by Kelly Soifer
I have the privilege of training college students and young adults in the fundamentals of faith and ministry. There are multiple principles I try to impart over the course of a semester or a summer internship, many of which could be filed under the category of “what I wish I had known when I was your age.” I have made my share of mistakes over the years, and I hope that I can redeem some of them by sharing the lessons learned with these young leaders.
At the very top of my “what I wish had known” list, especially if I am training these students in youth ministry, is (drumroll, please)… how to work with adults. I had no clue about how much working with teens actually involves working with grown-ups, too! When I started out, I pictured myself having fun with youth at camp, running a messy game, or having a heart-to-heart talk about the stresses of peer pressure over a burger and fries. Certainly, I did not envision myself facing the trials and tribulations of recruiting adult volunteers, talking to school principals, or the hardest of all, working with the parents of youth group members!
All of this was especially problematic because, like many whom I have known through the years in youth ministry, I started doing it early, when I was barely out of my teens myself. Basically, I had very little idea of what I was doing. But I was schooled rather quickly in what it takes to truly provide a holistic, healthy youth ministry: building a strong network of adults to provide holistic care and partnership. Though I spent my early years in youth ministry going on campus, attending every sporting event known to humankind, and eating far too much junk food, as my calling and career took hold I incrementally started spending the majority of my time differently, with adult volunteers, community leaders, and parents.
What was exciting and interesting about this transition was something unexpected: I discovered that the sort of things I envisioned doing with students were not all that different with adults. Certainly, it did not look the same, because rather than sharing adventures at camp and eating chili fries, I was having a sensible salad with them during their lunch break from work! But our topics of conversation were remarkably similar. Just as I did with young people, I would talk with volunteer leaders about their own spiritual journeys and ways to grow deeper. With community leaders and local youth pastors, we shared the joys and sorrows of our daily lives, similar to the sorts of conversations I would have with teens about their friends, parents, teachers, and coaches. With parents I did a whole lot of listening as they poured out their fears about their kids and their own insecurities about parenting. Ah, if kids only knew how much their parents want to connect with them!
Whether I was meeting with a 15-year-old or a parent, these exchanges often brought me to the same place: to a discussion about how to get the support and help needed to keep moving forward toward healing and wholeness in Christ. Since I had my own story of the benefits of counseling and mentoring, this was not as difficult as it might sound. Working through my own stuff over many years had made me sensitive and aware of how to point others to some great resources, mostly by sharing some of my own experiences first.
Where does one begin? Here are some fundamentals:
- Limitations. I had to face the hard truth that I not able to provide the help that was truly needed for many of the people in my care. As I describe it to my students and interns now, we need to understand that pastors and ministry leaders are often like the First Responders to a crisis. They provide the “triage” necessary to get the person to ongoing, professional help. Then they need to trust them to professionals, checking in occasionally. This can be especially challenging for many of us in the care-giving professions, because we might struggle with our own “messiah complex,” trying to take everyone’s problems on ourselves. In a word… DON’T!
- Training. While saying that, I will also say that it is important to get the training we need to be those First Responders. I have taken three different pastoral counseling courses during my career to help me identify signs and to become familiar with the many resources at my disposal. They were all provided through seminaries, and taught by pastoral counselors and clinical psychologists.
- Mentors. Several years ago, after another round of counseling for my own issues, I set up a relationship with a professional counselor to use as go-to reference. He agreed to respond within 24 hours to my email inquiries for advice and direction on the situations I encountered. This has been invaluable. You do not have to have all the answers–you simply need to know where to find them!
- Holistic. I wish I had understood Family Systems earlier. As Eugene Peterson writes, “My purpose is to block any approach that reduces adolescence to a problem that must be solved and insist that it is an experience to be entered into by the middle-aged as well as by the young as a means for growing up.” Encourage whole families to get help, because all are contributing to the concerns at hand in one way or another.
- Prayer and Patience. How I wish I had learned this one first. Once I got a little personal counseling under my belt, I decided everyone else needed it, too! I made the mistake too often of directly addressing whatever problems I was aware of, and alienated some in the process.
This is only scratching the surface, but I pray it can motivate you to learn more. I am so grateful for the work of ministry in my own life. In my desire to care for others, I was forced to address my hurts and concerns first. As I have done that, I have been much more able to walk beside those I care for into the support they need.
Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser, and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.