by Tony Akers
I’ve been a youth minister for a long time. I’m also a father of three. My oldest daughter just began college and my son is a freshman in high school. Little sister is in second grade. For us, youth ministry has been and will continue to be a way of life for a long time. During the course of my ministry folks have asked me how I can be the father and the youth minister to my own children. My answer has always been, “What other choice do I have?!” They seem to be none the worse for it. My children have been around the ministry since they could toddle along. For them they have not known anything different. Some of my fondest ministry moments are those that include my children. Obviously as in anything there is an upside and a downside for my kids. Let’s begin there…
Overall, we have managed to create a pretty healthy family life despite the blurred boundaries that inevitably come with the territory. I am thankful for my life and I would not change it. I believe being a parent has benefited the church as well and has made me a better youth minister in at least the following three ways:
My kids give honest feedback to the ministry. When things are bad I will know it! When a retreat speaker bombs, when a game comes across as juvenile, or when our leaders struggle to handle a talkative kid in small group, I will know it. They also give helpful feedback when things are going well. I have made helpful changes to the ministry based on their suggestions alone. Without being snitches my children have acted as an early warning system to alert me to youth in the ministry who are struggling. The youth ministry grapevine does not always reach to the top but it does reach to them. Casual conversations in the car or around the supper table have alerted me to things I need to address and pray for.
I have grown up in youth ministry. When I began I was 22 years old and responsible for ministry to 18-year-olds. What a crazy church to hire me that young! One change I have noticed is that the longer I serve in ministry the less activity I actually plan on the youth calendar. When I was a lonely single guy I had a packed youth ministry schedule because the ministry was my social life. Wisdom, experience, and just the necessity to be a parent have made me hyper-aware of the youth ministry calendar. Our ministry calendar reflects opportunities that I believe are the best use of our resources along with the deepest impact. Youth in the ministry often give me grief about the lack of activity on our schedule. When that happens I remind them that the youth ministry is to help prepare them to live a Christian life, not be their Christian life. (I say it nicely!) Parents are appreciative of our ministry pace. Recently, a couple who has an active youth in the ministry asked me when our weekly before-school prayer breakfast was going to begin. When I told them it would not begin until after Labor Day they actually thanked me. School had been in session for two weeks already but they shared that they had not fully adjusted to school life and extra-curricular activities. I said, “You know, there are advantages to having a geezer youth pastor…he knows the stress of transitions on family life.” As we laughed together I felt as if another “trust” deposit had been made in the bank account of our youth ministry.
The youth in our ministry get to watch me parent. There have been a few occasions when I have had to discipline my own child in view of the youth ministry. The youth got a ringside seat as I did so fairly and in a spirit of reconciliation and restoration as I could. There is a second level of witness that I get to share with the youth because I am a parent. I am especially thankful for that. The youth get to be a part of my ministry but they also get to witness how Christ influences my family life. In worship there is often a scramble before service begins as kids in our ministry who have parents that do not attend worship strategically take their places in the area to the right and left, front and rear of our family seats. It warms my heart that our seats have become a beacon of sorts to those needing to sit with “family”. I have been in ministry long enough to realize that the shared witness of my family life will shape their commitment to family life in the days to come. That comes with its own pressures on me, of course, but it is the kind of pressure I welcome and need. Their watching eyes shape me and hold me accountable to what I claim I believe and preach. I am grateful for that and the shared life we have and I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “We loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God but our lives as well.”
Tony Akers has a Master’s degree in Christian Education/Youth Ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary and recently entered his ninth year serving as the Minister to Youth and their Families at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Ala. He also serves as a CYMT coach to the Northern Alabama area. He is privileged to be married to Debbi and dad to Madison, Samuel, and Hannah Grace. When not doing youth ministry, Tony can be found at a soccer game, on the river, or reading.
Olivia Keffer and Makenzie Knowlden have been friends since the beginning of their CYMT graduate residence journey, and this friendship has turned out to be one of the things that helped them make it to graduation day. Their story is one of affirming fellowship between two women who, despite living in different cities, helped each other answer their call to youth ministry.
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The Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) recently received a $1.19MM grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., to fund the next phase of the Innovation Laboratory. The grant will enable CYMT to strengthen the Innovation Lab by building on what we learned from our original cohorts and tweaking our process and strategy for greater impact.