My wife and I really enjoy the show "How I Met Your Mother," in which the main character, Ted, has been telling his kids the story of how he met their mother for about the last six years now. Since I am just about as big a sap as Ted is on that show, I will tell the story of how I became your youth pastor in a similar, meandering style.
Kids, it was the Spring of 1996. It was a down year for my beloved Cubs--they began the year 0-14, so by the end of April they were already out of contention. Bob Dole was kicking off his legendary campaign against incumbent president William Jefferson Clinton. I was just completing my sixth grade year and found out about a huge youth conference my church's youth group attended ever summer called CDYC. We had talent competitions, volleyball and basketball tournaments, awesome chapel sessions, and loads of cute girls I would never have the guts to speak to in a million years. We spent a week at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
So I was gearing up for my very first CDYC. I didn't know what to sign up for. There were so many options for sports and talent. I briefly thought about entering the musical solo contest with my violin, then wisely thought better of it (it would have made a better comedy act, anyway). I signed up for volleyball, because that was what everyone signed up for. Then I asked my friend, Danny, what he was signing up for. He said "volleyball, drama, and preaching." Preaching, huh? Since I was kind of shy and planning on clinging to Danny for dear life that week (much to his chagrin; he was actually going to talk to the aforementioned loads of cute girls), I too signed up to enter the preaching competition.
To understand this story, you need to know a few things about me at this stage of my life. First, I was a nerd. Major-league nerd. Second-of-ly, I was awkward as all get out. I wore huge glasses, my voice squeaked and squawked, and I basically repelled all but a few people. Third, I was constantly doubting myself, constantly down on myself, and constantly in fear that I would never be accepted by more than just a few childhood friends. Fourth, I didn't consider myself very talented. I loved sports but sucked at most of them. I tried music and soon realized I was born without a sense of rhythm and my fingers were too stubby to be any good at violin. Fifth, and most importantly, at this time in my life I couldn't imagine Hell being much worse than sixth grade.
So I signed up to preach, having never even once considered the idea of me preaching before. I soon realized that this was the best thing I ever did.
In preparation for the preaching competition, I got a lot of personal attention from my youth group's intern, Brandon. He was young, still in seminary. He, like me, was a huge Cubs fan, and, like me, spent most of his childhood being a total dork. He was also the first adult outside of my parents and their friends to take any kind of an interest in me. He welcomed me unconditionally, put up with my awkwardness while affirming the good qualities he saw in me. And, during the months leading up to CDYC, he worked with me once a week, teaching me how to preach.
I worked so hard on that sermon, mostly because I wanted to impress Brandon and make him proud of me. He worked so hard with me, I didn't want him to be disappointed. I went over and over every text I used, fine-tuned every sentence, tweaked every illustration so it was just right. In the end, I had a 4.5 minute sermon on love.
CDYC came. The preaching competition was on Tuesday, the second day of the conference. It was in the afternoon, after chapel and after lunch. I had never been so nervous. I got dressed in my nice clothes I had brought just for preaching. I arrived about 15 minutes early and stood outside the door while some kid from another church preached. I thought my heart would beat so hard it would fly out of my chest.
It was finally my turn. Brandon prayed for me before I went up there. I got up there, and after the first sentence, I felt as though I had done this a million times. I felt calm, comfortable. The words came pouring out of my mouth perfectly, with no squeaks or squawks. I didn't even need to look at my notes; I had the thing memorized! I even ad-libbed a line or two. I finished, and walked off, pumped-up beyond belief. It was exhilarating, it was exciting, it was fun. I had not had that feeling in my life--ever.
While the competition was on Tuesday, the award ceremony where you found out how you did was not until Thursday. I had to wait until then to find out if I received a "Superior" ranking (meriting a gold medal), an "Excellent" ranking (meriting a silver medal), or no award at all. As I sat there waiting for what seemed to be an eternity as the announcer went through all the winners from the drama categories, the music categories, the art categories, the photography categories, and everything else, he finally began announcing the winners for the preaching category. He read through the names of the "Excellent" winners (which I thought would be where I would end up), and my name wasn't called. I figured I wouldn't earn a "Superior" ranking, mostly because I didn't want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed. Then all of a sudden, he called my name. I had won a gold medal for preaching! Three months prior I had never even thought of doing such a thing, now I was winning awards for it!
I didn't see myself in that moment, but I imagine I was flashing the biggest grin I possibly could. I couldn't wait to get home and tell my parents. I was good at something. Other people--older people--told me I was good at something. For the first time in my life, I was really, really good at something. I had a talent.
I went up on stage and received my medal, then headed back to my seat where I told Brandon, "I think I want to go into ministry." He smiled back at me and said, "That's awesome."
I would go on to preach 5 more times at CDYC before I graduated. I won "Superior" all 5 times. But nothing to me will ever top this first one. This was the seed of my calling. This is where the idea entered my mind. This is when the thought of me having God-given talents and abilities that I could use to serve him introduced itself to me. As I think back on it, what an awesome role we youth pastors have; we get to be there and watch our students find their places in this world. We get to guide them, direct them, enable them, and empower them to discover who God made them to be and what He wants them to do. Brandon was there for me at a time when I needed him; sixth grade was awful for me. I came out of a depressing year with hope for my future, with direction, with purpose. And now, I get to be there for other students in similar situations.
But more on that later...