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Walking Into Trouble

Crisis intervention is a critical part of youth work — in fact, crises offer an open door to ministry like nothing else can.

It’s 11 p.m. when your home phone jangles you out of a late-night TV stupor. “I’m at the hospital” — it’s the urgent, unnamed voice of a mother. “My Trisha’s been raped; the doctors are looking at her right now.” It turns out Dean, a 17-year-old group member who’s been dating Trisha for three months, is the accused attacker.

You’re putting the final touches on your Wednesday night Bible study when there’s a knock at your office door. It’s Robert, a 14-year-old, who’s just learned that his dad was the cause of a fatal car accident. His father survived. But the police are questioning him about the hit-and-run, and his name is all over the news. Prison seems a likely possibility.

Caitlin, 15 and an on-and-off group member, catches you in the church parking lot just before you leave for home. She asks if you have a minute. You turn off the car. She quickly tells you she’s pregnant and isn’t sure of the father. She also tells you that nobody else knows she’s pregnant. She’s desperate for advice.

If you’ve never experienced the thud-in-your-gut feeling of coming face to face with a kid’s crisis, count yourself blessed — and fasten your seat belt because it’s just around the bend. If, on the other hand, you’ve had many crisis counseling experiences but have struggled to know exactly what to do, count yourself normal. Crisis intervention is a critical part of youth work — in fact, crises offer an open door to ministry like nothing else can. And whether or not you have clinical training, you’re expected to navigate turbulent times like a pro. No matter how ugly the situation, you’re the one most kids will turn to first — like it or not.

How to Help

Anyone who says they’re relaxed and confident entering a crisis situation is lying. Tension, confusion, and fear are normal responses. So take a deep breath. You’re not alone. We all struggle with what to say and how to behave in these powerful ministry moments. These half dozen steps can help you handle your next challenging situation.

1. Accept the young person’s crisis. This may sound silly, but all of us are tempted to play down another’s problems to ease our own anxiety. If a teenager is threatening to leave home because “nobody understands,” we’re sometimes tempted to talk him out of it before we accept his pain. It’s critical to convey Christlike acceptance to young people in crisis.

2. Gather information carefully. It’s dangerous to jump to a hasty conclusion before you have all the facts. Once you’ve accepted the crisis, remember that it’s filtered through that young person’s perspective. Other family members, classmates, or even police officers may see things quite differently. Don’t withhold your concern and acceptance, but remember that there may be more to a crisis than you’re hearing.

3. Be present with the young person. People in crisis often feel they’ll never rid themselves of despair. As a youth minister, you can bring a glimmer of hope by listening to their fears and pain. If talking about their experience doesn’t come easy for them, communicate a willingness to give the time required. Say something such as, “Take your time; I’m not going anywhere.” Being with a caring person who’s fully present renews energy and hope in a young soul.

4. Help make God’s presence known. Without spiritualizing and giving simplistic answers, we can reassure young people in crisis that God will help them through their tough times. Remind them that Jesus knows the pain of a broken heart, and he’ll see us through our own pain. You may want to read a psalm that combines gritty lament with powerful, tangible hope. For kids struggling in the dark, the Psalms may be the bridge back to God they so desperately need.

5. Determine an immediate action plan. Once you’ve spent time comforting a teenager in crisis, do something. Determine whether the young person is a danger to himself or to others. And think about who’s best equipped professionally to help him through the crisis. For example, if you suspect a young person is suicidal or homicidal, defer to a professional immediately.

A crisis of any kind brings psychic upheaval and emotional confusion that’s often beyond your skills. So devise a specific plan and put it in writing. Your plan should clearly identify the problem and the desired outcome. Note who should be involved (physician, psychologist, social worker, police officer, pastor, family members) and what resources will be required to implement the plan (money, transportation, insurance). Your plan should also include ongoing support when the critical period has passed.

6. Mobilize social support. With an action plan in place, consider who you can enlist for practical and emotional support for the teenager and her family. This is important for a couple of reasons: (1) It takes some of the pressure off you. (2) It empowers others to join you in ministry. So consider people in your church who’ve survived a similar crisis and might be good companions. Enlist people who could meet some practical needs such as meals.

You were called to minister to a fallen world wrapped in chaos, and counseling kids in crisis is the most challenging and crucial aspect of your pastoral care. The combination of your loving support and practical help is the essence of crisis intervention. Crisis counseling fully tests your calling to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Where to Turn for Help

The following books and organizations provide practical tools for helping young people caught in a crisis.

Books and Resources

  • Kids’ Grief Connection — Hospice of Larimer County has published this 8-week program that includes a facilitator’s manual and photocopiable workbooks for kids ($75 plus $4 shipping). Contact Nancy Jakobssen, 7604 Colland Dr., Fort Collins, CO 80525, (970) 663-3500.
  • Grief and Loss: Hope In the Midst of Pain — Part of Serendipity’s “Special Needs Group” series.
  • Better Safe Than Sued — by Jack Crabtree (Group Publishing, Inc., $15.99, 800-447-1070). The chapter “When the Worst Happens” is a riveting, practical plan for dealing with a tragedy in your group.
  • Counseling Helpsheets — by Tom Klaus and G. Lamar Roth (Group Publishing, Inc., $14.99, 800-447-1070). Succinct guidance for all types of counseling situations.
  • Counseling Teenagers — by Keith Olson (Group Publishing, Inc., $21.99, 800-447-1070). A landmark book that’s targeted at kids’ unique developmental makeup.
  • Helping the Struggling Adolescent: A Guide to Thirty Common Problems — by Les Parrott III (Zondervan, $14.99, 800-727-3480). A real workbook that’s broad in scope and practical in purpose.
  • Helping the Struggling Adolescent: A Counseling Guide — by Les Parrott III (Zondervan, $12.99, 800-727-3480).
  • Pastoral Care With Adolescents in Crisis — by G. Wade Rowatt Jr. John Knox Press, 1989). Filters counseling advice through your pastoral calling.


  • American Red Cross — Provides advice and trauma training. Contact them at: 8111 Gatehouse Rd., Falls Church, VA 22042, (703) 206-7090.
  • New Life Treatment Centers — A Christian counseling network. Call 800-446-6533 for advice and information.
  • The Compassionate Friends — A family support network for people enduring grief from the loss of a child. Call (630) 990-0010 or go to their Internet Web site at

When and Where to Refer

No youth leader, and no psychologist, can help everyone under all circumstances. Consider referral when you reach the limit of your ability to help, or if the situation requires specialized treatment. Also, always refer if you suspect a young person could hurt himself or others.

Your phone book should list crisis referral services toward the front or in the index. Check under “Counseling,” “Crisis Intervention,” “County Department of Health,” “Mental Health Services,” “Pregnancy Counseling,” or “Suicide Prevention.”

Les Parrott III is a professor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University in Washington state. His books include Helping the Struggling Adolescent: A Guide to Thirty Common Problems (Zondervan).

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Walking Into Trouble

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