Reflections from 10 years of Student Ministry

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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Middle Schoolers and the Things I’ve Learned From Leading Them

Middle Schoolers and the Things I’ve Learned From Leading Them

For those of you who don’t know, I have had the honor of volunteering with Wake, Watermark’s junior high ministry for 6 years. For the last 2 years, I have been blessed to co-lead a group of seven 7th graders as they journey through life. Though middle school is often known as the worst years of your life, it has always been my favorite age of students to love on. Through the past 6 years, these ‘kiddos’ have taught me a ton about myself and about relating with others and I thought I’d share them with you.

  1. Treat teens and tweens with respect, but don’t treat them like adults.
    This is a crazy age for anyone. Your hormones are raging, you are on the cusp of puberty, and you have the strong desire to be independent. Unfortunately, you are not the brightest crayon in the box. You’ve still got a ton to learn about life and you need direction. I think culture misunderstands this age group by either treating them like babies or treating them like 30 year olds. They are neither. They crave respect, to be valued for their opinion, and are fighting to be seen as a person.  One thing I have learned is to treat junior highers with respect. Don’t baby them and encourage them to cultivate their own ideas. But I still treat my girls with caution, making sure the topics we discuss are appropriate for their age group and that they don’t go over their heads. You can talk with 7th graders about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll in a PG way. Don’t shelter them, throwing them into the lion’s den without any clue. But don’t overwhelm their minds with things we adults have issues processing. We have the responsibility to train up children in the way they should go, but we can do that without filling their minds with perverted images or by telling them it’s o.k. to experiment with what the world has to offer. Discretion is key.
  2. Encourage students to make their own decisions.
    I am a control freak, so the hardest thing for me to do as a leader (or in life) is hold my tongue. There are so many situations when one of my girls will ask me a question and the first thing I want to do is tell them, “no, you’re wrong”. I have had to train myself to go straight to scripture, using God’s authority and not my own to steer them down the right path. If I tell my girls the right answers and leave it at that, they will never feel confident in their own decisions. They also will never know WHY something is wrong or something is right. This is such a vital age where children are figuring out why they believe and what they believe and have the opportunity to really make their faith their own. It’s scary letting them use their own judgement and it’s scary to hear they made a bad decision. However, if a child learns to do this at a young age, they will be better equipped to face an array of challenges in high school, college, and life in general.
  3. There is power in listening.
    Sometimes, you just need to shut your trap and listen. Isn’t that true for all of us though, not just middle schoolers? We all have the innate desire to be known; to be known and to be loved for who we are. The best way to create that ‘safe place’, is listening. Middle schoolers are going through a lot more than we often give them credit for. This is the prime age for body image issues, eating disorders, bullying, depression, perfectionism.. the list goes on and on. And often times these things go unnoticed or unaddressed because students don’t talk about it. Often times it’s because there is no one there to listen or it’s because the person who is ‘listening’ just won’t stop talking. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most psychological programs and ‘cures’ are based on ‘talking therapy’. There is power is sharing and allowing someone else into the world inside your head.
  4. Be a friend but with authority.
    No matter how old you are, everyone wants to be liked. I can understand why some parents would rather be their child’s friend than their authority figure. When I started leading my girls, I had the same insecure thoughts. “I want them to like me”, “I want them to admire me”, etc. I found out quickly that the ‘cool leader’ in our eyes is the leader that can’t control the group. I found that when I was strict AND loving, I gained something better than being liked. I gained respect. Discipline is necessary, though it sucks giving it. But when given in the child’s best interest, it works out better for all involved in the long run.
  5. Your students shouldn’t think you’re perfect.If your students think you are perfect, then we have a problem. No one likes sharing their issues with someone who appears perfect and has their life together. It’s intimidating. You aren’t perfect and it won’t hurt your role as a leader by sharing that. It will only help. Now, obliviously use discretion with what you share based on the age group you’re sharing with, but all in all, sharing creates a safe and secure environment where students feel they can be themselves. Also, when you have wronged them, ask for forgiveness. Sometimes we can get too frustrated and let our anger slip away from us. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. You shouldn’t be pointing to yourself as an example of who and what to be, you should be pointing toward Christ for He is the strength in our weakness.
  6. Don’t fake it till you make it.
    If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make one up. I have caught myself multiple times wanting to make up some elaborate, slightly based on scripture, answer. But in the end, that only leads to confusion and loss of trust in you. It is o.k. to admit you don’t know. Heck, there are some questions my girls have asked me that a PhD in theology wouldn’t know (ask me sometime). There are two good ways to handle this situation: (1) Admit you don’t know and tell them you will research it and get back to them… and actually do it. or (2) Research it together. On many an occasion, I have pulled out my phone and looked up something on gotquestions.org in the middle of small group and read it right off the page. I think the biggest issue in this one is pride. I hate admitting I don’t know something, especially when my 7th graders asked the question. It is o.k. to not know. But it’s not o.k. to leave it at that.
To Catch a Predator…

To Catch a Predator…

I am twin. Because twins are very time-consuming for a parents, my parentals waited six years before having my little brother. The sizable difference in age between my brother and I has always caused our relationship to be a bit strained. When I was in high school he wasn’t even in middle school yet. As I enter my senior year of college, my little brother is entering his sophomore year in high school. Now, for some strange reason his teenie-bopper friends feel compelled to Facebook friend me. I don’t mind. I like to think it’s because I’m the ‘cool older sister’ and so I accept their friend requests and immediately forget who they are. But then it happens… out of the blue I’ll get a friend request from one of my little brother’s lady friends and…BAM! I have 15-year-old cleavage in my face. For some strange reason, high school girls feel inclined to have playboy-esque profile photos. Now, you can do whatever you want with your Facebook, body, etc (though I still disapprove) but a 15-year-old girl should not be posting photos like that online! Every time I get a friend request from these little girls I feel like the host from To Catch a Predator (Dateline NBC) is going to pop up behind me with a full-fledged camera crew and bust me for child pornography! I may get off easy due to my gender but what if a 40-year-old man accidentally stumbled upon their profile? what if MY dad got a Facebook and one of these girls friend requested him? He could serve 20-30 years in prison and be the newest addition to the national sex offender registry. Not cool Pre-teen Barbie, not cool.

Here is what I say to you pre-pubescent courtesans: it is not cute to flash what you hope willsomeday become breasts in the faces of unsuspecting Facebook users. You are not making yourselves look hot or more attractive to the pre-pubescent boys in your class. Respect yourselves a bit more.