It begins with a lump in the throat, followed by a cold sweat, clammy palms and finishes with a sinking feeling. It’s the moment you realize you’ve “failed” in youth ministry.
Today I thought I would share some of my most cherished moments from the “how not to be a youth pastor” handbook.
1. “The Unbroken Arm”
Imagine your student who is “that kid.” You know the one who needs to push all of your buttons, and you are too proud to admit it? At camp I say four times, “Don’t stand on the trash can that is five feet in the air, we are playing basketball, and you could fall off.” 14 yr. old Malcolm ignores me. He falls, grabs his arm screaming, “It’s broken.” Me in an award winning moment, “No it’s not, go play basketball like you were asked.” Malcolm finally begs me to go to the nurse. Begrudgingly I take him, even though I think he is “milking it.” I go back to my group while he ices his arm. Ambulance comes. Four hours later he returns waving a cast in my face, evil laugh, “It’s broken.”
It doesn’t matter if a student doesn’t listen, when they get hurt you should not prove a point. 2nd lesson: Next time don’t let them get on the trash can in the first place.
2. “Biking Home”
Imagine taking your students camping. You bring bikes so they can “explore” on their own. Everyone else thinks a different adult told Freddy he could take a bike. So when everyone was supposed to meet back at 3 he was no where to be found. Dinner came and went, still no Freddy. Police became involved. I got to call home to tell Mom, who barely spoke English, we had lost her son, 7 hours from home. Finally, somewhere around midnight he was found sunburnt and dehydrated. Apparently, he had attempted to “bike home” after deciding “no one liked him.’
There are a couple of other “choice” stories from trips, and parks to which I arrived at this conclusion. (We already had them sign character contracts and liability forms prior to any of this.)
Taking students on trips for the sake of the event doesn’t really fit in to my philosophy of “relationally driven” youth ministry. Also losing kids is bad. Even in the age of cell phones, batteries die or they get turned off. Instead, I realized that going forward in all things we would have one small group leader with 3-5 students every time we set out on any trip where they”had freedom.” The purpose? To build relationships. To be a family on a “family outing.” Since that time you would be shocked at the depth of “life” we have learned from students in lines for roller coasters at parks and places where you can “go exploring.”
3. “The Stump.” (This one comes to us via my hubby, but too good not to share.)
Camping trip. Youth Leader sees a tree stump sticking out of the ground that can fit maybe 4 kids holding onto each other. Decides to have a “team building exercise,” where 12-15 kids have to all stand on the “Stump” together. By the end of “said” activity all the students were complaining and revolting so violently, lunch was withheld until they made it happen. (Although it was literally impossible.)
You need to have team building- actually conducive to building cohesiveness. Well actually the youth did unite: against all of the adults. They actually had teens so angry from the “event” that parent meetings were held when the trip was over. Those “youth,” who are now in their mid 30’s, make sure to bring up this “activity” laughing whenever they see us. The point? No activity can be about the leader needing to be in “control” of the teens. In addition, deciding they “will learn this lesson or else” rarely works as a model of youth min. Instead it’s about setting it up, allowing them to learn “something” (even if it isn’t what you intended) and knowing when to pull the plug.
I have many more “failures” over the years I could share. Through these I have learned invaluable lessons about honoring parents, teaching methods, and having more compassions for my students, just to name a few. While there was a higher percentage of all out “blow ups” in the early years, I still fall down. It reminds me I am still learning, and it’s the Lord’s ministry not mine.
What about you? What’s your “Biggest Mess Up” as a youth worker and What did you learn?