If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will soon enough. The world is full of “ick,” and eventually one of your teens—or perhaps one of your adult leaders—will get some on his or her shoes. You have an idea about what is going on in their life, but you need to ask. You are concerned about this person, but you are afraid that what they tell you will be difficult to hear.
How do we handle people in pain? Whether it is physical or emotional hurt, we can usually tell when someone is not feeling right. Your observation (or another’s who then passed the task onto you) has led to concern and now the hard questions must be asked – by you. What should or shouldn’t you do?
- Don’t think you know the person’s problem before you ask the questions. What you are asking will be hard for the other person to answer. Give them time and listen carefully. As a rule of thumb, use about half as many words as the person you are speaking with, and embrace silence. The Spirit resides in that silence; check the urge to fill it with advice.
- Don’t ask a closed question. A closed question is any question that can be answered with a one word answer. “Are you O.K.?” is a classic closed question. “You seem depressed, are you O.K.?” breaks both don’ts at once. So what are possible open questions you can ask in difficult situations? Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- “I noticed ________________ has been different in your life lately. What’s going on?”
- “I heard about ________________ that you are dealing with. How are you coping with_______?”
- “I was sorry to hear about_________________. How are you doing?”
- “It seems you have had something on your mind lately. What are thinking about?”
Always ask for more detail if you don’t understand their problem. Keep in mind these vital points:
- As a youth minister, you are mandated by state/federal law to report an allegation of abuse. This is not an option. Know your state’s laws, especially if you are the coordinator.
- If intervention is needed, have a resource list ready. In fact, it’s always a good idea to use a pre-emptive strategy here: have that list of referrals ready, because it’s not a matter of if pastoral care issues will surface, but when.
- If the question concerns suicide risk the rule is to ask three straight forward questions: “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” “Do you have a plan to do it?” ”Do you have the means to carry it out?” If you hear more than one “Yes,” you have reason for concern. It is a misconception that by asking a person if they are suicidal you “put the thought in their head.” The opposite is usually true: you may be the first person who is acknowledging it out loud.
- Don’t be alone with youth. One good youth ministry skill to have is to know how to be one-on-one when the situation warrants it (like having the conversation above), without really being alone. Utilize effective Core Team strategies and have a mapped-out plan in place with other adult leaders that allow you to ensure a safe, comfortable environment without placing you at risk. Know your diocese’s Safe Environment policy.
Finally, pray that while you’ll be asking the questions, the Holy Spirit will guide your words and their heart. May our Lord continue to guide and bless your ministry to the young Church. Thank you for not flinching in the face of a beautiful and challenging ministry.