It’s been a while since my last post, so I wanted to get something up and recently I had some experiences that pointed me to the perfect topic: depth. Specifically, I had a series of conversations with youth workers about their ability to connect with their youth on an emotional level. For one, they struggled to find relevant connection, being in a completely different stage of life and having had a very different background than the youth they were ministering to. Another was dealing with several teens that were dealing with extraordinarily heavy issues; one teen was struggling with identity and transexuality; another with thoughts of suicide; a third with the aftermath of having an abortion. Both these ministers were dealing with connection and depth, and both were struggling. So, this post is going to give you some thoughts and advice on this subject. Buckle up.
Relevance. Many a youth ministry career is born out of relevance. I know that when I started as a so-fresh-out-of-college-I-still-owned-ramen, I was in touch with popular culture, movies, music and, in some ways, even ahead of the curve. This won’t last forever, nor should it. You are growing and maturing. Your life, relationships, career and faith are ripening, you can’t get stuck in a college mentality. So, fully knowing that you will become less and less relevant, my advice is to embrace it, but also to equip yourself. Embrace the fact that you are growing as a person but equip yourself with the knowledge of what is happening around you. You can check out resources like Relevant Magazine (the name is a bit one-the-nose, but the content is good), follow your students on instagram and twitter, and read blogs, articles and anything you can find about what is going on in the world of teens. Most importantly, build in some time to simply listen to your youth chat with each other. Much can be learned by listening to two teenage girls chat about their week. Being in touch and knowledgeable about the world your teens are in will help you to connect with teens that are in a different stage of life than you and, in some cases, coming from a very different environment and social climate than you did when you were their age.
Know when to hand it off. Something many of us struggle with is knowing our limitations. Few of us are trained pastors, licensed therapists, psychologists and youth counselors, let alone marketing specialist, musician, graphic artist and all the other hats try to wear. It is important to know when you are able to help and when you should refer the case elsewhere. Asking for help doesn’t mean you don’t care about the youth or the situation, quite the opposite – it means you care enough to swallow your pride and get the best people working on the problem. If you have never worked with teens that cut, don’t expect you are the best possible resource for your teen you have just discovered is cutting. You can be part of the treatment plan, an ally in accountability, a cheerleader, a hospital or home visitor, a nice card writer, even a Jimmy Johns sandwich delivery sender, but if you aren’t a trained (and in some cases, licensed) professional, get help. You wouldn’t set your youth’s broken bone yourself or remove their burst appendix, so don’t outreach your abilities and training in counseling situations.
Learn and be aware. What are the mandatory reporting laws in your area? Does your church have a policy? Your insurance company? Know what you are expected to do in all situations. If you aren’t sure where to find those resources, call your local high school and speak to a counselor there. They are trained in those areas and should be able to provide you with everything you need to know. If you get the chance, take a class on at-risk teens, cutters, suicide prevention, bullying…anything available to you. Read books, articles, blogs, pamphlets, bathroom walls…anything on behavioral issues, teenagers and high-risk factors. Be aware of your church’s and your denomination’s stances on social issues, but remember that you are called to be a force of love, not judgment. If you hear a term or situation from your teens that is new or foreign to you, Google it and read all about it.
Parents are partners. Some parents are there for your ministry, helping out and being visible. They email you, see you on Sunday and are always there to smile and pass the peace. Others you may not be able to pick out of a lineup. In either case, you need to be in contact with parents about their teens when you have the opportunity. Yes, you are a confidant for your teens, yes they tell you things in confidence. Understand I am not saying record your conversations about who the teen likes that week and send it their parents. But, if the teen is dealing with dark thoughts, self harm, experimenting with drugs or is in identity crisis, be in contact with parents. Some of these things are mandatory reporting anyway. Parents are not the enemy here, they want to help, too. They often have the same problems doing so that you do – lack of training, an overabundance of concern and the panic when you combine the two.
Be smart, cover yourself. Every time a teen comes to talk to me – for any reason, at any time – I record it in a log. My office door has a window in it. I never allow myself to be in a one-on-one situation with a teen without another adult close at hand. I know it will be hard to always be diligent every time always, but you need to protect yourself. Accusations are as harmful as convictions. Whether you did something or not, it can end your career. Document what you talk about to teens and when you talk to them, make others aware of who you are meeting with, if you can, do so in a public place. Meeting with a teen at a local coffee shop can still provide a one-on-one conversation while also protecting you from the implications of meeting behind closed doors. Be smart, be careful and protect yourself. You cant help anyone if you get fired and aren’t able to minister anymore.
Finding yourself out of your depth or disconnected is a fast track to burnout, so be careful. Find time to decompress, reflect and pray. Be mindful of finding time where you can be outside your duties as minister and to feed yourself. If you are good about this, you will help your teens far more than taking on too much, working too hard and burning out.