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.