This year’s theme is “The Story/The Stories.” Each week our blog will focus on a story from a youth minister. We hope these stories help inspire you in the great work you are doing, as well as let you know you aren’t alone in the crazy, sweet, often hard to fathom world of youth ministry. This week we are hearing……
The Story about the Girl who Disappeared
Adam Tarver is the Minister to Youth at West Hills Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He studied Religion and Applied Psychology at Carson-Newman University and received his M.Div. from McAfee School of Theology. Adam is an avid Atlanta Braves fan and disc golfer.
One of my favorite things that happens when youth ministers get together is we share stories about our students. Some are hilarious, some terrifying, and others leave you in disbelief. I think if we are honest, sometimes these story times can turn into a competition. Who has had the craziest, funniest, most terrifying experience all wrapped into one. I don’t claim that this story is the craziest, funniest, most terrifying story you will ever hear; nor is it probably even as bad as stories you have experienced firsthand, but this is my story.
When I was in seminary at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, I worked at an average sized church in Buckhead. We had about twelve to fifteen students total, but would normally see eight to ten at any one event. I was working at the church part-time as a student, and the guy who had been the youth minister before me was hired at the church as an associate after he graduated from seminary, and now essentially functioned as my boss. One of my first days at the church we sat down so he could give me some advice about working with their group as a whole, dealing with problematic teens, etc. You know, the normal rundown.
As he was telling me about different students and what they were into, he got to one girl and he paused as if searching for the right description. Finally, he just came out with it, and said, “this girl is difficult.” He went on to tell me that when he had come to the church two years before, her and her family had quit coming to the church. Once they heard he was there as the new youth minister they started coming back. He thought this was great; however, he was warned that they did this every time. They would show up, become super involved, get upset over something, burn lots of bridges on their way out the door, and then they would leave. He said, that was exactly what happen to him, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if she came back once they found out I was starting as the new youth minister.
I started the next Sunday and things went great, and after week one, there was no sight of this girl. Week two rolls around, and sure enough, words spread that I had started and in comes this girl. Over the next several months I decided that I was going to work really hard to get to know her, because I was certain that I could be the one to break the trend and make her stick with our group. As I got to know her I learned that she had grown up in the church but was kind of an outcast. None of the other students really talked to her, and she didn’t talk to them. This made it difficult for her to feel like she was a part of our group, so I worked to restore this. I would set up games and activities that would put them in groups where I could strategically place her with someone I thought she could become friends with, and believe it or not- it was working! She was coming more regularly, she appeared to meshing with our group, and I thought I had done the impossible! I especially thought this when it came time to sign up for our march mission project, and she signed up to go on her first youth event ever. I was stoked.
A few weeks go by and it’s finally time to leave for our retreat. As things unfortunately work out sometimes, we had five girls go but only four could stay in a hotel room, and she was the odd girl out. Basically we had two options- she could stay with the other girls in their room and they would just make the sleeping arrangements work, or she could stay in the chaperone room and have her own bed. I presented her two options and waited for her decision when one of the other girls in the room said, “no she’s not staying with the chaperones! We want her to stay with us!” I thought “this is great! My work is complete. She is officially part of our group!” The girl heard this and decided that she would stay with the girls. I told the girls goodnight and wandered back to my room thinking nothing more of the situation.
Morning came and I began the normal morning routine- going door to door waking up students to make sure we get where we need to be on time. I get to the girls room and knock and one sleepy teenager appears at the door. I tell her it’s time to get up, she says, “ok,” and I turn to walk back to room when the door reopens and she says, “oh yeah, Haley is gone.” I turned around hoping I didn’t hear her right, and asked her to repeat. To my dismay she said the same thing again, so I asked where she went. “I don’t know,” replied the girl. About that time I heard another girl in the room shout, “she got up and got her stuff in the middle of the night and left.” I said, “well where did she go?” Another girl pipped up, “I heard her call her mom at about 2 in the morning and told her to come get her, so she did.” I did all I could to hold back my true feelings and rage as I told the girls to get up and get ready and we would sort all this out.
A quick phone call to the mom revealed that she had indeed been called by her daughter at two A.M. She then proceeded to drive a little over two hours, picked her up, and drove two hours home…all without telling me anything. Come to find out the girls in the room had not been as inclusive as I had hoped, and rather than going to the room where she could have her own bed, she chose to go home.
In the end, it turned out that I was no different than any of the youth minister before me. That night would turn out to be the last time I would see her despite my attempts to get her involved again. She had done exactly what I warned would happen. I was just foolish enough to believe that maybe things could be different. But honestly, as I look back, I wouldn’t do anything any different in the way I treated her. Sure, I could have been a little less naïve in thinking that our girls would suddenly include her one of their own. I’m sure if I had done that things may have turned out different, but I probably would have eventually gotten burned at some point, but even still I wouldn’t treat her any differently than I did, because that’s what ministry is to me. It’s about believing in people, giving people second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances. Sometimes you may get burned by doing this, but then other times maybe you won’t, and in those times it’s all worth is, and it’s beautiful.