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?
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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
- 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.