In a span of two months we had two high school students tragically killed in our town. One was a core student from our youth ministry and the other was a student many of the students in our church knew.

When the first student passed, a student from our youth group called me from school and asked if I would come to the school to meet with her and her friends. I cleared it with the administration and was on campus shortly after, expecting to meet and talk with a handful of students. It turned out to be over 100 students who I got to talk and pray with. Looking back, the irony of that invitation was that the girl who invited me was the sister of the second girl who would pass away a few months later.

During this time, our youth group of 50 students was rattled when the first student that died was from outside of our group and was then painfully broken after the second student died who we knew really well. She was active in church, youth group, Sunday School and she sang on our student worship team.

My immediate response was of my own grief, followed by my asking leaders in our ministry to be available as much as possible, which was then followed by saying yes to as many opportunities to council and care as possible. Immediately, I met with her family, closest friends, offered a time for students to grieve at our church which was then followed by the funeral services.

This was not the end, as our school system assembled a grief support group through our local hospital and asked me to participate. I consider this a God-initiated invitation. I got to sit in and interact with grieving students who mourned the loss of their friends and of so many other tragic occurrences.

By listening, being available, crying with and caring for, I have seen multiple students in later months still attend our youth group or church, and they now look to us for help. I have gotten to share about hope in the midst of the darkest moments in life as found in Jesus Christ. I consider these students, their parents and even an EMT who were onsite in one of these tragic events to be gifts from God to me and despite the pain that this event brought, I rejoice in the opportunities it has brought us to share the Gospel and even more, I rejoice in those that are being brought into relationship with our local church and growing in the Gospel.

We are never fully prepared to expect these things to happen, yet they do. Having said that? Are there any skills or concepts that you could grow in now that would better prepare you for what could happen?

Three weeks ago I took half of my youth ministry leadership team to IPOINT (Our Minnesota based CLB camp) for IPOINT Equips to hear Rich Van Pelt speak specifically to how we can minister to a generation at Risk. I’m going to share some of the highlights of things I walked away with in the following pages. For me, the most encouraging thing he said was “God hasn’t sent these kids an expert, he has sent us” and how true is that?

If I was to summarize practically what Rich offered and how it can help us, I would say it was a really insightful set of ideas and skills that work to either:

1 – Resolve the issue 2 – Reduce the impact

I’ll encourage you to read on.

Students Today

Rich pointed out a number of trends in students and student ministry today. Among them are that we tend to emphasize student accomplishments rather than their happiness. Yet, at the very same time it is pain that they are experiencing. He named that the number one misused drug for teens is alcohol. He also named that ten years ago, statistics showed us that 1 in 250 girls cut and that has dramatically changed to an estimated 17 percent now with the first occurrence happening at age 14. In light of all of that, he went on and said that kids who self injure do quite often want to live. In reality self injury is often a coping method for many. As well, he said that adolescence is not a terminal disease. It is survivable.

Where is the help for us?

For youth workers, our response often in the face of difficult moments is to say “I’m ill-equipped” when in fact we are the person they need. God chooses the unqualified. Rich went on and said that in many survivor stories, survivors often name a person who stood by them and gave them a sense of hope while supporting them.

For you and me, one skill we should work on is the skill of listening instead of speaking. Another is to value every kid as a gift from God. Another is to keep confidences because if we break confidences we will quickly find that we can’t outlive those broken confidences.

Becoming safe people

In order for students to trust us we need to become safe and trustworthy people. A part of that will be communicating to students that we are available to them. In addition to us being equipped, there are some skills and qualities that we would be wise to pass on to our students, parents and leaders. Rich used the following acronym to help us key in on 6 really important qualities.

– H – Humor
– E – Empathy
– A – Availability
– R – Resourceful
– T – Training
– S – Servant spirit

How to create safe places

Rich encouraged us to be incredibly welcoming to those we come in contact with. He challenged us to pray a prayer like “Jesus send us the people no other church wants.” He asked us if we weep over the depth of need we see in students’ brokenness?

To do all of this he encouraged us to build a team that reflects the culture we work in. He used this acronym to describe a great leadership recruitment and evaluation approach.

– R – Recruit
– E – Examine
– L – Loose them
– I – Instruct
– E – Evaluate
– F – Follow through and hold them accountable

When kids walk into churches it can’t be like how it is when they walk into school. Do all you can do to eliminate bullying and gossip. He encouraged us to talk about unsafe things and confront one to one as appropriate. He said that if you talk about the issues you create opportunities for the subject to be discussed instead of acted on.

What to do when all hell breaks loose?

Rich encouraged us to know when to act as mandatory reporters, to know boundaries, to listen well, to know that in the midst of a student’s pain that there will undoubtedly be incredible pain yet Jesus is always near.

Here are some descriptions of good listeners:

1. Be aware of potential distractions, the location, my agenda, the media, the timing, watching the clock, thinking about the next question before the one you’re in is answered

2. We will be paralyzed when the issue a student is dealing with is something that we have not resolved. We need to be healthy

3. Be encouraged to get to the story behind the story. When students are telling us part of the story, it’s almost a test that students give to find out if there was more that they wanted to say

4. Be alert. Ask questions often. Build relationships with other helpers such as teachers, administrators and even a school nurse.

5. Watch for changes in the habits of students. Specifically watch for overly compliant, fearful, truancy, careless, fighting, nervous, experimenting, destructive stuff, loss of weight.

6. Practice over reacting instead of under reacting.

7. Don’t make a commitment you can’t follow up on

8. Differentiate between ongoing counseling and crisis management

9. Find out the level of risk so you can determine next steps. Here is the SLAP test to determine lethality.

S – Specificity of the plan
L – Lethality of method
A – Availability of method
P – Proximity to help

Create an action plan

If you were to simplify all of this, you can break this all down to one of two goals.

1 – To resolve the issue 2 – To reduce the impact

In order to do either of those, the following are three practical pieces to have ready

  • –  Find donors to fund counseling services
  • –  Have a referral ready
  • –  Follow through and make sure it’s happeningBe encouraged to be a risky care taker. Risky care takers care about God’s agenda. They are aware of and responsive to need. They use what they have. They are willing to take risks. Trust God to carry you through these moments.


Note: The opening 8 paragraphs were, like the rest of the article, written by Mark Johannesen. However, those opening 8 paragraphs may appear in an upcoming book by Dr. Chap Clark and Mindy Coates Smith entitled “A Call to Adoption” which is slated for release in 2015 and speaks to the roles churches have in adopting students into the church.

Rev. Mark Johannesen is pastor at Word of Life Lutheran Brethren Church in LeSueur, Minnesota.

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