The hidden cost to teens of adult mistakes

In the last 3 days I have had conversations about 5 different instances where a youth minister or key volunteer made a poor choice and it cost them their jobs, and consequently, their relationships with most of the teens with whom they worked. Each instance was a poor “adult choice” that in no way endangered, abused or involved the teenagers directly (ex. DWI charges, an extramarital affair, making liable statements about the pastor, embezzling funds). You are probably way ahead of me on this one…”but it does affect them, and it does so in long term ways.”

The adults who work with teenagers build significant relationships built on trust, integrity and shared experiences. When that adult is removed from that relationship because of a violation of trust or an action that compromises their integrity, the teenager pays a heavy price, developmentally and spiritually. Teenagers mimic adult behaviors often enough, even bad behaviors. So while we seek to protect our teenagers, often making difficult decisions as a result, we also need to pay attention to the hidden costs of these broken relationships. Turnover in Youth Ministry is high enough for non-destructive reasons, factor in abrupt dismissals and more damage is done to teenagers than we’d like to admit. Here are the hidden costs as I see them:

Spiritual Development Teenagers spiritual development as people of faith begins with those who teach and model what it means to be a follower of Christ. Just as the child is adversely affected in how they view marriage if their parents divorce, so to is the teenager who sees one of these models make “poor adult choices” that lead to them being removed from the teenager’s life. Rarely are teenagers exposed to the forgiveness and penance cycle that adult engages in after being removed from the Youth Ministry. I, for one, would like to see adults who make mistakes apologize to the teenagers they are hurting, and be given the chance to ask for forgiveness. Allow teenagers to see the some of the realities of poor decisions, but also give them closure with adults who are no longer going to be working with them. Mercy and grace are critical pieces of the Gospel, yet do not mistake them from not holding someone accountable for their actions. Teenagers are quite capable of showing mercy and grace while understanding the ramifications of someone’s choices. In fact, the grace actions of the teenagers may promote healing for the adult. The Gospel is not about being nice, it is about being faithful. Jesus tells us to forgive and to seek forgiveness. Teenagers in these difficult breaks need the chance to do both.

1960s teensNew relationships are formed over time. While lessons of faith can be taught during that time by new ministers and volunteers, the shared experiences and trust take time to build. Assuming a teenagers stays in the Youth Ministry of the church from 6th to 12th grades that is still a limited window in which their faith is shaped and learned with peers and adults who are in a constant cycle of learning from and with one another. Interruptions to that cycle are costly.

Identity Development Teenagers are figuring out who they are, trying on multiple personas while in middle and high school. I have had teenagers finish one school year dressed in black from head to toe, only to begin the following year wearing Sperrys and pastel polo shirts. It is a natural part of their development. Adults in relationship with teenagers often see the beauty of the teenager long before he/she does. We see who God intends for them to be and our job is to nurture them into discovering the specifics for themselves. You know this feeling from when you have encouraged a shy 7th grader to attend camp, only to see her shine as a High school student welcoming all the new youth into the group. You know this feeling from when you have restrained yourself from doing physical harm to the sugar infused 6th grade boys who kept you awake for 60 consecutive hours on a retreat, that are now leading Bible studies in their homes for their teammates and friends. As adults working with teenagers we love and nurture youth through these gangly self doubting days to become disciples for Christ. That happens with time, trust and a great cloud of witnesses. When one of those in the cloud disappoints a teen, that is a blow to that teen. As people of faith, spiritual and identity development go hand in hand, thus affecting one another, and when a trusted adult mentor makes these mistakes, our teenagers pay a cost.

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Financial Investment in Youth Ministry It is not pleasant to think about in these terms, but when a minister leaves, there is a financial costs. The search,hiring, and on-boarding process is expensive in financial terms and human capital terms. Imagine if the expense of searching for and hiring a new minister was allocated to the budget of a Youth Ministry program for training leaders, engaging in more service activities and providing opportunities for youth to experience Christ in new ways. What is the time spent searching for that person was time spent mentoring teenagers into disciples.

There will always be turnover in ministry, and there will always be mistakes that are made that lead to dismissals. However, it is important that we are conscious of the hidden costs in the lives of our youth. During times of difficult transitions, pay extra attention to the teenagers.

  1. Ask them individually how they are doing.
  2. Explain the situation as best you can. Teenagers are familiar with the concepts that adults will make mistakes, and they need to know that they are not being abandoned.
  3. Engage parents to have conversations with their teenagers about the situation and how their teenager feels about it.
  4. Be attentive to misinformation and correct it as possible.
  5. Model the grace and mercy of Christ for the teenagers as you also try to protect their best interests.

What tips would you add to the list?

Brian Foreman

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About the Author
Brian is a Youth Ministry and Social Media consultant (www.b4manconsulting.com), as well as adjunct professor at the Campbell University Divinity School. His work with churches is designed to increase youth ministry tenure through supporting and educating both congregations and ministers. He and his family currently live in Raleigh, NC.

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