“I have never told anyone this before so…”

“I’m about to tell you this thing not even my parents know…”

“I have been keeping this to myself and have been struggling with it for the longest time…”

All things that you have probably heard in some way shape or form from a student or leader of yours at some point in ministry. One of the great privileges we as youth workers get to experience is a front row seat to life change. One of the worst things we as youth workers get to experience is the baggage that comes from the front row seat to life change. We get to see what God is doing actively in the lives in our students but we get to help wade through the crap that comes along with it. It’s not that we don’t want to, just there are some deep stuff our young students are doing and experiencing in which literally makes your heart heavy for them and in all honesty, you are not sure how you are going to help them through it.

This is where I tend to lean on the Lord the most, because a lot of the times I have no idea what I should say to a student who just laid out their deepest hurt, struggle and pain. How we as leaders handle and respond to these situations are crucial because it could make or break their view of God.

Is that a big statement? Yup! I know but it’s true.

When a student becomes vulnerable enough with you how we respond is huge. It could shape the way they view church, your ministry and God because you are that representation. Too often we are obsessed with trying to say the right thing instead of worrying about how they feel in that moment. “But you need to speak the truth!”

You do, I’m not saying otherwise, but most students won’t even remember what you say to them but they will remember how you made them feel.

When we get the amazing opportunity to speak into their lives because they have chosen to open up to us with their struggles, here are some things we need to keep in mind:

Watch your face – Yes, watch your face. There will be some things that comes out your students mouths that will straight up shock you. The last thing we want as students are pouring their guts out is for us to have a shocked or disgusted face as they are telling us. Keep it cool.

Listen and ask questions more than giving “right” answers –  Are there times in which to talk and give answers? Yes. The time is just right away. As leaders we need to be more like Jesus in these times. Jesus was the master at asking questions. Actively listen to the student, ask clarifying questions, get to the heart behind the issue.

You don’t need to give the full answer right then and there – Most of the time, you are going to be on a time crunch; service is over, parents are there etc. What a great opportunity to speak some life into your student, pray with them and then have a follow-up conversation during the week over coffee or lunch. This shows them 1) you care about them outside of your program 2) gives you time to research and prep for a more in-depth conversation that needs to be had.

Saying, “I don’t know” is okay – Students stump me all of the time. I know I’m not smart enough to know all the answers. So I have no problem saying, “I don’t know” but we have to follow it up with, “But let me find out and we can talk about it.” Again, this goes on to extend and expand the relationship. It creates follow-up and more conversation.

Work on being loving first, giving the right answers second – Like I said before, yes we need to speak the truth but we need to be loving. Speaking the truth does not give us the right to be jerks. Our goal should be this when it comes to students telling us “real things”: How do I communicate this in a way that is loving and truthful so they come back next week to continue the conversation. If I am just spewing right answers and not aware of how it’s coming off, that student might not come back and if that is the case, what was the point? What is the point if we are right in our answers but lose the relationship? That is no like Jesus at all. We need to speak in a way that is truthful but our students want to come back (even if they don’t like/agree with what truth is according to Scripture) week after week because they know they are cared for as people.

We can’t change anything – We can’t change our students. We can’t save them. Only Jesus does that. We are hear to listen, guide and point to Jesus who could transform us from the inside out.

We have the opportunity to be on the front lines of our student’s lives. Usually, the front lines are a messy and crazy place. How we respond is huge. We want to speak truth in love and have them come back because they know they are cared for.