Being Open with Students

This is how it hurts when I pretend I don’t feel any pain. -RED, Breath Into Me

Not too long ago I posted about the need for students to see adults living out the faith. I said that this need requires that adults be open and honest with students. This is vitally important for all of the adults in our churches, but it is especially important for youth workers to be open with students. If you are a paid youth minister, than it is even more important for you.

It can be very easy, even for those of us who have devoted our lives to ministering to and with students, to be open with them. As a somewhat recent seminary graduate, I can say with confidence that some seminaries are still teaching that a pastor needs to maintain a certain distances from her congregation and even hide her doubts and pains (this even after Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer). There are lots of fine, logical reasons to maintain this distance. But at the end of the day it simply is not what Jesus did. Jesus fully participated with humanity. God became human. There is a sense in which the incarnation calls us, as co-heirs with Christ, to enter into the same radical identification with those we serve. Please note that this does not mean that youth pastors need to be immature individuals who are merely trying to relive their youth group days. The truth is the exact opposite. Youth pastors need to be well adjusted adults who love students, are willing to be open with them, and who echo Jesus’ call to a different way of life.

The problem with being open and honest with people is that it can be messy. It becomes very easy to keep our doubt and pain to ourselves for fear of destroying a student’s faith. But the fact of the matter is that if we refuse to be open and share when we have doubts, how can we expect students to do the same with us? More to the point how can we expect students to grow themselves? As the Fuller Youth Institute has recently pointed out, “young people better navigate their faith journey when adults share the challenges of their own spiritual paths—complete with past and present ups, downs, and turning points.” In other words, students navigate their our journeys better when we navigate our spiritual journey with them

Being vulnerable isn’t a way to gain influence over students anymore than my vulnerability with my wife is a way to gain influence over her. I am vulnerable with my wife because I love her, she loves me and we are on a journey together. If we refuse to be vulnerable with students we have no right to ask them to be vulnerable with us. What is worse, we make ourselves into hypocrites because we refuse to follow the example Jesus has set for us. The point isn’t to gain influence. The point is to follow the example which our Savior set for us. God became vulnerable to human beings. God-in-human-flesh became vulnerable to the pain that human beings experience. The Immortal One became vulnerable to death.

As I’ve been reflecting on the importance of being open with students over the past several weeks it has occurred to me that, perhaps, one of the reasons we make excuses for avoiding vulnerability (and some of our excuses are even legitimate!) is that we don’t want to get hurt. Let’s face it, teenagers are not exactly the most sensitive of demographics. As we open ourselves to them the likelihood of us being hurt is probably significantly higher than the (initial) likelihood of them responding to that vulnerability in a way we might hope. As youth workers we are generally happy to argue with those in our church who wrongly accuse the youth of everything from breaking a ceiling tile to stealing a misplaced tea kettle. We are happy to suffer in this way. But we aren’t quite as keen on being hurt by those to whom we minister. Yet I think it’s fairly clear that Jesus calls us to exactly that. Andrew Root puts it nicely, “Suffering with and at the hand of those to whom we minister is the call of the incarnation and crucifixion,” (Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, 95, emphasis mine).

If we insist on pretending that we have it all together we have missed the point. We must become open and vulnerable to students and thereby run the risk of being hurt by them. To do otherwise is to refuse the joys of human relationship, implicitly contributing to the tendency of seeing teens as halfway finished products. Whats more, to refuse the possibility of true relationship is to deny ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus in our students.


3 thoughts on “Being Open with Students

  1. what a challenge! i think one of the best things we bring to our student ministries is our authentic selves who wrestle with an alive god and who is continually transforming us as we are in the process of sanctification. the trick is how far do we go.

    i appreciate your blog and the obvious huge heart you have for authentic community and ministry. i also agree that it is lame for pastors to be put on pedestals and keep an arms length to their people.

    but the problem i have is that we are dealing with minors, unformed and immature people. we must share with them a faith that is alive and struggles that are real, but we don’t have to share our deepest darkest in order to gain street cred. in fact most kids would rather talk than listen to old people.

    what a great topic.

  2. Benjamin,

    Your caution is a good one. However, I want to push back a little bit and say that we have to be careful when seeing students as unformed. On the one hand, yes–absolutely. But on the other hand they are still entirely human people or are created in the image of God. As such, they deserve real, full relationships not half-relationships because of their age. I’d also push back a little on the idea that students don’t want to listen to old people. Sometimes they don’t, but sometimes that’s exactly what they want even when they don’t seem to want it.

    Having said that, you are right that there are areas that should be off limits. That’s why we–as youth workers–need a network of people who can support us (as you suggest in the post you link to). I’m not going to bring students into disputes I’m having with my wife, and if I’m having problems with my senior pastor, that probably isn’t wise either. At the same time, I think students need to see us struggling with faith. They certainly need to see us happy with God and angry with him. Otherwise, when they’re angry with him they have no example of how to express that. More importantly, if we aren’t open with our students we aren’t entering into relationship with them. Relationships are, by nature, two way streets. We must navigate our journeys with students, not apart from them thinking to merely share the end result.

    Finally, I want to say that I agree entirely that we don’t have to share our deepest darkest to gain street cred. In fact, that is exactly the wrong reason to be open with students. We need to be open with students not to gain influence (and here I’m channeling Andrew Root), but to be in relationship with them and to experience Jesus in them (while they, conversely, experience him in us).

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