In Youth Ministry, Having a Good Heart is Not Enough
By Don Smarto ©2010

In three decades of working professionally with delinquent youth, I have seen many well intentioned people fail. There is often "God talk" and emotion but working with minors requires a higher vigilance and degree of professionalism. One incident of physical abuse, sexual misconduct, or neglect is enough to shatter a ministry permanently, not to mention criminal charges and a civil law suit. Many "wilderness" programs have "hit the Press" in the past ten years. The papers are in the business of selling papers and will rarely back off from an opportunity to expose a ministry that has been irresponsible.

Having a kind heart is not enough when creating a ministry for youth with a history of mental illness, emotional problems, neglect, abuse, and learning disabilities. The creators of Scared Straight, Youth Boot Camps, and Behavior Modification programs were well intentioned, but those methods failed to impact recidivism. We view them in hindsight as failures. Often, youth program leaders design programs not based on proven (statistically) results and good science but on "pet" theories and shallow homespun beliefs. They would include "Getting tough" with youth, yelling at them, scaring them with "horror" stories, and preaching at them.

Most of the youth I work with have little impulse control, a high degree of peer esteem, and a general distrust of authority figures. Can they be reached? The answer is; absolutely. But a deep understanding of Psychology (in particular Adolescent Developmental Psychology) and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is an important first step. More is required to work with troubled youth such as a background in Sociology (Statistics) and an internship with an evidence based treatment program

Of course, ministry leaders need Christian maturity. A leader with a smoking and drinking behavior is a poor role model. A leader without a long track record of service in a local church and an understanding of Church small group dynamics, accountability, and devotion to Worship can hardly point youth to the fundamental need for Church. A spiritual leader needs a consistent pattern of daily Bible reading and study. When absent, the fruits of the Spirits are usually absent, too. A person who aspires to leadership of a youth ministry living with serious sin, clearly identified by the Bible, is not a fit model. God cannot bless such a ministry.

I am often amazed by good people who want to help troubled youth but are anti-intellectual. Their lack of credentials usually causes them to feel threatened by advance degrees and insecure, so they lash out at science, studies, and research. Do not misunderstand, the Holy Spirit is essential in youth ministry but education and religious fervor are not mutually exclusive. For example, Dr. Jensen (neuroscientist) and Dr. Urion (neurologist) did clinical research on the adolescent brain at Harvard University. Results were released in 2008. In part, their studies confirmed what parents and teachers have long observed. As an example, "the frontal lobe of the brain that affects impulse control is not fully connected until age twenty", excess drinking blocks synapses, smoking affects brain connections that affect sleep, and learning, and most teens can multi-task but are often getting sensory overload with stimulus from computers, television, texting, and video games that affect learning and personality. We need to build on sound research when we develop curriculum.

An aspiring youth ministry leader told me empathically that such research had "no value". I have not met a reputable sociologist or psychologist that did not find that research valid. My point, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". A person who took one psychology class should not pass as a counselor or psychoanalyze others. Residential programs present the greatest risks. Youth on medications or with mental health problems require staff with clinical experience that was evaluated and advance psychology degrees and state certification. Likewise, a residential youth program with any form of drug treatment needs to abide by state regulations. Taking short cuts with "dedicated volunteers" can be a formula for disaster. Volunteers play an important role but never as a replacement for professional staff. A wrong motive is usually trying to save the money of professional salaries. It is an old but true axiom: "You get what you pay for". An all volunteer residential youth program is like a military with no West Point, Air Force Academy, or Annapolis leaders.

I applaud sincere people with big hearts that want to help youth. There are many opportunities for them to serve as mentors and Bible Study coordinators, but troubled youth require experienced teachers, certified drug counselors, psychologists, and leaders with academic credentials.

Taking youth camping, hiking, on a ropes course, or working with animals can be positive experiences, but they will not change an adolescent's faulty thinking or criminal behavior. These "experiences" are merely a lab for the genuine counseling and group work needed for resocialization. "Home spun" philosophy is dangerous when working with minors, children entrusted to your care.

Finally, reputable youth programs will want to validate their methods by a team of sociologists. It often takes five years of tracking to know if a method is effective. Programs that don't track grads usually don't want to know the truth. It is sad, but many aspiring youth program leaders shun research. They will proclaim their methods are successful because youth are "happier" or "enjoyed the program", or "feel better about themselves". These are not reliable standards.

Emotions are relative. Only measurable behaviors count like "improved grades", "no arrests", "no truancy", and "church involvement and attendance". This takes more work to observe and track, of course, but if it is worth doing, it should be done right and professionally.

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