This fall, I decided to try a Bible study with my two teenagers. A friend recommended The Purpose Driven Life, which I had never read before, so we tried it. One thing that stood out to me in particular was a chapter on using your spiritual gifts. Rather than figuring out your gifts before you begin to use them, the author's advice is, “Just start serving, experimenting with different ministries, and then you'll discover your gifts.” In other words, you may have gifts (spiritual or otherwise) that you don't even know about until you begin to use them.
This concept has proven true for me in my experience with working with teenagers. Through simply doing it, I've discovered I enjoy it and feel capable of it much more than I ever thought I would. While I had always hoped to have children and looked forward to the opportunity to parent them through their teen years, I never expected to work with groups of teenagers outside my own household.
The thing is, as a teen, I felt fairly different from most other teenagers. My three older sisters were all much more outgoing than I was and far cooler than I would ever be (in my eyes anyway). I self-identified as a “dork” and a “nerd.” In some ways, I felt like an “old soul” among my peers, trying to be spiritually mature and not really caring about many of the things they liked. At the same time, I felt naïve and childish in comparison to my friends in other ways, very uncomfortable with the prospect of fitting in with a more “grown up” crowd.
During my teen years, two of my older sisters and their husbands became the heads of our church youth group (at different times). There was also another young couple who led for a time that I really admired. I half-consciously aspired to be a youth group leader, but the idea would quickly die any time I thought of it. I was much more comfortable with younger children, and even they could be intimidating to teach. Teenagers felt way out of my league.
Of course, my perspective has changed quite a bit in the past twenty years. I've grown much less self-conscious and more comfortable around my peers, and of course I've now raised two kids into their teens. It is quite a different thing to lead a group of teens who are the same age as some of your children than to lead a group that is only a few years younger than yourself (as my sisters did). But some vestige of my insecure teenage self still told me that a group of teenagers probably wouldn't like me very much or appreciate what I had to say.
Then last year, an opportunity arose to teach a high school literature class at the homeschool co-op we'd just joined. At this point, almost all my teaching experience was homeschooling my own kids. Literature, however, is something I'm very passionate about (guess why I considered myself such a nerd?). I also figured I was going to have to teach my own high school daughter anyway; maybe I could handle adding a few more kids her age. At first I was a bit intimidated, but the more I got into the class, the more comfortable I became, and the more I began to love it. Very soon, teaching this class became the highlight of my week!
Around the same time, I signed up my two oldest girls for a local softball league. The league sent out an email saying that they were looking for someone to coach the team. Having grown up playing softball, I felt qualified and was interested, but head coaching was not exactly in my comfort zone. Then the second coach-hunting email came out. Then the third. Finally, I decided to speak up and try it. Once again, I started out nervous. But I grew and learned a lot in the two seasons I coached, and I enjoyed it in many ways. While I don't think I will ever feel as comfortable coaching as I feel in teaching literature, I did become much more comfortable interacting with the girls on my team, and I grew to truly care about each one of them and enjoyed the opportunity to speak into their lives.
Although I'm not currently coaching softball (we couldn't get a team together this season), I'm now teaching two classes of teens and preteens at co-op and loving every minute of it! It's been interesting to discover that I not only can do what I previously thought impossible, but I truly enjoy doing it. Of course, I still don't have it all together. I often feel awkward at the beginning of a class and make mistakes along the way. But I'm no longer so worried about being “cool” enough to influence the lives of teens. It is rewarding to use this gift that I never realized I had before I began to use it.
What gifts might you discover if you stepped outside your comfort zone?