It’s day four. You’re sitting in a fast-food booth with three teenagers. There’s a greasy double-decker burger sitting five inches from your belly—mocking your pathetic “healthy eating” vow. It’s your third this week. The kid sitting across from you is drinking his milkshake, and you can tell he’s nearly done. When he reaches the bottom of the cup, his sucking cheeks will go into overdrive—his straw will make “that noise” again. You know because you’ve sat next to him for three meals and every time he gets to the bottom of his cup he makes that noise. Maybe he’s thinking if he sucks on the straw hard enough to make a vein pop out on his pointy little head, he might just find some hidden trove of chocolate that would’ve otherwise escaped the mighty vortex of his lips. Ssssssssssssssssskkkkkkkkkkkkrrrrrrrrrrp Ssssssssssssssssskkkkkkkkkkkkrrrrrrrrrrp
So you calmly reach across the table and grab him by the front of his T-shirt. In one smooth motion, you bat the cup from his hand and drag him across the table so you are nose-to-nose. You whisper quietly—eyes fixed to his. “That sound means there isn’t any more. It’s empty.”
You, my youth ministry friend, have a bad case of the Sleep-Deprived Nasties (SDN). You know what I’m talking about—it’s a common malady that takes otherwise shiny, happy youth ministers and transmogrifies them into coiled springs that explode with a “Spronnnnnnnnng!” if you just look at them the wrong way. SDN can manifest itself in many ways. It’s not exclusive to gender or age. Anybody can get it. Even that sweet woman who volunteers her time just because she loves kids can turn into someone you’d want to keep away from the cutlery.
SDN shows up most often at lock-ins, retreats, road trips, and mission trips—basically, anything that involves you and teenagers sleeping together (or more likely not sleeping together) in the same room. Young people who suffer from SDN often take it out on each other. On the fourth day of the choir tour, they start keeping track of who is and who isn’t pulling their own weight. Ironically they only keep track of those who are working less than they are. SDN in teenagers can often bond them together, but for the wrong reasons. Gangs of the SDN-afflicted will form a conspiracy to make life a living hell for one unsuspecting group member.
Occasionally SDN will result in feelings of anger or resentment toward those you’re serving. I once took a group on a mission trip to Appalachia. We spent several days winterizing a man’s home. He spent the week watching us. Under the influence of SDN, my kids’ anger simmered. “It’s his home. He’s not even helping. He’s just sitting there watching us do it for him.”
1. Hello, my name is Steve, and I have the sleep-deprived nasties. As your corner psychologist will tell you, understanding you have a problem is half the battle. We all put up with the occasional jab from our teenagers. If you’re an adult, you have an invisible target on your chest. But SDN can cause us to take kids’ verbal barbs way too personally. If a teenager is throwing verbal darts your way, pull him aside and let him know you have SDN and would appreciate a cessation of all ballistic missiles.
2. Lights out doesn’t mean 10 minutes from now. Youth group trips are exhausting by definition—you owe it to those around you to be at your best. So let your teenagers know that the trip isn’t a vacation. If you’re not able to give 100 percent of yourself, then you’re cheating those you came to help as well as those around you who are giving all they’ve got. Set a reasonable lights-out time and stick to it. Be the hard-nosed youth leader. Rest is vital.
3. Take a nap. You’d be amazed how much easier things go after a short snooze. If you don’t want to call it Nap Time, try something called H-Hour (for “horizontal”). Many business books use the term Power-Nap—it means taking one hour every afternoon to be horizontal. You don’t have to sleep, but you must be horizontal and quiet. Read a book. Listen to music. Whatever. Just get horizontal. Don’t allow adult leaders (yourself included) to use this hour as planning time. Again, rest is vital.
4. Declare detente in the war between morning people and night people. There are some people who leap out of bed when the sun peeks over the horizon. They smile as they greet the new day, their faces glowing as they sip their chamomile tea and watch the sunrise. Then there’s the rest of us who smash into mornings head-on and are lucky to walk away from the collision.
Here’s an example (a true story). Once there was a college girl named Debbie. Debbie was a night person and her roommate was a morning person. The first week of school, Debbie’s roommate dragged her out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. She pointed out the window and said, “Look, Debbie, a rainbow. That’s God’s way of saying ‘Good morning, Debbie!’“ Debbie then punched her. They weren’t roommates after that.
What will get you through the week is simple common courtesy. If you’re a night person and you can’t sleep, be courteous to those around you and lie quietly. If you’re a morning person determined to get up an hour before the youth leader’s alarm to watch the sunrise or go jogging, keep it down as you get ready and close the door quietly. I’m not a morning person. That’s why I own one of the greatest youth ministry tools ever invented. It’s the Xtreme Gulp cup from 7-Eleven—a red insulated mug that holds a whopping 52 ounces of your favorite caffeinated beverage. All of my kids have seen this mug in my white-knuckled hand. I’ve even passed it around the circle once. I tell them all from the beginning: “If you don’t see me with my cup in the morning, don’t talk to me. You can come up and give me a hug but no questions. Once I have the cup in my hand, give me a few minutes, then come talk to me.” Forewarned is forearmed. It’s that sort of blatant honesty that has helped me return home with the same number of kids I left with.
5. Encourage scream sessions for adult leaders. One effective way to fight SDN is to give your adult leaders time alone to “process” their emotions. If you need an errand run or the van needs gas, send two youth leaders out together and encourage them to vent their emotions by screaming. How? Have them roll down their windows and shout. Tell them to scream wildly inappropriate things about whichever teenager is most vexing to them. (Yes, I’m aware of how bad that sounds, but it’s incredibly therapeutic.) Give them a little space to be real and they’ll come back to you as new people. And don’t forget to schedule some scream time for yourself. You’re in charge, after all. You can’t be “on” 24 hours a day. Give yourself a break and let it all out. (Be sure you’re far enough away—say, 10 or 20 miles.)
6. In God we trust; for teenagers there’s duct tape. Make sure your teenagers know your list of “trust-busters” before you leave home. Explain that the trip hinges on trust between you. You must be able to trust them enough so you can close your eyes at night and not worry about who might be sneaking out. If you’re up late because you heard someone went for a walk the night before, then that trust factor has been violated. Take the appropriate action. It’s an old trick, but a small piece of duct tape on the outside of a door can let you know if anyone has slipped out in the night.
7. Debrief doesn’t mean to “pants” somebody. Not all SDN is caused by physical exhaustion. Often your young people are immersed in mind-blowing new experiences. They’re seeing new things and meeting new people. And that can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Be sure to have a “debriefing” time each day to allow your kids the time they need to process information.
8. Ummm…don’t forget about the Bible. If SDN is starting to show itself, plan evening devotions that revolve around Scripture passages such as “How can you get the speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you have a log in your own” (Matthew 7:3) or “Love does not keep a record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). These are great passages and can go a long way toward warding off SDN when you’re all sitting in a darkened room around a candle.
Jesus talked about agape love. It’s that special kind of love that requires nothing in return. When SDN starts to make us judgmental about those we’re traveling with or those we’re serving, we need to remember that Jesus loved everyone. He even loved the ones who put him on the cross. Then again, he never had to listen to that milkshake noise.
Steve Case is a veteran youth minister in Florida.