by Julie Richardson Brown
It was one of those moments where everything suddenly becomes as if a slow-motion sequence in a particularly intense moment of a Jerry Bruckheimer film (cue dramatic power ballad music).
The toe of his sneaker bent double on the edge of the shallow concrete water drain and as it did, all six feet-plus of him lurched forward. He tried desperately to catch himself, but there was no way, it was all happening too quickly, and so he crashed, face-down, his upper half blessedly landing on soft grass, his lower half getting caught on the drain’s hard and unforgiving edge.
I got to him just as his first yelp of pain was ending, having sprinted from the camp’s outdoor dining room across the yard, and found him holding a shin already gushing blood.
“You’re going to have to let me see it,” I said, knowing he didn’t want to relinquish his hold. He finally did, only to showcase a cut deep enough for white bone to be evident. Pushing back my own nausea, I put my hands on his shoulders and said, “OK. Breathe. It’s going to be alright.”
And it was. Even though we were in a different country than our own, and even though we didn’t speak the local language very well, and even though it was very hot and we were very scared, it was all okay. And that I was able to tell his terrified mother that from thousands of miles away is tremendous grace.
But perhaps it could have not all been okay.
Any youth minister worth his or her salt knows the dread of one of your kids getting hurt. Any youth minister who has been at it for any length of time has made an emergency room visit. And any youth minister who takes kids on mission trips or fun trips or any kind of trips at all, whether domestic or international, knows the sweet relief of arriving home with the same number of people you left with and with everyone (mostly) intact.
Because always there is the other possibility.
Terrible accidents happen. And horrible tragedies occur. And sometimes despite our best efforts at safety and caution, things go awfully awry.
I left congregational youth ministry two years ago after more than 15 years of it, and I still have very real nightmares about what could have happened. What could have gone wrong.
There is no guarantee of safety in youth ministry. This is the cold, hard truth that we pray against every day of our careers. But another truth is that sometimes we have so much on our minds that we forget things like 1) first aid kits or 2) reminding kids to put their seat belts on. And while first aid kit materials are often easy to come by, and teenagers really should know to wear a seat belt without our admonishing them to do so, the fact is, sometime these things are not obvious.
Safety takes intention and foresight and awareness, three things that are easily lost in the shuffle if not carefully attended to.
And so if a brand-new youth minister were to ask me, “Julie, how can I best keep my kids safe?” I’d say this:
- Cover the basics: medical permission forms, allergies on file, first aid kits available anywhere you are, and a bag of “preventatives” like sunscreen, bug spray, and Dramamine.
- Take someone medically trained with you on overnight trips when at all possible–especially if you are traveling to a rural area or a foreign country.
- Check your ego. Again and again. Your need to be cool by showing off on jet skis or a bungee jump isn’t what youth ministry is about. And it can breed an atmosphere of recklessness and one-upmanship that can run amok very quickly.
- Sound like a parent: “Wear your seatbelts!” “Put on your sunscreen!” “Check for ticks!”
- Model safety yourself (in other words, make sure your own helmet is fastened, too).
- Know where the nearest treatment center, drug store, or ER is every time you go somewhere, and, though it may seem obvious to say, know where these things are in close proximity to the church you serve, too.
- Find budget money to train your volunteers in First Aid and CPR. It’s a worthy investment should you ever need it.
Like I said, there are no guarantees. And, truthfully, I haven’t always been perfect at it. And, I’ve been very lucky in my youth ministry days to have avoided major trauma or tragedy. But even the smallest injuries feel giant when you are far from home or trying to console a weeping 12-year-old.
The thing is, they are, while we have them, ours. And we ought to treat them as such.
Even if it means we get some flack (Really, Julie? More sunscreen?) now and then. Even if it means a new line item in the budget. Even if means setting your alarm to check a diabetic’s blood sugar at 3 a.m. Even if it means holding the forehead of a puking middle schooler.
Safety matters when you’re walking around with the children of God as your charge and blessing both for the day, friends. Do your best to keep them safe. And always remember you are not alone on the journey.
Julie Richardson Brown is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and youth ministry has long been her ministry passion. She has served congregations in Georgia, Kentucky, and Indiana and has been the featured speaker at a number of church camps and conferences. She serves as Team Minister for Youth Ministry for the Christian Church in Indiana, and does some consulting with smaller congregations about congregation-led youth ministries. She writes at www.julierichardsonbrown.net.