As a youth worker, I have the blessing and privilege of stepping into the sacred spaces of students’ lives on a regular basis. While sometimes this looks like pranks and games, a lot of times it looks more like sitting across the table over coffee or lunch and talking about the highs and lows of life. And when lives are shared, hard conversations are going to be inevitable. A student may renounce her faith to you, confess a sexual struggle, or share about his substance abuse. Some students will share about their family issues at home or maybe even talk about being a victim of abuse.
In moments of deep vulnerability from students, it can be easy to scramble for an answer that seems like a quick fix to the problem. Offering a neatly wrapped answer with a bow on top can make us feel like we have done our part in being there for them, making it easier for us to leave the conversation and not be affected by the brokenness the student faces. It is easier to lean on our own words than to ask the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and minds with the wisdom of what to say (and what not to say).
Our response in difficult conversations with students should point less to our efforts to fix our students and more to Christ and how He meets them in their difficulty. Here are four responses we need for hard conversations with our students.
1.) Cry out to the Lord.
John Calvin once said that “there is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.” How true I have found this to be! A couple of years ago a student shared slightly concerning information over a retreat. When I called the student a few days later, I found myself asking her question after question to be in line with our protocol instead of wanting to really know her heart. Although we need to always be mindful of safety protocol, I left that conversation feeling a deep sense of conviction that I was focusing on the problems instead of the person, and that I had relied on my own strength.
What God is looking for in us is a heart that will cry out to Him as our Abba Father and rely on Him alone when we are in moments of weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Jesus uses weak vessels like us. Praise Him for that. And trust that when a student shares something difficult, you can cry out in faith and He will provide for you in that moment. Maybe you just need to sit and not say a word, or maybe you need to ask some hard questions, or maybe you need to share Scripture. Trust that the Spirit will speak through you, and that He will say something much better than you could ever come up with on your own.
2.) Listen and be present as students process.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus meeting people in difficult circumstances. “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) Jesus took on flesh and came into our sin-stained world. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He sought out the lame and blind. He knew their names. In the story of the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 9, we see Jesus looking out at a crowd of people and having compassion on them because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9: 36). Don’t underestimate the power of simply showing compassion and sitting with your students in their mess.
Drawing from your own experiences can also be beneficial in a hard conversation. We want to be careful with how much we share, of course, but sometimes the most comforting thing to hear is a leader you admire confessing his or her desperate need for God’s grace. In a recent conversation, I had a student share his need to be in Scripture daily and how he felt like he was slacking. I was able to share that I felt like my time in Scripture recently had been going through the motions. We were able to encourage one another and commit to praying for each other.
3.) Offer students the hope of the gospel.
Pointing students to the gospel is the key to navigating tough conversations. If a student confesses a struggle with a sexual sin, for example, it is easy to simply suggest that he read his Bible more or get an accountability partner. While these are very valuable suggestions, what students most need to hear is the gospel: That, in Christ, their sin has been atoned for by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They are cloaked with Jesus’ righteousness and by His power alone they are more than conquerors through the only one who can really satisfy their longings. In Christ, the answer isn’t “try harder” or “do better.” Instead, the answer is “Come to me…and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11: 28). The most important thing you can say when a student confides something hard is that there is hope for their situation, that they are not alone, and that if they are in Christ, they have His full forgiveness and are filled with the Holy Spirit to overcome their sin.
4.) Follow up with students.
Jesus not only saves His people, but He is in the constant work of sanctifying them. Paul encouraged the Philippians saying, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:10). Jesus doesn’t save us to leave us where we are, but instead is constantly redeeming us to become more and more like Him. We can highlight this truth for our students by following up with them as God continues His work of sanctification in their lives. By choosing to follow up, we show our students that we are here to walk through the mundane and the messiness of their lives with them. Following up with your students will show them that they matter to you, and will encourage them to continue sharing with you as well.
So how can a youth minister respond to hard conversations with students? The most eloquent answer you can formulate is no match for the beautiful and priceless hope that we have in Christ. Only in Him can our students be truly understood, truly forgiven, and truly carried and healed in their suffering. So we pray that Christ will help us point our students more to Himself and less to us. After all, He is the only Answer— not just for our students in their struggles— but for us as well.