Like a painter wielding a wide roller in one hand and a small detailing brush in the other, effective youth workers juggle the responsibility of keeping a focus on the big picture of their ministry (vision, programming, curriculum, etc.) while simultaneously working to encourage and equip specific teenagers through building quality one-on-one relationships. There is nothing better than when the execution of a big event goes off just as planned. They start with ideas that get dreamed up while studying scripture and reading inspiring books. They then get transferred into conversations and meetings with excited adult leaders and interns. And finally, they get executed with excellence and students are singing your praises and actually wearing your t-shirt design to school?!
But maybe you have noticed some kids who have yet to really champion, or even respond at all, to anything you and your team create. We all know we can’t please all of the teenagers all of the time but there may be some students who remain disengaged completely to your efforts and the rest of the group. This post is less about the students who leave you banging your head against the wall as a result of their rebellious spirits or bad attitudes and more about the ones that leave you scratching your head. Most likely you have students in your group who may have difficulty making eye contact, maintaining a conversation for any amount of time, or jumping in with everybody at game time.
DISCLAIMER: There is a spectrum here from a light resistance to social situations by an introvert and a clinically diagnosed issue that may require medication or treatment. Please realize the HUGE difference here and be sure to communicate with a student’s parents and your pastor before ever trying to make a decision with your adult volunteers on how to regard a student with issues.
That being said, here are a few practical ways to better lead students showing a social sensitivity.
KEEP A HEADS UP TO WHAT IS GOING DOWN
If we aren’t careful we can let the “easy kids” dominate our time each Wednesday! But watch out for what the fringe kids are up to. Notice if a teenager seems to stay disengaged from week to week despite all your (and maybe a volunteer’s) efforts to bring them into the fold. Once you, a gender-appropriate adult volunteer, and maybe an outgoing student have done your best to invite them into your activity, but to no avail, you’ll be in a better spot to make a decision on how to respect the fringe kid’s desire to stay inactive but still feel invited to take part.
If you see a student struggle with a component of your program, ask him afterward why he didn’t like that particular activity. Was the worship music too loud? Did the stage game make her feel uncomfortable even though it was “just a joke”? Directing good questions to our teenagers about our special events and weekly activities not only help us in continuing to meet the specific needs of our specific students, they also go a long way in empowering our sensitive students to know that their opinions matter and that they have a voice in your group.
GO TO THE PARENT
This is a great way to learn of cultural differences you may otherwise stay totally unaware of. You will gain a plethora of credibility with a parent by asking for a face-to-face meeting in order to discuss ways you and your ministry can do a better job of showing God’s love to their son or daughter! This can also begin a healthy relationship with them and show how you will come to them if you see an issue and that they can also can come to you for advice and support.
What kinds of margins are there in place in your ministry for students who have difficulty dealing with large groups or loud, seemingly out of control environments? Do you have a couch they can sit on at the back of the room? Can Emily go up in the sound booth during the game time? Can one of your guy leaders sit with Trey in a side classroom during the lesson and go through a devotional with him? By making allowances for socially-sensitive students you do run the risk of hearing “well, if she doesn’t have to do this, I don’t have to do this either” from other kids. But that may also serve as a good opportunity to have a teachable moment and all the more reason to be ahead of the game with good communication early on with parents.
JOHN BARNARD is a veteran youth pastor of 20+ years. He heads up a mentor development outreach ministry called Middleman Skateboard Ministries (MIDDLEMANSKATEBOARDS.COM) and lives in TX with his beautiful wife Mandi, loud kids Dylin, Levi and Evie, and fat bulldog Oscar. He likes to turn a wrench while listening to Junior Brown and has never turned down a taco.