I will never forget my first week as a Youth Pastor at age twenty-two. During a meet and greet with youth and their families, a mother frantically approached me with an awkward request, “Thank the sweet Lord they hired a woman!” she said in a thick southern accent. “I need you to meet with my daughter. I found condoms in her room and I don’t know what to do.” My twenty-two year old self assured her it would be fine, because I would be happy to meet with her daughter to discuss her sexual choices… because that’s never awkward at all…
My second week on the job, I was driving to get coffee with this girl at the request of her mother. I remember thinking and praying, “This poor girl probably feels guilty and embarrassed. I just need to share with her about God’s grace.” We greeted one another at Starbucks, got a beverage, and found a seat. After making small talk for a while, I took a long sip of coffee and pretended it wasn’t burning my mouth while simultaneously praying for the courage to bring up the condoms. My throat was scalding and after choking, I awkwardly blurted out, “So your mom found some condoms huh? What’s up with that?”
“It’s no big deal. My boyfriend and I have been dating for a long time, and we use them for oral sex” she said casually and confidently while snickering at me still trying to recover from choking. I excused myself to get some water. After a minute of long silence, I at least managed to give her a thumbs up and a good job for using protection.
Then I asked, “OK um soooooo um, well, I guess how do you feel about this decision?”
“We are both fine with it. Besides, I am not having sex like all my other friends. There’s zero chance of getting pregnant this way,” she said with a proud smirk on her face.
I kept fumbling through my words trying to figure out a new plan of where to take the conversation. Her reaction was not at all what I expected. My expectations of how she would react tripped me up for the rest of our time together. My head was swirling with questions: What did God want me to say? What did this girl’s mom want me to say? What did the church expect me to say? I didn’t know all the right answers to these questions. I honestly don’t remember how our conversation even concluded.
After mentoring dozens of teens for over a decade now, not much surprises me any more. Meeting individually doesn’t give me the anxiety that it once did. Now, it’s my favorite part of my job, perhaps because I learned it’s OK not to have all the answers and to listen more. Giving teenagers this kind of personal attention is the way I imagine Jesus would show his love for teenagers.
Here are tips I have learned over the years to make the most of this time:
- Learn. Don’t try to be a hero. Mentoring teens is not about fixing them. Instead, go into each time with an open posture ready to learn. What can you learn from this teenager that God might be trying to teach you? Where do you see God in their story? Don’t make assumptions about what teens are going through or how they feel.
- Listen. Don’t give solutions but do ask questions. Most of the time, teenagers simply need someone to listen while they process out loud. Your listening ear will help them grow and heal. Never underestimate the power of listening.
- Validate. Don’t assume you understand everything they are going through because chances are you don’t. Maybe you have gone through similar experiences, but everyone’s situation varies. Validate their experience by acknowledging their pain or emotions. Reflect back to them what you heard and ask how you can support them.
It’s not about you. It’s all about them. Don’t fill in awkward silences or pauses with your own stuff. Don’t spend much time talking about yourself. On rare occasion, some teens will ask you personal questions about your life. It’s fine to answer, but turn the focus back to them.
Show care holistically. Sometimes pastors tend to get focused primarily on people’s spiritual development. Ask teens questions about all areas of their life, not just church or faith questions. Show them you care by asking about their family, interests, school life, friendships, etc.
Areas to Be Mindful of…
- Never swear to secrecy. I always tell my teens I have to tell others to get help if they share thoughts or actions of self-harm, harm to others, or illegal activity.
- Follow your church’s policies. Find out what is expected when you spend time one-on-one with students. Meet in a public place and ask parents directly for permission. Keep a log of who, when, and where you are meeting. Communicate this information to your supervisor so nothing is done in secret.
- Create a budget. Set aside money in the youth budget just for mentoring. Buying coffee or ice cream for teens does not have to come from your own pocket.
- Never hate on the parents. If teens are complaining about their parents, typically lean in favor of supporting the parents unless the parents are emotionally and/or physically abusive, which should be reported.
- Share the power: Let teens choose the place and location to go if you can. You can also let them choose how to close your time together. For example: I always ask teens if they would prefer for me to pray with them or if they rather I just pray for them on my own. This gives them a sense of control and power: something nearly every teen longs for.
Incase you forget all these tips, just remember the most important tip of all… Don’t be afraid to invite teens to spend time with you. Even if they say no, at least they will know you care.