Mark Oestreicher suggests answering some key questions will help your own understanding, as well as those you serve 

As a lifelong youth worker, I have wrestled with framing my understanding of adolescence both in response to—on one hand— research and listening to those who know much more than I do, while—on the other hand—still being critical and not simply acquiescing to damaging and biased cultural opinions of teenagers. As a result, I’ve rejected the assumption, held by most, that the teenage years are necessarily a time of ‘storm and stress’. Stanley Hall, the historical person I’d like to punch in the throat more than anyone other than Hitler, coined this phrase in 1904. Based on Hall’s super-weird worldview, dominated by a now-completely debunked anthropological theory called Recapitulation, he concluded that young people are, by evolutionary necessity, in a season of storm and stress. In fact, he referred to this life stage as “savages” (and, by the way, children were, to Hall, “pre-human”). Hall said young people are unavoidably in the grips of rebellion, moodiness, volatility, and a host of other negative descriptors. 

I reject that, and hope you do also!

Instead, I think of adolescence as an overlay of two realities: new cognitive capacity (or, God’s creation intentions) and cultural permission (“Go ahead, young person, and figure out who you are!”). These provide space for the working out of three interwoven tasks: Identity (“Who am I?”), Agency (“How do my choices matter?”), and Belonging (“To whom and where do I belong?”). I believe that the teenage years are the white-hot stage of these tasks.

But those three tasks are not limited to teenagers.

As an adult (and a reasonably old one at that), I continue to periodically wrestle with those same questions. And as a person in ministry (and all that entails and implies), the working out of those tasks, as we all must do from time to time (particularly when we experience change), gets awkward.

Because we live very public lives. At least we should, to some extent. We’re either somewhat authentic and, therefore, public; or we’re private and limiting our relational connection and impact. It’s tough to think of another profession that calls for life in a fishbowl to the same extent. Maybe national-level politicians.

Here’s what I find (both from my own experience, and from watching the lives of the hundreds of youth workers in my organization’s year-long coaching program): Pastors are notoriously bad at separating “who I am” from “what I do.” (Side note: right now some readers are thinking “but I’m not a pastor.” I’m using pastor in a broad sense here, including all of us in the ministry of pastoring others, whether you’re a volunteer or employed by a church, ordained or not.)

On one hand, those two—“who I am” and “what I do”—are somewhat inseparable. There’s no denying that what I do and who I am are intertwined, informing each other and cuddling. Let’s say they’re spooning, even.

But if “who I am” and “what I do” are one-and-the-same, I’m in trouble. And, frankly, so is whatever ministry I’m a part of.

One of the points I make when I teach on these adolescent tasks is that today’s teenagers use the Belonging task as a lens through which they view (and work out) the other two tasks. In other words: “to whom and where I belong” will give me insight into “how my choices matter” and “who I am.” (This, by the way, is a major shift from previous epochs of youth culture, when the other tasks were the lenses.)

As I think about my own identity, as a person in ministry, maybe I should think of that adolescent lens as not such a bad thing. Of course, belonging pre-dates creation; and our desire to experience belonging is a reflection of being made in the image of God, who has pre-eternally existed in relationship. AND, after all: if I have a healthy and honest (and theologically informed) understanding of my belonging to Christ and to the community of Christ, that could be pretty helpful in developing a healthy identity spooning with “what I do.”

Through that lens, “who I am” starts to take on distinct hues of “I am one who is following Christ, now, and through death and resurrection.” And, “I am one part of the body, the bride of Christ. I might have a different role; but I exist in authentic relationship with a community.”

Honestly, that sounds SO much better, so much more life-giving, than an identity merely formed by what I do.