I cried a couple of weeks ago, and it was because of what a Jr. High girl said to me. It wasn’t mean, or rude or anything like that, but because she spoke a word of encouragement to me that I didn’t know how much I needed. As I sat in the dining hall of a retreat center, surrounded by hundreds of others, I shared a moment with this Jr. High student that left me with tears in my eyes.
But before I tell that story, a little context.
A couple of weeks ago, I took my youth group to a Jr. High/High School Winter Retreat in the San Bernardino mountains. This was the first retreat that I have taken the Jr. Highers from my church on, and needless to say, I was a little nervous. The reason being is because taking Jr. Highers away for the weekend requires a lot of patience, a ton of energy and even more patience. Jr. High students are known to drive their youth pastors to the edge of their nerves, especially when they take the students away for the weekend. All that to say, the days leading up to this retreat caused some anxiety for me.
Before leaving for the retreat, my prayer was that the students have an unmistakeable encounter with God. And that prayer was fulfilled beyond everything that I had hoped for.
On Saturday, we did a series of breakout sessions. The point of these sessions was to give an opportunity to students and their leaders to dive a little deeper with one another and with God. We were all paired up with another person. Some of us ended up with people from our churches, while others were paired with strangers. I was paired with a student from another church. During the icebreaker game, one of my Jr. High girls got hurt, so I ended up taking care of her. Little did I know that I was going to have a holy moment with this Jr. High girl.
I wasn’t expecting anything of substance to happen, but that is because I have been to a number of these retreats and didn’t expect the Holy Spirit to speak to me at all. We were there for the students, afterall. It only makes sense that God speak in powerful ways to the students and not the leaders, right?
After the ice breaker, we had a one-on-one activity, where we attempted to be a little bit more vulnerable and share something in our lives that we struggle with. I told my Jr. High student that my first year of youth ministry was a difficult one that made me question my call into ministry. It’s true. My first year in youth ministry was extremely difficult. Things didn’t go as planned and students ended up leaving my youth group. It was a painful year that left me confused, discouraged and questioning God’s purpose.
In sharing this with her, I sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. As we shared our struggles with one another, I could feel the holy presence around me. I can’t explain it, but the spirit of God was present in that dining hall on that Saturday afternoon. After sharing how difficult the first year was for me, she proceeded to tell me how much the youth group had meant to her and how it had helped her through a lot of difficulty in her life. Sitting in front of me, was a seventh grade girl expressing to me how much the youth group meant to her.
In other words, it was the type of encouragement that all youth pastors dream of hearing their students say because it validates our call and tells us that all of our effort, all of our stress, all of the long hours and all the tears are worth it.
I was so overwhelmed in that moment that I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and before I knew it, they were streaming down my face as I listened to this seventh grade girl speak words of encouragement over me. She had no idea how much I needed to hear those words.
Not only was I extremely encouraged by her, but it made me realize another thing about youth ministry that I think is often overlooked by many adults in the church. That is, Jr. High and High Schoolers are a lot more complex than we give them credit for. What I mean is that we often belittle their situations because they are “young” and “naive,” but the stories of struggle that I heard this past weekend reminded me that our youth have complex, difficult and often, painful lives and circumstances.
All that to say, when a student is sharing about something difficult going on in their lives, listen to them. Don’t dismiss or belittle it. You want to know one of the reasons why 70% of students who grow up in the church walk away from the faith when the go off to college? It is because adults don’t take them or their problems seriously. They have pain and brokenness in their lives just like adults do. If we don’t listen to them or take them seriously, they are going to think that God doesn’t care about them. And they will walk away.
That is why I work with youth. That is why I take them on retreats, even though it is exhausting. That is why I spend countless hours listening to them and praying for them. God showed up powerfully this weekend and spoke into the lives of my students in magnificent ways. The cloud of witnesses is rejoicing this week because of the lives that were transformed by the Holy Spirit this past weekend. Our student’s lives matter deeply. Listen to them, because their pain is our pain. Their struggle is our struggle. Their brokenness is our brokenness and their victories are our victories.
A seventh grade girl made me cry a couple of weeks ago, and I am not the least bit ashamed. I shared a Holy moment with her that blessed me deeply.