Youth & Campus Ministry Burnout with Megan DeWald | Podcast Season 05, Episode 06

by Jan 16, 2024Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

“So often in youth ministry, we think that it’s our job to do ministry at young people. Sometimes we’re doing youth ministry for them, but what we really encourage people to think about is how do we do ministry with them?” -Megan DeWald

This week’s guest is Megan DeWald, the director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. With two decades of experience, Megan highlights the gap between the calling of youth ministers and the overwhelming job descriptions they receive. She points out the mismatch between traditional job expectations, like organizing events, and the actual work needed to address today’s youth challenges, such as mental health crises and political issues.

The episode reveals the broken state of the current youth ministry system and stresses the importance of aligning the job with the critical work of caring for and guiding young people through their challenges. Megan discusses the added pressures on youth workers, including isolation and competition, emphasizing the need for a fundamental reevaluation of the youth ministry system to better serve ministers and the youth they aim to support.

This episode is an invitation to a new imagination and innovation for what youth ministry can be today – and reminds us to pull up chairs for the youth that these churches hope to serve.

Each episode, we ask our guest to call our attention to an organization that is doing good work. Megan highlights two projects:

  • Log College Project is an 18-month program that brings the best of Princeton Theological Seminary to your region. We help Christian congregations design, test, and implement new models of ministry, with teenagers at the design table.
  • Beaufolio Studios is a creative art house hosting collaborative workshops and consulting relationships, utilizing creativity and theological reflection to “create creators” at the intersections of sacred art, human-centered design, and restorative equity. 

We encourage you to check them out and support their work if you feel led.

About our guest:

Megan DeWald (she/her) is the director of the Institute for Youth Ministry, where she oversees research, facilitates training, and designs resources for people engaged in youth ministry. She is also the creator and host of the IYM’s podcast, Disrupting Ministry, which shares stories of faith communities that are disrupting the status quo in the church by developing innovative forms of ministry with young people. With two decades of experience in youth and young adult ministry, Megan is passionate about nurturing authentic connection and friendship among people from different social locations and equipping leaders to understand and navigate systems, structures, and relationships. She writes and speaks for national and international audiences and served as a collaborating author with Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster on the forthcoming revised version of The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry. Megan holds a BA in Communication from the University of St. Thomas and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary. You can find Megan on Faccebook and Instagram at  @princetonseminaryiym.


Episode Transcript

Rose: Our guest today is Megan DeWald. Megan is the director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she oversees research, facilitates training and designs resources for people engaged in youth ministry. She’s also the creator and the host of the Institute for Youth Ministry’s podcast, Disrupting Ministry, which shares stories of faith communities that are disrupting the status quo in the church by developing innovative forms of ministry with young people. With two decades of experience in youth and young adult ministry, Megan is passionate about nurturing authentic connection and friendship among people from different social locations and equipping leaders to understand and navigate systems, structures and relationships. She writes and speaks for a national and international audience and served as a collaborating author with Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster on the revised version of the God Bearing Life, the Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry just released in March. Megan holds a BA in communication from the University of St. Thomas and a Master’s of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Megan, welcome to Transforming Engagement, the podcast.

Megan: Thank you so much, Rose. I’m really thrilled to be here.

Rose: Well, we love, I’ve been looking forward to this. We love having guests that are really have many years, especially working with leaders of youth ministry and campus ministries, so I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation. So why don’t we just start with, why don’t you tell us a bit of your story?

Megan: Sure. Thank you so much, and I’ve been thrilled as well. I wonder if we should let our listeners know that you and I had a wonderful lunch in Seattle, which is one of the places where I go for rest and rejuvenation and really just hit it off. And so it’s really wonderful to see your face again and to be able to have this conversation. So a little bit about me. So I really am, I think someone who was just created to do youth ministry and didn’t know that when I was younger, but so much of my formative years shaped me in such a way that got me comfortable with living amid transition and living in liminal space. So I am the daughter of an immigrant from Toyos, Honduras, and a father from Hialeah, Florida who is White. And the two of them met in Miami after my mother immigrated to the United States. I like to think that they actually met through a kind of youth ministry that they were doing. They both worked at a school at the time that was also a residential space for what were then called “troubled”, troubled boys. And they would wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and need to attend to and care for these young people. And then my mom allegedly the story goes, would make French toast for my father. And somehow they fell in love over that. They do not claim that that was youth ministry, but it absolutely is. They eventually met, married and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah of all places, and that is where I was born. We were an interesting family in Salt Lake City because it was the early Eighties and we were the one family on the street that didn’t identify as Mormon. We were also the one family on the street that had a biracial couple and my older sister is adopted and my parents for many years didn’t have any children and then adopted my sister and very shortly thereafter I came along. And so we were kind of this interesting mix of in betweenness the midst in the middle of this street in Salt Lake City, Utah, which was a great place to grow up too, because as a child, my memories are just that going outside at any time there were children to play with and there was some mom or dad looking on at the kids playing in the street, which was really delightful. But after a while, my family moved back to South Florida where my father was from, and then we moved again to Texas. Texas is where we spent quite a bit of time, but we moved to different places within both Florida and Texas. So we were always on the move. My father was a writer. My mother worked in administrative roles in insurance companies and then became a paraprofessional teaching Spanish and helping with children with special needs in elementary schools. So they were both very hard workers, but we really struggled economically, which was part of why we moved so much when I was growing up. And both of my parents were pretty distant from their families, both geographically and emotionally, which kept us in quite a bit of isolation, just really the four of us. So I spent a lot of time kind of navigating these in-between spaces and places. I was not White, but was not quite Latinx either. In terms of my economic status. We were often kind of struggling along that line of staying in the middle class and sometimes dipping into more of a economically disadvantaged category. As I grew up, I also continued to be in pretty liminal spaces, denominationally, my adolescent rebellion was to turn from the Catholic church that I had been baptized and raised in as a child, and I was in Texas, and so I became Baptist because that was sort of like something that was an eventuality, but I migrated to very different denominations as well. And then as an adult, I also learned of myself that I’m not straight, but I’m also not gay, I’m bisexual, so I’m in this liminal position in that as well. So in the midst of all of that and all of that transition and all of that, some of that turmoil and some of the joy and struggle of all that, I really came to develop very close relationships with some loving Christian adults in various churches that I was a part of who really cared about me and saw in me things I didn’t see in and for myself. I’ve referenced these people before in other podcasts, and whenever I do, they just say We were just regular people. We were just doing whatever we thought we were supposed to be doing, but they were transformational youth ministers in my life, even though technically only one of them actually held that title. So there was Becky who became a second kind of mother to me in my adolescence, Mr. Forbes, who became a second father to me. There was, and Mr. Forbes, by the way, his name is Bill, but “Mister” is his nickname at this point to me. I’ll never call him Bill no matter how old I get. Mike, who was my youth pastor for many years, and Dale, who led mission trips that I went on as a kid. All of those people were really contributed to my understanding of who I was as a young person and saw me in the midst of so much transition and liminality and still saw something special and called that out and loved me. So I got into youth ministry because Becky gave me a call one summer when I was in college and I was looking for something to do, and she said, our church is looking for someone to step in as an intern for the summer. Would you be interested? And I said, “how much do they pay?” And she was like, “not much, but it’s better than nothing”. And I said, “sold.” So I ended up going down to Houston where she was at the time and working for this church. And I really had in mind that I had been well cared for and loved in the church as an adolescent, but that I was, those days were behind me and I was going to move on to bigger and brighter pastures. And I fell in love with the work of youth ministry. I loved the teenagers who I got to meet and to know during that time it was work that was both creative and caring. It was playful and also profound. And I didn’t mean for all of that to be so alliterative, but it really was transformational for me and eventually led me to seminary, which as you mentioned in the bio is where I went to the seminary at Princeton Seminary once again, thinking my calling of youth ministry is now behind me and I’m going forward into real and professional and serious ministry, but I could never lose my heart for young people. And now I am thoroughly convinced that both teenagers and those who work with them are actually the most interesting and engaging and wonderful people in the church. So I worked in a lot of different capacities after seminary and during seminary, a retreat leader, a camp leader, I was a volunteer program coordinator for a while, musician, a liturgist, a worship pastor, a writer, a youth director. And eventually all that led to me being hired at the Institute for Youth Ministry about seven years ago. And I have been serving in the director role there for a little over a year now. What I love about that work is that now I get to be a pastor to pastors. I get to really pour all of the decades of this work that I’ve been doing, even the playfulness with which I have been resisting, that calling in my life, I see that come up in folks and I’m able to engage it playfully with them and alongside them and be their support and their cheerleader and their pastor.

Rose: I love it, man. So many connections for you from the way that you grew up through the call in college, the invitation to come and be a part. And I love the question, well, how much does it pay? Not much. Okay, I’ll take it. Sounds good. It does. Yeah. So tell us a little bit about the work that you actually do at the institute. We’d love to hear what the institute’s work is and mission. Sure, absolutely.

Megan: Yeah. So the Institute for Youth Ministry is really about forming Christian leaders for thoughtful, just and creative ministry with young people. And so that means when we say Christian leaders, sometimes people hear that and think that we’re only referring to those who have an official title or capacity in a church. And we are saying that we can help transform people into leaders and that anyone who is in a relationship with a teenager, whether they’re a volunteer, whether they’re bi-vocational, they’re paid by the church or not, these people are all Christian leaders called to do this work and we seek to help them do that better. We were founded in 1995, and the IYM then as ever, is committed to really educating and equipping Christian adults in what we call the theological task of Christ-centered ministry with young people. When we were founded, it was during a time where there were a plethora and abundance of practice-based approaches to youth ministry, but there weren’t as many rigorous, serious sort of theological conversations about the work that God does in and through young people and the role and place that young people play in the church and in the world. So we have been integrating theory and practice as we develop resources, convene various events and facilitate programs for youth workers. And as I mentioned, youth workers are my second favorite cohort of people in the world and in the church after teenagers.

Rose: Well, such important work. When I’m hearing you talk about the work that you all do with training, actually forming, I think formation is a key word here, the whole transformational work of integrating the theological parts with our whole selves. But the theological task, I love that so much because we live in such an ever-changing world. And beyond that, if we even back up so many different streams of the church, you hear kids grow up, they go through youth group, then they go away to college and lose their faith because they’re so confused. “I never heard this, I was taught that.” I mean, the theological task of integration at a younger age just seems absolutely so important because when young people grow up very, very, very sheltered and then get out and hear different, we want to blame the liberal colleges that ruined our kids. But honestly, we have to take a look at how are we forming our children. So I love that and it’s such important work.

Megan: Thank you. And recognizing too, that everything that we do in youth ministry, youth ministry lives on its feet, everything that we do, everything that we say, everything that we don’t do, everything that we don’t say, all of it is formative. Some of it we spend so much time fixating on obtaining the right curriculum for our youth ministries, but we forget that there is already an implicit curriculum that we are using to form our young people and how we speak to them, how we take their perspective seriously, how we engage in the real contextual situations, their own lived humanity, and how we put that in conversation with who God is and how God cares and loves them.

Rose: Yes. So because of the topic this season is burnout in pastoral youth, pastoral and campus ministries, have you seen, since you are in touch with so many people leading in these realms, have you seen much burnout in campus ministries and youth leaders?

Megan: Oh yes. I definitely have seen burnout, have seen people at all stages of burnout the past several years. I think really leading up to the onset of the pandemic and then this kind of long tail of the pandemic that we’ve been experiencing together has accelerated themes and systems that were already present in the church and in youth ministry. But it has sort of revealed some of the real fissures in how we have this disconnect between the calling of a youth minister to love and care for and witness to God’s transformative work in the world, in the lives of young people and the job description, which is often given to those who work in youth ministry. And often there is a chasm between these two things, which I think has led to so much exhaustion and other signs of burnout, cynicism, the kind of depersonalization, the frustration that goes along with even performing or getting one small task done, that challenge seems insurmountable. That has been a huge theme that we’ve been seeing over the past several years. And then experientially, I mean, I think there was a way, I have a great friend who runs something at Princeton Seminary called the Farminary. His name is Reverend Dr. Nate Stucky. And we have conversations back and forth and all of our conversations seem like they’re in metaphor for some reason, maybe because he’s working literally with soils all the time. And then we talk about tending the soil of the work that we do as educators and professionals and ministers. But we were having this conversation about how we felt as though the moment of the pandemic sort of put us in this kind of position where almost like a slingshot, everything kind of stopped suddenly and then pulled back as the whole world was pulling back on that slingshot. And we had some choices to make, and they were maybe the obvious choices, but they were the choices that we chose not to which we could have set the whole thing down and tried to reestablish and rethink systems and structures and doing things in new ways. But as that tension pulled back, even as things slowed down, there was still the tension of being in that moment. And now that vaccines are available and we’re moving into a different, people keep saying pandemic, it’s really not post pandemic, but we’re moving into the world where covid exists in a new way now. And it’s like someone just let go of that slingshot and we’re trying to make up for lost time in our levels of productivity and in all of the things that we feared losing in the midst of the pandemic. And I think that people are just completely, completely exhausted by the pace of that.

Rose: I mean, such a good point, right? Because I remember early on in the pandemic there was these little memes going around, now is the time to dismantle everything and let’s not go back to the world the way it was. And I also we’re not really post pandemic, but I actually think we’re post 2020 because so many things happened, not just the pandemic. We had so many huge societal disruptions happen. And I think about youth leaders, campus ministry leaders and the way that you’re talking about them, what can set in, because when I think about it, they were expected to get online. They were how do you do youth ministry when you can’t meet with the kids or the young adults and all of that. And then the pressure of, I really would like you to speak to this if you have any wisdom, because many of the youth leaders and campus ministry leaders that I’ve been in conversation with, one of the hugest, well, not maybe the hugest, but one of the most probably challenging things that I’ve heard from them is we’re not the lead. Many of us, we don’t get the same consideration other staff pastors get because we’re with the youth and we’re just supposed to carry on. But the expectations that are put on us by maybe the leadership team of the church, and then we’ve got the parents with their expectations, and then we have kids who are, even the surgeon general lately has said even pre 2020, there was a mental health crisis brewing. And now as you said, it’s been accelerated. It’s been exacerbated. And I think I said to you at one point, I read an article about how youth leaders are now first responders to the mental health crisis that youth are going through. So what would you say first to maybe youth or campus ministry leaders that are sort of caught in, I cannot get my, whoever supervises me, the lead pastor, whoever it is, to really understand what all that I’m holding?

Megan: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, the first thing I would say is I affirm all of that and it’s not you. I think part of the beauty sometimes, but part of the oddness of the job of working in youth ministry in any capacity, even on a volunteer basis, is that no one really knows what we do. And there are ways to leverage that toward your advantage. There are ways of telling good stories of experimenting with things. If you’re not the first thing on the radar, you get to be a little bit more playful. And so there can be a real energy and innovation that comes along with that reality. But it often, what I’m finding is that youth ministers have had no time to grieve all of the ways that they have been really put through the ringer for the past several years. So I want to say more about that, but I want to go back to the conversation or the real exploration around burnout. I read recently, a, I think mean, this is embarrassing to say because I should maybe be quoting a scholarly article, but instead I’m going to quote a meme, which I think saw floating around that shifts the language of burnout, which puts the responsibility on the worker to more of a language around exploitation, which shifts the responsibility to the system that’s set up to exhaust the worker. And I’m cautious to use that word in this context except to raise the concern that I think that there is a way that youth workers, campus ministers have been in a moment of exploitation as a result of the systems and structures and statistics about young people’s involvement in the church. So what is the system in place in youth ministry and young adult ministry right now? I mentioned earlier that I am growing even more committed in my belief that the job of youth ministry, and I mean all the trappings of the job, the office space, the job description you need to have Sunday school and perhaps in particular settings, a confirmation class. And then all of your youth need to sit politely during our collective worship service. And then you need to have some kind of youth fellowship or youth group time. You should probably also get them involved in music, and they should also be here to help the elderly woman who lives alone to mow her lawn. And you also need to make sure that you’re taking them on ski trips and you also need for fun, and you also need to make sure that you’re custom tailoring their short-term mission experiences and taking weeks out of the summer to take them to places. And you need to arrange all of that. And then when you come back, we’re going to perceive at the church that you have been in a tropical location or an exotic destination, so surely you’re ready to just jump right back into the work. We aren’t acknowledging the incredible labor emotional and otherwise that you had to put in during that time. I’m…

Rose: Exhausted right now hearing you talk, just so you know. I’m listening to that and I’m thinking “That is exhausting.” Yes, go ahead. Yes.

Megan: And that is so often the job that goes along with youth ministry, we get at the Institute for Youth Ministry. People keep sending us, and please keep sending us these, but we receive understandably, people trying to network with qualified candidates to do youth ministry. And I always take a glimpse at the job description, and I do prayerfully and honestly try to think of who I could match certain people with. But sometimes I have to write back to a leader and say, this job sounds great if it was 2002, but it’s no longer 2002. And so how can maybe the IYM come alongside you and help you to reimagine what this vocation looks like now? Because the job of youth ministry no longer is really aligning with the work that is before us, the work of caring for young people in crisis, the work of walking alongside in life, the people who are in many ways at the front lines of our refusal as adults to do anything about gun control and gun violence, those who are at the epicenter of the mental health crisis at sky high levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, those who are at the front lines of political ploys around gender and sexuality, those who are seeing the writing on the wall with respect to climate change and are recognizing the existential reality that they’re in. We have that is the work before us as youth ministers to care and shepherd young people as they journey through this stage of life while they’re trying to figure out who they are and understand that they’re eternally loved by God. But the job description says we need to go on the short-term mission trip. And so we need to get into the planning of that. The job description says we’re supposed to have a weekly fellowship that’s supposed to include a little bit of the Bible, a little bit of music, a little bit of a game and food. So you need to be spending your time organizing all of that. Also, because we pay you money. Granted, it may not be much, but because we pay you money, you need to figure out how to do all of this mostly by yourself. And if you need any volunteers, we aren’t available to do that, but we’ll send you a check. The system in place in youth ministry is broken, and the system is also deeply stressed and grieving itself every time that another report comes out from the Pew Research Center or Barna or others about this alleged mass exodus of young people from the church. Instead of engaging in a creative and innovative ways with young people to think through that reality. Often churches just double down on the same kinds of solutions that they saw work in their own adolescences or the adolescents of their own children. And I do have empathy for why it grieves people to see young people not entering into the halls of the congregations that were once filled, but we’re abdicating our responsibility to creatively think about how we care for young people. And instead, what we’re often doing, and you’ve got me on my soapbox, I’ll just continue…

Rose: I love it. Keep going. Go, go, go.

Megan: Instead, what we’re doing is we’re doubling down on the mythology that if we can just get young families in the door, that somehow we will be saved and we’re doubling down on something. I like to call, and I’m sure I’m not the originator of this, but our vampire theology where we like young people to be present so that we can benefit from their young blood being present. But really what we’re after is our own immortality. Of course. What does the gospel of Jesus Christ promise us? It does not promise us immortality. It promises a resurrection. It promises that we too will rise with Christ and resurrection and immortality have an important thing differentiating them. And it is a scary word to many different congregations. And the weight of all of this often just lands in the laps of youth workers and college pastors and those who are doing work with these emerging generations, and they’re straddling all of the complexity of what the demands of the job are while they’re also knowing there’s more important work that we need to be doing. And yet, here’s the pressure that we need to attend to. And like I said, this is exacerbated by isolation. It’s also exacerbated in some contexts by a weird sense of competition that maybe if we just have a flashier cooler, more hip, more fun, more technologically innovative ministry, then somehow we will outdo our neighbor right down the street. We will outdo the other churches in our region. It’s a really strange job. And as you mentioned, all of those other pressure points are something that really contribute to the utter exhaustion I think, of youth workers, the burnout or perhaps the exploitation.

Rose: Right. So good. As you’re talking, it makes me want to ask you, because I want to come back to what advice you have for those that are over the youth leaders and campus ministers. I want to just come back to that in a moment, but first iit was intriguing to me that disrupting ministry by developing innovative forms of ministry with young people. Can you talk a little bit about that? Absolutely. Give us some imagination of what that might be.

Megan: Absolutely. So the Institute for Youth Ministry in 2018 received a grant and that the part of the grant project was really to recognize and honor this broader experience that I’m talking about, this kind of alleged or real crisis in youth ministry. Lily encouraged various organizations such as ours and higher education entities to think of creative ways that we could accompany congregations who were wanting to do a new thing. What do new forms of youth ministry look like if these other ways of doing youth ministry in the seventies, eighties, nineties, maybe even early two thousands are no longer working. And so the Institute for Youth Ministry started an initiative that we called the Log College Project. Now if you listen to the podcast, you’ll understand where that came from, and I won’t unpack it all for you now, but I’ll start by essentially saying that my brilliant colleague and boss, who was the Institute for Youth Ministry director for many years that I worked there and now is the associate Dean of continuing education at Princeton Seminary named Reverend Abigail Visco Russer. She wanted to make sure that as she was thinking through and helping Princeton Seminary reimagine what youth ministry could be and helping all of our networks to rethink it, that she grounded this in our context because one of our key learnings from that project was that and really common sense, but needs to be said, youth ministry is deeply contextual. It matters where you are. Princeton Seminary, one could argue, and Abigail certainly did, that Princeton Seminary started as a youth ministry, has its origins in this story of this country pastor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania who wanted to train farm hands how to preach and be pastors. And so he started something called the Log College. There’s a deeper connection there. Eventually, that was one of the precursor institutions to what is now Princeton Seminary. That is why it’s called the Log College Project. Although we have been delighted over time that many people mistakenly call it the Log Cabin Project. It is not a log cabin, even though the school that this pastor founded was technically in a log cabin. So…

Rose: It’s hilarious. 

Megan: So through the grant project, what we did was we took a cohort of 12 churches from around the country across denominations in different economic settings, in different racial ethnic backgrounds, a couple that spoke different languages. And we took them through a process of human-centered design thinking where they were able to engage a different kind of a tool for problem solving other than the leaning back on the old ways of doing youth ministry, moving through that process to arrive as an intergenerational team in every congregation at an idea, something that they were going to try out. And then as part of that, we were able to, through the generosity of the Lily endowment, we were able to give each of these churches a $15,000 grant to start their idea, to do something new. Of course, we were all gearing up ready to do all of that. We got the checks out to people in 2019, we were ready to go. Yep, I see your facial expression. You know what’s coming. Just as soon as so many of these ideas were launching, COVID hit shut down, and many of the initiatives had to kind of go back to the drawing board. But what we found and which we share in our podcast as well is that the process that we taught people, the process that we practiced again and again and again through just employing again this tool for problem solving, which is design thinking. It allowed them in real time to go back to the drawing board and say, okay, so much of our research into empathy in this context, much of our understanding of the needs of this community, much of our fixation, and not even fixation, but really narrow definition of what the problem is that we’re trying to address all of those things, those are now needing to shift. So let’s shift all of those a little bit and still see what can happen. And so in the podcast, we got to tell some of the stories of churches that tried something new, pivoted and tried something again, and we’re still in relationship with those churches and those leaders. And many of the projects have taken wildly different forms now, but got these churches started on a new thing, investigating sort of what would be a new way to engage with young people. We insisted that young people had to be at the design table. So often in youth ministry, we think that it’s our job to do ministry at young people. Sometimes we’re doing youth ministry for them, but what we really encourage people to think about is how do we do ministry with them? What if youth ministry isn’t simply the ministry of what we do when young people come in the doors of our churches, but what if youth ministry is the ministry of youth? What if it’s the work that young people themselves do and bring to the table? And so many of our conversations with these churches and the times that we got to spend together, we really were able to listen deeply to what the young people who were on these teams wanted to do, what they saw the needs in their communities were and how they wanted to spend this money and try something part of a design thinking process. Any design thinking process is recognizing that you will quote –  unqote fail, But that failure is something to be embraced because failure just provides more data. And then with that data, you can go back and pivot and try a new thing and then fail a little bit and maybe have some wins and then try again, and then fail a little bit, learn some things, and then try again. While I do have some reservation, theological reservation around borrowing the tools and metaphors of Silicon Valley in a theological space, I do also think it’s really valuable to remember that the first iPhone was this incredible technological advancement. I remember the first guy when I was in seminary who I knew who had an iPhone. It was really exciting. Of course. What was the problem with the iPhone? It was a bad phone. The very first iPhone, if you can remember, this was a, I have mine sitting right next to me. This is not product placement or promotion, but I now have an iPhone 14 or something. But the very first one was amazing that it was a camera and it was a computer and it was a GPS and it was all in one. But Apple had signed an exclusive kind of a deal with AT & T, and they didn’t yet have the kind of signal that they do. And so it didn’t work very well as a phone. So very quickly thereafter, they had to take the data back and pivot and come out with the iPhone two and three and four and so forth. I also think about the story of Netflix, which can really take us down a whole rabbit trail. But I think about how when Netflix was founded, do you remember this? Netflix was a company that would mail using the United States Postal Service, would mail DVDs one or two at a time. 

Rose: Yes, I remember. You had to be on a wait list. That’s right. 

Megan: There was your queue that you could list your movie and whatever was at the top of your queue would be mailed to you. And then they relied on the customers to mail them back. And the truth about that was that Netflix was at some point bleeding money. They were getting all kinds of damaged merchandise. They weren’t receiving some of the things back. They had to rely on the post office, which God bless the post office and all the work that it does. But sometimes things happen with the post office. And the story goes that the founders of Netflix at some point went over to the good folks at Blockbuster and said, Hey, we have this idea of doing kind of mail order DVDs. Would you like to buy our business? And Blockbuster just laughed at them and said, no, and turn them away. And then it was right around that time that YouTube hit the internet. And streaming began to be offered at more and more clarity and better quality. And Netflix said, what if we go back to the drawing board and think about what we’re actually trying to do? Are we actually trying to mail DVDs to people, or are we trying to have our customer have direct contact or direct access to content? That’s what we’re trying to do. What if we tried the streaming thing and then little by little, they were able to provide streaming access to folks, quality improved. Then they started creating original content. They started winning awards. They became a real power player. They effectively, they effectively put Blockbuster out of business. They effectively put TV out of business and started a whole different market. And now Netflix still needs to keep up because there are a number of streaming services that have been gunning for them and that are starting to even do better. So what does all this have to do with the church? Hopefully the metaphors are clear, but what we were able to do with the Log College Project and the stories that we tell on Disrupting Ministry was that sometimes, and we are maybe at a moment where the technologies and the problems are all aligning in such a way that youth pastors and those who work with young people, it’s time to be disruptors. It’s time to try a new thing, learn from what has gone wrong when we try it, take the data, go back to the drawing board and try again, and then try again. And so those are some of the stories related to the Log College Project and some of the stories that we get to tell of these churches trying new things.

Rose: I really like this, Megan, because what you just described to me screams innovation. And also I think for listeners that are over youth departments, you supervise youth pastors or campus ministry leaders. What I hear from what you just described is it’s up to them to create a culture where it’s okay to be innovative and it’s okay to fail at certain points because then what we’ll do, that helps us correct. That helps us know, “oh, this didn’t work”. But unless you can create that culture and that environment, people get stuck and we’ll just stay in the system. You described trying to do it all, trying to do it all. What a beautiful gift that lead pastors, whoever’s over youth departments, campus ministries, could give their leaders and their young people to give them permission to innovate and permission to fail, because that’s how we’ll learn. I really do love that. I think that is for the whole church right now, really, we’re in a time where it just feels like every day we’re reading about more not great stuff that churches have been up to or leaders have been up to. So what does it mean to reimagine the gospel for our time? And as you said, for our context, because contextual situations, the context in which people are ministering is very different in so many different places in different regions. So it isn’t one size fits all anymore.

Megan: And I think the way in which, and I want to name too, I think the Institute for Youth Ministry, of course, there’s always unintended, unintended consequences when something gets started. And I think the Institute for Youth Ministry aimed to do good work and did some good work. But I think what we also did was we contributed to a culture that professionalized youth ministry to such a degree that it took it out of the hands of the whole congregation, the whole church, all of us in some form or fashion, if we are adults who identify as Christians, all of us are really called to the work of youth ministry. We’re all called to care for and nurture young people, whether they be our own. I mean, the calling of a parent on some level is the calling of a youth minister or whether they’re other people’s kids. I think of coaches, I think of teachers, I think of small business owners or employers who have teenagers work for them. We are really all called to that transformative work of doing youth ministry. And I think the Institute for Youth Ministry is now in a space where we are trying to figure out how do we empower all Christian adults to take part and to participate into this larger work and calling that we have, yes, I’m sorry.

Rose: No, it’s great. So right now in our final moments that we’ve got, what advice would you give to those overseeing youth departments, campus ministers?

Megan: Yeah. Well, thank you for the opportunity to even reflect on all of this. And I am realizing that I told two stories from Silicon Valley, but I didn’t tell a story from a church. So I would actually like to share a little bit about my friend Lisa, as a way of kind of diving into some of the advice that maybe I have. So Lisa is a long time youth director in the Rust Belt of Ohio. She lives and works in the town called Middletown, which was where that book, “Hillbilly Elegy” was based. This is not an endorsement for that book either, but it’s just a cultural point of reference. And she worked at a Presbyterian church there that had a declining membership among its teenagers and declining engagement. And she definitely understood that the work that was before her was to love and care for young people. And she felt a particular sense of calling to love and care for those who were at the margins of her society. And in her context, that was young people who identified as L.G.B.T.Q. There were many other possibilities of where she could spend her energy and time, but that was something that was clear. Part of why it was clear is because many of the young people with whom she had relationships with either knew someone or themselves were asking questions and trying to understand their place in the world. And so that was sort of the issue, the area that they decided that God was calling on this church at this time to focus. There were also complications with that because the church itself was not a church that identified as a kind of affirming church or in the Presbyterian tradition, there’s a particular organization called More Light, More Light Presbyterians. And this church was not a part of that organization. I mean, the variables of attendance and membership and giving and all kinds of things that get caught up in people deciding whether or not to make those professions and statements, it gets really complicated. And nevertheless, Lisa did feel like she was called to do this work. And so she and her design team thought for a while about what they could possibly do. And she had just read a book called The Turquoise Table, which was, I think based on a blog or perhaps it was based on a podcast, this woman in Texas who decided that many people in Texas, I lived in Texas for a long time, so can affirm this is true, have these great big backyards, but the backyard is a private space. And this particular person was in Texas and wanted to make some community, wanted to make some friends. So she decided to build a picnic table and put it in the front yard and paint it purple. I mean, excuse me, no, excuse me. Paint it turquoise. And that itself would be a conversation piece. And then she would go out and sit there and wait for neighbors to walk by and get in conversations and develop community. So Lisa had just read that book and was really inspired around that idea. And so she brought that back to the young people and the people on her design team who said, what if we did something like that? What if we provided a kind of pop-up community where we can just go to where we know that young people are and give them some kind of a show of a display of support and care and nurture? So they came up with an idea. The reason I said purple earlier is they came out with the purple table. The purple table had a bunch of branded merchandise that they sold to make some money, but with that money, they would build these tables and different places around the town and simply decide to kind of show up. Maybe they would have food, maybe they would have games, but they would go to places where they knew that young people would congregate and be, and they would just get into conversations and learn and love these people. What was really interesting was that when the pandemic hit and all kinds of restrictions were in place because of the nature of this program being, or this project rather being oriented toward being outside, they would make the tables in such a way that they could, some person could sit on one side and the other person could sit on the other and they had enough distance between them. They would always provide masks and hand sanitizer and space for folks. And every treat that they brought was individually wrapped and they were able to provide and play with community and the idea of this in their community during this time, which was really, really lovely. And so thinking through, my advice is to go play with some ideas, to sense the freedom that you really have in youth ministry, to listen deeply to the wisdom and care and knowledge and concerns of your young people and to figure out together how you could try to do a new thing in a way that feels restorative and generative. I have some hunches that I think may or may not come true, but they’re, I think, pretty strong hunches from the work that I get to do. One of those is that it is maybe true that the profession of youth ministry, the profession of being a youth ministry professional, youth director, paid staff and so forth, might be disappearing in the way that we have known it. And I know that that brings a lot of fear and a lot of grief to a lot of people. And what I would encourage those who do this kind of work to think about are what are the things that bring you life and joy and how might you do those alongside young people? And recognizing that the things that bring you joy have a way of being infectious and bringing other people joy. I think about things like how youth ministry now has to become more collaborative. We no longer can be in competition with the church down the street. We need to see that person and that community as our partners and caring for the community of young people that we’re in. What would it look like if our churches and our work together and put their money where their mouth is and provided kind of a community chaplain. And the chaplain’s role is just to care for the young people to go out and care for the young people not having the remit that they must come back inside the walls of the church, but rather that we love and care for young people. So we are going to send this person out to love and care for them. I think that it’s time for youth ministers and college pastors to think creatively around income streams. I mean, this is another topic that we don’t really like to talk about very much, but I think it’s important that we consider how we might have multiple income streams as we seek to care for ourselves in our work. Often there’s the reference that bi-vocational ministry is kind of parallel to Paul’s ministry as a tent maker. And what I wonder is, could tent making itself be the ministry? Could there be a way in which engaging in different kinds of projects and sources of income can actually be the ministry itself? Again, teachers, coaches, parents, I mean, parents don’t get paid to do their work, but they should. But what might that look like? Employers of young people? And I think that it’s really important that we pay close attention to our need for rest, perhaps a need for a sabbatical. Churches don’t often provide that kind of privilege and benefit to our young people or to those who work with our young people. So sometimes we can step away from a position for a period of time and go do different kind of work and then reengage when we need to. At the Institute for Youth Ministry, one of my, I shouldn’t even say this, but I am going to so that everyone can hold me accountable for it, but I want to figure out how to set up a sabbatical program for those who do youth ministry because it’s just imperative that we figure out ways to care for this demographic who have my heart. And then last but not least, I just have to end on a theological note. I would just say as hard as it is to remember, we have to keep in mind that God is God and we’re not. And so as much as we love and care for our young people, the compounding interest in God’s love and care for these young people is exponential. And so there are times where we need to step away or say no or create a boundary recognizing that God is God and we’re not.

Rose: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that you just said about the income being bi-vocational, I have a copy of the 2023 Youth Pastor Compensation report. Unless you’re in a megachurch, you’re not really making money. And the discrepancy between male youth pastors and female youth leaders is it’s high. And so I think that is a very important point that because a lot of times I think people think that, oh, the youth leader, it’s a stepping stone to get to the next level of ministry. But for many what you’re talking about is some of them, no, this is their life calling. This is the vocation that they love. And so thinking through the financial aspect of it and being aware of that is I think very, very important. I love how social entrepreneurship can come into this as innovative ways of how you make income along with doing things with youth around that, whatever that idea might be. So, oh my gosh, we could just keep talking. We could just keep talking. This was like our lunch a few weeks ago. We just kind of could keep talking. But listen, I am so grateful for your wisdom, your expertise, the ways in which you and the Institute are thinking. And just so our listeners know, a lot of the things that we refer to will be in our show notes, like links to the podcast, links to the book I mentioned, and we’ll make sure that we put those in the show notes.

Megan: Wonderful.

Rose: So we’re so grateful for your time and spending it with us. So we just want to end by giving you space to give a shout out to an organization that you see doing good work, and we will make a donation and ask our listeners too, as well,

Megan: Rose, I just love that that is how you end these podcasts, and thank you for that. It put what we sometimes call in design thinking a beautiful constraint around me because I immediately think of 300 different organizations that I would love to support. But I’ve landed on someone that I consider a someone who’s a colleague and who, since we’ve been talking about this Log College Project, I have to shout out because she was the project coordinator of that program while we were running it. Her name is Carmelle Beaugelin, and she is a Haitian American artist and a faith leader, an innovator, a design thinker, and just a hilarious, wonderful presence. One of the refrains of my life over the last six years when I was working with her last five years or so, was every time that there was something just beautiful that happened or some kind of fortuitous moment, Carmelle would just say, Ugh, look at God. And so now I can’t help but see beauty around me and think, Ugh, look at God. And I just am so grateful for that. So Carmelle has opened her own art house called BeauFolio Studio.

Rose: Okay

Megan: And BeauFolioStudio is about creating creators. She has this really beautiful practice that she does called Creatiodivina, drawn from Lectio Divina, where she invites people to reflect artistically on the scripture passages that are read or prayers or meditations. And it brings people deeply to encounter scripture as the living word of God and gets them in touch with their own inner creativity so they can co-create alongside what God is doing. She’s particularly interested and invested in the work of caring for people of color, and particularly black young people, and particularly, particularly Black women and femme identifying people because she herself has just been so nurtured in faith, and she wants to continue to pour out that work into the lives of young people, a deeply committed youth minister. So it would mean the world to me if your listeners would go find out everything you can about Carmel and her work, invite her to lead a workshop or something at whatever place that you’re at. She absolutely is an amazing presenter, collaborator, artist, and she on her website has a place where people can donate directly to the work that she’s doing and continue to support her. 

Rose: Yeah, well, we will put that in the show notes. We’ll put a link to find her and be able to read about her and to make a donation. So Megan, thank you so very much for spending this time with me. Really appreciate it. And it’s so good. Thank you.

Megan: Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s been a complete joy and a great way to spend my afternoon.

Rose: Great.