by Sarah Arthur
It’s Sunday morning and my toddler has a fever. Again. For the fourteenth time this winter. Clingy, sweaty, he hovers by my thigh as I dial one parent after another. All the usual volunteers are unavailable. Someone has to be on hand at the last minute to sub for me back in the youth room because there’s no way I can put this kid in the nursery—not until I know if it’s just another molar or if he’s really sick and contagious. And with his father preaching two services, his grandparents hours away, and everyone else I know involved in making church happen, I’m stuck.
I’m just about to cancel youth Sunday school when Chuck, one of the parents, answers the phone. “Sure, I can sub,” he says cheerfully. He’s never actually led the lesson before, but we rattle off the names of some others who can help him, and within minutes we have a plan. But deep down I’m feeling guilty that, once again, parenting a small child has trumped my commitment to the teens of our congregation.

Shifting Gears

It hasn’t always been this way. I served in full-time youth ministry for seven years, first as a single young woman fresh out of college, and then as a young married woman with a husband on staff at the same church. We never had so much as a dog to worry about when I’d leave for a weekend retreat or a week-long mission trip. I was tired and stressed, but by and large I was available to any teenager, any time.
I eventually shifted careers to writing and speaking about youth ministry, taking a few years off for seminary, but I continued to volunteer in whatever church God planted us. Someone was needed to lead confirmation? I signed up. Chaperone a winter retreat? No problem. Barring some major deadline or family crisis, you could count on me.
And then came Baby #1. I had just eased into volunteering at our new church, so it wasn’t hard to take a few months off. But soon it became clear that in the ever-changing non-schedule of life with an infant, the last person the youth could count on was me. I was lucky some Sundays to make it to church at all. Micah nursed relentlessly, a practice to which I was not about to subject a roomful of squirmy middle-school boys. A few months turned into the rest of the school year, during which I felt like I lost all traction, all connection with the kids I had begun getting to know.
By fall, as Micah grew less dependent and his schedule more solid, I felt confident enough to join the rotation of leaders again. I even took on some administrative roles, helping coordinate events and train other volunteers. But even these familiar tasks, once so effortless, suddenly took massive amounts of energy and planning. I led more than one parent meeting with a sick child strapped to my back in the carrier because I had forgotten, somehow, that of course my husband couldn’t pick Micah up from the church nursery: he was leading the baptism class. I helped with more than one weekend youth event only because of the graciousness of my parents or other loving friends, who rearranged their schedules weeks in advance and traveled many long miles to help us out.

Adjusting Expectations

I know I’m not alone. Demographically, most youth leaders fall squarely within childbearing years, which means that a fair number of us are pushing strollers while talking mission trip logistics on a cell phone. I once keynoted for a large youth event in Montana, hauling around a breast pump, while the event coordinator snuck off every few hours to nurse her six-week-old daughter. Both of us cried more than once.
We are young, yes, but we do not have endless resources of energy. And parenting young children can take the last little bit that our churches and teens haven’t already. And yet, in the midst of sleeplessness and bodily ick and the gnawing feeling that we are shouldering all of these responsibilities badly, there are some opportunities for growth, both in ourselves and in our youth ministries.
First, people understand that this is only for a season. It may feel endless to you right now, but the youths’ parents and other parishioners are all too aware of how fleeting this time is in your life. Pretty soon, they warn with a wagging finger, that kid will be taking off with the car keys. In the meantime, people are willing to give you grace, recognizing that your lateness and lack of preparation are circumstantial and temporary, not some permanent flaw in your character. Accept their graciousness and relax.
Second, this is an opportunity to delegate. When I called Chuck to see if he could sub at the last minute, he had the chance to explore a role he hadn’t played before—and he was great. Not long after that, we put him on the regular teaching rotation. If it hadn’t been for my son’s fever, I might never have thought to recruit this enthusiastic dad for a dedicated youth ministry position.
Third, interacting with your child may be one of the few intergenerational experiences teens have all week. In our age-segregated society, teens rarely interact with anyone outside of their social groups except immediate family, teachers, and coaches. So to be handed a baby at youth group may be just the experience they need to jolt them out of their narrow mode, to see the world from someone else’s perspective for once. They don’t have to enjoy it. Heck, you don’t even enjoy it some of the time. But it can broaden their perspective.
Fourth, teens are more gracious than we think. When it became clear that my van for the four-hour drive to the winter retreat would include a cranky toddler, I was surprised and relieved that the kids assigned to my vehicle were delighted. In fact, I couldn’t have made the trip without them. They gave my son snacks, read him books, and picked up the toys he threw on the floor. And when he needed to nap, rather than complain that they had to be quiet, they put in their earbuds and crashed too.
Fifth, it is good for your child to interact with teenagers. Again, in our age-stratified culture, apart from extended family and the occasional sitter, your toddler might never know a teenager by sight, much less by name. In our church, Micah observes teens playing in the band, helping with media, serving communion, and sitting with their families in worship. He knows that I help with “the big kids.” At one point he became obsessed with the 18-year-old drummer, Gaelen. As I was putting Micah to bed one night, rehearsing the usual, “Mommy loves you, and Daddy loves you,” he looked at me earnestly and said, “Goowen.” I nodded. “Yes, and Gaelen loves you, too.” Not only does Micah have models for how to follow Jesus as a young man, but he is assured that teens are integral expressions of a loving Christian community.
Finally, you don’t always have to be a hipster. I know I’m hitting on a touchy spot for many of us, that place where we haven’t quite let go of our need for teen acceptance. Call it a hangover from our own middle school days, but the fact is most of us pay very close attention to our wardrobes, our hairstyles, our overall presentation when around youth. And let’s face it: diaper bags are not cool. The burp rag on your shoulder—assuming you remembered to bring one—smells foul, and so do the stains on your formerly awesome U2 360° Tour T-shirt. But the good news is, teens don’t need you to be a hipster in order for them to experience Jesus. They need your presence, your loving attention, your commitment to living the way of Christ. And you can do all of those things—even if it’s not as well as you would like for a time—with young children in tow.
I’m currently writing this while expecting Baby #2. Tomorrow I chaperone our teens for 30 hours of a massive youth event at the nearby university arena. In addition to be hugely, awkwardly pregnant, I will have to pee multiple times an hour. I’m not even going to pretend to be a hipster. But something tells me the youth will understand.
Sarah Arthur is a fun-loving speaker and the author of numerous books, including the award-winning youth resource Walking with Bilbo: A Devotional Adventure through The Hobbit. Her most recent book is the devotional memoir Mommy Time: 90 Devotions for New Moms, reflecting on the first three months of motherhood. A youth ministry veteran of over fifteen years, she has a Masters of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, where she wrote her thesis on youth confirmation. When she isn’t chasing a preschooler around the house, she can be found volunteering in youth ministry at Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Mich., where her husband, Tom, is pastor.