I did the scariest thing I’ve ever done with youth in the spring of 2002.
It completely changed everything about how I ministered to the youth from that moment forward. I was afraid it would backfire on me. I was afraid I would be incredibly hurt. What happened made me a better youth minister, and I don’t regret it.
In the early spring of 2002, I planned to take twenty students and six chaperones on a mission trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Grand Chancellor there was a former vicar from our parish Our plan was to paint houses and clean the parish up after a bad storm season.
The week before we left, I bought a new bathing suit, tried it on, and stopped dead in my tracks. I have always worn modest clothing, and being a bigger woman, I’m never even really been sleeveless in front of my kids. The bathing suit left my arms completely bare.
My arms were telling a story I frankly did not want to tell. There, in stark contrast to my peachy skin and freckles were scars where I’d cut myself as a teenager. I was in my mid-twenties. I’d been the youth minister at the parish for two years. I’d lived in the parish and volunteered for years before that. None of my kids knew I had struggled with cutting. None of them knew I was in therapy. If I didn’t wear a cover-up shirt, I was asking for questions I didn’t know how to answer.
I ended up at my therapists’ office and she asked me: would you want your kids to be ashamed if they were doing something similar? Naturally the answer was no. I spent the rest of the session role-playing different scenarios with questions I might be asked and the answers I was going to give.
Then, we were on our way and eventually on the beach. I subtly noticed that I was not the only one with marks on their arms. But no one asked a single question.
It was at Easter, late in the spring, that it happened.
We were decorating the church on Holy Saturday. As we sat down for a quick lunch, one of my kids brought over a friend from school. I shook her hand and thanked her for helping.
“Kathryn’s the one I told you about, with scars like ours. She’ll understand.”
I was terrified. But with those words, we began an honest and open conversation and didn’t move from that spot for another hour. We swapped stories of fear and anxiety, of being overwhelmed and lost. We told stories of faith and family and therapists and strategies. The scars had been seen and understanding had followed. I am not a mental health professional, so I gave recommendations on the next steps to take and invited her to youth ministry.
Whether your scars are from bicycle rides gone wrong, or a high-speed skateboard incident, or self-inflicted, they are yours and they tell your story. Show youth your struggles along with your strategies and your strengths.
Be authentic to who you are, even when it’s a story you are hesitant to tell. It will speak your truth louder than anything else.