Ezekiel 34 paints a vivid picture of a shepherd who cares for his flock, searches for strays and binds up the broken. This picture of God as Israel’s true Shepherd can help youth workers care for broken youth. What does it mean to be broken? How can we care for the broken, especially given our own brokenness? To find out, we talked to three youth ministry veterans.
Before he began writing and creating movies for youth workers, parents and adolescents, Jim Hancock spent years working with youth and training youth workers. Through this, Jim became well acquainted with brokenness and passionate about equipping youth workers to deal with brokenness. He’s co-author of the book The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teens in Crisis.
Ginny Olson often sees brokenness in people others miss. This ability has enabled her to impact youth in the church, students at the universities where she’s taught and youth workers in the Covenant Church, where she currently serves as the director of Youth Ministry for the Northwest Conference. Ginny’s author of the book Teenage Girls: Exploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Them.
Despite having seen tremendous brokenness in his 40+ years in ministry, Marv Penner firmly believes God comforts and heals. This conviction has given him the courage to walk with countless students and their families as they journey toward healing. This passion is evident in his books Help! My Kids Are Hurting: A Survival Guide to Working with Students in Pain and Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut: Learning to Understand and Help Those Who Self-Injure.
YouthWorker Journal: Where do you see the presence of brokenness in youth ministry today?
Jim Hancock: Wherever someone keeps silent about his or her fears or temptations because he or she is convinced no one would understand, wherever someone hides his or her failure. Wherever I look, I see kids pretending they’re fine. This is a trick they’ve learned from their parents, pastors and youth workers.
YWJ: What are the signs and symptoms of brokenness?
Ginny Olson: Depression, self-injury and explosive anger. Kids learn how to cope, so signs aren’t easily identifiable if you’re not looking.
Marv Penner: Brokenness is often camouflaged. It appears as bravado, power or perfectionism. It expresses itself in relationally destructive patterns of inappropriate behavior. We often respond to what’s visible, not what’s really going on.
YWJ: What contributes to the brokenness of today’s teens?
Jim: Treating adolescents as children; objectifying girls and boys sexually; pandering to students as a market; treating them as if they were all slight variations of the same stereotypes. It breaks teenagers when we blame them for things adults do.
Ginny: The breakdown of community: Many kids don’t have caring adults asking questions or checking on them.
Marv: The betrayal of trust. When teens can’t count on someone to be present, keep them safe, be available or be their advocate, it feels as though it’s an enormous betrayal of trust. The response to betrayal has to be consistent trustworthy behavior.
YWJ: What are some common mistakes youth workers make in ministering to broken teens?
Jim: It’s easy to talk around things we can’t comprehend. I never knew kids with eating disorders until I talked openly about eating disorders. Then I found teenagers who were struggling right under my nose. All I had to do was say the word in a way that gave kids hope I would engage them without condemnation. They were there all along.
Ginny: They don’t bring parents into the loop. They forget that parents—not the youth worker—are the ones responsible for them. They don’t bring their boss into the loop. They discount the seriousness. They think, “This is just adolescence.” Amid all that’s loud in ministry, they miss the quiet kid who’s struggling.
YWJ: Amid brokenness, how can teens find healing?
Jim: Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God, good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind. I don’t hear youth workers—or much of anybody—preaching that gospel. I don’t hear us preaching the Sermon on the Mount, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who mistreat you, be merciful as God is merciful. Following Jesus down this path could bring healing to hurting people. The way to wholeness leads through suffering, but maybe not as many self-inflicted wounds as we see in youth groups.
Ginny: Through caring, concerned adults who help kids respond to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be healed?”
YWJ: What role should youth workers play in the healing process?
Ginny: We’re first responders. Because we’re dealing with so many different kids, we see when behavior is abnormal. As first responders, we intervene and assess what’s happening. We bring kids to resources and bring resources to them.
Marv: God will use multiple voices in the lives of people in a healing journey. That means a diverse team of youth workers will be the best solution. When you’re out of your depth, refer a kid to someone who knows more. Referring is not failure. It’s a desire to make sure that person gets the best help available.
YWJ: Youth workers themselves are broken. How might a youth worker’s own brokenness impact his or her ministry?
Ginny: We’re all wounded. As leaders, we need to acknowledge our woundedness and strive toward healing. I tell students, “When you move into a community, find a good doctor, therapist and mechanic.” Your stuff is going to get stirred up in ministry. Whether it’s on an on-going basis or a check-in once a year, take steps to stay healthy.
Marv: We don’t comfort others with our brokenness. We comfort others with the comfort we’ve received from the God of all comfort. Brokenness is not something to run from. If we’ve dealt with it appropriately, it’s part of a story of God’s grace and the assurance of His presence. Our willingness to own that story creates a sense of authenticity and gives us hope and courage to take kids down the path of healing.
YWJ: What guidelines would you give youth workers for sharing their own brokenness with students?
Jim: Pursue openness and honesty. When I first embarked on this path, I imagined I might be fired. That’s not what happened. Instead, people seemed to trust me more. There was a learning curve on how much to say and how to say it. One of my recovering addict friends directed me to Step Five of the 12 Steps. Following a fearless and searching moral inventory of himself, the addict admits to God, himself and another human the exact nature of his wrongs. The exact nature does not equal the precise details of those wrongs.
Ginny: Share when you can do so without needing anything back from students, when you’re not using students as a therapeutic self-help group. Bring kids into your story, but get your care outside the group. Students aren’t your primary source of care.
Marv: The most crucial factor is for whose benefit the transparency is being shared. Is this so I can shock or establish rapport with kids, or is this motivated by my desire to see them grow?” A subset of this is, “Am I sharing this story as a way of processing it? Is it something I’m able to tell as God’s story? Is it about grace and redemption or brokenness and pain?” When it’s a story of pain, it’s destructive. It makes kids feel they have to take care of me. If you have doubts, check with someone whose judgment you respect. Err on the side of caution.
YWJ: Under what circumstances should a youth worker’s own brokenness cause him or her to step away from ministry?
Ginny: When it’s so encompassing they cannot function well, when it’s a wound that needs time and attention to be addressed.
YWJ: From a legal standpoint, what do youth workers need to know about ministering to teens in their brokenness?
Jim: If we have reason to believe someone may be a danger to him or herself or others and do not seek qualified professional assistance to protect life and health, we can be held liable under the law. If we have reason to believe a crime has been committed against a minor and fail to report our belief to law enforcement, child protective services or someone in a legally responsible position to protect the safety and well being of that child (a school administrator, if we can’t find anyone else to listen), we can be held liable. Any sexualized contact between a person 18 years or older and a child through the age of 17 is a crime.
YWJ: When it comes to ministering to hurting teens, how important are partnerships?
Jim: Extraordinarily important. The most important principle underlying helping partnerships is to find out what Jesus meant when He said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” Living into that frequently opens the way to work with caring teenagers and other adults who are invested in the safety, health and wholeness of adolescents.
Ginny: Critical. When you move into a new community, in your first two months do an assessment. Find out what resources you have. Call the school counselor. Ask, “How can I tap into the resources in this community?” Find the clinics. Ask, “Are you willing to accept people based on a sliding fee schedule?” Don’t just think it has to be a Christian therapist. Good therapists may not be believers, but they know how to deal with hurting teens.
Marv: The most crucial partnership is with parents. We need to position ourselves as co-nurturers, regardless of whether they go to our church. We need to be proactive in establishing partnerships with schools, coaches, police departments, advocacy groups, social services and child protection agencies. Invite them to be experts in a panel discussion. Give them a platform in front of parents. Honor them for the incredible, thankless work they do. The worst thing we can do is make our first call to them when we’re in the middle of a crisis.
YWJ: What else do we need to know?
Marv: As followers of Christ, we have something to offer broken people that’s not available at any pharmacy or guidance counselor’s office. It breaks my heart that as God’s people, we’ve abdicated our role in confronting and embracing brokenness. In the process, we’ve robbed people of experiencing the resources broken people were meant to experience when God’s people surround, embrace and love them. Jesus said, “I was naked and you clothed Me. I was hungry and you fed Me.” We can’t allow our commitment to this primary kingdom mandate to fade. That’s what we’re called to do. That’s what Christ modeled. We can’t do any less.
The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis (Youth Specialties) by Rich Van Pelt and Jim Hancock
Hurt 2.0 by Chap Clark
Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut: Learning to Understand and Help Those Who Self-Injure (Youth Specialties) by Marv Penner
Help! My Kids are Hurting: A Survival Guide to Working with Students in Pain (Youth Specialties) by Marv Penner
Hear My Story: Understanding the Cries of Troubled Youth by Dean Borgman
The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan Allender
The Volunteer’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis by Jim Hancock and Rich Van Pelt