The Complaint Letter

Lead 800

We were on the way back from a junior high retreat when it happened. 

We began complaining about everything we disliked about our church. 

Of course, our view was unique. 

We were, after all, only in 6th - 8th grade; I was an awkward 7th grader. 

Our list of complaints was long, ranging from the disgusting state of the acolyte robes to a Christian Ed Director we were frustrated with to feeling as though we largely lacked a voice within our church.

In a moment of empowerment or exasperation (I'm not sure which), the associate pastor of our church (who ran the youth ministry and happened to be driving the van), said: “If you're not happy with those things, you should write a letter and give it to the senior pastor and I. Tell us what would make church better for you.”

So we did.

That night, I penned a letter to our senior pastor. The next day, most in our junior high ministry signed it. We then distributed it to our senior pastor, our associate pastor, and everyone else we named in the letter.

The response was immediate.

The senior pastor called, assuring me that of course, our teens mattered to our congregation.

Meetings ensued as we worked together to make changes in our church.

Such was my first foray into church leadership and more generally, into leadership of any kind.

It was an experience that taught me about the power of the written word and about the power of action.

It also taught me that risk is an inherent part of leadership.

I still remember the one boy in our youth ministry who refused to sign the letter, fearing we were all going to get in massive trouble.

My 7th grade self – a perpetual do-gooder and rule-follower – feared the same thing. Yet, what I was advocating for was so important to me that the chance to be heard outweighed the fear of getting in trouble.

Years later, after I, too, became an adult, I learned how much fallout our associate pastor endured because of our letter. Yet, she, too, was willing to take a risk because she believed we mattered to the church, not just in the future, but right then. She stuck her neck out for us and stood by us, something I hope I now do for the youth in my ministry.

As I look back at this experience now – as a youth pastor myself – I also know that that day, on the car ride home from our retreat, I learned that leadership is meant to be shared; That the best leaders empower others.

Not too long ago, I ran across my copy of what we now affectionately call “The Complaint Letter”. Reading through it, I could still feel the passion I did in that moment.

Some might say this experience was an exercise in consumerism; Something that taught us at an early age that the church is there to provide for our needs. 

But I think the exact opposite is true. 

Far from teaching me to consume, this experience taught me to get involved in order to make things better. 

For it was on the way home from a junior high retreat, through the process of writing a letter, getting my peers to sign it, and then working with our church leadership to facilitate changes, that I first learned how to lead. 

Today, I'm linking up with SheLoves to share what it means to lead. 

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

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