For when they come to you about suicide…

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So this isn’t a fun topic to talk about and everyone wants to avoid it.  But then you have just one kid come up and confide in you and you’ll wish you’d talked about it over and over.  And don’t stick your head in the sand.  In the last three years here in Dyersburg, I’ve been a part of six different suicide crises.  It’s a very real problem.

The thing is too, when it comes up, our minds immediately go into panic mode.  It’s difficult to think and respond when you’re internally freaking out.  So to help keep that from happening, do research.  Lots of research.  Listen to people’s stories.  Read articles.  Listen to podcasts.  Immerse yourself now so you won’t regret the lack of preparation later.

To get the ball rolling, Here’s a couple videos.  The first is of a guy who battled suicide in his teens.  His story is interesting, but it gives some insight into the mindset of someone battling suicide.  The next two videos are by a secular mental health group.  You may not agree with some of their other videos about things like homosexuality and whatever, but don’t let that blind you to the wisdom of these videos.  The one is for people who know others who are contemplating suicide.  The other is for people who are themselves considering it.  The former gives some good advice on how to react.  The latter gives more good perspectives into what goes on in the minds of hurting people.  They both also list alot of further research and resources.  Use it!  Equip yourself!  Chances are you’ll come across it in some way when you work with teens.  Be prepared.  Ministry is a dirty, ugly business because we’re confronting hell on earth.  Don’t go into battle unequipped.

So check these out.  We’re also lucky to have Leigh Ann as a volunteer in the ministry and she works as a mental health professional.  If you have questions or know someone who is struggling, feel free to reach out to the both of us.  We’d be honored to help ready you!

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Loving through crisis: Divorce

Family conflict

You know what would be great?  If we never had to worry about divorce.  But guess what: we do.

Nationally, divorce happens in the homes of over half of kids under the age of 18.  That’s alot of brokenness.  Places like our own little Dburg are worse than the national average.  We’ve come a little ways, as we’re no longer the divorce capital of the country, but that’s hardly anything to brag about.

The sad truth is that you, being a youth volunteer, either mentor students whose parents have been divorced or at some point will.  And at some time, a student will come to you for help.  They’ll tell you they’re sad.  They’ll tell you they’re confused.  Your heart will break.

But what do you do?

Below are some things to keep in mind, as well as some do’s and don’ts (donts, don’t’s dont’s, donts’, donuts?) to help you help them through it.

They’ll be confused.  Even if the warning signs were there.  Even if they say it’s for the best.  Even if they appear to have it all together.  Because it’s a confusing time.  How did it go bad?  Do all relationships end?  What part did I play in it?  What happens now?  Where will I live?  What’s life going to look like?  These and so many other questions will be running through their minds.  Do reassure them that you’ll be there for them through it.  Hold them while they cry and contact them often.  Let your words and actions show them that they have someone to walk beside them.  Don’t make promises or speak on behalf of the parents.  Make sure you only speak for yourself.

They’ll blame themselves.  It’s much harder to admit that someone you loved has hurt you or done wrong than to carry the burden yourself.  They’ll put themselves under a microscope and analyze every action and conversation.  This blame can lead to anger and sometimes even turn them into a doormat.  They may find themselves doing every little thing they can to try to make amends for their imaginary wrongs.  Do remind them the decision wasn’t theirs.  Help them see that maintaining a relationship is the responsibility of the two individuals and no one else.  Don’t assign blame to one party (unless an incredibly outrageous grievance was committed and is already known).  It’s not your place to turn any child against any parent.  Your job is to love them through a difficult time, not be a judge and jury.  Besides, there’s always more to a story than we could possibly know.  Be as biased as possible while showing them that the fault is not their own.

The divorce can stunt their development.  Research shows that between 75 and 80% of the time, children from divorced parents eventually recover and become mature, responsible adults with no long term affect.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that in the moment and in the short term, it will almost definitely affect them.  Maturity is the process of a child becoming internally equipped and empowered to leave the safety of their parents and their home.  They learn who they are apart from them and learn who they want to become.  That process of slowly pulling away is hindered when they perceive a parent to be the one pulling away from them.  The process is almost reversed.  During a divorce, parents often become a little self-absorbed, while they’re figuring out how to make things work financially, dealing with the wounds they experienced, etc and that leads to spending less time with the kids.  The result is often children feeling insecure, or even anxious, about their relationships with their parents.  Do encourage them to have open and honest conversations with both parents.  Maybe even offer to be in the room with them for support, if you’ve prayerfully decided that would help.  Do everything you can to build that relationship.  Do continue to have high expectations for them.  If their attitude, grades, etc slip, call them on it.  Don’t make excuses for them because they’re going through a difficult time.  Let them know that being hurt isn’t a good reason to hurt others or damage their future.

They’ll be forced to grow up more quickly.  One home turning into two means less financial stability.  The cost of another home could keep them from being able to pursue extra-curriculurs or keep them from having certain privileges.  An extra home means more responsibilities.  More chores, less parental oversight, you see where this is going.  Sometimes a parent will even use their kid as a confidant and pull them into the drama more than they ever needed to be.  All this can cause them to become frustrated, angry and even calloused.  Do give them space to air their frustrations.  Let them know it’s safe to be honest.  Also give them a place to be a kid, free of responsibility.  They need to be goofy sometimes.  Don’t put more pressure on them to perform.  Telling them to take care of mom or dad isn’t fair.  And just saying it will most likely cost you your voice in their life.

On and on we could go.  If you want more info, I can provide that for you.  Overall, remember that your focus is them.  You offer support, encouragement, love, a safe space, and a judge free zone.  If you feel you’re in over your head, reach out to a trusted pastor or counselor.  Even if you don’t feel over your head, it’s good to reach out to someone to get new perspectives.  If you feel like they need to talk to a professional, seek out a good Christian counselor.  Don’t wait.  Don’t question your gut.  Help them make it happen.

And don’t ever feel like you have to have all the answers.  Walk it with them.  Be loving and be real.  Keep an eye out for alarming behavior, but keep in mind that it will get easier as time goes by.  Typically the first two years are the hardest.

Stick with them.  They need your constant love.

Curbside Coaching

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We all have that kid.  Or maybe it’s those couple kids.  The ones who in any setting, in any environment, at any time are going to be sure to disrupt and draw attention.  Most of the time, they know full well what they’re doing.  Other times they’re just not paying attention and don’t realize what they’re doing.  But to the leader sitting nearby, the sentiment is always the same…

“Dear God, please stop on your own so I don’t have to figure out what to do…”

So this week, we’re going to be super practical and answer the frequently asked question:  How do I approach the kid being disruptive?

While the human inside of you may think that a slap to the back of the head should suffice, I would encourage you to think a little deeper into how you can handle the situation.  Let me tell you something I learned being a retail manager.

There’s this concept called curbside coaching.  And it’s not only super practical, but in my experience, super effective too.  Lets check it out step by step:

  1. You witness a certain student being a turd.  Not wanting them to bring down the people around them, you acknowledge that their behavior needs to cease.
  2. You calmly approach the student.  Hopefully this is someone you’ve developed a relationship with.  That always helps, but obviously isn’t necessary.  There’s lots of kids.
  3. You invite them to have a conversation at a nearby place that isn’t heavily populated or high traffic.  Somewhere just to the side of the action.  Do your best not to cause a scene and be discreet.
  4. While you have the attention of that student and not the rest of the crowd, you address the issue.
  5. You explain to them how their behavior isn’t just disrespectful, but could keep a person from hearing something they really need to hear.  Remind them that they could keep someone from receiving what they came for and that they’re competing with the Holy Spirit in speaking to hearts.
  6. Help them see that they’re essentially a hurdle in their own race.  That God has a word for them too, but only if they’re open to receive it.

Essentially you’re doing just a couple simple things:

You’re helping the student save face. Even if they enjoy being disruptive, they don’t enjoy being called on it.  Nor do they like their friends seeing them being addressed by someone with authority.  They want it to be discreet just as much as you do.  99% of the time, they’ll tuck tail and apologize.  Submission isn’t comfortable, especially with an audience.

You’re reminding them what’s at stake.  It’s not just for the sake of obedience, but lives may literally be on the line.  Their disruption could be the difference between a student following Christ or not.  It could be the difference between them acting out their faith or not.  When they’re reminded that God’s doing business on these nights, they typically don’t want to be a roadblock.

You’re telling them that you care for them.  It’s not just for other’s sake that you want the disruption to cease, but you also want them to hear what God’s speaking to them.  You want them to grow just as much as anyone else!

You’re taking care of the problem.  Simple enough.

Sometimes we’re in service and it isn’t possible to lead someone aside and speak to them. In order to get their attention and talk to them, you’d have to cause a scene.  It’s in these times that it’s typically best to grab their attention and as gently as you can be without losing effectiveness, ask them to stop what they’re doing.  Make sure though that once the opportunity arises, you do take them aside and speak to them.  Don’t let them leave that night without a conversation.  They’ll try, but you need to make the effort.  The conversation is important.  Otherwise, they’ll just assume you’re grumpy and they’re not as welcome as they thought.

It’s worth noting that loudly calling out their behavior in front of their friends seems like an effective way to go.  Reason would say they’d be embarrassed and would respond how you want them to.  But in reality, you’re typically picking a fight you don’t want to have.  When you put someone on the defensive, they’ll respond accordingly.  And with that, the battle of wills begins.  And that’s just not worth it.

So when you see that behavior and want to help keep an environment conducive to hearing from God, think of how you can pull that person out of the traffic and to the curb for a conversation outside the ears of others.

It’s also worth noting that this doesn’t just work with approaching difficult people.  It’s also a great tool to use with kids, sports teams, and alot of other areas.  The idea of offering guidance just out of earshot of peers works in an astonishing number of places.  Often in life, you have wisdom you can share with others.  It’s always best received when it’s done in a way that builds that person up!

 

Investing in Kids (or teens, or tweens, or young adults, or…

Welcome to this week’s Sharpening!  Today we’re kicking off a month of coaching.  And the first area of coaching is where we left off last week, with building relationships with teens.  Because before we can truly invest in them and speak into students, we first have to earn the right.  And that right is earned by living life alongside them.

And this week’s sharpening is a little different than normal.  I’ve got the audio from a podcast that I listened to years ago that still sticks with me to this day and forms so much of how I interact with students.  And while it’s an hour long, it contains some pure gold that I pray you listen to and pick up.

The podcast is put on by a group called LEAD222, of which I’m a part.  And the purpose of LEAD222 is changing the culture of youth ministry to coach and mentor students.  Each month, they put out a podcast hosted by the President, Bo Boshers, and another member Andy Stephenson.  Each month they have an influential guest from the ministry world talk about different ways to build students through mentoring.  This specific podcast features Dan Webster.  Dan is an unbelievable guy who not only teaches mentoring, but is actually a mentor to Bo.  And in this podcast, Dan talks about speaking into students in ways that can lead to real change.

Two years after I listened to this, it still impacts me hearing it again.  So carve out an hour, grab a glass of your favorite beverage, maybe even get your spouse to listen (it’s got great stuff for parenting too!) and listen to this.  You’ll be so glad you did!

Click below to listen to the podcast on LEAD222’s website or click the link on the page to listen to it from iTunes.  This should generate some great conversation, so let me know what you think!

Leader Talk w/ Dan Webster | Oct. 2011

Building Relationships with Students

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We love students!  It’s why we do what we do!  Why do we love them?  Lets count the ways:

  • They’re so full of life
  • They don’t take themselves so seriously
  • They’re funny as all get out
  • They’ve got all the energy we wish we had
  • They’re so full of untapped potential
  • They’re world changers
  • They’re yet-to-be-tainted versions of us
  • They just wanna have a good time
  • They’re hungry for something real
  • They haven’t yet perfected the art of lying and deception
  • They start prank wars
  • They love our own children like family
  • They’re ready to get after life
  • They’re relentlessly optimistic
  • They greet you in public like a puppy greets you at home
  • They know all the great videos on youtube
  • They keep us young
  • They remind you that life is a joy

On and  on I could go.  And I know you’ve even got a couple in mind right now to add to the list.  Students are just great!  But you know that already.  It’s why you’re reading this.  It’s why God’s called you to minister to them.  You lucky person, you.

So God’s called you to them.  You’re there.  In front of them.  With them.  They’re surrounding you.  Now what?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it happen, whether in church or school or anywhere.  Person X feels led to work with students.  We’ll call Person X Malachi.  Malachi is what I wanted to name Owen, but Megan said it sounded too Amish.  But that’s neither here or there.  But ‘chi wants to work with students.  And he’s all hyped up to do it.  ‘Chi even read a book about it before starting.  And he walks into the room full of students and life does one of those super-fast-tunnel-vision-zoom-ins right up to his face and he’s terrified.  I had a volunteer one time tell me that their first Wednesday night was like going back to high school itself.  Like they were the new kid in school standing in the lunch room not knowing where to go.  So what does Malachi do?  I mean, he’s read a book on mentoring, so he knows how to share wisdom, but that’s for down the road.  How does he build a relationship with them at all?

Well since I made up the guy and I made up the situation, I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve got the answer.  I’m even going to share it with you.  Malachi needs to be the guy God created him to be.  That sounds too simple.  Lets dig a little.

Malachi needs to walk right up to some guys in the room and be the most him he can possibly be.  Because rule number 1 with students is always be real.  They’ve got a nose for b.s. and they can smell it a mile away.  Acting like you’re someone you’re not?  They’ve got you picked already.  Pretending to be into something you don’t care about?  They already noticed.  Students are surrounded by lies all day every day.  They know real when they see it because they’ve been trained since infancy to doubt everything and everyone.  They’ve grown up in a super cynical world.  That’s why you’d be hard pressed to find a young Trump supporter (sorry it just got political, but it was low hanging fruit).  Because of that, authenticity jumps off the page.  There are so few genuine things in their world, when they see it, it stands out.

Maybe this first group of guys clicks with him.  Great!  If not, this isn’t the end of the world.  Too often, it’s at this point that bubbles are burst and hopes sink as swiftly as Jack & Rose and their beautiful Titanic in the icy Atlantic waters.  This is not a deal breaker.  I don’t develop deep relationships with every single person I meet.  You won’t either.  This is why your first several weeks in youth ministry should look a bit like speed dating.  Jump around, hang out a bit, laugh, be the you you’re comfortable being, move to another group, and do it all over again.  Sooner rather than later, you’re going to find a group of students you genuinely enjoy.  When you find your crew, settle in to a nice, comfy spot.

Now it’s time to invest.  Start just in conversation.  Ask them about themselves.  Show them you’re interested in them.  Make them the focus.  And when they talk, listen.  Make mental notes of things worth remembering: family, birthdays, hobbies, interests, extra-cucciculur activities, etc.  When you see them next time, follow up on a previous conversation.  This tells them that you care enough to remember them.  Unfortunately, not enough people do.  Especially adults!  When they ask about you, give them you.  Be real.  Don’t try to be perfect or have every answer.  Just be you.

Maybe one night for church you bring your group drinks from Sonic or DQ.  Give them a little something to tell them you care and you’re willing to do a little something extra for them because you value them. Or maybe you’ve always got gum you give away.  Think of silly little ways to bring them in.

Hang out with them outside of church.  While you’re at church, they’ll see themselves as your ministry.  Outside church, they’ll see themselves as part of your life.  This is where the relationship gets real.  Because until you show them that you truly care for them, they’re going to keep you an arm’s length away.  They even will a little after.  But it’s when you go to their games or plays or have them over to your house that they start seeing themselves differently.  Suddenly it’s not just about church.  You care about them.  And when this relationship is fostered, you’re finally able to really pour into them.  You’ve earned the right to speak into their situation.  You’ve earned the respect.  They know the truth you speak is in love.

The funny thing is that none of that is groundbreaking at all.  That’s just relationships.  The problem is, we realize how vital a mentor can be in a student’s life.  So we make it all serious and programmed.  And when we do that, we stop building genuine relationships because we’re no longer being genuine.  We think that we need to memorize the Bible so we can quote it to them.  Or we have to walk perfectly in our own lives so we’re not being hypocrites.  And we make the joy that is youth ministry something much more difficult than it really is.  Sure, you need to have wisdom to help them along.  Sure, you need to live out your faith the best you can.  But when life gets hard, they’re not going to the most scholarly person they know.  They’re going to the ones who have best show them love.

And isn’t that why we do it?  Life is tough.  It’s a long, difficult road to manage.  We just want to help them like we needed help.  And this is such a great place to take a moment and ask a very important question: what type of adult did you need at their age?  Maybe you had that adult in your life, maybe you didn’t.  But what did you need?  Be that for them!  Be that person who loves them well.  Be that person who lets them in.  Be that person who is truly concerned.  Be that person who isn’t afraid to speak truth.  Be that person who genuinely enjoys their company.  But I want you to stop reading for a moment and actually give that some thought.  That has the potential to be a game-changer.  So don’t just read on, take a moment.  What type of adult did you need growing up?


 

Students don’t need a babysitter.  They don’t need someone who is always pointing out their faults.  They don’t need someone reminding them of how they got it wrong.  They just need someone to walk beside them.  They’ll give you opportunities to speak truth and they’ll give you moments to help them grow.  That will come with the relationship.  But they’re not going to seek that type of relationship out.  That’s what God’s called you to do.  That’s why you’re involved.

So who are your people?  What students form your squad?  What can you do to bring them closer?  How do you get to know them better?  How do you let them see you?

Or maybe you don’t have a crew yet.  Keep meandering and talking.  Keep working the room.  Pray that God would show you.  Then do what you can to build on what He gives you.

Building relationships isn’t easy.  But it’s one of the few things in life that will just happen.  If you commit to just being there, you’ve taken the most important step.  So be a person who’s there.  You just being the you that God’s made you so far could have more impact than you could possibly imagine.  God has made you, equipped you, and led you to be exactly what a specific student needs to help conquer life as a teenager.  Are you in?

 

The one about the worst part of being a youth pastor…

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I realized quite some time ago that adults are generally afraid of being around teens.  Whether I’m trying to recruit someone to volunteer in youth ministry or just having a conversation with someone about what I do, so often some form of the question comes up: What’s the worst thing about being a Youth Pastor?

It’s such a loaded question.

Sometimes they’re wanting their fears confirmed.  Sometimes they’re wanting to see what I’d gripe about.  Other times they’re just wanting a good story.

I think my honest response catches alot of people off guard.

They think maybe I’ll say something about kids being crazy.  About how hard they can be to manage.  How much energy they have versus my general lack of it.  How they can be out of control, especially when they’re excited about something, far from home, or a combination of the two.

They think maybe I’ll say something about the hours.  Getting called at 2am.  Stuck in group texts before school hours.  Keeping office hours, plus hosting events, plus church services, plus building relationships.  Going to sporting events or plays or concerts or dances or homecoming or competitions.  That my ministry is as nonstop as they are.

They think maybe I’ll say something about teenage drama.  How worlds fall apart after a breakup.  Two seemingly best friends fighting over someone’s attention.  Body image, social anxiety, gossiping, or selfishness.

They think maybe I’ll say something about the ugliness of their world.  Living life with kids brought up on drugs and alcohol.  Parents who are only parents in that they supplied the biological necessities.  The culture of casual sex and the consequences that come with it.

They think maybe I’ll say something about “kids these days”.  How they can be so selfish.  How they live with their faces in a screen.  How they seemingly have an honest respect for nothing.  They’re entitled, undeserving, or spoiled.

There’s some truth and some lies in all of these.  But none of them even come close to what I hate most.  Not one of these could even hope to capture the thing about being a youth pastor that I hate most.

This time of year, I scroll through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.  All I see are girls dolled up and guys in tuxes.  Two weeks from now, they’ll trade in their prom attire for caps and gowns.  Then my feeds are once again nothing but selfies and carefully crafted shots, to show themselves to the world exactly how they want to be seen.  And I look at them and think, “This is what I hate most about youth ministry…”

What I hate most about youth ministry is graduation.  By far.  Nothing even comes close to it.  You see these kids, optimistic and hopeful.  Looking forward to what lies ahead.  And each time I see it, it breaks my heart.  I spend years falling in love with these kids.  And I love them so much!  But I don’t love them because of what they do for me.  And I don’t love them because they’re perfect or even easy to handle…

I love them because of the 2am phone calls, when they need a ride home from a party they never should have been at.  Because of their crazy energy and the memories that are made on trips.  Because I got to see how euphoric they were after the big win or downcast because of the loss.  Because they let me walk with them through the image issues and relationship drama.  Because I get to be a surrogate father to the ones without.  Because they ask me to meet them in the park at midnight after a breakup.  Because they show me the respect they have for people who enter their world.  Because they hand me the razor and promise not to cut anymore.  Because they come to my office, crying over their big regret.  Because they looked to me for guidance to heal that relationship.  Because they ask for help when they realize their new girlfriend’s dad is super racist.  Because they were hungry for more of God’s Spirit and didn’t know what to do.  Because they think they can keep it a secret after their last big prank on me.  Because I got to see them minister to the mentally disabled.  Because we went together to feed the hungry.  Because they’ve called me all sorts of inappropriate names.  Because they treat my boys like little brothers.  Because I get caught in silly, meaningless group texts.  Because they introduced me to that friend who thought he could shock me.  Because they showed up at my house when their father walked out.  Because they called me up when they thought their girlfriend was pregnant.  Because they wanted me to tell them how great they were in the play.  Because they couldn’t bear to talk about it with their parents alone.  Because they finally stepped up and lead.  Because they let me in, closer than even many of their closest friends.  Because we laughed together and battled together and argued together and goofed together and cried together and overcame together.

What I hate most about being a youth pastor is when I no longer get to be that for them.  When they move on and away.  This time each year, I get that feeling all over again.  Why can’t things just stay the same?  Why can’t we all just stay as one?  But in the back of my mind, I know that with these students leaving, others will come up.  Younger kids who will one day call me in the middle of the night over their own drama.  New teens who will need someone to walk with them through the darkness.

And I’ll fall in love all over again.

This is the worst part.  This is what I hate.  That every year my heart will break all over.

But then every year my heart will grow.

It’s a double edged sword.  But I look at it all and I can only thank God.  I have the privilege of getting to know so many amazing teens.  And when it comes down to it, I am allowed to fall in love with more people than any one person could hope to.

So what I hate most is also what I love most.

Aint that something…