I was that youth group addict that stayed for at least an hour every Sunday after Life Night ended. Maybe even two. OK, three hours, but not if you’re counting the dance parties in the parking lot, and that’s only because they turned off all the lights in the main room. While other teens would go home or stay to clean up after youth group ended, I made excuses for impromptu photoshoots and late-night fro-yo runs with my friends.
We know that finding a community of faith is both important and attractive. Our faith is made even more beautiful in this Body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, among others). Unfortunately, my teenage pursuit of fellowship was often clouded by selfish desires to serve myself and my “Catholic image” rather than the needs of the ministry in which I was involved.
To tell you the truth, my opportunities to serve my youth group were far from voluntary. During my senior year of high school, my friends convinced me to help with the kitchen crew for a weekend-long retreat. Despite my desire to be in the spotlight, Jesus was humbling me and taking me out of my comfort zone, all the while reminding me that the work I was doing was truly good and necessary. From scrubbing dirty dishes to refilling cups of lemonade at least a hundred times during dinner, it was God’s grace alone that proved to be far greater than any glory or attention I thought I needed from my peers. While I found the experience to be tiresome and grueling, the Lord was slowly planting seeds in my heart and letting His love transform me. And because of my (reluctant) “yes” that weekend, I made some of the dearest friends (shoutout to the many “High School Musical” kitchen jam sessions).
Created to Serve
In the book of Genesis, we read about the creation of life when “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). The word till comes from the Hebrew abad, which means to work or serve. God doesn’t create Adam, the first man, to only work in the garden. God creates him to serve the Kingdom on Earth and all of the people in it. This act of service to God is more than just busy work; it’s an act of worship to the Creator. Our very existence is an invitation to worship the Lord in this way: to protect, care, and serve the rest of His creation.
While we may not have the same pressure that Adam and Eve experienced as the first humans to cultivate the Earth, we understand that serving in present-day ministry is not easy either. We are faced with many challenges that can make one act of service appear better than the others, which distract us from serving humbly (and joyfully).
Let’s use my high school self as an example. If I wasn’t on the front lines facilitating small group discussions, giving talks, or hosting retreat skits, I felt helpless. While all of these activities are valuable and recognizable, ministry is not always seen, noticed, or glorified work. It’s not just the emcee, the worship leader, the speaker, or the small group leader that we can see. It’s the volunteers, the parents, the volunteers at Mass, the service crew — those serving “behind the scenes.” Ministry is composed of all these people and their unique gifts working together as the foot washers of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit. Service isn’t just one category, and not one role is more or less important than the other.
Find Your Gift
Hot-take: St. Teresa of Calcutta really intimidates me. She is our saintly model of humble service in the Church, yet I’ve always seen her mission-oriented life as totally unattainable. And it probably is. We might not all be called to serve internationally in some of the poorest cities or start a Catholic charity or receive a Nobel Peace Prize. But, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a beautiful plan for us to serve with the gifts He has given us.
Now, what are these “gifts” exactly? Well, our gifts don’t reveal themselves overnight. And God doesn’t hide our gifts from us to tease us. As we learn to surrender our heart to God’s will, we will discover an avenue where we feel most called to serve, not just because we like it, but because we trust and know that He is using us for His good and for the good of His people.
However, we have to know that not all acts of service are glamorous. In fact, most of them go unnoticed. This is the test of our Catholic faith, to trust that Jesus is far greater than our own desires for our lives and that He will do great things with our openness, even if the fruits of our labor aren’t visible. If we believe that He will lead us and equip us to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth — no matter how challenging or uncomfortable it may be — this is something that I believe, as we lean into our gifts, will allow us to walk in freedom with great joy and understanding of our purpose as servants to Christ.
Go Outside of Yourself
When I was going through my parish’s Confirmation program, my class was expected to complete a number of service hours through volunteering in our local community. Even though this could have been a great invitation for me to get involved, I treated it as an obligation, not an opportunity. When I did cross off a service item from my checklist, I was too preoccupied with “feeling good” rather than finding the joy in giving of my time and self to others.
These fleeting, fluffy emotions we receive after serving are temporary. If we are depending on these feelings to motivate us in our service, we will (unfortunately) burn out and miss out on the opportunity for encounter. We have to direct our efforts back to Christ by reminding ourselves of His love for His people. When we remember that we are caring for God’s own creation, we start to see the people that ache for an encounter with Christ through us, whether that’s the poor, the sick, the homeless, or even our youth minister who needs some help after a Life Night.
Be Spiritually Fed
After two summers serving with Life Teen Summer Missions, one thing I know for sure is that you cannot serve in ministry from a dry canal. What I mean by that is, if we aren’t nourishing our souls with prayer and accountability, it can be incredibly difficult (and discouraging) to fully and freely embrace God’s call for us.
There were many moments where I felt frustrated when someone in my small group distracted everyone during prayer or when I didn’t receive a “thank you” from a teen after serving them dinner. I realized that so much of my short fuse was because I was looking at the mission through a self-seeking lens. I allowed my thoughts and actions to be driven by myself rather than the love of God. I treated every interaction with the expectation of being served in return by that person or group of people.
St. Teresa of Calcutta reminds us, “Love is a one-way street. It always moves away from self in the direction of the other. Love is the ultimate gift of ourselves to others.” As witnesses to Jesus and the greatest love ever known, we strive to serve others with the same humility and compassion as He did. Even when we fall short in doing so, it is our Creator that remains constant in service to us. If you feel like you’re struggling with serving intentionally, look to Jesus to teach you how to love others more fully. If you feel like you’re struggling with patience with those that you are serving, ask Him to remind you with what reason and for what good you are serving. And if you are struggling with understanding your gifts, trust that God is making you holier with every small “yes” that you give to Him and forming you into who He created you to be.