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HELP! A Survival Guide for Orthodox Youth Advisors

HELP! A Survival Guide for Orthodox Youth Advisors


By Tatiana Garrett Mulry

This article is copied from Youthworker: Resources for Orthodox Youth Work, a special DVD collection of articles and more available from the Department of Youth Ministry.


What did I get myself into?

Time after time, even the most experienced youth advisor asks this question. Sometimes the pressures mount, the teens seem bored, we feel burnt out, nothing seems to go right, no relief is in sight. Sometimes we spend our time and energy complaining about how hard we work and how little we get from it. When things get this bad, we are all tempted to return to civilian life, to retreat from the work and the criticism and to give up something we once loved. The negatives pile up and we forget why we had dedicated our lives to working with youth. In this discussion we will address the following questions:

  • How do we recapture the flame that once ignited when we were called to take on this awesome responsibility?
  • What is our role in the life of the Church?
  • How do we have maximum impact in the lives of our teens?
  • Where can we go for help?


Recapture the Flame

The first, and most critical thing, is to remember that we can not do this work without help and that the primary source of our help is through our personal relationship with God. Do we pray for help and guidance? Do we work on increasing our faith every day? Have we dedicated our talents to God?

When I was young, my family would say The Lord's Prayer before meals and we would gather at night to say The Trisagion Prayers together. When I left the fold of my family as an adult, that kind of discipline was hard to muster. Sometimes it is difficult to even make the sign of the Cross in public. Why?

Do we feel different because we do not conform exactly with the Western world's idea of Christianity or are we so caught up in our secular lives that we forget to acknowledge that God gave his only Son to die for our sins? What could be more important than remembering this gift when we eat, travel or begin an important task? When was the last time you were planning a spaghetti dinner for the parish and remembered that simple and unambiguous act of Divine Love?

We can strengthen our faith and act as examples to our teens by adopting simple prayer into our lives. Little known secret: prayer can be as simple as making the sign of the cross or as saying the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." Make an commitment today to privately remember God's love.

I have a hunch that when we are apprehensive about our faith, teens sense it. When we are resolute and enthusiastic about being witnesses to the faith, we send a powerful message.

St. Seraphim of Sarov was fond of saying, "Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved." Even if you have five teens in your group, they will affect their friends, families, classmates, coworkers, children and grandchildren. You have a great gift within you to share with all of these people.


The Church

Parish Council Meeting, Teen SOYO meeting, Sunday School, Choir, PTA, Soccer practices, business travel, family commitments... In how many directions are you being pulled?

How do we prioritize when everything seems so important and the loudest whiners usually win? While our family at the Church is certainly important, we have made lifelong vows to our spouses, children and other family members. They need us too. We need them. It is absolutely not an option to let them fall by the wayside while you chauffeur someone else's teens to dances, Broadway shows, apple picking and bowling.

In early Christian communities, life revolved around the Church. Persecution was more overt and there was safety in numbers. The Church was a local gathering place and all of the functions of life were performed there. Undoubtedly, we would still like to feel this deep sense of community with our fellow parishioners and especially our teens, but we sometimes allow distance and busy schedules to get in our way.

We are teachers and listeners and encouragers and friends to the youth in our community. Some in the Church will appreciate us, some will take us for granted. We have the choice to believe the opinion of either party. Which choice will enable us to be tireless in our efforts to serve the youth in our communities and by extension, serve the whole community?

When the arrows fly in your direction, do you respond with arrows or love? How did Jesus respond? He died for us. How did the saints respond? They died for Jesus and therefore also died in our names.

Often I get phone calls or hear comments about how this year in Teen SOYO is going. How trustworthy the kids are, how much money they raised on their Turkey Raffle, how many kids showed up at a meeting, how one kid gets along with the others. Good, bad indifferent, everyone has an opinion. What is our response?

Always thank God that at least one kid showed up, or that we were able to donate food to the hungry or that the teens were able to cheer up a shut-in, or that they learned a lesson from an event that some would label a failure. Once we lose the connection with our service to God, we lose sight of what we are really trying to accomplish.

I often think of the lyrics of a song by the band, The Blues Traveler when I hear praise or criticism for something that is just a small part of the whole. They sing, "And it won't mean a thing in a hundred years." It's true. No one will remember that three kids went bowling or one kid didn't get along or that 500 kids showed up for a retreat. In a hundred years, if we have done our job right, there will still be families going to Church. There will still be believers in our one, holy and apostolic faith. Our children's children's children will have Sunday School teachers who are full of faith and will find an Advisor to guide them through their teen years. We will have enough priests, deacons, monastics and lay people doing God's work on earth. In a hundred years...

Wow. Are we really a part of Church history? Yes! We are called to use our talents for the glory of God just like the Church Fathers, Martyrs, Ascetics and all the saints. They are not a part of a bygone, dusty era relegated to tiny parish library rooms. They are our models. Have you ever taken time to read their stories or reflected on their icons that line our church walls? We have been given great gifts by our forefathers including very visible reminders of their deeds. What have they taught us if we have not chosen to learn from them? Make the time next Sunday to read about or ask about one of the Saints of the church. Start with your patron Saint. How did their one life affect the life of the Church? How can their love of God translate into your life?

Please do not let your relationship with your spiritual father lapse! Your parish priest, deacon or other clergy member is interested in the health of the youth group, but is also interested in you. Even if they neglect to ask how you are every week, remind them that you need them and their guidance in order to complete your work. When you are unsure, please go to them! When they are too involved in the group (I have heard this complaint also) talk to them about the importance of teaching responsibility to the teens and thereby improving self-esteem. Thanks are in order for taking the time and effort to reach the teens. Even if it is frustrating to you personally at times, the teens need to know that the clergy cares for them also. Sometimes it feels as if the Church is focused on babies, families and the elderly and that teens are not the priority, so keep this in mind. However, there are graceful ways to unburden a priest that needs to do everything. Keep the priest informed, have the priest attend meetings, have the tasks assigned to specific people who pledge to do the job. Once a priest sees that jobs get done, it is easier to let go. But always be thankful! Gratitude is still the attitude!

How often we forget to pray! Ask your priest, your parish, your family and others to pray for you and your ministry and for the teens. Encourage the teens to pray for each other. Let them know that others are praying for them and for you. It is an amazing blessing and relief for teenagers to find that someone cares for them enough to make that small step. Magnify that blessing by the number of people in your parish. The glorious feeling resulting from having those around us pray for us is only a fragment of the love that God has for us. Teaching your teenagers and parish to pray for each other is a phenomenal gift that will last well beyond your time with them.

Now we have covered commitment to God, commitment to family, commitment to the Church, are we going to talk about teens? Absolutely.


Teenagers: Friends or Foes

Either you love them or you don't. If you don't love them, why are you torturing yourself? Loving is really easy and really hard at the same time. If you have been conflicted about whether or not you really care about these "monsters" now is the time to make a critical decision. PLEASE, love them, or choose a different outlet for your ministry.

Now "liking" them is another thing entirely. It is sometimes difficult to like the teen that always disrupts a meeting or gives you a hard time at every turn. This is also important. There is probably a reason that a particular teen acts inappropriately. What is going on behind the scenes? Try to understand the Monday to Saturday teen when the Sunday teen is less than likable. Maybe they are asking for help or acceptance from you. Getting angry or critical will deepen the problem, but reaching out could make an enormous impact on the life of this teen and in your group.

Sometimes we are asked to do things that are outside the scope of our talents. I know I was an average 1st Grade Sunday School teacher. After I was recruited, I tried my best to keep an open mind about the situation. However, I found myself getting impatient and judging the kids more harshly in my mind than I should have. I was frustrated and resentful that I had to go through this every week. Maybe I could have chosen the noble path of MORE resistance and forced myself through another year, but instead, I spared the kids my personal resistance and gave them a more patient and suitable teacher next year.

On the other hand, I can relate to teenagers. I remember their problems. Every story that I have heard this year from these teens I remember happening to me. I feel like my ministry matters and that reinforcement keeps me going when all else fails.

So please evaluate your level of interest in this ministry. Both you and the teens will be better served if the right person is doing the job. Do not worry if you do not feel like you are the right person. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the right person just hasn't been asked yet. (Saying no for the right reason is not the end of the world, even to your parish won't mean a thing in a hundred years.)

Now for the fun stuff.

When you were a teenager, what were your top five concerns? I bet they had nothing to do with gang violence, date rape, drug abuse, divorce or suicide. I know that I do not need to insert statistics to convince you that times have changed. Sometimes we really wonder if we can reach the multimedia generation with our limited resources. It is simply not true.

Teens fundamentally have not changed. The stimuli around them has changed, but that has been the case in every generation.

You are a stimulus to the teens as well. You have the opportunity to have a personal relationship with each one of them. Have you ever called or written a teen in your group to say hi, to find out what is going on in school or with a boyfriend or to find out when the school play is? Do you know what sports they play, what their favorite subject is or what college they want to go to? These are questions we could relate to as teens and they can too!

I wanted someone to confide in, somewhere to go for guidance, someone to trust. Luckily I found it in the Church rather than on MTV or on the internet. Do our teens have that option available to them or have we forgotten our personal ministry to fulfill the goals of our group ministry?

I would argue that no group is too small for an activity. I do not (in a hundred years...) let myself get discouraged when only one or two kids show up for a discussion or a movie night. It lets me really get to know someone who made the effort to be included in the life of the Church. Once one teen feels a personal bond to you, believe me, the rest will flock to you like bees to honey. Just be available to them. Let them know that you care and that God cares. "When you do this to the least of my brethren, you do it to me." This is the core of our ministry to the youth. We are called to illumine teens' relationships to God.

Outreach to teens who do not respond to this technique is also important. However, it is critical that your outreach me more substantial than a pure membership drive. Teens see right through that, and so would you. How do you develop relationships with those who do not want relationships? How did you get recruited for this job in the first place? I would bet you weren't putting "Position Wanted" ads in the bulletin. Ask a hesitant teen to help in some way. I have found that some teens will only come when they know that they are needed. I have designated salad makers at every meal that we prepare, but who aren't so involved in other types of activities. This is a great start. Once you hit upon a talent, create activities which capitalize on it.

I am a firm believer that you should not do the planning of events. Cataclysmic idea, I know. You should not be going to Price Club for every event and calling every charity in the county. If we are trying to instill confidence and leadership skills in our youth, they need to learn to do these things! If the group decides that they want to hold a dance or a lock-in or a visit to a homeless shelter, an event chairperson should be appointed and should (with your guidance and okay) take care of assigning tasks and working out details. Phone squads should be set up and calls should be made by the teens for the most part. I guarantee that one teen would find it difficult to say no to a peer (ever heard of peer pressure) and when one teen is excited about an event, it is definitely contagious. This is our little secret; they do not need to know that the world is on their shoulders. Obviously it is sometimes necessary to intervene and find a DJ three days before the dance because these things happen, but for the most part, you will find that teens take pride in doing things for themselves, the Church and the community.

So to recap:

  • Let them know that you care.
  • Remind them that God cares.
  • Remind them that doing our little part pales in comparison to the sacrifice that God made when he sent his only Son to die for our sins.
  • Encourage them to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.
  • Expose their talents and develop them.
  • Trust them and give them responsibility for the success of each event.
  • Let go, but assure them that you will be there for them.

Of course, if you are a parent and an advisor, you already know this stuff, but for the novices, these are things that don't necessarily come naturally.

Speaking of parents: how do you interact with them? Do you feel like a baby-sitting service some days? Do parents volunteer to help? Have you ever asked? Parents are a terrific resource that is rarely tapped.

At the risk of generalizing, I would venture to say that most parents that manage bring their teens to church every week really care about making sure that the teachings of the Church have a lasting impact on their kids. Moreover, they are probably concerned with the teen's social life and the friends that they develop and the habits they form. Many have vans! They bake! They can chaperone or make phone calls, or prepare short presentations. They want to be involved in their kids' lives, but do not want to appear pushy or domineering. BUT, they are willing to do some of the background work to help you help their kids.

Establishing personal relationships with the parents is a great way to build community spirit, get parents to keep kids involved and develop a greater understanding of the family life of each of your teens. A good rule of thumb is that you could get some involvement from at least one parent of about half of your teens. That could be revolutionary in terms of expanding the scope of youth ministry in your parish!

In many parishes there are young adults or, if you are lucky, college students who would also lend a hand. This is a way to broaden ministry to young adults and to start grooming a new generation of youth workers.


Back to the Basics: I Need HELP!

It is high time that we got excited about youth ministry! Think of this as a blessed miracle: If the love of God dwells in your heart and you act on it, your ministry will reach out to the teens, their parents, the parishioners, the community, the region, the country, the world! Sometimes we shy away from this vision and from expressing our faith in our work. I will tell you now, that is why we fear that our work is hopeless and meaningless. Without focusing on serving Christ in our service and love to our Teens, our work is hollow and unfulfilling. As I mentioned before, the first source of help is our faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

However, there are a million resources that we really do not come across easily or that never occurred to us. Your parish priest, parish library, past advisors, regional Youth Directors, regional Spiritual Advisors and parents of the teens in the Church are all available to us, especially in times of trouble.

In a crisis, sometimes we waver between protecting a teen and preserving the youth group. A teen in crisis is a very terrifying and mind blowing situation that unfortunately we sometimes face. When this happens, realize your limits. If you are not a trained counselor, you must seek help. Your parish priest has most likely had more experience in dealing with this kind of situation and you need to get him involved. The priest is the spiritual father to your teens and to you. He should be kept involved from the very beginning. It may help to keep notes on the situation to keep the details clear and available latter. If you and your priest decide the situation is more than you are trained to handle, referrals to outside agencies or counselors can be made. By sending the teen to the person with the proper tools you stand the greatest chance of solving the problem. Also, you are more likely able to dedicate yourself to the job you have been assigned to do. With that being said, we can concentrate on creating a good environment for youth ministry.

Current events, articles in teen magazines (why not pick one up to stay au currant with the trends), issues that come up within the group (the death of a grandparent, the birth of a sister or brother, the marriage of people in the church), there are tons of ideas all around you. Can you bear to go to the music store and look for the top 10 singles? They cost about $5 and probably come with lyrics. Some stores let you listen to the song before you buy it. Find one that seems like it is about an issue and bring it to the next meeting. You will definitely get their attention. Just ask them what the song means and you will have an hour rap session, guaranteed.

Charity groups are mentioned in the news, in the yellow pages, on billboards and in the mail. If a current tragedy captures the imagination of your group, mobilize the troops! One group in our region collected shoes for needy people in Haiti when political unrest erupted there. Others raise money when homes burn down or when medical emergencies occur. It is important to be humble about donating to charity, but it means more to the giver and the receiver when the gift is made in person. If you buy toys for a children's shelter, arrange a visit to play with the children. If you have a food drive for hungry people, arrange a visit to a soup kitchen so that teens see what impact they have on people's lives.

Be careful about asserting your interests on the teens. If they share your interests it could be a very rewarding experience, but if they don't they could resent your efforts. If you hate camping but the kids love it, before you shoot down the idea, consider enlisting more help than usual (there have to be outdoorsy types in your church) to make the experience less traumatic for you.


And in the End...

I do not know if this was what the Beatles intended, but I think that this song applies: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." You really do get out of youth ministry what you put into it. (Sometimes we actually get more than we gave, but that is our little secret. Don't tell the teens!) This is a lesson to take back to your teens because it is equally true for them. Focus on the reason we are gathered together as a Church, and then teach love, courage and responsibility through your actions and guidance. Pray for help in your ministry and take action every day to improve your teens' lives in the Church. Consult the myriad of resources available to you and rely on each other for help and encouragement. Our conference theme in 1997 was "Faith without works is dead." You have the opportunity to keep our ancient faith alive through your ceaseless efforts. God bless you and keep you on this timeless journey.




From this month's edition of The Word

Healing Broken Communities

First National Conference on Orthodox Schools Confirms Yearning to Promote Christian Learning Environment

From Conciliar Press

No Life in Second Life: Orthodoxy's Problem with Virtual Reality

Stepping-Stones to Faith: Nurturing Orthodox Christian Virtues in Your Children

From the Department of Youth Ministries

A Vision on Youth Ministry

Our Youth Need You

The Youth-Friendly Parish

HELP! A Survival Guide for Orthodox Youth Advisors

SOYO In My Life: Developing Leaders for Today and Tomorrow

Starting a Teen SOYO

Starting an Orthodox Campus Fellowship