Suicides by entrepreneur Kate Spade and chef/tv star Anthony Bordaine, remind me that if money, power, influence, tons friends and excitement can’t hold back depression and suicidal thoughts, what’s keeping a kid in my youth group from ending his or her life?
With the passing of author and pastor Jarrid Wilson, the subject of suicide, self care and mental health are at an all time high in the church.
Here’s the podcast
This report, in 2017 shows that teen suicide is on the rise
I have had, to my knowledge, only one student attempt suicide in my 30 years of youth ministry. I cannot tell you whether any of my youth ministry practices prevented any of these as there are no testimonies as such. But, my hope is that everything I tried to do (listed below) was a speed bump for a kid who was heading down that path.
Let me share 10 youth ministry practices that could keep a kid from ending their life.
open ended questions…
So much of a midweek meeting with youth is about the program. Youth leaders are trying to make the program happen so the conversations with students can be very surface level. Regardless of the length of the conversation, we can ask open ended questions that would allow a student, who you’d consider at risk, the room to answer openly and honestly.
Start with “how’s school going?” but go a little deeper with, “Do you feel like you have a strong group of friends to help you make it through school?”
affirm their worth & how much God values them
Kids are constantly hearing about how much they don’t measure up. We have to pour on the love and affirmation to counteract that. I don’t just mean through messages, but though one on one, over lunch, or in a text message.
You don’t need to see teens down and out before giving them a kind word. Give them the love they need long before they need it.
forgiveness and redemption
Jesus is our hope. I, like you, have preached my share of fire and brimstone, not good enough to go to heaven, messages. I don’t deny the reality of hell, our own sinfulness or our inability to measure up to the holiness God asks of us, but if this is the only messages kids hear, what hope is there?
I’ve gotten much better at offering truth in love with a bunch of hope for good measure. God reveals to each of us how we do not measure up and pours grace upon our wounds. A student doesn’t need our condemnation and judgment, they need to know there is a way to be forgiven and that God has made a way out of the darkness they’re in.
This one is so simple, yet, the busyness of life steals it like Satan steals the seed of the Word. How many times has God checked my heart to call or contact a student who I thought was struggling and busyness swallowed that thought? Too many to count.
I just heard a testimony from a youth pastor friend of mine, he went by this kids house a dozen or more times to invite him to church and every time that kid said he would be there and not show. One Wednesday, here comes that kid walking through the door. The youth pastor asked him, “What made you come?” The kid responded, “I had been sitting at home thinking how much church people are hypocrites and don’t care about anybody. Then I thought, that can’t be right, this guy visits my house to invite me to church, I must be wrong.” That kid stayed in that youth ministry for several years.
Whether it’s us or one of our leaders, we have to respond to the Spirit’s prompting towards those kids who are missing in action. If a student misses one night that’s one thing, but two in a row, that could means something else. We must be diligent to notice when students are not with us. When we call or text we are saying, “We noticed you were gone.” We’re showing them we care.
I had a student who was sick. I could have sent a text and offered “thoughts and prayers” but I went deeper. I had a lady in our church, who’s a florist, put together some of this students favorite goodies and deliver them to her house by the time she was arrived home from a procedure.
This girl was not an “at risk” student, but I did it anyway. Why? Because I don’t know how much kindness she receives at school. She doesn’t fit the type of kid who might think about suicide (neither was Spade or Bordaine) and I hope, with healthy doses of kindness towards her, she never will.
be awkward, “how are you doing, really?”
Go ahead and be awkward. I had a conversation with a young man who, by his pictures on Instagram, was not going well for him, The pics, plus not looking well, plus hear-say, led me to believe he might be at risk.
We sat at McDonald and I saw something in his eyes and demeanor I did not like. So I just asked him, “Have you thought about hurting yourself lately?” He denied having an inclinations, and it was awkward to ask, but I’m still glad I did. Now, he knows that I know he might have been having struggles. He might open up next time I ask him.
train teens/leaders to be empathetic
Youth night at church should be a safe haven for kids, but sometimes the students in our ministry do not act any different than the kids they see at school. Youth night is filled with imperfect kids who do and say imperfect things just like we do, but we have the microphone or the floor, and we can direct thoughts and attitudes.
We can teach on how Jesus who, rather than judge others, showed mercy and empathy. We can have practices like
- getting to know each other’s names
- meet and greet
- small group time for conversation
- affirmation times
- prayer times
These kind of things are not practiced regularly or enforced at school; but at church, kids willfully come and we can design our meetings to encourage kids to practice empathy towards one another.
clearly defined standards, policies and procedures
I am a big fan of standards. If the house rule is no bullying, that’s the rule and no one is beyond it. If the house rule is no creeping on each other, that’s the rule and I enforce it to the best of my ability.
I had a group of kids one time where one boy would not leave a girl alone. I asked that young man to stop, I counciled him, I told hime to take a few weeks off to think about it and call me every week to check in. He would not have any of it and neither would his friends, and they all left.
Not only should we have standards (rules) we enforce but when we have kids at risk, we need to have phone numbers in our phone for emergencies, numbers of counselors or therapists we can recommend, and other resources we can point to.
If a kid maks the claim that they are going to commit suicide, we need to have a policy, backed up by the church, that allows the youth pastor to make that call in agreement with his pastor or boss.
If you’re older than a teenager, you have some thing they do not, perspective. You’ve lived through a few things. You know things because you came though some stuff with God’s help. We need to pass that on.
If you’re a a Christian, you have some idea of God’s word and the hope and promise it contains, and you need to spread it around.
We have to see kids, not as they are, but as they will be. Jesus called Peter the rock while he was still a pebble. We should be looking at kids and saying things like,
- you can make an impact
- you have potential
- you have more courage in you than you think
- you could be a leader
Positively prophesying over a student lets’ them know that you see something they may not and affirms their worth and value. Powerful, positive, Spirit-Filled words can change the course of life for a kid and lead them out of the darkness.
small groups and accountability
Connecting kids in a smaller group where they can know others and be known is powerful step for at risk kids. Being in a smaller group allows them to build trust and be more vulnerable as well as have a safety valve to release the pressures of life.
These groups do not have to be standard Bible study groups, but could be groups who are just committed to checking in, praying for one another, and lifting one another up on hard days.
Like I said, I cannot prove that any thing I just listed here has averted any kid from taking their life, but, I can’t disprove it either. So, I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and pray for the same outcome, that kids will find their way out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light.
For more help on working with teens, here’s my interview with Jim Hancock on How To Deal With A Teen In Crisis
If you’re looking for material that talks about loneliness, let me suggest a four week series I wrote called Stand Alone Together