A letter to my youth leader

Dear you,

For whatever reason or reasons, you’ve been coming to mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s because the youth group at my church has a lot of cool events for youth that they’re talking about. Maybe it’s because my last close friend from my youth group days is getting married in a week. Regardless the reason — you’ve been on my mind.

It’s funny to look back at those three and a half years we spent together on Sundays and Tuesdays and so many days in between. I loved the hours and I dreaded them at the same time. Don’t ask me how, because it was nice to be with you and with my other friends, but I think I secretly felt a lot of judgment and shame, especially in the later half of our time together.

It used to be easy for me to be angry and blame you, all of you, collectively and individually. And in retrospect, you weren’t perfect in your guidance — but it’s so clear to me now, at 31 (older than you were when you lead me!) that no one is perfect. If I were in your shoes with a student like me… Well, I don’t even know what I’d say or do.

One of the things I’ve realized is how woefully underprepared and undertrained you were. Actually. Let’s call you unskilled and unprepared. It’s not your fault. You felt a calling to serve, and you did the very best you could. You didn’t go through any kind of ministry training or seminary or even a volunteer class or two. You didn’t have a degree in counseling or extensive experience with teenagers aside from being one yourself a few years before you lead us. You had to jump in and it was sink or swim, and you did your very best to swim. It is difficult for me to harbor any hurt or anger when I think of how you couldn’t’ve possibly known what the heck you were doing.

Over the last decade+, I’ve talked a lot of criticism and been very angry at you, and a few years ago I did something to let most of that go. I understand now that we didn’t have healthy leadership and you were working within your means. I just want to say a giant thank you — for every one of my letters you read and responded to, for every tearful phone conversation, for every awkward and emotional talk we had, for every time you dragged my butt out of bed during summer or winter camp, for every car ride and every hour you invested in me and my friends: thank you.

In the grand scheme of things, I turned out pretty ok, and you are in so many of my cheerful memories. Beach camps sleeping on church multipurpose room floors and eating Taco Bell burritos on the hot cement. Trips to Magic Mountain during the summers. All-nighters sleeping on church chairs. Girls’ slumber parties. Skate nights. Having someone to make me feel heard in the midst of the drama of being a teenage girl. Laughing during home groups. Missions trips. Youth Convention. Maybe not every memory is perfect, and maybe there was some pain there. But I cannot reflect on the good times without your face being there, too.

I am older now than you were then, and I shake my head at stepping up to leading high schoolers. I see the fight it must be, and the fight it was back then, to love teenagers who act in unloving ways, and I am filled with a compassion that only comes from growing up and experience and most of all, the grace and mercy of a forgiving God. You were much braver than I am now!

All my love,

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