Before I became a youth minister myself, I had been warned of some of the most prevailing challenges of the position. Preventing burn-out. Establishing and maintaining the proper order of things. Overworking yourself. Letting your pastor or a parish counsel mold your program into a glorified cleaning crew. Creating a program that is overly dependent on you. And so on. I was prepared for many of these challenges, and I’ve already faced the struggle of a few of them, but there was one challenge that I was not prepared for, one that I’m sure many youth ministers face from time to time: losing a child.
No, I don’t mean like on a field trip. Though I’m sure that losing a child on a field trip is a challenge as well. I mean, losing a child as a member of your youth group. As youth ministers, we tend to invest a lot in our students, particularly the ones who show real passion and potential. When we find a student who promises to be a dedicated participant or a passionate leader, we put a lot of ourselves into molding that student. When we meet an exceptionally strong character in an eighth grader or a freshman, we invest a lot in his or her future. We envision a future for our group, centered on the potential of that specific student. The temptation to do so is practically inevitable, and often times it has wonderful results. I’m sure that my campus minister saw that same potential in me when she nominated me for my first leadership retreat. I’ve seen that potential in several students over the years, and more often than not, their potential has unfolded in incredible and beautiful ways. I have watched many students blossom into wonderful leaders in our group. But in a sense, we count our chickens before they hatch.
There are also instances where the future does not unfold the way that we envisioned. A devout Confirmation candidate might never show up for Youth Group. A regular Youth Night attendee might change his priorities as the possibility of a college athletic scholarship becomes a higher priority. And then some students will lose the faith, for any one of countless reasons. It is easy to blame ourselves in these instances, but more often than not, it is not our fault. In many cases, the situation is out of our control. And yet we still feel guilty.
I have lost a handful of students over the years. I have lost students to sports, to homework, to girlfriends and boyfriends. I have lost students because of parents, grades, and new choices in friends. In many of those cases, I didn’t have any control over the situation. I had tried my hardest, gave what I could, but ultimately the choice was not mine to make- it was my student’s, or in some cases, their parent’s decision. But it’s still so easy to feel at least partially responsible.
When you invest so much in a person, it’s easy to blame yourself when plans don’t unfold as you envision. It’s a temptation that many youth ministers fall prey to, and arguably, those youth ministers who do invest themselves in their students tend to have stronger relationships with their teens. Youth ministers who really invest themselves in their students, who can identify those students with the potential to be great leaders and passionate believers, often are rewarded for their efforts with dedicated and devout students who often amaze and inspire. But among the fruits of our efforts, there will also be those students who get lost, who wander or are led off the path. Some will return in time. Some need to earn their own driver’s license before they can return. Others need to ease up on their burdensome course load. Still others have to go through some challenging experience- a potential class failure, a sports injury, maybe even a death in the family. Something will lead them back. But there will also be those who get lost and are never seen again.
As youth ministers, we must be prepared for both. Our dedication and investment in our students makes us vulnerable, but it also makes us good youth ministers (as long as we don’t succumb to the faulty idea that we can “create” these good students, a subtle pride that can be very damaging). We must be prepared to face the reality of “the one that got away.” We must be prayerful as we determine if this is an instance where the shepherd must go after a lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) or where the father must watch and wait for his son to return (Luke 15:11-32). And we must be willing to admit that not everything depends on us, that we are not to blame when a child makes the decision to leave Youth Group, or else the parent makes that decision for their child.
We must accept that there will be situations that are not entirely in our control, and once we have done what we are capable of doing, we are not to blame if the situation does not resolve itself favorably. In the end, we must acknowledge the fact that we are not God, that we are not all-powerful, and even then, we believe in a patient God who is willing to wait and who respects our free will and our ability to reject Him (it is, after all, the same faculty that enables us to choose Him and to love Him). We must be patient as well. We must respect our students’ free will, and we must respect the role of the parent in a child’s life. And we must pray. Above all, we must always pray.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!