SILVER CREEK — Benjie Mathis points out it's never been all about him.
Talk about his north-of-40 years in student ministry, 28 of them at Pleasant Valley South Baptist Church near Rome, and words like "leaders" and "volunteers" pepper his comments. For someone in charge of the spiritual development of so many teenagers during that time, his most important takeaway is how it's a collective effort much bigger than one person.
Mathis, leader of his church's student program for nearly three decades, met with Pastor Philip May about a year ago, though, and revealed his time in that position was nearing a close. It's not for the reasons one might suspect of a 63-year-old, either. Mathis has welcomed the advent of technology and other changes in student work, using them to support community service, discipleship, and missions that are in the DNA of the ministry named Student Fusion. Constant community and three worship services a week are drawing around 135 students (and growing) to Sunday School at this rural church east of Lindale.
"I like to do fun stuff, but there's a time for serious stuff, too," says Mathis after a recollection on the previous night's Nerf Wars outing in the valley near the church's property. "We had worship, volunteers cooked hot dogs, we talked to some of the older kids about strategy."
Mathis acknowledges there are a lot of opinions for how to do student ministry, but simplicity has always worked for him.
"Our kids eat together. I know that sounds like such a Baptist thing, but we do. Our volunteers – they're key – do a lot of the prep work. We eat, pray, do service projects together, simple things any ministry can do."
"I never expected to outgrow youth ministry," Mathis told The Index three years ago. "I interact with students and meet with our leadership team of students. They come to our house and swim and we eat and talk. ... I keep up with them by text messaging and on Facebook and Twitter.
"I also read a lot about youth ministry and meet three-to-four times a week with friends who are younger than I [to talk about youth culture]. They help me out a lot."
For several years Student Fusion has provided mission trips to North Carolina, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, and New York. Every week students help at a community kitchen, and periodically with the Salvation Army. On May 7 they'll sponsor a prom for special needs students.
This summer's mission trip to northeast Georgia/North Carolina will involve construction and demolition work. If you're feeling your age the morning after shooting foam bullets, tearing up a floor or breaking down a wall is going to make muscles groan that much more.
"I really enjoy mission trips, hiking, and outside activities, but they can be hard and physical," Mathis admits.
"Accolade and more accolades to Benjie and his family for being an outstanding example of quality ministry over the long haul and making an outstanding contribution to student ministry in Rome," says Doug Couch of Georgia Baptist Mission Board Student Groups and Faith Development. "Congratulations also to their pastor, Phil May, and their core leadership for maintaining a healthy church environment in which a ministry such as Benjie's could thrive. This does not happen by accident."
Mentorship and consistency have been important to growth, testifies Mathis. ""Our attendance on Sundays is helped by us serving food at 8:30. Kids set up and socialize.
"We have a group of 35-40 ninth graders led by a husband-and-wife team. Been with them two years. Our model is to keep our kids with the same leaders through middle and high school. It makes it easier to build in accountability.
"Discipleship is a process over a period of time. Care for the students and have compassion for them. Tell them you'll pray for them, then do it. We tend to look for the 'cool' factor, but [a successful youth program] can be simplistic; you just have to be willing to do it."
During his time Mathis has kept one thing in common with parents – he cares for their kids. He also gives credit to Pleasant Valley South and May, who have seen to it that fundraisers aren't an issue for the student ministry by providing through the church budget.
There are no definite plans for the future, mostly due to current busyness planning youth events and mission trips. He and his wife Sandey, a sixth grade teacher at Pepperell Middle School and integral part of the ministry, have designs on a trip west to visit some national parks.
Whatever they decide, it's assured those plans won't revolve around one person.
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