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The Kid Who Never Came Back

The Kid Who Never Came Back:
Handling Youth Group Dropouts

What happens when an active teen suddenly drops out of youth group?

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;”
Proverbs 3:5-7a (NRSV)

The Kid Who Never Came Back

When Young People Go Missing

“I just don’t understand why they never came back.”

This is a statement many in a congregation made after a family with five teenagers suddenly stopped showing up.

For months, they were active. Their presence was energizing. Their absence was confusing, then painful, then frustrating.

As fast as they jumped into our ministries, they were gone.

Five kids who never came back.

I had little to offer the congregation, until I remembered…

I was the kid who never came back.

Catching the Fire

FLASHBACK: Middle school was a big time for me.

I started playing the saxophone.

I had my first big crush.

And I began to ask some big questions about Jesus.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone… You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

After a transformative summer that included a commitment to follow Jesus, a baptism in a river, and my first ministry leadership opportunity as a teacher for a large Vacation Bible School program, I returned to school in September “on fire for God.”

Equipped with my WWJD bracelet, a Bible in my backpack, and an AIM screen name that included the words “Jesus Freak,” I found a large non-denominational church that welcomed me warmly. A middle school youth minister became my hero. She really cared about what I had to say—especially questions about faith. She and the other youth leaders poured into me and quickly gave me additional roles, service opportunities, and responsibilities. Before I knew it, I was on the Leadership Team, the Welcome Team, the Worship Team… name a team that would involve me being at the church, I was on it.

After almost three years of intense involvement, I dropped off the face of youth ministry.

And I never said goodbye.

Transitions and Loss

Over-scheduled achievement-seeking and a difficult transition into the high school youth group turned me into an excuse-making machine. Theologically and spiritually shallow small group experiences left me hungry for something different—something more.

They tried to reach out.

First, there were phone calls. I ignored them.

Then, emails. I sometimes responded.

Eventually, I cut my ties. After a few months, the youth team gave me space.

I would see them occasionally at musicals, games, and other events.

I felt embarrassed for leaving, and I avoided them at all costs.

When I received a “candy gram” from my old middle school youth minister during intermission of one of our high school musicals, I felt seen, remembered, and loved—but I still wouldn’t go back.

I still prayed, sought spiritual conversation partners, and asked big questions.

I went to college, and tried some campus ministry groups, many of which involved thirty-year-olds talking to me in Christian-bro-speak. It felt too familiar.

My faith still shaped me—informing my worldview, vocational discernment, and relationship decisions.

Coming Back

Then it happened.

A summer children’s ministry summer internship led to a youth ministry position.

I reached out to my middle school youth minister for advice. We got coffee. We reminisced. She gave me books that shaped her early on in her ministry career. And yet again, she changed my life.

Though she hadn’t seen me for years, and I certainly couldn’t have been included in her attendance count, she was one of the most influential people in my faith formation, my journey with God, and my call to ministry.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone.

Caring for One-and-Dones

Here’s what you can do about it:

  1. Reach out to them in a low pressure way. It might bring them back.
  2. If it doesn’t, they may want to avoid you. Say hi, but don’t guilt them.
  3. Pray for them.
  4. Remind yourself, even though you’re emotionally invested in your ministry—it probably wasn’t about you.
  5. Trust the LORD. Remember—you

Every now and then you’ll re-connect and learn that those conversations, silly games, and tears were worth it after all. Hang onto those moments.

Most of the time, you’ll probably never know the impact that you’ve had on the life of a teenager.

You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

So care for them, even when they’re the kids who never come back.


About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten is a third year M. Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has served as a minister to children, youth, and adults in American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.

Burn the Boats: Embracing Ministry Transition

This summer we made a significant move from a place I’d lived longer than any time in my life. It was not an easy decision to leave both people and careers that had been firmly established.

As we listened for God’s voice in our decision we sensed being led to this new place where we live and serve now. A gut wrenching surrender was required of us – one that I could not and have not fully absorbed yet. I would vulnerably confess that I am still in a season of grieving the move, and I am also celebrating this new place we’ve been planted.

Burn the Boats

This new place, while so thankfully familiar, is also brand new to us as we learn how to negotiate our life here with teenagers and rebooting ourselves in familiar forms of ministry. I am a Christian Counselor launching a new counseling practice in this new city. My wife is the Young Life Area Director still wrapping her arms around this amazing ministry. Even though she has 20 years of experience on the Young Life staff, this is a really big job.

Validating Grief

A friend of mine recently validated my grief. He described that he did not know many other people who were as deeply integrated into the life of our former city as I was. While I could argue whether or not that is accurate, he put his finger on something that resonates deeply. I am/was integrated into our community in some lovely ways that I will miss deeply.

I’ll spare you the details of all the many dimensions of integration but trust me when I say that I was fortunate to have been engaged so deeply with a diverse community of activists, entrepreneurs, artists, creatives, counselors, spiritual directors, pastors and priests. My wife grew up in that city and her parents were also deeply integrated in many forms of service, both professionally and civically.

Just last week I was back officiating a wedding when a couple in the same outdoors store struck up a conversation. They instantly knew my father in law from some business they had done together.

So we sailed away from the familiarity of our shoreline there, away from our “known world”. We pointed our vessel perpendicular to the coastline for the oldest city in the United States.

Our arrival was marked by celebrations with new and familiar friends. I took a much-needed sabbatical. Ruth Ann cannonballed into her work here while our kids spent the summer navigating the penetrating heat playing in both sand and surf.

We worked so hard to get here. What a gift to have this time over the summer to rest our way into the fall. And then the kids went back to school and my days are not as full. I’m more aware of the white space in my calendar than ever.

Then it hits me. We’re not on vacation. This is our new home.

No Turning Back

“Burn the boats” is a phrase I’ve overheard for years when referencing how to make a successful transition. The reference is to the French navy who, when arriving to the shoreline of a battle, would burn the boats to illustrate to their fleets that retreat was not an option.

This morning, in worship, we sang “No Turning Back”. And without warning, this past week, as the new signage went up in front of my counseling practice, a friend texted me, “no turning back, no turning back.”

Tears come forward as a refreshing reminder of what was and is a special place to have been given these last 13 years. And they honor what is happening as we attempt to open ourselves up to what God might do here in this new place, in each of us, in our family, in our respective ministries of evangelism, discipleship, spiritual formation and counseling.

Establishing a New Foundation

There are a handful of things that are helping us get grounded as we transition in this new place and we highly recommend them to you as well;

1. Cultivate a local community around you

For some this is dialing in your involvement in a local church while for others this may look like inviting an intentional group to get together, kids and all, for scheduled community time (pray, eat, laugh, play, sabbath, sing, commune).

2. Grieve well

Just like I allowed the tears to come forward, we can catch ourselves feeling the pain of what we’ve left or lost. Honor the pain and seek out someone to help you process the pain. For me, it has been immeasurably helpful to sit with a seasoned therapist who I’ve known for a couple decades. We’ve never met for this reason until recently but her willingness to sit with me as an attentive listener is helping. Tears are your friend as they will tell on you when you won’t tell on yourself.

3. Take self-care seriously

I shared this last week with a friend as I shared that I’ve experienced some evidence of depression in the transition. “I would say that self care is both to get outside yourself while remaining attentive to the inside of yourself.”

A great book by Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak masters the tension of these. Parker describes a clinical depression that he experienced and that may be helpful.

He describes going on outward bound at 40 in the middle of the depression. They went repelling in Maine and as he started his descent he got stuck … like froze on the cliff and could not move another inch. The guide yelled to him “you ok Parker?” He describes that a childlike voice spoke back “I don’t want to talk about it.” After a pause, the guide said something that helped unlock his brain…”Remember, if you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

That was the password apparently for hyper leaping his brain and making the remainder of the scary descent. He did not write about his depression for a decade just because it had been so painful and deep. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it!”

There is no bypassing hard, so don’t avoid it…embrace it!

Embrace the Pain of New

So, whatever transition you find yourself in (new job, new city, new baby, new marriage, new ministry…), I would encourage you to embrace the pain of new. One of my friend’s mentors and spiritual directors invites people to answer the question, “In all of your gaining, what’s been lost?”

Maybe honoring what’s been gained demands us to honor what’s been lost. Many people will discourage you to see only the gains but I would invite you to allow yourself to honor both.

So, in all of your gaining, what’s been lost? Or in all of your loss, what’s been gained?


About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.