Over the years, we have all dealt with students that we might have wanted to hand off to another youth group. Their difficult natures can take the shape of disrespect, apathy and, sometimes, just plain meanness. It can be frustrating as you start moving forward in your group and are held back by that one kid. So, what do we do? Do we ban the student from student ministry gatherings? Let’s call that the nuclear option and we will discuss that toward the end of the article. However, I think there are some things that we can do to pull the student into the mix and hopefully avoid the harder calls:
• Work on the relationship. Sometimes, a student just needs more of you. Have you spent time trying to get to know the student? Do you know what they are passionate about? Have you simply paused and listened to them? Students want to be heard and to know that you care about them. Especially in small to mid-sized churches, it is vital that you spend time with your students. You don’t even have to like them at first. You do have to start with a love for them and an understanding that God loves them. It may be uncomfortable but put in the effort and work on the relationship.
• Connect the student with another adult. You are not going to connect with every student. It is impossible. You have a unique personality and gifting. You can love all your students and show care for them, but there are times when you need other adults in your student ministry to latch onto the tough kids. Church youth groups can be tricky things. In some cases, we reach kids before we reach their parents. In others, we reach a family, and the students are just thrust into a group they didn’t choose. It is important to know that not everyone is there because of your great youth talks and winsome personality. That reality forces us to see that not all students are going to connect with us. Make sure you have a good team around you that wants to do the hard work of forming relationships with all types of students.
• Discuss the issue with your pastor. Don’t leave your lead pastor out of the loop. A disruptive student will have parents, and your actions inside the youth ministry can affect the family. The domino effect has the potential to impact the church.
• Talk with your student leaders. It is important to provide students with the opportunity to grow through leadership. A youth council or other groups in your ministry can provide those opportunities. These students can help you navigate some difficult relationships. A disruptive student is not easy to miss. Their behavior impacts the entire group. Talk with your student leaders and see what they would suggest. They may have a solution. Get them involved. This is their group.
• Consider the harder choices. Ultimately, as the youth pastor or student ministry worker, you have been called to invest in the young people in your church. If there is one student that is making that impossible, then it is time to consider the harder choices: Talk with the parents. Explain the situation and your desire to resolve it. Put an ultimatum in place with the student. If they are unwilling to behave in a manner that allows others to learn, then they will not be allowed to participate.
And finally, here it is, the real nuclear option (if all other options fail). If this student is a church member and unwilling to make changes, it may be time to consider church discipline. Is that a crazy idea? No. If they are converted church members, they have made a covenant together with other believers. We are not just talking about a “boys will be boys” situation. We are looking at scenarios where the disruptive student is actively standing in the way of believers growing in their faith and unbelievers coming to faith in Christ. If we consider the “nuclear option,” we should be looking for restoration rather than running someone off. And full disclosure, I haven’t had to drop the atomic bomb in any of my ministry postings, but it is the logical place that meaningful membership will take us.
Hopefully, as you work with difficult students, you will find great success in just spending a little more time with them. If you land on the harder choices, always act and move forward in love. We want all our students to know and love Jesus. We don’t want to simply dismiss some because they talk too much or are disrespectful. Our goal is gospel transformation rather than behavior modification. Even if they are difficult for us, let’s give them Jesus!