By Cory Sullivan, Youth Pastor at Wheatland Community Church in Rush, NY
There has not been a more life-shaping experience for me than pastoring students in the juvenile justice system. These are the youth that society has forgotten—the ones that have been labeled monsters and even pushed to the margins. And believe it or not, that’s what makes it such a great opportunity for any pastor. These teenagers have talents, passions, hopes, and dreams, just like the teenagers that sit in your youth group each week. As a pastor to these teenagers in the juvenile justice system, you get to be one of the handful of people in their lives who will show up for them, believe in them, trust them, and point them to Jesus.
Most teenagers in the juvenile justice system have endured tremendous trauma. Through my experience in pastoring these teenagers, I’ve learned two things to be extremely crucial in the process.
- Recognize their needs. The events and circumstances of these teenagers’ lives have already left negative effects on their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. The needs of these teenagers aren’t much different than the needs of the teenagers who attend your church regularly. However, their needs are highly intensified, and they lack the support to have them met in healthy ways. Walls have been built to protect them from getting hurt again. Remember that it takes more time than usual to build relationships with these students. But trust me that when you recognize their specific needs and show up consistently to meet them, you’ll start to see the walls fall.
- Focus on encouraging them. I believe this is the most important meeting you will have all week, so it is vital to remain consistent. While you are there, it’s important to keep in mind that these students hear enough of what they’ve done wrong and how bad they are. So be a different voice! Focus on their strengths and encourage them specifically in those. Inspire hope that neither their past choices or their current situations defines them. Remind them that they are capable of amazing things. Teenagers in the juvenile justice system often have a difficult time envisioning a positive future for themselves. Call out the potential in their lives and encourage them as they build a path to find it.
Recently, after a meeting with a group of these teenagers, one of them said to me, “You coming here makes me feel like I am a good kid and that I can do great things.”
I replied back, “It’s because you are a good kid and will do great things.”
And that moment reminds me why pastoring these teenagers will always be worth it.
If you’re a pastor to teenagers in the juvenile justice system too, what are some things you’ve found to be helpful in your experience?