As I reflect on 17 years of ministry as an urban youth pastor in the D.C. area, three words come to mind: "Trust the Process". These words, which were shared often in the DVULI program, take on a deeper meaning 10 years later. When I accepted the call to ministry, I felt God was calling me to something great, but I assumed that meant conforming to standard ministry practices. I had to learn to become comfortable with the fact that the path I took in ministry didn’t have to look like everyone else’s path. Over time, through experience and education, largely in part to the DVULI program, I have done ministry differently each year. Today, I am a better man of God, youth pastor, and human being.
In the earlier years of ministry, I was given some direction. I was told that if I went to school, received my degree, and waited my turn, I would eventually have a church and be a senior pastor. So, I adopted the church jargon, lingo, and a style of preaching that was not necessarily meant for me. I learned about models that were supposed to help grow your ministry and help expand your budget. It seemed that evangelism—due to the astronomical growth in churches throughout the D.C. area in the 1990s and 2000s—was a tool to grow numbers but not a way to build and invest in people.
In 2009, when I attended the DVULI program, I began to deconstruct some ideologies I had learned throughout the years. I always considered myself a relational youth pastor but also one who tried to operate within the models of church growth. I often felt conflicted in my approach of how to do ministry because growth is not often measured the same way by senior leadership. DVULI helped me realize what I was doing wrong. For example, I learned about the importance of balance and what would happen if there was a lack of balance in my life (tea kettle illustration of slowly boiling dry). I learned that leverage was important. Having a superhero mentality and doing ministry by myself was only going to damage the ministry in the long run. Additionally, I learned about being careful of trying to grow my ministry based on the big event effect—putting all your energy, resources, and time into one large youth event where kids have an opportunity to be saved and join the church only to not have anything sustainable to keep them engaged and moving forward.
"I decided to go through personal and spiritual counseling because I felt that I was still struggling with escaping some stigmas from earlier on in ministry."
As I went through the cohort, I was also encouraged by the instructors. I often vented about the frustrations of church and how I had to navigate it. I talked about how the kids were “my kids” and how the ministry was “my ministry.” Coach Ron Carter said something to me that I will never forget: "Brackeen, these kids are not your kids—they belong to God.” Those words from Coach Ron convicted me and linger with me as I walk in ministry each day. He taught me to make sure I am being led by the Holy Spirit and not by any personal endeavors. It's so easy to fall into a trap of thinking that you are the only one responsible for the growth and nurturing of urban youth.
In the last few years, I decided to go through personal and spiritual counseling because I felt that I was still struggling with escaping some stigmas from earlier on in ministry. I learned that I had to take the "me" out of ministry, and I watched God open doors for me to share with other young people and youth workers like myself. My desire is to see deepened discipleship as I continue along these next years of ministry. I reflect daily on the growth that I have gained from DVULI. If it wasn't for this program, I don't know where I would be in ministry or if I would still be in ministry. I am grateful for the seeds that were sown, the time invested, and the relationships formed. Thanks to the instructors, staff, and the entire DVULI family for shaping who I am today.
Thomas Brackeen (Washington, D.C. 2009) is the Minister to Youth and Families at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C. He is also a youth and young adult ministry consultant and trainer, Founder of Keep It Real Fridays Movement and CEO of TBJ, Enterprises, LLC.