Several years ago, I learned a lesson. It’s a hard lesson, and like most hard lessons, it hurt to learn, and it’s a valuable lesson, and like most of the good lessons, I sometimes need to re-learn it. So, in hopes of helping myself do that, I want to share these thoughts.
Once upon a time, I was a new youth leader in a new youth ministry. I was untested, inexperienced and overly aware of both of those things. My first day on the job was July 1, and my first Sunday youth group was July 2 (a remarkable amount of prep time, I know). But, even with only a day of prep and even less previous experience, things went alright. Actually, things went pretty well, and in the following months and years, one ministry grew to be three, a handful of kids turned into dozens, and my inexperience and untestedness turned into wisdom and know how. And, of course, the by product of experience and success, I found myself developing a bit of an ego. Through a little bit of natural ability and instinct, a fair amount of luck and enthusiasm among the teens, and a whole lot of help from the Holy Spirit, things were going really well.
7 long years of youth ministry and some church consulting later, I found myself sitting around a table with several other area youth leaders looking to create a collaborative youth retreat for all our area youth. We had decided that together we could combine resources and provide a greater impact than separately. I was quick to volunteer to lead this project because I had the largest budget of all the groups, I had the most experience leading dozens of youth retreats, and I had the biggest ego in the room. The retreat was something that we had all deemed as very important in our individual and collective ministries, and I was initially excited to work with these other youth leaders.
But, as the process went on, I found myself turning down other people’s ideas, taking on too much responsibility, getting frustrated and, at the event itself, stressed out because I had bitten off more than I could chew. My ego had done a great job writing a check that I am not sure I could cash, and it came at the cost of the retreat itself. Luckily, the team I was working with was as great at what they did and were able to support me when I needed it.
There were three issues my ego created that blocked solid collaboration, each having their own complications but each causing the same roadblock. Collaboration should be such a big part of what youth ministers do, but these things stopped it in its tracks.
When it came time to choose a speaker, all of the other youth leaders chose to hire an outside speaker, when I of course wanted to do it myself. I had spent so many years doing my own thing that I had the notion that I could do it as well as anyone else, which is a ridiculous thought. In some cases, a speaker can do a better job speaking simply because they aren’t me. My youth need to hear from other voices with other paths and experiences. But I got all wrapped up in the concept of turf. Somehow, I had this idea that speaking or leading the retreat was my territory, that my experience gave me some sort of claim to the entire weekend. I became critical of every possible idea and speaker suggestion, much to the frustration of the other leaders.
There is a big difference between me being confident in my abilities and having an over-inflated ego. Ego says, I can do everything better. Confidence says, I can do this well.
Being valuable and invaluable are very different things and because I couldn’t see that, I wasn’t being either. The lesson I learned was to be open to the idea that others can do what they do better than I can do what they do. Including others in my process is a good thing. Having new people leading in my ministry or contributing to the planning is a good thing. We hired a speaker that spoke and lead the retreat in a way I have never done and would not do well, and the retreat was amazing because of it.
Because I had this notion that my way was the best way, I began to commit to take on more and more. There were things that I had the most experience in and could do the best, like designing the logo and marketing materials, but then there were things that anyone could do, like assigning the cabins to groups and taking the shirt orders. And then there were things that others could clearly have done better, like keeping the financial records and coordinating with the camp ground (it’s taken me years to accept it, but I am terrible at paperwork!). But, because I had my ego-throne to sit on, I began committing to doing it all.
I have always thought of myself as an above-average leader, but my inability to delegate work or accept help with this retreat was a glaring contradiction to that thought. Leadership is often about admitting others can do something as well or better than you, then equipping them to do so. I didn’t help the retreat by taking on all of these tasks. In fact, I was so busy with most of these tasks that I found myself slacking on other areas of ministry and having to spend my days off and evenings writing lesson plans and finishing projects for non-retreat church stuff.
The lesson I learned was that if I am not willing to let go of my ministry or project, it will only be as big as I can carry. With the help of others, the outcome is greater than any one of us could have done on our own.
Closed For Business
Because of my focus on me and my inability to let others help, I was burnt out on the parts of the retreat that I was responsible for and overly critical of the parts I wasn’t. This led to a near-shutdown in my connection to the others. I found myself almost giving up, tired of what I believed to be walking on eggshells and settling for others’ ideas, when in reality I was closing up for business. It’s sad to look back on this point, because I was creating this barrier between myself and the other leaders, who were justifiably becoming less and less patient with me. As some of my good friends now, it pains me to think of what they must have thought of the ego maniac I was coming across as.
Somehow we made it through the weekend together and everything went off as planned. The youth had a great time, we didn’t overspend and none of the other leaders tried to smother me in my sleep, so the weekend was a success. At the end of the retreat, there was a moment that the other leadership asked for a round of applause for me, the “leader”, of this retreat that had turned out so well. And, as the youth whooped and hollered their approval and the other leaders clapped enthusiastically, I found myself embarrassed. In many ways, the retreat was such a success in spite of me, not because of me. I had found several ways of letting my ego block creativity and collaboration. I had made the retreat less than it could have been, and in that way my ego got in the way of my calling and my ministry. Luckily, a team of dedicated youth leaders were there to help pick up the slack. That day, I decided that I will never let that happen again. The faith and discipleship of the youth I am privileged to work with is worth more than my ego.
I think back to that retreat whenever I get the chance to work with other youth leaders or teachers, because it is a sobering reminder of what happens when I let my ego go unchecked. I have since then done two other retreats with the same group of leaders and have been blessed to see amazing things happen through the work we all do together. Because I work to check my ego at the door, I have found that the four years since that retreat have been more fruitful than all of the years before because I try to collaborate with those that are better than me. It makes me stronger at what I do and keeps me humble and gracious to be able to work with such amazing people. I thank God for those opportunity to learn and I try to remember every day that I am not nearly as great as we can all be together.