I’m a huge advocate for youth ministry as a long-haul vocation, rather than a one-stop ride on the way to ‘proper’ ministry. We’ve got to dig in, get comfortable, and prepare for a real journey.
There is, however, a darker side to being in it for the long haul, one we don’t often talk about in the wake of trying to keep people from giving up. In a nutshell it’s this: people leave.
Friends to but not friends with
When you are ministering to young people it is important to remember that you’re not their mate. You can be a friend to a young person, but not a friend with a young person. We’re not their peers (that would be creepy), and as adults with duty-of-care, we need to exercise healthy boundaries that are stricter than the average friend.
All that said, you do grow to like young people. You spend a lot of time with them laughing, making memories, opening up, being supportive; and many of them – over the long haul – mature into fully fledged adults. I can honestly say that I’m now friends with several adults who used to be in my youth group when they were younger.
These are the first of two groups who leave.
When friends move away
When kids become adults, they do things like go to university, get jobs, and move away. This has happened to me more than a few times now, and it’s a sad recurring story.
When you have invested so much into a young person – who then grows into a healthy adult – a bond is made and the relationship can easily grow into an adult friendship. Then quite suddenly there’s marriage, new families, and jobs far away. It’s always sad to see friends go, and there’s a bittersweet irony when these friends used to be young people to whom we invested so much into their maturity into adulthood.
When young people drift away
It’s not just these maturing young adults that leave. Over my years as a youth worker I’ve seen many young people come and go. In some cases, these young people stayed around for just one week, but in others they were around a year or so then drifted off without a word.
Sometimes they fell out with God, other times they fell out with me. In some cases, there was an issue at home, a tragedy, or just a change in personality. Whichever way, young people often leave.
The longer you spend in youth ministry the more you look back over the names and faces that you no longer see. There are good memories to be sure, but there’s also grief and loss.
This is the other side of long haul youth ministry that we rarely talk about – and it’s important to remember that we’re not alone. Considering how isolated youth ministry can be, this feels like we should prepare for this more.
How do you handle the loss?
I’m not entirely sure, as I’m only just realising that this is a thing in my life, however I offer up a few simple suggestions to get us started.
- Let yourself grieve
It is important to genuinely feel what you’re feeling and to allow yourself to move through the stages of sadness.
- Make an event of people leaving when you can
Closure goes a long way and celebrating a young person’s movement into adulthood is incredibly affirming for them.
- Keep in touch
Be realistic, but keep a few details and drop a ‘hello, how are you?’ every now and then. It will be valuable to both of you.
- Remember that it’s hard for them too
You’ve been a significant part of their life, and you too will be stepping out of their world.
- Keep healthy boundaries
Goes without saying, but make sure you do move through your ministry with the right measure of strict and organically reactive boundaries to keep the relationships in safe areas.
- Pray for them
Give thanks to God for them, and them let Him have them completely.