by Mary Beth Bernheisel
I never intended to go into youth ministry.
I mean, I did at one time. During my third year of seminary I served a church in a dual capacity, both as the pastoral intern and as the youth pastor. One year squelched any desire to do youth ministry ever again. It was pretty clear that although I enjoyed being in a youth group as a young person, my gifts did not lie in providing youth ministry services.
I didn’t even think about youth ministry again until a few years ago when I got a phone call out of the blue. A local church pastor in my new location wanted to hire a program director with primary oversight of youth ministry. My name had come up.
“Thank you so much for calling me! But I don’t do youth ministry.”
He talked me in to interviewing with the personnel committee, but halfway through the interview I called the whole thing off—politely of course. I told them that I had very young children at home and that I couldn’t provide the depth of relationship that their youth deserved. Long story short, I ended up taking the job anyway. And now I am finishing my third year serving at a different church where my primary responsibility is youth ministry. Not only that, but I’m enrolled in a D.Min. program focused on ministry to children and youth.
How did I get here?
First of all, I learned that whenever I say, “I’ll never do that again,” I’ve pretty much sealed my fate. I can count on the fact that I will do it again.
Second, I learned that in order to be effective in youth ministry, or in any ministry, you simply have to make yourself and your gifts available to God and then offer your very best.
I think my biggest concern as a woman in youth ministry is that I’d never seen a woman in youth ministry. My youth minister growing up was a single male, old enough to be very responsible and thoughtful, but still cool enough to be, well, cool. In my head, the most effective youth minister would have to fit that mold, or at least be only one or two standard deviations from the norm. To be a mom pushing 40 was, well, not quite the picture I had in mind of “Cool Youth Minister.”
Just a few weeks ago I met with the Memphis Conference Board of Ordained Ministry for ordination interviews. One of my interviewers asked about the integrity of being a woman in ministry. I didn’t understand what she was asking at first, but when she clarified her question I understood.
What I said was this: My roles as a wife and mother, and my identity as a woman, aren’t liabilities in my ministry to and with youth. They simply make me who I am. I can get knocked around in a pickup basketball game as well as any guy youth pastor, but I am also free to be maternal. I used to think. “These kids all have moms. They don’t need another one.” And they don’t. But I’m not here to be their mother, I’m here to be their pastor. And if I do that using my gifts as a nurturer, then so be it.
And I’ve found that no one has ever gotten hung up about me being a “woman youth pastor” except for me. My youth tell me everything about their lives and they share their secrets. We laugh together about funny memes and dance together when the music plays. We take funny selfies and play lots of games. They dare me to add funny phrases to my sermons and sometimes I take the dare. When I need to be with my children instead of them, well, they get that too.
Being the woman youth pastor has shown me the richness of God’s grace by allowing me to be surrounded by compassionate young people who are simply grateful to share life with me. They are grateful that I give them my time, even though it’s never as much as my youth pastor gave me. They are grateful that I teach them, pray for them, travel with them, and cry with them. I used to be scared that they would feel like they only get my “leftover” time or that they got stuck with a youth pastor who was anything but “cool.” But over the years I have come to believe, if not understand, that when we are faithful to give our best to God, God creates abundance from it.
Several years ago at a youth retreat, the retreat speaker asked us to turn to the person next to us and tell that person words of affirmation that we needed them to say to us. The person next to me was a sophomore in my youth group at the time. I told her that I feared that I was not enough. That I didn’t have enough to give the youth. That I fell far short of their expectations of me. Two years later, every time she sees me, she says these words to me:
You are enough.
It is like the voice of God.
Rev. Mary Beth Bernheisel is a native of Nashville, Tenn. who relocated to Jackson in 2006 by way of Joliet, Ill. She took five years of Family Leave to care for her two children, Joshua and Clare, before being appointed to Jackson FUMC in 2011. Mary Beth is a graduate of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. where she received her B. Mus., and Boston University School of Theology where she received her M.Div. She is currently enrolled in a D. Min. program focused on Children and Youth Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. Mary Beth’s primary roles include Youth Ministry and Women’s Ministry. She strongly believes that the care and discipleship of young people is the responsibility of the whole church, and she strives to involve as many strong adult mentors as possible in youth programming.
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