Youth Ministry in the Deep End: What to do when you just don’t know what to do

Jacob Eckeberger
October 14th, 2016

We’re excited to have Marv Penner as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminars. Check out more information HERE.

While most of us are quick to affirm the effectiveness of small ratios and intentional relationships in youth ministry there are some new challenges that can’t be ignored.  Deeper relationships between students and adults inevitably lead to greater trust.  Greater trust means that students are willing to expose details of their lives with us that would have been off limits to adults in the past. And hearing those stories – often painful and complex, demands a response – in spite of the fact that we often don’t have a hot clue what to say in the face of what’s just been shared.

What do we do when we’re out of our depth, when our dumbfounded naiveté paralyzes us, when our crowded calendars can’t bear one more deep relationship, or the details of the story being told demand a legally prescribed response?

We ask for help – that’s what we do!

We’d love to believe that we are sufficient for every relational challenge, that we are God’s gift to every kid and that we should know the appropriate response in every situation – but we aren’t and we don’t – and that is no cause for shame. Even the most seasoned and well-equipped youth workers routinely invite others to help when they are dealing with daunting or delicate situations.

In most “deep end” ministry dilemmas we would benefit from implementing one of three possible responses.  (Actually there are four, but drowning with the kid because of our unwillingness to ask for help is not one I’m all that comfortable promoting.)  When we’re out of our depth we can consult, we can refer or we can report.


Consulting simply means that we share the circumstances of our young friend (usually anonymously) with someone who has expertise or experience beyond our own. It’s a matter of asking for advice or an objective perspective and often it’s all we need to help a student move forward.  In some cases our own relationship with the student or our history with them and their family make it difficult for us to step back and see the big picture. Even professional therapists routinely ask their supervisors or colleagues for input when they are dealing with unusual or complex situations.  Within appropriate boundaries of confidentiality these conversations are crucial to positive outcomes for the people they are working with.

The most natural consultant for most youth workers is the person they report to.  Paid youth workers can consult a more seasoned senior pastor or elder.  Volunteers can ask their lead youth worker, youth director or youth pastor. An added advantage of asking these folks for their perspective or advice is that it keeps them informed of the kinds of issues kids in your ministry are facing.

There may be circumstances that make it inappropriate to consult your direct report for help (like maybe it’s the senior pastor’s kid who is actually your youth group’s drug dealer) and when that’s the case it’s good to have a few people you can trust that you can get in touch with on short notice. Talk to people who know and love teenagers to get helpful advice.  A school guidance counselor you’ve gotten to know (You have introduced yourself haven’t you?), a medical doctor, a Christian therapist or a veteran youth worker from another church will be a real ally in times like this.

Here’s one more benefit that may not be as obvious…

Consulting slows down the whole process a bit.

It gives us a chance to think it through…and in most cases that’s not a bad thing.  Our tendency to react rather than respond can often get us in trouble. And by the way – beware of using the consulting process as a veil for gossip, or even worse as a way of showing others how deeply kids trust you and what an amazing youth worker you are to be dealing with such heavy stuff. It’s actually something that all of us a vulnerable to in our need to be affirmed and it’s not helpful.


Referral is a significant step up from consulting. When we refer we actually pass the student on to someone who is better positioned to deal with the problem than we are. In many cases it requires an attitude of honesty and humility to acknowledge our inadequacy. Sometimes it’s just desperation.

Many organizations, like schools, camps, youth clubs and churches have very specific rules about when and how their employees or volunteers must refer a student. It’s important for you to know what these policies are and adhere to them without exception.

Why should we consider referring a student when we’re not sure what to do next? Our natural tendency is to want to handle things on our own.  We don’t like to admit that we are out of our depth or carrying more than we can handle.  For some of us the need to be needed is so great that we actually find ourselves feeding off the problems kids share with us.  It feels good to know that kids have trusted us with secrets that no one else knows about.

First – a quick reminder on why we refer students…

  1. To ensure that they are getting the best possible help

No one is in a position to offer expertise in every situation that comes along. We can actually do harm to students when we fail to provide them with the most comprehensive help possible. Be sure you develop working relationships with the people in your community who have expertise in dealing with the specific issues you find yourself facing with the kids you care about.

  1. To defend yourself against burnout and imbalance

To be helpful to kids in pain we must remain personally strong and balanced.  That means guarding our primary relationships from neglect and abuse. Marriage, family, adult friendships – these are all components of a healthy life but they are also the very areas that begin to deteriorate when we over commit. Burnout is inevitable when we try to give away something we don’t possess. Without appropriate give and take in our lives we’ll find ourselves running on empty pretty quickly.

When you’re dealing with situations that overwhelm you, individual students who are taking most of your time, suicide threats, complex medical situations, serious violations of the law, addictions or abuse you may need to refer a student to someone who can give them the kind of consistent care their situation warrants.

One final thought on this – Don’t ever equate referral with failure. 

When we care enough about our students to ensure that they are getting the best help and we care enough about ourselves that we maintain appropriate time and energy boundaries we ensure that we’ll be able to continue to offer help to kids for years to come instead of going down in flames because of over-commitment.


The third potential response when we’re out of our depth is to report.  In some cases reporting is not optional. When we report we are typically following through on a legal obligation that is mandated in certain circumstances – usually related to incidents of abuse or significant danger to a student or someone they know.

This topic is complex and probably warrants an article all its own. The fact is that there are a variety of rules and regulations around questions of when certain circumstances must be reported, to whom the report must be made, the length of time between the disclosure of an incident and the filing of a report and even who it is in an organization that is actually obliged to make that report. For the purposes of our discussion here let me suggest two things:

  1. Become familiar with all the details of the reporting regulations in your area. 

If your organization, denomination or church doesn’t have a well-defined policy on this (and they should), a good place to begin your exploration is with the guidance counselor in the local school (surely by now you’ve introduced yourself.) They receive the latest government memos and will be able to point you to where you can get your own information. Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

  1. Err on the side of caution.

If you’re not sure what to do consult with someone who knows the rules and follow through. Youth Ministry history is littered with stories of well-meaning youth pastors who decided that they’d make their own judgment calls on issues that are clearly addressed in the law.  Most of them are working in retail these days.  Let’s not believe for a moment that we are above the law.

Working with kids who hurt will inevitably put us out of our depth on a pretty regular basis.  The great news is that we’re not the ones who bring about healing anyway.  Listen to the hope and confidence in this benediction that was penned by the writer to the Hebrews.

“May God, who puts all things together and makes all things whole, who made a lasting mark through the sacrifice of Jesus…now put you together and provide you with everything you need to please him and make you into what gives him most pleasure by means of the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah. All glory to Jesus forever and always.”  Hebrews 13:20,21  (the Message)     

Marv Penner is an internationally known author, professor, speaker, and youth ministry veteran who has spent more than 40 years working with students and families. He’s the author of six books on youth ministry, including The Youth Worker’s Guide to Parent Ministry, Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut, and Building and Mobilizing Teams. Marv is also a marriage and family counselor specializing in parent/adolescent conflict resolution, sexual abuse recovery, self-injury, eating disorders, and marriage and family issues.

Jacob Eckeberger

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.