The low light of my ministry career happened half-a-decade ago, and I still cringe every time I remember it. In fact, sometimes I still even shed a tear about it.
Our youth group program was modeled after fun, food, and faith. We spent thirty minutes playing games, thirty minutes having a meal, and thirty minutes sharing a devotional and worshipping together.
Or at least most of us did that. Two girls left after the meal every single week. Mom, without fail, was always there to pick them up just as we were starting on our devotional.
After weeks of this, my frustration started to bubble over. I vented to friends and eventually my venting turned into straight up trash-talking. Truth be told, I spoke poorly about that family; not to anyone who knew them, but it didn’t matter.
I wasn’t acting or speaking out of love, but coming from a place of anger.
And I was about to be knocked off of my high horse in the most dramatic way possible.
During our meal one night, I asked the girls why they always left early. I’m certain that I belayed my feelings a little bit. I’m sure I came across as more than a little accusatory. They answered my question with grace:
Oh yeah, well Sunday nights are the only nights that we get to Skype with our dad. You know he’s over in Iraq, right?
I didn’t know that.
I should have.
Was it wrong to speak poorly about any family ever? Yeah, it was.
Was it probably more wrong to speak poorly about a family without ever making an effort to understand their unique circumstances? Yeah, that too.
Should you just assume that students have circumstances you don’t know about?
Yes, and here’s why:
Because your students have circumstances that you don’t know about.
Like the student whose work schedule was interfering with his church involvement. When I called him on his priorities, he explained that he needed all the hours he could get…
…because, at my suggestion, he’d set his heart on attending a Christian college and he knew his family couldn’t afford it.
Or the student who just stopped coming to youth group because the guitar player on our praise team was a ruthless bully to him at school
I’m a recovering numbers-centric youth minister who used to love to count everything. Then one day I realized that I’d turned into something I never wanted to become.
I pushed attendance for the sake of the event instead of the sake of the student.
That meant that if a student didn’t show up, my primary job was to get them to show up, when by primary job should have been simply to minister to them anyway.
Here’s the lesson I needed, and it hit me like a ton of bricks:
Teenagers aren’t commodities to be marketed to so that we can boost the size of our events…
…but they’re usually people with problems who need a pastor in the middle of their circumstances.
There’s a reason that I’m a ‘youth pastor’ and not a ‘youth programmer’ and I’m just now starting to learn the difference.
Enjoyed this blog post? Then you’ll enjoy this one as well: 5 Things That Bug Me About Youth Group
Aaron Helman is on a mission to end youth worker burnout by providing the training and resources that you haven’t been taught… until now. Smarter Youth Ministry exists to help you learn how to manage their time and resources better so that you can do more ministry with less frustration. All of that having been said, you most likely know him as the creator of “Lamentation or Taylor Swift Lyric.”