With the holidays quickly approaching, so are quite a few deadlines. I have more than my fair share of Christmas parties to plan and implement at work. My days in the office has been comprised of painting dozens of cardboard tubes white, hole-punching hundreds of little circles (for this craft), collecting and sorting donations for Christmas stockings, and preparing questions for Christmas trivia. With just a few more weeks before Christmas, it’s a DRE’s busiest time of year (okay, maybe sacrament time is busier, but this just seems a bit more intense). Of course, the intensity might be due to the fact that I have a bit more on my plate this year (and I’m not talking about the Youth Group).
Once all the Christmas parties are over, my husband and I will pack up our things and travel north for the holidays. We’ll be able to spend more than a week with our families, and then we’ll return to Maryland for the final countdown. I will have about a month to prepare for maternity leave. Baby JT will be joining us shortly after that. And then just a month after John is born, Andrew will be taking his comprehensive exams (he’s been painstakingly preparing for his comps for months, and I think we’ll all be very relieved when they’re over). Finally, I’ll be returning to work as a full-time mother and a full-time DRE and Youth Minister. Our lives will never be the same.
In the midst of preparations for Christmas, I am also juggling preparations for maternity leave. My position isn’t exactly conducive to taking a long leave of absence. We couldn’t just hire a full-time substitute to take over all of my responsibilities while I’m away. It hasn’t just been a matter of preparing lesson plans ahead of time for my classes (though there has been a lot of that too). Instead, I will rely on several volunteers who will take over individual tasks during my absence. A parent will be teaching Confirmation class, my pastor is taking over Baptism and RCIA preparations, my catechists are taking turns leading the Religious Education sessions, and one of my older Youth Group members will be leading our meetings with some adult supervision. I trust these volunteers to keep things going in my absence, but that doesn’t mean that I’m totally comfortable with the idea of relinquishing all control, even if it’s only temporary.
Fortunately, I have been blessed with incredible volunteers who have been more than supportive of my needs during this time. I barely have to ask before these parents willingly offer their assistance. They immediately came to my rescue when I needed substitutes, and I didn’t even have to beg. My volunteers have made the logistics of planning for maternity leave as smooth as possible, and if I’m going to be completely honest, the biggest obstacle to my preparations has been myself.
As I have worked out the details regarding my maternity leave, my biggest concern has been missing opportunities to work closely with my students, building up the Youth Group, and deepening my relationship with its members. My motives have been partially selfless- evangelizing and ministering to my students is important, and bringing them closer to Christ means a lot to me. But pride has been at the core of my motives as well, and that’s where the obstacle lies.
As you might already know, the Youth Group is fairly new, having been created after I was hired full-time at the parish this past summer. It is composed almost entirely of 9th grade students, last year’s Confirmation candidates. As their former teacher, I had an entire year to get to know them, and by the time I had been hired full-time, I knew of at least a handful of students who were promising future Youth Group members. They had already expressed interest in joining (sometimes quite enthusiastically, I might add), and many of them had the potential to become leaders with some proper guidance. In the final months of Confirmation class, I focused on these students, taking advantage of opportunities to work with them more closely and watching their interest in the Youth Group solidify.
By the time Youth Group actually began in the fall, many of those students showed up in my office, information sheets in hand. As the weeks passed, a smattering of additional students joined the group, though our numbers remained low. But we had formed a decently-sized core group, the roots that would enable future growth. Over the next few months, I split my time between developing these original Youth Group members and identifying future members in the present Confirmation class. I didn’t have any ties to the high school upperclassmen, though I did have one Junior join, so I knew that I would have more success focusing on the Confirmation class. My thought process was this: if I was able to draw a handful of Confirmation students into the Youth Group after graduation each year, then in four years I could have a respectfully-sized Youth Group (that being said, success is not always best indicated by numbers; I continue to value quality over quantity). But maternity leave was going to be a major setback to my plans.
As my due date approached, it became apparent that I would be unable to attend some of the most significant Confirmation events for the year, and I began to worry that my efforts to increase our numbers would be in vain. When Andrew and I would talk about maternity leave, I would occasionally find myself struggling to keep my frustration in check. Now don’t get me wrong: I was so excited to be able to spend my maternity leave with my baby boy and my husband. I was relieved that I would have several weeks to figure out the intricacies of nursing, changing diapers, and napping before I had to return to work. And as much as I love my job and my students, I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t excited to shave some miles off my commute by working from home for a few weeks. I love my office and the church, but I’m not the biggest fan of the 45 minute-1hour drive. And yet my frustration couldn’t be ignored.
So I had to ask myself: why was I so frustrated? When I thought about missing work, I ended up frustrated. When I thought about bringing a newborn to Confirmation Spirit Day, I also ended up frustrated. No matter what alternative I entertained, I ended up frustrated. And it didn’t take much to figure out why.
I was not comfortable relinquishing control. I was not comfortable handing my Youth Group over to someone else, even if that ‘someone else’ was a Youth Group member and her mother (who has no desire to steal the group from me). I was not comfortable missing an opportunity to increase my numbers by bonding with potential future members. I was sure that if I relinquished control for the duration of my maternity leave, I would return to work to learn that the Youth Group has disbanded and there was no one interested in joining after graduation.
As soon as I admitted the truth to myself, I realized just how absurd and selfish my concerns were. This group of incredible teens was not my Youth Group. I was their Youth Minister, but it was not my Youth Group. The group had been entrusted to my care, yes, but the group was fundamentally God’s. Sure, I often say that the teens are mine, but that is only because they belong to God first. They are only mine because they have been given to me. And if the Youth Group is not really mine, if it’s first God’s, then I can surely trust Him to take care of its members.
I’ve also come to the realization that a few weeks of maternity leave will not cause irrevocable damage. There is no one waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of my time away from the group to steal my position. When I return, my teens will certainly be thrilled to see me- and my little boy. Not only can I be sure that they will still be in the Youth Group when my maternity leave ends, but I can also be confident that they will welcome my return. Because in the end, even if they really do like me (which I hope they do), they are not showing up for Youth Nights every Tuesday because of me, but because of God. In fact, if they were only coming because of me, if they stopped showing up the moment that I left, I would have failed them. I also would have failed God, and I probably should start looking for another job.
Finally, I’ve realized that missing an event or two will not make or break a relationship. The Confirmation students who are interested in joining the Youth Group this year will still be interested when I return from maternity leave. Missing Confirmation Spirit Day will not change that. In addition, there are plenty of other opportunities for me to develop a relationship with my candidates, so there really is no reason to get frustrated.
In the end, my frustration is the result of my own pride, and my impending maternity leave has reminded me that I really do need to relinquish control. Even though he has not yet made his debut, John is constantly teaching me things, and I imagine that an appreciation for the art of letting go and letting God will be valuable not only in my vocation as a DRE and Youth Minister, but also in my life as a wife and mother.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!