The knock at the door to my office was soft but startled me nonetheless. There stood a sullen student. “Pastor, I thought I’d drop by just to say hi.” I invited him in and as he closed the door, I caught the look in his eyes. The pain radiating from his eyes caused a chill to run up my spine. After a bit of polite chatting, I prodded. The pain was so great, his heart so broken, that the words came slowly and brokenly as he began to share for the first time the pain bearing down upon his soul. I am not trained as a clinical psychologist; I have no counseling credentials. I am merely a redeemed sinner who has been called by God to shepherd His people to provide pastoral care. However, there are times when the hurts of “my kids” are so great that pastoral care is not enough and the Holy Spirit must be allowed to work through the healing vocations of healing professionals.
As a youth worker, you’ve been there. Christ has placed you into this tremendous service where you are privileged (and sometimes burdened) to serve His young people on the front lines. Every once in a while, the blows on the battlefront where sin and death and misery and corruption prey upon your young people are so staggering that they send you reeling. The words explode into your life with nuclear force: tales of rape and abuse and hazing, revelations of drug and alcohol use, teenage pregnancy, suicidal tendencies, parental divorce, and so on. It is time to dress for battle so you dive into Ephesians and prepare to draw the only weapon in your arsenal: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17).
However, there come times when the wicked foe is banging on the lives of your youth, when sin has raised its ire and is ready to deliver its deathblow. These are times when you are so overwhelmed by the sheer force of the crisis that it is time to call in reinforcements. Yet a problem remains: you do not wish to deny the healing and restorative power of the message of Christ’s cross and you are not certain whom to contact. One of the most perplexing questions among youth workers is an issue of when it is appropriate to refer the sheep in your care for professional help.
The answers to that question are as varied and different as the youth workers and the youth themselves. Simply, there is no one appropriate time to refer. A number of factors apply to each individual situation: specialized training of the youth worker; severity of the problem; endurance and maturity of faith of the one in crises; etc. However, a few general guidelines are helpful to recognize when it’s time to radio in for backup, so to speak.
Clearly, when a pastor, DCE, teacher, or other youth worker encounters a crisis with which he or she has little or no experience, it is always appropriate to consult with a trusted Christian colleague. It cannot be overstated that such consultation must be mindful of the boundaries of the confidential relationship a worker has with the youth. The boundaries must be presented clearly and never broken without first discussing it with the youth. I have found it best to move the student toward making the decision himself, or herself, to share the crises with other important parties (i.e. parents). Such action maintains the integrity of the confidential relationship which empowered the student to talk to me and places the student in the active role of moving toward healing and restoration. Of course such decisions sometimes must be lovingly…pushed. But always be up front about the course of action and the importance of “marshaling the forces” for the healing of the youth.
Having affirmed the efficacy of God’s word to heal, maintaining appropriate confidentiality, and grounding the healing process in prayer, there are simple questions that may be helpful in determining not only when, but also who should be brought into treatment for this crisis:
- Is this a situation of which parents need to be made aware?
- Are there legal requirements in my local, state, and national communities that require referral?
- Is there a potential danger to this person or someone else?
- Does the nature of this crisis exceed the bounds of my privileged relationship with the youth?
- Am I familiar enough with crises of this sort to be able to predict all the present and future ramifications this youth will face?
- Am I able to competently establish and oversee an action plan to help restore this young person?
- Do I have the time available to appropriately give this crisis all the attention it needs?
- Do I have the requisite formal training (i.e. medical, psychological, etc.) necessary to appropriately address this crisis?
Answering “yes” to the first four questions or “no” to the last four should be a clear indication that it is time to refer the student. These questions are neither scientific nor exhaustive, but merely experiential–based upon reflection on my service in a Lutheran high school. I find that these questions reflect issues with which I’ve wrestled when I’ve chosen to refer students to qualified Christian counselors and doctors.
Perhaps the sound of that soft knock of a blood-bought child of God in crisis is still echoing in your ear, perhaps it will come tomorrow. When it becomes necessary for you to call upon help from the legal and healing vocations, rest assured that you are neither abandoning the power of God’s word, nor neglecting your own duties. To call in reinforcements is not to sound a retreat from your involvement with this student. You are still involved, still sharing the word of Christ, still praying with and for your youth, sharing a loving smile in the hallway and a loving hand upon the shoulder. This is ministry at its hardest–and at its finest. Glory be to God!
Rev. Joe Cox served for four years as Director of Campus Ministry at Lutheran High School – St. Charles in St. Peters, MO.