Conversations on the Fringe

healing begins with understanding…



Building Bridges (overview)

In an attempt to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and faith communities, we are hosting a blog series aimed at helping faith communities grow in their understanding of an often misunderstood people group. The series will consist of 6 posts, many of which are informed by actual conversations with individuals within the LGBTQ community. Here’s what you can expect from this series:

Part 1: Definitions: If you’re anything like me you’re lost in LGBTQ lexicon. Let’s start by clarifying what is meant when certain words are used.

Part 2: Major Themes Among LGBTQ Students: We will hear from LGBTQ students on theme such as Family Rejection/Acceptance, Coming Out, LGBTQ-Related Stress, Intersections with other Identities, Trauma/Bullying, Suicide, Social Invisibility, and Substance Use.

Part 3: Personal Factors Related to Health/Wellness: What factors promote health/wellness and impede health/wellness.

Part 4: Systemic Factors Related to Heath/Wellness: What factors promote health/wellness and impede health/wellness.

Part 5: Strategic Recommendations: We will begin a dialogue among readers with the intention to problem solve strategic ideas for closing the gap between our LGBTQ brothers/sisters and the local faith communities.

Part 6: A Story of Bridge Building: A first-hand account of the impact of effective bridge building.

Online discourse is encouraged and we want to create space for a variety of perspectives to be communicated here. We will not tolerate hate speech or trolling. Comments are moderated for this reason. We wish this to be a safe place for all to join the conversation.

Developmental Relationships and Youth

1626473042009youth_summit_flyer_photoI came across this article from the Search Institute that is an update on their research of developmental relationships. The Search Institute adopted the term developmental relationships to describe the broader conception of relationships that are defined by the close connection between a young person and an adult or peer that powerfully and positively shapes the young person’s identity and helps the young person develop a thriving mindset. A thriving mindset is one that is focused on more than just surviving and is flourishing, thriving.

The Search Institute has created a Developmental Relationship Framework that is based on qualitative and quantitative research regarding developmental assets and focuses on making a positive impact in young people’s lives. I can’t help but think of the possible impact this research has on how we build relationships with youth in our homes, ministries, and communities as it relates to spiritual formation. There are 20 identified actions that make a relationship developmental. They are organized into the framework listed below:

Express CARE: Show that you like me and want the best for me.

  • Be present – pay attention when you are with me.
  • Be warm – let me know that you like being with me and express positive feelings toward me.
  • Invest – Commit time and energy to doing things for and with me.
  • Show interest – Make it a priority to understand who I am and what I care about.
  • Be dependable – Be someone I can count on and trust.

CHALLENGE Growth: Insist that I try to continuously improve.

  • Inspire – Help me see future possibilities for myself.
  • Expect – Make it clear that you want me to live up to my potential.
  • Stretch – Recognize my thoughts and abilities while also pushing me to strengthen them.
  • Limit – Hold me accountable for appropriate boundaries and rules.

Provide SUPPORT: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.

  • Encourage – Praise my efforts and achievements
  • Guide – Provide practical assistance and feedback to help me learn.
  • Model – Be an example I can learn from and admire.
  • Advocate – Stand up for me when I need it.

Share POWER: Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions.

  • Respect – Take me seriously and treat me fairly.
  • Give voice – Ask for and listen to my opinions and consider them when you make decisions.
  • Respond – Understand and adjust to my needs, interests, and abilities.
  • Collaborate – Work with me to accomplish goals and solve problems.

Expand POSSIBILITIES: Expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities.

  • Explore – Expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places.
  • Connect – Introduce me to people who can help me grow,
  • Navigate – Help me work through barriers that could stop me from achieving my goals.

Spend some time with other adults and youth to flesh out these ideas. Here are some questions to get you started. Hopefully they will lead to other questions and solutions.

Beyond just understanding the concepts of developmental relationships how can we create space for and strengthen these necessary relationships in our homes, ministries, and communities?

How can we identify systems that support or stand in the way of the building of developmental relationships?

What methods and activities can we create the help new or existing relationships move towards a developmental relationship?

How can we collaboratively work with other youth oriented entities to build developmental relationships?

Visit for more information on developmental assets and developmental relationships.

Juvenile Justice Ministry: Returning Home After Incarceration

A juvenile offender’s home environment is often not helpful for encouraging adherence to pro-social behaviors. Ministry partners would benefit greatly by seeking to understand the family dynamics of the individual you are trying to impact. Negative family dynamics take many forms. The juvenile offender may be the scapegoat for family problems, making his or her return to the home counterproductive. Also, other family members may be actively using drugs or involved in criminal activities.

Domestic violence and child abuse situations present additional issues, including the personal safety of family members. Training on handling abuse situations, including sign of abuse and mandated reporting laws in each state should be required of all who serve in ministry to youth.

Other areas of support that will require attention are basic needs such as education/vocational support, housing, substance abuse treatment, identity development, financial concerns, and peer social networks.

Youth ministries and the church as a whole are equipped to address all these concerns and more when they are connected to the community, invested in families, and are willing to take Spirit led risks to do ministry outside the box.

What ways have your ministries been creative in meeting the needs of juvenile offenders who are trying to turn their lives around?

Juvenile Justice Ministry: Evaluating Risk-Factors for Juvenile Offenders

Evaluating your ministries role in addressing recidivism among juvenile offenders is of critical importance to those attempting to reintegrate into the community. Characteristics and environmental factors used to estimate the likelihood of future criminal behavior are called “risk factors”.

Once these risk factors are identified, research leads us to believe that structured and concentrated strategies can help individuals who have offended previously. Researchers have identified several potential interventions based on these following risk factors:

  • Developing and nurturing life management, problem solving, and self-leadership skills
  • Developing networks with or relationships and bonding with pro-social and anti-criminal peers and with pro-social and anti-criminal mentors
  • Enhancing closer family feelings and communication
  • Improving and strengthening positive family systems to promote accountability
  • Managing and changing anti-social thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.

What a tremendous opportunity for the church to step up and be the incarnate Christ to a population of people who are largely discarded as useless and of no value, irredeemable.

What ministries exist in your church that addresses the needs above?

What ministries need to be created to address the above needs?

A Look into the Crystal Ball of Youth Ministry

crystal ball

I work in the clinical world and often can’t help but wonder if the changes we are seeing in treating adolescents are parallel to what is happening in youth ministry as well.  I know it is audacious to think I have any more or a crystal ball that anyone else, but here’s my two cents regarding the future of youth ministry.

As I see more and more adolescents in our offices presenting with significantly more acute distress I am immediately concerned at how overwhelmed youth workers will be when and if they bother to show up at their church door.  Long gone are the days when you could single out the one or two problems kids had and walk alongside them as the work it out.  We are seeing more young people with co-occurring disorders, meaning they are presenting with any of the following in combination; substance use disorders, mood disorders, criminal or legal difficulties, family system breakdowns, and higher levels of stress that youth have historically been accustomed to.

What will this mean for how we train the youth workers of the future?  What kind of supervision will they need?  Will they all need to grow in competencies not typical to youth ministry, such as criminal justice, advanced counseling, developmental psychology or a host of other disciplines?  How will they increase their support network with others in the community?  Who do those in the support network need to be?

We will see significant change over the next ten years in youth culture.  I suggest developing competencies in the following areas:

  1.  Adolescent Culture:  We are and will likely continue to be a youth-focused nation and products and marketing will continue to grow in these areas.  We would serve our kids better if we understood how consumerism impacts their beliefs and views of the world, as well as their place in it.
  2. Adolescent Development:  We are learning new information at a break-neck pace about the human body and brain.  How that will impact our ministry practices has yet to be determined but it undoubtedly will.
  3. Criminal Justice:  In increasing number of youth (urban, suburban, and non-urban) are finding themselves in legal trouble that could create significant barriers to entering adulthood intact.  We could better serve our youth by developing partnerships with probation, courts, police departments, etc.  What if the church was the first place these entities turn to when a kid breaks from the social norms?
  4. Technology:  There will be an ever increasing focusing on technology as a means of reaching and staying connected to youth in our communities but also around the world.  The internet makes the world small.  For volunteers technology increases access to advanced training opportunities to be better equipped to help our students.
  5. Minorities:  With the changing face of America it is imperative that we grow in our cultural intelligences.  There will be a need for more culturally relevant and culturally sensitive expressions of Christian ministry.
  6. Families:  We’ve already begun to see a trend of moving to a family oriented expression of ministry.  This is a positive trend and I pray it continues.  It’s hard to remove a single part from its whole and try to impact it outside of it’s natural ecology.  Family ministry is necessary for the future of our churches.

 This is not an exhaustive list by any means.  Every crystal ball is foggy at best.  What are other trends you believe will need to be addressed to ensure the viability of youth ministry in the next ten years?

The Power of Permission in Youth Ministry

permission grantedThe first time I learned about the validation that comes with giving someone permission to experience their reality came when I was 10 years old.  I was regularly invited to sleep over at my friend Joel’s house.  I suffered horribly from being homesick when I was younger.  It was often a source of ridicule from peers and a source of shame from within.

On this particular evening Joel had invited me to come stay the night.  I considered not even going to avoid the shame of Joel’s parents calling my mom at eleven o’clock at night to come pick me up.  But the virtual Disneyland playground in Joel’s backyard beckoned me to come and I had brought my laser weapon, for my role was always that of Han Solo.  Joel was Luke Skywalker and we would fight the clone army to save our beloved Princess Leia.  I had to go, so I mustered up the courage to try again.

I walked up to the door with my mom in tow on a Friday evening after school, and waited for what always happened.  I waited for my friend’s mom to tell me how much fun I was going to have that evening, and for the pressure of her promise to me that I’d never get homesick at their house.  I was sure I would disappoint.

But Joel’s mom did something different this time.  She brought me into the house, turned to my mother, and calmly said, “Goodbye for now, I’ll probably be seeing you later tonight.”  I stared up at this brilliant woman who had become the first person ever to give me permission to be homesick.  And because I walked around all evening thinking to myself that I could get homesick any time I wanted, and that it would be okay and even expected, I never once felt it come on.  I stayed at Joel’s for the first time and mom got to stay at home.

Permitting someone ownership of the his or her beliefs, impulses, defenses, and their consequences in your presence, without applying any pressure on the person to change, is a powerful phenomenon for encouraging the very change never asked for.  It’s a concept that Carl Roger’s coined unconditional regard.  It is an active appreciation of one’s felt need to stay as they are even when negative consequences are apparent or severe.  Never manipulative, never designed specifically for change nor offered up in the spirit of contradictory restriction, the act of respecting individuals’ control over their being and the choices they make serves naturally to liberate them from the need to defend, broadcast, or otherwise impose these choices.   In the absence of fear and threat, an individual is freer to consider what is working and what isn’t, and make changes experienced as autonomous.

When I think about many of the strategies we’ve seen in youth ministry to “win souls” or “disciple” our students, I wonder how many of them actually CHOOSE Christ versus how many are simply pressured into conformity.  It should come as no surprise when they leave our nests that they don’t return.  I’m not implying that we shouldn’t call out the best of our students but too often our means doesn’t allow for an autonomous choice driven by an awareness that the old way of doing things isn’t working and the promises of God are compelling enough to let them go.  Let’s give kids permission to be who they really are and to validate their perspectives and feelings (regardless of whether they reflect current reality).  Maybe by doing this our kids will allow us the influence we want but usually try to take by force.

Helping Students and their Families Resolve Difficulties

Over the years, I have sat through countless meetings with students and their families.  Often when a family is sitting in my office it is due to a conflict that has come to a head.  Early in my career I was easily confused by the complex dynamics represented by the family and at best could only offer vague advice or I would dole out shallow offerings of scripture and a prayer offering.  Managing a tense family meeting takes skill and awareness that isn’t usually taught in traditional youth ministry trainings.  We typically learn on the fly and by experience.  The following is a set of guidelines harvested from years of collective youth ministry experience from veterans in the trenches.

Preventing Problems in the First Place

Get the Parents in From the Beginning

           It does no good to sit in front of a reluctant teenager and try to get them to open up and discuss their difficulties.  This can actually make things worse because it sets up your time with the student as one where the youth worker repeated appeals to the teenager for his/her involvement.  This is like pulling teeth.

           Because there is a disconnect in perspective from both parties it is best to start with both parties present.  If the student is resistant then you can still work with the parents.  If the parents meet with you before hand this can limit the next meeting when they come together.  You will have already heard all the issues, so the meeting will start off on the wrong foot as the student will likely assume that there is an alliance between the youth worker and the parents.  This happens because the youth worker will have to (a) relay what he/she has heard from the parents, which can come off a paternalistic; (b) the parents tell it again for the kid’s benefit, but both he/she and the youth worker have already heard it all, so it’s old news; or (c) the parents and the youth worker asks the student what they think the problem is and if they already feel like the odds are stacked against them they may become defensive or dismissive.

Exceptions to the Rule

          As with all rules, sometimes there are circumstances in which parents and student should not meet together.  These can include:

  • The situation is too volatile
  • The parents are psychologically unavailable (neglectful or abusive)
  • The older student (16-18) feels empowered to address the concern on his/her own

Cautions to be Aware of

  • Do not immediately assume that one party or the other is right/wrong
  • Teens usually understand more than they are given credit for

Setting Ground Rules for the Meeting and Identifying Goals of Meeting

             From the beginning some “rules of engagement” should be stated and referred back to as the discussion progresses.  I always make clear my expectations when helping a family resolve conflict.  I start by telling them that the goal is to help each understand one another and find a resolve that is equally satisfying to both parties, therefore, anything that does not move us towards that goal is not useful or necessary.  Here are my ground rules for engagement:

  • No interrupting
  • No personal attacks
  • Stay in the present
  • Do not use the past as a bludgeoning tool
  • Listen to gain understanding

           As the conversation progresses the objective youth worker will want to practice listening.  Be slow to speak except to help maintain focus and control emotions. Emotions can be counter-productive when trying to find a resolve and stimulate subjectiveness and self-preservation in each party.  Here are some suggestions of things to listen for and they are largely defined by their absence: boundaries, respect, compassion, clarity, assertiveness, self-respect, humor, affection, listening to each other, genuineness, and empathy.

REMINDER:  Remain neutral.  Align yourself with all parties involved.  As youth workers we may have a tendency to align ourselves with the student.  If we do this we risk alienating the parents and possibly their alliance in their child’s spiritual development.

Potential Problems

  • Parents expect you to “fix” their kid while they watch
  • Parents may indulge their child’s dismissive or defensive attitude
  • The adolescent won’t talk
    • Move forward regardless.  As you converse with the parents the student will likely become involved, even if it is to refute their parent’s claims.
    • Take the pressure off the student.  Let them know they don’t have to share if they don’t want to.  Many times the “silent treatment” is an attempt to gain a sense of control over the experience.  By taking the pressure off of them it reduces anxiety and takes away their weapon of control.
    • Allow the student to just listen.  They may act disengaged but they are hearing everything being said.
    • Observe the parent’s response to the silent child (are they shameful towards the student or dismissive?)  Both of these send messages to the child.

           Using the above strategies and information will not guarantee a better outcome for your meetings but it will increase the likelihood of finding a resolve between both parties.  Be slow to give advice.  9 times out of 10 both parties just want to be heard and taken seriously.  They simply want to know that the other party understands them and that they were important enough to devote the time necessary to reach that understanding.  The youth worker can often help facilitate the family in reaching that goal and strengthen the spiritual alliance of all those involved.

The Art of Connecting with Kids on the Fringe

After a workshop I facilitated on working with kids who have been abused, an elderly woman approached me to ask me a question.  She shocked me with the simplicity and depth of the question.  Here’s what she said,

“I love the kids in my community but I don’t know how to connect with the.  I want to reach out but don’t know where to start.  How do you do it?”

I can’t really remember what I told her, probably an overly simplified answer.  I never thought about it to be honest.  I just did what felt natural when reaching out to others.  Plus, I have the added benefit of being pretty simple, if I didn’t know someone I would just introduce myself and talk to them.  It wasn’t until I talked to my wife that she opened my eyes to the idea that for some this comes easy.  For others though it is an anxiety inducing event.  Imaging, you long to reach out to this generation, a generation that is slipping through the cracks right before your very eyes, but the words escape you when needed.  You don’t know how to connect beyond a simple “Hello, how are you today?”

My wife and I talked about this for several hours over the next few days.  We explored what is involved in connecting with these kids that seemed so different from us.  Asking me how I connect with fringe kids is like asking a fish to describe water.  I spend so much time out there on the fringe that it has become normal.   I have developed, over the years, skills to navigate those waters.  But many others haven’t and don’t know where to start.  That’s what this series in aimed at doing, equipping willing adults to connect with a generation where the gap is ever increasing.  Our thoughts are not exhaustive and it is my hope that other voices will chime in with their experience, wisdom, and insight.

We will cover the following over the next several weeks:

  • Bridge Building – How to make that initial contact in a meaningful way?
  • Cultivating a spirit of learning – Curiosity is key in connecting with others.  How do we foster a spirit of curiosity?
  • Law of the Lid – We will explore our preconceived expectations of these fringe kids and how they impede our interactions with them.
  • The Culture of an Individual – Each student is a culture unto themselves.  We will discuss how to explore that culture as it relates to effectively ministering to them.
  • Doing away with my Agenda – How my agenda actually breeds a distrust that is nearly impossible to overcome.
  • What is our Purpose of our Interactions – Moving from meaningless to Meaningful interactions.
  • Checking our Personal Bias at the Door – Often our personal biases impact how well we connect with others, especially those different than us.
  • Finding Common Ground – Discovering shared experiences, dreams, fear, and failures.
  • What is being said without Words – What story are they telling with their clothes, hairstyle, and nonverbal communication.

I hope you will contribute to this discussion because at the end of the day it will close the gap between us and the adolescents that reside in the world beneath…

ScreenWorld vs. RealWorld

I ‘ve been reading a challenging new book, Virtually You – The Dangerous Power of the E-Personality, written by Elias Aboujaoude, MD from Stanford.  In this book he pulls on years of research the looks at how our online personalities (e-personalities) are shaping how we interact with the offline world.  While he recognizes the unlimited potential of the internet for good he has identified some very dangerous changes in how we relate to, communicate with, and behave in the real world.  He identifies correlations between how we act and interact on the internet and how that in turn shapes us in non-screenworld.  I think this is a must read for anyone living in the technological age.

I have long wondered how the advent of instant, social, and mobile technology impacts our real world lives and here’s just a few things I’m thinking about in no particular order:

LinkedIn – Everyone I connect with is just a means to an end.  Every connection I make is meant to be a networking opportunity, on this site.  But when I become conditioned to see others through a “what can you do for me” lens this has the potential to negatively impact my real time relationships in the same way.

iProducts – With such a focus on individualization in how we experience our technology we can further reinforce this self-centered worldview that we fight so hard to diminish.  With apps on every interface I can make everything I use completely customized to my preferences.  It is precisely this behavior that sabotages our real time relationships.  Everything is about me and every encounter we have with others should be about reinforcing the idea that I am the center of the universe.  iAM.

Also, we can not only add apps that we want we can filter out anything we don’t want or that we don’t like.  I love Facebook’s content filters on my wall so I can hide or delete content from my “friends” that I don’t agree with, that is embarrassing to me, or I just flat out disagree with.  The ability to do this seriously retards our ability to tolerate anything that doesn’t conform to my ideology and beliefs.  I never have to be challenged or held accountable for anything online because I can just unfriend you or hide you news feed.  This also conditions us in real time to be intolerant to those who are different than us and does not lend itself to diversity.

I’m not even going to spend much time on the subject of instant gratification.  This should be a no-brainer.  If it’s not just Google it.

I’ve noticed that people tend to say things online that they would NEVER say in real life.  It’s like we can hide behind the wall of technology and convince ourselves that this isn’t real because I can’t see the other person.  Or, I am not even really being myself online so nobody knows it’s even me.  We tend to be more snarky, pretentious, and just downright mean.  When we spend inordinate amounts of time interacting behind a façade online we soon forget how to interact with people in real time and adopt many of our online behaviors as the new norm.

One last thing I’d like to mention is how disposable the internet makes things (i.e., relationships, apps, websites, etc.).  If this displeases us I will just move on to the next one.  We have been conditioned to not be content.  If a “friend” says something you don’t like, DELETE!  If you beat that game, DELETE!  If you are tired of Facebook, Google+.  There is always another option.  We are all free agents.  Loyalty is hard to come by on the web.  Can you see how dangerous this can be in real time?  Do we treat others the same way?

As we spend increasing amounts of time “connected” online we must know that it can, will, and is shaping how we interact with the real world around us, and not always for the better.  There are assuredly other ways technology is impacting us (i.e., shorted attention spans, impulsive shopping, compulsive gambling, shaping our sexual experiences and lives, etc.).  As we work with kids who have never know a world without mobile phones or the internet we must be increasingly aware of our own online behaviors and seek to bring the two world together as much as possible in a healthy and balanced manner.

Unhealthy Family System Model (Exploring Family pt. 2)

Most members of unhealthy family models oscillate between extremes of behavior choosing, mostly unconsciously, whichever behavior promises the greatest chance of surviving the moment.  You may see many of the following extremes in youth in your ministries.  It’s important to understand that these behaviors are functional and serve a purpose for these kids.  Understanding that will help you know what they need from us most.

High Intensity vs. Shutdown:  Alternating between feeling overwhelmed with emotional vs. physiological responses and shutting down.

Overfunctioning vs. Underfunctioning:  Alternating between working overtime to fill in what is missing vs. falling apart or barely holding it together.

Enmeshment vs. Disengagement:  Alternating between being overclose or fused in identities vs. avoidance, or cutting off leading to disengagement.

Impulsivity vs. Rigidity:  Alternating between behavior that leads to chaos vs. rigid, controlling behavior.

Grandiosity vs. Low Self-Worth:  Alternating between grandiose ideas and fantasies vs. feelings of low self-worth.

Denial vs. Despair:  Alternating between a state in which reality is denied or rewritten vs. despair, helplessness (or rage at having life as we know it slip away).

Abuser vs. Victim:  Alternating between the role of victim vs. the role of perpetrator.

Caretaking vs. Neglect:  Alternating between over concern leading toward enmeshment vs. underconcern leading toward disengagement.

Living with dysfunction is traumatizing to the body as well as the mind.  And living in this kind of system can lead to the kind of emotional deregulation that makes us want to turn to high-risk behaviors (substance use, unsafe sexual behavior, self-injury or violence towards others) to regain a sense of calm and regulation that dysfunction undermines.  The kids in our ministries are not typically “bad kids” making immoral choices because they lack long-term consequential thought processes.  Often the behaviors we see in our kids is simply their best attempt to manage life and survive in a world where most of the adults have left them to fend for themselves.

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