Taking One for the Team

by Mathew McCabe

Sometimes the right thing to do is not to be right.

Sometimes, in order to be pastoral, in order to live completely into your calling as a youth worker, you have to take one for the team.

A few years ago, I placed a wager with my students. It was a foolish wager on the surface, one I knew I would probably lose. Our church hosts a community 5K every year, and I wanted to increase our student involvement in this event. I said that I would buy lunch for any student who finished ahead of me in the race. Although in my glory days I was an accomplished cross-country runner, life (and Cheetos) had done a number on me. I was a shadow of my former running self. I was just creating a buzz about the event and setting up an opportunity to have lunch with a few students.

As it happens, I did beat one student, but was bested by a handful of students. So began the process of setting up lunch with these students. I had a few wonderful lunches and enjoyed some one-on-one time with some students with whom I did not normally have the opportunity to do so. The plan was working to perfection. Wins all around.

But one student, an eighth-grader who had become quite irregular in attending our events and meetings, was difficult to get on the schedule. I would set it up, and then a few days before, he would cancel for some reason. I arranged to meet with him a bunch of times over the next six months, but every time he canceled. By then he had stopped coming to youth events and church altogether. It was evident he had wandered from his faith and had no spiritual interest. Having lunch with the youth pastor was the last thing he wanted to do. I respectfully stopped nagging him and left the ball in his court to schedule lunch. It felt like the right thing to do at the time.

He never scheduled.

Fast forward four years, and was preparing for our senior celebrations. Our church does a great job of honoring and celebrating its seniors when they graduate from high school. We collect pictures, produce a senior booklet, make a video and honor them on stage during our main worship services. I was doing my due diligence in reaching out to parents of students we had not heard from or who did not provide the information we needed for the celebration.

And then it came. What I like to call the “you suck” e-mail.  We all get them from time to time. They cut like daggers. They make us question our abilities. They shake us to the core.

It was an e-mail from the mom of this student who I never had lunch with after his victory in the 5K.  Her words were strong, accusatory, and downright mean, an elaborate diatribe to let me know that her student would not be participating in the senior celebrations and that it was my fault. I never took him out for lunch, and that caused him to fall away from the church and to fall away from his faith. After several paragraphs of telling me how disappointed she was in me, she asked to have a meeting to talk about this further. Oh joy, won’t this be fun.  (And people wonder why we get paid to do this?)

As the day of our meeting approached, I had been moving through the stages of grief. I was currently on the “anger” phase. How dare she put this on me? I tried so hard and it just didn’t work out. His falling away from the church and his faith wasn’t my fault. In fact, I was more confident it was on them for prioritizing lacrosse over church activities while he was in middle school. They taught him that faith wasn’t as important as lacrosse. I was ready for this meeting. I was going to give this mom a piece of my mind.

And then it happened. Within the first 90 seconds of our meeting, she was a mess. Tears were flowing down her cheeks. She was broken-hearted over a son who just didn’t love Jesus the way she always hoped and dreamed he would. She was a wounded mom. It was clear she had been beating herself up for years about this. In that moment, she needed a pastor. She needed pastoral care. She needed someone to share the hurt with, and I was an easy target, which is what brought about the e-mail in the first place. She needed someone to carry that burden with her. Isn’t that part of what we are called to do?

What she did not need in any way, shape or form was for me to be right or for me to defend myself. For an hour, I cried with her. I apologized for things I really didn’t think were my fault. I took one for the team.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe we should all just roll over and take the heat for everything that is wrong with our students or their families. There are clearly times where we need to stand up for ourselves and defend the decisions we have made. But I am saying that there are also clearly times when we need to take one for the team. I am thankful that God gave me wisdom that day to see the situation for what it was.

I pray God gives you wisdom to know when it’s your turn to take one for the team.

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