While I’m on the subject of “Youth Ministry Mind Games,” this one is a standout and deserves extra attention.  I still remember the conversation with a desperate youth leader from Australia and while some conversations easily blur together, the agony in this sincere youth leader’s words remain clearly etched on my mind.

“Jeanne,” he said.  “I need a favor from you.”

“Sure,” I responded almost mindlessly.  “What can I do for you?”

The youth leader paused for a second or so and then blurted out, “Could you talk me out of quitting youth ministry?”

The man’s candor caught me a little off guard.  Lowering my voice, I answered, “Tell me your story.  What’s going on?”

The story that emerged was all too typical.  This sincere leader had recently experienced having several key kids in his youth group “go south spiritually.”  But as his story began to unravel, it was clear that one student had been particularly painful to him.

“I gave this kid everything I had to give,” he quietly said to me.  “We kept him at our home for awhile, I spent countless hours with him, and he gave me encouragement that I was really accomplishing something.”   The man’s voice broke slightly.  He cleared his throat, trying to mask the pain.  “But then almost out of no where, the teenager began backing away from me and the other kids in the youth group.  He started hanging out with his old friends, and just yesterday I found out that he was selling drugs again and talking about what a joke his Christian experience had been.”

I allowed the silence to linger for a minute.  When our eyes met again, he unashamedly reached to wipe a few tears from his face.  “What do you do when a teenager you really care about goes south spiritually?  I mean, how do you keep the feelings of worthlessness and futility from eventually causing you to cash it all in?”

Let me highlight a few of the thoughts I shared with him that day.  Maybe it will help you when you experience some of the same feelings.  Trust me, my friend, stay in youth ministry long enough and you will.

  • Remember that even Jesus Himself had a “Peter” and a “Judas.” After all, the Lord had some of His closest guys “go south” spiritually on Him.  Peter cursed and denied that he even knew Jesus.  Judas not only betrayed his leader, but betrayed Him with a kiss.  So know that the greatest Youth Leader of the universe, Jesus Christ Himself, felt all of the same emotions you are experiencing right now. If it happened to Him, don’t be so shocked when it happens to you.
  • Guard against “putting all your eggs in ONE spiritual basket.” My grandmother’s old quote has a lot of wisdom in it.  Allow me to translate its meaning to this situation.  “Guard against putting all your emotional energy into just one or two students.”  It’s an easy set-up for the Enemy to have a field day with you.  Try to keep at least 3 or 4 students up close to you so one student  cannot pull the plug on you emotionally.
  • In the middle of your pain, strategically spend time with another student to whom you are drawn. Refuse to allow yourself to pull up into a self-made shell.  Isolation for you right now will only fuel the Enemy’s mind games. You may not FEEL like picking another student up for a Coke, but do it anyway.  “Right choices eventually bring right emotions.”
  • And lastly, congratulate yourself that you care deeply enough for your students to even deal with these emotions. In this case, pain is a “badge of honor.” It comes from your courageously “putting your heart out on a stick.”  Just keep the bridge to your heart open for your beloved ‘prodigal.’  You’ll be surprised how often both you and Jesus will be allowed to walk back over it.