Trimming the Fat

Last week, I met with an adult leader who is stepping down from serving in my youth ministry.

I wholeheartedly believe that it should be difficult for an adult to start serving in youth ministry but easy for him to stop serving. For this reason, I didn’t fight this leader, who we’ll call Steve, when he said he wanted to stop serving. Yet, our conversation left me heartbroken.

In the last year, Steve has lost the three things that mattered most to him: His job; His girlfriend; And his independence as his unemployment forced him to return to his parent’s home. Because of all this, one day, not long ago, Steve woke up and realized that he no longer believed in God. After all, how could a good and loving God allow allow this to happen to him?

Even more heartbreaking than that confession was the realization that followed. As Steve described it, churches are like businesses and so in times of hardship, they must “trim the fat” and eliminate those parts that are no longer contributing to it. Unemployed, Steve no longer contributes financially to our church and so he thinks of himself as part of this excess fat that must be trimmed from the church. What’s more, he’s also concluded that if he no longer shares everyone else’s belief about God, he has no place in our church, let alone in our youth ministry as an adult leader who’s supposed to be a role model to high school students.

As Steve told me this, I thought of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 9:10-13:

“As he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors & sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”“

As I reflected on this in light of my conversation with Steve, I couldn’t help but wonder, when did the mission of the church change? When did we stop being a place for sinners and start being a place only for people who have their act together? How have we, the church, given people this impression about us?

Because I know that I can’t convince someone in Steve’s mindset that God is good, I didn’t even try to do so. Instead, I simply tried to communicate God’s grace to him by inviting him to continue to serve in our youth ministry on the condition that he be honest with the youth about his doubts and about his crisis of faith.

I invited Steve to continue serving because I believe that the God I worship and serve is sovereign; That he’s big enough to deal with any and all of our doubts and failings and that he is faithful to us during them. Because of this, I’m not afraid to allow my students to see this play out in the lives of our leaders. In fact, I believe that seeing an adult leader wrestle with his doubts and come out on the other side of them is something that may actually provide students with the very best role model possible. Hopefully, if they can see adults successfully navigate this process, then when they’re faced with their own doubts and crises of faith, those things won’t be so devastating to their faith because they’ll have confidence that they too will be able to endure; They’ll know that God will meet them in the midst of their doubts and fears and that their church will support them.

Though Steve didn’t take me up on my offer to continue serving in our youth ministry, my prayer is that in the days and weeks ahead, he will discover God’s faithfulness and goodness anew & that our church will play a role in demonstrating this eternal truth to him. I pray that we can reclaim the church as a place for broken, weak, and imperfect people and that in doing so, Steve will discover his value to it and the church’s value to him.




Steve will be back because you never left him. Kindof a parallel to the relationship any of us has with Christ. And he’ll come back because he senses that this is a place where he can be strong. In the meantime, the other Steves out there are waiting to be asked to enter the opportunities of youth ministry.

Congratulations on both counts!

Posted by Bob, about 13 years ago


Jen I am glad that you wrote this blog. I often wonder about the changing of the mission of the church, and where we are when people leave, why aren’t we there fighting for them to come back, instead we are more often just watching them leave and saying a prayer for them. I think Steve will notice or remember that you wanted him to stay and that you offered him a chance when it seemed others didn’t. I agree with you in wanting your youth to see the reality and lives of your adult leaders. People who can be real, relate so well to our kids who are searching for the truth and someone who can be real with them.

Posted by Amanda, about 13 years ago

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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What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

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