I heard Randall Wallace, author of the screenplays Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, quote a Persian proverb, "When the heart is willing, it will find a thousand ways. When the heart is unwilling, it will find a thousand excuses."
Recently my mind went back to a conversation with someone I'd known for almost 20 years. We'd both worked with young people for about the same length of time; Rob became a full-time youth worker, and I continued to volunteer. For more than a year I volunteered for him at a church. One day, I went into Rob's office, and in the course of conversation, gently mentioned that people who didn't know and like him as I did were getting frustrated because he was so hard to get in touch with during the day. He wasn't gifted in the phone-call-returning department either, which made it even worse. Rob got defensive. I reasserted my genuine concern, not my judgment. Rob flatly informed me that I didn't have a voice in his life to concern myself with things that were none of my business. Well, alrighty then; I'll just be slinking out.
You can't have it both ways. You're either in charge, or you're supporting the one who is. If you're supporting the one who is, you're either really supporting them, or you're stewing because you don't want to or wish they'd do things differently—dare I say, better. What if you don't "have a voice" in their lives? In our case, I realized Rob didn't want me to assume a co-worker role, regardless of our friendship. Right or wrong, it was a valuable lesson about understanding one's place in relation to the person in charge. When the heart of a volunteer youth ministry worker is willing, it'll find ways to work well with those in charge. When the heart is unwilling, it'll find excuses not to—especially when the youth pastor's decisions, time management or people skills are in question. I've decided that advancing God's work and having healthy working relationships based on mutual respect always will trump being heard and getting my point across.
Uncomfortable situations like the one above have helped develop me into someone who, without trying, ended up being a voice in the lives of several youth pastors—on issues beyond showing up at the office and returning calls. About five years ago (and post-Rob), something changed in my influence of other youth leaders. Though I taught an occasional workshop for leaders, this new dynamic wasn't an upfront, formal thing. It took the form of e-mails, phone calls and quietly being pulled aside by youth pastors picking my brain about things they knew I might have some knowledge about, not because of any seminary degree or major accomplishment—just by virtue of my years involved.
I've worked with every personality and leadership style. I've been part of a large youth and young adult ministry with 75 volunteers on board, in another place with 11 total combined students and leaders, and groups with numbers in between. I've seen just about every youth ministry paradigm, from the meticulously planned to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along. I've struggled with almost every emotion that could fit into my imaginary book Help! I'm a Youth Worker in the Fetal Position!