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Monday, November 24, 2008

Latest book entry

If you read my blog over a year ago, you know that I have a lifelong dream of writing and pubishing a book. I have ideas of what it will be on, but it has to have some life stories involoved. The following is what I have learned in youth ministry and how I got there. I find it to be interesting, tell me if you do too.

If you read the whole post then please comment, I will make sure to send you the first copy of my book to be released in 2025.


Youth Ministry

Conversion Experience

My journey in youth ministry began on March 26, 1996. It was on this date, that as a 13 year-old boy I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my Lord and Savior. It was the beginning of my life, and even if I didn’t know it then, it would be the beginning of my ministry and my career as well.

I was not raised in a Christian home and had no Christian role models. I was at the age when I was trying to decide where my life was heading. I had to find my identity, and the process was not coming easy. I was very lonely and could be very depressed, but really I had a lot of anger and was unaware of how to channel and control my emotions.

I had one too many fights with my family and I decided that I was running away from home. I thought that it would be easy to find a place to stay for the night, but it was a school night and that made it impossible. I decided then that I would sleep in the grass of this local area. The grass had dew on it and there were bugs crawling, but it was then in that grass that I had my first “encounter” with God. As I looked up at the stars that night I said, “God, there has to be more than this.” There was. I made a bargain with God right then (something I do not suggest) that if I went home and everything would be okay that I would go to church or something.

I then made the walk back to my house (I didn’t run away very far) and my mother was very happy to see me and it seemed as though God kept His end of the bargain.

The next day my neighbor (the local smiley, power-walker) invited me to church. After the previous night’s ordeal, I thought that if I did not go to church with her then I would get struck with a lightning bolt. So that Sunday I had my first real church experience at First Baptist Church of Tampa. I had no idea what to expect.

The first thing I remember is how nice all of the other youth were. They all acted as though they really cared about who I was. I was shocked. I remember meeting the youth pastor and being overwhelmed by how cool I thought he was. I don’t remember the Sunday School lesson, and I don’t remember the sermon, but I do remember sitting in a beautiful sanctuary and seeing Alex NeSmith, the Minister of Music crying as he sang a song. This was so foreign to me, and yet so intriguing. I loved every bit of it and wanted to continue going back.

That day set the stage for March 26, 1996 when the youth pastor and three other youth (that I remembered were all very nice to me) came to my house on what I now know was an Evangelism Explosion visit. I do not remember hearing the whole outline, but the part I do remember was when the youth pastor (JJ Johnson) said, “God loved you so much that He sent His son to die for you.” That blew me away. I did not know that I was loved at all, and especially not that much. Whatever he asked me to do that night I would have done, no questions asked.

Fast forward a little bit and the story takes me to my first youth camp. I could not afford it, but someone in the church anonymously paid for me and my brother to go. I don’t remember a lot of the details of the camp, but I do remember very clearly that the camp speaker Turk Holt (a huge man) broke down in tears and said, “If Jesus didn’t die on the cross, I would love Him just the same.” That saying would revolutionize my thinking.

I had what most would say is a “typical camp experience” and the emotion and the Spirit of the camp had me sobbing and weeping and wondering why I was such a terrible person. I asked to speak to JJ and I told him that I didn’t think I was saved and he told me, “Yes you are, I was there, and I have seen the fruit in your life.” He then proceeded to tell me that what I was feeling was called conviction, and it meant that God wanted me to do more with my life.

That was not just a “typical camp experience” for me; it was something that completely changed my life. When I returned from youth camp I realized the importance and the severity of sharing my faith with other people. As a result, a lot of people in my inner circle got saved; friends, acquaintances, my father, my cousin, my aunt, and my 82-year old grandmother. It was quite a conversion experience.

My Youth Group Experience

There was no place this side of Heaven that I would rather have been as a teenager then at church. Whatever it was that was being offered, I was going to be there. Luckily, my neighbor would take me to church on Sundays and Wednesdays and on a few other occasions, but if she was not involved with something I had to get creative on ways to get to church. I lived quite a ways away, and my dad always worked, and my mom can’t drive. I would call everyone I knew and beg to get driven to church, even if I had no legitimate way back home. Sometimes I would take the city bus, which took about an hour and a half with three transfers. But whatever it took I would make it to the church.

I got involved in a lot of things that would mold my life as a youth pastor. I was asked to do Bible Drills, in which I memorized all the books of the Bible (I previously had no idea) and learned a lot of verses that I still have memorized today.

The year after Bible Drills I was asked to do the speakers tournament. I did it for three years and finally my senior year of high school, I won state. This would mold me as a public speaker. The pastor’s wife spent hours upon hours with me to make me an excellent public speaker.

I was asked to be on an Evangelism Explosion team, and since I knew the merits of it, I gladly signed up. I am now a certified trainer who has (as of yesterday) trained 40 members of my local church in Evangelism Explosion.

But one of the greatest things that happened to me was that I was asked to be in Student Leadership University. I was shocked and blown away when JJ told me that I was a natural leader, that was the first time I had ever heard anything like that. In SLU I was held to a higher standard then everyone else. I was asked to read my Bible daily, and to share to gospel on a regular basis, and to help with small details of the youth ministry. It was very difficult because I felt a lot of times like JJ was being hard on me, but as I look back at the whole process, it was this accountability that made me who I am today.

It didn’t take long after my conversion experience until I realized that I desired more from my life. I went to my pastor, Dr. Jim Knight, and told him that I think I was being called to full-time Christian service. He said, “I know.” He then told me something that I repeat to every youth that comes to me with the same intentions. I say, “If you can picture yourself doing anything else with your life, then do it… if not then God is calling you and you have to follow Him.” I dedicated my life to full-time Christian service on Mothers Day of 1997, a little more than a year after being saved.

One more thing I want to point out about my youth years is this. One day, JJ called me up and asked me to come to the church. I thought he wanted me to do something for him. I caught the city bus and made my way to the church. JJ told me to get in the car and he took me to Westshore Plaza, the local mall. He took me into Structure (which is a store my parents could never afford) and told me to find what I wanted. I was completely and totally blown away. I never had nice clothes to wear and now I finally would. I still to this day don’t know if he paid for it out of his own pocket or out of a church benevolence fund, but I knew that one day I wanted to help kids out the way that he did with me.

A year or so after that, the Senior Pastor called up and the same occurrence happened, only this time he took me to Men’s Wearhouse and I got my first ever suit. He was getting me ready for the speaker’s tournament and I will never forget that hospitality either.

The College Years

The college years were a hard time for me. I was given complete independence and had no one holding me accountable for any decisions I was making in my life. I decided to leave home and go to the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville. I finished one semester and got real homesick and decided to go to community college.

I missed the deadline for community college and so I took a semester off. I got a nice job and dabbled with the idea of not going into the ministry. It was then that I had a chance occurrence with a man named Edwin Newman while I was camping. He was on the site next to us, and he was there with his youth group. We hit it off so much that he asked me to come and intern with him. This revitalized my zeal for the ministry.

The Sumer of 2001 I decided to make a big move that only college-age kids can make. I decided to leave everything and go to Colorado as a camp counselor. The whole summer was crazy and exhausting but I saw so many kids get saved that I was ready to go back to the Baptist College.

This time though I did not even make it through the semester and started working full-time at a Cracker Barrel in Dothan, Alabama. I was close to forgoing the ministry. It was then that I got a vision of my future and I realized that if I did not get back in college that I would be stuck in a dead end job for the rest of my life. I could not accept that.

I moved back to Tampa and transferred to the closest Cracker Barrel and stayed wherever I could find am open couch. I finally got registered for community college and I worked very hard to go to school full time and work full time but I finally got my Associates Degree.

It was now that my life would hit a fork in the road. I got involved in this business model (pyramid scheme) and I saw the potential to make a lot of money as a business man. I had to decide whether or not I was going to go to USF or to this college that my friend told me about, Trinity.

I had a day off of work and had decided that I was going to go and talk with both schools. I decided to start with Trinity College. Little did I know that not only would I never make it to USF, but that day I would meet the woman I would spend the rest of my life with. I walked into the admissions office and there with a huge smile on her face was Heather Fitzgerald, and even though we had only really met one time, she remembered me, and my life has never been the same.

At this crossroads in my life I finally realized that life was not about getting money, or even making other people money… my life HAD to be about sharing the love of Christ with anyone and everyone I meet.

My First Ministry Job

Shortly after Heather and I got married I started to think about ministry opportunities. I was currently working at a warehouse making sealant for tile, and I was very grateful for the job, but I was definitely looking for more. Heather and I were interning at First Baptist Church of Lutz at this point in our lives.

I was only 21 and still had a year left in my degree program so I was not actively looking for a ministry position because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to offer. I decided to sit down and write a very detailed resume, that wasn’t necessarily about my ministry accomplishments, but was about what I would do if I were a youth pastor. My resume was about 7 pages long and it had the best picture I could find of my wife and I one the front page.

One Monday night while at the Trinity Quest program, my wife and I were a little early and started looking at the bulletin board. On the bulletin board was a request for a youth pastor at Willow Bend Community Church in Land’O’Lakes. The next day at the warehouse I called and talked to the pastor. I remember this very clearly because his name was Geoff Gordon and I wrote his information on a Dale Earnhardt Jr. notepad. Pastor Geoff is an incredible man of faith and he scheduled me for my first ever ministry interview.

I was more nervous than I had ever been in my life, and I was so blessed to have my wife next to me. My wife understood what I was too nervous to understand and frequently rephrased the question for me to buy me some time to think. The amazing thing is that Pastor Geoff is such a man of faith that he said that even though he got over 100 resumes for this job that the second he saw our picture, he knew we were the ones.

This was a “part-time” youth ministry position and along with not very much pay there were a few other draw backs. First of all, there was no church building. There had been a year and a half of red tape in getting the permits for their future building. Our church services were held on a slab of concrete underneath of a yellow circus tent. We had huge fans set up and a sound system and chairs were set up every Sunday and taken down immediately afterward. This would also be where our youth meetings would be held. This was cool most of the time, but in the summer time we had to get creative because the weather forecast ALWAYS called for rain, and parents don’t like it when there kids are next to medal poles in a lightning storm. We occasionally had to have youth group at the local McDonalds.

The second issue was that there was no youth budget. When I asked what the youth budget was, Pastor Geoff said, “You are the youth budget.” So I had to get creative with what I did. I would frequently take my TV and DVD player from my living room and load it up in the car when I wanted to show a video clip. I had to get donations for every little thing that we did, and we had a poor congregation as well as youth group and so fundraisers became a huge part of what we did. I oftentimes ended up paying for a lot of little things out of my own pocket, and it added up real fast.

The third, and probably biggest issue with my first youth pastor job was this… there were no youth. There were a few teenagers that had family in the congregation, and a list of other teenagers that don’t go to church, but other than that there were no youth. When I first arrived the church was having youth meetings on Sunday nights, and the first one that I was in charge of had six adult leaders (which was awesome) but only three teenagers. It was very discouraging to plan a message for three youth, but it was my job to grow it.

We didn’t have a lot of resources and we didn’t really have a draw so I had to figure out what strengths we did have. Our greatest strength was the amount of adults who were willing to do whatever it takes to see the youth ministry be successful. Another strength was that I lived in the area my whole life and had made connections of people that could help. We added a lot of younger youth workers, who were just acquaintances of mine that were ready to have a more hands on opportunity in ministry. The last strength was the big open field that our circus tent was on. It became evident very fast that by having Frisbees and footballs every week that we could attract a lot of younger boys, and that is exactly what happened. We grew in numbers to a maximum of 25 weekly students before I left, but the whole time I was there, there were probably only five total girls that came through our ministry. But we were reaching the boys, and we were reaching boys that had a lot of baggage and would never go to a “typical” church.

An immediate change that I had to make was to change the night of the youth service. By having it on Sunday night it felt as though I never saw the kids. I would see them on Sunday morning, Sunday night and then not again until the following Sunday morning. I couldn’t develop any accountability with them by only seeing them one day a week. The great thing was that I told the Pastor that I wanted to switch youth group to Wednesday nights, and he agreed to start a Wednesday night Bible study for the adults at the same time, so that parents would have no excuse not to bring their kids. This was great for the church as well.

In addition to my duties as youth pastor, it was also part of my job description to have a college ministry. Now this was a bit out of my comfort zone. I was in a few college groups, but I was not in one that would be deemed “successful.” I had to figure out how to have a college ministry. Once again I had to look at my strengths.

We had more college students who were looking to be filled in our church then we did youth. Some of those were youth workers. We had one of the largest universities in the country close to us. (USF) And the greatest part was the Pastor’s sister owned a coffee house real close to the church that she opened up for us on Thursday nights specifically for our college group.

The first night of college group after setting up booths at USF and handing out flyers and sweet tea, and all of the word of mouth advertising that we did… our first meeting had only 4 people. (Including me and my wife) The two people were Cat and Buddy and they didn’t even go to our church, although it wouldn’t be long before they did, and we would become GREAT friends.

Our college study was going through a small group curriculum on the book of Romans. I had it set up to ask open ended questions, get a lot of dialogue going and then close it with a summary of what the particular passage was showing. As it would turn out this was excellent for what this college group wanted. I made no changes to this group in the first 6 months except for my buddy Mike Hall came and led us in worship before the Bible study began. I made it a Thursday afternoon tradition to call everyone that had ever come to our college group and ask if they were coming. If they were not going to come they had to have the courage to tell me why they were not coming.

After our first week of only four people, we had eight the next week, and I think we maxed out at close to thirty college students. I was putting all of my effort in trying to grow the youth group and it did not grow in the first six months. I put almost no effort into growing the college group and it just exploded, and ministry was really happening.

Unfortunately, the Pastor’s sister had to sell the coffee shop and we had to move our group to the church and after the first semester a lot of schedules changed, life happened, and the ministry plateaued. We were still growing and lives were being changed but it wasn’t at quite as fast a pace as it was before.

As far as the youth group went I felt a real sense of responsibility to the kids in our youth group. Life has a way of coming full circle, and the people our ministry was attracting was people that were a lot like I was when I was a teenager. We didn’t have ideal church kids, we didn’t have the popular kids… but these kids looked up to me and to the other youth leaders and we had an immense obligation to lead these students in the way of the Word.

We named our youth group “The Refuge” after one of the verses I learned in Bible Drills. Psalm 62:8 “Trust in Him at all time, you people. Pour out your heart before Him. God is a REFUGE for us.” This verse fit our youth ministry perfectly. We had a lot of foster kids and we had a bipolar kid and we had a kid with autism, but mostly we had kids that had never felt loved. We wanted our ministry to be a place where any kids can come and feel like they belong and like they are accepted, and that God loves them just as much as He does anyone else. That was our main goal in ministry.

During this amazing time at Willow Bend I got connected with this group that headed up what was called The Faith Based Initiative at San Antonio Boys Village. This was a program that Jeb and Laura Bush put into effect and got a 3 million dollar grant for. The rate for teenagers that get out of jail going directly back into jail before their first year out was at something like 80%. The Faith Based Initiative gave some of these teenage inmates the option of going to the Boys Village for a different type of program. These boys signed up to be in prison for only six months, to get matched up with a Christian mentor, and for the next six months after being released had to get involved in their mentors church a minimum of once a week.

Our church got involved and it was amazing. We had a lot of our men sign up to be mentors and we led their chapel service for one Sunday night a month. It was one of those times in life when you feel like you are doing relevant ministry. After the first couple years of this program the inmates who went back to jail after one year of being out dropped from around 80% to around 17% for the boys in the Faith Based Initiative. It is one the thing that I am most proud of from my first ministry year. Sadly though, when Charlie Crist took over he did away with the program. This is just another of his many bad moves. (But that’s for another paper entirely)

From this time in my ministry I learned a lot of things. I learned that I need to live a lot more on faith. This is a lesson that the life of Pastor Geoff taught me. I learned that you could do ministry without a lot of resources, you just have to be creative. I learned that the first thing you need to do in building a youth ministry is to build a healthy adult leadership team. I also learned that I loved being a youth pastor and that this is exactly what I will do with the rest of my life.

Moving to South Carolina

Things up to this point had been really great, but I only knew they were really great in hindsight. One of the greatest lessons I learned from the next two years if my life is that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

We finished our degree program at Trinity and had a year of youth ministry under our belt and now it was time to spread our wings. Married life was not going too well, we had no idea had to deal with family issues because we were from two completely different family dynamics. I did not see our marriage lasting very long in the current situation because the stress of ministry and families was weighing on us. Jesus said you cannot be a prophet in your hometown, and I completely understood that. Ministry is a 24/7, lifetime commitment, and we were being pulled in too many different directions to every truly be “successful.”

The greatest thing I could ever say about my wife, is that when I suggested we move away from everyone and everything we had ever known, she said yes without any hesitation. My wife is the absolute greatest human being on the planet.

So we had personal reasons to leave Tampa, but selfishly I thought I needed a “typical” youth ministry with all the bells and whistles. I needed a youth budget and sanctuary and an office, to be completely honest I needed more than the money I was getting paid at Willow Bend too.

I put my resume on a lot of different websites and sent it to a couple churches, and one day a pastor from South Carolina called and asked me if we wanted to fly up to South Carolina for an interview. We heard all that was there: approximately 60-70 kids, a huge gymnasium, a beautiful building, $14,500 youth budget, and a salary that was over 4 times what I was making at Willow Bend… of course we will fly up.

The interview went well, and it seemed like most of the people on the committee liked me. It seemed like the Pastor’s wife was my biggest supporter, I found out later that she fought for me to get hired. So here we are two 22 year old newlyweds leaving everything in Tampa, FL and moving to South Carolina where we knew NO ONE.

I honestly was enamored by the differences in the two churches. I loved having church indoors. I loved having an office. I loved kids that had already been programmed to go to church on Wednesdays. I loved a lot of the kids. But this wasn’t nearly as simple as my last church.

In South Carolina I was introduced to something called “church politics.” It was ugly and it was everywhere. First of all, I had my first experience of following another youth pastor. He had a good following and I was not him. Some of the students resented me before they even met me, as though I made the guy leave. Some of the adult leaders, including the pastor’s wife, didn’t take very well to the change that had occurred and emotionally detached themselves from the youth ministry. In addition to all that, I went from having a Pastor that loved me and was an amazing role model to having a Pastor that I did not trust.

The other issue that I did not foresee in moving to South Carolina was that I could not relate to these students and to this culture at all. I was only three states away my whole life, but it may as well have been another planet. Evangelism wasn’t a big deal because everyone was “saved.” Church was just something you always did, and so I became more of an event coordinator than a youth pastor, I set up the social lives of 60-70 teenagers. I could never tell when a commitment that was being made was genuine or not, crying at an altar was a weekly occurrence for some kids, almost like going to a Catholic confession booth. There was also a spirit of negativity throughout the church, complaining was the spiritual gift of even the greatest Christians of the church. I did not fit in there very well at all.

One of the main things that bothered me was the spirit of racism that predicated every aspect of life in South Carolina. I had no intentions of moving to South Carolina and being any sort of race relation change agent, because I thought that racism went away 40 years ago. Not only was it prevalent, but it was accepted, and any sort of change was an abomination. The saddest part is that I am not just talking about the adults; I am talking about the teenagers as well. It is a sad, sad commentary on human existence when in the year 2005 bigotry was still an accepted practice in the United States.

People in our church referred to people of the opposite race as “those people” and made grand generalizations about what “those people” do. The statement “I am not racist” is always followed with “I have a black friend” which of course means that you still see them as black. I was told once at a convention that I went to that if I kept “talking like that” that I would eventually lose my job. I had no intention of being a Civil Rights leader but I REFUSE to teach my teenagers that racism is okay, regardless of the consequences.

In the midst of two of the most difficult years of my life there were some bright spots. One of the things that our church did well was disaster relief. We moved to South Carolina just as Hurricane Katrina was reeking havoc. The pastor had a pastor friend in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. I personally made two trips to Mississippi in support of this church that had been destroyed in the hurricane. We saw a lot of pain and a lot of devastation, but I truly believe that we did a lot of good for these people and we held the banner of Jesus high on these trips. They were some of the most depressing trips I had ever been on, but they were the rare times when I knew that I was doing what God wanted me to do.

One of my other job requirements when I took the job in South Carolina was that I was in charge of the Upward basketball ministry. During basketball season we would have kids from K5 to 6th grade going through this ministry and on most occasions we would have more people come through the doors of our church on a Saturday then we did the next day on Sunday. This was one of the flagship programs of the church.

These two years was a great learning experience for me. I learned to be grateful when you are in a good situation. I learned that in ministry you can NEVER follow the money. I learned that my wife is the greatest partner I could ever have. And I learned that if you cannot click with your Senior Pastor then you will never be “successful.” One of the main things I learned was from the book, Seizing your Divine Moment by Erwin McManus. In the book he said something that I never thought of before; he said that just because God calls you to do something doesn’t mean that you won’t “fail.” God said He would never leave us or forsake us. He never said He would make us a success. I learned this lesson well, but I know that this situation was a time in my life that I can compare everything else to and appreciate what I now have.

My Current Church

Everything came to a head in South Carolina and it became very apparent to all parties involved that it was time to move on. I went back to the internet and I went back to sending my resume out. I had three major interviews within months of each other and they were all back in Florida.

On Easter of 2007 we went to church at this amazing church in Clearwater. This was a very relevant church that had a lot of things going for it. Our interview lasted three full days… three “full” days. It was a grueling interview process, and we had to deal with something we never had before… rejection. For the first time in my life I didn’t get a job that I interviewed for and it was pretty devastating.

We had to get over it fast because we had two more interviews coming up soon. We went on the same road in Clearwater for a 24 hour interview. They flew us in, put us up in this nice condo, fed us 4 times, razzled and dazzled us and put us back on the plane.

That weekend we had another interview in Haines City, Florida. We thought it was pretty strange because we were not being flown down for this interview, they wanted us to drive. Everything about this church was less impressive. It was further away from Tampa, which was where we wanted to get close to. It was paying $15,000 less a year than the first one, and when asked about the youth budget, everyone always laughed. There was no reason in the world we should have gone to NorthRidge over the church in Clearwater… except… we believed in the Pastor and we bought into the vision that he had.

We got offered both positions and turned the church in Clearwater down to accept less money and virtually no perks, because we learned our lesson before… NEVER follow the money.

To be honest, I had my doubts at first. I was told the youth ministry at one time had 200 students; my first night there was twelve students. And there was a learning curve between me and the staff. I now had developed trust issues, and I continuously thought that people had ulterior motives. I was second guessing my decision for the first month or so.

I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am where God wants to me to be. We run 60 faithful, eager students on Wednesday night. We have 10 faithful youth workers that I would take a bullet for. We have a congregation that is in love with Jesus. We have an Academy where students are being taught to grow into mature Christian adults following after Christ. Most of all, we have a Pastor, Pastor David Myers, that is as humble as he is great. Someone I can model my life after. He is an amazing Pastor and an incredible family man. He has the biggest servant’s heart I have ever seen. He is my biggest supporter, and I am his.

The thing that I have learned the most from my current ministry position is to cherish what you have. I have learned to make the most of every opportunity. I have learned that living a life of ministry will not get you rich with money, but there are greater rewards in Heaven.

I look forward to many more years in ministry, and it is all thanks to those who invested in me at such a young age.