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Youth Ministry in the Deep End: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do With Hurting Teens

While most of us are quick to affirm the effectiveness of the smaller ratios and intentional relationships in contemporary youth ministry there are some new challenges that can’t be ignored. 

Deeper relationships between students and adults inevitably lead to greater trust. Greater trust means that students are willing to expose details of their lives that would have been off limits to adults in the past.

And hearing those stories – often painful and complex – demands a response, in spite of the fact that we often don’t have a hot clue what to say in the face of what’s just been shared.

What do we do when we’re out of our depth, when our dumbfounded naiveté paralyzes us, when our crowded calendars can’t bear one more deep relationship, or the details of the story being told demand a legally prescribed response? 

We ask for help – that’s what we do!

We’d love to believe that we are sufficient for every relational challenge.

We’d love to believe that we should know the appropriate response in every situation.

But we aren’t.

And we don’t.

And that is no cause for shame.

Even the most seasoned and well-equipped youth workers routinely invite others to help when they are dealing with daunting or delicate situations. 

In most “deep end” ministry dilemmas you benefit from implementing one of three possible responses.

When you are out of your depth you can consult, you can refer or you can report.  

How You Consult

Consulting simply means that you share the circumstances of your young friend (usually anonymously) with someone who has expertise or experience beyond your own.

It’s a matter of asking for advice or an objective perspective and often it’s all you need to help a student move forward.

Even professional therapists routinely ask their supervisors or colleagues for input when they are dealing with unusual or complex situations. Within appropriate boundaries of confidentiality these conversations are crucial to positive outcomes for the people they are working with.

The most natural consultant for most youth workers is the person they report to.

Paid youth workers can consult a more seasoned senior pastor or elder. Volunteers can ask their lead youth worker, youth director, or youth pastor. An added advantage of asking these folks for their perspective or advice is that it keeps them informed of the kinds of issues kids in your ministry are facing.

You can also talk to other people who know and love teenagers to get helpful advice.  A school guidance counselor you’ve gotten to know, a medical doctor, a Christian therapist, or a veteran youth worker from another church will be a real ally in times like this.  

By the way, beware of using the consulting process as a veil for gossip.

Or even worse, as a way of showing others how deeply kids trust you and what an amazing youth worker you are to be dealing with such heavy stuff.

It’s actually something that all of us are vulnerable to and it’s not helpful.

Why You Refer

Referral is a significant step up from consulting.

When you refer you actually pass the student on to someone who is better positioned to deal with the problem than you are.

Many organizations have very specific policies about when and how their staff or volunteers must refer a student. It’s important for you to know what these policies are and adhere to them without exception.

It’s not always easy to know what to do but here are a cuople good reasons you might want to consider referring a student.                                

To ensure that they are getting the best possible help. 

Problems often have multiple facets: relational, emotional, psychological, spiritual, physiological, cognitive, etc., and a holistic approach may be the wisest. You might feel comfortable dealing with the spiritual side of a problem but have no idea how to handle the physiological or emotional piece.

We can actually do harm to students when we fail to provide them with the most comprehensive help possible. 

Be sure you develop working relationships with the people in your community who have expertise in dealing with the specific issues you find yourself facing with the kids you care about.

To defend yourself against burnout and imbalance.

There’s only so much each of us can handle.

There will always be more hurting kids around than we have the time to help.

It’s hard to tell a teen in pain that we don’t have the time they need from us but it may be the most important skill to learn if we hope to have an ongoing ministry of this sort. Lifeguards may need to jump into dangerous situations but they are trained to do so in a way that ensures their own safety first.  

When you’re dealing with situations that overwhelm you, individual students who are taking most of your time (suicide threats, complex medical situations, serious violations of the law, addictions or abuse) may mean you need to refer a student to someone who can give them the kind of consistent care their situation warrants.  

When You Report

The third potential response when you’re out of your depth is to report.

In most cases this is not optional.

When you report you are typically following through on a legal obligation that is mandated in certain circumstances – usually related to incidents of abuse or significant danger to a student or someone they know.

For the purposes of our discussion here let me suggest two things.

Become familiar with all the details of the reporting regulations in your area.

If your organization, denomination or church doesn’t have a well-defined policy on this (and they should), a good place to begin your exploration is with the guidance counselor in the local school. They receive the latest policy memos and will be able to point you to where you can get your own information. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Err on the side of caution.

If you’re not sure what to do, consult with someone who knows the rules and follow through. 

Youth Ministry history is littered with stories of well-meaning youth pastors who decided that they’d make their own judgment calls on issues that are clearly addressed in the law.

Most of them aren’t in ministry these days.

Let’s not believe for a moment that we are above the law.

Working with kids who hurt will inevitably put us out of our depth on a pretty regular basis. The great news is that we’re not the ones who bring about healing anyway.  Find hope and confidence in this benediction that was penned by the writer to the Hebrews.

May God, who puts all things together and makes all things whole, who made a lasting mark through the sacrifice of Jesus…now put you together and provide you with everything you need to please him and make you into what gives him most pleasure by means of the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah. All glory to Jesus forever and always.

Hebrews 13:20,21 (The Message)


This topic is one of the many practical issues we work through in the Coalition for Youth Ministry Excellence.

It’s a ministry training program that’s designed to help students learn to do youth ministry while doing youth ministry.

If you’d like to hear more about this unique experiential immersion training program visit us at or get a hold of me at the Coalition office (250-826-6050).

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