This couple shares a job and a big vision
These unconventional youth ministers are the perfect fit
There are two types of jobs that most people agree are particularly challenging: ministry positions and job-shares. But one brave married couple has taken on both at once.
Grant and Lauren van der Merwe stepped into the role of youth ministers at St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Roseville, northern Sydney, 18 months ago, after approaching the church to see if a full-time position could be split between them. The job is the perfect fit for their current lifestyle, with Lauren working four days in the role and Grant taking on the other two while also studying a Bachelor of Divinity at Sydney’s Moore College. (Lauren has already completed a Bachelor of Theology at Moore).
“I feel like our gifts really complement one another. We give our young people a fuller package.” – Lauren van der Merwe
It’s not an arrangement the couple had ever seen done before and, in fact, they still don’t know anyone else who has tried it – especially in Sydney’s Anglican Diocese.
“That was really challenging for us,” Grant tells Eternity in the couple’s small flat on the grounds of St Andrew’s. “We knew that we both wanted to go into ministry in a church scenario but we didn’t really know of anyone who had done it before, so we didn’t really know what it would look like, or if it was possible, or what it would involve. We were just making it up as we went along.”
So far, their job-share has also been a ‘best case scenario’ for the church. Grant says it’s allowed them to better mentor young leaders and kids in the youth group, as he can focus on building relationships with the guys and Lauren the girls. It also allows them to each bring different gifts and skills to the role.
“I feel like our gifts really complement one another, and we kind of give our young people a fuller package and expression of who God is – albeit a fallen expression,” says Lauren.
In identifying their differences, she says: “I’m a go-get-them kind of person. I have an idea and I’m like, ‘let’s make this happen’ whereas Grant is slower, so we balance each other. So instead of me just running into things, Grant’s very strategic.”
“That’s been a real refrain of our marriage, we’re actually so much better together.” – Lauren van der Merwe
Grant gives the helpful analogy of painting their home, where he spent a long time “slowly and carefully cutting in around the edges” while Lauren slapped on paint “fast and loose” using a roller.
“We’re a good team,” Lauren surmises. “We don’t have it all together but we’re better together. That’s been a real refrain of our marriage, we’re actually so much better together.”
She admits it hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though. “Initially, one of the challenges was working out how to resolve workplace conflict between us, because and we have never seen anyone do this model and we didn’t feel like we’ve really had any mentors.
“In the first couple of months we would have a disagreement and it would become quite personal. I think now we’re a lot better at [separating out] ‘this is work’ and ‘this is personal’.
“The other challenge is just switching off, especially at the moment because we live at church. We’ve had to be very intentional about date nights, going out and going on holidays rather than staying here.”
“Ministry aside, being able to work alongside Lauren has also grown our marriage.” – Grant van der Merwe
For Grant, it’s hard to avoid “always being in work mode” in conversations but, on the whole, he says the experience has been really positive.
“As with anything, there’s something awesome about being able to sharpen and refine ideas with someone. There’s a joy to that when you’re feeling lonely or it’s difficult or you’re dealing with certain frustrations. The joy of doing that with Lauren is that I get to do it with the person I’ve chose to marry, someone who I love more than anyone else and who I’ve chosen as a life partner.
“Ministry aside, being able to work alongside Lauren has also grown our marriage. Being able to spend more time together and do something that we love together – that’s been awesome.”
It’s certainly not the first time the couple have served in church ministry (albeit unpaid) together. The pair grew up alongside each other a few suburbs down the train line from Roseville, at St James Anglican Church Turramurra, where they attended the same Sunday school class from Year 4 onwards. They became friends after high school and both were crucial cogs in the church’s Friday night youth group, which grew from around 30 to 150 kids during a four-year period.
Now the couple’s passion and vision is already sparking signs of similar growth at Roseville – and beyond.
“Youth ministry is amazing because you’re influencing the next generation. There’s so much research coming out from people like Tim Sims saying that kids and youth is where you should be putting all your emphasis as a church,” Lauren enthuses.
She adds: “We don’t see youth ministry as a stepping stone into parish ministry. We’re not aspiring to be something else, because we actually just believe in youth ministry.”
Lauren notes two statistics that have given momentum and fuel to their work. The first, that 80 percent of people make their first faith decision before the age of 20. The second, that around half of young people give their Christian faith away after high school.
In order to combat the reality captured in these statistics and help young people cement the faith during this “critical time”, the van der Merwes have adopted some innovative and strategic methods. They’re applying the “5Ms” – maturity, magnification, ministry, mission and membership – a model based on the ‘purpose-driven church’ by Rick Warren, with Grant overseeing the first two of these areas and Lauren the remaining three.
As a result, much of their focus is on encouraging young people to get involved in church ministry and develop into leaders.
“Our ministry philosophy is to do ourselves out of a job, so we’re looking to raise up leaders who lead leaders,” Lauren explains.
“My goal is to get 85 per cent of our [youth] members serving regularly because we believe that service is key to the Christian life. So we’re thinking about different ways we can get them involved, whether that’s in ‘Kids’ space’ [Sunday school] on a Sunday morning or evening, or ‘Xtreme’, which is our years 5 and 6 young people’s program on Friday afternoon, or serving through our community project, or on our connect team welcoming young people to youth [group] each week.”
The pair also encourage semi-regular church attenders to become more connected (and therefore more committed) by working to make young people feel “like they’re part of God’s family”.
“We did a series called ‘We are Family’ last term. Before then, [young people] were coming to church quite siloed, so they wouldn’t talk to one another,” says Lauren.
“Our prayer is that they would understand they are part of God’s family and brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s been really cool seeing young people now connect with one another. The other Friday, I was in a group where there was a year 12 girl, a year 9 girl and two year 8 girls. I thought ‘This is what it’s supposed to be like!'”
“The amazing thing is that God is growing a huge evangelism in a young people’s lives.” – Lauren van der Merwe
When it comes to mission, the couple’s vision extends well beyond the boundaries of the church and even beyond their local suburb. This Friday night, they will host a massive multi-denominational youth event, United 2019, with the lofty aim of of “seeing the lost youth of Sydney’s north shore come to know Jesus.” Over 500 young people (from years 6 to 12) are expected to turn up from 13 different youth groups, along with their guests.
When the van der Merwes first inherited the United ministry, it had been run on a much smaller scale with only a few local youth groups coming together. However, the couple couldn’t go past the “huge opportunity” for evangelism the ministry offered.
“We know there’s around 17,500 high school students on the north shore. We reckon a generous estimate would be that about 4000 of those are followers of Jesus. So that leaves 13,500 young people who don’t know the gospel,” Lauren calculates. She’s hoping that at least 100 of the young people who turn up to United will be unchurched.
And, after much prayer and series of miraculous answers, including a generous donation to cover much of the cost of hiring The Concourse building in Chatswood, the event looks set to draw more kids than the 500-seat venue can hold.
“On Instagram, 900 individuals have looked at our page in the last week,” says Lauren, who is currently exploring options for a live feed of the event if needed.
While making preparations for the night (which includes a carnival, laser tag and inflatable obstacle courses in addition to a gospel message and worship), Lauren has been meeting twice a day at Chatswood Concourse with any young people who turn up to pray for the event and their friends who don’t yet know Christ.
“The amazing thing is that God is growing a huge heart for evangelism in our young people’s lives,” she says.
“At our prayer meeting this morning, we had a Year 7 girl come and pray for her friend who’s not a follower of Jesus. I think that’s almost just as cool as the event – seeing young people have a heart for evangelism.”
“We’re not thinking about the next thing right now. We’re just thinking about what we can do with what we’ve got.” – Grant van der Merwe
Following United, and after Grant finishes the final 18 months of his course, the couple say they don’t have any grand plans. They’re unsure about whether they can continue to job-share after his graduation, but they certainly hope to at least work in church ministry together.
“We’re not thinking about the next thing right now. We’re just thinking about what we can do with what we’ve got. If another opportunity comes up, then we will prayerfully consider that,” says Grant.
“The dream is what we’re doing now, which is to both be on staff at a church. We don’t really mind how much finance that brings in, as long as it’s enough to support us. But I think it’s important for us to both have a place at the table,” says Lauren.
Always the imaginative visionary, she adds: “As a side note, I feel like if we ever had to go on reality TV, like The Block, as a couple, we would smash it!”
United 2019 will be held on Friday, August 23, 6:30pm – 9:00pm, at The Concourse in Chatswood. For more information, visit united2019.org.