If you work with middle school or high school students for any length of time, you have probably had “that” conversation. You know what I’m talking about. The conversation usually happens at a time that wouldn’t normally make sense to talk and starts like this… “Hey can I talk to you about something”. You immediately say, “yeah sure.” They respond with, “Can we go somewhere not around anyone else?” At that moment you know they are about to unleash the aftermath of brokenness on your heart. It doesn’t matter how long you have been in youth ministry, that conversation is never fun. If you truly care about the students you shepherd, this conversation will break your heart. Each conversation is handled in a slightly different manor and there is no cookie cutter response that you can regurgitate. Each conversation has different responses and sometimes there is no response and its just listening and caring. Most of the time, it means following up with that student consistently for the next number of weeks and months to check in and encourage.
So what do you do when a student tells you too much? Where the line between being the caring youth pastor that is just there as a listening ear, there to encourage, there to hold them accountable and being the discerning adult that gets mom and dad involved, getting the authorities involved, getting professional help involved? What happens when the student tells you that they don’t want anyone to get in trouble or that they are adamant about not telling their parents or involving the proper authorities?
These are the situations that have to be handled correctly for the student’s sake and sometimes even when they are against the action step that needs to happen. As that students youth pastor, you have to make the best decision possible for the student. You have a responsibility to make the decision that keeps that student safe. You have a responsibility to make the decision that honors the parents. You have a responsibility to help them see the bigger picture and how God is walking right next to them through whatever comes next. All of these responsibilities are easy to write down or say but often times much harder to put into practice. There are emotions involved, there are hurt people involved and there is the relationship you have with that student that you are desperately trying to maintain and protect.
It may be helpful to remember 3 things when you are talking to a student who is sharing too much:
1. When it comes to self-harm, abuse, or anything that may put your student in harms way you MUST say something to someone. This goes without saying, but needs to be said. Your response to harm is always compassion towards the student. Let the proper authorities know immediately and help them get the help they need even if they don’t seem to want it at the time. Make sure you are aware of your states guidelines for mandatory reporting.
2. You are their pastor not their friend. You are not out to seek the approval of your students but to shepherd them towards a perfect father, a risen savior and ultimately the one who will give them what they need when they need it. You are the adult in every situation, especially situations like these. Do the right thing no matter what that student may say about you or to you.
3. Have a plan (be prepared for situations that land outside of said plan). Think through possible scenarios and situations before they happen so you can’t be blindsided and be unsure of what to do. With that said, its impossible to know and think through every possible circumstance. Handle each instance with grace, compassion and intentionality. Your plan should be making your overseeing supervisor/elders/lead pastor in your church aware of what’s going on so you have people in your corner that you can go to for advice and wisdom.
There are so many other nuances about these conversations and what to do/what not to do but those 3 things will get you started in the right direction.
Lets be honest, this part of ministry is not fun. Often times it means seeing families at their worst, students at their lowest point and looking this cruel world right in the eyes. It would be easy to wallow in the gloom that is left by these conversations with student you care about. However, God is using you as someone they trust to bring light into the darkest place in their lives. You are playing a pivotal role in their spiritual formation. Be there to walk them through it, point them to their Savior in the midst of it and celebrate with them when they are on the other side of it.
2 Corinthians 4:6
For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
Graduation is one of those moments that parents wait for and at the same time dread. It means seeing their child from birth to “ready for adulting”. Its so important as a youth pastor to understand that its not just a transition for students, but parents to. Especially in a year like this one, where nothing is what it used to be and everything has changed. Its our job as pastors to help parents navigate this transition effectively.
Here are some changes that are coming up for parents as they shift from one who guides, directs & trains to one who mentors, advises & listens.
1. Their child is old enough to make decisions on their own but NOT without them
The parents roll has changed. Their child will begin not asking if they CAN do something or not. They will begin to ask for guidance, advice and saying “what would you do.” They will make decisions on their own but will still look to their parents as a sounding board to make their own choices!
2. Diving into their child’s life will never be more important
Even if they did a poor job of spending time & getting into their kid when they lived at home, it’s now more important than ever for them to do so. Parents should be asking them questions about life, future and their career path. Their faith will take on a whole new look as they are on their own and truly figuring out WHO they are in Christ. Parents need to show even more care and concern in this next chapter of parenting than before.
3. Parents will start to become a little smarter in their child’s eyes
For the past few years parents have been stupid, dumb and out of touch. Parents never seem to understand where “they” are coming from. Now that they are doing life on their own parents will become people who they trust and come to for advice and direction. Mom and Dad start getting a little smarter and their child starts to realize their parents had their best interest in mind the whole time! (I’m sure this will be very gratifying for most parents)
A new chapter in life is taking place, along with a new chapter and phase in parenting! Each phase takes time, dedication and love! Parents need to continue to get after it! As youth pastors, its our job to cheer them on and encourage them to continue being an active part of their child’s life even after they leave the home. Parents graduate too, some don’t know how to do it well. Lets help them out!
Mom or Dad, how do you respond to uncertainty and confusion in your life? When things that are happening in your world, in your personal life, in your work life that you don’t understand, how do you process and how do you respond? Your response to uncertainty in your life will more than likely be your child’s response to uncertainty in their lives. As you parent your child you responsibility first and foremost is to be a reflection of Jesus and show them the Gospel. Your teenager is trying to process through a ton of situations and circumstances all while figuring out who they are. How you parent in times of uncertainty may be some of the most important parenting you will ever do.
Now that you feel the pressure, relax! God would not have given you this task of parenting in the first place if He didn’t think you could do it. He will give you what you need, when you need it, however you will need it. Helping your teenager through uncertainty is a big deal and there will be some common responses you will see and probably feel yourself.
On response is selfishness. I am sure you are fighting self centeredness with your teenager regardless of whats happening in life. Especially when things are crazy around you, self centeredness is a common response because it is a way to have control. Usually uncertainty and confusion means a lack of control. Being selfish is a way to bring everything in to control whats going on. This attitude is the opposite of how God calls us to live.
When you react selfishly you start caring more about your well being than anyone else.
When you react selfishly you make decisions that are all about you.
When you react selfishly you become callus the needs of those around you.
When you react selfishly you relinquish trust in God and act like everything depends on you.
Our selfish response keeps us from living the life that God calls us to live!
Another response to uncertainty and confusion is fear. Being fearful can be paralyzing and hold you back from living the life that God intended. It is natural for teenagers to be fearful of the unknown, the uncertain and the confusing. As a parent, leaning into that fear and uncovering “the why” behind it is so important. Help your teenager realize that our God is the God of hope, not fear. Fear consumes and holds you back, hope multiplies and propels you forward!
When you react in fear you paralyze yourself from what could be.
When you react in fear your focus is on the wrong thing.
When you react in fear your trust is misplaced.
When you react in fear your eyes are closed to what God is doing all around you.
Our fearful response holds us back from living life to the fullest as God intended.
Here are a few passages of scripture to read with your teenager and reflect on with them:
Some questions to help you engage with your teenager:
What things in life are you afraid of? Why?
If God was standing right next to you when you are afraid, would that change anything? Why or why not?
How did Jesus respond to His disciples fear in the passages of scripture above?
What is one small step you can take to be less fearful and less selfish?