Many youth workers speak sarcasm as a second language.  I know because I’m one of them, as are most of the youth workers I have met.  If you find yourself in that group, you know it can get you into some trouble in a ministry setting.  The line, “Sorry, that was sarcasm” comes out of my mouth more often than I’d like to admit.

Maybe it doesn’t manifest as sarcasm, but regardless, youth workers love to crack jokes and make their students laugh.  It is a legitimately great way to connect with students. But most of us have likely experienced that sometimes it can go too far.

Let me share with you a story that a friend (who was a Vineyard Youth Pastor) told me about something he did.

He had told all of his students that at their upcoming Christmas party there would be an ugly Christmas sweater contest.  Well, one of the girls wore what he describes as “the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like if someone ate half a jar of peanut butter, threw it up, made a sweater out of it, and then put Christmas decorations on it.”  That’s a direct quote.

As you can imagine, this girl won by a landslide and she was brought up on stage to receive her prize.  My friend had the bright idea to get all the students to “boo” the girl instead of cheer to go with the theme of the ugly sweater contest.  She managed to keep a smile throughout the booing, but not long after he found her crying. Turns out the prize was tears and sadness.

He was so embarrassed and later apologized.  

Here’s another story that I was a part of.  A few years ago I was working with a group of students, mostly middle schoolers, who were participating in VBS that year.  We were leading the Bible lesson site and I was the only “adult” at the site for the setup day.

We went all out on our decorations for the room, with a “waterfall” and “river” in the middle of the room and the walls covered in tables camouflaged as boulders.  Towards the end of the day, we were getting close to finishing but the students were more interested in goofing off and playing games, as teenagers do. I was trying to keep them all motivated since we all wanted to go home and get sleep before the start of VBS the next morning.

Eventually I got a bit frustrated and said something along the lines of, “Come on y’all, we need to get to work and get this done so we can go home.”  I was tired and probably sounded a bit more agitated than I needed to be. One of the girls snapped back a retort that was something like, “Stop trying to boss us around.  You’re not my dad.” She was one of those stubborn natural leader types, so she would often butt heads with the leaders even though she was generally a good kid.

There was a part of me that I had not yet given to Jesus that wanted to snap back in frustration.  Thankfully, by the grace of God, I held my tongue and we moved on.

The next morning, I swallowed my pride and apologized and asked for forgiveness for being upset.  She also felt bad about what she said and apologized as well. Later that week when tensions were high again, it was much easier for us to talk about it since we had done so already.

There are probably many lessons to be learned from these two stories, but I want to share two with you.

First, it is never a good idea to speak negatively towards your students, even–and especially–if it’s jokingly.  A lot of students receive negative feedback at home and we should not be another person adding to that. We are called to be examples of Christ for our students (for everyone actually) and we don’t do that by speaking negatively towards them.

Sarcasm falls under that too.  For those of us who ooze sarcasm, it can be a real struggle to hold our tongues.  Our students will pick up on the things we say and do, especially the negatives.

Correction and discipline of course have their place in the context of relationships, but there is a clear line between correcting a student and putting a student down.  We will have to do the former, probably quite often, but we must never do the latter.

The second lesson to be learned, and probably one of the most important lessons I’ve learned doing ministry, is to never feel too big to ask for forgiveness.  You are rarely more vulnerable than when you seek forgiveness from someone, especially a teenager. But as leaders for Christ, we must humble ourselves before God and others and be willing to own up to our mistakes.

One of the strongest and most noticeable traits of a Christ-like leader is authentic humility.  When we are able to be humble and seek the forgiveness of our students (or anyone) when we’ve wronged them, we are able to be better leaders and more easily connect with them.

As youth workers, we will inevitably make mistakes and hurt students.  The way we respond to these situations is, in part, what defines us as leaders.  We are often the only spiritual influences in our students lives and, whether we notice it or not, they pick up on what we do, how we treat people, and how we respond.  Let’s make what they see a positive, Christ-like influence.

Ryan Brown