As I began working in youth ministry four years ago, I realized quickly that as you get rooted in a parish, you also get rooted in the families that make up that parish. At the time, I had no grasp on the gravity of this role.
With our role comes the joy of sharing in family moments such as awards, honors and graduation. But just as we get to share in the “high points” of family life, we also share in some of the most difficult moments. Whether it is divorce or death or illness, we need to understand our role as support to the whole family, not just the teens.
I have sat with teens struggling through divorces, parental infidelity, relationship problems, alcoholism, drug use, sexual abuse, cutting, eating disorders, and pregnancy. Nothing can be planned for those moments of honesty and real human need. No pastoral moment will ever look the same as another, but I thought I’d offer some simple things to keep in mind when this time comes in your ministry:
- You are not meant to fix their problem. Mostly young men and women need an ear to really listen. Your support and presence may be more a gift than you realize. But if you approach it with the need to find a solution or pull them from safety, you will be mistaken. Jesus is their savior, and while we may be one instrument of grace in these moments, we are not the only one.
- Listen with compassion. Listening means engaging and really taking the time to sit with them in what can often be grief and great loss. As Jesus did best, this is time to really minister to the individual—regardless of whatever else is going on. As youth leaders we are first and foremost called to be servants. And serving often means doing so with all the compassion you can muster. With all the poverty and loss Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced, she maintained that “loneliness, being unwanted or uncared for” was the greatest poverty.
- Recognize the difference between circumstances and choices. This is one of the most important distinctions you can help them to discover. Often, family issues or conflicts have nothing to do with the teen. Yet because of its proximity, they would try to control or manage something that is beyond their reach. They cannot of course control these circumstances, only their reactions, attitudes and choices in response to them.
- Strongly encourage them to communicate with their parents. Even if the problem involves their parents directly, the worst thing a youth minister can do is create a schism of trust that segregates the conversation between the teen and the youth minister, and the teen with their parents. The silence between teens and their family members are often what led to misunderstanding and greater suffering in the first place. Encourage them to confront the issues, address how they are feeling, and empower them to share those feelings openly with their parents.
- We are in an extremely privileged position; treat it with care. As youth ministers, we have been given a tremendously trusted position. Because of our role in teens’ lives, they develop a trust and a bond to share things with you as they would a friend. However, we have the life experience to offer some wisdom that they may not find among friends who are often experiencing many of the same things. We are also not part of their family, and can provide an objective perspective of the situation. With that in mind, we have an extremely important role to play in their young lives. Be aware of that, and handle your role with care.
Not all of those stories in teens’ lives end well, or the way we would have them end. But the Good News we have been called to share is that Jesus is victorious, even in the most hopeless of situations. When we speak of hope to young people, I think it’s incomplete to confine it to what has yet to happen or what is expected to come. I think hope is about allowing our vision of the present to be transformed. Hope is in some ways embodied in the way we perceive present circumstances. If we look again, with eyes of the kingdom, we might see something we had not before. God often takes loss and transforms it into new life.