Hard things. Every one of us has to deal with them. They come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no way to prepare for their arrival. That’s the worst part of hard things: We’re often blindsided by their tragic arrival to the point that, so much so that we’re unable to effectively deal with them effectively.
We asked four youth workers to weigh in on the theme of this issue, giving them room to discuss together some of the more difficult areas of this ministry to which we have given our lives.
Stephanie Rebelo lives in a small, rural community with her husband and 3-year- old son. She has a master’s degree in organizational leadership, and is working on her doctorate in education. Working with her local high school, and creating its first official Christian club has been her current passion. Stephanie loves to make jokes, and have fun.
Maina Mwaura loves to provoke thought in leaders. He is the husband of Tiffiney and the has a two 2-year- old daughter name Zyan. Maina, lives in the Atlanta area and is the mobilization pastor at West Ridge Church. He can be reached at MainaSpeaks.com.
Amy Flavin has been in youth ministry for 34 years. She is a psychology professor at Nyack College in Manhattan, and is a licensed professional counselor. Amy speaks and teaches locally, as well as, and has spoken at the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention and, the American Psychotherapy Association national conference. S, and she is an associate staff member with CPYU.
Aaron Babyar has been a youth pastor and adjunct ministry professor. He serves with the National Network of Youth Ministries. Aaron likes basketball way too much, and would have been an NBA All-Star if only he were he was only a foot taller.
YouthWorker Journal: What makes youth workers uniquely qualified to reach students in the midst of their worst moments in life? How can we be good stewards of those moments?
Aaron: Assuming a youth worker has actually has made a relational connection with a student, there is some trust cache available to speak truth when rough times occur. When someone knows you care about him or her them more than the gravity of a situation, there is some real potential for sharpening. Proverb 27:6 says, that “wounds from a friend can be trusted.” That doesn’t mean they will always will be accepted with a smile! However, the faithfulness of the pre-existing relationship goes a long way. Carefully choosing the moments and timing of when to be more direct in hard times should be done prayerfully, but also boldly, gracefully, and with wisdom. The goal must always must be to help or restore, not to cause more damage.
Stephanie: There are moments when that we aren’t qualified. There are moments that when we really mess things up things! Nevertheless, we are perfectly made for the task Christ has set in front of us. As youth leaders, we are meant to be transparent, and as a youth leader there is nothing more demanded by our students. There are many times, in the midst of a crises, all the students wants is to be heard. Walking with your students through these difficult times, and modeling Christ, is sometimes the best way to shepherd.
Amy: As Aaron mentioned, the relationships I have with students open the door to conversations that might not otherwise happen. As a youth workers, we are a familiar and consistent presences. Students , they know (we hope!) that we have been there and will be there for them. They may see us every week for a year before they open up and share something that is really difficult, but that our presence over time has spoken to their hearts. That presence can be the basis of trust and an opportunity, as Stephanie mentioned, to come alongside and even remind us that He put us there, in that moment for His reasons; and without over-spiritualizing things, He will give us what we need. Our stewardship of those moments is critical as we must be faithful stewards of our own relationships with Jesus so that we are ready when those moments present themselves. I think a critical aspect of this,, in the midst of the details of programming and running a ministry, is to be committed to prayer and to call ourselves to slow down enough to be present and notice the conversations that need to be had and may be missed if we rush on by.
Maina: I believe what makes us qualified to reach students is our calling., I believe that as long as a student leader is called, he or she they can reach students at their darkest moments. Once a student leader is called, I believe that God gives him or her them the instruments needed to reach them.
YWJ: What are the top three most common life events that cause students grief or stress?
Amy: By the time students get to my office, a top stressor is relationships with parents: parents who love their kids but have difficulty having a balanced and healthy relationships with them. Applying pressure, lecturing without listening and not having nurtured a relationship with their child/adolescent results in a stressful and sometimes even dangerous gap in their ability to actually parent and have appropriate authority when needed during the adolescent years. I find this to be an ongoing stressor rather than a stressful event.
Another stressor that I find adolescents having difficulty with is managing their social media involvement. They are allowed unrestricted access to devices, with pretty much zero training and are often are unprepared for the fall-out that occurs when there is a misstep of some sort, as are their parents. Within the past two months, I have had two adolescents in my office (one a young adolescent and the other an upperclassman in high school) who have posted something that they were unable or unwilling to foresee the consequences of, thus creating a major mess with parents and school administrators when what they posted was re-posted and of course seen by those whom they didn’t intend to have see it. The adolescents found themselves in hot water; the parents were angry that their students didn’t know better; and potentially someone else (often the object of the post) was hurt or maligned along the way.
Maina: For most students, it can be inability to cope through the problems that they are facing mixed in with broken families/relationships.
Stephanie: Some of the most common life events that our group encounters is usually school-related: the next exam in school, or the difficult studies in a particular class. Another common difficulty that students tend to have is with their relationships with their peers. Lastly, I would say students struggle with their versions of the school/life balance. While there are many students who play sports, and are involved in other extracurricular activities, these involvements are now leave students without much a lot of free time. Any more, we are so afraid of giving a teenager free time that we pile on the activities outside of their own school studies. We are so afraid that idle time will lead to idle minds, but I think there are times that we forget, that idle time can be soothing. How often as adults do we seek out time to have nothing to do?
Aaron: I back this up with zero $0 dollars spent on research, but three of the recurring issues I’ve frequently noticed are unhealthy relationships with immediate family members, broken relationships with peers, and secret sin that’s often tied into a lack of known personal identity.
YWJ: How do we help prepare students for difficult moments? What skills can we teach them?
Stephanie: There are a few things that we can impress upon our students. One of the main characteristics is courage. A professor in leadership once told me, “The greatest thing a parent can teach their his or her child is to be courageous.” Next would be faith in prayer. So often when students are going through a difficult times, they tend to turn inward, and shut out other people. Ultimately, this leaves the students feeling as if they are alone. If we can teach our students that the heavenly Father is waiting on us to reach out and ask, we may be able to instill in them that they are never alone. Never will they have to feel as if like they are walking through their problems—or all of life— for that matter, alone.
Aaron: Identifying with who they are in Christ is massive. I realize that sounds oversimplified, but the building blocks of who He is and who we are in Him are the best initial foundation for the hard times. It also helps us realize that because we aren’t God, but have access to Him, we can turn to Him when things are at their best and worst.
Maina: The main thing we can do to help students understand that life happens is to not to paint an unrealistic picture of Christianity and to help them understand that with prayer nothing is impossible.
Amy: I really agree with Aaron that we need to not hold back in teaching them about who Jesus is. They desperately need a real and authentic relationship with a real and authentic Savior who will walk with them through very tough times. If we offer them nothing more powerful than what the culture offers, we do them a disservice and fail to equip them with a faith that will sustain them. If we water down the gospel in an effort to not to offend them or make it more appealing in some way, we are cheating them out of knowledge of the one true God, Creator of the universe who loves them and offers to walk alongside them throughout all that they will encounter. I also love what Stephanie said about the importance of courage. When my own children were growing up, I told them that I was always was praying that they would have the courage to stand up for what was right, and that God would give them an ally.
YWJ: As youth workers, we live in the real world and experience our own hard moments. Students are watching us when we hit rough spots. How are we to handle ourselves when we experience hard times?
Aaron: We’ve learned to let go of the myriad of things outside of our control by visualizing placing those burdens in God’s able hands. Also, we have a prayer that has been repeated in the worst of times that helps us to find peace: “Your grace is sufficient to get us through today.” That has helped us find some rest when it was most elusive, and also been something I’ve been able to share with others in their struggles. It helps to not to worry about the pending stresses of tomorrow, and be present yet more peaceful in the unique pains of today, while holding onto the hope we have in Christ alone. I think often times students often need to look past the next exam, sports game, or whatever unspecified drama is in their faces, and focus on the fact that God is in charge, and His grace is sufficient for today.
Amy: We do not need to be—and should not present ourselves as—perfect. Do we need to strive reflect Christ in all we do? Yes, but we need to be honest, not for self-aggrandizement, but for reasons of approachability and to enable students to identify with us, witness part of our journey and know the hope there is in Christ to navigate through the hard times. This question brings me back to the importance of our own relationships with Christ. As Christians, we’re guaranteed to have rough times—not because God is absent or tempting or testing us—but because we live in the world and are not exempt. Our students need to know the difference is that neither are we ever alone, nor are they. We need to be real, not just in the worldly sense, but rather our honesty about the realities of life and our struggles that God has helped us tame—and conquer—can offer them hope that the rocky road they are on is, in fact, God’s road.
YWJ: What about youth ministry causes you the most discouragement?
Stephanie: There have been many planning meetings, board meetings and general meetings where the first idea for use of the youth is work. More often than not, youth are the first turned to for the clean-up crew, set-up crew, trash crew, etc. So often, we are underutilizing the youth we have. We need to be looking to them as budding leaders and equip them as such.
Aaron: I still see so many churches counting the wrong things and completely misunderstand what discipleship is or misuse the asset of youth. It’s good to know how many kids attend various events, but that is not where our value should be placed. Just because 40 kids sat still and somewhat listened to a speaker doesn’t mean we need to break our arms patting ourselves on the back and announce that 40 lives have been changed. I’d like to see more local churches and student-minded parachurches describe what they mean when they say “make disciples.” How will you know if a kid has been discipled? How will he or she look? What will he or she have in common with others who have been discipled? Once we have some descriptions or definitions, then let’s count; but let’s count the right things of how many teens we know for certain are involved in close-knit relationships that are challenging them to become better disciples of Jesus as a result our ministries. Then we can put more time and resources into enhancing our ministries.
Maina: What usually bothers me the most is when I feel as if I am not being valued; and I have had to deal with feeling undervalued by parents, pastors or students.
Amy: We have been very fortunate for 25 years to be a part of a church that values youth ministry. We came to our current church from a church that made it clear it felt otherwise. It was a peaceful church in that there was not conflict, but the message about the value of the role of youth ministry was very clear. I think I am most discouraged by churches that want a vibrant youth ministry but are not willing to put their money where their mouths are in order to support that. Second, I’m discouraged by churches that, as Stephanie mentioned, seem to value youth as some sort of commodity rather than disciples in the body of Christ—churches that do not value youth ministry or desire to have a youth ministry but are easily annoyed or angered at any evidence of their presence. I always wonder who they think will be the church of tomorrow and if those same people cannot be grateful for the journey (though it is messy!) of fellow members of the body of Christ.
YWJ: How do you know when you’re at the point of no return—when you’re too discouraged or beaten up by your circumstances to be a help for students and need help yourself?
Stephanie: I know that when I have reached the breaking point is when my husband tells me I have had enough. Most of the time, I imagine it’s like most of my youth leader peers: too many irons are in the fire and event invites that we never seem to be able to decline. My husband has been the stabilizer, the rock that keeps me sane. He makes sure that when I think of myself last, I am the first on his heart and mind. This is the opportunity for me to show humility and use my moment of need as a teaching tool to the students that I need time for myself. Sometimes we need to have the ability to do for ourselves.
Aaron: I always have enjoyed hanging with teenagers, especially the junior high kids who start out as unquestionably clueless. I found that if don’t want to be around them for some reason, it’s usually me, not them, and I need to take a break. Having roots in Christian camping, I distinctly recall being toast by late July. I loved God, loved the kids, loved the other counselors, and had some amazing summers; but the fact is, I was less effective going into the final days of camp because although I’m a high-energy guy, I always was going a hundred miles an hour. It took me a long time to learn to pace myself and to make sure my body, mind and soul were being nourished.
Amy: In my view the accountability piece is critical, but it needs to be genuine and effective. I think as a buzz word it is something everyone automatically agrees with, but in practice it needs to mean more than simply letting someone in on our sin or struggle. True accountability means we share our hearts with vulnerability, honesty and humility, not with a desire for validation of what might be our poor choices or self-centeredness. We also give permission to someone to help us make a plan to get from a bad place to a better place. The importance of letting someone speak into our lives cannot be overlooked, because in the midst of ministry it can be very hard to self-evaluate.
I know I am at that point of no return when I have lost my joy and enthusiasm. My husband and I have been married for more than 34 years and are more honest with each other then we were able to be in the early years of marriage/ministry. We have been in youth ministry our entire married life, so the two are intertwined for us. There is a foundation of love and grace and deep, experiential knowledge of each other that enables us to know we have each other’s best interests at heart. We use honesty to express that we care about the other person, not to inflict wounds.
Maina: I reach the point of discouragement usually because I have not taken a vacation or a Sabbath. Taking the proper time off will save you a ton.