In Dannevirke, Knox Presbyterian Church elders Ally and Brian MacKay recently retired from youth ministry after many years of service. They share their experiences and the joy of working alongside young people.
Ally and Brian are both teachers at Dannevirke High School, so their connection to young people in the community has always been strong. “It was a really natural fit,” says Ally. “We began our involvement with youth ministry back in 1986. I think the reason we devoted so long to it is that we have a strong passion to see teenagers come to know God and grow in God’s care.”
“It’s about the relationships you build with the kids,” adds Brian. “You can learn as much from them as they can from you.”
Many teenagers that Ally and Brian worked with were from unchurched backgrounds, so seeing them grow and choose to follow Jesus was especially rewarding. “A few years back, I asked the kids I was working with what they liked most about youth group,” says Ally. “It was a group of 30 unchurched and 10 churched teenagers, and the unchurched group said they loved the fun, the relationships and the discussions about God. It wasn’t an answer that many people would expect to hear from teenagers, but they enjoy exploring the concepts.”
Most of the young people didn’t choose to follow Jesus while they were part of the group, but they loved their involvement in youth ministry. “Our role as youth leaders was to show them God’s love and to plant seeds and pray that God will bring them to fruition in time,” says Ally.
“One great reward of youth work is seeing the teenagers you’ve worked with growing up and embracing adult life. I think one of the most special things for us is when we attend weddings, 21st birthday parties and baptisms of our ex-youthies,” says Ally. “We get inspired by their passion and enthusiasm to follow Jesus. It’s also really cool to see the roles reversed — to see them leading youth groups and student ministries. I’ve sought out resources and ideas from some of our ex-youthies and they have been able to teach and guide me!”
The rise of social media means there is another way for Brian and Ally to stay connected with the teenagers they’ve worked with. “We sometimes hear from young people 10 or 15 years later, and it’s lovely to know they’re still following Jesus or that they’ve got back into the church,” says Ally.
When asked what advice he would give to someone starting out in youth ministry, Brian again stresses that relationships are the key thing. “I’ve seen examples where the adults haven’t related to the kids well,” he says. “You have to stay a bit zany, but also really put time into the relationships. The kids learn from what you do rather than what you say.”
He adds that asking questions and encouraging independent thought is vital. “I remember one young guy getting frustrated that Ally was asking so many questions,” he recalls. “He just wanted the answers! But we explained it’s about lighting a fire and getting involved in the journey rather than Bible-bashing.”
The team you have around you is also extremely important, says Ally. “A great team is the reason we stayed with youth ministry for so long. The team is often five or six people — the kids see the interaction between the team members, the warmth and the connection, and it really builds something for them. The support of the minister and the church is so important too.”
There have been many inspirational moments for the couple over the years. “I remember once when we started a Bible study group, outside the main youth group, it started with four kids in a house,” says Ally. “Over the next few weeks, the group grew to about 27 young people! We had to move into the church building as it got too big — it was very rewarding.”
Finally, Ally shared some advice she was given when she was starting out in youth ministry. “I was told that if you keep your relationship with God fresh, you’ll always have something to share. Then you’re running on God, not just on you. It’s so true.”
Kate Davidson SPANZ