You don’t have to be a student pastor for very long before you bump into a number of unexpected and difficult circumstances. Tragedies of disease, drug or alcohol overdose, or suicide happen to and directly affect the students in our ministries. So how do we help the students face personal or community tragedy?
Dealing with the emotional intensity of a tragedy in a group setting is a very difficult task and can vary from case to case. I understand. I’ve been there. In my youth ministry experience, I have dealt with disease, death, suicide, sexual promiscuity, and drugs and alcohol abuse. And in each case I found myself feeling unprepared and ill-equipped.
But through a series of failures and learning what not to do, I have discovered some good things to do:
- Ask the student/family immediately affected by the tragedy permission to talk about the tragedy in the youth group context.
- In the large group setting describe the tragedy in a factual matter. Clear up any misunderstanding of what the students may have heard. Get the facts straight. Avoid talking about the uncertain aspects of the tragedy.
- If you feel like “counseling” in the context of a small group is appropriate, then in a more personal setting, ask descriptive questions using the “what,” “where,” and “how”. For example: What did you see when [the event] happened? Where were you when you first heard about it? What did you do next? How did you feel when that happened? What do you think about the [the event]?
- In the small group setting allow the students to ask questions. It is healthy for them to process out loud in a public group setting. Be prepared to encounter a lot of different emotions. Remember listening is more important than the “right” answers!
- Read and talk about certain Scriptural passages that deal with understanding tragedy. Job 42:1-6; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Psalm 27; Psalm 40; Psalm 71; Psalm 86; Psalm 121; Psalm 139 and James 1:12. Make sure to highlight that God did not intentionally orchestrate this tragedy. Don’t blame God for the tragedy. If God is going to be the healer, then He cannot be the tragedy starter.
- Use creative activities to help facilitate a greater understanding of the tragedy. Consider having students journal their feelings and what they have learned; hold a memorial service; encourage students to write an encouraging letter to the student(s) or families involved in the tragedy; raise funds for groups such as Red Cross, Salvation Army, Cancer Research or whatever group that relates to the tragedy; make a hospital visit. Not all of these will work given each specific tragedy, but the goal is to find activities that bring the students together helping them to heal individually and collectively, while also helping others directly affected in the community as well.
- Consistently encourage students to pray for those directly affected by the tragedy, in the days and weeks ahead.
There is no perfect plan for handling difficult situations that can rock the faith and the lives of the students in your ministry. But hopefully these ideas can help you better navigate some of the trickier events we’ll all face with our students at some point or another.