True love can't wait in ministry to youth, Richard Ross has found

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--The mother sat in his office with painful news. She was taking a risk speaking to him, not knowing whether he would accept or reject her. But she had to tell him.

"Richard," she began, "a hallmark of your ministry has always been your warmth and positive encouragement of teenagers, but that has diminished as of late.

"Encouragement has been replaced by pressure and pushing from you. The teenagers feel they don't measure up to your expectations and that you are pushing them away by your displeasure."

After that meeting, Richard Ross, a youth minister in Dallas at the time, recalled sitting in his car and weeping because he knew the mother was right. And he knew the main reason for the change.

For years, Ross and his wife, LaJuana, had wanted children. When they learned she was pregnant with twins, the Rosses were overjoyed. But the twins never cried or laughed in the nursery room the Rosses had carefully prepared with two of everything. The twins died before birth, and Ross responded as "the typical, stoic male," never grieving or healing.

Regardless of the reason for the change, that experience cemented in Ross a lesson he had long known -- when ministering to teenagers, true love cannot wait.

He immediately called together the teenagers, and they had a time of tearful sharing and restoration.

Life began for Ross in 1950 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has returned 50 years later to be the seminary's newest professor of youth ministry. His father and mother lived in a small apartment while his father worked on a divinity degree. A hanging sheet separated the Rosses' area of the apartment from the landlady's.

"We had a very public life," Ross recalled. "I suppose it was a miracle I was conceived in the first place."

After graduating from the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary, his father went on to pastor west Texas Baptist churches. At one of those churches, Westview Baptist Church in Slaton, Ross became a Christian after a layman from the Gideons spoke at a Sunday morning service. Although the 7-year-old Ross came to Christ during the Gideons presentation, he knew that the most powerful seeds had been sown by "the godly lives of my mom and dad and a pastor whose preaching in the pulpit and whose life at home was entirely consistent."

The call to ministry came four years later and was confirmed and affirmed throughout his teenage years, especially during youth camps.

The relentless pursuit of a Baptist Student Union director at Hardin-Simmons University helped Ross realize that his specific ministry would be to teenagers. Marshall Walker saw something special in the young freshman and didn't want it to go to waste.

"Marshall saw indications in me that I could minister to youth so he took the initiative on many occasions to encourage me to meet with search committees," Ross said. "I'm not sure this ever would have occurred to me without his encouragement."

As far as Ross was concerned, he was not "ideal" youth minister material. He said he was not handsome, did not excel in sports and did not play the guitar. Plus, he had no role model for youth ministry, because he did not grow up under the leadership of a full-time youth minister.

Yet Ross knew God was speaking through Walker. At 19, Ross took his first youth ministry position at Hillcrest Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas, and has been involved in youth ministry ever since.

While perhaps not the "ideal" youth minister, Ross fell back on the one thing he knew God had given him.

"Over 30 years, I believe my unconditional love and my personal expressions of love to each teenager in a youth group has been the foundation for ministry," Ross said.

"Teenagers quickly learned," he continued, "that if they became pregnant, started drinking or even thought my youth events were silly -- it might break my heart, but it would not break my love for them."

In addition to love, Ross credits his wife with being an essential partner in his ministry. They met at Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, and Ross was delighted to learn that LaJuana had been the key leader in her youth group and had continued as the informal leader even after graduating from high school.

Although Ross acknowledges that "there is a special bond when husband and wife can minister to teenagers together," he does not believe it is the pattern for every marriage and youth minister.

Besides complementing his "logical, over-organized mind" with creativity and artistic ability, "LaJuana has had a special ministry with teenage girls and has had an intimacy in counseling, friendship and being a role model that I could never have had," Ross said.

Twelve years ago, God blessed them with their only child, Clayton, and Ross looks forward to the challenges and blessings of having a teenage son for the next few years.

"There will be some days of stress and strain," he said. "But I am certain that having a teenager in our home is going to be a joyful experience."

From 1984 to 2000, Ross served with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention as national consultant for ministers of youth. Along the way, he has written 20 books and contributed to teen-oriented tape series and software applications. In 1993, he coordinated the first signings of True Love Waits pledges at a Nashville, Tenn., church. The sexual abstinence program for teenagers has grown phenomenally, spreading across the nation and around the world. In connection with True Love Waits, Ross has been interviewed by nearly every major U.S. television network news program and newsmagazine and numerous newspapers.

A year ago, Ross co-chaired YouthLink 2000, the largest youth event in Southern Baptist history. About 1,200 teenagers made professions of faith, 10,000 made commitments to be lifetime missionaries if God leads, and 5,000 committed their lives to be ministers and church leaders.

But wherever he has gone, he has remained true to his calling to youth ministry -- and not just in an indirect way, but by intentionally remaining involved in the lives of teenagers. After moving to a new home in Fort Worth, Ross did what he has done whenever he has had a home built -- no interior walls on the second floor.

"We value a large space just for teenagers," Ross said. The one-room second floor now is equipped with a pool table, pinball machine and other amenities teens would appreciate.

His dedication to teenagers extends beyond providing a place for them to hang out. Ross understands the need to stay engaged in teens' lives and to see the world from their perspectives.

"The teenagers in 2001 want to change the world," he said. "They will drift away from the church filled with adults who simply want to entertain teenagers, to hand teenagers ready-made events on a silver platter. They will drift toward churches that understand they have the gifts and abilities to make an impact for the kingdom and who move them to the front lines of ministry."

At Southwestern, Ross said his first priority is to prepare youth leaders "to live and minister in anticipation of revival if our sovereign God should choose to send revival rather than judgment."

Revival, Ross noted, has often begun with young people. The role of students in revivals and spiritual awakenings is the focus of a new course he developed and now teaches at the seminary. His goal for the course is simple: "I want youth leaders to know they may be walking on holy ground as they assist teenagers in setting their sails for the possible winds of revival."

He said he has noticed a change.

"I can already see a spark in the eyes of students who are coming to believe this may be the revival generation."

Ross has learned a lot over the years -- lessons that he passes along to his students but still uses as he ministers to teenagers.

On teen perceptions of leaders: "Teenagers can quickly tell if they are a cog in the youth ministry machine, existing primarily to make the youth program appear successful."

On developing teen leaders: "Teenagers have always responded better to being at the core of planning and creating youth ministry as opposed to being spoon-fed by adult leaders, but that is even more true with this generation of students."

On accepting feedback: "Ministers must have a stance of openness even to negative feedback and information from parents, teens and other ministers and church members. None of us grows much without the insights that only others can bring to our lives."

On ministering to the most needy: "There is a tendency in youth ministry and general church life to minister most to those who need it least. I believe Jesus called us to just the opposite."

On judging young people: "You simply cannot give up on any young person. Even those who repeatedly break your heart when they stumble have great potential for kingdom impact if you never give up."

"You just keep loving, encouraging and discipling."

Ross recently attended a wedding where, before the ceremony started, he heard behind him a young mother speaking to her small children.

"I was taken with the maturity and the insight with which she parented," Ross said.

After the wedding, Ross said he turned and saw that the woman had been a member of his youth group. She told Ross of God's miracles and that she leads Bible studies for women's events and conferences.

"I softly wept as I remembered the promiscuity and the continual chaos that filled her life in adolescence," Ross said.

"We best never stop being amazed by grace."


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: RICHARD ROSS.

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