My first job as a youth worker was at a large, suburban church. I was scheduled to meet with the youth group for the first time a week after I started the job. I was confident and optimistic.
When the couple who’d volunteered to be my youth counselors called on Saturday to say they couldn’t be at the meeting, I took it in stride. Hey, these things happen. No problem. I could handle it alone.
When 28 kids showed up instead of the 10 I had expected, I was a little surprised. But I didn’t let it shake me. I was a professional. I cut the brownies in half, set up some more chairs and plunged ahead.
Then things really fell apart.
Two junior high boys got into a fistfight. No one wanted to sing. The program theme I’d planned had been beaten to death by a previous youth leader-the kids were sick of talking about it. Two senior high girls refused, in obvious ways, to talk to each other.
Finally, after I dismissed the kids, a junior high girl tried to leap over a puddle in the parking lot. She slipped and fell, chin first, onto the asphalt.
A father who was waiting in his car in the parking lot saw the fall. Fortunately, he was far better prepared for emergencies than I. He whipped a first-aid kit out of his trunk and had her patched up and on her way in short order.
Basically, that first meeting was a microcosm of common youth ministry disasters. I remember wishing I’d had a first-aid kit designed for my needs as a youth worker-something I could dig into for help no matter what kind of emergency faced me.
So I bought an Army footlocker and filled it with everything I could ever need but hoped I wouldn’t. I call that "proacting" to emergencies. That is, being ready for them. What I do with the stuff in the footlocker is what I call "reacting" to emergencies. Emergency situations call for both proactive and reactive measures.
Over the years I’ve discovered six emergencies that are common to all youth workers. Here’s a look at each emergency and a peek into my footlocker to see how I’ve proacted and reacted to each one.
1. Medical Emergencies-when kids get sick or are injured at your meeting or event.
*Footlocker supplies-a blanket, splints, a large elastic bandage, a chemical cold pack, a first-aid kit full of bandages of all sizes, some moist towelettes, antiseptic ointment, a first-aid manual and medical information cards for each group member.
*How to react-Don’t panic! Kids get hurt and sick all the time. When a group member’s injured, your job is to stop or control bleeding and prevent shock. Once you’ve done that, determine how serious the wound is.
Ask, "How do you feel?" Wait awhile and ask again. If the injured teenager says she feels okay, she probably does. Report the injury to parents immediately after the meeting. If the injury is serious, call parents or an ambulance immediately.
When a teenager says he’s ill, send him home. If he’s sick enough to say, "I’m sick," take his word for it.
A word of warning: Do not medicate your kids! You’re not a doctor, and even an aspirin can cause problems for a doctor trying to diagnose an illness.
2. Helper Emergencies-when your adult volunteers can’t be there or don’t show up.
*Footlocker supplies-the names and phone numbers of several adults you’ve recruited as emergency youth group aides. When you recruited them you explained there’d be times when you’d simply need a warm body on hand so you wouldn’t be alone with the kids.
*How to react-We live in a lawsuit-crazy society. And if you get sued for improper behavior, you’ll think you just stepped into a nightmare. So don’t set yourself up for a lawsuit. When you recruit at least one other adult to help you, you serve the kids and yourself by making sure all your bases are covered.
Grab a parent who’s dropping off his or her kids and ask him or her to stay until you can get another counselor there. Make your calls. No one available? Explain to parents that you’ll have to cancel the meeting. I bet at least one of them offers to stay.
3. Programming Emergencies-when the program flops. The kids yawn, scratch themselves, ignore you and fall asleep.
*Footlocker supplies-two instant, self-contained, emergency programs which you’ve prepared in advance, shown to your adult leaders, stapled into grocery bags and marked "Plan B" and "Plan C."
*How to react-Say, "This isn’t working, is it?" When your kids agree, drop it. Reach into your footlocker, grab one of your emergency programs and dive in.
4. Equipment Emergencies-when the projector, VCR, camera or some other piece of equipment suddenly decides not to work. (It works for everyone else, right?)
*Footlocker supplies-an extra bulb for each projector and Plans B and C. (You will have rehearsed everything, of course, to make sure the equipment works and you know how to run it. You’ll also cue up the equipment before the meeting so it’s ready to go.)
*How to react-Take a bow and receive with grace the ribbing you’ll undoubtedly get. Replace the bulb if that’s the problem. If it’s not the problem, dump your plans before any more time is wasted and go to Plan B or C. Get the equipment fixed the following week.
5. Emotional Emergencies-when one of your kids shows up at the meeting in tears or in a rage. Sometimes problems at home or school, with a parent, sibling or sweetheart cause such emotional distress that the entire group focuses on that one person.
*Footlocker supplies-tissues. Upset kids rarely remember to bring handkerchiefs to wipe their tears and blow their noses.
*How to react-Turn over the meeting opener to one of your able adult helpers. Draw the upset person aside to a private place and offer to listen. (For legal reasons, make sure others can see but not hear you.) Once you’ve discovered the problem, there are two ways to go:
A. Some problems-not too personal, not too delicate-may give your group a chance to learn something. If the upset person agrees, tell the other kids about the problem and ask them to discuss solutions. Ask kids to search the scriptures for guidelines and ideas that might apply. Then have them pray for the person. Caution: Never do this without asking the upset person how he or she feels about it.
B. Other problems are so profound, so private, that counseling is in order. But usually this isn’t the time or place. You can’t just dump the whole meeting on your colleague. Do your best to reassure, console and empathize with the upset person. Then offer to meet with him or her after the meeting or the next day to listen in depth.
6. Behavioral Emergencies-when you discover that two of your kids have broken into the church kitchen, opened the refrigerator and eaten all of the cupcakes set aside for the next day’s women’s group meeting. Or they’ve torn up something. Or they’ve been mean or hateful or disruptive or destructive.
*Footlocker supplies-a whip, a chair and a large-bore gun. JUST KIDDING! Probably the only things you’ll need for this are the aforementioned information cards with parents’ names and phone numbers written on them. Also, you’ll need the list of rules that you and the group have agreed upon as guidelines for behavior.
*How to react-First, make sure this is really a problem. Remember that a behavior problem is more than "behavior I don’t like." It’s behavior that prevents, or will prevent, the group from achieving its goals.
If you’ve determined that this is really a problem, identify it to the offender: "John, throwing erasers at other kids is inappropriate behavior." Then explain why: "It’s disrupting the group and keeping us from ." Then explain how you feel and what you want: "When you do that I feel hurt and used. Please stop it and sit down and join the discussion." Finally, explain the penalty for not doing what you want: "I don’t want to have to ask you to leave the meeting."
Then follow through. If the behavior doesn’t change, ask him to leave or do whatever you said you’d do. Kids tend to admire adults who take charge of the situation. They don’t want you to let them walk on you.
Of course, we haven’t solved all the problems you’ll face in youth ministry. I still get caught by surprise from time to time. But it happens less often than it used to. With your footlocker supplies packed and your faith intact, you can handle almost anything that comes up. ú
When to Get Help
Sometimes the emergency is more than you can handle by yourself. Here’s when you need to call for outside help:
*Head injuries-any head injury that causes dizziness, blurred vision, drowsiness or nausea. Call an ambulance.
*Accusations — A group member accuses an adult volunteer of inappropriate behavior or sexual advances. Call in the pastor.
*Repeated program failures — Several programs in a row fail to grab the group’s attention. Talk to another youth worker or pastor.
*Equipment repair — Changing a light bulb is okay, but let the professionals take care of serious repairs.
*In-depth counseling — Know your limits. How serious is the problem? Are you really equipped and trained to handle this issue? Perhaps the caring thing to do is to refer this person to a professional counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
*Destructive, violent or criminal behavior — Parents should be brought into the picture as soon as possible. Consult with your pastor.
Extra Footlocker Supplies
Here are some additional items I keep in my footlocker in case of emergencies or unexpected problems. At one time or another, I’ve used them all:
- a flashlight and batteries
- a Bungee cord
- sharp pencils and 3X5 cards a ball of string
- clamp-on clothespins
- a Nerf ball
- felt-tip markers
- masking tape and duct tape
- a whistle
- 11X22-inch sheets of posterboard (10)
- a pocketknife
- a shoe box full of silly prizes and lollipops
- several screwdrivers
- a hammer
- an adjustable wrench
Dean Feldmeyer is an associate pastor for youth in Ohio.