Reflections from 10 years of Student Ministry

In a few weeks, my time leading high-schoolers will come to an end. I’ve been serving with Watermark’s student ministries since 2008, when I was a freshman in college. Working with middle and high-schoolers has honestly been one of the highlights of my life and something I will truly miss. I am very passionate about this age group because I feel that they have been largely misunderstood and undervalued by our society. It’s such a precious time of coming of age and the time you really start learning what a personal relationship with the Lord looks like. I’ve learned a lot by watching my girls grow from gangly 6th graders to opinionated 18 year olds and now that I am a parent, there are some things that I want to make sure I remember about this stage of life:

Being a teen doesn’t make your feelings invalid.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of middle school? Hormones. It’s a crazy time of changing bodies, hormonal swings, and ridiculously short dating relationships. However, I think it’s really dangerous to disregard teenager’s emotions as just hormone swings. Teens are typically a lot more open with their feelings than adults. They just don’t know how to process them yet. So when a teen is hyper emotional about something, don’t dismiss it. This is a great opportunity to help them learn how to process their emotions by talking about them and teach them how to deal with their feelings in a healthy way.  You may think whatever they are going through is the stupidest thing in the world, but it is VERY real to them. Just because they are a teenager doesn’t mean they aren’t old enough to be taken seriously. Meet them where they are.

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Students deal with very real and tough situations. 

I’ve heard time and time again, “you’re only 16, how hard can your life really be?” Very hard actually. I have walked through situations with students that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: Sexual assault, death of a parent, abandonment, rejection, suicide… the list goes on and on. Tragedy and evil do not discriminate against young people. To qualify how hard someone’s life is by how old they are is naive and dangerous. We live in a sinful world and that sin has horrendous effects on the lives of children. When tragedy strikes, they need people in their lives who will treat them with dignity, jump in the trenches with them, and point them toward Christ.

Social media cannot be avoided.

It is no surprise that social media is having a negative affect on kids of all ages. In my community group, the top parenting topic we always discuss is how to protect our kids from technology and I’ve seen how dangerous Instagram and Snapchat have been in the teen girls’ lives. However, I don’t think we need to keep our kids away from social media. I think we need to equip them to use it properly. Tools are only dangerous when used in dangerous ways. The key is to have open conversations about what tech kids are using and being educated on what those platforms can be used for.

I think we get caught up on the fact that Social media provides access to porn, bullying, body image issues, comparison, jealousy, online predators, etc. Those are all things we obviously want teens to avoid but these things have existed much longer than Instagram and will continue to exist long after. At the end of the day, we live in a sinful world and until Jesus comes back, that isn’t going to change. If a teen wants to access something, they are going to find a way to do it. They are way smarter than us! We just have to equip teens to deal with sin in a biblical way and train them on how to avoid falling into sinful habits.

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If you lower the bar, they will go lower. 

It’s hard to motivate a teenager to do something they don’t want to do. Bribery and compromise as parenting tools start young (my 9 month old is well acquainted to them). But I found that when challenged, by and large, teens will rise to the occasion. They want you to challenge them. They want to be pushed beyond what they think they can achieve and if you set the bar low, they will under-deliver every time. Why would they want to give their best when you aren’t expecting the best from them? I think it can be so easy as a small group leader to dumb down the curriculum or decrease the amount of ‘homework’ in the hopes that it will guarantee that the students will do it. But you are ultimately cheating them of the opportunity and cheapening the activity. Ultimately, challenging them sets them up for success.

Care about what they care about.

When my girls were in middle school you know what I did? I made sure I knew the names of the members of One Direction and the top shows on Disney Channel. Now that they are in high school, I am up-to-date on who Logan Paul is and the current teenage slang (“Weird flex but ok.”).  Why? Because when you want to get teens talking, you talk to them about stuff they know and are interested in. If you belittle their hobbies and their fandoms, you are essentially calling them silly and unimportant. Educating yourself on what’s popular at the time is a great way to stay connected and to stay aware of what your teen is filling your brain with. A win-win!

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Don’t expect change overnight. 

It can be so frustrating to teach the same thing week after week for years and years and not see any change. But as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sometimes it takes years of teaching for things to click. Everyone learns and grows at their own pace. Don’t rush the process. I think it’s so easy to blame yourself for someone’s lack of growth, especially spiritual growth. But as a small group leader, you just have to be faithful to show up, teach, and trust that God will do the rest. It’s really up to the student on whether they want to take what they have been taught and apply it. Ultimately, a relationship with the Lord is a personal choice that each person has to make for themselves.

Time. 

They may be angsty, they may be moody, and they may not want to but spending quality time is so important. Actions speak louder than words so being physically present speaks volumes. That means going to games, going to plays, having late night phone calls, coffee meet ups, etc etc. Make them a priority. That way when they need to talk to someone, they know that they can call you and you’ll pick up the phone. Being physically there means you’ll be emotionally there.

Share your life.

A lot can happen in a decade and my girls have had a front seat at the major moments of my life. They watched me date my would-be husband. They watched me plan a wedding. They passed our programs at the wedding. They were some of the first people to know I was pregnant and are now watching me learn how to be a parent (not to mention the life that happened in between!). My goal was to live a life that I wouldn’t be ashamed to tell the girls about. This kept me out of trouble and (hopefully) allowed the girls to get an honest look at the highs and lows of adulthood. I pray that my son has someone in his life who he can watch pursue Christ and be honest at how hard it is to pursue Him well.

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HAVE FUN. 

My favorite memories of the last 10 years are the silly times. The bad jokes, the Disney jam sessions. The farkles and the really bad Halloween costumes. Life is hard so have fun doing it. Being silly and having fun brings people together and creates lifelong memories. The last 10 years have been challenging, rewarding, and SO FUN. I’m just so thankful that God gave me this opportunity. It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life to love on my girls. They have changed me in ways they could never know and for that I am forever grateful.

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