In order to generate some enthusiasm around teaching the Prophets of the Old Testament to our high school students, we began our Wednesday evening together with a game we titled, “Jonah’s Revenge.” One student from each grade was invited to join us on stage, where we had four giant plastic tubs filled with gallons of water. The plastic tubs were clear, so that everyone in the audience could see the countless number of sardines that had settled to the bottom of each tub. The object of the game was for each contestant to retrieve as many sardines as possible from the bottom of the water-filled tub using only his mouth. The person who collected the most sardines would exact the most revenge on Jonah’s behalf and would be declared the winner. Brilliant game, right?
Almost immediately after the game began, I noticed from my vantage point in the back of the room that a considerable amount of water was flying out of each tub as our four contestants dove for mouthfuls of sardines. I ran on stage and politely instructed all of our contestants to be “a little less violent” as they dove, because they were spilling too much water. Almost immediately after returning to my place in the back of the room, our sophomore contestant (who is exceedingly large and strong for his age) decided to stand-up, lift his plastic tub over his head, and dump out all of the water because, logically, diving for sardines would be much easier if there was no water left in the tub. Now, however, gallons of standing water covered our stage, guitars, microphones, drum kit, and keyboard! All instrument cables, extension cords, and plugs were completely submerged.
All at once I was confronted with the reality that my students on stage were in immediate danger of electrocution, that thousands of dollars of band and tech equipment could be damaged or destroyed, and that we still had nearly 90 minutes of programming ahead of us.
In order to minimize risk (and in youth ministry there is always some risk), ensure that you are prepared by doing the following:
Plan Ahead. Outline basic policies and procedures for your students and volunteers to follow in case of severe weather, fires, security threats, or health related emergencies. Have other ministries and leaders in your community check your information to make sure nothing is missing and to confirm that everything you’ve outlined is consistent with other church policies. Compiling this information in a manual or training document with several hard copies located around the space where you most frequently gather with your students and volunteers isn’t a bad idea.
Share the information. Being prepared means that you shouldn’t be the only one who knows what to do if things get crazy. Hopefully you’ve already discovered, whether your ministry has 10 students or 300, you need to share your leadership responsibilities with eager interns, trusted volunteers, helpful parents, and high-capacity student leaders. Requiring training on the information outlined above (and hopefully much more) and sharing leadership responsibilities with other invested individuals ensures that you’re not the only one responsible for making things right and you’re not the only one who has something to lose when disaster strikes. When our stage flooded that evening, the three volunteers in our tech booth helped save the day—not only because they were empowered to act through trust and our trainings, but because they had a personal investment in caring for the submerged equipment. Because our adult volunteers share ownership in our ministry, they shared ownership of cleaning up our mess.
Expect the worst (and know what to do). Members of our ministry team roll their eyes whenever I say, “How might someone die if we decide to do this?” during our planning meetings. It sounds like an extreme and gruesome question, but after “Jonah’s Revenge,” a competition between our high school students that involved crowd surfing the most junior high students from point A to point B, and a watermelon eating contest that ended with a female freshman student’s face covered in blood, I’ve learned the hard way. Doing the work of asking critical questions about safety might save the life of a student or volunteer I love—along with saving my job. If we’d asked these kinds of questions as we planned “Jonah’s Revenge,” we likely would have decided against it. Just to be clear, asking these questions doesn’t automatically eliminate ideas. However, it will provide you with the safest possible version of your idea. We will have a watermelon-eating contest again this year, but we’ll definitely enforce a rule against using your head as a hammer to smash the watermelon (Because sometimes the watermelon moves and a kid ends up using his head to hammer the picnic table). We’ll also have a fully stocked first-aid kit close by.
It Happens to All of Us
You need to go to bed every night knowing you’re as prepared as possible so that you’ll be able to sleep well on the night things go horribly wrong. When there is a flood in your ministry, remember that you’re not alone and that all of us have encountered a disaster of some kind. During the drive home on the evening we drenched our stage I couldn’t help but tremble at the thought of how much worse things could have turned out, who could have gotten hurt, and how irresponsible I was. These kinds of thoughts quickly lead us to question our calling and ability to serve as pastors.
When things go wrong, you will likely be your greatest critic. Do your best to forgive yourself and remember that our students and volunteers are more forgiving than we generally give them credit. My students like to remind my team and me about “Jonah’s Revenge” and the chaos of our waterlogged stage. When they do this, they remind me why I love my job and why it’s so important to take it seriously.
[Portions of this post were adapted from my contribution to It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry by Will Penner, General Editor]
Matthew J. Laidlaw is the author of How We Read the Bible: 8 Ways to Engage the Bible with Our Students. He currently serves as the Dean of Student Life at Calvin Christian High School in Grandville, Michigan, and has served for over a decade in church-based pastoral roles ranging from student ministry to executive leadership. Matthew is a student at the Living School for Action and Contemplation, a graduate of Kuyper College (BS) and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (MA), and has lived and studied in the Middle East. Matthew and his wife Stephanie live in West Michigan with their two young children. You can find him on twitter and Instagram at @LaidlawMatt.