There is a constant temptation in youth ministry. It’s being an expert. If we’re experts, then we are impenetrable, perfect, authoritarian, invulnerable.
Being an expert costs hours while being vulnerable can cost real blood, sweat and tears. Being an expert is perfect if you want to be a teacher or professor but we are called to accompany teens where they are. Teachers deal with brain knowledge – that’s the easy part – while we deal with heart knowledge.
But why’s this so difficult?
I think the primary reason is vulnerability. All of us hold back; even in marriages, it’s hard to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable means our life is opened up to them; we are people for them not just sources of information. Being vulnerable means that we love them for who they are. Being vulnerable means that they can hurt us.
Ultimately, vulnerability is tough because it asks for our whole selves not just a few hours of our week.
A teenager will only open up, will only be vulnerable, if we are vulnerable first. Only then can they trust you with their secrets, with their heart. They need to trust us as persons not just as Catechism experts (being a Catechism expert might be helpful too).
I know this is opposite of how many social services work where the employees keep an intentional distance. However, there is a radical difference between fixing their problems (social services) and bringing them into the community of the saints (youth ministry).
Two things make vulnerability harder: staying in charge and over-sharing. We need to balance opening up with still being in charge. We are still in charge and can’t lower ourselves to the level of a mere friend. We have to be vulnerable but not lower ourselves.
At the same time, to maintain that authority we need to avoid over-sharing. For example, if we looked at pornography as teens we can mention it when speaking about chastity; on the same coin I wouldn’t recommend mentioning that you fell into pornography last night. Certain things need to remain secrets – that’s why we have reconciliation.
Vulnerability is hard! However, unless we are vulnerable, we’ll never be able to open teens’ hearts.