Welcome to the final post of a series about the dumb stuff I’ve done in student ministry. I hope it has been helpful. This last post is painful for me. Some of my posts have been humorous. This one isn’t. It is one of the great regrets of my life and ministry career. My hope is that you’ll be able to avoid this mistake.
I need to tell you a story. It’s a story that repeated itself during my first few years of ministry. The names and situations changed but the narrative happened again and again. I remember sitting at a coffee shop with a student as he revealed a destructive pattern in this life. He opened up about his pain, the damage his sin was causing and the tension of the struggle. I listened for a while and then began to share my plan for fixing the problem. Over the next few weeks, we met three or four times. During this time, he made no progress. He didn’t implement any of my advice. Then, I decided he didn’t really want to grow and change, so I stopped meeting with him because I needed to focus on students who would respond–who wanted to grow in their faith. In other words, I wrote him off. I walked away.
If I could only redo one thing in my ministry career it would the choice to walk away from students. Why? Because, at that point in my life, I completely misunderstood faith development in adolescents and what it means to be a spiritual mentor.
I want to share a couple images with you that describe the difference between how most of us assume spiritual development works in the life of a student and how it actually works in real life. By the way, you should know that I stole this images from a breakout session at the SYMC conference back in the day. If I remember correctly, Scott Rubin and Kurt Johnston were leading the session.
The first image describes the spiritual development trajectory we expect. Over time, students gradually become more mature and their faith becomes deeper and more solid. This is what we expect and what, many of us naturally believe will happen.
This second image describes what spiritual development actually looks like in the lives of most of the students we interact with. It’s incredibly messy.
Some days they say something that makes you think they might be the next Billy Graham. Some days they confess a porn addiction. Some days they start a romance with another student in your ministry and everything gets awkward. Some days their parents split up and their development goes into a free-fall (hence the line outside the box). Some days they try pot. Some days they finally understand grace. Some days they stop attending your youth group for months. Some days they send you a thank you card years after leaving your ministry that makes you weep.
The truth is that discipleship is incredibly messy. None of our growth trajectories are linear. We’ve all been all over the map. Why would we expect students, who are navigating the most dramatic changes a human experiences, to be any different?
If I could go back in time, I would grab my 23 year old self by the shoulders, shake myself vigorously and say, “Grace. Patience. Long-view. Journey.” Of all the mistakes and dumb things I’ve shared in this series, the one that breaks my heart is that I didn’t stay engaged with students. I walked when I should have stepped closer. I should have journeyed with them as they navigated painful and disorienting spaces.
I plead with you to stay engaged with your students in the mess of spiritual development. When they blow it, speak the truth but love them. When they do something great, celebrate them. When they blow it again, don’t give up on them. Don’t walk away from them. They need you.
Walk away image credited to Manny Valdez via Flickr
Linear graph image credited to AJC via Flickr
Terrible looking scribble image credited to me