When Youth Ministry Fails

My dear friend, Michael Toy, has a heart-rending post about his son’s experience at church. If you’re in youth ministry, please read it. Hell, if you’re in ministry, please read it:

The Day They Kicked my Son out of Sunday School

Michael Toy

Once upon a time there was church somewhere in America.  It wasn’t better or worse than any other church in America.  It was as full of the same kind of hopeful foolish beauty, and tragic inevitable disaster as any another other place where people put money in the offering plate and sing songs.

Now in this church there was a family.  A quirky non-conformist family, square pegs, no … hexagonal pegs, no … 5 dimensional pegs.  The church loves this family and the family loves being part of the church.  They don’t quite fit it, because of those pesky extra dimensions, but everyone gets along ok.

Then three things happen.

  • There is some upheaval and the youth program which used to be run by a full time staff member is now being run by a part time volunteer.
  • There is some upheaval, and the quirky family is not working very well.  They are having to work hard just to keep loving each other, they kind of lose energy for extra stuff, like looking all shiny and nice on Sunday mornings.
  • The son in this family, partially because life is not perfect at home, and partially because he is five dimensional, is now, by his presence in the room, keeping the youth program from running smoothly when he is involved.  He isn’t knocking down walls or hurting people.  He refuses to sit in the circle and play the games and doesn’t have the same happy opinion about the world that everyone else does.

One day, Youth Director comes to the Father of the Quirky family and says. “Your son is messing up Sunday School for all the normal children.  Something has to be done.”  On the day of the pronouncement, the Father of the Quirky Family was trying to figure out how to not to run screaming in fear from all the broken-ness in himself and the rest of the Quirky Family.  The last thing he needed was a new problem that needed to be monitored and managed.

Read what happened next: The Lingering Lemon of Death: The Day They Kicked my Son out of Sunday School.

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  • tom c.

    Obviously, one would need to know more information to be able to concur with or reject the decision of the youth minister. (As a former youth director, I can imagine potentially siding either way.) But if “Your son is messing up Sunday School for all the normal children” is a quotation, then that’s a real problem. (“Messing up”? “Normal” children?) It seems reasonable to do something, including potentially restricting attendance, for children (or teen-agers, the age-group I worked with) who are repeatedly disruptive, but that’s a long way from saying that disruptive youth are “messing up” the experience for “normal” youth. Yikes!

    • Curtis

      While I respect the difficult choices that youth directors are faced with, and it is very likely that this director made the best choice possible given the specific circumstances, what I find troubling is the assumption that youth ministry is only for “normal” children.

  • Brian

    Oh….so hard.

    On the one hand you have a volunteer trying to do their best and at their wits end.
    On the other hand you have a family in need of compassion and care.
    And in the middle is a group of kids who have varying needs of their own.

    It is easy to say “oh, how terrible” (it is terrible) and be confident that *I* or *my* church would never do anything like that! But its another thing to be the teacher/leader in that situation and have a responsibility to all the children. What do you do?!?!

    There aren’t a lot of details here, but I wonder why the approach of the teacher to the dad for help was met with fear and dread? (If it was simply the ultimatum: “he’s out”…well okay. But if it was a “I need your help, this isn’t working…” what’s wrong with that?) By working together could there not be creative solutions explored to make this situation work for all involved?

  • Michael Toy

    Those of you defending the youth minister are absolutely right. If I had been an excellent energetic father who could advocate for my son and negotiate with the church, it wouldn’t have turned out that way. I was seriously broken on that day, and for many days after that, even still today many years later. There was no room for the broken-ness of my family. Maybe it is totally understandable and fair and everyone who still attends that church should be proud of the excellent job done by the staff person.

    I still get to be sad.

  • Thanks for posting this, Tony. I just sent it out to our family ministry team because I’d rather us talk about issues like this before they present themselves in our context. I wouldn’t have come across such a well-written account without you pointing this direction.

    Michael, my heart aches for you and your family. Your transparency is a ministry to many. Thanks.

  • Richard Jone

    Slow blog day, Tony? Since this is obviously a very personal post about a very specific situation, I think the title “When Youth Ministry Fails” is a little sensational. Since I am a youth minister, I read the whole thing. I feel for the guy, but it was a waste of my time.
    I think a lot of you folks must go to churches radically different from mine. We’ve got lots of room for brokenness.
    I understand the youth leader’s position. If a student cannot or will not participate in what we are doing in the class, or at least not disrupt, what else should you do?
    “Kicked out of Sunday School” is not how I would describe my response to that situation. However, I would have a talk with the parent(s), and explore together how we could make it work.
    By the way, I am so tired of youth ministry bashing.

  • Curtis

    If non-normal, messing-up kids are to be excluded from Sunday School because they are disrupting the class for everyone else, then what is the alternative plan to minister to this children? Certainly non-normal, messing-up kids need fellowship just as much, if not more, than the normal kids need it.

  • As a part-time volunteer youth non-professional myself, I have had occasion to go talk with my pastor and other staff about particular problems. I guess the question I would have is, What happened to support from the rest of the church? Do the grownups give a — priority, or is the youth program just something some intern staffer does if we can afford it? I hope you all noticed the part where it says “never stepping inside church again.”

    Jesus wept. Michael, you do get to be sad. Prayers for healing.

  • silicon28

    I spent 25 years making sure I did everything within my power so that my youth groups always made some kind of space for those (not all that uncommon) 5-dimensional kids. And got killed for it time and time again. Shoot, I don’t set foot in the church anymore, and I’m one of its pastors. I certainly understand the sentiment, as sad as it is. Unfortunately, I think it might be too late for most of us…