The responsibility for a shared past and future

In the movie, Stepmom, a mom, Jackie (Susan Serandon) is dying of cancer, leaving her young children behind in the care of her ex-husband (Ed Harris) and his new wife, Isabel (Julia Roberts). In a poignant scene near the end of the movie, Jackie and Isabel discuss their children, in particular their teenage daughter. Jackie tells Isabel, “She doesn’t have to choose. She can have us both. Love us both. She’ll be a better person because of me… And you. I have their past and you can have their future.”

I’ve found myself thinking about this clip a lot in the past three weeks as I’ve transitioned out of the youth pastor role I’ve held for the last decade. What makes this transition unique is that I know my replacement. For at least the short-term, my former colleague (the congregation’s associate pastor, Joe) is going to lead our high school youth ministry.

What makes this even more unique is that Joe has served with me in a variety of ways for the last three years, first as our congregation’s intern and more recently as my colleague. I’ve mentored and discipled him and somewhere along the way, we became friends.

This puts the congregation in a (potentially) healthy position. I respect the person who’s replacing me and Joe respects me. I care deeply about these teens and congregation and want them to continue flourishing. I want Joe to succeed in his new role and new ministry and he wants to continue building off the foundation that was laid. 

And yet, this transition hasn’t been without it’s difficulties as we've wrestled with the question, "What does it look like for us to share teens that we both care about?"     

As I’ve been wrestling with this, I keep coming back to this scene from Stepmom, which feels so applicable to this scenario. I love the idea of each of us being valued; Of each of us having a part of this story. I have its past and Joe has its future. But practically speaking, what does it that look like?

The fact that I have its past means that I can and should…

• Treasure the shared experiences and memories I have with this particular group of teenagers.
• Share those stories with Joe in ways that will enable him to better understand the teens he’s now ministering to.
• Ask Joe about teens with whom I was close.
• Answer questions Joe asks.
• Continue discipling Joe, but only at his request and invitation.
• Connect with teens on their terms, when they invite me to do so.
• Affirm Joe and his leadership to those (teens, parents, and adult leaders) still involved in the congregation’s youth ministry.
• Speak highly of Joe.
• Direct criticism of Joe back to Joe.
Pray for Joe and the youth ministry.

The fact that I have their past also means that I cannot…

• Criticize Joe.
• Triangulate teens.
• Question Joe’s decisions.
• Attempt to prove what (or how much) I know about the ministry or those involved in it.
• Continue to “pastor” the teens that I loved and cared so deeply about now that I’m gone (even those with whom I was particularly close).

The fact that Joe has the ministry’s future means that he can and should…

• Value the past.
• Speak highly of me, my ideas, and time with the teens.
• Acknowledge the contributions I made to that ministry – both to me and parishioners.
• Allow teens to grieve (or feel whatever it is they’re feeling).
• Tell me when I’m overstepping.
• Utilize me as a resource when it’s helpful to do so.
• Ask clarifying questions about what he’s hearing rather than trusting everything he’s told.
• Look forward to the future.
• Change various aspects of the ministry to more effectively minister to teens and reflect his unique gifts.

At the same time, the fact that Joe has their future means that he cannot…

• Change the past.
• Prevent teens from talking to me.
• Erase me from the memories of teens (or the congregation).
• Criticize me.
• Attempt to prove how much better off the ministry is without me.

So often, one of the difficulties in transitioning a youth ministry from one leader to the next is that the pendulum swings from one type of ministry to another as parishioners seek to “correct” anything that’s made them unhappy during someone’s tenure. This often results in pitting two youth workers against another as teens (and those associated with a ministry) are (intentionally or unintentionally) forced to choose a team. Do they want to be part of Team Jen or Team Joe?

What Stepmom reminds us, however, is that teens don’t have to choose – especially when a congregation is in the situation my former one is. Instead, teens can have both Jen and Joe. They can love, value, and respect us each. And when we allow them to do just that, we set our teens and our congregation up for a healthy transition from one leader to the next.  

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, 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 the forthcoming 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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