We survived our first year of youth ministry.

1 yr pastors

*Brett & I celebrating our one year milestone as youth pastors!*

From a conversation with my 5 year old son, Johnny, last night:

Johnny: “Mom, I want you to know that I don’t like it when you get all angry with me.”
Me: “Johnny, that is great communication. I am sorry I got upset and acted out of my anger. Would you please forgive me?”
Johnny: “Yes mom. I forgive you. But I need you to work on not getting angry.”
Me: (internal humility pep talk pause) “I hear you son. I will work on that. I also have a request: Could you please work on listening when mommy speaks to you, and responding? I feel dishonored when you ignore me while I am speaking to you. Sometimes it feels like you don’t pay attention until I get upset. Could we both work on those things?”
Johnny: “Yeah mom. It sounds like we both have some things to work on and just need some more practice till we get better at it.” 🙂

Today is the day! Today is one year that we have survived, erhm, I mean, been on the job. Joking, mostly, but totally serious about celebrating this milestone! The past year has been amazingly fun, intensely challenging, beyond stretching, and an “in over my head” kind of beautiful! About 15 months ago, I prayed a dangerous prayer and asked God to “help me love the way You do. Help me to love people even when they’re being unlovable or I have an offense toward them. Help me mature in my love so that its no longer about me, but about You and Your beloveds- all of them.” Now, don’t read between the lines, I am NOT saying teens are unlovable. At the time I prayed this prayer, the youth pastor job hadn’t even been posted. More accurately, I’d spent about six months on staff at the School of Supernatural Life and was beginning to see that the way I loved people was based more off me: my preferences, my favorites, what I got out of it- and I was done. That veil was lifted and I didn’t like what I was seeing. I was desperate to know more of the heart of God and to love the way He does. So- I said my dangerous prayer with all sincerity and within about 3 months, I found myself and Brett as the new youth pastors! We were thrilled, nervous, excited and I had already forgotten that prayer I had prayed months earlier.

Let me give a little insight here. Brett, my amazing husband, was born for this job. No doubt about it. At 29 years young, he still is a teen at heart and always will be. He is naturally friends with all the young men at our church and gets them. He is an extrovert and has the gifting of exhortation and loves to love. It was no surprise that he would flourish in this position. I, on the other hand, am a little different. I am more introverted and I tend to come across very serious (which I think is just my mix of observing, contemplating, and/or administrative brain working out a plan). As a first born child with three younger brothers, I have always leaned more toward the “being responsible” personality types than the “cut loose and have a good time” ones that you read about in personality tests. One of my personal goals, however, is to learn to be more childlike and I knew being around teens a lot, I’d probably get some pointers.

What I didn’t know, prepare myself for, or even consider, is how much stretching it would take to learn to communicate with so many diverse people. And I don’t just mean teens. I am in conversation with their parents regularly. I am also interacting with people on a large scale and every single human we come into contact with has their filter, or lens if you will, of what “pastor” means (or should mean). Shoot, if I am honest, even I had my filters of what I should be looking like, doing, accomplishing, etc. Mix that with the fact that the previous youth pastors had been there for years and ran things differently than we did, and then we toss in the discomfort of change! (and like most adults, teenagers do not like change). So, I came into this job with expectations, and was completely caught off guard by how different we all are as people and our methods for interacting. There are WAY too many facets of that to mention this time, but I recognize now that there are many and that has helped my little heart to let everyone else, and myself, off the hook of expectation. I am realizing we are ALL in process. Especially me- and without grace and forgiveness, we won’t get anywhere but offended and isolated.

Which is where I was around Christmas. That’s right, I am walking in the light and confessing- I was struggling as a pastor. Six months into the job, I felt unappreciated, misunderstood, burnt out, and hurt. Not by any one person or thing in particular. More just because of so many “misses”. I like to have a plan and work the plan well as to manage resources responsibly. In the first six months, we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off just trying to figure out what we were doing. I felt major distress from this and missed the heart of it all. I had miscommunications with students and parents. I had misses with my family- both my kids and husband as well as my extended family. Life changed overnight and it was a big adjustment. By Christmas, I was questioning everything and in a desperate plea, I asked God what was going on?!? All I heard was my own quiet voice, “Father, help me love the way You do.” That was it. It was that simple. He was answering my prayer and I am in the thick of it. I am on a learning curve and learning is not always easy or comfortable. As we all know, it’s usually very uncomfortable and difficult and messy. And that is what it felt like. So, with relief and gratitude, I re-surrendered it all to Him and asked for wisdom on how to do this all His way and not my own.

The biggest tip He gave me was to enter back into rest. (God is a smart guy after all, so I decided to give it a more serious and intentional effort). Brett and I started delegating out more things. Trusting our assistant and team with more of the ministry tasks so we could be more available for relationship. Wow- it changed everything! I started praying “Father, give me Your eyes to see people, Your ears to hear people, and Your heart to love people” and He did. Daily, I would have new revelation of the Father’s love for people in my life, at the church, and even in the world. Grace flew in as offenses fell off. I could feel myself completely in over my head, but it was the most safe and secure I felt knowing my Daddy had it all taken care of. In this process, we found out we were pregnant with our third child, a son. At a routine prenatal appointment, we found out his precious heart had stopped beating. We prayed and petitioned God for a miracle for 3 days the week of Easter. After going back for another ultrasound, we were heartbroken to learn our son, Timothy Luke Ratliff, had returned to the arms of Jesus. This was a terrible heart breaking experience, but in the midst of it all, I was comforted to know I could grieve and simply rest in the arms of a loving Father who was taking care of every detail. As we stood before the youth group and shared what had happened, I noticed new depth of relationship and trust was unfolding between us and them. As our community poured out love and support, my appreciation for the body of Christ was refreshed. As we endured one of life’s most painful losses, our hearts were wrecked by the love and faithfulness of God the Father and the loving community He placed us in. It was a beautiful Romans 8:28 moment where God took a terrible loss and caused everything to work together for the good.

All the pruning of my old man that had happened in the most recent season was beginning to make way for new life and new fruit. All the difficulty of the first six months was being revealed in new light and God was giving me new tools and experiences to grow yet again. What I realized is while I do NOT have everything figured out, I have grown a bit and matured in my love. And that my dear friends- is a WIN! As we closed our first year as youth pastors last night, it was only fitting for my sweet, hysterically comical, five year old son to connect to the Holy Spirit and pour out some witty wisdom: “It sounds like we both have some things to work on and just need some more practice till we get better at it.” Yes, we are all in process. Being an imperfect person loving imperfect people is messy. Our Father in heaven is the only one who loves perfectly, but in His perfect love He is more than willing to keep growing us in love and perfecting us daily in Christ. And for that- I am incredibly grateful, comforted, and excited about my future!



Our children do not fit in a box! (and neither do we)

kids in a box

This afternoon I read Max Lucado’s book, The Oak Inside the Acorn to Elle and Johnny before rest time. It’s a precious story of how a little acorn had to let go of his mother oak, even though he was afraid, and go off into the world to be the oak God made him to be. It ends well and has a great story line that includes the importance of not trying to be anyone but who God created you to be. However, my sweet four-year-old Johnny could not get past the part where the frightened little acorn had to let go of his mommy oak tree. Johnny welled up with huge tears and continued to silently cry throughout the book. Upon finishing, he looked up at me completely heartbroken, wrapped his arms tightly around my neck and said, “Mommy, I don’t EVER want to let go of you!” (melting!)

In the midst of Johnny’s big emotion, I was intrigued by Elle’s reaction to him. She leaned over and whispered to me, “Why is Johnny crying?” Elle was not be condescending nor teasing. She genuinely did not understand what had upset him so much. She did not feel the same great devastation of letting go that Johnny and the little acorn in the story had. It amazes me how my two children, raised exactly the same, are so very different in nearly every situation.

After putting the kids down for a nap, I reflected on the whole scene. Neither child was wrong, or better, in their response to the story. In fact, when we were given that story a year ago, they each had different responses back then. I was tempted to post something cute on Facebook about Johnny, but immediately thought of all the comments/feedback I would receive. It would be easy to take our experience from today and label my children for the coming years: “Johnny is so sweet and tenderhearted, but Elle doesn’t even think about it.” Or maybe, “Johnny is such a mama’s boy but Elle is very independent.” All common things you hear parents say about their children. I believe these comments are never said with ill intentions, but they are common, and possibly harmful, non-the-less. So my question today is: Why do we put our children in boxes? Aren’t they in process? Don’t they deserve the space to grow and change. Today, that story hit something for Johnny that evoked him to display precious and wonderful emotion that I will treasure forever. But is that how he will react next year? Next week?

Better yet- Why do we put ourselves and each other in boxes? Don’t we deserve to also be in process and to change? Sure, it is helpful to come to know ourselves better as well as what we value, what feeds our spirits and what deflates them. But doesn’t that also change as we go through life experiences like marriage, crisis, parenthood, etc. I am pretty sure the only person who is the same yesterday, today and forever is God. But on that note- don’t we constantly try putting God in our box as well? I think we need to give Him space to blow up our boxes!

There is a sign someone painted at our church that says something like, “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.” We are made in His image and every day we seek after Him and His plans for our lives, we become more like Him. We are not the same yesterday, today and forever because we are constantly in process. Our children are constantly in process. Lets all have a little more grace for ourselves, and each other, and stop wasting time permanently labeling people with our nuances. Instead lets celebrate the beauty of our process and stages and energize each other with life-giving encouragements.

After cuddling Johnny and assuring him he would not have to let go of mommy the way the acorn did, I hugged both of my children and told them how much I love their hearts. I told them that I love how God is shaping their individual personalities and that I get to be their mommy. I am guilty of at times labeling my children. But today, I celebrated the moment and tried to just allow it to be that- a wonderful moment. In ten years, Johnny may still be very emotive and Elle may not, or visa versa. But today, I will not label them and convince them they are to be any one way. I will celebrate the wonder of the present and be open to what God has for each of them.