In youth ministry, there’s no shortage of rough patches. You think you’ve got the lock-in planned, scheduled and effectively organized, and the location calls at the last minute and cancels your reservations.
Or, all your volunteers bail at the last moment. Or, you have a huge fight with your spouse right before you unlock the doors for the event. Or, no one shows up to help clean up, the senior pastor isn’t happy that you overspent on pizza, and parent’s aren’t thrilled that you watched a PG-13 movie.
It doesn’t take much to deflate our ministry bubbles. How do we recover? Where do we turn when things go from bad to worse? We’ve gathered four youth workers together to flesh this out.
Describe the most difficult journey you’ve had with a student. What one takeaway from that experience do you have?
Stephanie: I think that as youth workers there are small trials that we have every week, or (heaven forbid) every time we get together with students. There are distractions, and minor proverbial fires that require our attention. However, one of my most memorable challenges that I have encountered would have to be my little buddy, “D”. Well, let’s just call her that for now. She was living in a family situation that encourages a lifestyle that abuses systems in place meant to help. She was unhappy, obstinate, being kicked out of school, and ready to do what she felt necessary to find her version of happiness. At the time I wasn’t her youth leader, or really of any influence in her life, except I was her school’s secretary. During a routine blow-up in a classroom, out of the blue she came to me in the office and said, “Mrs. Rebelo, I don’t know what is wrong with me, and you have always been nice to me. Can we talk?” Granted, not every child comes to you and so directly asks for help, and to be honest I was taken aback. To be even more honest, I was afraid of the child. I had witnessed her temper, corrosive language, and quick release to violence. Here she was coming to me for help. At the time I wasn’t involved in a youth group, but I was involved in our church. All I could blurt out was “come to church with me.” The look on her face was priceless, and I think it might have mirrored my own. Surprisingly, she agreed, and two days later she was climbing in my car while we drove the twenty minutes to church.
Time passed, and we became closer, and attended a lot more church together. I invested the time with her that no one had ever bothered to before. There was a lot of good times, and then there were times when old habits reappeared. “D” had made huge strides, and was finding herself on track to graduate with her class. When it came time for us to move, due to the completion of my husband internship, parting with “D” was difficult. I had every confidence that she was more prepared to tackle life with the tiny seed of Christ that had been implanted in her life. Therefore, in a long-winded way, my takeaway would be that God is going to use you in ways you never imagined, and with students you never imagined. Be prepared to invest the time, and walk with them through their crisis as they happen for them. Never. Stop. Praying.
Aaron: I’ve been blessed to work in ministry with a lot of broken and hurt kids since I started as a counselor at East Iowa Bible Camp in the summer of 1990. Eventually I became a youth pastor, and I’ve walked beside kids dealing with life situations involving divorce, cancer, substance abuse, negligent or incarcerated parents, and many other challenges. Like many readers of YWJ, I learned to minister with and through God’s grace in intense situations I hadn’t received training for. I was always able to eventually go home or get a break of some sort. However, experiencing my own teenage son’s methodical and increasing personal brokenness in response to watching my wife’s health decline is by far the hardest thing I’ve walked through with a teenager.
My wife, Marque is a beautiful fighter, and I’m so thankful that she is still the amazing woman I married in 1994. Starting in 2006, she has experienced ongoing life-altering health problems. She has survived four brain surgeries related to a cyst that grows in her brain stem, and occasional seizures followed by partial paralysis and terrible migraines. She also has a vascular disease and an autoimmune disease that contribute to paresthesia. Additionally she has bone degeneration in her neck, lower back, hips, and knees. She’s a tough lady!
Our kids have spent the last nine years growing up in a home where on more than one occasion, it’s been quite possible that Mom might not survive yet another critical health event. God’s grace, alone, has gotten us through many horrific days.
However, watching my son slowly withdraw from seeing God as loving or omnipotent rocked me to my core as a father first, but also as a youth worker. I could see it happening over time, and I won’t list the exhaustive list of ways we sought to help him. He actually wouldn’t even talk when given the opportunity to interact with a gifted Christian counselor.
One day when we were supposed to be heading out the door for church, he didn’t want to go. As a teenage introvert who could easily clam up, he finally had an overdue and raw moment of shocking honesty. He basically screamed at me, “Just go without me! It’s not like God cares anyway. Mom is the best person I know, but she is always in pain and is in bed suffering right now! She can barely walk sometimes, and is always getting sicker!? She never really gets better! I don’t want to go to church to worship a God that supposedly gives a rip… because it’s stupid. If he’s there, he doesn’t care!” It felt like he knocked the wind out of me.
His hostility only increased for a period of time. I love my son, and I certainly felt the need to attempt to draw upon years of youth ministry as objectively as possible in prayerfully discerning the best way to approach him. He was a hurting teenager who absolutely needed compassion and love, but I also had to create some firm boundaries because he began lashing out in increasingly destructive ways that seemed to affect our family dynamic 24/7. It was extremely painful. It was emotional, spiritual, sometimes physical, and inescapably visceral for many long painful months.
Sidenote: It affected me too. In addition to caring for my wife’s needs, I felt like I was carrying yet another overwhelming burden of responsibility beyond my ability in trying to help him. Even though she was and is ill, Marque was such a blessing to me in those days. Many times she would remind me of the good things in our life, and in our family. And she would say, “It’s doesn’t feel like it, but it’s going to be okay. God has him, and isn’t done with him. He’s a good kid.” I had said the same things to many parents over the years, but then I found myself in a place where I needed to hear it many times. I was freshly reminded that regardless of my resume, degrees and experiences in understanding teens and youth ministry, I was just as needy as the next youth worker and dad. I needed other people, and I wasn’t used to that! It was therapeutic to share about my struggle to a handful of others who would listen, care, and pray.
My son needed me, but he also needed other people. Of course we weren’t super public about his struggles, but there were some people we invited into the situation. It was healthy to have others outside of our immediate family that would pursue him in little ways, while also really praying for him. It helped us feel a bit less alone in trying to help him. It also became more apparent who really cared, and some who couldn’t really be bothered to make an effort even though they were a youth worker, teacher, or coach.
Thankfully, over time, God did begin to heal my son’s heart. For me this was a mixture of some conversations, pursuing him a lot, but also giving him space and just trying to have fun sometimes. At one point a sweet Christian friend who has lived most of her adult life with crippling polio, made it her personal mission to engage our son logically (something he enjoys) at a summer camp. She had intentional “safe” conversations with him about who God is, her health, and pain in a broken world. She won his respect, and his ear. What a God-send!
A few months later there was a tense moment at home when I challenged him to reintroduce his broken heart to his logically thinking head. I basically saw a light turn on in his eyes, and we have seen a lot of maturity and growth since that point.
When working with kids on difficult life journeys, we are always going to be better together…regardless of our titles as counselor, coach, dad, mom, or youth worker!
Maina: As soon as Tom walked in the room I knew that he was going to be a hand full every Wednesday night he would come in loud and demanding not just to me but to the students around room so I wasn’t surprised when we physically hit another student as I tried to speak with him about he became even more hostile toward me to the point that I had to eventually ask him to take some time off from the student ministry in which I would meet with him weekly off campus for a month the first two meetings were extremely difficult based on his brash behavior in fact I almost asked that we discontinue our time together. During our third meeting I remember Tom looking at me and asking the hard question “Do you know why I’m angry”? as we began to unpack that I learned a lot about how to discipline a student who has anger issues I also learned that before you punish its always best to get to the root of the problem.
Amy: Two things come to mind, one, the situations when you watch, sometimes helplessly, as a student prepares to “crash and burn” as the consequences of their choices catch up with them; and secondly, the grief and heartache that accompanies brokenness in the family situations of students.
The helplessness that accompanies these situations can be overwhelming; conversations may feel pointless, it feels like no matter what we do, the situation will not be affected or altered. It is not just here that God steps in, He has been there throughout everything, but it is here that we must reminder ourselves that He is in fact greater and stronger than we will ever be and He is in “it” no matter what “it” is. We come face-to-face with the limits of our persuasive abilities, to get a student to make safe and healthy decisions and the limits of the scope of our power as we know some students must live, daily, in very dysfunctional families that do not support and care for them in a healthy way. Having to support a student in honoring their parents, knowing that it may remove them from fellowship and a supportive Christian community is a very difficult decision!
On the personal side, and I know this isn’t a story of a difficult journey with a student, we have experienced churches that had significant amounts of conflict and although in both situations the staff was strong, connected with each other and supportive, those were very difficult times. Knowing and dealing with the behind the scenes conflict while trying to maintain a healthy ministry and honestly shield students from it took a lot of energy. We felt very strongly that the students did not in any way need to be brought into a conflict that they did not have any power to affect or change; the situation had the potential to only be distracting and even bewildering to them. We kept reminding ourselves what we were called to – the students – and not get distracted while trusting God that He was working through the conflict with us and that in the end it would in fact strengthen us and our church. Twenty years down the road, this sounds neat and tidy, but it was anything but that!
How crucial are staff / pastoral relationships in your life? What do you do to keep those relationships healthy and alive? How do they help you when ministry begins to take over?
Stephanie: So often, the pastor, and church board are pivotal in the success of youth ministries. Some of the best ways to keep the relationship between youth leadership and pastoral leadership is open, and frequent communication. Your pastoral staff needs to know what your ideas are, and where you are wanting to go with your student ministries. One of the biggest break-downs in leadership is a lack of communication between the leaders.
Aaron- From the standpoint of serving with the National Network of Youth Ministries they are very important. But even before I was with NNYM, I joined or helped start some networks because I wanted to KNOW other Pastors so that we could make a better difference together. Iron sharpens iron, except when it nevers comes into contact with each other! There are so many youth leaders that would be greatly sharpened through starting a new or joining an existing local network with nearby leaders! If they could focus on building relationships with each other, praying together, sharing resources, and finding common strategies for reaching local teens…wow! Regardless of what flavor of Christian denomination…we agree on more than we disagree. Let’s focus on that!
Maina: Each staff relationship has been different but what I have had to learn is to learn the personality style of the staff. We must learn how to serve the staff that we are working with. Once we know how to serve those we are working with, that will take us a long way.
Amy: We have only served on multiple staffs and the closeness of those relationships has varied somewhat, but have been overall mutually respectful and functional. I have been fortunate to find some of my closest friends among the spouses of staff members and have been grateful for that.
Healthy staff relationships that are marked by kindness and respect of one another can set the tone for the rest of a church, you do not have to be best friends, but being friends really helps, in my experience; these are critical to healthy ministry as well as personal emotional and spiritual health. Being in ministry can sometimes have an “in the trenches” feel and I think it can make all the difference in the world to know that those of us in the trench together genuinely have each other’s back and are looking out for each other. I am not naïve to think this is always or even often the case, but I would like to think it could be a goal. Stephanie’s point is a very important one and that is that communication is critical to enabling this – keep the church (pastors, elders, whoever depending on the organizational structure of the church) informed and in the loop, make sure to get endorsement of activities before surprising anyone and if this is not your strong suit address this and work on it. Other staff members, particularly senior pastors and elder boards are more likely to be supportive when they have been informed of things along the way.