It was a simple blurb in our church bulletin: "Volunteers needed for youth ministry." As a newly married 20-something, I thought working with teenagers sounded like fun. And I wanted to get involved in our church's ministry. But the position came with a sizable time commitment, and between work and our other obligations, I didn't want to spend that much time away from my husband, Erik. That's when I had a great idea: we could both get involved in working with youth!
So I asked Erik the fateful question: "Honey, how do you feel about youth ministry?"
"I guess we can give it a try," he replied tentatively, obviously having never considered it before.
With that we jumped into youth ministry with both feet. It felt wonderful to do something for God while working together as a couple. It not only strengthened our relationship with Christ, it strengthened our marriage by allowing us to focus as a team on a common goal.
But a few months into our new roles, the youth pastor left, and Erik and I found ourselves heading the weekly youth meetings! Because we were both committed to making our adventure work, we hung in there, working even closer together as a team because of the difficulty of the challenge.
Unearthing the benefits
I wish I could say we were a resounding success at our new post. But finding ourselves suddenly in charge, with no training or experience, was more than we'd bargained for. It required more time and creativity than we'd planned or wanted to give.
Yet even in those less-than-ideal circumstances, I began to see strengths in Erik I'd never recognized—and would not have discovered had we not volunteered to work together.
It amazed me how naturally he could get down on the floor and watch a science fiction movie with the guys—not as someone "ministering" to them, but as a friend. I was proud that, even after a hard workweek, Erik would spend his Friday night watching a JV basketball game in some small town just because a student invited him. And even though Erik never asked to be put in charge and wasn't entirely comfortable with that role, he always stepped up to lead the meetings when no one else was available—even when the kids seemed less than interested.
Erik and I also learned to appreciate sharing activities we wouldn't normally choose, such as camping with 40 students. We found our joint ministry responsibilities drew us closer together spiritually, as we dealt with struggling teenagers and prepared for meetings. Those situations allowed us to develop our communication as we discussed and prayed for the best solutions to problems.
When the church finally hired a new youth pastor, we breathed a shared sigh of relief and took a well-needed break. But we were more committed than ever to finding ways we could serve together.
Finding our stride
That first fateful question has been followed by many others—sometimes initiated by Erik and sometimes by me: "How do you feel about short-term mission trips . . . homeless shelters . . . foster children . . . construction projects . . . nursing homes . . . puppets . . . housing Peruvian nationals . . . ?"
We soon realized that we shouldn't assume we have the same gifts or interests. This became evident to me when, without asking Erik, I volunteered us to lead a small group Bible study. I loved it and couldn't fathom that Erik wouldn't find teaching as exhilarating as I did. Erik good-naturedly agreed to being volunteered because it would allow us to be together. But as he struggled through teaching the lessons, I realized that wasn't his gift or interest.
We began to discuss which volunteer opportunities excited us and which ones left us unfulfilled and disinterested. The more we learned about our individual gifts, the more we realized how different we are. We also discovered that those differences weren't necessarily a death knell for working together in the same ministry.
It was often possible to find ministries in which we could use our gifts in a complementary way. When Erik and I directed an annual Christian conference, I used my administrative skills to plan the event and he used his gifts of service and hospitality to keep everything running smoothly.
Because we're so different, we naturally stretch each other to explore ministries we wouldn't have tried on our own. Erik has encouraged me to invite new couples from church over for dinner, and I've convinced Erik to try providing foster care.
We also balance our choice of ministries between those he's naturally attracted to and those I am. Sometimes it's better to give each other freedom to volunteer alone. While we don't always have to serve together, we want the majority of our ministry to be shared.
If you have small children, finding a babysitter can make volunteering even more challenging. But volunteering can be done as a family. When one couple who worked with junior high students became parents, they took their kids along. The students loved it, and the couple was still able to serve together.
Even though we're spending time together doing ministry, we discovered we need to be sensitive about becoming over-involved.
Through constantly discussing our options, we consider each other's needs and commitment levels and find a balance. I give Erik the encouragement to become more involved, while he keeps me from saying yes to everything.
Accepting the good, the bad—and the ugly
We've discovered not every experience is going to be heavenly. Sometimes our experiences have been quite the opposite. Erik and I had one of our worst arguments over my inability to navigate Mexican roads and his inability to drive—right in front of a van brimming with wide-eyed teenagers. It was the only time on the entire trip that we had their complete attention! We were both so upset with each other that we weren't able to salvage the situation or talk to the kids about what happened. We just faced forward and tried to hide our hurt feelings.
It's been important to admit that times like these will happen, that we need to give up any idealistic expectations for our ministry experience. That has kept us from throwing in the towel every time one of these "picture imperfect" moments occur. Communication has been key in these situations. We take time to regroup, identifying what went wrong and deciding how to keep it from happening again.
The follow through
Sometimes I laugh when I reflect on our first attempts at volunteering together. We've grown to really know each other. Each experience has been a valuable lesson in understanding our talents and learning to appreciate each other's strengths.
Serving together has become a habit for us: I've grown used to having Erik's strengths joined with mine. The hours of serving together have really helped make us a true team in whatever we do. His strengths fill in for my weaknesses—despite the fact that I was once certain we were a total mismatch.
Just this week, Erik and I found ourselves unexpectedly serving together by helping finish a construction project for a young family in our church. I wound up spending the evening cleaning up sawdust while Erik repaired doors and put up handrails, but just being there together was rewarding. It's a good feeling to know you're helping someone and living out your faith in the real world. But the joy doubles when you share that experience.
Teresa Turner Vining is a freelance author who lives in Kansas.
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