Between the lands of elementary school and high school, there stretches a great chasm. For some it is "middle school", for others "junior high", some call it "intermediate" school, others refer to it as the "tweens" and still others "preteens".
Whatever you call it, it is a giant bridge spanning the ages of about 10 years old to 14 years old and depending on where you live, around fifth to eighth grade.
It’s an awkward place that if illustrated might look more at home as pages in a Dr. Seuss book than anywhere else. (And not just the location, but those who are traveling across this bridge as well.)
And these people are the ones I love so much and like so much, that I have invested my life in them. I’ve served in full-time youth ministry for almost twenty years, and the last half of that has been almost exclusively working with these students and the wonderful adults who lead them.
This bridge and its inhabitants are so often avoided by others in our world, that those who hear about my choice often remark with words like: “God bless you.” “I’m glad it’s you and not me.” “It takes a special kind of person to do what you do.”
Although I do believe I am blessed in doing this work, am thankful I get to do it, and agree that I’m special; I also believe that so many more people could be blessed by investing in these young people, might be surprised at how glad they could be to work with them, and could realize that there is a wide variety of special people needed to walk alongside the bridge people.
Students who are just setting foot on the bridge look behind at the elementary school they are leaving and the life they have known with a bit of mixed anxiety and excitement about the changes ahead.
And those near the end of the bridge have similar feelings as they look towards the path to high school that lies before them.
All throughout their time on the bridge, they long for adults who will walk with them. They don’t necessarily need us to hold their hands. They’re not always looking for piggy-back rides or to be lifted on our shoulders. (Though sometimes we’ll find ourselves doing these things at their invitation.)
"Mostly, since so many leave this bridge and avoid it the rest of their lives at all costs, they want to know that beyond God’s command to love everyone, that there might actually be some people out there who really like them."
As I have spent more than a decade walking on this bridge, I grow to enjoy it more every day. When I first considered a ministry with 5th-8th graders, a good friend and mentor of mine told me that if I chose this path, it would be a unique one where few choose and not many would be fighting for my spot.
Looking back, those words are true. And now that I find myself in my 40’s and still serving in ministry with 5th-8th graders, my adult companions are harder to find my age and more often younger in their adult years now.
And yet, just like we often find odd comfort and joy in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, I find comfort and joy accepting the challenges and opportunities that come in ministering with these students on the bridge.
It’s an adventure out here in the middle…and I hope more people will join us!
Mike Sheley is the Middle School Pastor at Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Indiana, where he has been working with 5th-8th graders since 2007. He believes many people have no idea how much his wife and own kids have influenced his ministry and changed his life. And although most people don’t understand why he chooses to minister with this age group, he loves the challenges and opportunities that come his way.