Messes, I have made them in ministry. I have made incorrect choices that would make you break into a cold sweat and hives. I have made mistakes, and some big ones along the way. I have not thought out plans, and paid the price. Thankfully we all have cringe worthy stories. They have taught me so many lessons and changed my philosophy of ministry along the way. Here are three of the “biggies”:
The Times I Lost a Student
We had taken 40 students to “Creation Fest East.” Think 150,000 people in the middle of nowhere and 5 days of Christian concerts and speakers, in the heat while camping. We brought tents, food, and planned it what we thought well. The vast campground was ripe for exploring so we also brought bikes. The rule was to stay with a friend as you explore, and be back by dinner for the free time we offered after lunch. Well, dinner came and went and a junior high boy was missing. No one had seen him for hours, and his “buddy” didn’t want to tell us he had taken off. Night fell. Police were involved. I got to call home and say, “We lost your child.” Finally hours upon hours later into the dark, we found him, safe and sound. Someone had made him angry and apparently he decided to leave the campground and “bike home,” not realizing that was about 6 hours by car.
There was also another time when we went to an amusement park as a youth ministry. We managed it from the typical, “check in here” a few times a day and then meet us “here,” to go home. A young woman missed check in, but her friends had seen her. When it was time to leave she was no where to be found (did I mention this was pre-cell phones?). Two hours later, after making the rest of the students wait on the bus, we found her.
Lesson Learned: Both of these scenarios entirely changed the way I took students on trips, even small local ones. If my goal was to be in relational ministry, I didn’t need to go places to give kids freedom or something “to do.” Instead, we started taking students on trips “family style.” Every five students has an adult leader who will “hang out with them,” with the goal of building a deeper relationship. The point is not to “keep an eye on them,” but to find more time to invest in them.
There have been a few occasions when students have come into youth group angry. There have been two occasions when a full blown fist fight broke out. Once I put myself in the middle of the fight, and then wrestled a student to the ground to get them to stop. On the other occasion a student pulled a knife. I put myself in front of the knife and simply yelled, “NO!” I do not recommend either of these responses to students fighting in your program. Either time I could have ended up seriously hurt. Adrenaline is a powerful tool, yet I do not recommend thinking on your feet by putting yourself in the middle of the fight.
Lesson learned: Proactive conversations with my students about behavioral expectations go really really far. I also truly learned the power of systems and written rules that are communicated often. Truly there were so many lessons learned in the fights from building deeper relationships, understanding the heart behind a student, paying attention to angry words, and how not to ignore frustrated students.
We were at camp. All you need to know is that a student kept fooling around jumping off of a large trash can with a lid. They wouldn’t stop fooling around. They jumped, fell and insisted they had broken their arm. I refused to believe it because they had not been listening and thought they were merely trying to get out of the activities. I made them stay for the rest of the “team building game” before allowing them to go to the nurse. The ambulance came, hospital visit, broken arm. They felt entirely justified. My answer, “Well if you listened in the first place.” This does not fly with a parent.
Lesson learned; Do not tell a parent, “If your kid would listen then their arm wouldn’t be broken.” While perhaps a true statement this is not how you talk to parents. Also, learned the power of following through and not making empty threats. “Come on I just need you to listen,” simply doesn’t work.
These three are just the highlights of my big failures. They don’t include the times I alienated parents (note to self this affects my job security), made stupid comments to students, didn’t think through consequences to my actions, reacted to a poor attitude with one that was worse, wasn’t invested in being in the here and now, and on and on and on. We all make mistakes, we all mess up. Each and every story God redeemed. I believe this is mostly because I was willing to learn from my mistakes, allowed the Lord to convict me, and readjusted my ministry focus.
What’s your ministry mess?