things need to be done...looking at each individual component of a trip is so much easier to handle than the whole thing at once! In my humble opinion, there is just no room for laziness in ministry. Stop putting it off, balance your schedule, and find time to plan.

2) Cost. Yes, trips cost money. Camps, mission trips, conferences...all $$$. So cost can be an obstacle...or it can be an opportunity to get creative. Fundraisers are your friends, as are generous people just waiting to be asked. And a trip doesn't have to cost a fortune...with some effort, you can pull off your own low budget retreat (but you'll have to get over hurdle #1 for that). I think cost can so quickly become another excuse to be lazy and not plan anything, when instead it should just be a known thing that we need to creatively figure out.

3) They don't know how. So you've moved past lazy and you're not letting cost hold you back...but where do you start? That might just be the hardest part. No doubt your mailbox is full of flashy flyers and you're bombarded daily with potential events. But once you've selected your trip, it's time to get down and dirty in the details BUT LIKE HOW?!? My solution to that is a few paragraphs below :)

Y'all, I've been in ministry for years. I've felt the shadow of excuses and pushed past them. Why? Because travel matters. Here's why:

1) It's biblical. Ok, there is no verse (that I know of) that says, "Thou shalt travel with thy youth group or the Lord shall smite thee." But read your Bible and look at all the freaking travel that happens ALL. THE TIME. The Israelites? They casually travelled through the desert for 40 years (which I don't recommend for your next trip, btw). Paul, Timothy, and other believers and preachers traveled regularly. Yes, the intent of their trips was to teach the Gospel, but I've got to believe they did an awful lot of learning as they encountered new people and cultures. Oh and then there's this Jesus guy and his disciples...remember the sermon he gave telling people to "go and make disciples"? those two letters - GO - are huge. Again, they were to go for the purpose of making disciples, but don't you also think maybe "going" had to do a bit with the way their own souls would be touched through travel?

2) A fresh perspective. One of my favorite quotes (because of its complete truth in my life) by Mark Batterson is this: "change of pace + change of place = change of perspective." There is something to be said about what happens in your soul when you get out of your every day sameness and open your eyes to the world around you. It's why I never let my kids take cell phones and other electronics with them on our trips. Remember that verse about "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also"? I want to challenge what they treasure. Sometimes that means complete removal from "normal." Every trip they complain for about ten minutes, and then by the end of the week they THANK me for the break. They are slaves to their cell phones, unbeknownst to them until they are forced to go without. Life is slower when they are not trying to capture every moment for Snapchat, and they are there in the moment, really living. It's a change of pace.

We mix it with a change of place for so many reasons. I love providing an experience for my kids that they otherwise would never have. For many of my kids, our trips were their first time out of Florida, their first time on an airplane, their first time away from their parents, their first time seeing snow. It's almost magical to be able to experience that joy when they pick up that first handful of fluffy white powder. They meet new people and experience new cultures and laugh at different accents. Most of our trips were to the mountains, and I think there is something sacred about that as well. Noah's ark came to rest atop a mountain. It was on a mountain where God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments. God chose a mountaintop to spare Isaac, blessing Abraham with the promise of numerous descendants. Jesus' most well-known teaching is titled "the Sermon on the Mount," and it was on a mountain that he ascended to heaven. Mountains dotted the topography of the entire Bible. The songwriters and prophets alluded to them time and again. There has to be something there, right? I guess I really can only speak for myself, but I find mountains to be a thin place, one of those "rare locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses." It's in hiking to a waterfall or summiting a giant mountain that God is the most real to me.

A change of pace and place combine to change perspective, and isn't that what we all need? A reminder that our life and struggle are momentary, that there are people and places out there beyond just what we know, and that this God who holds it all together loves us so, so much.

3) R-E-L-A-T-I-O-N-S-H-I-P-S. Written like that for intentional emphasis, because something magical happens at about hour 6.5 on I-75. When you cram that many people into mini-vans for hours at a time, fueled by Taco Bell and 5 Hour Energy, with no electronics or entertainment but each other...it's magical. Perfect. Hilarious. LOUD. But so, so beautiful. The conversations we have in the vans, hotel rooms, tents, small group times, and hikes are beyond anything that happens in the normal 2-3 hours a week on Wednesdays or Sundays that we spend with our students. We even used to pick up friends in South Carolina and Atlanta because why not? Relationships. And it's not just students bonding with students. They also see leaders let their guards down, acting crazy, drinking way too much Mountain Dew in their Star Wars jammies. What's so cool is that those relationships LAST. You go back home with everyone you experienced this trip with (hopefully! Remember that time Hunter almost didn't make it home?!). So these relationships don't just last a week and then exist only in the sphere of social media; they are relationships that exist as long as these students and leaders are in that ministry (and possibly beyond). And finally, leaders bond with leaders. Many of my best Florida friendships came out of youth trips...kind of crazy.

Obviously this is not a conclusive list. I didn't even touch on the spiritual transformation that happens during a well-programmed retreat. I hope that is a given, and my focus in writing this is kind of on everything else, but it can't be totally ignored. The opportunity to worship with hundreds or thousands, to hear incredible and inspiring messages from difference voices...these are all things I couldn't give my kids if we never left Lakeland. The speakers may say the same thing I've been telling them for years, but sometimes you need to hear it from someone else for it to really sink in. My favorite trip memories are sitting around the fire in Ohio, and sitting on the steps in Michigan, with everyone just kind of at a loss for words to explain the feeling God had placed in their hearts. Thoughts came out as tears, and those tears said more that words ever could.

This has gotta come to a wrap, but it's hard because I could probably go on FOREVER with reasons why youth groups need to travel together. Like I said in the beginning, traveling became part of the DNA of my youth group while I was there. Having these experiences created memories and traditions that the kids still talk about. Our travels were life-shaping experiences, and as I look at my former students growing through the years, I can point out specific changes in each of them that resulted from one of our trips together.

If you're a youth pastor reading this, please consider taking your kids somewhere this summer. Actually don't even consider it...just do it. I will help you. I mentioned earlier that I had a solution for youth pastors who don't even know where to begin planning. That solution is www.shotgunkatie.com.   If you click that link, it will bring you to a website I'm still working on, but just really feel like tonight is the night to launch it and just throw my big audacious idea out there to y'all. I'm so passionate about kids and leaders taking trips that I want to offer you my knowledge and skills to help make that happen. I'll walk with you through the steps, give you packing lists, let you know the forty-seven things you haven't thought of but probably should. An incredibly wise volunteer leader once told me that my job on a youth trip [as the youth pastor] was simply to care for the spiritual lives of my students. I want you to be able to feel that, instead of stressing over every single detail. Shotgun Katie is me riding shotgun, helping you navigate your trip. I'll explain the name more later. I really don't have a plan for it, any idea how it's going to work...I just know it's been on my mind for a long time and I want to help as many of you as I can. So when the website is for real up and running, I'll let you know, but for now please email me (sarj47@gmail.com)! I would love to tackle your questions, share ideas, and help you every step of the way as we intentionally create a meaningful experience for your kids.

So that's all. Sorry not sorry I was long winded, but preachers gotta preach, you know? Little 9-year-old Sarah is still alive in my heart, clutching her map-making CD ROM. Are you with me?


*Shout out to our friends at the Scott Dawson Evangelistic Association for putting on Strength to Stand year after year. You're incredible, your conference is quality, and there are so many reasons we kept coming back. And AtlantaFest in June was a DREAM. (CIY, we LOVE you too! Mix, Move, and Believe have been pivotal formation points in my students' faith journeys. (Sorry about the time they broke curfew and your entire team AND campus security had to look for them.))

**Are there more than 3? Yes! Do youth pastors sometimes not have control over decisions like this? Sadly, yes! These are just the most common I've heard...feel free to add your own in the comments below.

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901west, I miss you. I miss holding our rocks in our right hands and not letting go and not crossing our arms and toilets flushing to set the mood. I miss stacks of pizza crusts 16 inches high. Victoria, I know your secret. Slim Jims. Peeing on the side of road...but not really. Meeting every one of our favorite rap artists. Falling on my butt 17 times because I am not a good hiker (thanks Little Sarah for always having my back). Catching fireflies. Being very, very close to getting kicked off an airplane. Breakdancing resulting in my pulled hamstring. That rental BMW swag. Prank calls. Foot charades. FUDGE POPS. And why do we ALWAYS have to deal with some sort of INSANE storm?! Roxanne the mini-van and the Vanpire Diaries. And Tuesday night. Forever and always, Tuesday night <3

Mark, Beth, Shelli, Kristi, Brent, Erika, Julie, Michael, Trevor, Josh, Pam, Rhena, Jordyn, Chris, David, Ryan, Phil, Lou, Katie, Amy, Eric, & Cathy - thanks for being student ministry rock stars and giving up your cozy beds for hotel floors and sorry excuse for a mattress in a dormitory. I love how you love students.

Julie, Jasen, Mike, Kim, Sam, John, Saul, Sharon, Heather, John, Mark, Lisa, Craig, Susie, Bobbi Jo, Eric, Steve, Lacy, David, Amy, Brent, Tina, Josh, Jessica, Wes, Marlena, Derrick, Jenna, Barb, Cathy, Jim, Marnie, Jay, Mark, Ruth, Bill, Emily, Michelle, Kym, Shawn, Kevin, Rhena, Brian, Kristi, Pam, Bob, David, Kim, April, Karl, Lori, Emily, Sean, Terry, Nancy (and 14 I no doubt forgot) - sometimes it still blows my mind that you just let your kids get in a van with me and hit the highway. You're so cool. Thanks for trusting me with the most precious things in your life.

And mostly: Jenn, Cody, Deborah, Caleb, Katie, Jordan, Kayla, Tyler, Wayde, Jordan, Cody, Kirstin, Katie, Alayna, Missy, Stephanie, Alex, Sam, Jean, Marcus, Eil, Sarah, Ashtyn, Taylor, Tanner, Ashley, Krista, Kandace, Judy, Justin, Sam, Alex, Libby, Ryan, Abby, Tatum, Matt, Aly, Eddie, Lucas, Nixie, Victoria, Rachael, Kari, Robbie, Abigail, Kassidy, Caleb, Arthur, Kara, Hannah, Holly, Josh, and Taylor - my heartbeat. You are my favorite travel companions both on the road and in life.

"There's a river rippling a whisper, the crickets sing their song to the trees. A place like this will sink down in your soul and you're only gonna want more. It's times like these that make you wanna slow to a creep, that make you want to breath in deep, real deep. It's times like these that make you sing 'I wanna believe there'll be more times like these." -Jake Ousley, Times Like These

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