Editor’s Note: This is the second in our short series “Married/Single in Youth Ministry.”
She and her cat, Phoebe, live in Fort Worth, Texas, where Casey is the Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church. Her parents, brother, and sister-in-law live in Tennessee, so they Skype a lot.
How long have you been in ministry?
Nine years (although sometimes disrupted by school)
How many churches/positions have you served in?
Technically six. Excluding summer internships and seminary field education placements, two.
How do you keep your personal life and your church life separate? If you’ve changed your strategy over the course of your ministry, what prompted the separation and how were you able to separate the two lives?
I got into youth ministry knowing that setting boundaries was going to be extremely difficult for me. I get invested in the people with whom I have been entrusted and I go all-in. With teenagers, that’s complicated further by the fact that they really can (and will) try to connect at any time. “Days off” (whatever that means!) aren’t usually going to be days off because the cell phone has to stay on. The challenge is that I want them to feel like they can reach out…that they can ask questions, tell me exciting news, ask me to pray for something that’s going on, or count on me to be there if they’ve gotten themselves into something and need help.
I have learned that if I’m going to be healthy, energized, and truly present with them, then I do need to make time that is mine. I am really good at just saying no when it comes to tasks. For the sake of my health, I can walk away from administrative work without much guilt. I can walk away from perfecting details of something and not lose much sleep over it anymore. But if a student makes contact, saying no is basically impossible for me. I would love to have a strategy, but I haven’t figured it out yet.
As a single person, is more expected of you? “You don’t have a spouse or kids to worry about, so why do you need to be at home? Why can’t you work longer hours?”
[When I was graduating from seminary, one of my mentors told me to get a dog before I started my first job out of school. A dog always needs to pee and if you’re going to be single in ministry, you’ll always need an excuse to get out of there. A dog that needs to pee is an excellent excuse. I don’t have a dog but I think this is awesome advice!]
I think I do this to myself. I’m not sure the expectations are as external as they are internal. I think there is something in me that says I can do more so I should do more. And I’m sure I am quicker to give in to that personal pressure because I don’t have the built-in excuse of a family waiting for me at home. So when I get the strong sense that I am losing my life to others’ expectations of my time, I claim what I need. Sometimes it can be as simple as planning to take half a day off after a particularly busy season. Sometimes it hits me hard and I will say out loud to whomever is around, “Yeah, it’s time for me to not be here.” (I usually reserve that move for my staff and some youth families.) And I’m blessed to have people who hold me accountable.
How do you keep from having all of your friendships at church?
I have some really meaningful friendships from the church. There are some youth parents and a couple volunteers/young adults with whom I can be candid. They have loved tremendously well and I have found security in those friendships. But I would say that sometimes, I don’t feel totally safe just *being Casey. *Sometimes it is just difficult to totally relax, which is often what I need more than anything. So while it is infinitely more challenging to make these outside friendships, I’m healthier when I’m both within *and* beyond the social reach of my congregation. The gym is a really great place to connect. I also recently got plugged into another local church young adult group. Throwing myself out of my default rhythm has been the best move for me.
How do you deal with the fact that all of your friends may be older than you?
My best friend at work is 85. I’m not joking. He’s easily the coolest person I’ve ever met…but he’s 85. We go to lunch as often as once a week. He gets one fried fish taco and spends around an hour and a half eating it. It’s amazing and oftentimes the hardest I laugh in a week. I’d like to meet another 28-year-old single woman for whom that is true. It’s weird. Additionally, I work on a large church staff of around 45 people. I think I’m one of five employees under 40. So while I’m friends with a lot of people on staff, we are certainly not walking through the same stage of life. I’m terribly grateful for my friendships at work. I’m grateful for the way my older friends love me. I’m blessed to be present with them, hear their stories, and benefit from their wisdom. So I guess I deal with this by choosing to be grateful for these friends, but not relying on them to be my only friends.
Is your personal life really ever your own? Or do you always feel the need to be “on guard?” In what way?
No. I wouldn’t say that my life is ever really my own. When I was 17, I sat in a monastery, wept, surrendered to a call that had been placed on my heart. I told God that I understood my life was no longer my own. So for the most part, that doesn’t really trouble me. I haven’t ever questioned the decision to surrender. Because I haven’t really ever known an adult life without youth ministry, I’m not sure how my life would be different outside of the fishbowl.
Emergencies aside, how do you handle times when church comes before personal time or family obligations? For instance, you’ve planned a reunion weekend with college buddies or a trip to see your family, but the senior pastor schedules a last minute meeting or event that you are required to attend.
I work for a senior pastor who, I feel like I can confidently say, both loves and respects me. So I guess I handle this by not working for someone who would put me in this situation. If I have made plans to do something that is important or good for me, I can’t imagine that I would be prevented from going for something that was last minute. I feel like I could comfortably say that I wasn’t going to be available and that would be OK. Again, working on a large church staff means that there is usually someone else who could be there in my place.
How do you date and maintain credibility with your youth and their parents? Some parents may see dating as questionable behavior even when there’s nothing serious going on.
I don’t think that has been an issue for me (partly because it hasn’t come up much here yet—wah!). But I can’t imagine that any of our parents would take any issue with me dating or being in a relationship. I think they want that for me. Yikes…they would probably be over-the-top excited. I really doubt I would lose credibility or respect.
Regardless of the likely support, I probably wouldn’t share too much with them. I don’t think it would be responsible to share the details of the ups and downs of dating. I don’t think it would be wise to let that many people (especially enthusiastic people!) into a relationship before it was meaningful or significant. I suspect I’d hold that pretty close until I thought there was enough foundation laid to withstand the force of my students and families. This would be to protect everyone—my students and their parents and the person with whom I was in a relationship and myself.
How do you fend off unwanted “prospects”? The mom who keeps telling you about her single nephew or the senior pastor who wants to introduce you to his granddaughter?
Honest answer? Sometimes I wish this would happen more than it does! I get a lot of “I should introduce you to _________,” but not a lot of follow-through. Because the church is so big, it probably wouldn’t feel as high-pressure if I actually did connect with someone that way. It would be way less personal and overwhelming than in a small church where everyone knows everyone and everyone is watching. I’m not sure how I would handle that.
Youth ministers (and all of those in ministry roles) are expected to maintain a certain level of belief without doubt, to love their jobs and the kids to whom they minister, and to be happy that they are able to have a job in which all you do is worship God and love kids. How do you deal with that “happiness” myth and with the reality that sometimes this is not the job you thought you wanted? That you’re never able to truly leave work at work?
Wow. If all I did was worship God and love kids, my life would be the coolest!
I think when we decide to go into youth ministry, we picture ourselves speaking in front of rooms of captivated students, sitting and praying with a student who has just found out her parents are getting divorced, playing games full throttle, encouraging seniors who are about to graduate and enter a new stage of life, supporting parents who are struggling to connect to their children, cheering at band concerts/games/recitals/plays, sitting with a student when he is too devastated to speak, talking to a students who think they are being called into youth ministry. This is the dream. These are the things we really live for. And my life is filled with a lot this!
But I also spend a lot of time on paperwork, meetings, e-mails, phone calls from the frustrated and disappointed. I’m updating the website, cleaning up messes, and doing damage control. I’m going back and forth between how things have *always been* and how I dream they *could be*. I’m hoping I don’t say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And I’m always wondering if anything is sticking!
But here’s what I know: God called me. I have never questioned that. The church isn’t perfect and I will have tough days. But my life has been set apart and I have the joy of spending it walking alongside teenagers in arguably the most overwhelming and intense time of their lives. I have the responsibility of helping them make these years great and memorable and safe. I get to see their faces when they realize for the first time that they are desperately loved by God. I get to know them at their best (and their worst!). I get to imagine who they will become and what God is going to do with their lives. I get to pray with them and for them. I get to be a youth minister.
I guess I’m not sure I’m ever not working. I also don’t know how to measure that. They are always in my head. They are always on my heart. But God gave me this head and this heart and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it. No, it’s not always fun. Sometimes it’s heart-breaking. And it’s more-than-sometimes lonely. But I am called. And I know that matters. So I deal with it by remembering. I remember who I am. I remember being 17 and saying “yes.” I remember I the moments when I have seen them living out God’s love. I remember their faces and I see Jesus in them. I remember that my life kind of is the coolest.
And sometimes I just call my mom.
Any other advice for fellow single youth ministers?
It seems crazy that I would be giving other single youth ministers advice because I’m absolutely sure that I could be navigating this so much better.
I guess I would just say to take care of yourselves. Make sure someone is pouring into you. Find a time and a place to worship during which you have no responsibilities. Carve out Sabbath each week (or each day!). Exercise (preferably not at a gym that specializes in senior water aerobics). Sleep however much you need to each night so that you can function well each day. Remember that you are a whole person regardless of your relationship status. Pray. And please call me or email me and remind me that I said all of this because by tomorrow, I will have forgotten.
Check out the links below for the other articles in our short series “Married/Single in Youth Ministry.”
Married in Youth Ministry: The Newlyweds
Single in Youth Ministry: Her View
Married in Youth Ministry: With a Minivan and a Mortgage
Single in Youth Ministry: His View
Married in Youth Ministry: The Veterans