I think my most difficult experience in youth ministry, to date, is talking to teens about someone they look up to who failed them. It is trial by fire, and has come my way multiple times. Leader failures are the reality of our fallen world, and of the Body of Christ broken by sin. Whether it is remote (church scandals in the news) or close to home (a priest or youth leader who has let your teens down personally), I think there is no problem more difficult to handle than this one. Yet there is no issue that is more important to address well. Your response to this situation can be a “make-it-or-break it” moment in your teens’ faith journey.
Despite significant improvements, our church really needs to do a better job of getting this right. And it starts with you. So, whether you are dealing with this now, or just want to be prepared for the future, say a prayer, take a deep breath, and dive in! Below, are are some thoughts from the school of hard knocks. I hope they help you.
Be Not Afraid
Oh the pressure! Yes, I wanted to scare you a little to get you to pay attention. But ultimately, Jesus is the Savior – not you, not me. He will be with you and your teens in this. He is bigger than you, and He is in control. So picture him in the room with you and your group – because He WILL be there! Invite Him into this situation. Start breathing again. And keep reading!
Put Personal Processing First
So you are in your office and the news story breaks, your archdiocese puts out a notice, or, heaven forbid, your pastor comes to you and tells you that the assistant priest/co-leader/youth minister before you has been sent on leave for doing something awful. Or perhaps it is more mundane but nonetheless real for your teens. One of your most dynamic core team leaders quit with a bitter taste in their mouth and torched everything in their path. Or the super-fun guy that everybody liked disappeared irresponsibly without giving your group a chance for closure. These scenarios have greater to lesser degrees of gravity, but all of them have something in common. They are failures by people who are supposed to model Christ for your kids, and should not be taken lightly.
No matter how mature you are in your own walk with the Lord, any of these situations will leave you reeling a bit. So, first of all, give yourself space to process your own feelings. Try not to walk into your group with unresolved interior tensions. You need to be ready to take on THEIR storm, not add to it with yours. Take a walk. Pray. Speak with a spiritual director, close friend, or fellow youth minister. Get prepared.
If, however, everything hits the fan right before you are supposed to start group, do a shorter version. Have your core team run icebreakers for an extra 10 minutes while you get your head and heart in order. Mentally draw the line between what you as the leader need to say and be for your young people, and the raw emotion that needs to be processed later. Make sure to get to it later, too. Make it a priority. Jot down some points you really want to drive home. And of course, ask the Lord for help and remember he is with you.
Be Brave and Broach the Topic
Don’t hem and haw and ask if anyone has heard anything. You start it off.
Right off the bat, don’t leave them in any doubt that you ADMIT that what happened was wrong. If it is on the more serious side, come right out and say, “this happened in our parish/community/school this week. This is NOT OK.” Or “I noticed that XYZ happened last week when so-and-so left/came to talk to us/ again followed by “that is not OK.” The “not OK” or another similar, simple statement, is very important. Saying those words is not a lack of charity toward the individual; this is the truth that you owe the teens, especially when it is something serious.
Give Them An Open Forum
“I’d like to invite you guys to share whatever you want to about this. I know it made me feel/think X, and so I’m wondering what you guys are thinking/feeling like right now.”
Validate the Feelings
Do not jump into a defense of the leader (even if the teens’ judgment is harsher than yours). You don’t need to defend the Church right now either, or sweep everything under the rug with “well, God is in control, etc.” Allow them to let it all out first. Acknowledge that it is understandable to feel that way. Don’t shut down the honesty of that moment.
Bring About Resolution
After feelings have been processed/validated etc. it is important to give them something to hang onto. THIS is where you should remind the teens of important truths. Examples include the following:
“While this is completely unacceptable/immoral/evil, not everyone in the church is like this. We (core team) are all here for you. Fr. X is here for you,” etc. – Do not be afraid to use strong words
“Even though X did something wrong, if his/her words/actions etc pointed you to Jesus, that is REAL. Don’t doubt that Jesus was working with you, continues to work in you and invite you to relationship with Him. That person might be a hypocrite but Jesus is true and real. – Don’t be afraid to call it like it is. Remember the strong words Jesus used in the Bible about the Pharisees.
“The Church is with YOU and teaches that XYZ is wrong.”
If one or more individuals want to argue with the points above, you may want to invite them to talk with you more one on one. But don’t let anyone distract you from ending this conversation on a strong, encouraging note.
Conclude your conversation about this issue with prayer, letting teens know God is with them in this.
Don’t forget to inform the parents and invite them to follow up with you should they have questions or concerns. Depending on the gravity of the situation, personal phone calls from you or your core team might be appropriate. You need to convey a reassuring, transparent presence to them as well.
You’ve got this! God has your back, and so do I. Yes, I’m praying for you. For real.