“I’m Madelyn Malone, and I just finished a two-year internship working with the CSPC high school ministry. I was plugging into the lives of a group of girls who were coming in as freshmen at the same time I started as an intern. Here’s how I’ve been living deeply through that experience.
Six months into my CSPC internship, I was thinking about leaving. I really missed my community back in Alabama and wanted to be where they were. When I moved away from college, it was a harder transition than I realized it would be. I was raised in Memphis but went to college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (I always rode horses, and they had a great equestrian program). I’ll spare you Vols fans the obligatory ‘Roll Tide!’ (Oops, guess I didn’t!), but I’d had an incredible group of close friends at college. I was part of a thriving Young Life ministry and loved it! So when I moved away, I felt like, ‘Where is my community?’ Being in Knoxville, a totally new place, was helping me realize just how much I’d connected my happiness -and even my perceived sense of worth!- to finding joy in ‘my people’ who were there at Alabama. Now don’t get me wrong- community is a really sweet gift from the Lord, but it’s not what you should rely on when it comes to growing in Him. As this became clear, my own thoughts were convicting me: ‘I’m so sinful. I don’t go to the Lord for things, I go to my friends.’ Ouch! In that moment when I felt like giving up, I went to talk to Pastor Andrew Keasling about it. He said, ‘Madelyn, I want to encourage you to be present here for a year and then reevaluate; see where the Lord’s calling you. If He’s calling you back to Tuscaloosa, then that’s great.’ It didn’t take long after that for God to reveal my idolizing of my previous community. He also helped me make peace with the fact that we live in a fallen world, so life’s hard at times, but that’s no reason to give up. Everyone on our youth staff could tell you I was miserable at first. It wasn’t because I hated the job or the place- there were just things that were so great elsewhere, in my mind.
I’m so glad I stayed, because I’ve seen God do so much- in the students and in me. I’ve grown a lot in humility. That sounds odd to say, so let me explain. The Lord’s teaching me that the positive things that happen in ministry really aren’t any of my doing- all the glory’s back to Him. Sometimes He lets me see fruit; sometimes not, and that’s frustrating. This job has shown me how ill-equipped and unworthy I am, in and of myself, to do the work of ministry. But it’s really not about me, and that’s the key insight. The Lord’s grown in me a humble confidence- He’s shown me I actually AM capable to lead and capable to do ministry, and that’s because He’s empowering it all. Realizing how much I need Him -both to do the work of ministry, and because He continues to reveal how super-sinful I am- that’s something priceless that’s happened in my soul at CSPC. But I’ve seen His goodness in a thousand other ways, too. For instance, I cherish deeply the relationships with the girls. Someone once told me middle schoolers are looking to see if you love them, and high schoolers are looking to see if they want to love you. These past two years, I watched a lot of these girls really open up to the fact they can love people and not be afraid. Part of the job is building relationships with high schoolers; just showing up and being where they are. That’s how we get to learn what they’re passionate about and share in it with them. I even got to start a Bible study with some of the girls on Thursday mornings before school. Those were the times when I watched them show vulnerability up close and grow in their faith together. Another great part of these relationships was watching some students step up and become a part of the Student Leadership Team. The leadership team helps us do some of the organizing on youth group nights, and we read a book together and go through discipleship with them; a really cool group. I was grateful God was giving me the chance to watch some of my girls serve as leaders in ministry.
I think a key to building relationships with high school students is to make them feel known and loved- and if they’re more introverted or feel like they’re not natural leaders, to let them know they’re just as capable as anyone of being a light and that the Lord WILL shine through them! I’ve watched several girls really step out of their comfort zones to serve on the Student Leadership Team, and I love that. Making them feel known, comfortable, and helping them see they have an impact on the people around them, that’s a big deal. And it’s genuine. For me, it was really fun to be around these girls and tell each of them, ‘I want to know about your life.’ That intentionality with any student goes a long way- when you ask them questions maybe no one’s asked them before, including about their relationship with the Lord. The reason I want to be friends and have relationships with them isn’t because I want to be their best friend, it’s because I want them to know the Lord more and to see that they’re beautiful in His eyes. It takes time, but just being their friend and making them feel known, loved, and seen had more than anything to do with the girls growing in their faith and, in many cases, taking leadership roles in the ministry. We also got to encourage several students on the leadership team to go further and serve beyond just our ministry, equipping them to lead middle schoolers as well. So there are a few who have been doing that recently- they’re only in high school, but they’re helping move the church’s youth ministry forward! I loved watching them dive into what it looks like to minister as a high schooler. Many have gotten really good at relational ministry- spotting those who tend to be overlooked and going after them in love.
Yes, my time at CSPC is up, but my time working with young people definitely isn’t! After I get married this month, I’ll begin a new position as girls’ youth ministry director at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I’m drawn to youth ministry because God’s shown me I have a heart for middle and high schoolers. Students that age are often so lost, seeking to love and be loved. They’re not going to go to their parents for a lot of things, and sometimes not their friends either. I think they just need that fit of direction- someone in a different type of role who cares, will be there, and can help guide them. When I was their age, I always had people around me (especially my parents- I was blessed!) who were loving me, praying for me, encouraging me- they always made me feel I was loved. So I want to be that for them. I feel like I still have a really young heart and like to have fun with students. I can still mesh with them. I can be a conduit to that unconditional love of God, which is what they’re really seeking when it comes down to it. Even the students I wasn’t sure I was impacting at CSPC (I think second-guessing yourself comes with the territory in youth ministry) wrote me kind letters. I felt deeply moved by each and every one of them, and even pleasantly surprised by the lessons and moments some found most meaningful. That’s another reminder I’m really not doing anything- the Lord is working through me. The way the students at CSPC are maturing into who the Lord’s made them to be is awesome. I was only here for two years, but they’ll be here two more years. I want their church community to be safe and sweet, and I want them to be able to further their faith with each other. I literally cried leaving all of them. I love this age, and it’s vitally important because we’re equipping the next generation. The world is just getting younger, and people need to know the love of Jesus. Seeing these students on fire for the Lord and wanting people to know Him- that’s the reason I and others in youth ministry do it. We’re here to further the Gospel.”