We all know youthworkers who have lost credibility with their students. We often pass judgment on them and know personally what we would have done differently. However, what makes a youthworker credible in an teenager’s eyes may be different from what a youthworker thinks will make them credible. Credibility is often confused with trustworthiness and likeability, with the youthworker more concerned with with being liked than respected. But teens are smart consumers, and they know the difference between authentic adults and those just trying to sell a product.
We want to look at the ways adults in youth ministry often lose credibility with the students in their ministry. Usually the intentions are good, but sometimes the outcomes of our ministry efforts are not. Adults in general can try to hard, control too much, or pretend something is working when it clearly in not, and this is typically because they don’t know what else to do.
Craving the Teen’s Approval
For some of us the validation we receive from the teens we serve can be a powerful experience. Many of us involved in youth work are there because we had a particular experience in our own adolescence. For some of us, it is an opportunity to return the favor and investment made on our behalf. It is a chance to make a difference in the lives of the youth in our community and we have a sense of calling and/or obligation to do this.
For others though, it may be a more pathological motivation. I have met, on more than one occasion, the youth worker who is trying to re-live their teenage years vicariously through the students they minister to. This is an insidious and often beneath the surface drive but is none-the-less real. It plays out like this; I didn’t get validation from my peers during my formative years so now I am living that out in ministry and trying to gain their approval today, as if my intrinsic worth is tied up in their opinion of me.
This typically results in shallow ministry fruit because the goal, intended or unintended, is not spiritual growth but personal validation from the students to the adult. This does not mean that God won’t use an person’s past hurts in ministry today but if these hurts cloud your ability to see things clearly then the individual may do more harm than good.
Being too Cautious
As a result of seeking the student’s approval the youth worker must then measure everything that said to the youth. This is much like a couple’s first date. The individual does not want to say or do anything that would reflect poorly on them and end the chances of future endeavors.
This can occur in ministry as well. During the early stages of rapport building this is quite understandable but as time goes on trust and trustworthiness should develop. These two things cannot develop is one party has an ulterior motive. Also, once the relationship does develop it is difficult for the youth worker to speak challenging truth into the lives of their students for fear of losing their affirmation. A wise man told me once that I should “love people enough to tell them the truth”. This can’t be done if one can not remain objective.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
Rainbows, Pixies, Jelly Beans, and the Warm Fuzzies are not the substance of (most) teenagers lives. Often, we sell them a fantasy world that says, “If you just accept Jesus then everything magically gets better!” Ta-Da! The quickest way to lose credibility, and therefore your influence, is to pull a bait-and-switch regarding what it means to follow Jesus.
Trying too Hard
Sometimes we can try way too hard to convince the students that they need Jesus. I know that sounds antithetical to what we’re trying to do but kids can tell when the experiences they have with us are more about us meeting an objective that genuinely loving them. Sometimes we need them to believe because we are the ones that doubt. It’s like them coming to believe in Jesus validates our own faith. This can be dangerous to both the students and us. A faith that is built on “sand” is shakey at best and the damage it can do to the budding, young faith of a student is very real. We must get this in check.
Lastly, we lose credibility when we try to be the expert on all things. There is nothing so apparent to teens than a know-it-all youth worker. We mask the fact that we don’t know the answers and kids can pick it up in our voice, our choice of words, body language, eye contact, and the stammer in our speech. Our attempts to cover this unknowing only reduces our credibility and makes the situation worse.
This list in not even close to being exhaustive. We should constantly be aware of those practices that erode our influence over our students. It is our belief that students are looking for credible adult guides to lead them out of the wilderness of adolescence. Teens will usually follow those worth following and their loyalty remains for many years after they leave our ministries. Are you leading in such a way that you keep up a strong level of credibility? Are you leading and serving in a way that young people know you are trustworthy of following? And if you are, who is it you are pointing them toward?
This happens more often than not in ministry and we can justify it by claiming we are doing “God’s work” or “Kingdom work”. But too often those we love most sit home while we “run the race set before us”. Christian’s a divorcing at a rate comparable to non-Christians and I think neglect is one of the bigger offenders. Here’s a quick checklist to see if you are in danger of taking your spouse (if you’re married in ministry) for granted.
- Do you spend more time on work, ministry, trips, camps, and the youth than you do alone with your spouse?
- Do you spend nonquality time with your spouse feeling either bored or stressed?
- Do you share your feelings, thoughts, and dreams more easily and more openly with friends, colleagues, students and strangers at conferences than you do with your spouse?
- Do you view going home as something you have to do between ministry gatherings and meetings, not something you look forward to?
- Do you seldom make an effort to look your best when you are with your spouse?
- Do you seldom play or spend spontaneous time together?
- Do you say more negative comments to your spouse than warm, loving ones?
- Do you treat your mate more like a roommate or “friend with benefits” than a loving partner?
If you answered yes to any of these questions you may need to take a serious look at the lack of balance in your life. Ministry demands a lot from us but it should never come at the expense of those closest to us.
Because of the difficulties students have in early and mid-adolescence to manage strong feelings of intimacy, the new experience of having someone who listens and whom they can trust sometimes lead them to believe that they are in love with their youth worker. Sadly, many at-risk students are so accustomed to negative feelings (shame, fear, guilt, anger) that positive feelings (joy, trust, contentment, playfulness) are unfamiliar to them. Such students may not understand their own feelings, and they may not have the skills to differentiate them. In some cases, if a student has been abused (physically or sexually) and/or is abusing drugs or alcohol, romantic obsession or sexual fantasies can be a substitute for reducing anxiety or stress. Powerful romantic feelings may be directed toward the youth worker, threatening the health of the relationship.
The youth worker may first become aware a student is having strong feelings by subtle changes in their demeanor or by more obvious signs, such as requests to the worker in non-ministry related settings. The youth worker must, above all, avoid transgressing the boundaries of the relationship and continue to emphasize the context of the relationship of one spiritual in nature. He/She should not consent to personal requests , even if they seem innocent. Second, even if he/she only suspects a student of harboring sexual feelings for him/her, he/she should immediately bring the matter to the attention of a colleague or other staff person. This consultation will serve not only to protect himself/herself, should legal complications arise later, but can also help him/her work through the difficulty in the relationship itself.
If the youth worker senses that a student is developing romantic feelings for him/her, he/she can try to discuss the matter openly by asking questions, such as “I sense that you are feeling very strongly about something today. Is there something in particular you want to talk about?” If the student eventually discloses romantic or sexual feelings, the youth worker must maintain a spiritual focus and uphold the boundaries of the student-youth worker relationship. Students should be encouraged to examine the feelings rather than act on them. The tension of this interaction can lead to a “teachable moment” in which the student learns to better differentiate his/her feelings. The youth worker should remind the student repeatedly of the purpose of their meetings, emphasizing what the youth worker and the student will and will not do as part of their relationship. Students often use attraction to the youth worker to avoid dealing with unresolved feelings or emptiness.
Another, less confrontational way to deal with this type of situation is to maintain the boundaries of the student-youth worker relationship but to use the clients’ feelings to help them discover solid but non-sexual relationships with peers who will listen. The student can be assisted to differentiate feeling good from feeling sexual desire. The youth worker can explain that the “attractive” aspects of their relationship, such as trust and feeling safe, are qualities that students will want to look for in their personal relationships.
Similar problems of inappropriate attachments and boundary issues can occur in small group settings as well, and youth workers (whether group leaders or one-on-one mentoring) must be prepared to work with the students on this dynamic. Here, too, defining roles and expectations from the outset that address interactions between group members and between group leader and members. Students should avoid letting any of these relationships become too personal and should be made to understand why, in this setting, developing sexual relationships would be detrimental to the group as a whole. Youth workers, in turn, must understand and support the bonding that occurs when students share their innermost thoughts in a safe and sympathetic environment – and the confusion group members may have about their feelings of dependence on or the responsibility for other group members.
Students most at risk for these behaviors have likely been abuse, neglected, rejected, marginalized, and abuse substance. The lack of rational insight and poor emotional management, coupled with supportive and safe listening, opportunity for full-disclosure of problems make the student-youth worker a fertile ground for unhealthy and even dangerous interactions to occur. Our youth ministry and many other youth ministries have safety plans and policies to address these and other issues. If yours doesn’t have one in place feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for sample policies to put in place to protect you and your ministry efforts.
Compassion Fatigue affects a broad range of health care professionals as well as others who provide a myriad of listening and support services. This condition occurs when professionals, family, friends, or caregivers are continually exposed to extreme emotional circumstances wither directly or indirectly, in an attempt to treat or support those they serve.
Because the effects of compassion fatigue are cumulative, caregivers may be unaware of this syndrome’s ability to rob them of their energy, vitality, and resiliency. The pervasiveness of this phenomenon places those in the helping/serving professions at high-risk of sacrificing their own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being on the altars of compassion.
The term Compassion Fatigue differs from the term Burnout in that it concentrates on the transfer of emotions from the primary source to a secondary one. Whereas burnout that physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion is caused by a depletion of the ability to cope with one’s environment.
Examples of Compassion Fatigue Burnout Symptoms
Lowered concentration, decreased self-esteem, apathy, rigidity, disorientation, perfectionism, minimization, preoccupation with trauma, thoughts of self-harm or harm to others
Powerlessness, anxiety, guilt, anger/rage, survivor guilt, shutdown, numbness, fear, helplessness, sadness, depression, emotional rollercoaster, depleted, overly sensitive
Impatient, irritable, withdrawn, moody, regression, sleep disturbance, nightmares, appetite changes, hypervigilance, elevated startle response, accident proneness, losing things
Questioning the meaning of life, loss of purpose, lack of peace, pervasive hopelessness, anger at God, questioning long held convictions/beliefs, loss of faith, increasing skepticism about religion
Withdrawal, decreased interest in intimacy or sex, mistrust, isolation from others, over-protection as a parent, projection of anger or blame, intolerance, loneliness, increased interpersonal conflicts
Shock, sweating, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, aches and pains, dizziness, increased number and intensity of medical problems, other somatic complaints, impaired immune system
Low morale, low motivation, avoiding tasks, obsession about details, apathy, negativity, lack of appreciation, detachment, poor work commitments, staff conflicts, absenteeism, exhaustion, irritability, withdrawal from colleagues
Any of these symptoms could be signaling the onset or presence of compassion Fatigue. If you think you may suffer from Compassion Fatigue you can take and online Compassion Fatigue Test that will help you determine if you need help.
To many parents in the pew, the youth pastor represents the “authority and will of God. Wherever you have an authority role, a very specific kind of transference happens. The “role” of pastor, not the “person,” but the “role” encourages a complex set of transference reactions.
Students and parents tend to idealize you and then “transfer” to you their unmet dependency needs that they carry over with them. You become the good loving parent they never had. You become “Better than… Purer than… Kinder than… Gentler than… .” The youth pastor, being the human being that he/she is, will sooner or later disappoint people, who in their disillusionment will begin to turn on their leader who failed to meet their needs after all.
A search of youth ministry want ads will often reveal the list of the church’s priorities for a new youth minister. At the top of their list is usually something like this: “A person who will meet the spiritual needs of our youth.” At first glance, this looks fine, but look more closely. No human being would be equal to the task, because God alone can meet spiritual needs. The task of the minister is to point people toward this Source. Whether they choose to draw from their Source is beyond the minister’s control. Problems come… from expectations youth pastors or volunteer leaders — perhaps because of their perceived association with God — can do superhuman things…Congregations can put unreal expectations on the staff, when there is not a legitimate way for them to respond to concerns without appearing to want to hit back.”
Congregations cannot stand too much transparency, because they [have a need to] idealize you. They cannot relate to you as human… It is not so much you as a person, but the role you play. When you step out of the role, you immediately start to get into trouble. Things fall apart. The youth pastor has a relationship of power. You can only “resolve” the transference by stepping out of the pastoral role, but you do that at the peril of the pastoral/congregational relationship. In one-on-one counseling relationships, where transference inevitably occurs as well, the goal of therapy is ultimately to resolve the transference, by enabling the client to begin to assume responsibility for his/her own dependency needs. One wonders how a congregation of families that transfers its collective needs onto one youth pastor or volunteer staff, can ever grow into wholeness and maturity — if the transference can never be resolved.
Do you see transference in your ministry? From students? Parents? Other staff?
Do you struggle to set boundaries or communicate regarding healthy expectations?
Do you recognize countertransference in yourself? Are you trying to “fix” students to “fix” yourself?
Are you living vicariously through the students you serve? Attempting to relive or capture a lost part of your adolescent experience?
If you answer yes to any of the above you may be experiencing transference or countertransference and they can get in the way of your usefulness to God and others. Explore with your staff the expectations and boundaries that either exist or need to exist to protect you from what Adam at adammclane.com writes about here.
Transference leads to burnout. Countertransference can lead to deeper problems. If you think you struggle with either talk to you senior pastor and decide together how to best address these problems. You may even have to make the difficult decision to take time off to gain perspective.
This is not to say that we need to be without blemish before we can serve in the Kingdom. To the contrary, we need to understand our own brokenness to be truly effective. But that brokenness cannot cloud our judgment when leading others.
Conventional wisdom (and research) says that good communication can improve relationships, increasing intimacy, trust and support. The converse is also true: poor communication can weaken bonds, creating mistrust and even contempt! The Scriptures also tell us that it is wise to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Here are some examples of negative and even destructive attitudes and communication patterns that can exacerbate conflict in a relationship. How many of these sounds like something you’d do?
1. Avoiding Conflict Altogether:
Rather than discussing building frustrations in a calm, respectful manner, some people just don’t say anything to their partner until they’re ready to explode, and then blurt it out in an angry, hurtful way. This seems to be the less stressful route—avoiding an argument altogether—but usually causes more stress to both parties, as tensions rise, resentments fester, and a much bigger argument eventually results. It’s much healthier to address and resolve conflict.
2. Being Defensive:
Rather than addressing a partner’s complaints with an objective eye and willingness to understand the other person’s point of view, defensive people steadfastly deny any wrongdoing and work hard to avoid looking at the possibility that they could be contributing to a problem. Denying responsibility may seem to alleviate stress in the short run, but creates long-term problems when partners don’t feel listened to and unresolved conflicts and continue to grow.
When something happens that they don’t like, some blow it out of proportion by making sweeping generalizations. Avoid starting sentences with, “You always…” and “You never…” as in, “You always come home late!” or “You never do what I want to do!” Stop and think about whether or not this is really true. Also, don’t bring up past conflicts to throw the discussion off-topic and stir up more negativity. This stands in the way of true conflict resolution, and increases the level of conflict.
4. Being Right:
It’s damaging to decide that there’s a ‘right’ way to look at things and a ‘wrong’ way to look at things, and that your way of seeing things is right. Don’t demand that your partner see things the same way, and don’t take it as a personal attack if they have a different opinion. Look for a compromise or agreeing to disagree, and remember that there’s not always a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’, and that two points of view can both be valid.
5. “Psychoanalyzing” / Mind-Reading:
Instead of asking about their partner’s thoughts and feelings, people sometimes decide that they ‘know’ what their partners are thinking and feeling based only on faulty interpretations of their actions—and always assume it’s negative! (For example, deciding a late mate doesn’t care enough to be on time, or that a tired partner is denying sex out of passive-aggressiveness.) This creates hostility and misunderstandings.
6. Forgetting to Listen:
Some people interrupt, roll their eyes, and rehearse what they’re going to say next instead of truly listening and attempting to understand their partner. This keeps you from seeing their point of view, and keeps your partner from wanting to see yours! Don’t underestimate the importance of really listening and empathizing with the other person!
7. Playing the Blame Game:
Some people handle conflict by criticizing and blaming the other person for the situation. They see admitting any weakness on their own part as a weakening of their credibility, and avoid it at all costs, and even try to shame them for being ‘at fault’. Instead, try to view conflict as an opportunity to analyze the situation objectively, assess the needs of both parties and come up with a solution that helps you both.
8. Trying to ‘Win’ the Argument:
I love it when Dr. Phil says that if people are focused on ‘winning’ the argument, “the relationship loses”! The point of a relationship discussion should be mutual understanding and coming to an agreement or resolution that respects everyone’s needs. If you’re making a case for how wrong the other person is, discounting their feelings, and staying stuck in your point of view, you’re focused in the wrong direction!
9. Making Character Attacks:
Sometimes people take any negative action from a partner and blow it up into a personality flaw. (For example, if a husband leaves his socks lying around, looking it as a character flaw and label him ‘inconsiderate and lazy’, or, if a woman wants to discuss a problem with the relationship, labeling her ‘needy’, ‘controlling’ or ‘too demanding’.) This creates negative perceptions on both sides. Remember to respect the person, even if you don’t like the behavior.
When one partner wants to discuss troubling issues in the relationship, sometimes people defensively stonewall, or refuse to talk or listen to their partner. These shows disrespect and, in certain situations, even contempt, while at the same time letting the underlying conflict grow. Stonewalling solves nothing, but creates hard feelings and damages relationships. It’s much better to listen and discuss things in a respectful manner.
“I’m a lesbian.” she said. She chose to self-disclose right in the middle of a youth group gathering. She just dropped a big elephant right in the center of the group. We were rocked. Moments before we were discussing the importance of being transparent with each other. God has a funny sense of humor. The silence was awkward and uncomfortable at best. Those word just hung there in mid air, waiting for a response.
It was then that Josh, our student with down syndrome, shouted, “Wrestlemania Baby! Hulk-A-Mania’s gonna run wild on you!”
We lost it! We all laughed so hard we couldn’t catch our breath. After nearly ten minutes of this we finally composed ourselves. We all needed a moment to gather our thoughts. We needed time to let go of our fears and judgments. We needed something to pop the tension. We weren’t avoiding the elephant but we needed to come up for air, for this was a very vulnerable moment of self-revelation, that if handled wrong could have lasting negative effects. Laughter, at that moment, was a gift from God.
By now the benefits of humor have been well documented. Humor connects us to other humans, as we share a laugh over life’s absurd moments. Like love, humor warmly surrounds us and soothes pain, making it more bearable. When we can laugh at our problems, we gain distance, perspective, and a sense of mastery. Humor says, “Things may suck right now, but that’s okay. I might be a hot mess right now, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” A humor break can recharge creative batteries. In addition, laughter results in numerous beneficial effects on the body: relief from pain, cardiovascular conditioning, improved breathing, muscle relaxation, and improved immune system functioning.
Several cautions apply to humor as well.
- The overuse of humor can be a form of avoidance, which can prevent one from processing pain.
- Sarcasm or “put-down” humor is a thinly disguised form of hostility, and is rarely appropriate. Humor, like sex, works best when surrounded by love.
- Making light of someone’s pain can seem insensitive and can undermine trust. Humor may require that a certain amount of healing has taken place. It may be premature to try to get someone to laugh at intense pain.
- Humor is NOT a panacea, not a substitute for therapy.
Given these precautions, these principles might help incorporate more humor into our lives.
- Be willing to “Play the Fool” at times. This openness undermines the rigid need to be legalistic and perfect.
- Just be willing to play. If we allow for unstructured downtime we invite spontaneity to play along with us.
- Humor does not require that one be a stand-up comedian or a loud laugher. A sense of humor includes simply being able to notice the incongruities of life with a light heart.
- Humor is not an all-or-none skill. A sense of humor is standard issue, and each person has the capacity to develop it over time.
- Don’t be discouraged if not many things seem funny to you. The work we do is often intense. On any given day we could deal with deep emotional problems, intense relationships, demands of others, and the consequences of at-risk behaviors. It’s hard to laugh when one is emotionally numb. We can often become numb as a protective shield against life’s difficulties. Instead, simply allow time for healing. With time you’ll probably become open to humor at your own pace and in your own way.
Most of us in youth ministry are kind of screwy to begin with. We have to be to do what we do for so little in return. We’re already bent towards a wicked sense of humor but sometimes the daily grind of life and ministry can steal our laughter.
God promises us in Joel that “He will replace what the locusts have eaten.” May He do that for you today.
For youth workers (paid or volunteer), there can be nothing more frightening than the belief that something terrible might happen to a student that you have invested so much time and energy in. As a substance abuse counselor, I struggle with the reality that one day someone could overdose and die regardless of how much I try to help. I live with the often frantic sense that “there had to be something I could have done!”
Never knowing when crisis or tragedy might happen we learn to be hypervigilant…always on our guard. Is today the day I get the call? Will it be a car accident? A school shooting? Suicide?
Sometimes we feel as though we’re in a lethal game of chess with our kids, always trying to be two moves ahead and aware of the possible counter-moves. This type of hypervigilance can be exhausting.
As a youth worker of At-risk kids, you may find yourself on a constant emotional rollercoaster with no scheduled stops. In times of crisis we often set aside our own needs entirely and as a result we risk burnout and compassion fatigue. Be reassured that the time for balance will come if you’re intentional, but there are some things you can do now.
1. Seek supportive relationships – This will be essential in avoiding burnout. Build a network of friends, family, and peers who are kind and encouraging. Don’t isolate yourself in fear or shame. Seek respite in these relationships from the intensity of the situations your kids are facing.
2. Develop health-conscious behaviors- This is three-fold as I see it; rest, exercise, nutrition. Get adequate sleep, avoid snack foods, take a brisk walk daily. All three are important for emotional stability and combating low levels of energy.
3. Have fun – A life that is overrun with doom and gloom and that is absent of joy is not one worth having. We need recreation. It brings balance. Laughter releases endorphins which cause us to feel pleasure in our brain. Often, when working with At-risk kids we lose our ability to laugh. The best cure for a “lost laugh” is a “Three Stooges-I Love Lucy-Gilligan’s Island” marathon.
4. Spiritual retreat – It is essential that we create time for retreat. We should develop the discipline, schedule in our calendars, add to our budgets, the practice of seeking spiritual direction. There’s something magical and refreshing about pulling away from the insanity and seeking Abba’s face in solitude or with a spiritual companion. Jesus would often pull away after a busy day of ministry to connect with his Father. He would travel across the lake, go up the mountain, or into the garden to pray.
This simple act breaks us of our dependency on ourselves. It causes us to reflect on whether or not we are growing a savior complex. Have I, with the best intentions, placed myself in the position of God? I have found that when my levels are the lowest it’s because I have been the one trying to “save” and “fix” kids myself. Being God is hard work and I’m just not cut out for it.
If we expect to be in this for the long-haul we must pace ourselves. It is an intentional discipline that we need help in cultivating. I am thankful for the other youth workers God has placed in my life that help me find balance. They constantly remind me I am not God. And, we laugh a lot. As a result we have a better chance of loving and ministering to the kids in our community out of an overflow instead of a deficiency.
As a parent I sometimes think this is really what’s happening. ;)