Empathy on Repeat: The Difficulty of Hearing the Same Problems from Different Students

Youth ministry is uncomfortable.

It was jarring to be asked about the problem of evil for the first time as a student minister. Or the time I sat stunned and silent as I tried to cobble together an honest answer to a 7th grader tearfully asking, “why did my dad abandon me?” Or the countless times my nerves and shoulders have tensed up when I’ve heard the phrase, “I’ve never told anyone this before…”

When the confident facades begin to fade before your eyes as your students reveal painful and devastating histories, it can be easy to respond with platitudes, catchphrases, or a comforting verse ripped out of context.

Youth ministry as a calling requires being jarred, tense, and stunned into silence. The allure of an easy way out of difficult conversations via “inspirational” quips and quotes is ever-present. Longevity in the field will settle some of the nerves and shorten some of the silences. But we must be careful – becoming overly comfortable with the tough conversations can produce its own problems. What stunned you the first time is now routine. Doubts seem inevitable and crises predictable. The fear of entering unfamiliar counseling territory fades away and we begin to predict what we think is the problem before the student has finished his or her sentence. The tears and anxieties of our kids are just as strong as ever, but are met with more and more robotic responses. It can feel heartless. It might be heartless if we’re left unchecked.

One of the worst things that we can do in those moments is to forget that these questions, frustrations, doubts, and terrors that we may have experienced a dozen times are brand new to those who bring them our way.

We’ve covered the problem of evil a hundred times before this particular student arrived, but this may be the first time they’ve considered it. We’ve talked through the difficulties of abandonment, divorce, abuse, incest, and addiction, but the student who carries these burdens to us may be carrying them with the assumption that it’s the worst thing we’ve ever heard, that no one could be as filthy as they are, and that nothing can remedy their pain. In those moments we, the credulous counselors, must pray for the same level of empathy as when we heard it the first time.

While students bearing a difficult question may assume that they’re the first person who has ever contemplated it, we must honor the question while also not hesitating to say, “you’re not the first person who’s thought about that.” Odds are, Augustine probably did. Or Turretin. The Apostle Paul may have directly written it down and provided an inspired answer. This gentle comment reminds them they are not alone.

Students struggling with the weight of intense sins they’ve committed, or sins that have been perpetuated against them, may feel as though no one knows their pain. Listen deeply and well. Hear the full story. Empathize with the emotions that they’re feeling. But don’t be afraid to say, “you’re not the only one who has done this or felt that.” On some occasions the only one who can relate to their particular situation is Christ, but our whole ministry is staked on the glorious fact that one eternal sympathizer is enough.

The youth pastor who has heard the same set of fears and sorrows runs the risk of minimizing and quick-fixing. Be on your guard for such moments. When you do encounter a question or sin or struggle for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth time, don’t neglect what this particular student is feeling. It is an enormous gift for them to hear for the first time that they aren’t alone. We must love our students enough to listen to the complexity of their questions, and then show them that the church has been asking the same questions for generations, and there are helpful answers from the past. Listen well, love well, and exhort with authority. This is the heart of our calling, and the joy of our ministry.

John Gardner is the Associate Pastor of Student Ministry at Grace Evangelical Free Church in Longmont, Colorado. John graduated with a Masters of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2009 and a Doctor of Ministry in Expository Preaching from SBTS in 2019. He spends most of his spare time with his wife Jackie reading, writing, playing intense board games and explaining the actual meanings of song lyrics to youth group students.

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