It’s one of the most yucky things that any youth worker gets to navigate.
Two of the students in your youth group are dating. Things are going fine.
And then they break up.
What happens after that?
At best, it’s a recipe for several weeks of awkward interactions, showboating, repressed emotions, and a broken social dynamic within your group.
At worst, the pain and awkwardness of those continued interactions between the former-couple leads one or both of them to drop out of youth group altogether; sometimes for a season, and sometimes forever.
There’s no recipe or formula here that’s going to prevent any or all of those things from happening, but there is solid advice for how you can continue to minister to both students even after the breakup.
START BY PRAYING A SPIRIT OF EMPATHY OVER YOURSELF
As the adult in the situation, teenage drama should and does seem childish.
The girl who’s brokenhearted because her boyfriend of six whole weeks just dumped her? It was less than two months.
How serious could it have been?
But remember, students don’t have adult context.
Imagine how terrible you’d feel if the longest relationship of your life just ended.
That’s exactly what’s happening with your students.
That spirit of empathy should guide your ministry going forward.
The boy who doesn’t want to attend youth group on Sunday night with his ex-girlfriend after they broke up the night before?
You obviously don’t want to lose him forever, but his decision to skip that one night might even be reasonable.
Every time I deal with a break-up, I try my best to remember my high school break-ups.
Of course they’re small and trivial now, but at the time, I felt like my world had just ended.
Your students’ feelings are legitimate, even if they seem exaggerated.
You need to be empathetic toward those feelings.
“IT’S JUST TOO WEIRD FOR ME TO BE AROUND HIM RIGHT NOW.”
When a student chooses not to attend youth group after a breakup, they’ll cite their discomfort and the awkwardness of being around their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.
Especially in a smaller youth groups where students can’t separate into their own social circles, that awkwardness is legitimate.
(Nine times out of ten, it’s the dumpee, not the dumper who makes these claims. Feeling legitimately rejected legitimately hurts.)
The best solution we’ve found is to honor that awkwardness.
It’s real, it’s there, and it affects more than just the two people involved.
The awkwardness of a fresh breakup sends out ripples that can make everyone in the room feel uncomfortable.
We’ve found that the best solution is to give a student a free pass for missing youth group for 2-3 weeks and to assign them a mentor to meet with them during those off-weeks.
After a period of time usually shorter than a month, a lot of that awkwardness has worn off, and a student can be coaxed and encouraged to return.
Begin that mentoring relationship with the expectation that the student will come back to youth group in a few weeks.
Meet to talk and pray together the first time or two.
After the first few meetings, invite other students – obviously not the ex – from the youth group to join you.
This will help ease some of the awkwardness away before the student is ready to return.
Wear your empathy-pants and understand that the student’s discomfort is real, then do what you can to ease that discomfort.
Your other option is to do nothing and hope he comes back on his own whenever he’s ready. He probably won’t.
Your ability to do ministry is not dependent on that student’s attendance at your program, and a hurting student needs your ministry in these moments far more than he probably needs your program.
MAKE SURE TO GIVE ATTENTION TO BOTH STUDENTS
When you go out of your way to spend time with one student (usually the one who wants to stay away, usually the dumpee), it can have the appearance that you’re taking sides.
That’s a bit of drama you don’t want in your life.
Besides, even though it probably hurts a little more to be dumped; the end of a relationship always hurts, even if you’re the one who ends it.
That student is hurting too.
That student needs your ministry too.
Be open about your desire for both students to be active in the youth ministry again.
Give both students the goal of being able to be active leaders who can have interactions that don’t send awkward ripples through the full group.
Retaining students after an ugly breakup can be done, but it absolutely doesn’t happen by accident.
After a relationship ends, both students are hurting and require your ministry and attention.
Reach out to them, love them, talk to them, pray for them, and trust that God’s desire is also to restore them into your ministry again.
Then, stop back here to let us know how it went.
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to break up with students in your ministry? Leave a comment below.
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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.”