August, 2014

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Robin Williams, Teen Suicide, and the Church

Robin WilliamsTeens and students everywhere struggle with depression and teen suicide is on the rise, sort of.  In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, conversations about suicide and depression abound.  I have counselled a number of teens contemplating suicide, and an even larger number of teens struggling with depression.

Since 1991 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually, the number of teens contemplating suicide has dropped, from 29% to 17%, while the number of teens actually attempting suicide have gradually increased, from 7.3% to 8%.  Take note; 17% is nearly one in five teens.  Let’s put that in perspective.  For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

 

The CDC also reports that suicide is the number three cause of teen death in America, followed by homicide and accidents.  Student ministers should have a plan for ministering to suicidal teens and their families, because if you stay in youth ministry long enough, a teen will confide in you that they have hurt themselves, or have thought about suicide.  So how should youth leaders and volunteers respond?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) has some great tips that all youth workers should take to heart.  This list is adapted from their full list of tips, which can be found here.  When a teen mentions suicide or exhibits signs they may be suicidal:

  1. Be direct.  Do not change the subject.  Do not appear uncomfortable or act shocked.  Speak matter-of-factly and be open to hearing everything the teen has to say.  Many teens are an open book, especially if they trust you.  They have extremely high B.S. meters, and can tell if you are not being direct.  If a teen comes to you and wants to discuss hurting himself or suicide, give them (and their conversation) the seriousness and frankness they deserve.
  2. Listen.  Many times a mention of suicide is a plea for help itself.  The teen came to you!  They want to talk, and more important Helpthan any advice you could give them, you can give them your undivided attention.  I had a teen approach me with suicidal thoughts one time and instead of starting Bible study on time, I gave more time to our conversation.  I had a parent volunteer who was irate that I didn’t start the lesson on time and that Bible study was only ten minutes that evening, but my conversation with the potentially suicidal teen took priority.
  3. No secrets. Never guarantee confidence in a conversation when a student’s safety is on the line.  Their parents have a right to know if the teen is threatening to hurt themselves, and once a teen has mentioned suicide, you have a responsibility to try and seek out help for the student.
  4. Take Action.  When a student says they are going to hurt themselves, parents should be notified in a loving and calm way.  Telling a parent that their teen is contemplating suicide is one of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversations a youth minister can have.  Parents will exhibit a variety of emotions, like failure, denial, and even anger.  Suggest agencies and organizations in your area equipped to handle crisis intervention and suicide prevention.  If the student comes from an abusive home, contact the agencies directly on the student’s behalf.
  5. Offer them sincere hope.  Depression is no joke.  The home lives of students are no joke.  Bullying is no joke.  Anxiety over sexuality is no joke.  Any one of these factors (and many more) can potentially lead to suicidal thoughts.  As Christian mentor, you may have the great privilege and responsibility of reminding a teen that they are loved by you and by the Lord.  You can remind them that God is constantly present.  You can read some scripture together, and you can pray with them.  Most importantly, never gloss over their pain by saying things like “just give your sadness over to Jesus,” or “God wants you to be happy,” or “living in defeat is a sin.”  The only thing these statements to is mask our own discomfort.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and I have passed it out to an entire youth group before, knowing the three kids I was really targeting.  Suicide is a serious topic and it effects too many teens for the church to not take note and speak out.  How have you addressed suicide with your students and parents?  Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

Volunteer Led Youth Ministry

volunteer-ministrySo, you’re in a church that is too small to hire a youth minister, even a part-time one- welcome to the majority of churches in the world!  Most churches in the world have a completely volunteer led youth ministry.

The median church size in the United States is 75.  In fact, it is reported that 59% of churches in the U.S. have less than 100 worshipers on Sundays, and the overwhelming majority of churches have less than 500 in weekly attendance.  Most churches this size cannot afford a full-time (or even part-time) position for a youth minister salary, yet it seems like most of the training and resources in the world of youth ministry cater to paid youth workers.

Volunteers may certainly be aware of great resources like the Center For Parent And Youth Understanding but many are not.  Many volunteer youth leaders may easily get discouraged, having faithfully prepared a lesson for Sunday morning or Wednesday night, only to have one, or zero, youth show up.  Volunteer led youth ministry can feel lonely.

What strategies might work to get a volunteer driven youth ministry going in your church?  How can workers keep from feeling discouraged or burnt out?  Here are three simple ideas that can make an incredible impact on the way we do ministry with teens:

  1. Find ways to merge teens into the life of the church without feeling the need to start a whole new program.  Every church wants a thriving youth program, but many churches are not program size congregations.  Most churches that are able to hire a youth minister will initially fund the position on a part-time basis.  Teens do not need a flashy program for discipleship to occur, they need nurturing in their faith and to see Christ’s love modeled by caring adults.  They do not need to learn that church exists to cater to them, but that we are all in this together, and that inter-generational ministry will have lasting value on their lives. There is certainly a time and place for a program based youth ministry, but I predict that youth ministry in the future will become less entertainment driven and more incarnational, and that small churches may take the lead in being labs for youth ministry experimentation.  How exciting!
  2. Partner with other church groups for youth events. Instead of creating an entire youth program for your church (and expecting teens to magically show up) partner with other churches that may also only have a few teens.  Starting small, and finding other volunteer youth leaders in the community to partner with is good for students and for volunteers.  Students see that there are teens in other churches and have a chance to fellowship with like-minded people their age, and volunteers share the burden of planning an event like a weekly Bible study, a monthly fellowship, or even a summer mission experience.
  3. Share your passion for student ministry with your pastor.  Many pastors are former youth ministers and already share your excitement about reaching teens and their parents with God’s love.  This means that pastors may naturally serve as valuable resources for volunteers looking for youth ministry ideas.  (As a starting place, you can always download some free lessons from the SMI team here.)  If you share your heart for youth ministry with your pastor, I’m sure he/she will show gratitude and excitement, and remain excited to help equip you in the work of youth ministry.  If you are a volunteer who has a passion for youth ministry and you have to deal with a pastor who is not supportive of your passion to reach young people, I’ll be praying for you, and for the future of your congregation!

Our youth are the future of the church,  (cliché, I know) and you are likely reading this because you agree that ministering to youth is important.  My encouragement to you, especially if you are a volunteer youth leader, is that the work you do is vital.  God has given you a passion for reaching students with the love of Christ, and we are here to help.  Have questions?  Have ideas?  share in the comment section below!