By Jennifer Johnson
It’s been 20 years since high school, and I am still so indebted to my youth minister.
I was in high school more years ago than I care to remember, so long before anything Internet that information about our fall retreats, ski trips, CIY conferences, service projects, church camp, parties, and mission trips was communicated via photocopied handouts.
Dan Giese arrived at our church early in my middle school career and stayed until long after my high school graduation, so he was the only youth minister my friends and I knew. And he was the only one we wanted. Over the years as our small church outgrew its building, the youth group took off, too, and more and more kids from several area school districts began attending our activities. On Sunday morning this included a youth worship experience called “Oasis” where we sang loudly to loud guitars before joining our parents in big church. On Sunday nights it was youth group, which might mean diving deep into a Scripture passage or shoving marshmallows in our faces. During the week it meant looking forward to the weekend when I could see all my best friends (and, I’ll admit, my boyfriend) at church.
Over the years I joined Bible studies, helped lead small groups, attended hayrides and bonfires and pool parties, ate my weight in junk food on New Year’s Eve, and logged too many miles in the back of church vans. I got lost on the subway in Caracas, painted the house of an old lady in Tennessee, slept on the floor of a school gym, and lost shoes on three different canoe trips. I learned how to read my Bible and why it mattered. I studied apologetics. I prayed and listened when others prayed. I got baptized.
The truth? Many of my happiest memories from my teenage years are youth group moments.
At the time we assumed Dan was constantly there for us, listening and coaching and teasing and tipping canoes, because we were awesome—where else would he want to be? Now, of course, I know he couldn’t have enjoyed driving all of us to Michigan every summer (“We are NOT STOPPING AGAIN. HOLD IT OR PEE YOUR SEAT”) or gutting through entire weekends on five hours of sleep or taking time away from his wife and baby to spend time with other people’s kids. But he was there, every Sunday, every summer, and our group grew closer every year as we pinballed through high school together. Sometimes I still miss those folks.
A few years after I graduated from college, Dan decided to leave my home church to serve with a different church in another state. I hadn’t seen him much since I’d gone away to school, but I drove the 30 minutes to church one sunny Sunday evening to say goodbye. As usual, he was with the youth group, kids that had been in elementary school during my own teen years. He looked over as I parked the car and returned my wave, turning back just in time to make a running jump for a Frisbee. I walked over and leaned into his familiar side hug.
“I just wanted . . . I just wanted to say goodbye,” I said, tears already puddling up.
“Thanks,” he said, smiling his big smile. I knew he saw my tears and I knew he got it. “It’s good to see you. Thanks for coming by.”
Dan was just one of thousands of youth leaders around the country. He never wrote a book and he never headlined the speaking circuit, and you may not have heard his name before now. But for me and hundreds of teenagers in southern Ohio, none of that matters. He invested his life in ours. He saw our potential and loved us as we struggled to see it ourselves. He made us feel like we were part of something special—which, now that I think of it, we were.