In the past I've blogged about my experiences as a youth pastor. My hope is that I can ease people's fears/misconceptions of youth ministry. Many of us have had experiences in this world that, well, don't really make our hearts sing. I also want to share what is working for me as a youth pastor who wishes to avoid fear and shaming as a means to communicate with teenagers in my care. I think seeing that it can be done in a different way is important.
Tonight was the first night for middle school youth group for the 2015-2016 school year. This is always a nerve wrecking night for me. The stakes are high. New sixth graders are trying on the group for the first time, and with the introduction of new faces always comes a change in group dynamics. Basically, it is new...and sometimes new can be scary.
Another reason why this first meeting makes me nervous is because it is my first shot at talking about why youth group is a "safe place" and what that looks like. With each new year this conversation starts over again, "What does a safe place look and feel like to you?"
I was recently at a spiritual nurturer training and the facilitator spoke about the three levels of safety (or it might have been another word instead of safety...but I dunno). Basically we have three circles all nestled inside one another. The innermost circle is "comfort" the circle out from that one "challenge" and the outermost circle "chaos."
So tonight I put this on our driveway at WHF. And I had a list of questions for our middle schoolers to consider. I read each one out loud and asked them to stand in the spot that resonated with them. The questions started out easy, and got more difficult as we went on:
- When it comes to swimming, I found myself in what circle?
- When it comes to singing, I often feel like I am in which circle?
- When I am preparing for a test...
- When someone comments on my appearance..
- When people disagree with me...
- When I lose a friend...
- When people talk about God...
After each question I observed where certain people were standing. I'd say, "I see you are standing in the chaos section...why does it feel chaotic for you when..." What followed was deep and honest sharing from the heart. My middle schoolers listened to each other, often affirming their feelings out loud, and saying, "I know exactly what you are talking about, I feel that way all the time too." Insights about the God question blew me away. "I am afraid when the conversation about God comes up. I don't want to say that I am a Christian because than my friends think that I hate gay people, and I don't know how to get it out of my mouth fast enough that...no I'm not like that." After that statement a chorus of agreement from all standing there.
I realize the power of this activity now. This was about empathy. This was about hearing each other's stories and understanding why we stand in the places we do. It was about hearing what we needed to hear from our peers...that the same thoughts and feelings have passed through our own minds and hearts.
We went inside after this to talk about how this activity helps us talk about a "safe place." How can we inhabit both our comfort and challenge areas while keeping each other safe from chaos? How does seeing that we all have different experiences shape the way we care for one another?
Perhaps we all need to step into the circles with one another. What experiences have shaped where we are? How might we know when we are pulling each other into chaos? How might we know when we are inviting each other into challenge? How might we let those who need to rest in comfort, rest?