Have you ever had a student tell you something that left you wondering what to do next? If not, the day is coming. Lead a student ministry for any length of time and you—or one of your small group leaders—will hear at least one of the following:

  • “I went to this party and…”
  • “I don’t feel safe in my house…”
  • “There are these mean girls at school who push me around…”
  • “I’ve been looking at some stuff online…”
  • “My friend has an eating disorder…”
  • “No one knows this but…”

These sorts of conversations can leave even a seasoned student pastor wondering what to do next. Teaching a series on families or partying is easy. But what do you do when you’re talking to a kid who’s in the middle of it right now? In these situations, strategy is crucial. If you’ve never thought through your “reaction plan”, here are a few great ways to get started.

1. Plan for what to say.

  • Be honest. If their actions are dangerous, it’s okay to tell them so. If you don’t have all the answers, tell them that too. If your church has a policy that requires you to share certain information with parents, let them know. Don’t make promises about secrecy that you can’t keep. Set the tone by showing them you’re honest and worthy of their trust—no surprises. And be sure to communicate how honored you are that they chose to trust you with something so personal.
  • Be reassuring. Chances are they’re especially nervous about your opinion of them. Remind them that you think they’re awesome and nothing they do will change that. Also, be mindful that your facial expressions communicate as much as your words. What a student says may be shocking, but you can’t let your expressions say so.

2. Plan for who (and when) to call. Most volunteers don’t know when to involve parents. Calling a parent every time a teenager breaks curfew is a fast track to ensuring that kid never shows up or confides in you again. So when do you call for back up? A good rule of thumb is to ask about the three hurts.

  • Are they hurting themselves?
  • Are they hurting someone else?
  • Are they being hurt by someone?

If the answer is yes, you need to call for help. Never keep secrets that put a student in danger. That call should be made as soon as possible. It may seem like a good idea to say, “You tell your parents within two weeks or I will…” But that’s an incubator for anxiety (and it’s not helpful). A better way is to let them know you’ll be with them: “This is something we have to share with your parents tonight. I want you to tell them, and I’ll be right beside you.”

The exception, of course, is if the student is being hurt by their parents. In this case, the church leadership should call social services, the school social worker or the police to get help for the student as quickly as possible.

3. Plan for what to do next. When a small group leader has this sort of conversation, it’s important for them to keep you, the student pastor, in the loop. Make sure they know to bring these situations to your attention. Together, the two of you can work on a follow-up plan for the parents and the student.

If your church doesn’t already have a policy on how to handle tough conversations with students, it’s time to make one. Planning for situations before they happen is key to handling them well.

Does your student ministry currently have a protocol? If so, your next step is determining the best way to communicate that plan to your leaders and volunteers.

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